The Sleeping God
by Richard Ong
|part 3 of 5|
The flames from the bonfire licked the skin of the bat whose eyes still wore the shock and surprise of its being caught unawares. Julio covered his mouth with his hand as he tried hard to keep his meal from working its way up. He wiped the taste of bile from his mouth with his sleeve and stayed silent, hoping that the old man did not get offended too much. He opened his pack and took the last half of his tepes bread to eat instead.
Ghotta threw another branch of deadwood into the pyre. Sparks leapt up and the flames lapped greedily at the fresh supply of fuel. Fatty oil dripped from under the skeletal wings of the petrified bat.
“Hmph. It’s about the only thing that lives in this forsaken patch of hell that you call the ‘path.’ So don’t waste it! They’re hard enough to catch as it is.”
Julio swallowed hard and somehow managed to keep everything down at the bottom of his stomach.
Ghotta threw him a flask and he drank deep from it before belching the contents into the fire, exploding sparks on impact. “Damnation, boy! Would you waste a perfectly good ale as well?”
Julio’s throat felt dry when he spoke. “I... I’ve never drunk spirits before, sir. My father...”
“Your father was a miserable tyrant whose only love of life was to keep his subjects in check with a cloak of piety. About the only ones worse than him were the elders who doted on his heels. I lit a great fire on my wagon and drove around the mountain twice, laughing, when I heard of his passing.”
Ghotta spat onto the flames and snatched the flask of ale from Julio and drank deep until he had quenched his thirst. When he was done, he gave the boy a satisfied grin that gave the latter a chill more than the morning breeze ever did.
“My grandfather, Don Mateos, is... dying.”
Ghotta stared at the boy. His face became expressionless. He neither frowned nor laughed at this announcement. He simply said, without taking his eyes off Julio, “Huh. So now the old geezer is finally going to kick the bucket and follow his own son down into the abyss. Pity.” Then he turned around and reached for what remained of the roasted bat that was their breakfast. “You want some more?”
Julio bit his lip and shook his head. A tear began to form on his eye.
“Fine, then. More for me.”
Julio silently stared at the man whom legend said single-handedly brought down the wrath of a god on his people. He knew what his grandfather would say and do if he learned that his only grandson had been sharing a meal at the foot of Paz with the dreaded Ghotta. He would not approve. Paz would never forgive him. As his dying grandfather lay on his bed at The Great Lodge, what did Paz, the all-seeing provider of his people, do to save this great and gentle man?
Nothing! Neither could his faithful priests, elders and healers do anything to save his life. But he still prayed to Paz to deliver him safely through the deadwoods, more out of fear than faith.
“Maybe you’re smarter than you look,” Ghotta said, “for your age, that is. Maybe even have a glimmer of something that your old man never had.”
“Will you help me, sir?” Julio pleaded.
“Sir? Ha! You think I’d fall for that?” Ghotta spat on the fire and took another swig of his ale.
“You’re my only hope, sir. I love my grandfather even if you hate him. I can understand why you do. I truly do! But please know that I do not hold anything against you and what you did to my village..”
“Your...? It was my village and my people too, if you must know, o ‘little prince’. Everyone seemed to have forgotten about that. I did what I had to do, which does not differ from what you are doing now, it seems.”
The earth began to shake. Julio stood up too fast out of fright, then swayed and fell. Ghotta caught him just in time before his head hit a sharp rock protruding from the ground.
“Damnation to hell. I was wondering when it would start.”
“You saved my life, sir,” Julio said.
“Well I don’t plan to make a habit of it, if you get my meaning. Come along lad. Up you go!” The old man pulled at Julio’s arm till it hurt. He dragged the boy towards the side of the mountain and hurled him into a small opening behind a large rock.
Ghotta quickly joined him and they both squeezed against the narrow opening as the ground continued to sway. Rocks and pebbles fell from above throwing dust into the air. Then, as suddenly as it started, the earthquake stopped. For several moments, both the old man and the boy waited in silence from inside the cramped, tiny cave before finally emerging out into the open. There was a strong stench in the air. Julio felt like retching.
“You’d best hold it together, little prince. We are in danger as long as we stay out in the open below this belching mountain of a god. The sooner we make tracks the better. Look here, now! The mist has finally lifted.”
Ghotta searched for his cart. It was nowhere to be found.
“Beleros! Where are you boy? Beleros!”
“My poor excuse of a bull. A good one though, if slow-witted at times. Age does to an animal the way it sucks the sanity from a man. Beleros and I had endured a lot together for over ten years. I’d hate to think that he was buried somewhere underneath that pile of debris over there.
“The tracks, if I’m reading them correctly, tell a slightly different story. It might’ve been a near miss but who’s to know? Beleros is as stubborn as it gets for an animal. He wouldn’t kick the bucket so easily. I’d bet my money on him making it through more than your grandfather would, little prince; don’t take this the wrong way. Beleros! Oh, what’s the use? We’d best set on foot and get as far away from here as possible. Lucky for us...”
Ghotta bent down and swept the loose pebbles from the charcoal-dark surface of the ground. “We haven’t lost the path.”
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by Richard Ong