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Rinaas hli Awqar

Both Rinaas and Ganisundur heard it happen - a callous deathsong, as careless as it was thoughtless - and it caused them both to pause. The songstress frowned deeply, her aged beauty gaining a severity of aspect rarely witnessed by her disciples. They had walked then for many days southward until the mountains reared up before them like cliffs from horizon to horizone. We stand here, ye humble things / No further may you walk / So burrow deep or fly on wings / Like earthworms be, or hawks. They were silent as they approached, and Sinhuldo was not happy.

"We are far from home, adi, and there are all kinds of strange creatures here near the mountains." And so Sonhuldo was the first to turn back. They continued through the mountains, follow trails and pathways until they came to a great cavern. Many elves milled around in the shade. They turned their heads towards Fihnoom with distaste. Humelves were not well liked round here. Rinaas spoke with them, asking about routes south.

"Ah, south is it. Have a nose for death and an ear for noise have ye?" One asked in barely legible higher azumai. Rinaas surprised them all by responding in a different tongue, and the elves relaxed and conversed with her for a few minutes.

"They have a caravan heading south, beneath the mountains. We can join it." She told her remaining three disciples.

"This doesn't seem necessary, adi," Girgaah spoke. Fihnoom looked tense beside him, Biruldaan unconcerned.

"We are simply walking, Girgaah. Walking and listening. How can you sing if you don't look and listen?"

"Ah, adi, I had rather look at beautiful dancing forms and listen to sweet nothings." He complained.

"Then go do that." Was her simple response, and she turned away followed one of the elves into the cave and tunnels beyond. Ganisundur followed wordlessly and without hesitation, and Biruldaan followed nonchalantly. Fihnoom glanced to Girgaah, who frowned, pursed his lips, then backed away and turned his back on it all. The humelven woman looked into the darkness of the cave, sighed, then followed after the songstress and the two other disciples.

"To walk in darkness is not like walking in the night." The songstress commented lowly, and no one who heard her understood. It was silent, speech was brief and fleeting. Ropes were important, and touch. Ganisundur remained close to Rinaas, but they were not of those who needed ropes or gentle touches to see one another.

When they emerged into the twilight of a new day, the land the looked upon did not look so different from the one they had left behind. But it sounded different. The deathsong was louder, clearer, taunting and callous. It was not like any other deathsong - those usually sang with purpose, some were triumphant and some filled with honour. Some had within them the sadness of the killer and the killed. But there was none of that here. Rinaas swallowed and trembled, and Ganisundur placed a hand on her shoulder. She smiled at him and nodded wordlessly. Then she walked on ahead, and her three remaining disciples followed.

“Built like a mountain, spread like the sea.”

31 AA | Year 16

War, as any wandering ascetic knew, did not give rise to truly great cities. Those only came about during periods of peace, and when they did were the herald of decadence and decline. The great Ramshid Birsas shib Hur had taught his three sons this: “Chaos forges strong Ramshids, and strong Ramshids create prosperity. Prosperity forges weak Ramshids, and weak Ramshids reign over chaos.”

The fortified city of Kolcara was not much of a city -- not yet, at least. If the gods were good and Ramshid Dagran - or Warprince Dagran, as the foes who denied his great claim preferred to call him - was given just another ten or fifteen cycles of life, he would just have time to cast down the vultures claiming his throne and bring his dreams of Kolcara to fruition. But of course, nothing in life was certain. He was beginning to feel the toll of his age, having walked the land for fifty-some cycles and ruled in his own right for nearly half as long. And though he was a clever man, a schemer by all accounts, he could not know whether his cause would triumph at the end of this bloodletting that tore at the land he loved. He could only trust in the righteousness of his cause and fight to bring about better days, to build the Kolcara of his dreams.

Yes, in his dreams it was a grand and beautiful city, with long straight roads, temples crowning every hill along the riverbanks with spires that towered over the city and came just shy of the grand heights of his own castle in the heart of it all. He foresaw great walls also, storehouses, and cisterns enough to withstand drought and siege and hardship for all time. It was Sahruqar come again, only a thousand times as grand, in Dagran’s dreams. But of course, for now in reality it was only a glorified castle surrounded by muddied drilling fields, a dry moat, a few watchtowers, and many clusters of hovels that housed the builders and other folk unworthy of dwelling within the fortress at the heart of Kolcara. Still, the plans were there and when Dagran closed his eyes he could see the roads, wide and paved with white stones that gleamed in the sun like dew upon morning grass.

Still, for its humble beginnings, Kolcara was already Dagran’s seat of power. It lay in a strategic and defensible position in the center of his realm, at the convergence of the river Muniw with the Barjuhrim, which flowed south until it met the mighty Juhmar. This placed it a good ways away from the northern border where even now the fires of the bloodletting had found new kindling and caught once more. But it would not be long before his levies were assembled and readied to march north. This season could very well witness the final defeat and humiliation of Arkhus, if the seeds that he had sown would sprout and bear fruit. He had been planning this campaign for a long time, picking the grounds where he would take battle just as meticulously as he had planned out the paths and walls of his future city.

Not all approved of his plans and genius, however. He could feel their jealousy and fear. They knew, when they gazed into his obsidian eyes, that they stood before one who was to them as Mount Qaywandar was to other mountains. It was just such an envious gaze that he felt boring into his back at that very moment, and he turned to find the old ramtej approaching. The ancient man’s silver hair and beard were well-oiled and combed, bedecked with rings of silver and gold, and likewise his arms and chest. A saffron sarong, with gilded and intricately patterned trimmings, covered him from hip to ankle and he had a staff of gold and silver in his right hand. Precious jewels adorned the top, as did golden hoops and a golden figurine of the tri-faced Serene Lord, seated with all his eyes closed.

He came to a stop beside the ramshid and looked out from the high balcony across the great castle and to the encampments beyond. “What was it, my ramshid, that your father used to say? About chaos and strong ramshids.”

The ramshid sniffed and wondered for a moment just what the ramtej’s intent was, but he indulged the question. “He would speak of the chaos and great bloodlettings of old that had forged hard men, and of how those great men and their strong ramshids would bring about good days. And then he would promise that good days always bring about a weaker breed of men that kneel before indulgent ramshids, and then those men finally bring bad times. The bloodletting is renewed, and the cycle restarts then, as it always has and always will.”

“Indeed, for your father was a wise man and understood men, knew what moved their hearts and knew that their hearts have a proclivity towards vice. But he understood this also: that bad times are unvirtuous times, and that such proliferation of vice causes those of pure natures to become inclined towards virtue; the ugliness of vice and the ugliness it causes, this great imbalance in the world, drives them towards virtue. These strong virtuous ramshids create good days, for their virtue brings about the cosmic balance vital to any goodness.”

The old ramtej paused, his black eyes gazing towards the far horizon before he turned and looked directly at Dagran. “And these good days, brought by the virtuous strength of those who came before, cause the new generations to forget the evils that vice brings, the cosmic imbalance and chaos it causes. And their hearts become inclined towards its momentary pleasures. Weak, undisciplined, unvirtuous; they bring ruin to themselves and ruin to all. This is as it has always been, for you are a learned man my ramshid and you know this, but it is not as it always needs to be. If our ramshids know to be ever virtuous, then the times will be ever good.”

The ramshid’s own black eyes seemed to gaze listlessly over the horizon, his head gently bobbing in nods as though he heard nothing more than the eddies of wind. But when the other man had said his fill, Dagran did not wait long to reply. “Truth dwells in your words, wise Viparta,” he admitted, forgoing titles and calling the ramtej by his name, “and I have oft thought in ways much the same. Most men are shortsighted, lacking in vision; I think that is what leads them to fall prey to vice and foolishness, to abandon all teaching of discipline and vex their fathers. They contemplate yesterday, and realise that it was not so different from the day before that, or the one before, or even some day a cycle ago. So then they look to tomorrow, and think that it too shall be much the same. They are like leaves, falling from trees on the riverbank and drifting down into the water to be swept this way and that, never imagining that they might paddle their own way - or perhaps even change the course of the river! Ha!

“Gaze upward, Viparta; do you see how high this fort stands? Have you seen any other like it? Or even any temple so grand, reaching so close to the heavens above?” The hints of tiredness, boredom, reticence in the ramshid had vanished, replaced by something else… something perhaps more dangerous. His eyes were smiling, and the scent of pride was upon his breath as real as if it were a cloying smell of wine.

The ramtej looked up, his dark eyes impassive and mouth pursed. “It is a high fort indeed. Perhaps nothing higher was ever made by the hands of man - other than your father’s of course. It is a good and dutiful son who avoids outdoing his father, after all; and you my ramshid are clearly just that. And though the temples of man’s making are all of them cast low about you, the divine temple stands there in the west, the throne of the One Who Frowns down upon all and is not frowned down upon.” The ramtej smiled slightly. “It is as though he says, ‘build!’ and mocks all we raise high. Where is Sahruqar and its high towers? Where are its thousand streets, its hundred gates? Sprawling and mighty, built like a mountain and spreading like the sea - think how a mere peasant brought it low.” The ramtej spoke sadly, bitterly, but when his eyes turned to Dagran there was also a knowing gleam in the darkness of his eyes. “Is it not said, after all: ‘No glories ever fruit by mortals planned / The gods all laugh at all we scheme and brew / Come let us weep the loss of love and land’?”

“You must meditate carefully upon such thoughts, ramtej. A fruit half ripe and yet half black is in the end just a rotten fruit, and so a man who preaches half wisdom but half folly likewise cannot be called wise at all. Just ruminate upon what you have said: if no sons were ever to outdo their fathers, out of their senses of goodness and duty, out of fear, then you must understand that there would be no forts at all. We would all live in hovels and be nothing more than the dirt beneath our feet. From the hard times there would arise no strong men and ‘good ramshids’ to bring about better days, you see? So in your mockery you find truth: I am a good and dutiful son to my father, for seeking to rebuild the realm that was his legacy and leave behind a legacy of my own that is even stronger yet. The land bleeds and suffers; these are trying times, make no mistake, and I am a hard man that must - that shall! - see them into the twilight.

“And as for Sahruqar, you know as well as I that it lies a ruin. Its walls were not tall enough, the slopes and might of its mountain too easily climbed. So again that is why the son must surpass his father, and why I must build my own stronghold into a city stronger and grander yet, one that shall not fall for many lifetimes if ever. Have you ever thought of what it must be like, to be a god and look down upon all? I think that to them, we must be as mere ants. Do you notice the stray ants that crawl beneath your shadow? Do you concern yourself overly with any of them, of their struggles? No, you simply cannot, so you walk on mercilessly, not wishing them harm but also not watching for those that fall beneath your feet. But when the ants come together and build a great mound, then you take notice. Then you step around it. Perhaps one could say that in so doing, you give the ants your blessing.”

The ramtej turned away from the balcony, his eyes betraying his regret for having come or spoken. There was simply no reasoning with a man whose hubris matched the mountains. “Then build, ramshid. But as you build remember - for you are a learned man, are you not? - what became of those who came before us. Glorious ramshids came and went, the Glorified Mojtha, a god amongst us, descended and ruled; only the essential goodness of his teachings survive, not his ramshidra, not his great temples, not even his progeny. Only his virtue.” He glanced over his shoulder, his lips compressed. “Had you and your brothers loved your father better, my ramshid…” the words faded away, and the old man’s eyes lost themselves in thought as he turned away and walked off muttering to himself, “you are blowing into ashes, Viparta, into cinders. Won’t you learn?”


The stalwart slain salute you, oh glorious gods!

31 AA | Year 16

A heavy silence hung over Shidhig and those who had seen Sugae in the fray. There was a feeling, among them, that things had gone very wrong. "But it was weird, wasn't it." The big man, Balghro, said. "Like something out of the stories, you know?"

"Yeah..." Shidhig agreed sullenly as he stared into the fire.

"He saved my life, y'know." Galgu murmured.

"Yeah, you've not shut up about it." Shidhig muttered irritably. "Honour and all that bullshit, got it. What good's honour now, huh?"

"Come now Shidhig-" Balghro began, but the smith's apprentice rose and kicked the flame, sending cinders and burning wood everywhere.

"I don't want to hear it, alright?" Shidhig growled, then moved off.

Sugae had been alive, barely, after the elephant struck him. They had managed to get him back to camp and one of the ascetics had taken his warturban off and set to stitching him up. But he had died within the hour. Shidhig had watched numbly as they placed him on the pier, tunic and warturban and all. It was surreal.

That night, Shidhig slipped silently from the camp and disappeared into the darkness there.

Interested in playing a character from the southern desert people, potentially a warlord out to unify them or some such, and generally developing the desert people's culture etc.



Rinaas hli Awqar

Their little band crested a hill one day to find two great hosts stood in the valley below. They were dressed in many colours and held spears and great flat clubs of wood, some studded with metal or some made entirely of metal. Rinaas sat down on a nearby boulder and watched how things unravelled below.

Two figures were stood between the hosts, their clubs raised as they moved around each other in great exaggerated movements, gesturing here and there and puffing their chests out. They beat at the earth with their feet and sped up now and again like two great tigers circling and thrashing at one another. Their movements were full of power and violent intent, their gestures threatening and hostile, and yet they did not strike out at each other. The display continued for some time, now one causing the other to back away and now the other gaining ground as he swung his great club around with energy and ululations.

The hosts shouted and beat at the earth with their warrior, ululating as he ululated and crying out and cheering when his power manifested itself or when he carried out an impressive movement or manoeuvre. As the excitement and shouting increased, the hosts began to inch towards one another, hurling insults and boasting, swinging their weapons and raising their spears, drums sounding aggressively and giving each host the impression of having gods amongst them.

Here and there individual warriors stepped forth and engaged others in the display of duelling, like the original warriors, and before long both hosts had come together and pushed and shoved and boasted and insulted. Here and there were chaotic clashes as two warriors met and one managed to hurl the other to the ground, and it was soon becoming apparent that one of the hosts was gaining the upper ground.

A shout rose up somewhere and a ripple of fear ran through the losing host, and its men began to slip away and were soon disappearing over the far hill. The victorious host had gathered around what appeared to be a fallen warrior, circling around him with spears raised, gathering wood and piling it up around him as they circled and pounded the earth and howled in victory.

Soon ghouls began to emerge, lumbering towards the dead body, and the warriors beat at the earth and retreated slowly, shouting and boasting as the viney monstrosities of death found their target and began tearing and eating and destroying.

“For these warriors of the forests and plains, this is viewed as the only way to sate the Dead-eye and prevent him from setting the itralla on the living.” Rinaas explained.

“What are these itralla, adi?” Ganisundur asked.

“Have you not heard their song, my Ganisundur?” She asked.

“They are like no song of plant I have known. They hunger – but only for the dead. And it is not a hunger that seeks to stave off death. I don’t know if it can rightly be called hunger – it is merely consumption given form, consumption is its own end.” Ganisundur glanced at the songstress, who merely nodded. Beside him, the handsome Girgaah strummed at his instrument and sent a sigh towards the humelven Fihnoom.

“The people all fear feeding death
“But in my chest is no such fear
“I only weep with every breath
“And call on her with every tear
“If she would come feast on my flesh
“I am restored and rise afresh!”

Fihnoom shook her head and glanced at him with a small smirk, then moved away and sat by Rinaas. “What I have never understood, adi is why the tribes on these southern plains wage war like this. Everywhere else war brings death and great bloodshed and it is a terrible sight, but here there is dance and boastful song and witful abuses, and the warriors dress as though they are going to a festival. Death only arises unintentionally.”

“Ah yes, these clans of the Hjinka are often feuding, often fighting. Perhaps it was the case long ago too, and perhaps they killed one another so much that they could kill no more. And perhaps there was a wise one amongst them who taught them how to make war without shedding blood. But perhaps by asking them you would know better, or if you listen to the rocks or the streams or the trees they may know a song or two.”

“It would be beautiful if all the world would fight as the Hjinka do,” Fihnoom sighed, “even if it is loud and horrible on the ears. I can only imagine my old man would frown severely at all that noise and think it worse than even death.”

“Oh, but there’s nothing worse than death!” Sinhuldo piped. “Nothing is worse than that Death-eye.”

“Then praise Hulaiya, Sinhuldo, and do not fear death so much that you stop enjoying life.” Rinaas spoke to the fearful man.

“Oh, never! I enjoy life, may the goddess never take that from us.” Sinhuldo responded with a shaking voice, looking down at the ghouls below as they dissipated and shivering in disgust.

“I don’t know about that,” Fihnoom said teasingly, “you seem like you’re not enjoying life at all. Perhaps great Hulaiya will see this.” Sinhuldo’s eyes widened and he gave a trembling smile.

“Wh- what? M-me? I enjoy life a lot. I sing and dance, l-look,” he started dancing and stumbling, strumming at his instrument with fumbling fingers. “See, the g-goddess will see I love life.” Ganisundur watched this exchange curiously, then looked to Rinaas, who spoke before he could ask his question.

“Life and death, day and night, joy and misery, the two great sides to life’s short cycle. Hulaiya presides over the first, Duhthaei over the other.”

“What of Reffoh, adi?” Fihnoom asked, causing Sinhuldo to scoff and earning him an irritated glance from the humelf.

“Incompetent and weak.” The giant Biruldaan spoke gruffly.

“Reffoh, disliked by elves and humans alike – though, it is said, she is the creator goddess whose face is the moon and who reigns over the night. When Duhthaei came to claim the mortals she had created, she could not stave him off and was felled, and even now she lies imprisoned inside the moon, her kingdom now her dungeon. When night arrives so too arrives her failure to rule. That is why all the dangers of Duhthaei arise with night. This is why when you visit Amashu or Telruto or Teukrall, or any of the great cities of the Upper Azumai, you will find there great braziers that are lit with the onset of dusk so as to keep the darkness - and its dangers - at bay.

“Not so with Hulaiya, the glorious mistress of the day who stands as the bastion against Duhthaei’s misery and darkness and death. She is not like Reffoh, the people say, she is not weak and useless – these are their words, my Ganisundur, do not frown. What are they to think of a goddess who failed them, hmm? People are fickle like that – they fear those who cause them fear and death, and they love those who ward that off and inspire joy. As for those who fail, if remembered at all they are despised even more than the evil that felled them.”

“Is it right?” The inkman asked, a small frown on his face.

“Is it right for a god to be so incompetent?” Biruldaan countered.

“Well, someone sounds like they have a grudge.” Fihnoom noted, her eyes on the big man.

“Yeah. Maybe.” His mutter came as he looked away. “Some things are unforgivable – a wilfully useless god, for one.”

“I mean, she’s not wilfully useless – she was just bested.” Sinhuldo retorted.

“No, the gods are many and the Death-eye could not best any of them. He is not more powerful, simply more terrible. Reffoh was bested because she was useless, incompetent, unworthy of being a god and unable to protect what she created. It had been better if she created nothing at all. Had Hulaiya made us, the Death-eye never would have taken us – he would never have brought calamity upon us by moving heaven and earth as he did to our most ancient ancestors, would never have taken us from the joys of life to death’s despair.”

“It is your pain that speaks, Biruldaan, for it is yet fresh.” Rinaas finally spoke. “Calm yourself and do not blaspheme overmuch against a divine being – imprisoned and incapable you may believe her to be, but she is yet a god.”

“I do not fear Reffoh, adi. Only those who have no protector but her have reason to fear. But let us speak of something else. The tattoo that Ganisundur gave you, adi, it is the same as that on Fihnoom’s thigh.”

“What?” cried Girgaah, “how do you know that? How does he know that?”

“Uhhh…” Fihnoom gave him a guilty glance then laughed.

The man fell to his knees and cried out loud, his beautifully sculpted visage contorted and pained. “Damn it Fihnoom, again? My poor heart.” Rinaas gave the three a frown then stood and began moving away. Ganisundur followed after her and looked at the tattoo that stood between her brows – an extended hand facing down.

“That symbol is known?” He asked.

“It is.” The songstress confirmed.

“I didn’t know… what does it mean?”

“It is the symbol of the singing god, Ghilmu. He lords over the good things in life – music, dance, poetry, feasting, revelry, pleasures of the flesh, and much else are his prerogative. They are the manner by which great Hulaiya is appeased. His great hand is known to be a ward that drives off all kinds of evil – and so he is regarded as the defender of everything good and the enemy of all that is bad. By dancing, singing, revelling in joy, the people call up his great protective powers and so aid in the fight against the Death-eye and all the evil he has birthed.”

“Why would it be on Fihnoom’s thigh?”

“Fihnoom was a professional dancer before she joined us, and tattoos of Ghilmu’s hand can be found on the thighs of dancers. Musicians too, actors, and servant girls.”

He was quiet for a few moments. “You don’t seem to approve, adi.”

“What she does is her business, Ganisundur.”

“No, I mean – you don’t seem to approve of the gods.”

“Oh, Ganisundur!” She exclaimed with a mite of shock, “you accuse me of blasphemy?”

“I didn’t mean it like that. It seems to me more like… you don’t approve of what is said about the gods.”

“Ah, in that case you may well be right.”

“So… what do you say of them?”

“I don’t say anything Ganisundur. I listen and I sing, and what is beyond that is between my heart and I.”

“Why do you think my ink became a hand of Ghilmu on your brow?” He asked after a brief silence.

She paused and looked at him. “Isn’t it obvious, Ganisundur? It is because you are of that god.” He blinked after her.


This is war!

“The masses of the Khadaar,
Are pouring in amain
From many a grand old market-place,
From many a fruitful plain,
From many a lonely village,
They come to fight again
Like the great and old, those brave and bold,
Their glory to attain!”

31 AA | Year 16

The first man Sugae ever killed was a bare-chested spearman who came at him with terror in his eyes. The turbaned youth tried to side-step, but tripped in his hurry and fell onto his side. The man’s spear snaked at him, glanced against Sugae’s shield, and then rose again for another attempt. But the failure of the first strike gave Sugae enough time to lash out desperately with his sharpened stick. The point penetrated the man’s neck from one side and emerged from the other. He gave Sugae a confused look, shocked and gurgling, then fell over. The youth quickly got back up, shaken, and had only a few moments of respite before another man, wooden club in hand, was upon him.

In the confusion of the first moments of battle he had been separated from Shidhig, and looking around he spotted him fending off a spearman with his stick. Sugae’s new opponent struck out with his club, but this time the youth was better prepared and successfully dodged before swiftly stepping in and driving the spear into the man’s exposed stomach. Without waiting, he drew the spear out and rushed over to the struggling Shidhig, goring his adversary from behind. “Stick with me!” Sugae roared, before turning and raising his shield. Shidhig hurriedly abandoned his stick and took the felled man’s spear as Sugae warded off any would-be attackers. It was clear that shid Dharqul’s side had the upper hand, and Sugae notice that some parts of their mass had driven deep into the enemy.

The shid had crossed the Muhaddir with his force some three days back and made camp on a hill. After surveying the area around, he had moved the camp somewhat downriver and the command had gone around for everyone to prepare themselves for battle any day. Three days later, the enemy force of shid Dagran had appeared and the bloodletting had begun.

Sugae bashed a little bald man who had gotten past Shidhig’s spear with his shield, causing him to stumble to the side and giving Shidhig enough space to impale him. It was then that the earth began to rumble. Sugae looked up to see the enemy’s mounted warrior-nobles closing in on their flanks, along with a great number of behemoths – elephant-riders and riders of the reptilian monstrosities known as dircaans. The fighting continued and it was not long before the mounted warriors and behemoths crash into the massed host with terrible force. Shid Dharqul’s untrained commoners crumbled beneath the power of the charge. Swords flashed and spears snaked out; blood rose like a great cloud in their wake. Sugae grabbed Shidhig and began to back away, Bori’s words echoing in his mind. “You don’t want to be the first in the fray. And you want to be the first out. Don’t try to be a hero.” But then the weight of the warturban on his head reminded him of his mother’s tales about his father. He had never run from any battle; he had stood his ground always.

“C’mon Sug, let’s get the hell out of here!” Shidhig’s words drew him back to the realities of the battle, and he could see that bit by bit the enemy forces of shid Dagran were clamping in on them all. Sugae looked at Shidhig, his brows knotted, nostrils flared, flashing eyes of yellowed honey wide.

“I am shib Ravuk,” Sugae’s voice came, “I do not flee.” And with that, he drew his sword and began to move it as Bori taught him, and he advanced. He heard Shidhig cursing behind him, and then he was by his side.

“You’re going to get me fucking killed. You’re gonna kill me you-” he continued grumbling until suddenly there was a rider before them. Sugae raised his shield and stepped away just as the rider’s sword flashed. The tip ricocheted from the shield and Sugae stepped in immediately with a swift horizontal cut that ate into the horse’s side and lopped most of the rider’s leg off, before Shidhig’s spear caught the agonised rider in the throat.

Sugae looked at Shidhig wordlessly, and the other man spouted a few profanities at him. Sugae could see that shid Dharkul’s lines were now in full rout. Meanwhile, the enemy foot troops had recovered and both behemoths and riders were killing with abandon. “If we stick about, oh great shib Ravuk, we’re gonna die,” Shidhig shouted as Sugae swiftly put down a club-swinging peasant. Shidhig was right, but Sugae made no response.

Spotting a friendly group trying to make a stand, Sugae shouted to Shidhig and rushed to their aid, cleaving into the raised arm of a bald giant on the verge of bashing one of their men’s brains in with a hatchet as he went. Encouraged by the giant’s fall, the other men gave off a roar and pushed harder, causing the temporarily discouraged enemy troops to withdraw. Sugae’s encouraged comrades made to follow after them, but a shout from him caused them to halt and he ordered them to stay together. They instinctively obeyed, and before long Sugae was directing a growing defensive enclave against the massed enemy. One of the men stuck by his side, and when Sugae glanced at him the man smiled gratefully and nodded. “Thanks for that, thought that bald freak had me.”

“No worries, friend.”

“I’m Galgu by the way.”

“Good knowing you Galgu. I’m Sugaera shib Ravuk. Let’s get out of this alive, eh?”

“And with honour.” Galgu added, his eyes steely above his small smile. Sugae chuckled and nodded.

“Yeah, that too.”

The massing resistance did not receive much attention at first, but then an elephant and some riders took note of them and decided to break the little party apart. Scowling, a helpless fury growing within him as he wondered where shid Dharkul’s riders and behemoths were while they were all dying out here, Sugae shouted for the men to brace themselves for the charge. “Kill the fucking bastards!” He heard himself roar, and he sounded so self-assured that he found his own morale rising, and his voice came once more as though from far away, “they’re riding high above us. We’re gonna put them down!” Raising his sword, he stepped out to be among the first to receive the charge. He stood his ground as the riders speared towards them, and his eyes homed in on one of the riders heading for them. His gaze held his until the very last moment, when he ducked and stepped to the side, raising his shield to block a resounding downward slash from the rider even as Sugae’s blade licked out and cleanly severed one of the charging horse’s forelegs. It immediately collapsed and flipped in a mess of flesh and metal, the rider landing with gruesome cracking sounds ahead. Sugae released a triumphant bellow and turned about to face whoever came next, and found himself face to face with the elephant.

He stared at it for a few seconds, and then something struck him. The ground slipped away. He felt himself flying. And all was darkness.



Rinaas hli Awqar

“To where are we walking, adi?” One of the disciples asked one day. It was that same Sinhuldo who thought himself stupid in the ways of song. Stupid or not, he was faithful – for Rinaas’ disciples had been many when they walked the river ways, and now that they dared the jungles their number had dwindled to five – the small Sinhuldo, the strange Ganisundur, the giant Biruldaan, the handsome silk-voiced youth Girgaah, and the humelven woman Fihnoom for whom Girgaah often wove lovelorn lyrics and poesy.

“We are walking from here to there, my impatient Sinhuldo.” Rinaas told the young man as they slowly wove their way through the thick undergrowth.

“But adi, the jungle is dangerous – snakes and jaguars and gorillas.”

“Oh there are things far more dangerous than that Sinhuldo,” the songstress spoke melodiously, smiling at him. “Worrying so much that you can’t live, for one. What a terrible thing it is to die while yet there’s breath in you!”

Sinhuldo was silent then, watching the undergrowth fearfully, glancing up into the trees and hurriedly shaking away any dangling branches that brushed against his shoulders or head. His head turned to wherever there was sound – and there was sound everywhere. Above them unseen monkeys shouted and quarrelled, around them insects sent forth their myriad songs unceasingly, here and there the undergrowth rustled as some animal or another made its dashing way through.

They crossed tiny streams and paused by ponds, Rinaas simply breathing the places in and rocking gently from side to side with closed eyes. “These are the Ambuma jungles, my Ganisundur,” she said as they stood by one such rivulet. “Home to many things, of them the Buma tribes; free people who have never known a king or master. Other nomads and tribes may form up under one great chieftain or warlord or another, but not the Buma, the freest of the peoples of the great valley. They are the keepers of these jungles, worshippers of the jungle djinni whom they call Deh-dagini.”

“J- jungle djinni?” Sinhuldo whimpered, looking from side to side.

“Oh yes, a great and powerful thing – perhaps a child of the Godtree. Soon they will be setting out on the Great Hunt to appease Deh-dagini, and for that they will need us.”

“Why do they need us, adi?” Sinhuldo asked miserably.

“Oh, so many questions, Sinhuldo. You will find out. Come, we are close now.” The songstress stepped through the undergrowth and emerged into a small clearing at the centre of which was a small pool. At the far side were some huddled figures, who now watched them carefully as they approached.

“Seer Neh-naka, we had begun to think you would not be coming today.” One of them said once they were near enough, approaching Rinaas respectfully and touching his hands to his forehead in a gesture of respect. He was a short, stocky man – shorter even than Sinhuldo. His skin was dark, unlike the red people Ganisundur had grown used to seeing as they travelled the river ways of the Azumai river. He had a bamboo spear in one hand, his hair was cropped short and his face was stained with white and crimson paste. Beyond the long skirt of leaves, he wore a necklace of bone and amber with colourful feathers spreading out across his chest.

“It is good to see you too, Chief Ak-laha.” He was eyeing her five companions, particularly the variegated Ganisundur, and she noticed this. “I have brought these my companions. I know that some of them want to partake of the Great Hunt. Is that not so, Ganisundur?” She looked at the avatar who nodded with a small smile.

“You are not like anything I have ever seen, Friend Gin-sada,” Ak-laha said to Ganisundur. “You are of many colours, your colours shifting. You are like colour paste and like leaf-ink and earth-ink and all inks.”

“I am only a humble disciple of her whom you call Seer Neh-naka.”

“Ah, the weighty chest illness has you? There is only one cure for that.” Ak-laha laughed. Ganisundur cocked his head and glanced at Rinaas, who only smiled, revealing that small, familiar gap between her two front teeth. She gestured to the chief, who turned and led them from the clearing and through the jungle with the other Buma warriors until they reached their village. It was a simple affair, clearly not meant for permanent settlement.

There Ganisundur and Biruldaan – who likewise wished to partake of the Great Hunt – were handed bamboo spears. “Now know this, Friends Gin-sada and Bur-beda; to speak during the hunt is forbidden. There can be no sound.” Ak-laha told them, and both nodded in understanding. The hunters then gathered near Rinaas, who stood with eyes closed before a fire and seemed to be listening. The women beat drums and the hunters began to beat the ground with their feet, jumping and thumping rhythmically. Ganisundur watched them for a few moments, taking in the rhythms and the movement of their feet, and then joined them. Beside him Biruldaan attempted to do the same but only stumbled over his own feet or got the rhythm wrong.

There was clapping and singing from both the women and the dancing men, and the great ritual went on for some time before Rinaas, at last, opened her eyes and gestured in one direction. The song and dance came to an immediate halt, and Ak-laha turned and led his warriors, silently, into the jungle, going the direction Rinaas had pointed. Ganisundur and the giant Biruldaan followed.

The Buma men moved silently through the jungle, now that they had entered into the time and place of the Great Hunt. They communicated with hand gestured and exaggerated facial expressions, and Ganisundur watched this process with unveiled fascination. As they strode silently, gesturing and nodding to one another, a hand rose and there was abrupt stillness. They listened and watched; eyes wide.

There, hidden in the undergrowth but now moving was a great gorilla, its silver back to them. After some minutes, the great creature moved out and the warriors slowly readied their spears. This was the place that the Seer Neh-naka had told them about. This was the animal they were to hunt today. The warriors fanned out silently, and moved along with the unaware gorilla, watching it all the while.

Then, when they had it surrounded and the coast was clear, Ak-laha leapt forth and struck, and all others threw their spears and struck also. Ganisundur was swift, his spear landed right after that of the chief and lodged itself deep into the noble ape. It did not take this assault in silence, screeching loudly and beating its bleeding chest, rampaging now here and now there. One of the small warriors was not quite nimble enough and the dying thing of muscle struck him a glancing blow to the head that left him dead before he struck the ground.

When the rampage was over and it lay dead, the warriors all formed up around it and gathered their spears, they thumped the earth and ululated and danced around its body, praising the jungle djinni Deh-dagini. Ak-laha turned to Ganisundur. “You, who struck it first in truth, you shall carry it in the lead.” And so Ganisundur lifted its head while others lifted other parts and they carried it with them. The body of the fallen warrior was likewise brought and they entered the camp where the women and children were singing and dancing and ululating and beating their drums.

Praised is Deh-dagini!
Praised is Deh-dagini!
Oh djinni of the jungle
Worshipped of the Buma
You protect us from the monsters of the Ambuma
You alone defend us from the gorilla and the jaguar
You alone grant us great power and high ability
To face all the dangers of our lives!
Praised is Deh-dagini
Praised is Deh-dagini
We are made unseeable to our foes by your grace
Great son of the Godtree, his shadow in the world
You appear to us in every time and place
You alone take care of the affairs of the great Godtree
When, oh worshipped one, will you appear to us?

And as they sang, the jungle seemed to groan in response, and a great sound unlike anything known to mortalkind rumbled through the jungle of the Ambuma. It was, without a doubt, the great response and cry of the guardian Deh-dagini, the jungle djinni, to his loyal people.

Then they brought forth the body of the fallen warrior, wailing and praying to Deh-dagini to ward off the misfortune of death and the cosmic disharmony it brought. They piled debris around the corpse and danced around it all night, spears at the ready; when the viney ghouls came dashing to claim their brother the warriors all rose like the river and fought it off. They danced like this all night, tirelessly keeping the ghouls at bay, and after that long night the people gathered themselves and their belongings and departed, leaving the corpse behind. “Now we will go away from this place and its deathcurse, we will flee elsewhere and find there Deh-dagini’s blessings.” Ak-laha told Ganisundur. “You are of us now, Warrior Gin-sada, you struck the gorilla and heard the great voice of the jungle djinni. Take this spear, for you are foremost amongst hunters. Your heavy chest ties you to the Seer Neh-naka, but when you are cured return here to the Ambuma. May the jungle djinni cause all your foes to cease seeing you.” And with those words the chief and his people moved away and disappeared into the undergrowth.

“Come, my Ganisundur,” Rinaas sang, “for other tribes of the Buma await.”

Alas! the fleeting years slip by...

31 AA | Year 16

It was a year before shid Arkhus shib Mucazim’s soldiers rode through Rehna again. This time, no pleas from Dhula could make them leave Shidhig as they had done the year before, and not even the promise of all her share of the harvest. When the warrior-lord and his riders arrived at Sugae’s door, his mother was just about finished tying his father’s great blue warturban around his head. The young man was clad in his father’s quilted tunic, sandals on his feet, and a white cloth wrapped around his waste numerous times to act as a holster for the simple scabbard into which his father’s silvery sword was sheathed. In one hand he held his herding staff, sharpened at one end, and in the other he gripped his father’s great round shield. The commanding warrior-lord, whose great beard had more grey in it than black, gave Sugae an amused, if somewhat surprised, look from beneath his thick brows. “Bit overdressed, aren’t you boy?” He did not laugh, but some of the noble riders behind him sniggered, and one of them commented something along the lines of a loincloth would have sufficed.

Bori had warned Sugae that people like him — ‘peasants’, ‘commoners’ — were not even considered soldiers, but merely spare meat to throw at the enemy before the real warriors — clad and armed noble shids — swept the bloodletting fields on foot and horse. “If you want to survive, pup, you’re going to want to keep your head down. The nobles and higher-ups will mock you, laugh at you, make you do menial and humiliating tasks. Take it in your stride. They expect you to die, but if you stick around long enough there will be recognition. They respect a survivor, even if he is a lowly peasant from some rural backwater.” Sugae looked up at the warrior-lord.

“My pa was a veteran, shid. He left these for me so that I can honour him.” The lord scanned the shield and eyed the turban.

“Is that true then,” he said, “thought that turban looked familiar.”

“You... you knew my father, lord?”

“Hmm. So I take it he’s dead then. Shame. A man like Ravuk belongs on the bloodletting field, in life and in death.” He looked Sugae in the eye, “if you can be half the fighter your father was, you will have earned that warturban.” With that, he gestured for him to follow and steered his horse away. A few of the riders, not laughing anymore, gave him curious looks before spurring their horses to follow after the warrior-lord.

Sugae turned to his mother and smiled thinly. “Await my return, mam. I’ll come back to you.” She smiled back and nodded, her eyes glistening as she planted a kiss on his forehead. Then she stepped back and poured water into a small clay bowl. Scooping water from it into her hand, she began spraying it over her son and chanting.

“May the Glorified Mojtha guide your steps. May the Thousand Terrible Things and Faces strike with you and never against you. May the One Who Frowns scowl down on all who wish you harm. May the Serene Lord bring you tranquillity even in the heart of the fray. So may it be.”

With her words at his back, he marched off after the riders and eventually found himself walking beside Shidhig. Unlike Sugae, his father perished in the bloodletting and so he had no armour or shield or sword, only his trusty herding stick. Sugae grinned at him and lifted his own stick. “Good thing I trained long and hard pummelling your sorry arse with this, eh?” He looked over despondently.

“Only reason you ever managed to do that is ‘cause stinkin’ Bori showed you some of his tricks. In a way, you cheated. If not for your cheating I’m obviously far superior.”

“Well, I did invite you to come train with us, but you’re just averse to any form of hard work.”

“Averse to hard work? Me?” He exclaimed, “while you were off messing about with Bori and prancing around the lake with Mahula, somebody was actually bothered to care for the goats. Ain’t nobody gonna bother with them now! Some wolf or leopard will get them without their brave, dashing, daring Shidhig. Oh, my poor goats.” Sugae chuckled slightly, but the mention of Mahula visibly dampened his mood. He knew he was going to miss her immensely. He looked around in the hope of spotting her somewhere in the crowds that had gathered to see the young men off, and even as he looked the mere thought of her brought an immediate smile to his face.

“Ugh, there it is again, that stupid, happy, vacant smile of yours. Can you blame me for wanting to whack you silly every time you look like that?” Sugae looked at Shidhig distractedly.

“You’re just miserable and jealous is all you are, Shidh,” he teased, “if the gods are kind you’ll get your wish and be reborn as a goat.” The bigger man jabbed him in the side with his stick, but Sugae’s thick tunic meant he barely felt it. And then he saw her and his heart leapt as he took a few steps out of the marching procession to be closer to her.

“Oi!” One of the noble riders shouted, riding past and kicking him back into the marching line. Sugae stumbled into a few of the others and they grumbled at him, but he quickly righted himself and got back to marching, though he had eyes for nothing other than Mahula's melancholy visage and small sad smile until the procession crested a hill and she, and Rehna, were permanently out of sight.

Sugae blinked and looked at the others marching around him, most of them in thin tunics. Others had their chests bared and either wore long white loincloths or great baggy sirwals. Only a few were ‘armoured’ like him, and many had not even bothered to arm themselves with a stick as Shidhig had. Only now, as he watched all those who had been pressed into this business of fighting, from all the towns and villages in the region, did the depressing and wretched reality of it dawn on him. No amount of training with Bori or words of warning and advice from him could have truly readied him for this mass of despondent people, near-naked and unarmed, being forcefully marched off from their homes and loved ones. He gripped his staff and tightened his hold on his father’s shield. He would return to Rehna, to his mother, to Mahula.

And everything would return to how it had always been.

Prepared For All Things

The long march ended just outside the market town of Zira, where they made camp. At first it was only the noble warriors who had tents, while rural ‘peasants’ like Sugae, Shidhig, and many others camped out in the open. It was not much of an issue as far as warmth went, since the wet season was not yet upon them and the days and nights alike were rather warm, but the Khadaar had many dangers that made having a tent, or some sort of shelter, advisable.

After perhaps four days in the open, during which time Sugae busied himself practising as Bori had taught him, the shid of Zira, Dharqul shib Caamuthrapa, finally rode through the camp with his warrior-lords, guards, and various advisors, to inspect the troops he would soon be leading into battle in the name of shid Arkhus and the true ramshida, Muwayma shil Sahrur. Upon surveying Sugae and other members of the commoner-militia and speaking for a time with members of his entourage, the giant old man ordered that every one of them be given simple bedding and that five-man tents be provided. “Lord, are we going to get weapons? And training?” Someone asked. The shid looked at him for a few moments, his great grey moustache seeming to curl upwards, then pointed towards the main camp where those of noble birth and military upbringing were.

“They came with their weapons and brought with them their training, and they brought their bedding and their tents and horses and all they will need. Because I am benevolent and wish for the gods to witness my virtue, I have bestowed on you bedding and tents, purchasing them with the shidra’s limited funds. But as for weapons, you will have to buy your own or earn them on the bloodletting field, and if you wish for training, then train amongst yourselves.” So saying, the shid turned his horse, looked once more at the commoner militias, and cantered away with his retinue in tow.

Shidhig looked at his herding stick with pursed lips. “Guess I’ll be holding onto this then,” he muttered. Sugae nodded.

“Good idea. If you like I can sharpen the tip for you.” He looked at him and nodded back in appreciation.

“Fucking Palwijtha coulda given me some of his old stuff. Heck, he coulda let me make something…” Shidhig let loose an exasperated sigh. “And, uh. I think I’ll be taking you up on that training business now.”

“My, you’re just brimming with good ideas today,” Sugae chuckled, and the bigger lad punched him on the shoulder.

Training — Getting Beaten Up by Bori

30 AA | Year 15

“First things first — your sword. It has two main parts, pup, blade and hilt. If you feel here — careful, ya muttonhead! Don’t feel it, just look. See the blade tapers from the centre and has a sharpened edge, and then at the end here you have the point. The two edges give you flexibility when attacking. If a normal cut,” Bori drew the sword across, “won’t work, then a backward slash — like this — can take out an opponent who isn’t expecting it. If the sword bends one way or the edge warps, just turn it over and you’re good to go.

“The hilt protects your fingers a bit, prevents the opponent’s blade from getting to them, but don’t rely on it. If an opponent gets up close and personal and you can’t get a cut in, you can easily punch at them with yer shield, or hammer down with yer sword’s pommel. Yeah, this big pommel ain’t just for decoration pup, both the blade and hilt are useful. Remember that — it will save you.

“In the fray you want to keep your knees bent, one leg in front and one behind. Shield’s always gotta be up and ready.” Sugae imitated him, and the old man paused to inspect him. He tapped the boy’s back leg, telling him to bring it back slightly and ensure his foot was facing outward. “It gives you a firm foundation, see? And the knees, bend ‘em more. Like this you’re strong, you can step forward, or to either side, and you can retreat easily.” With that said he surveyed Sugae’s arms, bringing the young man’s elbow in slightly, “a tucked in elbow means your opponent doesn’t have an easy target. When it’s tuck in, it’s protected. And here, you want one of the edges of your sword to be facing towards your outside,’ he moved the boy’s wrist so it was rotated at a slight angle. With that said he expressed a satisfaction with the posture, telling Sugae to practice it often.

“Best way to strengthen posture and balance is standing on one leg, like the ascetics.” Sugae balked at the prospect. The ascetics could stand on just one leg for hours on end. “Don’t look at me like that, pup. The best defence is movement, and if you want to move in the right way you have to have balance and posture. Don’t think you’ll have time in the fray, the first blow is nearly always the last. Your shield and blade can be used for defence, but that’s really a last resort. Others will say differently but take it from me; if you keep moving you won’t need for anything other than pressing the offense.” He paused for a few seconds, “but if you ever have to use your sword to parry, you want to meet the strike with the lower half of your blade. The closer to the hilt the strike lands, the stronger your defence.

“Now for attacking, remember always that this sword your pa’s left you is a cutting sword. True it has a sharp point, and you could stab someone with it if you’re desperate, but it isn’t a stabbing sword — after enough usages the point will fail you, so stab only when there’s no other choice. It’s a cutting sword. There are eight angles you can cut from. The first two are downward cuts — one comes down from the right and the other comes down from the left, and then you draw the sword through to slice your opponent open. This drawing movement is important! It’s what does the damage. The second two are upward from the right and upward from the left. The best cuts are straight from the right and left. And the final two are cuts that come straight down and straight up. When you get used to the movements, you’ll be able to flow from one cut into another without moving anything but your wrist — no big swings, no elbow leaping about, just a simple wrist movement. Controlled armed movement, along with this wrist movement, creates for a perfect combination. Now if you combine this with foot movements, say a swift step forward or to the side when you’re attacking, then you give the cut extra power and lethality. Your constant foot movement — left, right, back, forth — and the constant movement of your sword, means your strikes are unpredictable and so more likely to land, and are also more lethal. You’ll have many opponents on the bloodletting field, you can’t waste too much time on each one, so all of these’ll help you to take each one out with one cut.

“Come, let’s practise. If you can master these basics then you’ll be well able to protect yourself.” Bori put the sword to the side and picked up a wooden stick. “Sharp weapons are for killing, not sparring.” He commented casually as he raised his wooden shield and took up the fighting form. Sugae did likewise and both began to carefully step around each other. It was slow and cautious at first, with Bori frequently stopping to comment.

Over the weeks and months, however, the comments grew fewer and fewer, and soon they were not stopping so much anymore, or at all. “Find your feet! Keep your balance.” Bori growled. Groaning slightly, Sugae rolled on the ground and got to his knees.

“Didn’t have to hit me so ha-”

“Stop whining, pup.” The butcher’s steely voice cut the boy’s words short without mercy even as he prodded him roughly with his wooden sword. The boy huffed in frustration and rose heavily to his feet. What was this now, the tenth, twentieth, time that he had knocked him down this session? Bori was just far more skilled and experienced than Sugae, even if it had been nearly two decades since he had last seen a battle and was an ancient husk. Sugae stood no chance against him. “Ready yourself- shield up!” He shouted, striking with sudden speed.

Sugae stumbled back and just about manage to parry and dodge the confident blows, smacking the last one away with his makeshift wooden shield. “You’re doing quite well against these playful strikes, pup — let’s see how well you do against something more serious.” He spoke, and before Sugae knew it he came forth with a furious burst of speed, delivering a powerful horizontal cut to the boy’s midsection that caused him to drop his stick and crumple to the ground in pain.

Bori sighed and squatted down next to him. “Think you won’t die out there, pup? Think you’re the hero of your life? No one is too special when death comes searching for them on the bloodletting fields. Remember that.”

“That... gods. That hurts,” Sugae managed between gasps.

“Think anyone will pity you if you cry? Think anyone will stop ‘cause it hurts?” He looked at Sugae for a few seconds. He had never spoken so ruthlessly before, and Sugae was somewhat taken aback by it. At last, however, Bori extended a helping hand, “but this ain’t the bloodletting field.” Sugae took it and got to his feet, and after a few moments he was ready to resume.

As they circled one another, Bori told him once again to always keep moving. “Move your feet and grip your sword tight and keep it moving — over your head and across, always in a constant circular motion. And when you move in, move with speed and surety. In the fray, the first blow is often the last blow.” And to illustrate, his circling steps gave way suddenly to a two-step forward dash and Sugae’s extended leg was taken out from under him. “Your opponent’s extended leg is an easy target. If you can get his wrist or his fingers, those are excellent targets too. It’s the same for riders — if a horseman is riding you down, you don’t want to turn your back to him or run ‘cause these guys have a sort of strike they do, a sort of turn of the wrist, that makes a man’s head fall off just like that. You want to shield yourself and cut the reins of their horse or the hand holding the reins or injure the horse itself — its legs or throat, whatever you can get your blade into.” He helped Sugae back up again. “A rider’s thigh is also a good target; you can usually get that along with the horse. More riders have died from cuts to the thigh than I care to count. If you have your spear to hand, that’s your best friend — whether against a rider or a footman. Only draw your sword if you lose that — and don’t lose it if you can. Also, don’t go up against an elephant or any kind behemoth, but if you do, get the legs.”

Over the months, Bori battered and taught Sugae. But mostly he battered him. “You don’t want to be the first in the fray. And you want to be the first out. Don’t try to be a hero.” Was one of his cardinal guidelines. “Keep your sword sharp.” Was another. A sharp sword meant that even delicate cuts could slice through an opponent’s wrist, leg, neck, or to the bone at the least. According to Bori, it was all about correct wrist movement, and he illustrated this to Sugae in the slaughterhouse where he allowed him to practice his cutting technique on some of the carcasses they brought back from hunting. “Stop swinging your sword around like that,” he would snap when Sugae’s movements became too wide and open. “Don’t hack and chop. Draw your sword through the target for long, deep cuts.”

It was punishment from the gods for all his meetings with Mahula, Sugae had no doubt about it.

The Wheel of Fortune Turns...

30 AA | Year 15

“Five goats were taken today,” Sugae reported glumly. His mother did not look up from the ripped blanket she was fixing — likely brought to her for patching by one of the village women — but Sugae noted the slightest of dejected shrugs at his words. She continued working away in silence for a few seconds before finally looking up. The moment his eyes met her gaze he found himself looking away, unable to bear the weight of her eyes.

Shammur was not a rare beauty by any means, but she had always had a nobility about her. That nobility — that innate dignity and unbroken pride — had made her a source of adoration to Sugae, and the subject of both great admiration and envy for many of the villagers over the years. But now there were dark stains under his mother’s eyes and — crushingly — there was a distinct emptiness there that threatened to swallow him whole if he met her gaze for too long. “They, uh. They took Palwijtha’s grandson too. And uncle Bori’s boys.” Sugae added offhandedly.

“Dhula said they came for Shidhig too,” Shammur spoke in a low voice as she returned to her work, “said that she spent over an hour begging them not to take him. They didn’t let up until she promised them nearly all her share of the year’s harvest, the poor soul.” Sugae frowned at these words. So that was why he had not seen Shidhig all day. Usually he was out tending to the goats even before Sugae. “Not that it matters, they’ll come back and take him when the next levy is called up.” She looked up to find her son picking at a spot on his nose. “And then they will take you too.” His picking slowed and came to a halt as he considered that reality. Looking to his mother, he found that her eyes were brimming with tears, but she steadied herself with a sharp intake of breath and they were gone.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be fine ma-” he began, but Shammur’s voice cut through his.

“No. No you won’t be fine. Just like your pa was never fi-” her voice caught in her throat and cracked, and there were tears. She buried her face in the blanket as sobs rocked her body. Usually, such a display of sadness would have had Sugae at his mother’s side, comforting her, but her words had caused a sudden snaking fury to erupt in his gut.

“I-” he started, but then took a moment to compose himself. When he did, however, the fury was still there to fuel his tongue. “I am not my pa.” The bitterness in his voice got his mother’s attention and she looked up, wiping the tears away with her hands and causing dirt stains to layer her already dirty face.

“My dearest, your pa was a good man. A great man. Brave, caring, loving too... at times. But he was tormented, and I always thought I could... fix that. And when you came into our lives I was certain of it. I thought that our new, happy, memories will replace everything that he saw out there in all that bloodletting. But some things are beyond our abilities, we are only human beings. You are your papa’s image; I don’t want you to end up carrying so much... so much pain.”

Sugae was drawn to agree with his mother. His father’s memory was larger than life in his mind, a commanding presence and serious visage that had always lent Sugae a maturity greater than his age. But at the same time, it was a great, empty presence. Ravuk had abandoned his wife, and he had abandoned his son. Shammur always told her son that his father had never run from any battle, had stood his ground always. Yet in the face of the great battle of life he had turned tail and run away. Shammur's eyes rested on her son, waiting on a response.

There were a few sombre seconds, and then Sugae’s face lit up suddenly, all signs of anger disappearing as he took two quick strides towards his mother and planted a kiss on her forehead. “My pa was only human, mam, and who isn’t? I would count myself blessed by the Glorified Mojtha if I can be half the man he was. But I want you to never worry yourself about me, mam. I am your son after all and, for all my nonsense, I like to think that you reared me well.” She looked at him with a small sad smile before sighing and holding him close to her, muttering something about my baby. But when she finally spoke there was a seriousness to her voice.

“Your pa knew the bloodletting wasn’t over. He knew they would come for you as they came for him, and he always wanted you to be ready. I... I wasn’t able to prepare you, my dearest. I just... deep down, I thought if we just ignored it and tried to live normal lives it would just never reach us... that you would be my little boy forever. But I was only deluding myself,” she rose and looked to the war-chest his father had left behind. The key was tied around Shammur’s neck and she had only allowed Sugae to look inside on a number of occasions. Now she removed it and handed it to him. “I want you to go to your uncle Bori. He survived the bloodletting and your father always praised his prowess. Convince him to teach you how to fend for yourself before they return. You must be ready.” Sugae looked at the small key, gripping it tightly, and then to the chest. Wondrous things, locks and keys, and no one in Rehna had anything like this one other than priest Ahnu.

“I’ll prepare, mam,” he assured her, “but promise me you'll never worry.” She cocked her head to the side and raised a hand to his cheek, her eyes softening and glistening once more.

“I am a mother, my dearest, and it is the duty of a mother to be always worrying.” He gripped her hand and brought her fingers to his lips.

“Then I must endeavour always to give you no cause to worry.”

When Sugae arrived at the slaughterhouse, Bori was not there. He asked Palwijtha the smith about where he was, and the hammer-wielding veteran of the bloodletting wheezed that Bori had gone off after the soldiers came for his boys. “He used to always go to the lake when he was in a bad way. But he hasn’t gone there since...” Sugae waited expectantly for the giant old smith to finish his sentence, but he only gestured for the boy to go away. “I’ve work to do, whelp. Bori’ll be back when Bori’ll be back.” Sugae was about to respond with some snarky line about the prodigious wisdom of those words, but he somehow doubted the wisdom of annoying a giant with a hammer.

With Palwijtha’s words in mind, he headed for the lake — though he could not remember seeing the butcher there since his early childhood days with his father. Bori had accompanied them on occasion and often brought Hushik and Olkiq along. But though Sugae and the butcher’s boys would swim together often over the years, old Bori never came — even to just watch.

The sun was low in the sky as he crested the hill and the lake spread out before him. He could not see anyone from up there and so descended to look more closely. Here around the lake there were more trees and so the entire area felt more sheltered. Back when his father would take him swimming here, his presence and the trees had given a feeling of complete safety — as though he were tucked into the lap of a valley over which his Ravuk and his host of trees stood guard. The feeling of security this place gave Sugae had never waned.

As he descended, there was suddenly a break in the trees and the light of the setting sun shone upon the lake... and upon a feminine figure stood knee-deep in the water, chanting and slowly pouring water from a clay bowl held high before her. Sugae silently drew nearer and watched from behind a tree, noting that the young woman appeared to be sobbing. He could not see her face, only her long red draping shawl covering her head and back. She was dressed in the long knee-length tunic and baggy trousers common to Rehnites, and her words reach him between sobs.

“We meditate on the glory of that which has produced the world,
“that excellent brilliance of the divine vivifying sun;
“may He enlighten our minds.
“May He enlighten our understandings.
“May we attain that sublime majesty of the god in the sunrays:
“so may He stimulate our prayers.
“We choose your supernal light, oh divine sun;
“we aspire towards it that it may impel our minds.
“Oh you of the cosmos,
“you vital energy of the world,
“essence of our life,
“destroyer of sufferings,
“bearer of brightest happiness
“luminous like the sun,
“destroyer of evil thoughts;
“may we imbibe your divinity and brilliance within us
“so that we may be purified and guided to righteous wisdom.
“Let us adore the supremacy of that divine sun, the godhead
“that illuminates all,
“who recreates all,
“from whom all proceed,
“to whom all must return,
“whom we invoke to direct our understandings on our journey toward His holy seat.
“Unveil your eternal light upon us, oh you who gives sustenance to the world,
“unveil that face of the true sun that we may see the truth and do our whole duty on our passage to your sacred heart.
“We meditate on that adorable glory and radiance;
“may He inspire our intelligence,
“inspire our rise above the world of forms and turn our attention to the all-consuming sun within.
“May He cause us to be absorbed in that sun and make us, in His own likeness, all-luminous.”

With those words, she tipped the contents of the bowl over completely into the water and spun unexpectedly. “So may it be!” She declared loudly, and then fell silent and took an involuntary step back, her eyes on Sugae’s.

The boy was silent and wide-eyed also, for he had not expected to so suddenly be looking — nay, hurtling and falling, drawn in willing and unwilling — into her endless obsidian eyes. He stepped out from behind the tree, and slowly recognition dawned. “So may it be. Don’t be afraid. Th- that was beautiful, Mahula.” She held the bowl close to her chest in one hand and brought part of her shawl over her face to cover everything beneath her eyes, then looked at him carefully, eyes still brimming with tears. She nodded but said nothing. “Are... are you okay?” She turned from him and wiped the tears away, but again made no response, and so he decided it was best to leave her to grieve in peace. “I’m looking for your pa. D’you know where he went?” She looked to the side and gestured off into the distance. He followed her hand to see a figure huddled by the far end of the lake. Thanking her, Sugae made to head for him, but her voice stopped him.

“No, wait. Look... my pa’s not in a good way. Leave him alone for now, please.” He paused, staring at the distant huddled figure, then looked over at her and nodded.

“Alright, but only if you tell me where you learned that chant. Are you a priest?” Despite the melancholia of her earlier chant, she chuckled at his words and shook her head.

“No, women can’t be priests. But priest Ahnu taught me some things. He says that every single person should know some rituals.” While Sugae was naturally involved in the many festivals and rituals that occurred annually in the village, he had never really considered actually learning rituals. Several times a day, his mother poured water at the doorstep of the house from a clay bowl similar to the one Mahula was holding, and every few months she told him to take a goat to priest Ahnu and make a sacrifice to in honour of his father. But beyond that, he had never really thought too deeply about it all. If he was good and took part in all the public rituals when the priest did them, he was sure the gods would be pleased with him.

“Well, if priest Ahnu says that then maybe I should learn some rituals too,” he said offhandedly. Her eyes lit up at his words and there was suddenly an energy and excitement to her as she waded out of the water.

“It’s really easy! And it doesn’t have to be long, you can just say a few words. Here.” She filled the bowl with water from the lake and handed it to him. His fingers brushed briefly over hers, causing him to cough in embarrassment and spill some water. She smiled and brought him knee-deep into the lake. “What do you want from the gods?” She asked. He looked at her, unsure if this was a bewildering dream or reality.

“I want to ask only the strongest god. Uncle Bori always talks of Mojtha.” He told her.

“Oh yes, my pa venerates the Glorified Mojtha most of all. I don’t know if the Mojtha is the greatest god. I talked to one of those ascetic teachers once, and he said that the Mojtha isn’t a god at all. Actually... he said that there are no gods, that every person can become god.” The boy raised his eyebrows at this paradoxical statement. “I don’t know okay! But priest Ahnu said not to listen to him. Anyway. You could pray to anyone of the Thousand Terrible Things and Faces, some of them are truly powerful. Or you could pray to the One Who Frowns. Or you could pray to the Serene Lord who is the source of all things.” He stared at her with a faint smile. “W- what?” She asked.

“Nothing. Just... you really know a lot.” He looked over the lake, the quickly fading sun, the resolute trees standing forever guard. “Can... can I pray to my father?” He asked suddenly, glancing at her. Her eyes softened and she nodded.

“What do you want to ask of him?” Her voice came low, her breath warm and close.

He straightened and looked over the trees and hills towards the fading light of the heavens. “I am Sugaera shib Ravuk. I will be marched to the bloodletting soon, like my father before,” he looked down at the bowl, “I will have his sword and shield, I will wear the battle garments he left me and I will don the warturban. I want him to strengthen my spirit and bless my form.” With that, Mahula told him to raise the bowl before him, no lower than his head, and began to chant rhythmically. He slowly tipped the content of the bowl as he repeated after her.

“When mustered masses lift on high,” she intoned gently.

“When mustered masses lift on high,” Sugae repeated, his voice low and hesitant.

“Their bloodied banners to the sky,” Mahula continued, her near breath causing his ears to tingle.

He spoke slower and more certainly. “Their bloodied banners to the sky.”

“When restless fighters lift their gaze,” he heard her head move, hair rustling, and lifted his chin also, his eyes rising.

“When restless fighters lift their gaze.”

“From blood-red field to sky’s dark haze,” her chant came steady, but louder now and he echoed her growing voice.

“From blood-red field to sky’s dark haze.”

“Oh great Ravuk! Be then my hope and stay!” She did not shout, but her voice cascaded through the air and seemed to pervade everything.

“Oh great Ravuk! Be then my hope and stay!” He repeated, warmth exploding in his chest despite the coolness of the water against his legs.

“And aid your son Sugae in fierce fray!” Her voice dropped and was closer to a whisper, the difference from the previous verse almost dizzying.

“And aid your son Sugae in fierce fray!” With those final words he tipped the bowl’s content completely into the lake, closing his eyes and breathing deeply. The wind whispered on his skin and the light of the quickly-fading sun warmed his eyelids, and the world seemed cosmically tender and safe. When he opened his eyes, Mahula was staring at him with a faint, knowing smile. In the dimming light, she seemed unearthly, her face aflame. “I feel warm,” Sugae noted in a hushed voice. “And you’re beautiful,” he sighed before he could stop himself. She blinked, reddened, and quickly covered her face with her shawl again before turning and wading out of the water. “W-wait. Where are you-” but she was already rushing off into the trees. “Your bowl, you forgot your bowl!” He called, rushing after her.

“You can keep it!” Came her retort.

“But I haven’t learned the chant yet! It’s useless if I don’t know the chant, right?” He cried as he got his feet on dry land. His words caused her to pause this time, and she turned. He looked at her, a smile growing on his face. “If you won’t come teach me again, you might as well take your bowl, right?”

“Your words are sweet and say one thing, but it seems your motives are quite something else, shib Ravuk.” She spoke, somewhat incisively.

“Was it wrong to tell you what is so plainly true? You asked the great god for the truth. Well, here is a truth for you: you are beautiful. You said he created all things, and you praise the sun and light because they were created by him and are beautiful. Well, he created you too and your beauty, so when I praise you I am really praising him, aren’t I?” She looked at him with somewhat startled eyes, never having expected such poetry from him, and then she chuckled, and her chuckle became a wonderfully exuberant and immediately contagious laugh, and so he could not help but be swept up in the irresistible tide of her laughter.

When at last her laughter and his came to a winding close, he stood staring at her with a grin. She looked at him demurely for a few moments, then raised her hand in farewell, turned, and disappeared into the gathering darkness. He took a deep breath, the smile unwavering, the bowl yet in his hand, and he sat beneath a tree and basked in the embers of her warmth and joy.

She met with him many times at the lake after that first time, and each time she brought with her some exciting tale or idea. She seemed to be ever abuzz with life, her mind ever curious and readily amazed. It was like she actively searched for the odd, the curious, the wondrous. But then again, she found something wondrous in near enough anything, seeming to occupy a world quite different from Sugae’s, a world teeming with wonders and marvels.

“Hey, Mahu, do you know how to swim?” He asked her one day, only for her to give him an unimpressed glare.

“Trying to get me out of my clothes, are you? To praise the beauty of my naked form, maybe?” She chuckled.

“Well, would you blame me?” He grinned.

“You’re incorrigible!” She declared, shoving him teasingly.

“Oh, you bring out the best and worst in me. I am beyond saving. But on the bright side, I can teach you to swim.”

“Hah, dream on, shib Ravuk! Maybe I’ll go tell your mam that her son is trying to lead me astray with his many sweet empty words.”

“Empty?” He exclaimed, taking affront, “you can accuse me of whatsoever you wish and tell my mam whatsoever you please, but at the very least recognise my sincerity!” She looked at him, suddenly bashful.

“Will your sincerity save you from my pa’s wrath when he finds out you’ve beguiled his daughter with all these secret lakeside trysts? If you were sincere you would have married me by now.”

“And would you accept me, knowing that soon I may be dead?” His words caused her to stiffen and look away.

“Everyone dies. Why shouldn’t we enjoy what we have while we have it?” She asked.

“It will only cause you pain. Look at Shidhig, look at aunt Dhula. Both of them alone and poor.”

“They may have little coin, but they are not poor or alone!” She insisted, turning to him with anger in her eyes. “Everyone is here for them. Poverty, true poverty in this world of forms, is to have no one at all. But Dhula and Shidhig are not alone. They are loved.” He smiled. “What?” She asked, the anger in her eyes fading into slight annoyance.

“I’m going to teach you to swim.” He stated.

“What? No, I don’t want to sw-” But he caught her by the arm and, before she could protest, scooped her up.

“Oh my- you oaf! Put me down. I’m going to murder yo- he- hey!” But already he was wading into the water and now she was not trying to get away but was holding onto him for dear life. He breathed in her sweet fragrance and, in a hushed, soothing voice, told her to relax. “I hate you.” She grumbled.

“I know.” He grinned. And then her hand cupped his head and brought him to her.

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