Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Things fall apart: The story of a conquest -- Part 1

What I’ve tried here is to tell, in my own words, the story – only the basic outline – of a empire’s fall. The actual story is very famous, and some of you will be able to identify immediately the specific historical encounter I am recounting. But irrespective of how well read you are, it is hard to be knowledgeable about all things in the world. So, if at all you find such things interesting, I invite you guess, as I deliver this retelling in two or three parts, the place and empire I am alluding to.

For names of people, I use two letters; and there are only four characters in the story – three kings or princes, HC, AH, HS, and the captain of the invading warrior army, FP. For names of cities, I use a single letter; and there are three cities, C, Q and M. These abbreviations, too, could provide clues.


Once upon a time there was a mighty but isolated kingdom. Its contours followed the entire length of a famous mountain range that ran in an unrelenting line from the north to the south. To the west of the range was a thin, largely dry coastal strip; to the east was dense jungle through which an immense river made its way, for hundreds of miles, to the ocean.

The king, HC, was respected by his people. His ancestors had laid the foundations of the empire, but he had expanded their realm both north and south along the range, blazing his way through fierce tribes that refused to give in easily. Indeed, at the time this story begins, HC was at battle in the north with the bulk of his army. The going had been tough and HC had been in this part of his kingdom for years now. The capital, C, the seat of power, was well to the south, and had been left to his regents; with the recent bloody imperial conquests, the kingdom had reached the limits of its expansion. Yet, its administration worked smoothly. Every day runners ran the length of mountain range – at breakneck speeds even at incredibly high altitudes -- to relay messages and keep the lines of communication open.

HC began to like the north; he contemplated building a second capital at Q, where the winter temperatures were milder than at C and the land more arable. What he did not know, however, was the fate that was to befall him and his people. A few hundred miles north of where HC was stationed, the mountains gave way to a largely impenetrable jungle; and further beyond, this difficult terrain narrowed to a strip only seventy kilometers wide, flanked on both sides by two vast oceans. When emissaries arrived from these unconquered parts to the kingdom, they brought news that sounded strange – too strange to be taken seriously.

The reports spoke of the sudden and violent conquest of a similarly large kingdom a thousand miles north of the narrow strip. The conquerors were a race of warriors who had come from the ocean. It was said they looked utterly different. The terrifying thing was that they were half men and half beasts, but with the added advantage that each man could detach from the beast and then rejoin at will. There was news that the warriors now had bases in the narrow strip, and were sailing in ships close to the coast.

Something even more deadly was afoot. Wherever the warriors went, the locals would develop painful rashes that pocked their faces and bodies, rendering them unbearably ugly. Most of them eventually died. The mortality was so severe that there was no one to bury the bodies. Entire villages perished. Not only that, this deadly epidemic of rashes seemed to precede the warriors, like a secret weapon, and never affected the warriors themselves.

HC died suddenly in one such epidemic: the rashes overcome him until he was bedridden, barely able to speak. He was in immense pain; he turned blind as the blisters invaded his eyes. Hundreds of thousands around him died too, but it was the king’s death that triggered what would eventually turn into a brutal civil war.

Or, more appropriately, sibling war.

It was traditional for a king to marry his blood sister; a son born of such a union was the most legitimate successor. It was also common for the king to have dozens of other wives, legitimate and illegitimate. This meant there were dozens of princes, anxiously awaiting their chance after HC’s death. But in his deathbed, HC seemed to prefer two princes: AH and HS. What he really wanted was AH to handle the northern part of the kingdom, with his new capital at Q, and HS to continue ruling from the ancestral capital C. AH in fact was with his father at the time of his death in the north.

What actually happened was no surprise: the brothers began a violent succession battle. Their armies clashed repeatedly. Thousands lost their lives. HS gained the upper hand initially; his generals captured AH and chopped a portion of his ear off. But AH escaped secretly with the help of his wife, gathered his generals – the same generals who had been with HC at the time of his death, and had been bogged down fighting the fierce tribes of the north – and launched a spectacular counterattack.

The northern army – AH’s army now – began to advance south, to the capital C, inflicting terrible punishments on those of the kingdom who sided had with HS.

AH was set to become the undisputed new king.

(To be continued...)

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