When They Shine Brightest
A character-driven fantasy novel, exploring the theme of loss and how we try to deal with it even when there is no way to do so.
Korsak Dryshore, a middle-aged war veteran, is being held directly responsible for the invasion of his home town of Seten. Everyone in Seten, including his family, blames him for losing the last ditch defense against the aggressors. Utterly defeated, and mourning the loss of his eldest son in the conflict, he has spent the last months following the battle away from home. Upon his return, he has to confront the animosity of the populace, made even worse by his bringing a heathen girl back with him.
Beaten, downcast and in despair, he is resigned to merely spending the remainder of his days in meek quietude. That would prove impossible, however, as he’s soon implicated in an escalating political and religious conflict within the city. To make matters worse, his youngest son and the foreign girl are dragged deep into the whirlwind of the crisis.
And in the meantime, They are about to set over Seten.”
While a standalone, “When They Shine Brightest” is also a first book in a new and vast fantasy world and gives the start of events that are yet to reach all of its corners.
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When They Shine Brightest*
The sounds of death that echoed around the man faded in the stench of it. With his eyes fixed to the ground, he saw nothing but dirt and grass, yet the heavy odor went to his head like a hammer. The fallen warrior only managed to inch along through the barren steppe, and painstakingly dragged someone else’s bloodied body behind. Yells and screams filled the air and pushed him aside, while the aroma of blood made him recoil towards places that weren’t as soaked in it. In a very short time, Korsak Dryshore had transformed from a warrior and commander to an animal maddened by fear and nearly out of its wits.
Though usually white in the moonlight, the field was now rendered yellow by the light of the fires, and parts of it were starting to contort in the flames. The tips of the grass blades, stained with a thick, dark liquid, were swaying in the night wind. They shined like obsidian, and their true blood red color only revealed itself around the burning tents. Fragments of real obsidian could also be seen lying about where the ground had been trampled. Some had fallen off the broken macanas while others were still attached to the wooden weapons that lay scattered around the corpses. The two moons hung low on the western horizon, underlined by the dark, elongated silhouette of Mountain Tari and surrounded by the scattered stars. The Sunset River stretched westward, alongside the part of the camp that hadn’t yet been overrun by the flames. Its dark waters flowed restlessly to the south, like a lean viper trying to silently escape the raging flares.
Korsak was straggling through the heart of this nightmare when a distant female voice reached him. The words went to his ears like a whirlwind in a strange tongue and brought back а forgotten feeling of lightness and tranquility. Sweetness filled his whole being, like a magical balm for his sick and stressed mind. Soon after followed a tender chill that spread waves of relief through his body. However, barely a moment passed and the unfamiliar feelings left him just as abruptly as they had seized him.
He stretched out his neck and turned his head in every direction as he looked over the grass canopy. Here and there he saw people that still fought, screamed and ran amok, but he didn’t see anyone that could have uttered the call that came to him. Startled and somewhat recovered, the warrior gripped the young man’s armpit more comfortably and continued to drag him forward.
The lifeless youth in Korsak’s arms was markedly taller than him. The boy would have appeared even more menacing, but his age was easy to read on his smooth, hairless face. It looked like the unscathed first skin of a desert lizard. The lack of tattoos on his bare arms and chest further attested to his military innocence. The red cut that opened above his stomach was two fingers wide and a whole elbow long. The wound suggested that even if he had earned any tattoos tonight, he was not likely to survive long enough to see them on his body.
Korsak ignored the boy’s condition and stubbornly continued to pull him towards the river. The man was drawn to a single image that was pulsating in his head: the rafts. The same rafts, boats, and barges that the men had used to cross the broad water divide a few days back, the same ones he had personally inspected on his nightly tour of the camp. Of course, back then the camp had seemed to him calm and quiet, even though a slight feeling of unease hung about.
As the man made his way to the salvation shrouded in darkness, the now familiar chill once again soaked in through his forehead. It shook his entire being and a new wave of lightness flowed down his limbs. With added strength, the tender voice of a woman once again filled all the space around him and silenced all the noises that were thundering in his ears. A strange, white glow spread from the corner of his eye. The sharp smell of sheep salo stuck to his nostrils, and the sense of coolness was infused with ephemeral warmth.
“Shushh…” the voice whispered softly, right after it muttered a few words that were unfamiliar to Korsak. He arched his back and surveyed the skies with a stare.
A powerful roar brought him out of his stupor and forced him to turn around. The east side of the camp was illuminated by the burning canvas. He saw a shadow running towards him through the mass of soldiers that were still standing on their feet. He had no idea who the shadow was. As to his intentions, they seemed rather unambiguous and Korsak instantly forgot all the pleasant sensations that had just departed him. He used both hands to grip the young man tighter and pulled him with a strength forged from the darkness ahead.
“Dryshore!” a hoarse and angry voice said. “Traitor!”
Korsak kept on moving while slowly rising. His breath was short and shallow, and it felt like his thickly tattooed chest had run out of its last gasp of air. His terror-stricken mind remained oblivious to that fact.
“Filthy deserter!” the yell came, drawing near as the fugitive approached the end of the encampment. After he finally reached the bend, Korsak fixed his gaze on the dark river and whatever life was left in his limbs started deserting them.
“No! No, no, no!” the man sobbed. He left the boy on the ground and descended down to the quiet waters, full of sunken wreckage. “No…”
A few paces from the shore, Korsak fell to his knees. He didn’t even look around for any boats that might have been preserved by chance. He knew it was futile.
“Come here maggot!” screamed his pursuer. The former commander had no strength or desire to turn around. The considerably bigger man gradually slowed his pace as he shortened the distance between them. He had the tranquility of a vulture, secure in the immobility of the corpse before it.
“My brother and I kept guard at the southeast tower. Did you know, Jackal?” the warrior said, using Korsak’s alias while gasping for air, yet his voice was fierce. The man’s chest was pumping furiously, but that didn’t get in the way of his icy tone.
“We stood there when the flaming arrows started raining, and those bastards went over the palisade. And while the boys on the north side were blowing their bugles and dying, we ran to them. What do you think we saw in the center of the camp, huh?”
Korsak’s head slumped feebly as he exhaled.
“We saw the whole camp take to their heels and flee to the river!” yelled the man as he stood only a few paces away. He wiped the blood off his macana on his waistband. Half of the obsidian blades on the short wooden weapon had either broken or fallen off, but enough of them remained menacingly in their places, eager to touch flesh.
“But you of course know that,” said the man after the last few steps had brought him to Korsak. “Isn’t that right, commander?”
“Rodrok…” muttered Korsak, having recognized the voice of the burly soldier. The strong hand of the man quickly interrupted Korsak. It grabbed his long black hair and pulled up.
“Quiet maggot!” screamed Rodrok as he raised the macana. “Your sweet-talking times are over, Jackal! A blunderer like you should be fighting in the vanguard, not commanding it!”
“I didn’t…” Korsak tried to answer, but he could not. What was he supposed to answer? That he sounded retreat in an attempt to save as many lives as possible from the doomed battle? He knew Rodrok only vaguely, but it was still enough to know that Korak’s actions were simply treason in the eyes of that fanatic.
A short sigh left the commander’s chest while he surrendered to his fate, but the unknown awareness soon came over him again. His vision was brightened by the strange glow, occasionally broken up by undiscernible shadows. He felt the scent of goatskins and dried fruit as well as the salo. That clear, incomprehensible, yet beautiful female voice filled his ears once again.
The words were short and clear and interrupted by long pauses, the way one would speak to a lame animal or a patient. For Korsak, though, they sounded like a song and enticed him with a strange allure. He still felt the warrior’s grip and even sensed the weapon raising in his other hand. All this, however, was quickly losing meaning. The only thing that still held his attention was the river outstretched before him. It wasn’t the source of his hope for salvation any longer; it was a symbol of unearthly serenity.
The sweet relief was brusquely interrupted when the avalanche of threats and curses from Rodrok reached Korsak’s ears.
“…terwards, I will slit your miserable son’s throat. Just so I can be the one to claim his life!”
His mind went back and forth between the strange and enchanting visions, the sounds of the river, his yearning for salvation, and his fatherly pain. Korsak abandoned all attempts at conscious resistance and surrendered to his soldier’s instinct. With his eyes closed and his ears buzzing, he sensed the descent of Rodrok’s right arm. If the weapon were a sword aiming to stab, there would be little hope. Macanas, however, are meant to slash; that knowledge made Korsak’s muscles act on their own accord.
Rodrok’s wrist crashed against his crossed forearms. Korsak grabbed it, turned aside, and freed his greasy, bloody hair from the surprised soldier’s grip. Afterwards, Korsak pulled on his assailant’s hand with a single fluid motion and sunk the black wedges in Rodrok’s naked thigh. The surrounding noises were momentarily silenced by the big man’s cry. His open hand quickly came down on Korsak’s temple, tossing him towards the splashing water.
“Filthy dog!” yelled Rodrok after removing the macana from his leg. Another one of its wedges was missing and remained stuck in his flesh. He briefly glanced over it, spat on the sand, and walked towards Korsak who had rolled over several times. “I will cut you to pieces even if I am left with bare wood!”
Wood. The fallen commander desperately embraced the word, and his hands started scouring the sand. Wood!
“Filthy, cursed…” Rodrok kept on shouting, and Korsak sensed the man coming closer again. This time the macana was surely going up without warning. The moment Korsak expected to feel the sharp cutting pain, he was surprised as a much weaker one pierced his right palm. Wood, his mind registered. Without wasting any time to look, Korsak curled his fingers around the object and swung with all the speed available to his drained body.
The wooden fragment in his hand turned out to be a rough splinter no wider than two fingers and half an elbow long. He couldn’t determine what part of the boat the fragment came from, but he didn’t really care. Only its length and sharpness were important. The sturdy macana was bringing down its weight on Korsak’s skull. From that position, he could do little but continue raising his own arm. Whether it was the will of the Gods, or maybe because his opponent swung too high, the kneeling commander did not know, but he was first to sink his makeshift weapon right under Rodrok’s solar plexus.
Rodrok didn’t even scream. He just let a short, surprised cry out. A bloodthirsty satisfaction spread through Korsak’s insides, for which he had no time to feel remorse. The nearly bladeless macana was still firmly closing on the commander’s skull. One last time, before they closed, his eyes went to the bloodstained youngster lying further inland.
“Kortok…” Korsak whispered his son’s name and fell backwards into the cool water. After a moment, his mind once again immersed itself in the female voice’s tender and melodic chants. Even though he was surrounded by liquid cold, he could only feel the magical warmth that the strange words brought.
Is this death? Korsak thought as he floated down with the current. If this is it, I hope it’s a slow one.
The sun’s golden disk had already risen on the eastern horizon and was spreading its morning rays. Light beams crept inside the sleepy room through half-closed shutters. The myriad glimmers created by the beams danced playfully on the steel in the man’s hands.
He contemplated the twin metal crescents that almost merged in a circle and ran his fingers down the curved outlines as if they were careless children, running on the edge of a cliff.
Gods! he exclaimed, not for the first time. Enough steel for several dozen arrowheads … Who would be stupid enough to go into battle with such a heavy weapon?!
His hand jerked up to the elongated scar that ran underneath his black hair. Well maybe sometimes it’s worth it. Weapons like that don’t just leave scars…
He shifted the thick sycamore handle twice in his hands. It was only a span short from being as tall as he was. The axe-head jolted in front of his eyes. Like a sun disk and two crescents at the same time … Reincarnate me already! All this steel just so it can look like those damned balls in the sky…
He quickly glanced up after that rude blasphemy, and then brought his eyes down with a sigh. It wasn’t fitting for a guard in the temple of the Gods to profane.
He still held the weapon as he gave out a groan and rose with difficulty. He tried to convince himself that the creaky noise that resounded in his ears came from the old chair, and not from his pained knee. The white streaks in the otherwise long and black hair, the stubby greying beard, and the countless wrinkles on his tanned forehead were a bitter reminder of the truth. He rested the axe against the wall and went over to the bed where his clothes were. The ceremonial vest scarcely covered his chest. Fragments of old war tattoos showed around every opening and also covered his naked, muscular arms. An array of fabrics in colorful yellow tones was sewn on most of the thick brownish leather. It was supposed to look like a sunflower, but in his opinion, it fell short of the mark. It surely didn’t make the garment more suitable to the day-long sentry duty under the scorching deity.
He adjusted his vest over the paler skin of his tan line. He used a heavy bronze ring that was several fingers wide to connect the front pieces. He grumpily cursed the garment and proceeded to put on a pair of light green, linen breeches. Having done that, he carefully looked himself over and ran his hand over his few days old beard. Not today, he thought. He absentmindedly reached for the weapon by the wall and looked at it again. This time his attention was drawn to the base of the axe heads. They stemmed from it like flowering blossoms, ever growing and widening, until their ends nearly met. At the base, right where a spigot held the steel plates, which embraced over the wooden shaft, there was a layer of rust.
How many sunrises have you seen? he thought, his reflections absorbed by the axe again. More than me, surely. And how many lives did you take before they handed you to me? Certainly less. It doesn’t matter any longer does it? Just two broken tools spending their days put out on display…
Another sigh emerged from his chest as he took the weapon and headed to the door. He knew he needed to take care of the rust, just like he needed to shave, but wasn’t going to do it today.
“Korsak,” called a cold female voice, which startled him into abandoning his thoughts. There was a woman standing in the doorway he was headed to.
She was taller than him, and her straight black hair ran down to her waist. She was looking at him with dark eyes, shaded by thick eyebrows. Her nose was rather flat and hung over thin, pursed lips. Her dark brown bare shoulders spread as wide as his, and her modest breasts hid behind a coarse grey dress that went down to her swollen knees.
“Yes,” Korsak Dryshore said to his wife and straightened his back.
“The kuta, Korsak.” said ny’Eta Dryshore. “Where is the little kuta? Last night I gave her the tasks for today, but she’s taken off again.”
“I don’t know. She is probably out with Kruon.”
ny’Eta pursed her thin mouth even more, and it made Korsak wonder if this constant pressure would someday make her lips merge into one. He knew his mistake, of course. His wife’s hatred for the kuta was only surpassed by her hatred for the idea that the kuta spent time with their youngest son. And he had just suggested that.
He had no clue whether this was the case; he had said it just to spite her. Naturally, ny’Eta knew how much Korsak hated the word kuta. In his eyes, this was just another one of their frequent verbal tussles.
“The floor hasn’t been mopped, and the water hasn’t been drawn. You are going to the temple and I to the farm. She’ll come in in the last minute and say she needs to run to school,” said ny’Eta, emphasizing the last word.
“What will I do then?” she asked. Her tone, as sharp and cold as a dagger until just a moment ago, started to tremble unevenly.
So be it, let her do it her way … said the man to himself.
“I can take Widowsway on my walk up. They are probably playing tertek with their wooden pellets there.”
“If they are not there, go down Coldwell and then up Lizard ridge.”
It was Korsak’s turn to purse his lips. It wasn’t that his wife was wrong. ny’Eta knew very well that if Korsak saw the little girl play with Kruon on Widowsway, he could just tell them to go to another street and later say he didn’t see them. This is why ny’Eta was going to nag until he walked the whole town over and had no excuses left…
“Very well. I should leave at once, or I’ll be late.”
“Very well. And you tell her that I will not allow her to go school if she leaves her chores undone,” concluded his wife. Her voice had calmed down and was as commanding as ever. She stepped away from the door, showing him that their conversation was over.
Korsak forced a sigh, walked past his wife, and entered the narrow corridor of their one-story dwelling. It was habitual for him to suppress his anger towards his failed marriage. Afterwards he ignored the traditionally frequent question of why his wife left her life as a ny’Murta in the temple and came to him in the city. Not that they weren’t happy for a while, but…
Oh, reincarnate me already, what difference does it make?
He took a few more steps to the front door where his leather sandals were and started putting them on.
He had never known what the word meant. His wife refused to tell him. She usually told him that the Ancient Tongue was none of his business. Nowadays it was only spoken by the city’s ny’Murt, meaning the Mothers in the same Ancient Tongue. The girl’s foreign origin and the unperformed birth rituals were the most plausible suppositions that Korsak could come up with. But then again, it could just be an obscenity.
May they burn me, what is so special about pouring bat blood on a baby… It was done to him when he was an adolescent, and everything had gone downhill ever since.
He was still putting his sandals on when ny’Eta closed the door behind him and headed to the kitchen. It was right then when the front gate slowly let out a sad creak. The rays of the rising sun shone on him again, partially covered by an elongated shadow.
The owner was only a little taller than the handle on the wooden door she had just opened. The scraggly and dirty black hair that ran down her back had a faint reddish hue. It covered a large part of her face, but not enough to hide the dusty copper skin and her tired black eyes. She was dressed in rags that faintly resembled clothing and was supporting a shoulder pole as thick as her wrist. She was visibly shaking under the weight of two full water pails that were hanging on each end. Korsak heard his wife’s pace slow down behind his back, but soon after, she went inside the kitchen and slammed the door without saying a word.
“Gods…” he grumbled. He stood up, gently lifted the pole off the little girl’s shoulders, and set it on the ground.
“This is heavier than you should …” he started, but then changed his mind. He knew the girl was aware of how heavy the full pails were for her. She was much more aware than he could be, even though she would never say so. My quiet little kuta… He went down on his knee in front of her, stroked her shabby hair, and hugged her. The girl tiredly rested her head on his chest.
“Arty,” he whispered with affection, using her name. He knew how much she loved the rare cases in which she heard it instead of kuta. He then stood up, glanced over his shoulder, and turned to her again, saying quietly, “The water is for the kitchen, right?”
She answered him with a light nod.
“All right. Go rest up in my room until she goes. I think she should be leaving soon.”
Arty nodded again and tried to take the water pails. Korsak got to them before her and carried them down the hallway. He left them by the kitchen’s threshold and heard the door of his room silently open and close behind the little girl’s bare feet.
Once again the man forced a sigh down. He headed back to the front door and picked up the two-handed axe that lay against the wall. He fastened it to the straps on the back of his vest and stepped outside.
Little clouds of dust rose from underneath Korsak’s sandals as he walked down the street. Even though the sun was already shining and Widowsway was one of the main thoroughfares in the city of Seten, few people could be seen around. The low-rise houses were made of pink sandstone and their flat roofs were haphazardly perched on the hill slope. The streets went around them in a twisty maze as they broadened and contracted like bizarrely disproportionate snakes. Every single one of the modest front yards had a fence made from an assortment of timber which was held together by ropes. The planks varied in size wildly and were obviously put together quickly and very recently.
Korsak slowed down and stared at a notably preposterous example. He shook his head and turned around. Way down, at the end of the incline, a stone wall as tall as three or four men rose. It separated the inner city from the rest of Seten. The pinkish houses beyond it were considerably more numerous and were enclosed by low stone walls. Corn, beans, cabbages, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes grew in their large yards. Farther ahead, a ring of tens of thousands of wooden cots surrounded the city. They covered the formerly green field all the way to the banks of the Sunset River, far to the east. The ramshackle buildings were clustered together tightly and would’ve looked like a single entity were it not for the multitudes plodding among them. Past the Sunset River and as far as the eye could see, the naked hills gave way to new improvements. Pheasant and duck farms, sunflower patches, and large threshing fields circled by horses pulling on wooden boards. A massive fenced courtyard housed the pack animals, who had been brought by the invaders from the northeast recently. And all of this was encircled by a bewildering variety of orchards.
Korsak snarled quietly. There. Right there. A little farther inland from one of the folds on the eastern coast, underneath some cursed poultry farm, lay the corpse of his first born son. He was buried along hundreds of other men that were slaughtered in the most senseless war the Sacred City had ever seen. They could have at least given him a small sunflower field, from which the eighteen-year-old Kortok could bask in the fiery flock of the Gods through a black and yellow eye and maybe find peace.
Korsak looked forward again and kept climbing the steep hill with an unsteady pace.
Cursed senselessness! he grumbled to himself. They had descended on the Sacred City because the Gods had told them to. Did the Gods tell them to butcher five thousand men and boys too? All he ever heard Them say was: “Make the world better or be reborn in the next one. Then try again. And again and again. That’s the Way of the Wayfarers.” How people managed to twist it into “Massacre anyone that stands in your way, bury them, and build chicken coops over their graves,” Korsak could never understand.
It was out of place for him to complain about the war, and he knew it. He was a former warrior with countless war tattoos, and of all the people in Seten, it least suited him to protest. At the same time, he wasn’t much of a believer and allowed himself to point out the absurdity.
May the Sun take us all … he cursed as he sped up his pace. It really didn’t seem to be that far off. More and more people had started to whisper and gossip that the present world was coming to its end. ny’Eta worked at one of the newly sprouted plantations beyond the Sunset River and claimed that in the invader neighborhoods there was an abundance of people openly preaching for the end of the world. Voices proclaiming the last year to be a sign of the forthcoming Great Reincarnation were being raised even among the natives. Maybe the Gods were really going to ascend the Wayfarers to the next world where they could renew their quest for a righteous life.
“Fine! We have obviously failed here,” Korsak quipped, although nobody could hear him, and continued on his way up.
To both the north and south, the walls of inner Seten merged with the steep slopes of two of Mount Tari’s peaks – Dotan and Totan. The city spread west inside the green valley forming between them. Widowsway, as well as most other streets, ended at that point. Having reached it, Korsak stopped and looked around. The houses closest to the valley belonged to the ny’Murta, the city’s matriarchs. They looked no different from all the other rosy dwellings. Their stone foundations had an additional layer which made them stand a little higher, but that was all. The houses were completely empty. The priestesses lived in the temple, and he had never seen them return home for long. As a result, the streets were deserted.
Korsak cast another wordless glance at the strange city behind him and the spread of its contrasting layers. “Just like tree rings. Only its bark is twice as thick as its core and it’s… rotten,” he snarled quietly. Someone might say that by coming to the Sacred City the northeastern Wayfarers were following the Way correctly, but that someone would be a fool. The northeastern invaders had been long Lost to the Way and did not deserve to be called Wayfarers. The conquest of Seten only proved it.
He shook his greying head again, and his feet kept on carrying him up the hill. Widowsway soon came to an end, and instead of dust, his sandals gradually started stepping on soft spots of grass. More and more shrubs and small trees covered the slope and got in his way, waiting to be eluded by the winding path.
The divine orb kept rising in the sky and Its rays burned intensely. The climb was getting steeper, but Korsak’s warrior body did not gasp. He was the only one that walked with his strange garments and cumbersome axe through the city twice a day. All the other guardsmen inhabited tiny houses that had formed an improvised hamlet in the small valley behind the temple. Unless they were out to visit relatives, none of them made Korsak’s daily treks to and from the city. They were also “Enlightened.”
Enlightened! Korsak hated the word just as much as he hated “kuta”. Not because it was offensive, but because it didn’t pertain to him. Every time he heard it, especially from ny’Eta’s lips, he was reminded of how much lower he actually stood in respect to the others. Even Etuon, his second son, and now his oldest son, had been Enlightened a little over a year ago. He was barely sixteen at the time. One day little Kruon would follow in his footsteps. They were the offspring of a former ny’Murta and it was their birthright. Korsak didn’t enjoy that privilege. His wife’s intercession was the only reason he received permission to become a temple guard. Enlightened, though, he could never be.
He chased away the dark thoughts, rubbed his eyes and raised them back to the beautiful scenery.
Dotan and Totan ascended at a fearfully sharp angle and covered a large section of the blue skies. The path of the Gods ran from east to west on an ideally straight line throughout most of the dry season and passed between the peaks and exactly over the valley, shining on its every corner. That was very likely to be the precise reason the ancients had settled here and built the sanctuary he was now walking to. At least that was what he had concluded.
The second stroke of the Gods’ wings through the heavens drew near and Korsak hastened his pace, lest he be late. Finally, the temple emerged behind a broad meadow and brought his walk to an end. Carved out of white rock, it was the biggest structure he had ever seen. The huge three-story building had a flat roof and a perfectly round foundation that nearly covered the entire breadth of the valley. There was no yard on the outside. As far as he knew, there was one in the center of the giant circle, but he had never gone in or seen it with his own eyes. Only ny’Murta and guardsmen were allowed inside, thus making it out of reach for the “unenlightened” Korsak. The windows on the upper two levels were almost as big as doors, and inside women could often be seen dashing back and forth. What it was that they did in there, Korsak didn’t know and never gave much thought to. The first level, on the other hand, was completely solid save for the four gates that were spread at even intervals and had guardsmen on sentry.
Korsak’s post for the day was the north entrance, and he reached it barely a moment before the second stroke. Guardsmen usually preferred the eastern and western gates because of the far reaching views they offered. One of them, down the valley and westwards to the pale blue horizon, and the other to the east and the city Korsak had just come from.
The opportunity to see a variety of different sights was the reason their posts were rotated every day. Korsak didn’t attach much importance to it. The rising peaks were just as beautiful in his eyes. On top of that, very few people used these gates to visit the Mothers and duty was much lighter as a result. He took exception on his night shifts, when he would rather stand on the western gate. From there he could see the listless village below as well as watch the ocean and the two moons dance across the firmament above. During the day, though, he was mostly indifferent.
The two men standing in front of the massive wooden portal wore the same sunflower-colored breeches and vests. As soon as one saw Korsak, the other tucked his axe away and took off in the opposite direction. Korsak didn’t know him; he didn’t really know anyone by name, but he knew their tattoos. In the nearly half-year he had been serving as a temple guard, he had started remembering the rest of the men not by their faces or names, but by their tattoos. It was an old soldier’s habit usually despised by young recruits, but Korsak liked it since he belonged to the former.
How the other guards managed to merit war tattoos was beyond him. They didn’t go to war and fools willing to attack the temple could not be found even among the invaders. Several ink drawings adorned the chest of the now nearly seventeen-year-old Etuon. Neither his son nor his wife deigned to explain them to Korsak. He shook his head and took his place by one of the gate’s wings. The other guard had obviously made it early and had taken his post. There were no salutes, no exchange of words whatsoever, not even a simple nod. The former commander simply unstrapped his axe and stood firm.
In his first days as a guard, he found the perpetual silence to be deeply disturbing. Neither the guards nor the seldom seen Mothers ever uttered a word, even when he had first reported for duty. ny’Eta had simply told him that she had found work for him at the temple and he needed to go there. One of the Mothers met him at the eastern gate and handed him his clothes, weapon, and a papyrus showing his work days. This was where their interactions ended.
That was one of the things that actually made him like his job at the temple soon after he started. He spent half the day in complete silence; his eyes and mind lost in the contemplation of beauty and serenity in the landscape, and his consciousness torn from his tortured thoughts. He was only interrupted twice a day by the food porters.
Time started trickling away smoothly. His eyes slowly went over the all too familiar outline of Dotan and the shadows sprinkled on it. Korsak’s mind was gradually freeing itself from memories and the past, worries and regrets, doubts, and fears. At that moment, something on the right side moved across his peripheral vision. Startled, Korsak gripped the handle of his axe tightly and turned in that direction.
A guardsman walking along the temple wall was coming closer. The circular shape of the building prevented Korsak from seeing him until he was ten paces away. The soldier in him snarled. Cursed circle! If the day ever comes when we really have to defend this place, we’ll be overwhelmed before we know what hit us!
No one in their right mind would assault a temple… he answered himself quickly and directed his thoughts to the man approaching. Food, this early?
The guardsman didn’t seem to be carrying anything, save for his double-handed, twin-headed axe. Korsak peered in the eyes of the newcomer. He stood two paces away and quickly gave a slight nod pointing east. Korsak’s eyebrows jumped up his forehead and his chest let out a surprised gasp. But I just arrived!
“Korsak Dryshore, ny’Murta ny’Antara is expecting you in the southern portion.” The guardsman replied to Korsak’s bewilderment and tilted his head eastwards again.
For a moment the stubby jaws of the former commander gaped loutishly, though he quickly recovered and nodded. Korsak clasped his weapon and started walking in the direction from which they both had come.
“ny’Murta ny’Antara? Who is she?” he murmured to himself. He made an effort to quicken his pace, curious to know what it was exactly that was wanted of him. His knee complained wistfully, apparently surprised by the renewed walk. Shortly after, he walked past the eastern gate and then reached the southern. A javelin’s throw ahead of it, three horses stood calmly by the first line of rocks at the foot of the peak. The two men guarding them were unknown to Korsak, and contrary to every other male in the valley, weren’t guardsmen. Their skin was somewhat lighter than the average Seten Wayfarer, and bright clothes covered their entire bodies. Their hair was cropped short in the northeastern manner, and all that made their origin difficult to conceal.
Korsak clicked his tongue. Filthy animals, all five of them. The four-legged herbivores were meant to be eaten, not played with. The two-legged meant to be killed, not bowed to, be they Wayfarers as they may. But then here they were, the latter had arrived on the backs of the former, and with that, his role in all this seemed to be exhausted.
He cast a final glance towards the saddled beasts. The northeastern Wayfarers had invaded riding their dirty animals and had chased the antelope herds away from the Seten valley and the Sunset River. He wondered whether the taste of their meat was similar. He would never, obviously, eat something that stood between the legs of an invader but…
With another click of his tongue, Korsak turned to the temple again. As soon as the guardsmen standing there saw him, they grabbed the metal rings on the doors and pulled without saying a word. In all these months, Korsak had spent a lot of time studying the fine carving of the temple’s four gates but had stopped to notice it after a while. This time though, he looked at it as the doors opened silently. Thousands of engravings formed the most beautiful and detailed representation of the golden disc of the Gods he had ever seen. And now it was opening before him. I am going into the sun, he thought, and his pained right leg crossed the temple’s threshold almost on its own accord.
He didn’t exactly know how to define what he had expected up to this moment. One thing was certain, it definitely never materialized. To begin with, he thought that someone will come to receive him, but it wasn’t so. When it came to the hall, the lack of windows to the outside meant less light, and the otherwise white walls appeared glumly brown. The inner wall, though, had tall and wide windows cut into it. Through them, enough sun rays managed to creep in and that allowed him to carefully look around.
So there really is an inner yard…
The room he was in nearly matched the length of his own house and was just as wide. The opposite wall had a total of ten windows. They were as tall as a man and looked out to what appeared to be a sand-covered yard. There, a huge smooth boulder that almost reached the temple’s third level could be seen. Around it, there was a multitude of square one-storied buildings, whose purpose he could not begin to guess.
Other than that, the entire anteroom of the temple was empty, save for the drawings etched on the wall behind the unenlightened guardsmen’s back. They stood taller than him and each was more unique and sophisticated than the next. The orbed reliefs of The Gods were covered in many strange symbols, very similar to war tattoos. Like all other Wayfarers, Korsak had no inkling of the meaning of most of what was tattooed on his body. He knew only that the markings were more ancient than the Old Tongue. Woven as they were into the suns on the temple’s wall, they seemed more meaningful than the ones on his olive skin.
Only one of the suns held something different–the gracefully sculpted body of an elongated snakelike lizard. It was coiled along the inside of the sphere and had barely noticeable hind legs and a huge spread of batwings instead of any front legs. A pair of antelope horns crowned its head, and its massive gaping jaw spewed out a curly flame. The only other decoration in the room was placed straight across from him on the opposing end. Several small four-legged stands were placed in the spaces between the windows. Large earthen bowls stood on them, and thin flames showed just above their rinds. Intrigued, Korsak walked towards them, lightening his step so as to decrease the echo of his sandals.
Glass? he thought surprised, as soon as he had seen the bean-sized balls that lay enveloped in fire inside the vessels. Glass, just like metals, was far from being widespread in Seten. Throughout most of his life, Korsak had known of the interesting, transparent material more from people’s talk than from his own experience. Glass that burned was something he had never even heard of. He waved his hand above the bowl and felt the warmth that emanated from it.
“Gods… and this is just the entrance, where they probably don’t show much,” he whispered quietly but the sound carried all around him.
“Quite true.” A cold but lively female voice startled him from somewhere behind his back. Korsak turned around sharply and almost knocked over one of the stands with the axe strapped to his back.
“Few things in the temple are attainable to the eyes of the unenlightened. We could hardly be expected to display them in the anteroom.”
The woman standing in front of him looked almost menacing in the completely white robe of a ny’Murta. Her garment had long and broad sleeves, a golden hued belt that gripped her waist tightly, a tall thin collar that went up to her chin, and a skirt that reached the floor and spread over her toes. The insufficient light made her tanned face and her black hair nearly merge with the room, and for the first instant, Korsak only saw a white dress approach him.
“Mother ny’Antara” he bowed respectfully and then immediately frowned with irritation. Fool!
“Ehem… I mean ny’Murta ny’Anatara.” he hastened to correct himself, even though it was too late. Fool! Blasted fool! he kept cursing in his head. “You called for me.”
“I didn’t, actually.” she said. Her face was rigid, yet it appeared youthful. “Commander Krul was the one that called for you, Korsak Dryshore.”
The stone floor shone like the smooth surface of water. It didn’t stop Arty from scrutinizing it critically a few more times before she put the mop back in the bucket and dragged them both to the closet. She knew she was late for school, but she also knew that if ny’Eta Dryshore found anything amiss, the next day Arty would not just be late, she wouldn’t be going at all.
Calmly and quietly she left the kitchen and walked down the corridor to the grownups’ bedroom. There, on the opposite wall, was the narrow door of the closet. She opened it gently while lifting it up a bit so it wouldn’t squeak. She then put the wooden bucket inside the barely two feet of deep space and took a small three-legged stool from the room. She put it in front of the closet, climbed on it, and reached for one of the upper shelves.
She took out a very modest, light brown dress, just like the one she was wearing, only cleaner. She inspected it for tears and stains with a frown, and then stepped down from the stool and returned it back to the room. She took the tattered rag off, folded it and left it on an empty lower shelf. Later on she would come back to wash it, but for now she put on its substitute. She reached to one of the other low shelves and took out a small cloth pouch and then another bag with a strap, not much larger than the pouch. The first one held several wooden marbles that clattered against each other, and the second held a reed stylus and a couple of clay tablets.
Arty shut the closet door and walked to the center of the room. She straightened up her dress a bit, put the pouch inside the bigger bag, and pulled the strap over her head. She walked towards the door, opened it, and stuck her head into the passageway, looking left and right. Afterwards she walked out, closed the door behind her, headed to the front door with quick tiny steps, and then swiftly slipped through it.
She walked a whole four blocks before she finally eased her tempo. At this time of day, Inner Seten was utterly deserted. All the adults and children that were old enough worked on the plantations near the river. The younger children had already made it to school. During her first days in Seten, Arty always wondered why there were no people working in their own yards in the daytime. Even though she had never asked anyone, after a time she had found an answer that seemed satisfactory. Namely, that the Wayfarers are strange.
The sun had just entered its second stroke, which surely meant that the classes had just begun but the girl didn’t worry. ny’Ayala Gran’agora let Arty attend lectures from the back of the room because she helped with the preparation of the classroom. Usually she did it before class, but today she did it earlier on her way to the well.
ny’Ayala Gran’agora’s house stood right next to the city wall. Arty knew that before the conquest there had only been one school in Seten. Ever since the war had ended, the large building was occupied by the Wayfarer leader. This was the reason the ny’Murta, who had retired from temple duty, organized lessons in their homes or even out of the city..
The home of ny’Ayala Gran’agora was only two blocks away, and the child could already imagine the outstretched, two-storied pink house. About two times larger than the dwellings around it, it contained far more than twice the knowledge and was gradually becoming Arty’s favorite corner of Seten. Her next favorite pastime was playing tertek marbles with Kruon on the street between the city wall and the long schoolyard. The twelve-year-old son of Korsak and ny’Eta preferred to play much farther uphill on the meadow by Widowsway. He had his reasons, and she knew that but still found the cool shadow of the school’s building more appealing.
A mere three houses from the corner that separated her from ny’Ayala’s home, however, a group of people barred her way. She recognized them immediately.
Pertrak Grimdune, also known as the Mongrel, was tall, corpulent, broad-chested, and broad-shouldered on top of being as mad as a rabid dog. He was leaning against the wall of a house and was looking straight at her. Just like Kruon, Pertrak was about to be Enlightened because he was the son of a former ny’Murta. This brought the boy an ever-present retinue of supporters. Four of them surrounded the Mongrel presently, and although younger and not as bulky, they imitated the hatred in his eyes very convincingly. In Arty’s mind they were simply “The Mongrel’s Lackeys.” A grey shadow spreading from the house covered their faces but couldn’t hide the smirks written on them.
“And there she is! In a hurry to learn, are you? It seems to me you are running a bit late?” he said and his slimy voice, unequal to his body size, carried towards the girl. Arty started looking in all directions in panic as her legs stepped backwards. Apart from her and the boys, the street looked deserted.
“Hey! Going back so soon? You sure changed your mind quickly! Did you forget your stylus at home?” he spat and started walking towards her faster, with his lackeys in tow.
Arty’s head pulsated furiously. She knew she couldn’t outrun them. Even the shortest of the boys towered above her, and they were all much older, but what else could she do? The nearest city wall gate where there would surely be guardsmen was too far, and the same was true of Korsak’s home. To run and scream hoping someone heard was something she refused to do, even if she thought it stood any chance of success.
“Come, maybe we can walk you to school? Everyone is waiting just for you!” He kept on talking.
The boys had already halved the distance between them with their broad steps when an idea hatched underneath Arty’s reddish hair. The little girl gripped the bag hanging from her shoulder tighter, turned around, and darted out in the Mongrel’s opposite direction with all the speed she could muster. Behind her back, she heard the mocking taunts of her pursuers as well as the sound of their feet running after her.
Arty turned left on the first corner, going farther inside the city. The jeers behind her turned into curses. No one likes to lose sight of their prey, even if they know the distance between them is not likely to increase. However, Arty didn’t care for this and turned her thoughts to her destination, namely, another street that also led to the school. If the boys knew where she was going, they wouldn’t have chased her at all, but they would’ve tracked back and ran into her head on. What they believed, though, was that she was running to Korsak’s place, and that was where she pinned all her hopes for escape. After all, what else could they expect from a nine-year-old outlander but for her to start crying and flee home?
She too didn’t know what it was that she should be expecting from herself. The image of the school she meant to somehow reach was dancing behind her eyes, and she cared of nothing else.
On the next block she turned left again as the swearing of the boys that had just emerged from the corner became considerably louder. She suppressed a sob. If she had been able to make it to the second turn before they had come out of the first, they could’ve decided, for a moment at least, that she had turned right towards her house. Their confusion might have given her another instant or two. But the long legs of the boys were quickly shortening the distance between them.
The yellow disc of the Gods gently scorched the street with its flame. Sweat started dripping from her back and forehead and soaked her palms, but she never tried to reach over and wipe it off.
“Hey, kuta!” Pertrak yelled, the mockery gone and replaced by anger, saying the word so often used by ny’Eta.
Arty didn’t have the least idea of what that meant. Korsak’s wife employed unknown words freely, definitely a lot more than her husband did. The girl had just become accustomed to assuming they were all insults, regardless of whether they were directed at her. Whatever it was that kuta meant, she was certain the Mongrel wasn’t using it in any affectionate way.
“Come here you stupid little brat!” the curses kept flowing. “I’ll kick you all the way back to the woods that you crept from!” he bellowed.
As she ran between the rosy houses, fenced yards, and past the next intersection, her eyes turned left and followed the street that went to the city wall. There, she glimpsed another youth running intently.
The girl cried out, having realized that at least one of the lackeys had headed back. He was going to cut her off! The thoughts in the child’s head scattered in every direction, searching for a solution. Her legs decreased their tempo slightly and only a moment after, the kid’s nearly black eyes stared straight ahead, having seen a new chance for salvation. The well! Very close to ny’Ayala Gran’agora’s home there was a tiny pebbled square. In the middle of it stood one of the inner city’s several wells. She wasn’t going to make it to the school, but maybe she could reach the small plaza beside it…
The wooden soles of the boys’ sandals resonated closer and closer behind her back. The curses and insults had cut off abruptly. She guessed that it meant she had very little time left before she was caught. One more house stood between her and her new goal. Her already burning thighs and soles pushed on for a final effort.
She left the dusty street and jumped out on the cobbled square, briefly looking to her left. The adolescent trying to cut her off had just come out in front of the school and was searching for her. The Mongrel’s lackey had not been able to reach the well before her, and for that she was thankful. Arty took a deep breath and practically flew over the remaining distance. She hurled herself at a rope that hung down from a wooden pulley which was mounted on a rod.
She underestimated the distance for her jump and was a hair’s breadth away from smashing her knees in the opposing wall of the well’s stone gullet. Luckily she managed to land her feet on top and grab the rope. Behind her, the triumphant screams gave way to curses once again. The Mongrel and his people had finally realized what was happening. Without ever looking down, Arty hugged the thick rope with both hands and relaxed her legs.
The speed with which her little body started flying down surprised her with a completely new kind of fear. The air flow pulled her skirt up and wrapped it around her torso, leaving her thin legs exposed. The sole of her left sandal flipped over and disrupted her balance. Her right thigh struck the oblong well wall, which made her tiny body swing and her forehead meet with a protruding stone. Only then did her feet and body finally immerse into the cold water. The child started swinging her arms wildly, at times scratching the slippery stone surface of the well’s side. She finally managed to pull above the surface and took a deep breath with yearning. The water splashed all around her, but the moment Arty got hold of the walls, the splashing stopped. Above her, part of the sky was eclipsed by the five heads of the boys. She could hear their voices but could not discern what they were saying. Her forehead pulsated from the blow and her ears buzzed. Deep down the well’s throat, their words twisted, stretched and mingled in an unintelligible way. The Mongrel and his lackeys were shouting over each other, and all she could do was carefully watch their black heads contrast against the blue sky. They were talking about her, this much was certain.
Could they figure out a way to drag her out? She hoped they wouldn’t jump down with her. The idea that Pertrak could not just snag her, but corral her up in here horrified her beyond measure. She was beginning to regret her decision to jump down the well, even though she could still not see a better solution. She prayed the boys would leave, and then she could wait for someone to help her climb out, even if it took until evening. As long as she could hold out. Arty’s little legs didn’t reach the bottom, and the question of what was beneath her was another thought she refused to entertain in her mind. Very soon the clamor above quieted down and the heads dispersed.
Could it be … she thought, her chest filled with a hope she was quick to extinguish. She didn’t expect them to give up so easily. She could hear the boys talk again, this time farther away. They were doing something around the well.
They’ve come up with something? she sobbed. Time had become a hazy concept since the chase had started, and it wasn’t long before the heads popped up on the well’s mouth. This time their conversation sounded calmer and quieter. They weren’t trying to bicker and argue; to the contrary, they sounded full of friendly ridicule and that sent a cold shiver down the kid’s back.
They have come up with something! she concluded, terrified. Another shadow joined the other five, only this time it was a hand, not a head. A hand that was holding something.
The first stone hit the wall about a pace above her head and then ricocheted off the other side before splashing in the water.
“Nooo!” The girl screamed out her first word for the day.
The second stone, unlike the first one, bounced off across from her a bit lower and then fell in the water directly. Arty covered her head with both hands instinctively, lost her support, and her chin sunk below water. Paralyzed with panic, she reached out using one hand and managed to stay on the surface, while still using her other to protect her head.
The third stone flew straight into the water, almost in the center of the circle, threw a splash over her, and started sinking. Above her she heard the first curse, followed by more clamor.
“Give me another one! These are too crooked, and I can’t throw them properly!” the Mongrel’s voice said. “No! Not this one, it’s too small!”
While they were arguing, Arty felt a gentle knock on her foot. It was the third stone, continuing on its way down to the bottom.
The water! she realized. She took a deep breath, turned against the wall and propelled herself below the surface. The water started to pull her back up, but the girl pushed her hands and feet against the walls and kept under, as deep as she could. Above her she heard the yells get louder. Muffled by the water and twisted by the well walls, the words’ meaning was now completely lost. The sounds of the boys’ missiles falling into the water next to her reverberated and swirled around her ears wildly. In the rare cases in which one of them reached her body, the impact was light and painless. A cautious elation soon filled her chest but quickly disappeared, replaced by a new menace.
Air! I need to breathe!
Her mind struggled feverishly with the new challenge. She had to breathe! Down here she wouldn’t last long and surfacing was out of the question. The intense dread in her mind was slowly giving way to a firm desperation. To Korsak’s home was the way she should be fleeing. Maybe she would run into someone on her way over there. But now… now they were about to bury her with stones inside a well. A little kuta at the bottom of a well.
Petrified by such thoughts, Arty failed to notice the increased intensity of the screaming of the boys above her. And the increase was manifold.
Something is happening up there! she finally acknowledged. They are calling for me?
The screams kept on getting louder and their tone became audibly filled with surprise and indignation. She recognized they were not intended for her. She relaxed her arms with as much resignation as she had hope and allowed the water to raise her body to the surface. As soon as Arty reached it, air filled her lungs and she felt a frantic relief. Her whole chest was throbbing and her legs hurt from all the running and balancing above and below water. Her attention, however, was focused on what was happening outside the well. Up there, a perfect blue circle crowned its mouth, and not a single adolescent head could be seen. With the pain in her head slightly relieved, the girl could hear the incoming sounds even though they were still frustratingly contorted by the echo. The angry, consternated screams were undoubtedly part of an argument, and they surely came from more than five throats.
Kru! she thought triumphantly and her lungs filled with something more than just air. Pertrak was not the only boy in the neighborhood boasting a group of followers. Kruon had come for her!
The girl couldn’t comprehend anything that was going on above her, but the shouting and bickering continued for just a short while longer before they were interrupted by a strong and commanding woman’s voice.
ny’Ayala Gran’agora! The kid rejoiced. Only a few moments later, the dark and voluminous outlines of ny’Murta ny’Ayala’s curly head appeared on the edge of the well and her voice thundered again:
“Get her out of there! At once!”
*Translation by Alexander Gurovski. Edits by Luben Dilov Junior and Tia Bach.