Lost. That was the only word that came to the mind of the mighty King Suriya as he maundered through the golden desert. The hot sand gave way underneath his huge stature as he clambered to the top of a sand dune. A gust of hot air made his white turban flutter, the long black hair flowing down to his shoulders from underneath the turban. He shaded his eyes to scan the terrain. An ocean of sand, with waves of dunes, stared back at him.
A few days ago, he wasn't sure how many anymore, he was in a canyon with walls as high as watchtowers. His enemies, and his men, lay dead in the sand; a score of men and then more, ripped apart by cold steel swords, limbs lying about them, blood seeping out of the gaping wounds. He was the only man left alive and unwounded, and that gave him hope as he searched for the way out of the canyon.
He began strong but the desert drew out all the hope from within him in a few days and now he was sure that he was utterly lost.
He had to go east to get back to his kingdom, Brava, but with the sun right above his head, he had no bearing. The sun bounced off the shiny sand and glared into his eyes until he was defeated into lowering his gaze. He thrust his broadsword in the sand and knelt to rest a while but the blistering sand burned his knees through his white cotton salwars and he got up reluctantly, using the sword for support.
What a fate! he thought, To come so far to defeat your enemies, only to get lost in the desert and die a lonely, prolonged death!
"That is awful luck, dreadful, even rotten!" a sharp voice behind him said.
The King spun around and there stood the biggest, ugliest vulture he had ever seen. It had a bald red head and a black beak that curved sharply at the end. Its huge body was covered in black feathers and as it stood, with its long neck tucked in, it still was as tall as a man. It had white feathers on its strong legs that ended in sharp black talons. Even from a distance, the vulture reeked of blood and death. The King was so stunned to see such a gigantic, nasty bird up close that for a moment he forgot that it had spoken.
"But only if you believe in luck," the vulture continued as if the extended pause between its sentences did not exist. Its voice felt like someone using nails to scratch the words into his brain.
The brave King took a step back, the vulture's voice gnawing under his skull, his hand ready at the hilt of his sword.
Am I hallucinating? he thought, Or is this some kind of black magic?
“Oh, I'm absolutely real,” the vulture said, “As real as you, and the sand, and the sun. Don't worry, oh mighty King, I'm neither a figment of your imagination nor a projection conjured up by a toothless, wrinkled witch.”
“Then who are you?” His voice was still strong and commanding as ever, despite the weakness and despair within.
“I am the King of vultures.”
“And how is it that you can speak?”
“The same way you can; I learned,” the vulture said and raised its bent neck proudly, adding another foot to its height. “A hermit used to live in the caves not far from here. I found him interesting and watched him everyday. One day he spoke to me, out of loneliness I assume. Everyday he would speak to me and listening to him, I learned to speak your tongue.”
“Where is this hermit? Can you take me to him?”
“He's dead. I ate him.”
“You killed the man who taught you to speak?”
“I did not kill him. Vultures don't like to kill the living. He died of old age. I just ate his dead body.”
“That's not an honorable thing to do to your teacher.”
The king couldn't think of a good answer. He considered the vulture closely, trying to size him up. He could do that with men in a single look but it wasn't working with the vulture. He couldn't be sure whether it could be trusted.
“Death,” the vulture continued with its own thought, “Is the end of the journey. At least of this one. Who knows what happens after death? But one thing is for sure; you don't need your body once you are dead. So if your body can feed a hungry beast, what's wrong with that? I'm sure the hermit would have been perfectly fine with me feasting on his body. He understood life better than most men.”
“I guess you are right.”
“You guess? Aren't you sure about life and death?”
Thinking about death is weakness, the King thought.
“Well, you should have thought about it. It would have been better to be prepared. Especially, since you are so close to death right now.”
No one had ever dared to threaten the mighty King. He had maintained a strong countenance, not even showing signs of pain or discomfort. Now, this vulture was telling him that he was about to die. It stoked the fire within him. He drew his sword and swung at the vulture. The vulture flapped its massive black wings and hopped to one side with ease.
“And who is going to kill me?” the King snapped, “You?”
“No. I'm not going to kill you. I could if I wanted to, but I don't want to.”
The King, filled with rage and pride, jumped on the vulture with all the explosive speed he had in him but the vulture was too quick and took off into the air.
“You coward! Come down and fight like a man!”
“I'm not a man,” the vulture said, rising higher in the air, “I'm a vulture. This is how vultures fight.”
The King couldn't stare at the bright sky for long. He lowered his eyes but could still hear the vulture. The higher it went, the sharper its voice got.
“I'll just circle above you and wait for you to die. Then I'll eat you.”
The King could hear it no more. He looked up and saw a black dot in the sky. He dropped his sword and fell to his knees.
I can't defeat an enemy that refuses to engage. How weak have I become? It's a good thing that I'll die out here. I don't want anyone to see me like this. No one can defeat the desert. No one can cheat death.
“Sometimes you can,” the vulture said, landing softly on a dune nearby, “But only for a little while.”
“You came back.”
“Of course. But if you'll attack me again, I'll fly away and will only come back after you are dead.”
“Why did you come back?”
“To help you.”
“Consider it a royal gift to one brave king from another.”
“How do you know I'm a brave king?”
“I was there when you fought those men. I saw everything. You only had four men with you against more than a dozen, but you still won. You were the only man left standing. I knew then that you were a king among men. And a mighty one at that.
“When you walked away, we had a feast. As the king, I always take the first bite but after that I left the wake to follow you. At first, all I wanted to do was to wait for you to die so I could feast on your royal flesh. But you have surprised me by staying alive for three days.
“You have a strong will to live and you've put up a good fight against the desert. But you are truly lost. You are headed in the wrong direction, back into the heart of the desert, while your kingdom is not too far from here. At a man's pace it wouldn't take more than two days to get there.”
“Can you show me the way?”
“Of course. I can take you all the way.”
“But you must want something in return.”
“You are as smart as you are brave, king.”
“If you can get me back to my kingdom, I can give you everything you could ever want.”
“Like thousands of precious stones and tons of gold and silver.”
“They are only precious to you, King. For us they are merely stones.”
“I can give you land and servants and animals.”
“I already have more land than your entire kingdom. This whole desert is my kingdom.”
“I can give you fresh carrion everyday; a horse sacrificed to you everyday.”
“That is tempting, but I don't eat more than I need. The desert provides for me and the rest of my race.”
“Then what do you want? It seems like you don't need anything.”
“That's right. I already have everything I need; strong wings, sharp beak and talons, and great vision.”
“Then what can I give you, oh mighty Vulture King, that you will help me?”
“I did say I wanted to taste the flesh of a king,” the vulture said, its voice growing sharper than ever with voracity. “Why don't you cut a little piece off your leg and let me eat it?”
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