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KhoZee Productions & Partners. presents:




Shattered Perceptions

They had been on the road for some twelve days when they spotted the caravanners on the horizon. Her idda-ta had assured her they would be seeing them soon - for there was a known caravanserai not far from here. “Are we headed for it?” She had asked, and he had nodded in the affirmative.

When they arrived, the people Rima found there were quite different from the townspeople of Miha-Rad. For one thing, they wore no headdresses - men and women wore their hair at different lengths and decorated with all kinds of beads and adornments. The men, in particular, seemed to wear copious jewellery - neck-chains, bracelets, anklets -, even more so than some of the women back at Miha-Rad. While the men wore their hair differently, Rima immediately noted that the girls and younger women wore it cropped short or even shaved completely, often wearing headbands intensively decorated with beads. The older the women, the longer was their hair - and when long enough it was braided tightly and entwined with beads and pearls.

Unlike the people of Miha-Rad, they did not flock to the kayhin on his arrival, clearly being more used to the likes of him than the townspeople were. They were, however, approached by an old woman who gave them a sing-song greeting. “It is good to hear your song anew, Zahna.” The kayhin spoke.

“It is good to see you too, Great Diviner. You have been gone a long time - I had thought you gone forever.”

“Not so, not yet. I had duties to attend to.” And here he gestured for Rima to come. “Come, my dear. Meet old Zahna.”

“Ah, now here’s a special song indeed. And what’s your name, little desert rose?” Zahna asked. Rima blinked in surprise then smiled.

“Rima-Tinrur of the Jungle-folk, idda-ti.”

“Ah, now no one’s called me that since Serrah and Rahma went off.” The old woman said with a smile, though there was perhaps the slightest sadness in her eyes. “From the jungle are you? I haven’t seen one of you in many, many years.” Rima’s eyes broadened with interest.

“I heard your song not long ago - you seemed distressed.” The kayhin continued.

“Oh yes, we had an unpleasant encounter with a little dreambeast. Serrah and Rahma dealt with it well enough.” The old woman said. “It awoke something in them - perhaps something that was always there.” She turned and they began walking towards her tent.

“Their song did always sound different.” The kayhin noted.

“Oh, that it did. That it did.” Zahna agreed. Rima looked from the woman to her idda-ta at a loss, but smiled anyhow. “Only the gods and the song know where they are now.” She sighed.

“You have come from Birba-Ida - how did you leave it?” Her idda-ta asked.

“Not too different from how we found it. The fishes bring their loads, and we bring ours, and the world of the oceans and that of the land meet. Their songs are always a delight to hear, of course - alien, but delightful. Far off lands and such odd people and creatures. And such kawnnisaj as causes the heart to tremble. But beyond their tales and merchandise, there is not much new. The many-limbed ones have kept their peace - the ward-shrines have made sure of that, at least.” She stooped into her small tent and the kayhin and Rima stepped in after her. It was sparsely furnished - some goatskin skins, a drum here or there, but little else beyond. It was clear that the old woman lived as lightly as she travelled.

“That is good. I am the last to turn to kawnnisaj to resolve such matters, but there seemed no other way.” The kayhin intoned.

“Oh, no doubt, no doubt.” She reached for a nearby goatskin bag and unstoppered it, extending it to Rima.

“Ah, thank you.” The woman accepted it and took a swig, finding it to be soured milk not dissimilar to what the townspeople of Miha-Rad had.

“Now I don’t know if you have heard it, but these last few nights here I have heard it every night - a certain deathsong on the breeze, the chanting of more bodytakers than I care to count. It is not near by any means, but near enough. It comes from the direction of the fahupki. They fight and kill each other, this we know, but I have never heard it on such a scale.” The old woman looked to the kayhin with furrowed brows.

“Yes, I have heard it on the song also. It is no fahupki song, that is for certain. In fact…” he paused for a few seconds, “you should not be surprised to find the perpetrator arriving here soon enough.” The old woman’s knotted brows seemed to knot even further.

“Do you know what it is?” She asked.

“It is not anything I have ever heard before. Its song is not a good song at all.” There was a certain gravity to his tone that caused Rima’s hairs to stand on edge.

“Ah,” the old woman sighed regretfully. “It is what it is.”

“That it is.” The kayhin agreed. “Now, I shall leave our little desert rose here with you, I can already hear her crooning to know all your tales.”

“Oh, I think I heard that too.” The old woman gave Rima a knowing smile. “I know what you are thinking - how does old Zahna know anything about the jungle people, eh?” Rima glanced at her idda-ta as he floated out of the tent, but then turned her attention back to the old woman.

“Well, I know that you caravanners travel all over the world, so that’s probably how isn’t it?”

“All over the world? My dear, the world is a great old place - I don’t think anyone has seen half of it! No no, it’s not because of the caravenners - I’ve never travelled east of the mountains with them.” Rima raised an eyebrow at this. “You see, I was born not too far from those jungles - in the great city of Qabar-Kirkanshir…”

True to his word, Malri awoke on the fourth day, having been left undisturbed. After eating and drinking his fill, he went down to the water’s edge. There he removed his armor, piece by piece and arranged them carefully on the bank. He then removed an old shirt and some worn leggings, woven by the Litus tribe and threw them in the water to wash.

He looked down at his unnaturally pale body, the heat of the sun almost burning him where he stood. He checked his pendant and took it off to wash, then placed it back on. He did the same with his sun stone and the mace. Then each piece of his armor was next, bit by bit until everything was as good as it was going to get. Malri left the bands upon his arms, for the looks of the bustling vesps were far too inquisitive for his liking. They were busy preparing their goods for travel, like little worker bees. Even still, he did not trust them.

Then at long last, Malri himself walked into the warm water, venturing chest deep to the cool. He dipped his wings in only slightly, not wanting to get rid of the oils that kept them dry. He then washed himself from the grime and sweat that the desert had encrusted him in. After an hour or so of this, he ventured back onto land and let the sun dry him. He then donned everything once more, a grueling task for one, but he did not want these creatures to help him. They were far too wrong looking. He couldn’t even tell them apart, nevertheless what gender they were. If they even had genders.

The speaker vesp, at least he thought it was the speaker vesp, seemed to be waiting for him. She approached in haste, clacking her mandibles. Barely a few words were uttered, before Malri cut her off.

“Are you prepared?” He demanded, looking at her behind his fearsome gaze. It was difficult to read their facial expressions, he had also noted. Being so insect-like, how could the act so… So different but the same time as to what he was used to? The creature nodded it’s head and raised a finger to speak, but Malri did not wait and took to the skies with a few large gusts of his wings.

As if given a signal, the vesps ascended as well in a mighty drone that seemed to engulf the world. With them they brought their goods in great long nets, carried by dozens of them, if not hundreds. They worked in those large groups down to mere two’s and even one’s. All carrying something, or helping carry. Even Malri had to admit that it was an impressive sight, for an inferior species. Their sheer size seemed to blot out the skies, just like the swarm that had attacked him. Malri decided to fly higher up, carried by the warm currents of the air. He could vaguely see different colors and shapes upon the horizon but he was content to be a follower for now.

He knew for a fact that these vesps... they were not for him. He wanted to be away from these bugs and into the company of those that suited him better.

Far, far better…

The desert rolled away beneath them, and no matter how swiftly they seemed to move and no matter how distant the oasis grew, the desert seemed to go on forever. Yet these vesps clearly knew where they were headed, and it was a matter of hours before they started descending and below them a great encampment, made up of dozens if not hundreds of little black tents, emerged from the red wastes. What had at first seemed like a little rocky hill at the centre of the camp was not a hill at all, but some kind of stone-carved structure. The vesps made landfall just outside the camp’s perimetre, with the nets being the last to slowly be placed down.

They zipped here and there, clearing out space, erecting makeshift canopies and stalls and ordering all their wares according to type. “We stop here for trade.” The speaker told Malri. “After trade is done, I and some others will take you to the mountain - as agreed.” She paused for a few seconds. “Be nice to redmen - if you ask nicely, they might even give you information for free. They can be silly like that.”

“Very well.” He said, fixing his mace to a loop at his right side. He draped his wings and pressed them to his back then with little mind for caution, he made his way into the heart of the camp. He was not one for subtlety and laid himself bare for this new world to see, standing tall and proud. Why should he be afraid or nervous? If these beings were humans, they were inferior, after all.

To his satisfaction, the ‘redmen’ took note of him almost immediately. Some frowned in his direction, children and youths stared wide-eyed or curiously; in all cases there was a palatable layer of inexplicable terror lining their eyes. A few young men, the unnatural terror seeming to drive them into a foolish courage, shouted and raised sticks and leapt excitedly, coming near to him in groups before withdrawing. A few shouts from some nearby women, wearing their excessively long hair in beaded braids, swiftly but a stop to their antics. They glanced at him with unveiled fear and dislike, snapping at the children to stay away and not stare at him. One of these women was visibly quite old, and stood by her was a younger woman who stuck out like a sore thumb - wearing entirely different clothing and sporting strange hair. In her speckled eyes of amber-brown was fear also, but she wore a frown that seemed to know this was no natural fear. The redmen all watched Malri, now and again gesturing towards him as they spoke. Others were content to simply lean on their sticks or sit by their tents and stare at him, perhaps their fear of him preventing them from doing anything else.

Eventually, after what felt like a long time but was probably not so, a few lanky men approached, accompanied by a naked man dripping ink; on his head were great tied up dreadlocks and a seemingly endless beard cascaded from his face and was wrapped about one arm. The men stood before Malri, considering his odd attire and wings. After a few moments, one of them stepped forward, holding his visibly trembling hands behind him. “W- we greet you, stranger.” He spoke. “I am- uh. I’m Sipir-Khash of the Mirtaah. We welcome you among us.” He swallowed, licking his suddenly dry lips. “B- but in caution is some wisdom, they say, and so pardon me for asking,” he glanced at the painted naked man before returning his fearful gaze to Malri, “but what manner of creature are you, f- for I can see you are neither of the Hibbi-Fehsp nor are you humenaki, n- nor even of the seafolk.”

“Humenaki.” Malri said aloud, focusing on the men. “Not entirely human, are you? Something crossed between, as is the way of humans.” He paused, staring down the painted man. There was something odd about that one but he continued, “I am a Neiyari but you may call me Vespslayer, Sipir-Khash of the Mirtaah.”

Sipir-Khash seemed deeply discomfited by his voice, and cleared his throat before speaking again. “I am not sure what you mean, I don’t know what human is, only humenaki. And…” he paused, “so there are more like you? Nihari? Are you a people from the north?” He opened his mouth to continue, but abruptly stopped. “Ah, but I am being rude now. We can sit inside and eat and speak.” With that, Sipir turned and gestured for the Neiyari to follow. The painted man was approached by the oddly-dressed woman as they passed her and after a few words tagged along with them. Malri could almost feel her curious gaze boring into him from behind.

They approached the great stone structure - it was carved into what was once a large rock formation, and Sipir-Khas called it a caravanserai. “While we tribal traders like our tents and can even sleep on the camel, it is quite nice to have something like this. The mugahtir of Birba-Ida, being the most glorious and mighty of the mugahtirs, had it carved and pays for its upkeep and staffing. There is nothing like it anywhere else.” He seemed to be less afraid now that he was not looking directly at Malri, but one glance seemed to put that aright once more.

They walked through the impressive entrance of the caravanserai which quickly opened up into a great square hall carved into the heart of the rock. The walls of the hall were carved with smaller doorways which led into smaller chambers. “Sleeping quarters,” Sipir-Khas commented as he walked to the centre of the great chamber where cushions, furs, skins, and quilts had been placed. The man made himself comfortable and invited Malri to sit also. The painted man, for his part, crossed his legs and was suddenly hanging in the air.

“Can I sit too, idda-ta?” The girl whispered, though Malri heard. The odd naked man, whose eyes - Malri now noticed - were closed, simply nodded. She took one of the cushions and sat awkwardly on it, clearly unused to these kinds of seating arrangements.

Malri gave no comment but did stare at the floating man for a few moments. His suspicions were right, there was something about that one that was different from the rest. His eyes fell upon the girl as he sat down on several cushions, sitting back as he pleased. She was of some importance, it seemed, to the floating man. She was younger then the others, he could see that in her facial features. Bah. Though, like the man, there was something special about her as well. He had a feeling he would find out soon enough.

Malri then stretched his arms and removed his helmet, letting his blanched hair fall down. He set his helmet next to him and eyed them all again then the great chamber. His gaze fell upon Sipir. “I am impressed that your kind was able to work the stone into a livable home. It seems that there is more to you than meets the eye.” His eyes glanced to the floating man and then the girl.

“Oh, this is not our work - the people of Birba-Ida are a wondrous folk and know just how to tame the elements. Rock is as clay in their hands.” A few youths - boys and girls - came by with bowls of food. They were salted meats and the iconic lebahr khan soured milk of the Mirtaah tribe, as their tehr bread. The youths seemed to be quite glad to put the bowls and platters down, dashing out of Malri’s terrible presence. Sipir watched them go then glanced at the Neiyari. He seemed to take note of the winged man’s interest in the strange man of ink and the young woman who had joined them. “This is the Great Diviner, a kayhin. And this here is- uh, his travelling companion.” He glanced at the woman.

“I am Rima-Tinrur of the Jungle-folk,” she said, her amber-green eyes on Malri. “So… are you from the north? Are there more Nihari people where you come from?” Sipir reached for some tehr and extended it to the Neiyari, who took it and gave a bite.

“Don’t deny yourself, please eat.” And then he extended some to Rima and ripped some of the lebahr khan for her.

“Kayhin… Rima…” Malri said, rolling his tongue to accentuate her name before taking a bowl of salted meats and tasting a piece. It was of a different texture than he was used to, but the gameyness of the meat was apparent. He wanted to wash it down with the drink but as soon as he tasted it he gagged and forced himself to swallow it. His face was full of disgust but he cleared his throat and eyed the girl again. “There are many Neiyari where I was made but as for where it is, who knows? This land is unfamiliar to me, after all. And I left that place so long ago.”

“And so you travel with the Hibbi-Fehsp now? Odd for someone who travels with them to be called Vespslayer.” Sipir noted, bringing a clay bowl of milk to his mouth.

“It is indeed odd - especially when the stench a thousand slain lines the verses of your song.” The kayhin intoned at last, his voice coming deep and melodious. The world seemed to ripple ever so slightly where his voice sounded. Sipir glanced at the kayhin, and then back at Malri, swallowing uneasily.

“Though, of course, not all fahupki are quite as friendly as the Hibbi-Fehsp.” The Mirtaah tribesman said with a nervous laugh.

Malri’s eyes became slits as he stared at the ink-covered man with a frown. “A swarm attacked me as I wandered the desert. Vicious little things. They died quickly, even as the skies darkened and the ground grew covered in their corpses.” His great figure sat up and forward, putting his hands together. “Strange to think one could tell such a thing.” He intoned.

“Stranger yet for one to go up against a fahupki horde… and run them off alone.” The kayhin responded. Sipir-Khash was now staring wide-eyed, lips pursed, at Malri. He looked distinctly uncomfortable and shifted in his place. “You are clearly no normal being, stranger. Your song comes wrathful and dark, it sings of terror and licks at the songs of all around you like an all-consuming black flame. You wear metals harder than rock, their song speaking of a higher creative hand, and possess weapons that sing the same. It does not seem to me that someone like you is here purposelessly, Vespslayer. What are you seeking on these shattered wastes?”

“You are very perceptive, old man.” Malri sneered. “I do not know what you speak with all these… Songs and verses but I can tell it is no power not gifted by the same higher hands that you see me wear and wield.” His lips curled into a thin smile. “Yes… It was not by luck did I survive that horde but by sheer will and rage.” He rolled his eyes, giving a small shrug. “And to be fair, I did not drive them off, but ask yourself this- when a thousand corpses of your brethren lay at your enemies feet, perhaps you think it best if not to flee? Something unkillable is hardly prey. But you are mistaken about one thing. I am purposeless in this place. Cast out of my old home and left to wander this forsaken land.” His eyes darted to Rima and then back to the Kayhin with a cruel smile on his lips. “But perhaps I will find purpose after all.” Rima frowned slightly at his words.

“If you have no purpose, then you will be swept up in the purposes of others.” The kayhin said simply. “Perhaps it would be good for you to do just that - I see no good in your song as of yet, perhaps you should see to its disciplining under the wing of those more accomplished before you set out on your own.” Sipir-Khash cleared his throat and laughed. The air had very suddenly grown quite tense.

“R- refinement of character is- ahem- a- a noble purpose in itself, of course. Wise words, I’m sure. S- so, great Vespslayer, how have you found life with the Hibbi-Fehsp? Will we be seeing you often with them? I’m sure you’ll make quite the trader in time.” It was clearly an attempt to lighten the conversation and steer it to safer waters.

A great silence came from Malri, his face gone blank, yet his eyes were fixated with hate upon the old man. “More… Accomplished…?” He uttered, “You dare…” Quite quickly his face erupted into anger. “Such insolence! To think there are those more accomplished than I? Here amongst these lowly creatures?” He rose to his feet, pointing at the kayhin. “Tell me old man, who amongst you has served an avatar? Been a king? A conqueror? One to whom the tribute flows? Who here has faced the true Divine and lived? Do not speak to me of those more accomplished than I, for there are none!” The inked man neither moved nor flinched, which naturally acted to infuriate Malri further.

“Answer me this, Vespslayer: of what use are deeds if one does not temper one’s own self? Is he a master of any who is slave to every emotion? When I prod a redland lion, master of the desert and possessor of untold wives, it lashes out and destroys and rages - is the redland lion then accomplished? Restrain yourself and be calm, and answer me.” Though the kayhin somehow managed to float at ease before the fuming Neiyari, many others idling about the caravanserai had hurriedly made for the doorway. Sipir-Khash himself had leaned back and was now on his knees, a grimace on his face and his eyes flashing furtively towards the entranceway. Rima gripped the pillow beneath her, her eyes seeming to roil and shift. Malri could taste her fear, knew her tight grip hid her trembling hands.

Malri’s face twisted into one of rage. Who was this speck to demand of him answers? Who was this man to challenge his accomplishments? What did he know! What did any of them know? These people were weak! This floating fool! This inferior slave! He would show him who was a slave and who was the master! Malri gritted his teeth, “Only a fool prods a lion.” He then lunged forward in a burst of speed, swinging his right fist at the kayhin’s head.

His fist seemed to come up against a wall of rock for the briefest second, before whatever barrier stood against his power shattered and the blow exploded through like a thunderous wave. The brief pause, for whatever it was worth, allowed the insolent kayhin to move back, the deathblow swinging a hair’s breadth from his head. The very force of the blow seemed to char the air all around. The kayhin’s song sound, and around him a breeze swiftly gathered and he retreated far into the air of the chamber. “I- idda-ta!” Rima’s voice shout came, and she was already on her feet sparks flying all around her.

“Remember your calm, rosa.” Came his cascading song, and the sparks flying around the girl subsided, her roiling eyes returning to their previous amber-green. The kayhin’s song continued, its deluge pouring all about the Neiyari. It was a song of peace and calm, attempting to douse his fury. “The growling lion falls when the tranquil hunter leaps, Vespslayer. Is he any different from a beast who cannot take his anger by the neck and bend it to his will? What power has he who has no power over his very self? Think on it, stranger.”

He would do no such thing. For Malri’s mind was a simple one and he became singularly focused on that which drew the ire of his hate. He could feel the song begin to work it’s magic, like a soft rain over a fire, threatening to snuff it out. He did the only sensible thing that he knew, his wings unfurled, filling the room with shade and despair, then pushed them forward, sending Malri backwards. He stopped behind his mace and grabbed it in one swift motion, then held it high, towards the kayhin. Malri then brought the mace down, upon his armor. A great clang rang out as metal hit metal, and fire within him ignited into a blaze. He hit himself again, and it roared into an inferno. His vision going red as his gaze never left the kayhin.

In that moment of pause, Malri called forth a spear of light. Like the sword before, he channeled his innate abilities that were gifted to his race and in his off hand came a glowing red hot spear with what looked like molten fury. He hefted the spear up, then threw it at the kayhin before he himself took to the air towards him, beating his wings in a great gust that buffeted the pillows and those foolish enough to remain within the room. He would have that man’s head, no matter the cost.

As he sped towards the naked man, his spear came up against whatever unnatural barrier protected the man, and this time the spear was redirected up into the rock ceiling, burying itself there. Below them the people were all rushing for the exit, though the song of the kayhin seemed to lend them enough calm not to trample each other or be driven to madness by Malri’s terrible presence. The flying man spiralled higher into the chamber as Malri approached him, changing direction with flowing motions and circling around the entire breadth of the caravanserai as he rose, leaving the futile song of tranquility in his wake.

“Why are you angry, stranger?” His melody came. “Is it justified? If it is justified, then are these destructive acts? Is there no other, more amiable, way to release this fury and set things aright? Or do you perhaps view thoughtless living and action to be a sign of accomplishment?”

His only reply came in the form of the chase. Such words were wasted on him in his current state. All that existed now was the rage and the anger of a being scorned. He let the melody and the song fuel that anger and rage, compelling him forward after his quarry. He flew as the kayhin flew and changed direction as he changed direction. The kayhin was smaller than he, and did not need to beat wings to propel himself, and so like everything else, it only served to infuriate him further. In a fit, he threw his mace at the kayhin, hoping to knock him off course and into his clutches.

The kayhin’s song reverberated around the face and it slowed until it came to a halt before the naked man of ink. The mace thing began retreating, hurtling towards Malri. The kayhin’s song followed in its wake. “That nature alone is accomplished, Vespslayer, which refrains from doing to another what it would not have done to itself.” And the mace slowed in its descent towards Malri and instead hurtled downwards and struck the ground. “Have you attained some wisdom, and do roses bloom from the seedling of the weed?”

This sent Malri into a fury. His great wings beat harder, doubling his speed after the floating man, losing reason to madness. The red haze of his vision grew thick with the color of blood and Malri became something else entirely. The only thoughts he had were of death. Death. Death.


When the kayhin had ascended so that he could ascend no more and Malri knew that this was all over and that his vengeance was nigh, the inked man cocked his head towards him impassively, placed a hand on the rock above him, and it cracked and opened up for him. “Peace to you, warbringer. May it free your heart.” And with that he slipped through the crack and it closed up behind him.

Instead of coming to an abrupt halt, however, Malri slammed into the ceiling with a resounding boom. The brute recoiled, dazed, and his body fell like a great dark comet, wings whipping violently and great white hair everywhere. He landed with a thunderous crack against the stone below. Whatever gods had frowned on him today had decreed that his fate was not yet over, however, for the ceiling above moaned and shifted, and a large crack formed where he had impacted. His anger flared but it was too late; the roof began to give way and it collapsed, sending rock and stone to crush the Vespslayer.

The Mirtaah were naturally outraged by the destruction of the great caravanserai, and the hWebi-Vesp earned the brunt of their anger. “He came with you, and you must compensate us for this damage.” The hukkam insisted. There was much wrangling and debating, but eventually it was agreed that the hWebi-Vesp would aid the people of Birba-Ida in reconstructing the great thing.

Not wishing to stay much longer, the Mirtaah broke camp and soon moved out. Rima and her idda-ta said their farewells to old Zahna and, mounting her camel, the girl and the kayhin continued towards Birba-Ida without a backward glance.

“Is he dead, idda-ta?” She asked.

“His heart beats yet.” The inked man stated flatly.

The Kavijama | the thing of ink & poetry | The Hibrach

The god in the inkstain is not dead, my friends. Look, do you not see how even now his variegated heartink pours into the walking place of the gods; and if you step forth into that antique place then be sure to bring boat and paddle, or be prepared to wade. No he is not dead who bleeds eternally that the curse of dryness and monochromy may never again plague that divine heartland. Walk then or fly, ye race of celestials bound beyond the veil of worldly sight, 'tis one wetness more, one drabness less, a sing-song richer, and a fluttering of ink faeries through every divine door.

On the dunes of Galbar and its plains, in its mountain cores and in the depths of its jungles and at the gurgling blackness of its swamps, in the inky heart of the stilly deeps; there sounded a hum, a cry, a moan. Oh brother troll, oh sister, he is not dead who stained the peripheral heights of your universe so that they roil now and breathe with the breath of the cosmos. Oh, he is not dead who lends melody and soul to the terrene and empyrean spheres. Did the spark in your dancing feet perish that he should die? Did the euphony of your crooning tongue fade that he should echo into nothingness away? Has the soul of art been struck by the swift and poisonous dart that he should up, up, and fleeing depart?

If it is so, then take this song and kiss of ink, take this sculptor's, carver's, builder's touch - but, take this art, these artitects and this artefact.

Why? Why not?

Wrestling and Merrymaking — Life in Rehna

24-30 AA | Years 9-15

The people of Rehna were for the most part lowly peasants and farmers. They were, however, by a happenstance of history free from some of the higher demands for labour, produce, and military levies to which petty shid Dharqul of Zira subjected other towns and villages in his shidra. To the west and north of the village were hills, and nestled in a forested vale between the western hills was a lake of some size. Beyond the northern hills, the plains of the Khadaar stretched out for endless leagues in all directions, while the east and immediate south of the village was made up of farmlands. The river Muhaddir flowed perhaps a day’s journey south — meaning the village lay on the natural border between the two major belligerents in Dehrthaa’s civil war.

But Rehna had always had something of a martial tradition — war and conflict was the norm in Dehrthaa, not the exception, and any town or village required able young men to leap to the defence of their kin at a moment’s notice. They were rural village people, and so their conception of the ideal warrior-youth emphasised strength — and that was why any festive occasion almost always included a village-wide wrestling event. Sometimes it was a competition in which all the youths took part, other times it was a match between the renowned wrestlers from across the region.

Sugae was by no means the strongest wrestler, but herding had made him deft and nimble, his hands — like those of near everyone — calloused even at a young age. While he was more than able to bring down opponents in single matches, he never won any competitions. His agility did, however, mean that those stronger and bigger than him often struggled to get him to submit — he was stubborn and strong-willed in that sense, his nature repulsed by the idea of surrender.

His close friend and kinsman Shidhig, however, was big and tall — often even the older boys struggled against him. And as he grew he waxed strong and gained increasing renown for his vigour and might in the wrestling ring. At thirteen he was able to throw even the hulking Olkiq, three years his senior. “It’s not all about strength or size,” Bori, Olkiq's father and Sugae's maternal great-uncle, would often say after such wrestling matches, “I’ve seen little fellas take out giants twice their size.”

“How'd they do it?” Sugae once asked with a frown. Bori scoffed and brought the cup of palm wine to his lips.

“It’s in the method, pup. Now method won’t help if you’re a twig — which you're not, my niece has taken care of that — and if you’ve got some strength and know what you’re doin’ you can tire out big lumbering oafs and crush ‘em. Brutes that think with their pecs may get far with the rabble, but one man with a good head for technique can bring ‘em down a notch or two.”

Along with wrestling, there was a stick-fighting tradition — as, indeed, was the case for most towns and villages around the Khadaar. A stick was an effective weapon in skilled hands and villages had been known to drive off marauders and mercenary bands with nothing more than militias armed with sticks and staffs. Being nimble and quick aided Sugae when it came to stick-fighting — he was often able to duck and weave his way around bigger and stronger opponents, and even the brawny Shidhig could not always pin him down or best him.

As with any community, disputes often arose — indeed, when young men were prone to wrestling and stick-fighting, competitiveness could very easily turn into rivalry, and rivalry into envy and enmity. Sometimes playfighting swiftly descended into an altogether more serious affair — that was the way with these things. When these were not resolved and became something bigger, it was to the headman that the people of Rehna turned — indeed, all kinds of disputes inexorably found their way to headman Jishnu who was the last living son of Rahuna himself, from whom most Rehnites were patrilineally or matrilineally descended and after whom Rehna was named. Intermittently brought before the old headman were marriage quarrels, land disputes, inheritance disagreements, squabbles between wives and in-laws, and — perhaps the most serious — troubles emerging from historic family feuds or unresolved issues.

It came to be that a dispute arose one day between the old smith Palwijtha and his niece, Dhula. Now old Palwijtha had for a long time been a good uncle to Dhula and her son, Shidhig. Though she was a mere widow and had slaved away for her father- and mother-in-law until they died and now lived a simple life with her son, old Palwijtha had married her mother — his brother's widow — and taken the orphaned Shidhig under his wing and had taught the boy much of smithing; when he was not running off into the hills with Sugae, that was. And even when Dhula's mother died, he would often send them food or what coin he could spare, to ensure that his niece and her son were able to keep up some semblance of face and honour before the other villagers. In exchange for this, the old man asked little more than for Dhula to fix up old clothes for him from time to time.

Now as he aged and his smith’s disease worsened, the old man — whose wife was now long dead, and whose daughters, Dhula's half-sisters, had all been married off and lived in different villages — found that he was in need of greater help and petitioned his niece to assist him. But Dhula was hard-pressed enough caring for herself and her son, and so naturally refused to take up caring duties for the old man. And so Palwijtha took his matter to the ancient headman Jishnu, his great-uncle. “I have been good to her — gone beyond the bounds of duty. And now when I am old and can hardly breathe, she turns her back on me.” The veteran of the bloodletting fields rasped in complaint. “Does a niece not have a duty to care for her old and ailing uncle?”

The frail Jishnu, sat on a bench leaning on his staff, nodded slowly. “You’ve been good to her Palwijtha — but you were good to her because you are good, not because you expected anything in return.”

“Of course! But can no one speak some sense into her? She’s like my daughter! She has no husband — my brother was claimed long ago on the bloodletting fields — and she has no in-laws. Her mother I married and cared for, as was my duty — and she was good to me and did her duty also. Her sisters are all of them gone — Renu in Milna with her husband, Srupa with her husband in Ahpur. Had I sons and had they wives, I wouldn’t call on her, but I have only her.”

“Come now Palwijtha, it doesn’t befit an old man like you — a warrior at that — to complain like this. We’ll send to Renu and Srupa and they can send you some help. Their daughters are old enough now, one of them should be able to come and aid her old grandfather, surely.” The old smith grumbled but ultimately acquiesced.

“May the gods curse me if I aid her ever again,” he muttered as he rose.

“Ah, Palwijtha, would you have all the virtues you’ve amassed thrown against the wind like dust? Don’t change your goodness because of this. And you need to understand that she is a woman alone — no mother, no husband — , she only has her son and he is her greatest duty. Don’t hold it against her.” But Palwijtha was an old man, and age brought with it weakness and weakness brought with it fear; and out of fear and weakness grew selfishness and so he never sent aid to his niece again. He allowed Shidhig to work with him — though that was because he needed help and the boy was skilled, rather than anything else.

Now as with any Dehru village, there were many festivals and causes for celebration throughout the year — the harvest was a time of showing thanks and gratitude to the gods, the time of shearing goats likewise festive and subsequent spinning of raw mohair into yarn a communal event filled with laughter, gossip, and renewed camaraderie.

The celebration of the Mojtha’s birth was one Sugae and the young men generally looked forward to — it was celebrated by watering the sycamore-fig orchards near Rehna’s lake, and the women beautified themselves and chanted lovely songs while the men marched behind. Later, at the centre of the town around Rehna’s beautifully carved shrine — a great stone pillar which had representations of the gods along its length, as well as depictions of battles and feats of heroes and ancestors — music was played and dances were performed in celebration.

Priest Ahnu would then come out and stand before the pillar, and he would chant great poetic verses and regale the villagers sat about him in the dim light of dusk with tales of the Mojtha — how he came to descend into the world when the great god Misnaya saw that the world needed balance, how he was blessed with strength and wisdom even from a young age, how people flocked to him — drawn by his charisma, his strength, his justice, his beauty; and how he fought all the corrupt shids who lived at that time and brought all the Dehrus under his banner to establish the sacred Ramshidra. By then darkness would have long set-in and the villagers would have lit fires all around the shrine, giving the epic performance a magic of its own.

The next day was one of wrestling and competing in all kinds of sports for the young men, where they would prove themselves in feats of strength and skill. Those who did well often felt confident enough to propose to one girl or another who had caught their eye during the festivities. Such unions were considered blessed and auspicious — the young women beautified themselves especially so that they could be noticed, the young men often prepared themselves months before so that they could excel in the feats and land themselves a worthy wife.

Another celebration was that in honour of Hivilarti, the great god of the sun, day, goodness, light, life, justice, and of the great open expanses; the one who maintained all life. When this celebration dawned Sugae’s mother, Shammur, would clean the entire house as well as its surroundings. She would have Sugae gather old and unneeded belongings, and the people of Rehna would assemble and light bonfires to burn them by the shrine. Homes were then painted and decorated to give them a festive look. New clothes were worn by all to mark the start of the festival, and so the period leading up to it was often quite demanding for Sugae’s mother and the women of Rehna at large as they busied themselves with weaving, cutting, sewing, embroidering, and quilting new clothes.

The next day saw the women gathered to sing traditional songs and prepare special dishes of rice for the sun god. The offerings included sweet dishes and fruits too — mainly sugarcane, sweet lime, baobab fruit, and sycamore-figs offered in small wicker winnows. The food was cooked without salt, onions, or garlic, and was strictly vegetarian — only the purest food could be offered, and so great care was taken to ensure it was not contaminated by such impure ingredients. After the food was offered to Hivilarti, it was shared with all the villagers who often gathered to eat together.

Many families held reunions on this day — daughters married off to husbands in other villages often returned and distant in-laws gathered. Along with eating, social events were organised to strengthen mutual bonds. The young were expected to go out and accompany their senior relatives, paying respects and seeking blessings. These elders, in turn, were often prepared with gifts for their younger kinsfolk.

While Sugae was quite used to seeing his baabis — old man Sugaenu and grandmother Satya — due to the fact that his mother cared for them diligently and visited them on a daily basis, this gathering was an opportunity to see kinsfolk who were not so frequently present — his bamti Gipaja, who lived in a nearby village with her husband, was one such relative. She was a humorous woman and the heart of any gathering, talking ceaselessly and laughing just as much. She often brought gifts, assuring him that she had saved the very best for her favourite nephew. His mamti Kumari was likewise talkative, though her humour was more cutting and often came at the expense of her soft-spoken husband. The youngest of his babtis, Arajit, invariably took this gathering as an opportunity to petition Sugae’s maabis, old man Vasu and grandmother Sudeshna, for Shammur’s hand in marriage. “It is only fitting that I, her husband’s brother, should marry her.” He would say. But Sugae’s mother, as she had done every year since her husband’s strange disappearance, refused.

“I am happy to live simply and do my duty to my husband’s parents.” She would respond.

“A woman like you is yet young — do you not wish after more children? Soon you will be old, and you will find yourself alone. Numerous children are the delight of old age.”

“When old age comes, I will deal with that. Please, don’t spoil the celebrations with such talk, brother-in-law.” Perhaps if Shammur had no brothers to fend off Arajit’s advances, she would have eventually succumbed to his incessant proposals, but she had two brothers, Baraha and Dharem, who were veterans of the bloodletting and renowned for their wild and fiery dispositions — a flash from either often quietened the dogged suitor. Arajit’s elder brother, Prahaben, was a veteran also and considered Shammur — the widow of a great warrior of the bloodletting fields like his brother Ravuk — far above being the wife of Arajit. The man had approached Shammur himself when Ravuk had first disappeared, but had taken her rejection as final and never sought her again — the stubborn Arajit, however, did not seem to know when to take no for an answer.

On the eve of this third and last day, every household accompanied its matriarch over the hills and into the forested vale where Rehna’s great lake lay. There they made offerings to the setting sun along with prayers. Women and young girls prayed for their brothers’ wellbeing, and brothers paid special tribute to their married sisters by giving gifts as affirmation of their filial love. What followed was then almost a carnival and folk songs were sung throughout the evening, and young men danced around fires and fought with sticks and displayed their agility and quickness.

Sugae had no siblings, however, and he would watch the women as they prayed for their brothers, and the brothers as they gave their sisters gifts and honoured them. From this part of the celebrations he felt distinctly excluded. Shidhig would sit by him and watch. “Eh, you brought a gift again this year?” He laughed, “you think sisters just magically emerge from the lake or pop out of a tree?”

“I- uh,” Sugae coughed, “I’m gonna give it to my mam, that’s close enough.” The younger boy said with a huff.

“Hah, that’s not how it works. Your mam just isn’t your sister.” Shidhig grinned.

“So? If there is anyone who deserves a gift, it’s my mam.”

“Sure sure, but this isn’t an occasion for that. You just need to accept that we don’t have sisters and so we don’t get to give gifts, and no one prays for us. That’s how it is, we just watch. And we get to wrestle!” The bigger boy rose and, punching Sugae lightly on the shoulder, went to mock-fight some of the other boys in preparation for the night's bouts. Sugae sat sullenly and eyed the small wooden figure he had carved for his mother, carefully wrapped in a small bit of mohair he had put aside just for this.

“You brought a gift?” A soft voice reached him, driving him from his reverie. He looked to the side and, bathed in the cascading red light of the setting sun, there stood a little goddess. Sugae stared at her for a few seconds, lost in her endless obsidian eyes.

“Uh- t- this?” He asked, forcefully moving his paralysed mouth. “Well. Yes. I mean. Y'know that I don’t- don’t have a…” he stopped and shut his mouth, then laughed in embarrassment.

“I know it’s probably bad of me…” she said approaching slowly, “but I heard what you were saying to Shidhig.”

“Oh. Y-yes.” He swallowed. “I guess it was just some silly idea.” He looked away, tears suddenly forming in his eyes for no reason he could fathom — perhaps it was more sheer embarrassment than anything else.

“I’ll pray for you.” She said, and he glanced at her in shock. There was a certain anger in her eyes. “I’ll pray for you, Sugaera, so stand up and give me the gift. C’mon.”

“B- but Mahula, you’re not-”

“It doesn’t matter. You shouldn’t have listened to Shidhig. I’ll be your sister, so you need to stand up and be a good brother.”

“Ah, yes.” He stood up, blinking away the tears and looking at her. “Thank you.”

“Don't thank me.” She smiled. "I'm just here for the gift." She chuckled, and her joy was immediately contagious.

“Year on year you sound more and more like uncle Bori — you'll be growing a beard soon, no doubt.” He chortled, causing her to scowl in mock-anger. She was not quite able to stop herself from bursting into a fit of giggles.

“If that happens I'll know who to blame!”

He was quiet for a few moments, content to simply behold her. She cleared her throat after a few moments. “Uh. H- here, this is for you.” He stumbled over his words, extending the mohair-wrapped figure to her.

“Thank you.” She smiled, accepting it from him and gently unwrapping it. Within was an amateurish attempt at a carving of the sun god. She looked at him with a smile, her eyes twinkling in the dying light. “I love it. You should keep practising and give me one next year too.” She wrapped it back up and hid it into the folds of her clothes, then glanced out towards the lake. “I’m going to the lake now — I will pray for you, I promise.” And she walked off at a quick but oddly graceful gait. She glanced back once, to find him staring after her with a broad grin that made her laugh.

The best part of the night was over when the guardsmen of Miha-Rad hailed them. “Great diviner, you have brought the kiwbur!” One cried in surprise.

“No,” the kayhin responded simply, “he just came.” The painted man floated off above their heads, surely to find an isolated space where he could enter into what passed for sleep amongst the sleepless kayhins. The guard looked at Minir-Huda fearfully now that the kayhin was gone. The vampire grinned, flashing teeth.

“What’s this, Aku-Mihid, you’re not afraid of little old me now are you?” He laughed.

“Sh- shut-up, beast! And don’t say my name like you are one of us — you severed all ties when you slew your kin!”

All joviality faded from Minir-Huda’s face. “The gods take what the gods give.” He spoke coldly. “It just so happens that I was the tool they used. Now I am not here to be arguing with you. I will speak with my father.” The guard opened his mouth to protest, but Rima cut across him.

“B- brother of Miha-Rad, your kinsman is here to make his peace and pay for his wrongs. Don’t make it difficult on him.” Aku-Mihid released a frustrated breath and shrugged.

“I’ll let the mugahtir know. But don’t move from here — and definitely don’t go wandering in town.” He turned around and grunted something along the lines of keep an eye on him to the others before moving off. Once he had disappeared, Minir-Huda approached them.

“Well, Aku’s still as stiff as an old woman I see. All’s well in the world.” A few of the guardsmen snickered. “Though mind you, I’ve known some pretty supple old women in my time.” He added with a laugh, and Rima was somewhat surprised to see them quickly descend into hubbub of joking and laughing as though all was truly well with the world. They paid her no heed at all and she felt almost invisible in their presence.

When Aku-Mihid returned, he barked at Minir-Huda to follow him to the town’s kurkolai. Rima hurried after them curiously until they reached the centre of town near the oasis. There, beneath a great tree, benches and stools had been set up in a semicircle and on them all the patriarchs sat assembled. The tall mugahtir, Huda-Anar, came forward and looked at his son, before exhaling wordlessly and gesturing for him to come forth and sit. The vampire walked into the semicircle and greeted the seven patriarchs before descending to his knees on the ground and crossing his legs. “I have come before you, patriarchs.” He spoke. “I tire of life on the barrens and wish to be with my people again.”

“You have done great wrongs, Minir-Huda,” one of the patriarchs said, “not merely against the people of Miha-Rad, but especially against your near of kin: your brother, your uncles, your cousins. You have slain in your few weeks more than we have ever lost to battles or raids—only the fahupki have hurt us more. Why did you do as you did, boy?”

“Look here at this old man,” another of the patriarchs said, pointing to mugahtir Huda-Anar, “you have caused his hair to whiten and you have brought on him more age in these last few weeks than have the seven decades that went afore. Your mother, who was yet the most beautiful woman west of the mountains, now walks back bent, weighed down by your deeds. Have you no shame or conscience?”

“Listen to this too, Minir-Huda: the shedding of blood is a crime against your fellow people and a crime against the gods. We do not kill even our enemies! We go into battle and we fight and give strike for strike, but we know never to kill. That is not our way. We are not some fahupki monsters to kill and slay mindlessly. And here you are, our son born and raised among us and planted in this earth as the corn; here you are killing us and shedding our blood. Neither we nor our forefathers have known a crime like this in Miha-Rad, and we know of no punishment for it.”

“I erred, patriarchs, and I am repentant. Is it not punishment enough that all people across the sands of time will know that it was Minir-Huda who first shed blood in Miha-Rad? And is it not punishment enough that the gods have cursed me never to walk in the light again? My punishment follows me and I am repentant, so do not add pain to my pain. Be forgiving, patriarchs. Here I am, a sinner — cursed with this hungering for blood and the strength by which to fall deeper and deeper into the pit. But here I am repentant before you — I would give this strength to Miha-Rad, I would be the arm that strikes for it and not against it. I only ask your forgiveness and your aid. I do not seek wealth or estates or authority, my heart knows no love for those things; I only seek to be among my people again. My heart is heavy on the barrens, the silence is death and it is a punishment I cannot stand. Be forgiving, patriarchs.”

Rima walked by quietly and leaned against one of the abode walls, watching the whole thing with the slightest of furrowed brows. A patriarch looked over at her with a frown, then whispered something while gesturing in her direction. The mugahtir looked over too when attention was drawn to her, then stood and walked over. “My girl, what are you doing here. This is no gathering for young women, go and sleep now.”

“Wh- what? But I just want to watch. I convinced him to seek peace, I just want to see.” She protested.

“My girl, this is not seemly. It is not a woman’s place — especially not one so young. Had you the years of Huna-Miwe then perhaps you could observe — but look,” he gestured around, “not even she is here. It is best that you go, daughter.”

“I- I don’t understand. Why can’t a woman watch?”

“That is the way of things — women have their duties, and men have their duties, and neither transgress the line between.” The mugahtir said calmly, “now go, go. The sun will soon rise and we must be done with this before then.” With a frown on her face and a pout lining her lips, Rima took one final look at the circle and the vampire sat within it. Sighing loudly, she turned and walked away, and the mugahtir likewise returned to his place and their proceedings continued.

Rima walked around until she found Shala’s home. Sticking her head inside, she found that Shala was lying naked on her bedding, her head on an equally naked Jur-Boh’s arm. Ignoring the sleeping couple, Rima went and sat on the sheets, her brows refusing to unknot. Why was she not allowed to watch? She was not going to say anything! It seemed unfair to her — and after all the effort she and her idda-ta had gone to too. Her roiling thoughts kept her awake until the sun began to rise. When Shala awoke, she found her sat fuming still, her wig-headdress hanging lopsided atop her head.

“Well, someone looks like they had a good night.” The older woman said as she covered up her crotch and chest with garments.

“Well, you need to see better,” Rima responded brusquely, watching how she tied the undergarments with veiled attentiveness.

“What happened? Did things not go as planned with Minir-Huda?” She asked, slipping her long skirt on.

“No no, it all went well. Really well actually — he came back with us to make peace. But then when I wanted to watch the kurkolai the grumpy mugahtir made me go away! Why can’t a woman watch? I wasn’t going to say anything, I just wanted to see!” Shala came over with her poncho in hand and looked down at the irritated girl.

“Well, that’s men’s business. Why would you want to bother with that?” She bent down and busied herself with righting Rima’s headdress.

“Alright, I get it. It’s men’s business. I wasn’t getting involved or anything — I just wanted to see how it went, that’s all. Is that so bad?” Rima huffed and scratched at her ear.

“I mean, we’ll eventually know the outcome whether we watch or not, so why waste your time on that? Come now, let’s make you something to eat, you’re probably starving.” She rose and put her poncho on, throwing a blanket over Jur-Boh on her way out of the abode. She stood at the door and stretched. “Oh, it’s a beautiful day!” Rima held back a tired yawn before getting unsteadily to her feet and rushing after her.

“Are you going to show me how to cook?” She asked excitedly, her prior frustrations forgotten.

“If you stick around long enough you’ll be an expert in no time,” Shala laughed as she gathered some firewood from their stores and got to lighting a fire. “See now, cooking is women’s business — and I for one would rather spend my day cooking than sat listening to all the problems of the town. Can’t make a person happy listening to all those problems, that’s for sure.” Rima thought on that for a few seconds and nodded slightly.

“Hmm, I guess that’s true.” She acknowledged. “Hearing Huna’s problem was enough to make me sad, I can’t imagine what hearing everyone’s issues would do. Far better to be making happy food!” Shala chortled at this.

“I see old Huna’s already getting her quirky ideas into your head. She did the same to me when I first married Jur-Boh. But I guess that’s what any good maiyara would do.” Rima nodded with a smile, then paused, frowned, and looked at Shala.

“Old woman Huna is your maiyara?” She gasped in shock. “Wait... that means Jur-Boh…” she paused and frowned. “But his name’s Jur-Boh, not Jur-Huda...”

“Yeah, the mugahtir is not his father.” Shala noted offhandedly and reared her head back slightly before shouting, “Ulimi! Did you get any cheese yesterday?” The woman in question shouted back from inside a nearby home.

“Yes! The pot’s by the door!”

“Will you be a dear and get it for me, Rima?” Shala asked, and the girl nodded and dashed off to do as told.

“But Minir-Huda looks older than Jur-Boh,” She said as she hurried back with the pot.

“Oh, it’s a long story,” Shala breathed. Rima looked at her expectantly. “Well. The short of it is that the mugahtir and old Huna got into a quarrel. Maybe a few quarrels actually — and in one such quarrel, Huda declared that he was going to find himself a new wife who is less of a harridan. Old Huna did not like that one bit and told him that she’s finding herself a new husband too! Huda laughed it off obviously, but off she went that stubborn old woman. And after months of pushing and insisting, the patriarchs grew tired of her voice and let her marry anew! Heh. When they protested saying, ‘but Huna, you’re not a man to have more than one spouse!’ she scoffed at them and said, ‘no, I’m a hundred men!’ and, well, that settled it apparently. She married the young Boh-Gar and had Jur by him — but it was not a long marriage you know? He grew sick not more than a year later and died, poor soul. Then Huda spoke with her and they made their peace, and so she returned to his bed. And that’s the story of how my big man came to be — it’s like the gods wove it! Fate and all.” Rima was smiling in wonder at the old woman’s audacity and strength. She had beaten those stupid men!

“Fate?” She asked distractedly. “What’s that?”

“Well, you know. Fate. Everything happens because the gods will it — Huna was married and had children, but the gods willed that she would have a son — a legitimate one, mind you! — and that it would be by Boh-Gar and none other. And the craziest things happened so that it would be. There’s no resisting the will of the gods, not even the mugahtir could stop it.” Rima nodded slightly and looked down at how Shala had calmed the fire to embers and was now cooking the ears of corn on it.

“Fate,” she murmured as she stared into the embers while Shala turned the corn. “The gods... my idda-ta never really spoke of them, he mentioned names from time to time. You all seem to know them better. Better than me at least.”

“Of course — the gods made us and deign to know and help us; the least we can do is know and thank them.”

“Tell me about them. Tell me about the one called Ura ʿAliaa first.”

“Ah, Ura ʿAliaa, Mistress of Light, Lady of Day, Eternal Sun; the Life-giver and Great Punisher, She Who Strikes the Shackles of Sleep and pushes the Great Orb of Morn into the Sky. The eldest of the children of Buʿr Iynas the Great Old Mount. Due to the Great Old Mount’s fury with those bears who once wandered the lands west of the mountains he commanded his daughter, who pushes the orb of the sun up by morn and down by dusk, to make it strike the harsher upon this land. The caravanners say that there is no region in all the world more pounded upon by Ura ʿAliaa’s light and heat than this. But it is not because Ura ʿAliaa is cruel mind you — quite the opposite. She does her father’s bidding; it is absolute justice.”

“Why was the Great Old Mount furious? And what are these bears?”

“Ah, bears are great mighty creatures that live off in the furthest north, beyond where anyone but the caravanners has ever wondered — great beings with hair all over their bodies, claws like knives and teeth as long as your hand. Their eyes are like night and their growl is like thunder. And in the olden days before the Great Old Mount Buʿr Iynas came down from Mount Arharo and smote them and cursed them, they walked upright like you and me.” Shala finally removed the corn from the embers and put them in a small pot, handing Rima a bowl with cheese in it and gesturing for her to take one of the steaming ears and eat. She then placed more ears on the hot coals. “He is the great father of all the gods, the earth itself, its rocks and mountains and stones. When the mountain rumbles, that’s his voice. When the fire-mountain smokes and fire fills the heavens, that’s his fury. But for all his bad temper, it is from his earth that all life grows, and it is by his tremendous will that the salt water of the sea is kept from consuming the world. That is Buʿr Iynas.”

“And why’d he smite all those bears?”

“Ah! Yes. Well, that is a long story. You see, it’s all got to do with his youngest daughter Sihri Dra, the lovely one known as Red-clay and who is the Dancing Heart of the Flame and mother of the humenaki, and who sings on the mountain-top and pines even now for her children. You see, when Red-clay was little she climbed up the holy Mount Arharo and peeked over the rim — she wanted to see the sea, you see. But as she looked over the top her glorious and long red feathery hair was whipped all about her and disappeared even beyond the four horizons! And she was dragged from the mountaintop and came here to these redlands. The bears found her, and she lived with them and gave birth to us, the humenaki. But in time the Great Old Mount came to know that his lost daughter had been with the bears all this time, and so he cursed them and took his heartbroken daughter back to the mountain, and from there he took all the gods and went up into the skies, to the Moonmother Qibbar Husnu, mother of the gods and consort of the Great Old Mount.

“Now the Moonmother Qibbar Husnu, the Lady of the Sprawling Heavens, Bringer of Night, Whose Shawl is Darkness and Whose Voice is Peace, is the mistress of the great silvery moon. Her heart is the heart of a mother and so from time to time she sneaks poor Red-clay out of the great abode of the gods up in the sky and helps her down to the mountain-peak where she sits and sings for us her children. But her brother, Tiyraah Qirz, Lord of the Snowy Peaks, sees this and releases his winter birds upon her and makes it so cold that all that can be heard is the shriek of the cold. You will see those winter birds near the mountains when Red-clay descends and winter arrives. She sings through the winter until she can sing no more, and then ascends back to the sky and winter departs. He is a cruel brother, is Tiyraah Qirz — and not even the light of Ura ʿAliaa can warm Red-clay as she shivers, cries, and sings.

“But being so high on Mount Arharo she is close to the stars and so can often hear the voice of her brother Zharuuʿ who is the master of the stars — by their light is she guided back to the abode of the gods when she is too cold to go on. By the light of the stars are we guided in the depths of the badlands too.”

“How is that?” Rima asked, glancing up at the variegated heavens.

“Oh I’m not sure. Jur-Boh knows just how — he learned it from the caravanners. He says that the stars are like a reflection of the entire world, and if you look up you can know exactly where you are and how you can get to where you’re going. It is the god Zharuuʿ who has made it like this so that his sister may never become lost while she is ascending to the skies and descending from them. And like our mother Red-clay, we can be guided by those same stars here on the earth.

“But anyhow, the gods are too many for me to tell you all about them in great detail —” she took Rima’s hand and began counting them out on the girl’s finger, “ there’s Kiʿranuʿjaza, who is the sea east of the mountain and the sea west of it, Miġra Zaʿl — or Ai’jaal — who gives inspiration for song and is the mad god who made the kayhins and caused their blood to be ink, Jinasa who is the great roiling jungle and swamplands east of the mountain, Yaruh Dal who is the lord of lightning and bringer of maize and crops, Mir Thuu who is the visage of death and who sends forth the bodytakers to steal away the dead if they are not buried properly and quickly, Hara Fegas who the caravanners say is the monstrous insect god of the fahupki, Keset Mikrah who is the lily-faced, jealous, vile one of the purple moon and the great antagonist, and Kaʿal Nuhrat of whom the iho kawnnisaj speak.” She put Rima’s hand down and returned to her bowl of corn and cheese. “Ask old woman Huna about them, she knows all the stories.”

Iho kawnnisaj?” Rima asked curiously.

“Ah,” Shala murmured, a frown on her face, “they are strange ones. They dabble with the kawnnisaj in ways that shouldn’t be dabbled with. They make bijrus that follow them around and they bend the world to their words in terrifying ways. They are mighty and even kayhins know to fear them.”

Rima frowned as she nibbled at her ear of corn, a far-off look in her eyes. “My idda-ta never told me about them...” she murmured.

“Ah well, he can’t tell you about everything now can he? Some things you’ll just have to get to know for yourself.”

“Well, yeah. But it would have been nice to be a bit prepared you know?”

“Pshht, life prepares everybody one way or another. Everything is good in its own time.”

“Well, he told me that for sure.” Rima laughed. “I guess it’s true.” They were soon joined by Jur-Boh who ate at his ear of corn ravenously and finished up with them.

“Be a dear and take the rest of these to Ulimi,” Shala said, gesturing to the ten ears left, “the kids will be up soon. Oh, and the pot too!” Rima nodded and picked up the pot, balancing the large bowl on top of it. “No, here like this.” Shala said, picking the bowl up and placing it on Rima’s head. It sat precariously there for a few seconds, and then she brought one of her hands up to keep it in place. “You’ll be able to do it without holding, just need to practice,” Shala reassured her as she got to clearing everything away. Rima hurried off to Ulimi’s abode and placed the pot of cheese back at the entrance.

“Uh, I brought some corn,” she said hesitantly, sticking her head inside.

“Oh! Thank you!” The woman was soon at the door and accepted the bowl from Rima. “And while you’re here, would you take this and bring us some water?” She gestured to an empty clay water jar. “Just follow the others to the well, it won’t be a minute.” Rima picked the great clay jar up and glanced at Ulimi, who came over and placed a round cloth on her head and helped her put the jug on it. “There, that will make it easier to carry.” Piping a word of thanks, Rima walked off at a careful slow gait. She soon spotted a few women with jars on their heads and children at their backs or by them, and so Rima joined them. Some of the children eyed her curiously and she smiled at the cute little things.

“...and we’ll need to give him blood!” One of the women, a babe tied to her chest, was saying.

“Ura ʿAliaa protect us! Give him blood?” One asked.

“Yes, and he will live with us cursed and all.” The one speaking glanced over at Rima. “You went with the kayhin didn’t you? Why did you bring Minir-Huda back? Do you want his curse to afflict us too?”

“Uh. Well, no. He wanted to make peace that’s all.” Rima responded defensively.

“He survives on flesh and blood; how can we possibly make peace with him? Are you sure he didn’t mean he wants to make pieces of us?” She asked mockingly.

“Come now Laha-Nir, you shouldn’t speak to the companion of the kayhin, and our guest, like that.” One of the other women intervened. “Ignore her dear, she’s not been getting enough attention from a man lately that’s what.” Laha-Nir scoffed at this and sped up, dragging a snotting child behind her, who reared his head backwards and stared at them. Rima watched her go, noting how she did not hold onto the jar but still somehow kept it balanced. “You did well to bring Minir-Huda back. Poor Huna may say otherwise but losing another of her boys would have broken her.” Rima smiled and nodded.

“And he isn’t a bad man at all.” Rima added.

“Oh gods, there are many bad men in the world, no doubt,” the woman spoke, “but Minir-Huda is far from being one of them. I for one am glad he’s back and we’re slowly putting this whole thing behind us.”

“So, uh, what was that about giving blood?”

“Oh yes. Well, the patriarchs have accepted Minir-Huda’s peace and have welcomed him back into the town — but he will not inherit and will never be mugahtir, that is his punishment. As his curse means he can only survive on humenaki blood the patriarchs have accepted that every family will take it in turns to provide him with blood. In return, he will be on patrol every night and will help guard against fahupki raids.” Rima smiled.

“That’s great! I knew it would all end well.” The woman glanced at her and shrugged.

“Well. It hasn’t ended yet.” She said. “I’m Fana by the way.” They soon reached the well and Fana showed Rima how to draw water from the well. It was far heavier when she next placed it on her head, and she stumbled sideways into Laha-Nir. The other woman turned on her angrily and pushed her away, causing her to stumble even more, trip, and fall over. Looking up just as the jar came crashing towards her, she gasped and closed her eyes, bracing herself for the inevitable. There was only silence, however. She opened her eyes to find that the jar was hanging above her and the women were all staring wide-eyed.

She quickly grabbed it and rose to her feet. One glance at the others confirmed that she had done something bad, and she muttered a quick apology and hugged the jar to her chest before turning around and hurrying away. Children ran past her, others playing and laughing in the warmth of morning. Men and women were sat by the entrances to abodes and would pause in their conversation to glance at her as she dashed hurriedly by. When she entered Ulimi’s abode, her children were eating corn in the yard and looked at her curiously. With knotted brow, she placed the jar by Ulimi’s door. The older woman thanked her and invited her to come have some corn with them, but she excused herself and went straight to Shala’s abode. “Ah, there you a-” the other woman began, but Rima scurried right past her and disappeared into the abode, muttering something about needing to sleep. “Oh.” Shala frowned and looked after her. Getting up from where she was busy sifting through lentil seeds, she went over to the door and looked inside. The girl was lying down on her bedding, facing the wall. “Did something happen? Are you alright?”

“N-no. Sorry. Just need to clear my head.” She paused for a few seconds, and then turned over and propped her head up, her headdress once more askew. “There was this woman at the well and, for some reason, she just didn’t like me! I don’t understand why. I didn’t do anything to her. She pushed me and made me...” her words drifted off and she turned back to the wall with an agitated sigh. Shala walked over and sat by her, gently prying her headdress off and patting it down.

“Some people are like that, there’s no need to get upset or pay them any mind. Who was it that pushed you?”

“It was this woman called Laha-Nir. She was very good at carrying the water jar, but beyond that she was horrible!”

“Ah, Laha-Nir. She’s probably angry is all — Minir killed her husband you see? She shouldn’t be taking her anger out on you though, it’s no excuse.”

“Oh...” Rima whispered. “I see...”

“Well, you haven’t slept all night so you should get some rest. When you wake up I’m sure old woman Huna will be helping you make one of these,” she raised the headdress. Rima smiled at the idea, then nodded and thanked her. Placing the headdress on the ground beside the bedding, Shala got up and returned to the yard and sifting the lentils.

On Rima’s request, her idda-ta agreed to stay in Miha-Rad for longer than planned so she can learn more about ‘how to be a woman’ from old Huna. The young woman stuck to the older one, learning how to weave a headdress and care for her hair, the intricacies of childcare — for as a grandmother to many Huna did much of that —, as well as some of the mysteries of the delightful art of cooking. She taught her how bathe, how to dress properly and which perfumes to use — and where to find and how to make such perfumes if need be. “These kayhins!” She scoffed in disgust. “It’s a good things their kawnnisaj keeps them smelling nice, else they’d be chased off everywhere! You though, you don’t have that — and you’re a woman! You need to look after your cleanliness.” Though it was little over a month that she stayed, Huna left no aspects of a well-run home’s needs except that she showed Rima how it was done. “And when you’re done running about with this mad kayhin, you come right back here and I will find you a good man — a few of them have their eye on you already,” she smiled mischievously at the younger woman, “you’re of that age now, you need to think seriously about it!” Rima only reddened and looked away.

She did not see Minir-Huda again, although his wife often popped by to check on her mother-in-law, carrying one thing or another for the mugahtir’s household. When her idda-ta and her left Miha-Rad at last, the town came out and gave them a festive farewell, and they piled gifts on Rima — a camel loaded with fabrics, foodstuff, clothes, and jewellery. Many of them were from the men, rather than the women, for the crafty Huna had been going around suggesting toa number of them that there was perhaps a possibility that the young woman was looking to settle in Miha-Rad when her travels were done.

“And what are your thoughts on your fellow people?” He asked her once they were some ways out of the town.

“Oh, there was much good. And like you said, there was bade too. Some things were downright odd and I just didn’t understand them — I still don’t really — but I guess it is what it is. Will there be things like that wherever we go?”

“No doubt.” The kayhin responded simply. “It is what makes mortal beings beautiful, and what makes them ugly too. Perhaps you cannot have one without the other — perhaps all things are only truly known by their opposite. Day is not night; night is note day. Man is not woman; woman is not man. Sound is not silence; silence is not sound. Movement is not stillness; stillness is not movement. And if there is something without an opposite, could we know it? Who knows?” Rima smiled at her idda-ta. She had missed his voice and his presence.

“Yeah,” she murmured with a thoughtful smile, “who knows.”

Incipit Prologus

“And the people raised their hands up and called with a single voice on the One Who Frowns to avenge them, and when he descended from the mountain, to grant them their harvest, how odious was the morn of those who had sown wickedness.”

15-22 AA | Age 0-7

Sugaera shib Ravuk was born in the village of Rehna at a relatively peaceful interval during Dehrthaa’s long, drawn-out civil war. He did not remember all too well his early years; Shammur, his mother, often told him that they were good times. His father, Ravuk, was an impenetrable, brooding man. While never unkind, he seemed fixated on ensuring that Sugae was ready, though the young boy never understood for what. He encouraged the energetic child in his son, let him wrestle with the smaller goats and with the slightly older Shidhig, as well as the other village boys. He often took both Sugae and Shidhig to swim in the lake nestled between Rehna’s hills. On some occasions he even took the two with him when he ventured out to hunt, beyond the hills and onto the great plains of the Khadaar. Beyond that, Sugae’s memories of him were of an unsmiling visage and short, terse commands.

“Get those goats.”

“Yes papa.”

“Give this to the baker.”

“Yes papa.”

“Take that goat to the butcher.”

“Yes papa.”

“Tell your mam I’ll be late tonight.”

Sugae was perhaps seven years old, and they were the last words he heard from his father.

Since by Fortune the strong, brave man is brought down, all join with me in weeping!

22-28 AA | Years 7-13

After his father’s mysterious disappearance, it fell to Sugae — often accompanied by his friend Shidhig — to care for the goats, helping his mother to shear the mohair, clean it, card it, and spin it into yarn. It was arduous and time-consuming, and the weaving process afterwards was equally so. The young boy and his mother worked the loom year-round, weaving yarn into fabric. Perhaps it would have taken even longer if it was merely mother and son at work, but their little village of Rehna was a tight-knit community, and near everyone was tied by blood one way or another. Such was often the case with small villages. So the biannual shearing season saw many of Rehna’s youths help with the shearing, and the women helped with cleaning, carding, and spinning the raw mohair into yarn in preparation for weaving.

For these very reasons, however, mohair did not sell well in Rehna. Indeed, Sugae’s mother often gifted much of the produced fabrics to those families that helped. And so several times a year the boy made the trip, with other Rehnites, to the fortified market-town of Zira to sell the fabric. Alongside the fabric, Shammur and some of the other women worked together to weave intricately designed rugs, scarves, and cloaks, which Sugae likewise took along and sold. It was not rare for one local shid or another, or even passing merchants, to inquire after the women of Rehna, and Shammur in particular, and make specific requests for rugs or clothing items. Shammur often said that her secret was in the plant dyes she used, which gave all the mohair she spun an exceptionally rich colour.

When first Shidhig and Sugae accompanied Bori the butcher into Zira, they were both struck by its size and the great number of people streaming in. It seemed to them that all of mankind were gathered there, though Bori assured them that there were places far grander than this. “Psht, this is just some backwater, pup. Pray that the One Who Frowns never causes you to suffer the sight of anything bigger.”

Despite Bori’s words, Shidhig and Sugae took in the novel wonders of the town with relish. The great town square, the grand mansion of the shid, the armed and armoured guards stood like so many fierce lions with their great black hair, the endlessly colourful clothes of the people, the aromatic (and not so aromatic) smells, and the awing presence of the priests who could sometimes be seen marching in stern, solemn processions through the town. While Rehna had Ahnu the priest, such a display was on an altogether different level of splendour and gravity to the rituals priest Ahnu often conducted back home, and Sugae was in any case more used to the mendicant-ascetics who sometimes passed through Rehna and were much honoured and esteemed by its populace.

As it were, selling mohair here to passing merchants and local shids provided Sugae and his mother with a goodly income — enough to live a relatively good life so that they neither went hungry nor wanted for warmth and clothes in the wet season. Perhaps on two occasions, that the boy could remember, a particularly important-seeming person passed by his stall with all his regalia and, disdainfully flipping the fabric that so many had laboured to produce now this way and now that, would pay an exorbitant amount for it as though coins were of little consequence. It amazed Shidhig and Sugae that anybody could afford to be so flippant with money, but such occasions meant that Sugae’s mother could afford to be generous to some of the village’s more impoverished families, which earned her both great love and considerable envy.

And envy was a potent thing, for it brought about the eye of evil, and so there were also times — and those were far more frequent — when particularly capricious militias would find in Sugae a good target for their sport. Unfortunately for him their sport meant that he and his mother would have to scrape by on the goodness of neighbours and near of kin for a good half-year until the goats grew another coat. Bori would thwack the boy on those occasions and throw an assortment of things-within-reach at him. “Why’d you go off on your own you muttonhead! What am I gonna tell yer mam now eh? How’s she going to care for your baabis and your sorry arse?” And if not the militias, then some other lowlifes — bandits and tribal hillmen stalked the hills of the southern Khadaar, and sometimes incursions by raiders from beyond the great river Muhaddir succeeded in plundering those carrying goods to Zira.

As Sugae grew, Zira did not quite lose its splendour, and both he and Shidhig looked forward to the times they could go. For his part, Shidhig also looked forward to shirking his duties to his mother or Palwijtha the smith, accompanying Sugae into the hills surrounding Rehna to herd the goats instead. The bigger lad claimed he was not shirking his duties at all. “I’m working ain’t I? This goat-herding and shearing business ain’t easy.”

“Your mam works her back off in the fields to earn her part of the harvest, wouldn’t hurt you to help her now and again.” Sugae told him, lying on his back and soaking in the sunlight through closed eyelids as he chewed at a twig. The other boy huffed in annoyance and poked Sugae in the side with his herding stick, causing him to yelp and rollover.

“She knows I hate working in the fields.” Shidhig insisted. “And I don’t trust those elephants they have wondering around there.” Gathering his own stick into his hands, Sugae rose to his knees and thrust it in response.

“Doubt she loves it either.” Sugae released a huff as the other lad thwacked the stick away and began to circle around. “And those elephants are harmless, they help with the ploughing.”

“Yeah, but if I go work in the fields, who will look after the goats? You know I do most of the legwork for your lazy arse.” While it was true that Shidhig did work well, to claim most of the legwork was slightly unfair, and Sugae let him know with a swift sweeping strike that would have taken out his legs had he not leapt back at the last second. The bigger boy was quick on the riposte, bringing a powerful overhead strike down at the kneeling Sugae. But the spry boy ducked and rolled to the side with natural deftness and kicked Shidhig’s leg, causing him to grunt and back away. With some breathing room garnered, Sugae leapt up again and put some distance between them. He eyed Shidhig with his unusual amber, almost yellow, eyes from beneath a canopy of night-time locks and Shidhig eyed him with coal-black eyes of obsidian... and then both dashed in once more.

The sound of sticks striking against each other could be heard for a good while in the solitary hills, until Sugae stopped abruptly and glanced around himself. “The goats!” He cried in a slight panic, and after a few moments of looking about in bewilderment both bolted to find where the animals had wandered to.

“Told you to get a damn herding dog,” Sugae could hear Shidhig muttering and groaning behind him.

“I would, but don’t want to enable your chronic laziness.” He yelled over his shoulder, night-black hair blowing in the breeze, and was rewarded with a small stone to the back of the head.

When one of the goats became too old Sugae would march it off to the village butcher, the cantankerous old Bori, who would talk his ear off about how these goats produced meat that was of abominable quality, how they were not even worth butchering, and that he was in all truth doing Sugae a tremendous favour by slaughtering such horrific goats in the first place.

“Psht, I could slaughter the goats myself! I’m doing you a favour by keeping you in business old man — and because I know my late-pa always liked you and considered you a friend.” Sugae once responded, and found to his surprise that the old man shut up and went about his work without complaint.

“You? Keeping me in business? Pah. Yer a snotty little no-good pup is all you are.” He said, and then muttered something about paying an arm and bloody leg as he counted out a few coppers for the boy. “Hushik, Olkiq, come hang this rotting piece of deadmeat you lazy shits!” He barked. Placing the coins carefully into his pouch, Sugae watched with a wide smile plastered across his face as Bori continued shouting profanities at his sons. When the butcher finally noticed the grinning amber-eyed lad, he began cursing the day he peeped out of his mother’s gaping cavity, and Sugae just about evaded a hoof as he ducked out of the slaughterhouse.

But those days of relative peace, for all the corrupt militias, petty bandits, odd raids, and assortment of projectiles hurled at him, belied the fact that the realm was still at war. And Sugae’s little old village of Rehna would soon feel that once more.

When the sun was highest in the sky and beat down upon the badlands like a great unceasing deluge of heat, the kayhin hovered above the small oasis townof Miha-Rad and began a song that wove the sunrays into blistering sunlight ink. The liquid gleamed as it was sung into little, fist-sized pots of clay that were then stoppered shut, and the thirty or so inkpots were placed into a reed basket which the old kayhin put over his shoulder as he and Rima-Tinur left the town to search for the kiwbur.

The heat hammered down on them and Rima was glad that old woman Huna had given her one of those wig-headdresses. “It will do you until I can sit you down and show you how to make your own.” She had assured her, “no self-respecting woman would keep wearing just any old yeh-to,” she had added with an almost-offended scowl. Somehow Rima suspected that it was not so much the idea of wearing an ill-fitting headdress that inspired her irritation. It was surely taxing on the heart to watch a kayhin making preparations for the... exorcising of her son. Rima needed no explanations to understand what that meant.

“Is there no way to fix this without doing that, idda-ta?” She asked as they left the town and its people behind them and wandered out into the desert. Jur-Boh and several other patrolmen had told them that Minir-Huda dwelled in cave system to the north, seeking shelter there during the day, and so that was where they were headed.

“If the dead can be returned to life, perhaps then a kiwbur can be made back into a humenak being.” The kayhin hummed lowly.

“Does that mean... you’re going to kill him?” Silence followed her words as they continued walking at speed.

“Did he not kill his brother?” The kayhin asked her, at which Rima frowned and nodded, thumbing at her bone staff. “Does he not yet prey upon the people here?” Rima released a tense breath and nodded again. “Is it not so that he can only endure by hunting down those who not so long ago were his blood and kin?”

“Y- yes.” The witch whispered sullenly.

“Then what other way is there of ridding these people of their plight?”

“Maybe we can reason with him. Maybe... I don’t know. There must be some way to show him that what he is doing is wrong. There must be some way of showing him that this kind of thing — this violence and killing and all this... this pain — is unnecessary and meaningless.”

“And do you believe one who slays his kin can be reasoned with?” The kayhin questioned her. The witch looked ahead and thought back to old Huna’s words on greed.

“Can greed not be reasoned with? Can it not be shown that it is a terrible thing? Terrible for the one who bears it and terrible for all others too? Surely he sees it as it is now — now that he has lost everything.” She glanced at the kayhin.

“Perhaps it can be reasoned with.” The kayhin intoned simply. “We will not know until we try.” Rima eyes brightened and a smile lit up her face. She came up by his side, locking an arm into his as Huna had shown her the night before, and was in all ways pleased. “But do not be sad if things do not happen as you like, my dear. It is the way of the world.” She pursed her lips regretfully and nodded in but said no more.

Soon enough the crimson sands and cacti gave way to blood-red rock. Rocky hills and buttes emerged from the red sands. The bare feet of any other peoples would have blistered and cooked on the scorching ground, but the soles of their feet were made thick by the gods just so they could walk the deserts and climb the mountains without fear of harm. Why, had a bed of thorny cacti laid itself out before them as far as the eye could see their hardened feet would carry them safely across.

Amongst the buttes and rocky outcroppings small cave entrances could be seen and the song that rang out from them was neither warm nor comforting but whispered of endless miles and worlds entire beneath the surface of the earth. Rima was not unfamiliar with such caves — for she had grown climbing mountains and navigating their dark, endless interiors. “The caves are as great as the deserts,” the kayhin had told her, “and if you go wandering you may lose yourself and find you are worlds away. Have patience; you will wander plenty when you are ready.” And though she was a curious child, she had been tempered well by her guardian.

The kayhin paused now and again as they wove their way over the exposed bedrock and buttes, turning his head here and there as though listening to something before changing direction ever so slightly and continuing. An hour or so of this passed until they came before a gaping crevice at the base of a great butte, and the kayhin stood listening for a few moments. Here and there the red rock betrayed a red stain, little trails, marks where claws had been dragged through stone. “He is in there?” Rima asked, and her idda-ta nodded. “Are we going in?” She questioned, and the kayhin nodded again. He reached into the basket of clay inkpots and picked one out, and the inks emerged with a whisper and he laced it on her face and neck and hands before doing the same to himself, smearing some across his naked chest, back, and legs also.

“Minir-Huda, we have come to make peace with you.” The kayhin chanted aloud, “so come forth into the mountain-shade and let us speak.” Rima gripped her staff tightly and watched the great crevice for what felt like long minutes. She glanced at her idda-ta, but he was not moving. Then something stirred in the darkness and tenebrous tendrils sloughed from Minir-Huda as he emerged into the semi-darkness of the cave entrance, revealing unnaturally toned muscle, shadowed eyes, and angular features.

Like darkness come into the world
With eyes of night and claws unfurled

“I have no quarrel with you, kayhin. Take your peace and go elsewhere.” Minir-Huda growled, his lips barely moving.

“And does this all please you, my son? The blood of your kinsmen is on your hands.” The kayhin chanted.

“Of course it doesn’t please me!” The kiwbur growled, the darkness beneath his brows deepening. “But it is done. And I only prey on those whose hubris matches the mountains. I am the punishment of the gods — upon myself, first and foremost.”

“Why did you kill your own brother?” Rima suddenly blurted, causing the vampire to turn his head towards her. “Why would you break your mother’s heart like that?” Minir-Huda clenched his fists and smashed the stone-headed hammer he held against the rock wall to his side.

“My brother was arrogant, gloating, cruel. He was not worthy of succeeding my father — may his years be many and joyous. None were safe from his scheming, no woman secure from his roaming hands and eyes. Such as he do not belong among the living, let alone in positions of authority. I saved my people and would have been worthy of leading them. But the justice of the gods is blind, and I accept my punishment with a contented, if heavy, heart.”

“Have you made yourself a god, slaying whom you please and sparing whom you please?” The kayhin asked. “Have you opened up the hearts of men and peered within to know who is good and to know who is not?”

“Spare me your moralising, kayhin, for I have accepted my punishment and have no need for you to drive a spear into the open wound.”

“You were punished for the killing of your brother, but you have not wearied of killing or repented yet. Will you not cease this?”

“So long as vultures prey upon Miha-Rad, I shall not cease.” Minir-Huda’s nostrils flared as he made his unfaltering declaration.

“Will you not do it for your father? Will you not do it for your mother? You have brought difficulty and shame to your near of kin and they suffer even now.” The kayhin intoned. Minir-Huda ground his teeth and snarled, throwing something he had kept hidden away in the darkness towards them. Rima watched it roll to the kayhin’s feet and her eyes widened in horror when what it was dawned on her. The eyes were gored, the skin bloody, the mouth contorted and neck torn and abused, but there was no doubting that it was a humenaki head, perhaps his latest victim.

“I will not grow weary of death until death, at last, grows weary and comes for me.” The vampire hissed.

“You’re... you’re evil!” Rima cried, tears in her eyes. “You have left all the good that life affords and turned to killing and causing conflict and birthing pain!” The world around her shook, the earth trembled. “And you’re not even remorseful!” She screamed, sending a great shockwave towards the vampire, who ducked away and gripped his hammer. The voice of the kayhin tore through Rima-Tinrur’s anger.

“Calm yourself, my dear, and remember the rule of companionship.” She clenched her fists and knitted her brows, and with difficulty brought calmness to herself. The vampire rose, his dark eyes shifting from them to the distant setting sun as it disappeared at last beyond the horizon.

“You come to my home and throw falsehoods and lies at me, and you attack me at my door. You have torn the peace you professed.” He stood tall, flexing his muscles and revealing the fangs kept hidden behind his lips. “I have no quarrel with those who profess to commune with the gods, but you have now quarrelled with me!” And with that, he exploded from his place and was suddenly above them, hammer drawn back over his head. With a monumental heave and roar, he brought it crashing down upon the kayhin, who raised his arms above his head protectively. Just before the stone hammer landed, however, it came to a sudden halt — as though crashing against a boulder.

The vampire landed just as Rima shoved him in the stomach with the butt of her spear. He looked at her with a raised eyebrow, before grabbing the spear from her hands with unnatural speed and power and skewering her right through the stomach. Her eyes widened in shock and a gasp spurted from her lips as she stumbled back in pain and confusion. With that dealt with, Minir-Huda turned back to the kayhin, whose usually deadpan face was marred by knotted brows. He reached into the basket at his side and drew two inkpots, launching them both at the vampire in one motion. With a scoff, Minir-Huda smashed them both with a swing of his hammer, and his eyes widened as sun ink splayed out. He dropped the hammer and immediately disappeared, distancing himself from the lethal substance.

“Sunlight,” he hissed, giving the kayhin a wary look. Without response, the naked kayhin — dripping with ink and paint — raised his arms. The basket at his side exploded as a great deluge of ink emerged and flared all about him as though they were the tendrils of the sun. One such tendril snaked out towards Minir at speed, but the vampire was quicker and rapidly retreated towards the cave entrance and disappeared beyond. With the monster gone, the kayhin leapt on a breeze and was immediately by Rima’s side, whispering to the staff and bloody wound.

“Does it hurt?” He hummed. She looked at him, sweat on her brow.

“Th- there is no pain.” She whispered stoically. The knot in the kayhin’s brow unravelled and he almost smiled.

“That is good.” He murmured. He took a deep breath and paused, and then began to whisper a singing prayer to the wound. “I call on you, Ura ʿAliaa, who is the balm of wounds, to lend my voice a healing word that’s with your will attuned. The blood is surging outwards now, the flesh lies broken by, and if your favour does not fall then watch her spirit fly. She is a girl, great sunlit god, her life beneath the sun... is not yet over nor are her years of wandering done. So bless her heart and kiss her flesh and let her rise anew – I of myself can do nothing; such power comes from you.” And as he sang the flesh began to fold on itself, the blood to wander back, and all that remained to speak of the wound was the hole in the poncho — there were not even bloodstains left.

With that, the kayhin rose and made his way towards the cave entrance. “It may be better for you to wait out here, my dear.” He said as Rima came up behind him, her staff in hand.

“No, I want to come with you. I will keep calm, I promise. And I won’t use any kawnnisaj.” She insisted.

“Very well.” And placing the sun ink before him to light the way he stepped inside, and Rima followed. Things were always more blurred in the dark, but beyond that it was no more difficult than seeing in the light. The kayhin seemed to know exactly where he was going as they descended further and further into the earth. The trickle of water could be heard, far off droplets echoing through the winding routes of the caverns. Insects and worms writhed beneath their feet, and their song of darkness rose muffled in this their earthy shelter against the sun. But the sun had come into the darkness, and it was all they could now do to escape.

Eventually the cavern route opened up into a great chamber at the heart of which was a small pool of crystal-clear water. Stalagmites rose from the ground, stalactites hung above, and by one pillar-like stalagmite stood Minir-Huda. He glanced over with a frown, before leaping across the ground towards them. He heaved a rock without pausing and flung it right at Rima, but tendrils of sun ink shot forth and plucked the flying thing out of the air, setting it safely on the ground. The ink itself was no longer quite as bright as it had been outside and was clearly starting to lose some of its heat. The coolness and darkness of the cave were causing it to lose its qualities at speed — for ink was not meant for this kind of usage and usually held its properties for far longer when kept out of adverse environments or set to something.

Inky tendrils whipped out at the vampire, closely followed by swirling orbs that dashed at him. Minir-Huda leapt behind stalagmites or dodged the lethal strikes with inhumenaki speed. His clawed fingers ripped through rock and sent projectiles flying at Rima and the kayhin, who slammed them away in his swiftly decreasing sunlight ink. Minir-Huda seemed to see this, and came out into the open, dodging more of the ink as he swiftly leapt towards the kayhin, the glint of death dancing in his eyes. At the last moment, however, he changed direction unnaturally and his fingers hooked into Rima’s clothing — avoiding her ink-laced neck. She was torn from her feet as the beast of flowing muscle dashed away without stopping and found shelter from the ink behind a rock. The girl struggled in his grip and attempted to tear herself away, but he held her down and remained alert, listening for the whistling of ink towards him.

After a few seconds, he realised that the girl had stopped struggling, and he glanced down just in time to see her bring her spear to bear and strike out towards his face. Twisting his head away with a grunt meant the spear missed it but tore through the right side of his neck. He glared down at her for a few seconds, and with one movement caught the spear in his mouth and tore it apart. He grabbed the useless stalk left in her hand and smacked her across the face with it, eliciting a shocked gasp and causing blood to burst from her cheek, before launching it at the kayhin and leaping behind another stalagmite, his blood and her blood dripping everywhere and sun ink raining all around.

He nestled himself in a small crevice, his nostrils flared and eyes on her odd iridescent blood. She raised her hand to grab his face, and he immediately detected the sun ink there. With a lazy movement he grabbed her by the wrist and placed it against the bedrock above, then hooked her other hand and settled it alongside the other. Bringing his mouth to her cheek, he noted the ink interlaced with blood there, and roughly wiped the offensive stuff away with the fabric of her poncho. Before he could do more, however, the kayhin’s whispers reached him from close by. A shadow fell on them and Minir-Huda looked up to find the kayhin floating above, an arrow of sunlight hanging before him. There were a few silent seconds, and then it tore towards the vampire at near-point blank range. Yet with tremendous agility and strength the beast rolled over and brought the girl between him and the arrow, and it splattered harmlessly against her back.

The kayhin seemed unfazed however, and a deep chant emanated slowly from his mouth. The cavern shook from its weight, the rocks trembled, and Minir-Huda felt his body stiffen and move against his will. Before he could comprehend what was happening, his body left the ground — the girl was torn from him, his grip on her forcibly relaxed by the kayhin’s strange magic. He levitated before the kayhin, scowling furiously at the expressionless painted man and striking out at him with audible grunts. But he was simply too far. The kayhin reached into his basket and emerged with an inkpot. Minir-Huda’s scowl deepened when he saw it, and he ground his teeth in fury. “No!” He barked. “I’ll not die here kayhin!”

“All things are fated towards termination.” The impassive kayhin chanted. The vampire’s struggling increased, his screams of frustration echoing through the chamber until his eyes fell upon the girl who was staring at him with pity and anger. His eyes snapped to the fingers of the kayhin as he removed the stopper and drew the lethal ink out.

“W-wait. I...” he glanced back at the girl. “I will repent. I won’t kill anymore. I will make peace.” The naked kayhin did not stop drawing the ink from the clay vessel and seemed to pay the words no heed, so the vampire directed his words at the girl. “I only wanted to make the world a better place. I wanted to rid it of evil, not bring about evil. But I can see that I was wrong. I was blinded by my anger. You must believe me — I will make amends.” He looked desperately at the now approaching ink, and shrunk back. “No, please! Tell him! Tell him to stop! I will make peace like you wanted — tell him!”

The girl looked to the kayhin uncertainly. “I- idda-ta,” she whispered hoarsely. He did not look at her, but the sun ink ceased moving towards the vampire.

“His song unveils the lie, my dear. You must listen closely.” The kayhin crooned. She glanced at the vampire.

“Even so, I want to change. I don’t want to be a killer — I never wanted to be.” The vampire pleaded, glancing between the two of them.

“You promise to kill people no more?” The girl asked him.

“Of course,” he nodded.

“The gods hear all, Minir-Huda. Those who are to their oaths untrue earn ire over ire.” And with that he was set down and released from the song’s grip. The kayhin turned away without a word and floated off. The girl looked at Minir-Huda with a slight frown, and the muscled humenaki looked at her. After a few moments, he approached and extended a hand to her face — she stiffened and took a wary step back, but he hushed her calmingly and traced the breakage in skin across her face. He brought her shimmering blood close and inspected it, sniffed at it, then tasted it. He frowned, retched, then spat it out.

“Tastes divine. Reeks of death and kawnnisaj.” He said. “Why didn’t you fight back? You’re no normal girl if that’s what flows through you.” She glanced behind her, where her idda-ta had disappeared back into the passageway they had emerged from.

“I wish you peace, Minir-Huda.” She said, ignoring his question. With that she turned away and went scrambling after the kayhin.

“Wait. Girl, woman, whatever you are. Tell my father and the other patriarchs that I wish to speak with them and make my peace.” She turned back to him, surprise on her face.

“You weren’t lying?”

“Well, not entirely. And now... not at all. I do not regret killing Anar-Huda — my brother was evil, not I. But I have no wish to be away from my people and shunned from them. I will make my peace, whatever the cost.”

“Then come,” she smiled and ran back to him, taking him by the hand and pulling him behind her.

“Gods, you’re a weird one.” He muttered but did not resist.

KhoSauce Productions Ltd. presents:
The Uirda

“When in the days of the black fog winter ruled, my children, there were no Uirda - you Yaka, you Rayi, you Kaltalai, you Raikal, you Niccai, you Aippak, you Tumanta. There was no earth. There was no sky. The winter ruling in the black fog ate the world.” The shaman, face whitened with crushed chalk, goatskin hide covering his chest and kilt his nethers, tapped a goatskin drum with his forefingers. “And in time the Great Mountain saw that this was an evil state, and it rose - that great self-created stone - and tore fog and winter alike. What did it do, my children?” The shaman tapped the drum again and looked at the many gathered youths of the seven Uirda clans expectantly.

“It tore fog and winter alike, aipikka.” They recited. The shaman nodded and continued.

The heavens listen when the mountain speaks

“The mountain rose, the rock was formed, it was the heart of the world. Atop it earth grew, a soft warm heart against winter’s rage. On that grass and trees; then all the animals. Then the goat. Then we, the Uirda; you Yaka, you Rayi, you Kaltalai, you Raikal, you Niccai, you Aippak, you Tumanta. The Yaka from the mountain peak where winter is most severe, and so Yaka skin is as snow, eyes as ice - but the heart is a passionate flame. From the sunrise on the plains, the Rayi, and so Rayi skin is golden, eyes amber. From the dusk on the mountain, the Raikal, and so is their skin as gathering night and their eyes as coals; and when the cold is greatest it is by the flame-heart of the Raikal that the cold one may kneel. From the rock of the moons, and their light, the Niccai; and so the skin is fair and the eye as lilac. From the song of the stone were the Aippak born, and that is why we hear best the mountain’s thrum and command, and that is why the great-masked ones of the world-voice, them who are draug, sing with us. Then from the blood and horn of the great mountain goat were the Tumanta, and that is why their herds are greatest; they know the heart and way of the goat.” The shaman spun slowly and walked among the youths as he recited the great origin of their people. Now and then he stopped and raised the drum high and loosed a wail before spinning and continuing, his feet striking the earth rhythmically with the drum.

The youths, all young boys fresh from their tenth winter, and so grown men, watched him pass. “Gather your herding sticks, my children, you are men now. Gather your herding sticks, my children, gather your spears, gather your hides and gather the herds. The sun awakens now; and the flesh of youths is strong and craves the mountain's heights and crashing waves. You have ventured out with your old man before, but come is the time to relieve your great-father from the toils and burdens of the mountain’s peak, come is the time my children. The mountain greets you and you are babes, and when next you descend you will be men.” And so saying, the shaman passed the gathered youths and spun and drummed his way towards the adults stood far behind, and as he did the youths all rose and followed. And the shaman danced and spun his way passed the men - all old and white of beard, for they were all grandfathers and these the grandchildren who would now take over the summer herding in the mountains on their behalf.

Bones may wither with great age, but young forever stands the sage

The old men, long staffs in hand - some sharpened or boasting boneheads -, greeted their children and handed over the sticks. “The land is good, my children, know that well,” chanted the shaman as he continued spinning and walking, “and in the summer youths will roam; so winter's bite will bring them home. Round the fire they will sing with glee when the draug comes from the sea; for the long and dark winter nights will bring dances and song's delights.”


How long they had dwelt betwixt the mountains and the sea no one could say; but the Uirda knew that they were born of the mountain clay and had been here from the dawn of the earth’s first day. And they knew of no other people but themselves - and the earth was great and rolled ever onward, perhaps the Mountain had deemed to create none but them, or perhaps it had created other than them. That only the god knew, and the beautiful draug of beautiful song who sang of people near and far, across the waters and in the waters. And the Uirda beheld the songs with wonder and contentment - they never sought out those far people. The tales awoke the imagination, and the imagination inspired the tongue to great epical feats on long wintry nights when the draug was gone.

But they could not hope to forever stand alone in the world. One summer there were none, and the next they streamed from every hill and vale, fearful and dishevelled, dressed strangely. The Uirda could not understand them, but watched them as they settled in clumsy camps, raised their voices against one another, sometimes attacked each other individually or in groups. Some of them hunted, some could not. Some attempted to steal Uirda goats. The youths scared those thieves off, but word spread and the Uirda became wary. Yet watching them, the Uirda could see that when winter came many would die - some already were. And they spoke to the shaman, and he communed with the Mountain, and the great god bid them open their hearts and homes to these strangers.

“But know this, you passionate youths: your hearts are fair prey to their womenfolk; but beware you maidens of the Uirda and tie well your hearts, for their menfolk are not made lawful to you.” And so it was; the Uirda helped the yortbraho, gave their menfolk of their herds and showed them the mountain ways, showed them to dig homes into the earth so that soon they had a village all their own. They married of their womenfolk and brought them into their homes where they quickly learned all the duties of the good wife; while the youths herded in the summer the women cared for the home and saw to the needs of the greatparents who, having toiled in youth and the middle-years, now rested, as was well-deserved, and nurtured their ties with their grandchildren and taught them Uirda ways and Uirda laws.

The god of life lies in the wife

And then, one day, the yortbraho who came were not seeking shelter. It began with an elk, not too unlike those observed by the braves who dared venture beyond the mountain passes and witness the rolling hills below; atop it sat a woman in leather and fur, intermittently speckled with sheets and scales of glistening stone, or was it a rare sort of animal skin, catching the sun in its golden hue? She seemed genuinely surprised, breath-taken by the fact that the Uirda had made these mountains their home, as though she hadn’t even imagined the possibility. Behind her followed both menfolk and womenfolk, dressed much in the way she was, though the odd scales could only be seen on one or two of them - the rest stuck to layers of fur to keep out the cold of the mountain and season. Their language was both a work of music and a grind of stone, coarse consonants and broad vowels dancing together to sound of melodic tonal shifts, and they pointed at the Uirda approaching them and exchanged looks and gasps.

The youths of the Uirda were confident and brave, curiosity carried them and they stood with bone spears in hand and dogs at their feet - unafraid of these newcomers.

In the distance, however, those yortbraho who had come many winters before saw the elkriders and gave cries of surprise and fear before turning and running away. That was the first sign to those brave youths that something was amiss, and they frowned to one another and whispered, and when the elkriders made to ride past them they shouted and ran about them and signalled for them to stop, their dogs barking and growling in warning. The elkriders pulled at the primitive reins commanding the animals, footmen rushing forth with glistening, yet quite lumpy weapons in hand, but their commander obviously barked for them not to escalate the situation. She regarded the youths who had stopped them, and then raised her gaze to scowl at those who had come all those winters ago. She shouted threateningly and pointed after them, the melody of the language suddenly as stiff and brutal as a march. One of the first yortbraho squealed and shouted in the Uirda language: “NO! Don’t let them take us! They’re going to take us away! Help us! Please!” Some others, keeping their distance, wept pleadingly in the language of the elkriders, at which some of them scoffed mockingly and retorted even harder than before.

In the summer youths will roam; winter's bite will bring them home

The youths frowned at one another, some giving the shouting elkrider a wary look. A few turned from the strangers and shouted to the yortbraho with gestures leaving no space for doubt as to their meaning: you go now. After a few moments of tense staring at the elkriders, the band of youths turned and walked away with a confident slow gait, spears over their shoulders, allowing the yortbraho to run off. A few trailed behind and others walked ahead, and now and then one of them glanced behind at the elkriders as if to say we see you, but seemed to have little interest in them beyond that. The commander pursed her lips and frowned as though rethinking her strategy. She dismounted, a fellow warrior coming over to take her reins and golden helmet, letting her unleash her sweaty, auburn hair. She calmly offered her band a few sentences and then approached the Uirda youth, gloved hands raised in peace. Carefully, she moved one of them to her chest, patting it gently, yet rapidly, to draw attention. She said a word, then repeated it as she studied the surrounding faces to gauge their understanding. Until she could spot the flash of realisation in every one of said eyes, she spoke the word over and over.


The youths murmured to each other, gesturing to her and repeating the word. One of them, perhaps particularly quick, stepped over and patted her on the shoulder. Her guard tensed up, but she waved them away, offering the lad a greeting nod. “Matrik,” he assured her, before turning about and gesturing for her to follow. The youths muttered amongst each other, some still confused - Matrik?; hil hil, Matriks!, eeehh, Mechriks? - and moved on ahead. They appeared to be arguing, but the one who had spoken to Materix seemed to assure them eventually. He trailed behind, his dog panting at his feet, and looked back at her, stopping and gesturing for her to follow once again. He pointed further off and spoke insistently while looking back at her, and then started walking again. She nodded slowly in quiet understanding, took a few hesitant steps, and then turned to face her following again, barking at them what was presumably more orders, for after a bit of back and forth between her and some of the others dressed in golden scales, they took a few paces back and rolled out furs to sit on in the mountain snow. There, they waited, though not all seemed equally happy about it, particularly not the scaled. The commander then turned back to the lad and kept following.

The youths seemed in no hurry, continuing at their lazy gait. They laughed amongst each other, and when they passed by a lake or stream they stopped for some minutes while some took a drink or just waded in for the fun of it, while others yet leaned on their spears and watched the others idly. The youth who had spoken to Materix remained near her, however, smiling or chortling in her direction whenever his companions wandered from their route for whatever reason. At one point a dog was heard barking in the distance and a few of the youths perked up before breaking off from the others and sprinting away towards the sound. Materix’s youth clicked his tongue and flicked his wrist at them, signing for Materix to follow him and walking at a quicker pace. He shouted to one of the others, who went running ahead and soon disappeared beyond the crest of a near hill.

When they arrived at what appeared to be their destination, the youth who had run ahead was there, along with a number of older men and a few recognisably yortbraho women. A strangely clad man with a painted face stepped forth as Materix approached with her youth. The shaman said something to one of the women, who came up beside him and looked uncertainly at Materix. The youth greeted the shaman respectfully and said a few words before gesturing to the newcomer and loudly declaring, “Matrik.” The shaman, for his part, surveyed the stranger for a few moments before turning and speaking to the yortbraho woman he had called on. After listening to the words of the shaman, she turned to Materix.

“Uh. This is the aipikka Muir Aipik, the mountain-shaman of the mountain clans, and these here are some of the greatfathers of the mountain clans. They greet you and bid you welcome and, uh, assure you and those with you that you will be provided for and afforded goats that you may live and prosper like everyone else.”

Materix eyed the translator curiously, then offered her respect to the shaman by placing a palm over her heartspace and taking a knee. She spoke for the translator to convey: “In the sight of the Eight and the Seven, I, Materix of Dûna, daughter of Boudicca, True Daughter of the Dûna, of clan Metsep of the Gaardskarl tribe, offer my greetings to the hainpirke Mirh Hainpirk. May we exchange bread and salt in siblinghood--” She then looked around as though breaking out of a trance of decade long practice and performance, a clear cultural schism present on her face. She cleared her throat. “May our exchange be one of good siblinghood, I mean.”

The translator’s eyes seemed to light up when she heard Boudicca’s name, though some of the other yortbraho women further behind gave Materix wary looks. The shaman nodded sagely as the words spoken were translated, and then made a slow, enunciated response, betraying no small degree of experience when it came to ceremonious speaking. “The aipikka wishes it to be known that he salutes the Eight and the Seven in the name of the Great Mountain, the great self-created stone, and salutes also Boudicca and all her kin of the Metsep clan, and the Gaardskarl people. A ram will be slaughtered in your honour, and the honour of the Gaardskarls.” She paused as the youth who had led Materix whispered to the shaman, who closed his eyes and nodded before speaking again. The translator then continued: “He is told that some of the mountain people who are newly arrived from your lands showed fear on seeing you, and that there was a less-than-happy exchange. Aipikka Muir Aipik wishes you to assure him that there is no acrimony between you and those of the yortbraho clan.”

Materix pursed her lips. “Forgive my ignorance, but what is yortbraho?”

“Ah, apologies théin Materix; the mountain clans are seven, and they refer to us who came from the Dûnlands and settled among them as the yortbraho, the clan of those who came later.” The woman clarified.

Materix frowned at the translator and eyed the yortbraho women in the back. She remained kneeling, but a quiet growl threatened to banish the softness in her voice and replace it with the coarseness of old hatred. However, self-control managed to limit the tonal shift to a mere increase in sternness. “You don’t say… Then, with respect, please inform the great and wise hainpirka that me and my band recognised multiple faces among these people, a few of whom are in the back there,” she pointed at the wary women, “and we did so because they are criminals on the run, guilty of the darkest treason and blasphemy in the eyes of gods and people in this world and the Helgensmund.”

The translator winced at the words and turned back to the shaman and spoke softly. The shaman considered these words for a few moments, and then spoke again. “He says,” the woman translated, “that neither he nor the people of the mountains know what drives the southern people to fight, and he says also that when the yortbraho first came they fought amongst each other too. The slaughter of goats and the sharing of good meat can drive away old hatreds and feuds, and criminals who repent are criminals no more if in repentance they are sincere. He bears witness that the yortbraho have repented sincerely and have been peacemakers and doers of good for many winters now.”

The commander rose to her feet, arms crossing firmly over her chest. “Tell the shaman, once more with all due respect, that -they- have committed crimes that cannot be repented, regardless of their recent deeds. As per the law of Dlíbók, our codex of justice, they are to be brought back to Ha-Dûna to stand trial and be judged under the sights of Fìrinn, Taeg Eit, Reiya and Selesta - the gods’ punishment alone can absolve their souls of their grievous sins.”

When these words were translated, the shaman stepped forth and there was a smile on his face though his eyes were as stone. He spoke to the théin slowly and without faltering, each word immovable. When the translator spoke, it sounded considerably less impressive. “Uh, he says that. Well,” she paused and frowned in thought, “he says that the laws of Ha-Dûna and of its Eight and Seven gods are due all respect, but that out here in the shade of the Mountain, and along the highland paths, the law is that of the Great Mount. They who seek protection in the shade of the great earthen god have found it, and the Mountain’s protection is as rock to those who keep to its laws and ways. The yortbraho have been true and so they shall not be cast from the great shade of the Mountain.” She paused and the shaman spoke a few last words, which seemed to surprise the translator. “He also says that the yortbraho are as one with the mountain clans, our blood has intermingled and we have sired goodly progeny of one another. If you are to take one of them while they are true to the Mountain, then you must of certainty come up against us all - and that would be folly, for the sea does not come to the mountain.”

Materix drew a slow breath and backed away a pace. Swallowing, she eyed the faces staring her down around the clearing and then slowly lifted her hands. “I must beg your forgiveness - the journey has been long and arduous, and my mind is not at its best right now. If I may ask that my band may be allowed to camp here for the night, and that we may share our tales with one another over ale and… Over meat and milk, then we would be most grateful.”

After listening to the translation, the shaman turn to the white-haired greatfathers and spoke a few words, and a number of youths went scrambling off at the gruff commands of their elders, drawing knives of stone as they ran off. “That is good,” the translator said to Materix, “there will be meat and milk, and water pure and sacred from the highest mountain springs.” The youth who had brought Materix stepped forth at a gesture from the shaman, who spoke a few brief words. “Young Thum Yakui here will guide you back to your band.”

Materix made hard eyes at the other yortbraho for a split second, but quickly shifted back to the shaman again and touched her heart. “I thank you, on my bands’ behalf and my own.”

When the théin and her band arrived later, they found that a number of goats had already been slaughtered and were being roasted on rudimentary spits and that there were now considerably more of the mountain people about - women, men, and children tarried here and there. Women laughed as they watched the fires, now and again smacking a foolish child for getting too close to the fire; some held babes to their bosoms as they added wood to the flames or chatted with their fellow clanswomen. The men idled about, watching the strangers curiously - and the youths in particular approached the odd elks and looking them up and down or stroking them. Now and then one of them went scrambling when an older woman shouted at him to go do something; but in all other ways the people here seemed relaxed and at perfect ease. Whatever concerns and tribulations life held seemed to be carried on their collective shoulders with no one left to bear their burdens alone, and so they all seemed the happier.

When the food was ready, it was laid out before the guests on goatskin hides, and communal wooden beakers full of water or milk were brought forth along with small empty bowls for scooping from them. The shaman sat opposite the théin, grey-bearded greatfathers around him, and gestured for her and her companions to eat with a smile. One of the greatfathers took an empty horn from his side and scooped some water, supping at it in small amounts and watching the strangers.

The foreigners made no self-driven effort to mingle with their hosts, with the exception of their leader and two others who wore very distinct clothing compared to their colleagues, leather and furs reduced to simple woolen robes of a whitish beige, kept warm in the mountains with the help on much more colourful woolen scarfs that seemed more like capes. When the children touched them and asked what they were called, the wearers, upon understanding their inquiry, answered, “plaithe”. These two were particularly friendly, telling what could be presumed to be stories in their language, complete with sketches on bark and stone drawn with charcoal from the fires. Expert performance skills enchanted the listening children even if not a single word came across, the stories carried by powerful and spontaneous gestures to all the elements of nature and the self. The children, for their part, appeared enthralled by the performance and from then on referred to the oddly dressed pair as “draugmihra! Draugmihra!” Realising that they were before performative masters, they immediately got to showing off their own imitations of the trolls - though were not quite as impressive as the draugmihra at doing so.

Opposite the fire from the elders, the théin sat cross-legged upon a sheepskin. Beside her, she had a flat of skin, upon which laid a selection of strange tools and artifacts she and her band had brought with them: Their axes weren’t bladed with stone, but with a darker form of gold with hints of green; the commander herself revealed a biface not fashioned from stone or flint, but of gold, as well, only with surfaces as polished as those of clean bone; they had medallions and rings fashioned from all sorts of strange, glistening stuff, adorned with stones of every colour. She showed them texts from her home and works of glass, explaining their use for the translators to convey.

The translators did so, and the greatfathers looked at the strange axes with knotted brows, turning them over in their hands and swinging them back and forth. They tapped at the strange metal with their fingers, and the translator seemed to explain what it was - gesturing to the mountain and then to the fire in her explanations, and all the while the greatfathers nodded and muttered this or that gruffly. The translator showed them how the medallions were worn around the neck, the rings on the fingers, and one of the old men took the ring and, gently catching a lock of the translator’s hair, tied it there and planted an affectionate kiss on her cheek. He muttered something to the théin and gestured to the ring, and the blushing translator turne to her.

“He says he likes the ring and would like to trade you a goat for it.”

The théin knotted her own brow and offered the translator a lopsided frown. “Do they trade in nothing but goats? Is their whole society founded upon their woolen backs?” She then pursed her lips and took an intricately whittled and carved wooden pipe out of a satchel, pinched a clump of dry grass from the same container and patted it tightly into the bowl. “You may tell him that it’s his. Consider it a gift to symbolise a budding friendship between our two peoples.”

The translator spoke a few words and caused a number of the greatfathers to chuckle. They then spoke at length as the translator conveyed his words. “He says that the goat is life, and to give over a goat is to give milk and cheese and meat and goatskin, and the good-haired goat provides the softest goathair; these are the good things of life. A goat is a companion - and an intelligent and caring one at that. Of its horn one can make music or craft a drinking vessel,” at this one of the greatfathers raised an ornately carved drinking horn hanging at his side and extended it to Materix for inspection while another brought a musical horn to his lips and released two sharp blows into it, followed by a long third.

The sound brought immediate silence to the great gathering for a few moments before everyone returned to what they were saying or doing. “And of its skin a drum to go with your horn; if you wish for leather its brain is all you need. Everything that a man may need he can find in the goat - the bone for the spear, the teeth for the necklace, its sinew the finest thread. When we make masks - as the singing draug taught the aipikkas of bygone times - the head of the goat is an aid. If you wish to carve, the bone of the goat is ready and yielding. There is no need except that in the goat is its answer. And if the goat cannot provide, then the earth is good - stone, wood, herbs, berries, mushroom, chalk. The waters of the mountain springs, fish on the goatbone spear, fire to warm the heart and song to warm the soul. When you wish to please your woman’s heart go to the sea and bring her cowrie shells - kiss her hair, bless her eyes. If chalk is not what you seek, the plants are many and dyes all yielding. Bring the aipikka a feather and place your name on his headdress. So yes, we are a mountain goat people, made of stone and sinew, and have no desire to be anything else.” The translator stopped speaking at last, a small smile on her face. Then she added of her own accord, “I admit it was a bit weird at first, and you miss the things you had in Ha-Dûna, but then this whole thing really grows on you. It was our way of life before…” her words trailed off and she said no more.

The théin look hardened, and she turned the horn in her hand with a fomenting slowness. “Yes… It -was-. Please tell the greatfather that--”

It was in the midst of all this that, in the distance, the great blast of a horn sounded and caused even the now-placid shaman to become instantly alert. The greatfathers glanced at one another with deep frowns and rose from the food. In the resounding wake of the blast there came the abnormally loud yet light clapping of free and loose hooves against the mountain, and in the gathering darkness there seemed to be a singular light far off on the mount that wavered momentarily then completely disappeared.

There was silence then for a time, and Uirda all gathered about each other and whispered to one another. There was the light of excitement in the eyes of the children, the knot of worry in that of the elders. And the reason for it became apparent when - with great suddenness - the earth melted away some way from the clearing and a great light erupted from the ground, followed by the light but insistent sound of thundering hooves. The light approached at speed and soon manifested itself as a creature unlike anything known to mortal eyes - other than those of the Uirda, for they knew to honour the great mountainson.

The mountain grows in stature as its burdens grow.

Before them, with standing ears and great branching antlers between which was nestled a radiant halo of almost-blinding sunlight, stood a cervitaur of considerable size. His face, once child-like oval, was now angular where it was not bearded; once-flowing green hair had yellowed with age and was now formed in great winding dreads. There was an unearthly beauty to his visage, his eyes seemed to glitter, his features - though scars ran across his face and muscled form - seemed delicate and refined. In one hand was a spear tipped with a foreign silvery metal and at his side, wrapped in leaves and vines, was a sheathed sword. He looked upon the southern strangers with grave eyes of forest-green and on his face was no smile. Many of the Dûnans removed their hats at the sight; others instinctively took to their axe shafts and spear staffs, but stayed frozen in caution beyond that.

The Uirda all whispered words of humility and and lowered their heads in honour of the divine being. With nostrils flared he passed the translator and his hand alighted on the metal ring. Deft fingers loosened the hair and the ring fell into the cervitaur’s hand, and he looked on it with displeasure before whispering a few words in the Uirda tongue. The greatfather who had tied the ring into the translator’s hair stepped forward and spoke. The cervitaur handed him the ring and responded brusquely, and in response the greatfather approached the théin and placed the ring into her hand wordlessly.

“I see more of you southerners have come wandering north,” the cervitaur spoke with an unplaceable accent as he approached the théin. It was not even Dûnan, and yet… they could somehow understand it. “You have brought metal. It is forbidden upon the Uirda. You will nevermore bring it here.”

The théin looked into her palm and then upon the creature. Its mighty presence and powerful aura brought her eyes to the ground, her auburn hair hanging around her face like a veil. Her pipe still smouldered in her hand, for the shock of the new arrival still held too much power over her for her to put it away. “F-forgive us, mighty being. We did not know - we meant only to show them our crafts so that they, too, may know the freedom from stone and instead embrace something hardier, more efficient.”

The cervitaur leaned back and gazed at the gathered mountain clanspeople, garbed as they were in their primitive leathers and hides, bone- and stone-tipped spears in hand, knives made of the same at their hips. The children hid behind the legs of their mothers or grandmothers and stared out curiously at the strange mountainson - some were afraid, most were only curious. The greatfathers wore knotted brows and glanced from time to time at the shaman for reassurance.

“More efficient.” He repeated, turning back to the woman. “And what, pray tell, has your efficiency brought you? What have you gained through freedom from stone? It is your people who flee here, not the Uirda who flee to you.” There was a certain anger in his voice, a level of contempt, and he kicked at the earth and stirred it up to make known his displeasure.

By this, the théin seemed insulted. The cervitaur’s words had knocked her out of her fearful passiveness, and she assumed the proud, powerful stance of her mother, though she stood only half the creature’s height. “If it’s ‘our people’ you want gone, we will gladly take them with us - they have no place here; they belong on the temple fields of Ha-Dûna, working the fields and tending the herds as atonement for their sins. For yes, -that- is the efficiency given to us by the freedom from stone - our hoes part earth like fingers through snow, and our sickles cut straw as though they were air. Our armour has kept hundreds of us alive in our battles against the rebels in the South and West, and our weapons have allowed us to grow into the mightiest force in the region.” She gestured to the hills. “We have been welcomed here, certainly, but we have seen the sort of life these people lead - it is simple, complacent; they are content in their mountains, and see no further beyond them. A lifestyle such as this…” She silenced herself before she could go on, glaring up at the beast still. “We will leave if we are not welcome.”

The cervitaur’s nostrils flared and he stepped forth, bringing his face down so that his nose almost touched the insolent woman’s. His eyes of green, which bore no warmth and seemed more rock than plant, bored into hers. “Atonement. Sins. Temples. You have created out of the paradise you were granted a living hell. Armour, weapons, battles - what, for power? Do you think you are eternal to claw at power? You are a thing that is nearly dead; I have lived longer than your species has walked the world. Your weapons, your wars, your sins and crimes and punishments; they are as naught. Of all these trapping the Uirda are free, they do not kill and do not fear being killed, they do not impose themselves where they are not wanted. If a clan wishes to leave, it can leave - do you see them raising spears against their own? They hold onto the only thing that matters - their joys. You would do well to learn from them, for they are the more refined ones here, not you.” He raised his head and looked at the other southerners. “Go home, there is nothing for you here. Consider the ones you think to punish, dead; consider this land not here. If you come with metal and strife, come not here at all.”

The théin nodded in silent understanding. “Then leave, we will. We were pleasantly surprised when there were people here; a shame their master cannot see reason.” She turned to the yortbraho translator. “You. Tell the elders this - perhaps the sea may never come to the mountain, but us who live by the shore have seen terrible things arise from the waves to wash in over the land. If the fish of the sea can walk on land, then what stops the wolves of the woods from climbing into the hills?” She turned back to the creature and flared her own nostrils to the degree possible. “Will you be there for them when, in a thousand years, a cruel force numbering thousands come thundering over the mountain tops?”

The bearded cervitaur scoffed at her barely veiled threats. “Whatever the case then, you will certainly not be,” he paused then and his hard features softened. “Go to your man, woman, see to your young, wander the hills and laugh some. It is all that matters now - and when death wanders a handspan from you, it will be all that ever mattered. You would be wise to learn from my words now rather than regretfully learn when it is all too late.”

The théin glared sharply back and turned. “Osotorix, prepare my stag. Rangers, pack up. We are going home.” Many of the Dûnans sighed in relief, while others hastened to finish their meals. A few offered a final scowl to the yortbraho, but all in all, the majority just seemed happy to be leaving, hastily gathering their belongings and walking towards the mountain pass with hurried steps. At the tail of the host rode the théin, closely followed by the two draugmihra, who were the only two to look genuinely upset at this whole ordeal - they took their time saying goodbye to the children, offering them flower petals from the lowlands in memory.

The cervitaur watched the draugmihra until they had finished saying their farewells to the understandably saddened children, and then he gestured for them to approach. They seemed reluctant at first, looking over at their leader for permission. However, with a quiet nod, she granted it, and remained at the mouth of the pass with her warriors ready should her druids be caused any harm. The two obeyed the cervitaur’s request and approached, both bowing with their hands over their hearts. “In the sight of the Eight and the Seven, we greet you, child of Boris,” they chorused.

“Be at ease, draugmihra. I thank you for bringing the children of the Uirda joy. They will remember you, of that I am certain. Know this: the Uirda have no interest in the crafts and metals of the south, but there is nothing wrong in the sharing of happiness; tales and laughter, song, playthings and pastimes. These are good. Perhaps I have spoken harshly to the woman, but that is so you may know where the line is drawn. Should you ever come into the shade of the mountain bearing joy and forsaking metals, you will be welcome as friends. Let your leaders know this.” He hefted his iron spear and, gripping it horizontally in two hands, extended it to the two. “Take this with you, a gift for the woman. I do not think she will be returning to her children soon - it will be of more use to her than to me until then.”

The druids shifted in their stance upon accepting the weapon, one of them taking it in her hand and testing its weight. She swallowed. “This is of quality make - I have never seen anything like it. The, the théin Materix will be most grateful for this.”

“We have been honoured to be given this opportunity to share our stories and culture, and to learn from theirs. If, if I may be so forward as to ask - would any of these people like to come with us? To visit the south and, and learn of us as we have learned of them?”

The cervitaur lowered his head at the question, his lips pursed. “I do not like that any clansman or woman should leave the shade of the mountain. But as you have asked it, it is for them to answer.” And with that he turned and spoke in a loud voice that seemed to reach all, and his words caused the mountain clanspeople to talk among themselves. Frowns and shaking of heads was met with loud rebuttals and gesticulation. When this had gone on for a time, one of the greatfathers turned to the cervitaur with a question - as though seeking reassurance. The cervitaur nodded and spoke a few words, and the greatfather visibly relaxed. “Guik Kalta!” the greatfather said, and the youth who had accompanied Materix to the clearing stepped forward. The greatfather gestured to the translator too, and the clanspeople huddled all around to bid the ones who had been chosen farewell.

“You will wander from the mountain’s shade, Guik Kalta,” the cervitaur spoke in that strange tongue that was neither Dûnan nor Uirda, yet was fathomable to both, “the first of your people to do so. You will see much on their behalf, and you will be the face of the Uirda to a world that has not known you before. Walk upright, like the mountain, be strong of heart; and return with tales that will warm and regale your kin round the flame of winter.” The cervitaur stepped forth and placed one hand on the young man’s shoulders. Rummaging in his thick belt of leaves and vines, he emerged with a strange mask of stone, intricately carved and decorated with thick mane-like hairs from the wild mountain goat. The youth accepted it and lowered his head respectfully, and then hefted his spear over his shoulder and turned with a smile to the two draugmihra. The translator came up behind him and placing a hand over her heart and briefly taking a knee.

“Guik Kalta and I, Herla, lowly child of the Clennon Fen, will be honoured to accompany you.”

The draugmihra exchanged wary looks. “Before you do, we must verify…” One of them took her staff in both hands and touched its tree-branch tip lightly on Herla’s forehead. A drop in space rippled through the air like in a pond, and the druid lowered her staff again. “... In the name of Fìrinn, the truthful one, do you swear that you have renounced all faith in the cruel and wicked Sigeran, the great devil and antithesis of the Eight and the Seven?”

“Ah- I. I never…” she seemed uncomfortable and flustered for a few seconds. “I never took up worship of Sigeran, fathers. The Eight and Seven alone know I have been true - and the mountain, for surely there is a god in it, bears witness that in its shade Sigeran’s name has not been spoken by me in worship.” The ripples faded, and the draugmihra looked at one another again.

“Her account is true. We are honoured to have you with us. Worry not - should our people harass you over this misunderstanding, we will vouch for you in the name of Fìrinn and Taeg Eit. Any child of the Dûna is always welcome home…” The speaker smiled up at the cervitaur, “... Even if it is just for a visit.”

The cervitaur for his part almost smiled. “The mountain holds none prisoner. If you - who was once Herla of the Clennon Fen - wish to stay amongst your people, none will hold it against you. Though your man waits upon your return, his heart will mend in time I’m sure.” Herla glanced back at the greatfather who had tied the ring to her hair earlier and smiled, but said nothing. The cervitaur looked to the draugmihra and Guik Kalta as he turned away. “May the one who built the earth guide your steps always.” And with that he trotted away and, as suddenly as he had erupted from the earth, disappeared beneath it once more.


“What’s that?!” Rima-Tinrur froze mid-air, her feathers rustling in the warm desert breeze even so high up. She gazed, wide-eyed, across the great barren expanses to the far-off hint of blue.

“The sea.” The kayhin sang as he levitated near her with a wind song.

“I... I think I’ve heard echoes of its song before. Water as far as the eye can see.” The witch’s eyes sparkled as she looked at the old man, her spirit echoing memories of nights spent on mountain peaks watching the stars and listening to the distant, eerie whale song of the waters. “Can we go there?” She breathed; eyes wide. Her excitement was contagious — but it seemed to cascade about the impenetrable kayhin and rolled away without leaving a mark on his visage.

“We may if you wish — but it will be taking you away from home.” The kayhin intoned, gesturing behind them to the far-off eastern mountains. “I am sure there will be time enough and much travelling in later years; you have a long life ahead.” Rima looked back at the snow-peaked mountains far away, biting her lip, and then towards the equally distant tinge of the sea.

“You promise we will travel to the sea afterwards?” She asked.

“No, we will not. But I am sure that time will inexorably carry you towards it. There is a sea-song that calls on all who go wandering from home and it cannot be long denied.” Came her idda-ta’s song.

That gave her pause and her brows furrowed. “You... you will leave me?” She looked at him, though knew not to seek answers on his painted visage.

“All things are destined for separation.” He recited, and her brows unfurled as she nodded in understanding. He had taught her that. In a sense, she had always known.

“If we go to the sea first, can we travel together for longer?”

“Perhaps. But it will mean that your journey home may take a very long time, for you will have to abide by my rule of companionship.”

“What is that?” She asked. The kayhin turned to her with closed eyelids and face of paint and ink.

“No kawnnisaj.” He intoned. She frowned for a few moments, feeling the surging power around her. “For if you do then you shall journey with me no more and will have to find your way home alone.”

“B- but why, idda-ta?” She asked, lips pursed and brows knotted.

“You are a woman now, Rima-Tinrur of the Jungle-folk.” He crooned gently, almost regretfully. “It could not be helped,” he continued, more to himself. She straightened suddenly and looked from the kayhin to the sea. He never called her by her name, always my dear or other terms of endearment. He had not done so since they departed, however, and it... saddened her.

“What if I need to use it?” She asked.

“There is no such thing — if you need to use it then you are simply not thinking well enough. The creative and innovative mind is the greatest kawnnisaj. Use it.” He sang.

“Alright then,” she agreed, “no kawnnisaj. And though the journey home will be long without it, it will be more time with you, idda-ta. Consider me yet your needful disciple.” She paused. “Consider me yet a foolish teh-mi.” His face remained deadpan; eyes closed.

“If that is your wish. But you must know that I am not, and that after a time I will not be.” There was a softness in his voice hidden from his face.

“I know,” she smiled with eyes downcast, “I know. But... just while we journey together.”

“Then let us head down. We have a long walk to the sea, my blossoming rosa.” And so saying, he began descending like spiralling whirlwind towards the red earth below. Though there was yet a sadness in her eyes, Rima laughed then and her joy caught on the chromatic heavens, which seemed to laugh also, as she descended after her idda-ta.

“Are we headed straight to the sea?”

“The journey is long on foot. We will have to secure some supplies for you first. Perhaps a camel,” Rima’s eyes lit up at this, the sunrays darting around playfully in them, “so we will be making a stop at the oasis-town of Miha-Rad. It is two days away.”

“So… there will be people there?” The young witch breathed, a smile helplessly growing on her face. In all the thirteen years she had known, she had never seen a person beside her idda-ta. She had kept pets, that was true — birds, insects, small mammals. They had been her friends and she had wept when their short lives elapsed. Her guardian kayhin had gently rubbed her tears away and told her all living things are ephemeral, my dear. They will pass and you will remain; that is the burden that accompanies divine patronage. She did not listen the first time and cried again when another of her tenderly nurtured companions gave up the spirit. She had attempted to keep their souls from going away, but her idda-ta had taken her hand gently and spoken of the dangers that lay down such roads, and in time she had sadly let them go.

“Yes, there will be people.” He affirmed as their quick bare feet deftly navigated the hot sands and rocks. Sparks of excitement bounced from her eyes at his words, causing the kayhin to pause and turn his head towards her.

“I know I know, no kawnnisaj, don’t worry idda-ta.” She assured him, hurriedly waving the overexcited sparks away. He turned back wordlessly and continued walking.

“The people of these oasis towns — and there are many such towns all the way from the mountains to the sea — originally lived in the highlands. Why they came down to these forsaken wastes perhaps an ancient stone or hill can tell you, but they did. They roamed for a time as nomads, but then discovered the wondrous art of trading.”

“Trading, idda-ta?” She asked.

“Yes, trading. If I have a thing you desire, and you have a thing I desire, then we can simply exchange them. In that way you get what you want and I get what I want. Those ancient people realised that there are things out on these wastes that people elsewhere would give much to have, and so they collected them and travelled back to the mountains and beyond to trade them. They did this for so many years — perhaps hundreds — and the journey grew longer and longer as they ventured further and further into the redlands. Soon it was so long a journey that you could not travel it in days or weeks but needed months and years. And so, some of these traders stopped travelling and started settling around oases instead, caring and providing for the passing traders and trading with them. That is how these oasis towns came to be. Now near the mountains there are no oases, but the people there live on the rivers and have made the desert bloom even as those who live on oases have. On the coast, where the land meets the sea and where we are going, is the great town of Birba-Ida.”

Rima-Tinrur listened attentively, her curious starry eyes ablaze as she drank up all her idda-ta said. “Th- that’s incredible. They are so daring and innovative.” The old kayhin made no response to that and spent some time afterwards answering the inquisitive young woman’s questions.

They were spotted by a passing ten-man patrol on camel-back some half a day’s trek from Miha-Rad, and the group approached and respectfully hailed the kayhin. “Great diviner, knower of truths and communer with the song that is all; our people are in need of you. The mugahtir would speak with you.” The leader declared.

“That I know, brother of Miha-Rad.” The kayhin chanted. “Have you water and vittles for my companion?” The leader appeared visibly surprised at the request and looked more closely at the oddly-clad young woman, who was gawping wide-eyed at him.

“She is not a kayhin?” He asked — for it was well-known that kayhins neither needed food nor water. The gold-faced humenaki shifted in his saddle as the girl continued to stare, then grinned easily at her from beneath his hair-like headdress.

“No, she is not.” Came the kayhin’s cold intonation, drawing the leader back into the present.

“Uh, of course, great diviner. Jur-Boh, bring the honoured lady a waterskin and some sherku with tehr.” The rider in question was swift to make his camel sit and, rummaging through his pack, brought the waterskin and food to her. She took them and stared at the features of the relatively young man beneath the strange wig headdress — the long, beaded fibres of which reached the upper back and mimicked dreadlocks. Unlike her, he was dressed in a long, square, beautifully patterned woollen sheet that only had an opening for the head. Seeing her beholding the garment with no small degree of wonder, he quickly drew it over his head, “here, this will better protect you from the sun and...” he looked at her for a few seconds, his gaze flickering across her neck and chest and causing her to instinctively bring a hand to her shoulder in some attempt to ward it off.

“Take the benaak and thank the young man for his generosity, my girl,” the kayhin murmured.

“Oh! Ah! Sorry! Thank you!” Rima babbled, then half-laughed and frowned anxiously towards her idda-ta as she took the poncho and slipped it on with some degree of relief. There was something in the eyes of these men that made her feel oddly self-conscious and distinctly uncomfortable. Perhaps it was that she was unused to being looked at — her idda-ta never opened his eyes, and when he did they had been inky black, not great staring things that seemed to hold the night sky within them. And there was no strange song of desire that emanated from her idda-ta as it did from these men.

“It’s our duty to serve the friends of the great diviner, my lady,” the young man said, “duty requires no thanks.” And with that he returned to his camel. She looked curiously at the woven rattan vest he wore over what appeared to be a thin layer of goatskin. His now-exposed arm muscles bulged slightly, but like the others he was slender and tall. When he moved it was with a noticeably quick and graceful gait.

“Would the young lady like a ride, great diviner? We will arrive sooner if you are not on foot.” Came the patrol leader’s voice. Rima looked at the great camels with apparent anticipation, and the kayhin let out a sigh and nodded.

“That may well be for the best,” he chanted as the wind gathered about him and lifted his form from the ground. The patrol leader looked to Jur-Boh again and gestured for him to see to the woman. The lithe young man quickly brought his camel up beside her and sat it down with a few dramatic exclamations and some tugging at the reins.

“I could have just come over, you know,” she laughed, “the distance wasn’t enormous.”

“Well, I’m here now, so I’ll have to beg your forgiveness,” the youth raised his shoulders helplessly.

“Oh. No no,” Rima hurried to say, all flustered, then paused and looked at him for a few seconds as it dawned on her that he was joking. “Oh! That... that was funny...” she chortled in surprise. Her idda-ta never joked.

“Well,” he laughed, “it was alright, I guess. I cou-”

“Jur-Boh! Stop dallying about!” Came a shout from the moving patrolmen, and the youth quickly stopped talking helped Rima settle into the saddle behind him. The world felt as though it were falling for a few seconds as the strange animal rose — her heart hammered in panic and she instinctively placed a hand on the young man’s back, the fibres of his headdress surprising rough, and another on the saddle behind her to steady herself.

“There now, nothing to fear. Can’t be your first time on a camel now.” He said over his shoulder.

“Uh. Well. It can...”

“Hmm, strange. How did you get so far into the desert just on foot?”

“And who said I was on foot? Maybe I flew.” She quipped. “But anyhow, I’ve always been here. I guess idda-ta carried me when I was too little to walk or remember.”

“Oh, he is your idda-ta? Odd, always thought that the kayhins don’t marry or have children.”

“Well, I don’t know... it’s probably true, I never really asked. He is not actually my idda-ta, but he has always cared for me.” The youth scratched his forehead, and she instinctively knew he was frowning.

“That... means you are touched by the gods, right? Kayhins don’t just take little kids like that — only special ones. You weren’t joking about flying eh? I guess you will be a kayhin yourself one day.”

“Me? A kayhin?” She looked up thoughtfully at her airborne idda-ta. “That... heh. I like the sound of that, uh, Jur-Boh, right?”

“Yeah, that’s right. And you?”

“I am Rima-Tinrur... of the Jungle-folk.” It was odd saying it herself. It sounded strange... but it caused her chest to swell somewhat, as though it were an achievement. She liked it.

“Jungle-folk huh? That’s a long way off.”

“Oh? You know it?” She asked, leaning forward.

“I mean, I’ve never been there or anything — that would take, gods — years? I don’t know. But the caravanners tell wild stories about the jungle and the people there — vicious warriors who wear fahupki skin and use their claws and tails as weapons. They are the bane of the fahupki — and the bane of near everyone else too!”

“W- woah. Really? They’re like that?” she paused for a few seconds, “and, uh, what are fahupki?” The young man looked over his shoulder with a laugh.

“My, you’re really sheltered aren’t you.” He said. She blinked, opened her mouth to argue, then realised she did not know what that meant and closed it again. “They’re giant insects, terrible flying things that come in all shapes and sizes. I know the caravanners trade with some of them, but the only ones I’ve ever seen wanted to tear my head off.”

“You’ve said that word a few times now, what does it mean?”

“What word?”

“Caravanners. Who are they?”

“Oh, they are merchants, traders. They’re the nomads of the wastes, travel all over the world and have all sorts of tales and treasures. They made the Great Caravan Route- uh, you probably don’t know what that is right? It’s this great road of sorts — but not literally a road — that goes all the way from Birba-Ida to the great city of Qabar-Kirkanshir. Thousands and thousands of camels as far as the eye can see. They say that the first camel in a caravan enters Birba-Ida just as the last leaves Qabar-Kirkanshir! Crazy, right?” He looked over his shoulder with a smile and found that Rima had a far-eyed look on her face.

“Yeah...” she murmured, “it is... remarkable.”

When they finally arrived at Miha-Rad the sun was beginning to descend in the west, but one of the patrolmen had ridden ahead and so all Miha-Rad’s family patriarchs were assembled to welcome them. “We salute you great diviner and bid you welcome to Miha-Rad. You have alighted among your people and are greeted as a son long gone from home.” One of them declared once the kayhin had descended.

“The ornament of wealth is generosity, contentment that of the poor.” The kayhin responded cryptically as Rima came up beside him. The patriarch’s all wore headdress-wigs with impressive fibre dreads not dissimilar to those of the patrolmen, only that theirs boasted colourful feathers and were the sandy colour of sand as opposed to the brownish or black ones the warriors wore. The one who had greeted the kayhin wore the most prominent headdress of all — his dreadlocks were red and a crown of eagle feathers ran along the front.
As Rima took all this in, to one side drums were beaten and the melodic trilling of women rose. One of them stepped forward and began singing, and she was followed by the others. They danced around the guests, bidding them welcome in short melodic couplets and sprinkling water on them from bowls, trilling and ululating loudly every time a couplet was rendered by one of them. Rima was quite visibly captivated by the whole affair, and the power of the sung couplets seemed to build up to a breaking point that the ensuing ululations and shrilling alone could answer; till those died down that another couplet may arise.
This went on for a good while, until the women began slowly retreated one by one and danced away. One remained behind, still spraying them with droplets of water from the bowl. When the others were some way away, she gestured to Rima and went dancing after the others. The girl looked to her idda-ta uncertainly, but he nodded to her reassuringly and so she stepped hesitantly after the women — who were now disappearing into tight alleys between enclosed compounds of beehive-shaped, sun-kissed earthen homes.

Rima took one final look back at her idda-ta, who was now walking into the town with all those older men, and followed after the women. A few of them took her by the hand and helped her from her clothes, giving the rags she wore beneath the poncho quizzical looks as they helped her out of it. “My, you can’t be wearing these my girl. We will get you something suitable for a beautiful young woman like you.” The speaker was an older woman who sat on a small bench and leaned on a stick. Like the men she too wore a wig-headdress; hers was red like that of the patriarch who had greeted them, and not only were colourful beads interwoven into the shorter dreadlock fibres but so too were metallic copper rings, pearls, and cowries. Rima’s brows furrowed, and she glanced at her clothing. She had felt that the men thought them odd before, and now that was confirmed.

“They... are not good?” She asked hesitantly as the young women seated her on a stool and brought a bucket full of heated water and slowly began pouring it over her head and body with a bowl. Rima blinked in surprise and then shivered at the odd sensation. “Oh!” She murmured. The younger women, Rima noted, wore brown or black wig-headdresses, like those of the warriors — only that, again, their dreads or braids were far shorter. She could not deny that there was a certain aesthetic to them.

“No, they are not good my girl. A woman must cover herself properly, or else she invites shame upon herself.” The older woman piped. A few girls came with steaming buckets and handed the old woman an assortment of sweet-smelling herbs and flowers, which she sniffed at and crushed before throwing them into the buckets. The younger women then stirred the contents and carried them over to where Rima sat on the stool. They ladled the sweet-smelling water over her head and scrubbed her down, cleaning out her crown of feathers and rinsing her short hair. Rima could not say she did not like the feeling of warm water — and the sweet scents were unlike anything she had smelled before — but she was not quite used to this kind of manhandling or attention. She looked over at the older woman, who was smiling approvingly. “The kayhins may be blessed by the gods, my girl, but they are utterly mad — they don’t understand how civilised society works. But don’t you worry, we’ll make a woman of you — learn from old Huna-Miwe, I’ve seen it all.” Rima furrowed her brows slightly but then found herself giggling and leaping to her feet as one of the girls scrubbed beneath her armpits.

“Oh! Not there!” She squealed, disentangling herself from the others and shaking droplets of water everywhere. The other girls took this as an opportunity to empty what remained in the buckets on top of her, and Rima stood blinking water out of her eyes and blowing bits of herbs and flower petals away. “Nice.” She whispered, more to herself. She was not left standing there long, however, for fabrics were quickly brought and numerous hands set to drying her with them before soft garments were wrapped and tied about her crotch and chest, followed by a long rectangular woollen skirt and poncho, both intricately patterned and beautiful. The old woman inspected her and clicked in approval.

“See, now anyone who lays eyes on you will know you to be a maiden of the highest pedigree — if, as the kayhin says, generosity is the adornment of the rich and contentment of the poor, then modesty is that of youthful maidens, my girl.” She extended her arm to Rima who, after a moment of confused hesitation, took it and walked with her. “And you must wear your hair long, my girl. And if you can’t, then at the very least a hikser, I would think you would do that at least.”

“Oh, it just gets so long and blows into my face when it’s windy.” Rima hurried to explain.

“Of course, but that is because you do not know to care for it.” The old woman said. Rima blinked and looked at her oddly.

“Are... are you listening to my song?” She asked. The old woman smiled. “I thought only kayhins could do that.” Rima murmured.

“Well, I am no kayhin, young one. The song is open to anyone who opens their ears. Just like you have done.” They walked in silence for a while until they reached the outskirts of the town and the fields of green there. Rima had never seen anything like it.

“What is that?” She asked.

“Plants — crops. Maize and squash and the like. That is to say — food.” The old woman replied and then headed towards it. Rima looked at the tall stalks in amazement, brushing them with her fingers and taking in their hushed songs of dusk. After some time walking in silence, they turned back and walked between the beehive abodes until they reached a large compound where women were congregated and from where all kinds of appetising smells were wafting. Rima was led into one of the ovular homes and food was laid out — meats, soups, stews, bread, clay jugs full of soured milk, others with water and others yet with stranger drinks.

“Y- you made all this?” the astonish Rima asked some of the women seated around her. “How?”

“It’s all part of being a woman, my girl,” came old Huna-Miwe’s voice as she was aided into the dimly lit house by two younger women and took a seat to Rima’s left. The young witch looked at Huna-Miwe and the others, and there seemed a certain sadness in her eyes — as though something had dawned on her all of a sudden. “Come, eat.” Huna-Miwe gestured to the others, and they all tucked in. A cup of soured milk was placed before Rima, a bowl of soup, meats were torn into little pieces and thrown in. “Here,” the old woman handed her some bread, and Rima watched how she dipped the bread into her own bowl, letting the soup soak in before eating, and did the same.

The strange tastes, smells, and textures of foods she had never imagined existed left Rima wondering if this was not some elaborate dream from which she would soon awaken. She visibly savoured each morsel and sipped at the strange drinks laid before her as though they had descended from the dining table of the gods. And when she was slow or seemed to stop, Huna would nudge her and put something before her, or one of the other women would extend a bowl of something else and insist she try it. “Happy women make happy food.” The old Huna murmured approvingly as she ate, then looked over at Rima. “Remember that, my girl. It’s the first thing I taught my nyaras; when you are making food you have to leave all the bad feelings out of the food. The man upset you? Forget about it when you are cooking. The women are talking about you? Forget about it when you are cooking. Your back hurts? You’ve been standing all day? No one is helping? Forget about it when you are cooking. Happy women make happy food, and happy food makes happy homes, and happy homes make happy women.” The old woman then leaned in conspiratorially. “My nyaras say to me, ‘old woman Huna, you have done some kawnnisaj on the mugahtir and that is why he has not married another woman,’ but I tell them no, there is no kawnnisaj in these old bones — the secret is happy food, my girl. Happy food is the way to your man’s heart. Give him happy food and he will not look elsewhere. Happy food makes a happy man, and a happy man makes his woman happy too. That’s the secret young one.” The women around the table giggled or snickered at the old woman’s words, but she returned to her food and paid them no heed. Rima, for her part, stared at Huna-Miwe with a smile and clear admiration — though she had not understood half of what she was saying, she felt there was something important there and tried to hold onto the words.

“Old woman Huna, when we met the men on the camels on our way here, they said that word too — mugahtir. He is your... uh man?” The old woman nodded slowly. “They said that the people here are in need of something, that the mugahtir needed to speak to my idda-ta. But you all seem so happy – I can’t imagine that there is anything you are in need of at all.” There was silence then, and the other women suddenly stopped eating — though the old woman did not stop, dipping a piece of bread into her bowl and bringing it to her mouth. She chewed for a few moments then smiled.

“It is good to have good ears — and we are blessed by the gods with two of them and only one tongue. Perhaps there is a wisdom there.” Huna spoke, looking at all those seated around the meal. “In fact, some women give this wisdom such great import that they would prefer to do away with the tongue and have a third ear!” The old woman laughed, “well, they must think they’re wiser than the gods, mustn’t they my girl?” She smiled at Rima as she said this, and the girl laughed uncertainly. She was not entirely sure if she was being reprimanded or praised; something told her it was the latter. Huna sighed and leaned back, “yes yes, there is a problem. My foolish son is the problem — see, that one had one too many unhappy meals, that’s what.” She seemed to fix one of the women at the table with a glare, but quickly moved her gaze upward to survey the walls as she spoke. “What’s a mother to do? One son hates the other. What’s the mother to do? Split her heart in two? If it would make them love each other she would, but I don’t know if even the gods can do that. Not anymore anyhow.” She sighed and placed her hands on the table, fixing her eyes on them for a few moments before gazing at Rima from beneath knitted brows. “The problem is not that my two eldest sons hate one another. Many siblings go on living while hating one another. The problem, my girl, is simple: the younger of them, that hotblooded Minir-Huda, slew his brother; and in doing so he broke this foolish old woman’s heart and incurred the curses of the gods. He is out there now, haunting the night, preying on raw flesh and blood like a savage beast — oh! unhappy, unhappy food!” There was a tear in the old woman’s eye, but she brushed it aside angrily. “He sought by this deed the title of mugahtir, he sought his father’s wealth and estates — he’s gained nothing and lost all.” Rima frowned at the old woman’s words.

“I... I don’t understand. He... eats raw flesh? Why?”

“It is a curse that falls on all those who kill,” the woman sat beside Rima explained, “they become maddened beasts of tremendous power who can only survive on blood.” Rima’s brows furrowed and she looked at Huna with pity.

“Th- that’s terrible. Why? Why would he kill? And his own brother...” Rima looked to the old woman, who looked back at her with hard, narrowed eyes. Leaning forward, she spoke.

“It is greed, my girl. Greed. It is the death of all love, the well of all hatred, the pit of all envy. It is the mouth with unquenchable thirst and unending hunger — the world is not enough for a heart brimming with greed.”

“W-why?” The witch asked, her eyes exhibiting a deeply dumbfounded hurt and confusion. And before she could comprehend what was happening, there were tears rolling from her eyes. “Why is that a thing?” She looked down and realised her hands were trembling. Energies swirled around her, the house shook, and dust fell from the domed ceiling.

“My girl-” the old woman began, but before she could go on there was a presence at the door.

“Rima-Tinrur.” Came the voice of the kayhin, soft yet penetrating. “What are you?” The girl looked up, her trembling ceasing abruptly. She gazed at the ink-stained face through watery eyes.

“I...” she sniffed and wiped the tears away. “Clear. Concise. Direct.” She intoned, taking a deep, calming breath.

“Yes, that you are. You should rest now, for you are tired and we must exorcise the beast come the morrow’s dusk.” His calming voice dictated. She nodded, barely restraining a yawn, and realised that she was very tired indeed — though she had not been mere seconds before.

“Come,” said Huna-Miwe, rising to her feet and helping Rima up, “let’s find you a place to get some shut-eye.” The other women looked considerably less composed than the old woman, giving the young witch anxious looks and glancing at each other furtively. “What are you all sat dallying about for?” The old woman snapped, “clean this up and go to your men!” Rima glanced back in a daze, but the old woman took her by the elbow and told her not to pay them any heed.

They walked between the houses, Huna partly leaning on Rima and partly on her stick, until they got to a relatively small compound on the outskirts. “Shala,” the old woman piped.

“Oh, old woman Huna?” The woman called Shala extended her head from the doorway of the compound’s single abode and greeted them. “Ah, our guest is with you.”

“Yes, she is tired. Make her comfortable for the night.”

“Of course, of course. Please come in.” Shala said, and the two stepped into the small abode where Shala was clearing a space against the wall.

“Get me a stool,” Huna barked, and Shala quickly scrambled outside and was soon back with a simple wooden stool. As the old woman made herself comfortable, Shala helped the dazed Rima under the blankets and covered her. “That’s good now,” the old woman said, her voice coming soft. She glanced at Shala. “It is only you here tonight, yes?” The younger woman nodded in the affirmative.

“Yes, Jur-Boh will be keeping watch.”

“Oh, Jur-Boh,” the half-sleeping Rima murmured. “He’s the funny one.” Shala looked at Huna with a small smile.

“Well, I guess he thinks so.” Huna rolled her eyes. Shala restrained her smile, but the older woman saw. “I know what you’re thinking, you sly fox — those were pity laughs, didn’t want to break his confidence. It’s actually how terribly unfunny he is that makes me laugh.” Finding that she was not convincing anyone, she changed the subject. “Anyhow, can we expect a little Jur-Boh anytime soon?”

“Not yet — but the gods are good, I’m sure it will not be long now.”

“Whatever god presides over good humour has spared us for the moment, it seems.” The old woman scoffed.

“You are... he is your man?” Rima, who had just about been following the conversation, asked Shala.

“My, you’re not asleep yet? Enough gossip for you, young lady. Sleep now.” Huna-Miwe ordered.

“Mhmm, yeah. I will.” The witch said, turning over. “Thank you for today, old woman Huna. I... I’d like to be a woman like you said... soon. And make happy food.” The old woman sighed and sat there in silence, listening to the deep breathing of the all-too-innocent young girl. Her mind carried her down the way of memories and past joys and regrets, and every now and then she whispered a song that was lost in the night until, eventually, she nodded off completely. When she did, Shala came over and, gently, half-walked and half-carried her to the bedding she had prepared.

Though Miha-Rad was a town scarred, and though blood flowed fresh and was an open wound in the hearts of its people, the night was peaceful and calm and the moon of Qibbar Husnu shone bright and protective and was to all their grief and pain a balm.

excerpts from:
The Great Collected Piece
for the One Who Shan’t from Knowing Cease
writ that it may, at last, give such Valiant Seekers Peace

Written by Mijaranta the Scribe from the words of his sage and master Arahtura

I. Introduction

This is recorded by Mijaranta the scribe, the disciple of the Master Arahtura. It is the history of Dehrthaa, the great Ramshidra, by the mouth of the Master. Thus spake the sage our Master:

We begin, as are all beginnings, with praise of the Glorified Mojtha who came into the world and cleansed it. We praise him who is the sanctified avatar and voice of Misnaya the god, who is the Protective Lord, the Creator of Balance, the Maintainer of Order, the Ordainer of Justice, the Sustainer of the Living, the Writer of the Law, and the Teacher of the Meditative Ways. Praised be ever the Glorified Mojtha, praised be ever Misnaya - who is but an aspect of the One Who Frowns. And in praising them, who are aspects of aspects, we praise the ever-alert and watchful Lord whose throne is Mount Qaywandar. We praise the One Who Frowns and extend our arms to him in worship and gratitude.

Now know this Mijaranta: the first noble learning is the knowledge of places; one who seeks to know the history of Dehrthaa must first know its places. So listen carefully and know now. The Land of Dehrthaa is made up of five regions - it has always been this way. These regions are:
  • The Khadaar in the north.
  • The Place Betwixt the Rivers in central Dehrthaa.
  • The Sea of Mimarba in the east and the great mangrove forest, known as the Mimrabans, on its coast.
  • The Qaywandar Highlands and Lowlands in the west.
  • The great forests and jungles of Muraymuna in the farthest south.

II. On the Khadaar

Of the Khadaar, the eager seeker of knowledge should know this:

These are green and fertile grasslands. Here many herbs and shrubs grow wild, as do solitary trees. The savanna is mainly dominated by grasses, interrupted by trees and shrubs. There is much greenery near rivers and lakes, of which there is a small number.
Rains come in the wet season and do not in the dry season. The wet season is a month-long period of continuous rain that brings water and life. In the dry season, all things dry without irrigation.

In the Khadaar, fires occur annually and, if early in the dry season, are beneficial to plant growth - the people here know this and often start the fires at the right time. Larger plants are subdued by fires. Large herbivores also eat them - and they, in turn, are fed upon by large carnivores. Mature trees can survive the fires, but their seedlings may be killed.
The people of the Khadaar have played a major role in creating and extending the Khadaar with deforestation, initiated fires, agriculture, and by bringing new plants and domesticated animals. Once the Khadaar may have been a land of endless forest similar in some ways to Muraymuna, but this is no more. Only small foresty enclaves remain as evidence that there ever was a jungle here.

In terms of plants, grasses reign with some trees that seasonally shed their leaves, along with scrubs. You also find the flat-topped acacia, the solitary baobab, clumped grasses, and bush thickets. Elephant grass grows quickly in the rainy season - up to twenty handspans. I have observed that plant leaves tend to be small and thick, and either waxy or hairy. I have also observed that both the baobab and acacia lose leaves in the dry season.
The baobab is unique to the Khadaar and is quite strange in appearance - many hold it to be sacred for this reason. It can grow to great heights - I have observed those that were thirty and one hundred spans in height; one must walk four and sixty spans to go full circle around some. As for age, some are reputed to be thousands of cycles old. Their fruit is the monkey bread, its leaves are edible, and the tree stores water inside its trunk.

Anyone who has walked the great grassy expanses of the Khadaar knows well that it captures the imagination, especially in terms of freedom and wildness. Great herds of gazelles roam here - great free things unrestrained by limited space or high mountains and forests to obstruct them. The soil is good and over time some of the nomadic people have settled into villages to farm the land. People here are also involved in silk production and actively grow the white mulberry to feed their silkworms. The north is dominated by the Khadaar nomads, who have their own arrangements with the shids of the southern Khadaar.

As for animals, I have roamed the Khadaar and seen all there is to see, so record this and commit it to your memory:
  • Large herds of thousands of wildebeest and caffer buffalo can be seen in the dry season.
  • Other common animals include the dik-dik.
  • Predators include the lion, the leopard, the cheetah, the caracal, and the wild dog.
  • The hispid hare, active near dusk and dawn, roams in tall grasslands across the western Khadaar, though grassland burnings mean they are not as common anymore.
  • The nocturnal bunyoro rabbit occupies the foresty and rocky regions of the central Khadaar.
  • The large brown hare roams across the Khadaar’s open grasslands.
  • The red fox is present, along with the "asse" - the silver-backed fox. The latter is restricted to open grasslands, where it is most comfortable, unlike the more versatile and cunning red fox.
  • The raccoon dog roams in the Khadaar also and is valued for its fur, particularly when reared in captivity.
  • The bat-eared fox dwells in the short grasslands on the eastern Khadaar.
  • The maned wolf roams in the northern and eastern Khadaar as well as the northern parts of the Qaywandar Lowlands.
  • There is a population of wild dogs in the north and central Khadaar.
  • Dholes are present across the Khadaar.
  • The limited woodlands of the Khadaar are home to side-striped jackals, while the related black-backed jackals prefer the open grasslands of the region.
  • Golden jackals roam across the eastern and central Khadaar while wolves may be found across the region.
  • Shepherds make use of various dog breeds for herding and protection across the Khadaar.
  • Herds of takhi horses roam across the open grassland of the Khadaar.
  • Certain breeds of horses, and certain uses (such as show or war), are considered marks of prestige, though the majority of common folk use horses for work.
  • There also exist feral horse herds - that is, horses that are domesticated but have run free and are now untamed.
  • Lion prides stalk the length and breadth of the Khadaar.
  • Where the Khadaar meets the Qaywandar, there lives the golden cat, which also dwells in the mountains of the Lowland and beyond.
  • The leopard cat is also present in the same region as the golden cat, while the common wildcat is present across the Khadaar.
  • Domestic cats are kept by people as pets in settlements and on farms to hunt rodents and other pests.
  • The wild boar occurs in the eastern Khadaar and along the River Muhaddir in the southern Khadaar, while warthogs can be found across the Khadaar.
  • Various species of civet call the grasslands home, and as does the ferocious honey badger and the sloth bear.
  • The Khadaar is home to a number of antelope species, these being the nilgai, chinkara (a kind of gazelle), the blackbuck, and the four-horned antelope.
  • Snakes that can be found across the Khadaar include the common krait, the chandroborha viper, the saw-scaled viper, the spectacled cobra, and the black-tailed python.
  • The common crane sometimes winters here.
  • Deer species that roam the Khadaar include the chital, the muntjac, the barasingha deer, and the sambar deer.
  • The great elephant, one of the greatest of the animals of Dehrthaa, roams across the Khadaar.
  • The hoopoe is present in forested parts of the Khadaar and the common peafowl roams throughout the region.
  • The greater one-horned rhinoceros calls the plains of the Khadaar home, particularly in the south near the River Muhaddir.
  • A number of mongoose species call the Khadaar home.
  • The people living in the southern Khadaar keep a riverine water buffalo species.
  • The small dircaan as well as their larger cousin, the tri-horned dircaan, roam all over the Khadar.
  • The terrible carnivorous and winged dircaan, known as the ujkaar, also roams the Khadaar.

This is all that the beginner needs to know - and even if you go the rest of your life knowing no more of the Khadaar than this, then you will have done well for yourself Mijaranta.

III. On the Place Betwixt the Rivers

As for the Place Betwixt the Rivers, listen now for I shall relay to you what the cycles of roaming and pursuit of knowledge have unveiled:

South of the Khadaar lies the Place Betwixt the Rivers. It is a hilly but fertile area between the River Muhaddir in the north and the River Juhmar in the south. It stretches from the diversion of the River Dahuur at the Rock That Would Not Move in the west until the conversion of the Muhaddir and Juhmar into the River Mudhindahuur in the east.

The seasonal flooding of the Muhaddir and Juhmar, as well as other rivers, occurs in the dry season due to higher temperatures causing the glaciers in the Qaywandar Highlands to melt. Rain in the Place Betwixt the Rivers is split between the wet season and dry season, just like the Khadaar. The dry season is also flood season, while the wet season centres around the same month-long period of continuous rain. The rain can sometimes be so great as to cause the rivers to flood a second time, though this is a rare occurrence. The lack of rain in the dry season is not felt as markedly in the Place Betwixt the Rivers as it is in the Khadaar due to the presence of various tributaries and lakes throughout the region. As with the Khadaar, people here involved in silk production actively grow the white mulberry to feed their silkworms.

As for animals, listen now and remember:
  • The karun hare thrives across the region, as does the red fox.
  • The raccoon dog roams in the Place Betwixt the Rivers and is valued for its fur, particularly when reared in captivity.
  • Dholes are present across the region, as are golden jackals.
  • Wolves are present, but in reduced numbers due to hunting.
  • Shepherds make use of various dog breeds for herding and protection across the region.
  • Certain breeds of horses, and certain uses (like show or war), are considered marks of prestige, though the majority of common folk use horses for work.
  • Lions call the hills, forests, and rivers of the Place Betwixt the Rivers home.
  • Domestic cats are kept by people as pets in settlements and on farms to hunt rodents and other pests.
  • The wild boar is present in the hills and along the rivers stretching to the east.
  • The various rivers and lakes of the region are home to the common otter and smooth-coated otter.
  • Innumerable freshwater fish call the rivers and lakes of the Place Betwixt the Rivers home.
  • Snakes that can be found across the region include the common krait, the spectacled cobra, the pit viper, the black-tailed python, the common vine snake, the aquatic checkered keelback, and various venomous elapid snakes.
  • The common crane sometimes breeds in the lakes and shallow waters of the region.
  • The rivers and lakes of the Place Betwixt the Rivers are home to the fish-eating crocodile and the mugger crocodile.
  • The muntjac deer roams the hilly regions of the Place Betwixt the Rivers.
  • The golden monitor is to be found in the floodplains of the region.
  • The river dolphin is to be found in the River Muhaddir and Juhmar.
  • The hoopoe is present in forested parts of the region.
  • The greater one-horned rhinoceros roams in the region.
  • The people living in the region keep a riverine water buffalo species.
  • The common peafowl roams throughout the region.

Know all this that I have said to you of the Place Betwixt the Rivers and know it well, and if afterwards you wish to know more, Mijaranta, you will find yourself building upon the best of foundations indeed.

IV. On the Sea of Mimarba and the Mimrabans

As for that eastern region where the world seems as water beneath your feet and where the many mangroves are, know this:

After the rivers Muhaddir and Juhmar diverge, they flow through the Place Betwixt the Rivers and eventually converge again into the Mudhindahuur River, from where they flow into the Sea of Mimarba. A great mangrove forest, known as the Mimrabans, grows along the sea’s coast and in the wetlands created by the Mudhindahuur’s great delta. The dominant mangrove species is locally known as mimri or mimrabi, which yields a hardwood used for building houses and making boats, furniture, and other things.

It may well surprise you to know that I did not find these mangrove forests to be home to a great variety of plants. This is because they have a thick canopy, and the undergrowth is mostly seedlings of the mangrove trees. One notable tree that does manage to grow here, among a few others, is the nipa palm.

As for animals, there are many. Listen, Mijaranta, and I shall tell you:
  • Dholes are present in the Mimrabans along with wolves.
  • Shepherds make use of various dog breeds for herding and protection across the region.
  • The Mimrabans are home to the majestic and terrible tiger and to the leopard cat, and to both the jungle cat and fishing cat.
  • Wild boars are present in the western parts of the Mimrabans.
  • Various species of civet call the Mimrabans home, and so does the small-clawed otter, common otter, and smooth-coated otter (though the latter requires freshwater from further upstream).
  • Innumerable brackishwater fish call the Mimrabans home, and as does the sloth bear.
  • Snakes that can be found in the Mimrabans include the spectacled cobra, the pit viper, the black-tailed python, the aquatic and nocturnal bockadam snake, and various venomous elapid sea snakes.
  • The common crane commonly winters in the shallower waters of the great delta, which have the advantage of being protected by the great mangrove forest.
  • The saltwater crocodile is at home in the brackish waters of the Mimrabans and the Sea of Mimarba.
  • Deer species that live here include the chital, the muntjac, the barasingha deer, and the sambar deer.
  • The golden monitor is to be found here and so too is the greater flamingo.
  • Shrimps, prawns, lobsters, and crabs are found in abundance, as is a species of crayfish.
  • The Mimrabans is also home to the greater one-horned rhinoceros.
  • The people living in the region keep a swamp water buffalo species.
  • Various species of woodpecker dwell here and can often be heard pecking away.
  • Two great species of dircaan, the one-horned dircan and the comb-headed dircaan, dwell in the Mimrabans where their diet is composed of both vegetation and aquatic life-forms.
  • A wingless relative of the winged dircaan, better adapted to aquatic environments, stalks the wetlands of the Mimrabans and the Sea of Mimarba - the water dircaan.

V. On Qaywandar

Now, Mijaranta, I shall speak to you of sacred Qaywandar, its lowlands and its highlands - so listen attentively and well:

Qaywandar in the west, named for the holy mountain whereon the One Who Frowns sits enthroned, is a mountainous region and is the source of the many rivers that converge into the River Dahuur, which swiftly splits off into the Rivers Muhaddir and Juhmar due to the Rock That Would Not Move. I have sat up there in the mountains to meditate on the secrets of the rivers that stem from it, and I have seen that the coming of summer causes glaciers to melt in the Qaywandar Highlands; the resultant meltwater feeds various freshwater mountain lakes, which are in turn the sources of the many rivers of Dehrthaa. The melting of the glaciers results in the seasonal flooding of the Muhaddir and Juhmar, as well as other rivers - foremost amongst which is the River Mur in Muraymuna. Despite this, the Qaywandar Highlands, and some parts of the Qaywandar Lowlands, are very cold all cycle round. There are also many lakes in the Qaywandar Lowlands, a number of which freeze over in the colder months.

The Qaywandar Lowlands and Highlands are home to mountain rainforests. In comparison to other places, these forests have a relatively low variety of plants and life. They are mainly made up of needle-leaf trees. I found that larch, a needle-leaf that seasonally sheds its leaves, and cone-producing evergreens are most present. Some small-leaf trees that seasonally shed their leaves occur, as well as berry-producing shrubs and ground cover. The region is particularly notable for the majestic giant sequoias that grow in isolated groves - these can grow to become sixty and three hundred spans in height and the distance of walking full-circle about one can be seven and thirty spans. How old they are the mountain only knows.

The middle elevations of the Qaywandar, on the other hand, boast temperate broadleaf forest regions that support an incredible variety of life. At lower elevations, this region boasts pine forests. At higher elevations, it boasts conifer forests as well as alpine shrub and meadows. This region of middle elevation receives a considerable amount of rain during the wet season. Oaks and laurels, such as the cinnamon tree, grow here, as does maple, the common walnut, the mountain alder, the mountain hazelnut, and various species of birch and magnolia.

There are many animals in Qaywandar, for it is a blessed land that teems with life beneath the watchful gaze of the One Who Frowns. I shall speak to you of the wildlife I observed - though know that it is impossible for one man, even a watchful man, to observe all. I give you a foundation, Mijaranta, and if you will carry this torch then you must build on it. Listen now, these are the animals that call Qaywandar, its lowlands and highlands, home:
  • The hispid hare roams in the eastern lowland regions.
  • The snowshoe hare, whose fur is white in winter and brown in summer, dwells in the mountain forests of the Qaywandar lowlands.
  • The large mountain hare is present across Qaywandar.
  • The red fox is present across the lowland regions.
  • Dholes are present across the Qaywandar Lowlands along with wolves.
  • Shepherds make use of various dog breeds for herding and protection in the Lowlands.
  • Certain breeds of horses, and certain uses (such as show or war), are considered marks of prestige, though the majority of common folk here make use of the sturdy mountain ponies to navigate the difficult terrain and heights.
  • The wild kiang, the largest wild ass species, roams the Qaywandar Lowlands.
  • The clouded leopard stalks the foothills of the Qaywandar mountains, and as does the leopard.
  • The heights of the Qaywandar, above the tree line, are home to snow leopards, chinchilla, and wolverines, while the forests of the Highlands are home to the marbled cat and the golden cat.
  • The golden cat, along with the leopard cat, dwells in the Lowlands and to the foothills stretching towards Muraymuna and beyond.
  • The lynx is well adapted to stalk the difficult terrain of the Qaywandar Lowlands and Highlands.
  • The yellow-bellied weasel dwells in both the Highland and Lowland forests, though it descends to the Lowlands in especially cold weather.
  • The wildcat also occurs in the Lowlands, as does the wild boar.
  • The giant forest hog also occurs in the Lowlands and where the Qaywandar foothills merge with Muraymuna.
  • The yellow-throated marten and hill marten dwell in the forests of the Lowlands and Highlands of Qaywandar, as well as where the foothills merge with the jungles of Muraymuna.
  • The lakes and rivers of the Qaywandar foothills are home to the common otter and smooth-coated otter.
  • Some species of grey langur inhabit the Qaywandar.
  • The mighty brown bear occurs above the tree line, in the Highland forests, and in their Lowland counterparts.
  • The Lowland forests are also home to the arboreal black bear.
  • Snakes that can be found in the Lowlands include the common krait, the spectacled cobra, the pit viper (which can be found in the Highlands and above the tree line), the black-tailed python, the common vine snake, the bronzeback tree-snake, the very hardy, adaptable, and arboreal cat-eyed snake, and the mountain pit viper (in forests at high altitudes).
  • The black-necked crane summers in the great Highland lakes of the Qaywandar.
  • The rivers and lakes of the Qaywandar Lowlands and foothills are home to the fish-eating crocodile and the mugger crocodile.
  • Deer species that live in the Qaywandar foothills include the chital, the barasingha deer, the muntjac and sambar deers (which can both be found in the Highlands).
  • The great elephant can be found even in the Highlands of Qaywandar.
  • The tenacious ibex dwells above the tree line in the mountains.
  • The people living in the mountains keep a riverine water buffalo species as well as domestic yaks further up beyond the tree line.

This is what the one who sits upon the throne of Mount Qaywandar has deemed fitting and right to show me; that there is his kingdom and his are its wonders. He allows whom he wishes to gaze on it and he forbids whom he wills!

VI. On Muraymuna

All that begins must end, Mijaranta, and so we arrive at the sixth and final of Dehrthaa’s regions. As you listened when I first spoke, listen to these my last words and commit what you hear to memory - for I shan’t speak of it to you after this day:

In the furthest south is Muraymuna, a land of uninterrupted forests and jungles, and into which flow a number of rivers from Qaywandar. The greatest of these is the River Mur, which flows deep into the jungle until it pouts itself into Lake Raiya. The rain is intense in Muraymuna, though it is evenly distributed across the cycle so that there are no distinct wet and dry seasons. When paired with the generally high temperatures, this makes for suffocating humidity indeed.

Muraymuna boasts a great variety of evergreen rainforest and flooded forests also. In the former, these forests enjoy consistent daylight cycle-round, with high temperatures and high rainfall. The forest is dominated by semi-evergreen and evergreen trees. These trees number in the thousands and contribute to the highest level of species variety I have observed in any of the regions Dehrthaa. A relatively small area may be home to as many as one thousand tree species! The perpetually warm and wet climate promotes more explosive plant growth than in any other area. Animal life is likewise diverse and abundant. I have observed that there are several layers of life to the jungle - a unique situation due to the abundance of life here. There is the forest floor layer, the understory layer, the canopy layer, and what I call the emergent layer. The canopy is home to many of the forest’s animals, including apes and monkeys. Below the canopy, a lower understory hosts snakes and big cats. The forest floor, relatively clear of undergrowth due to the thick canopy above causing little sunlight to make it through, is stalked by animals such as gorillas and deer. It is ever moist, with rotting fruit and mould, and a web of roots and vines from above. There is no wind on the forest floor, so the carrying of plant seeds depends on insects and other animals. The soil is rich in litter decay on the surface. A thick and continuous leaf canopy of broadleaf evergreen trees, such as mahogany, ebony, and rosewood, tops the forest. Palms, sugarcane, and bamboo grow too. Tree trunks tend to be smooth and slender with thin bark buttressed by woody flanks that grow from the root system to stabilise the tall trees. Usually, no branches grow on the lower two-thirds of the trees. Lianas climb the trees, and orchids, bromeliads, and ferns attach to them too.

The flooded parts of Muraymuna occur along the lower reaches of rivers and around freshwater lakes, producing freshwater swamp forests. The flooded region’s extent increases during the flood season, when the rivers bring a fresh deposit of silt - similar in many ways to the Mimrabans. Compared to dryer parts of Muraymuna, these swamp forests have few varieties of plants. Due to this, they are mostly full of one type or just a few types of trees, like myristica. Thin peat, however, may be found in these forests. Such areas, where trees are not present, give way to floating meadows. In fauna, these freshwater swamp forests are just as diverse as the dryland forest.

You ask me about the animals, I shall tell you. Listen well now Mijaranta:
  • The red fox is present in the dryer parts of Muraymuna, and both the dhole and wolf are present across the jungle region.
  • The opportunistic and powerful leopard stalks these jungles along with the sturdier jaguar, and as does the terrible tiger.
  • The black panther, a variant of leopards and jaguars, is also present.
  • The eastern parts of Muraymuna are home to the golden cat, which extends into the mountains also, and to the leopard cat and giant forest hog.
  • The solitary and nocturnal margay dwells in the jungles.
  • Various species of civet call the eastern and north-eastern reaches of Muraymuna home, and the binturong also dwells across the great jungles of the region.
  • The small-clawed otter, smooth-coated otter, and common otter dwell in the freshwater wetlands of the Muraymuna forests.
  • Innumerable freshwater fish call the Muraymuna wetlands and rivers home.
  • The jungles are home to many monkey species, including langurs, lutungs, macaques, and hoolock gibbons.
  • The jungles are also home to the sun bear and sloth bear.
  • The colour-changing chameleon also dwells in the jungle.
  • Snakes that can be found across Muraymuna include the common krait, the spectacled cobra, the king cobra, the pit viper, the black-tailed python, the common vine snake, the darash ratsnake, the aquatic checkered keelback, the bronzeback tree-snake, and the very hardy, adaptable, and arboreal cat-eyed snake.
  • The rivers and lakes of Muraymuna are home to the fish-eating crocodile and the mugger crocodile.
  • The muntjac, sambar, and hog deers can be found in the great jungle.
  • The common monitor stalks the great jungle while the river dolphin is to be found in all of its rivers and lakes.
  • The great elephant dwells here too.
  • The ruddy mongoose calls the Muraymuna forests home.
  • Various species of woodpecker dwell in the forests and contribute to its great and constant choir.

I have spoken and you have listened, Mijaranta, and this is all you shall hear from me about Muarymuna.

These are the six regions, and if you are to know the history of Dehrthaa you must know them well. He who does not know where a thing happened may benefit only little by knowing what it is that happened. And they should not be trusted who say, "it matters not the where or why, but only the what of it". Such as those will rid the world of wisdom and cause every sage to weep.

VII. The Origins and History of Dehrthaa to the Present Times

In the beginning, there was only the Serene Lord, and all was harmony and peace. When the Laugh sounded and cleft the world, the Serene Lord opened his eyes and frowned, and so the One Who Frowns emerged from the bloodfog - where he had always been and always frowned. Without speaking he gave chase to the One Who Laughs. And they raged in heaven and warred, and they brought about the Thousand Terrible Things and Faces.

Out of the fallen and debris of their battles, and out of their great warriors and war tools, was the earth brought into being in due course. When in time the battle continued to draw out and victory seemed no closer than it had always been, the One Who Frowns came to settle down, and he gazed on the world and found nothing befitting of his glory. So he caused Qaywandar to emerge from the bowels of the earth and he called it his throne, and there he sat and from there he watched over the clay-fingered people of Dehrthaa and he blessed them so that their hair was as black silk.

Know this, Mijaranta: the land of Dehrthaa is ancient, and so long as time and man have co-existed so has it been. But it was not always unified, and the people for long suffered beneath the yoke of oppressive shids who carved up the land into petty shidras and filled the world with suffering due to their constant warring and jealous feuds. They paid goodness and justice no heed and chased blindly after the fulfilment of their desires and ambitions, and so they killed and slaughtered, stole and raped, betrayed and conspired. And those were the times of the Great Bloodletting.

Listen now, and listen carefully: in those times most people were organised, not tribally or in rural settlements as was the case in even earlier times, but territorially – in units of land referred to, as I have said, shidras. Cities were emerging in the Juhmar river valley with diverse populations - different people coming from all over -, and there were also increasingly wealthy mercantile communities - traders, merchants! - and would-be rulers carving out important roles and large territories for themselves in and around such rising cities.

At the same time, however, these cities were not stable economic or political centres; changing lifestyles, political infighting, and disease reduced their viability. Amongst other things, there was heavy taxation on the peasantry and exploitation of the people by those in power. As a text from that time period puts it:

“Those in authority feed on the people; the state is the eater and the people are the food.”

The One Who Frowns looked on all this and there grew within him great displeasure, and his displeasure blossomed into wrath... but before the full flower of his wrath could manifest itself unto the world it gave way to mercy. And so he saw fit to send to these straying people a guide.

It was so that the Glorified Mojtha came into the world and caused the thousand wayward shids and all their confederates to flee in terror and humiliation. And his days were many and glorious, and all of Dehrthaa, even from the green plains of the Khadaar to the deep jungles of Muraymuna, knew peace and harmony beneath the shade of the glorified Ramshid’s sagacious and divinely-inspired rule. When at last he shed his worldly chains, he did not simply die like you or me - for it is not the lot of those such as he to perish into dust away - but his glories cleansed and carried him, and the heavens called and beckoned him, and the people venerated and magnified him, so that he ascended on high and suffused all below, and all voices praised and glorified him and all heads fell in worship.

There came in his wake generation after generation of heirs, and of them were those who followed in the way of their father and well their duties to their people kept. They called to goodness, ordaining probity and proscribing vice, and they guarded their people against external threats and internal chaos and strife: so that when the Okur-Durcan rode forth from beyond the Khadaar, on their million dircaan-steeds, those gloried and just Ramshids sallied forth and smote them utterly and sent them north away; and when rapacious, jealous shids rose up to tear away the unity of Dehrthaa those hallowed and watchful Ramshids were the waiting hammer and fury, guardians of their people they! Those were the well-guided and successful, their spirits mighty and wise, and the One Who Frowns was pleased with them and caused them to rise up with their glorified father in death so that all voices should exalt them and follow in their way into eternity. Even now they are remembered and known, their deeds and virtues recounted; and all know them as Those of the Great Spirit.

Then there came after Those of the Great Spirit generation upon generation of heirs who mixed mindfulness of duty with neglect, acts of probity with those of vice, and who followed the way of their first father only in form and ritual. These survived on the legendary edifice Those of the Great Spirit had erected before them, and so they were safe and the people neither prospered nor suffered.

Then there came after them generation on generation of heirs to whom wickedness was made to appear good, and the people groaned beneath their decadence. They pursued the pleasures of the world and viewed themselves as living gods. They saw that all were to serve them, that all had duties to them and they to none. And the people raised their hands up and called with a single voice on the One Who Frowns to avenge them, and when he descended from the mountain, to grant them their harvest, how odious was the morn of those who had sown wickedness!

And there followed chaos and terror and a great bloodletting. In the vacuum left behind by the Ramshids emerged power-hungry mayors, governors, hard-eyed and untamed hillmen, feudal lords seeking self-aggrandisement, tribal chieftains, and rebellious peasant leaders. They emerged from every crevice and cavern and deep ravine, they descended from every mountain pass and rose from every valley and came on every great elephant and horse and dircaan to carve up the land of Dehrthaa into disunited shidras once more. The law was that of the fishes, and strife was the lot of the weak. The ways of the Glorified Mojtha and Those of the Great Spirit were thrown to the wayside and all sought only to fulfil their vain desires and ambitions as in the times of the Great Bloodletting the shids had done afore.

In that time there were brief - fleeting - cycles in which parts of Dehrthaa experienced some respite. The fierce foreign Plant-King, known only as the World-Conqueror, arrived at the banks of the River Mur during that period and decisively defeated a number of shids in the utmost southwest of Dehrthaa. He then set about preparing his troops for entry into Dehrthaa proper.

Because of the World-Conqueror’s death, the invasion never occurred; yet among those shids preparing to battle him was one Tahlan-Amujjirta of the tribe of Mupkinraya. Tahlan-Amujjirta had soon rallied to himself the largest army in the west with hundreds of elephants and tens of thousands of infantrymen. By either conquering or making alliances with the shids of other city-states he established an empire that stretched across much of West Dehrthaa: from the western Muraymuna, across the Qaywandar, and into the Khadaar, with the Rock That Would Not Move marking his easternmost boundary.

Tahlan-Amujjirta’s grandson, Mokrasha, led some unsuccessful campaigns against the shids of the Place Betwixt the Rivers, until after a particularly brutal battle on the southern banks of the Muhaddir he was moved to convert to the Mojthast Rejectionist creed, or, at least, to selectively appropriate the teachings of his Mojthast mentors. Under Mokrasha’s selective application of Mojathaya, the rudiments of a compassionate judicial system were implemented, non-violence and vegetarianism were encouraged, and various religious sects were honoured - however, monasteries were patronised and Mojthast principles favoured over all others.

Needless to say, Mokrasha came to be a subject of intense dispute amongst later Mojthasts, with some claiming he was a Seed of the Mojtha - for they do not believe Mojtha to be an avatar of great Misnaya -, while others view him as a great Mojthast but no Mojtha, and others yet hold him to have been yet another opportunistic shid who used the faith for worldly self-aggrandisement. After Mokrasha’s death, the unity of his shidra dissipated and the west reverted to city-states and smaller shidras. And across Dehrthaa, the cycles of darkness and blood drew out into decades, and it seemed to all that this Shidrasta would continue on into eternity. But those who neglect duty scheme, and the One Who Frowns schemes also, and his schemes emerge ever above what they contrive.

So in time it was the will of the One Who Frowns that Birsas shib Hur should be, and when he became he was made mighty and he was made glorious - so much so that some Mojthasts declared that there was planted within him the Seed of Mojtha. And when he grew, he grew strong and he was imbued with wisdom and his mind was honed. And the One Who Frowns bid him go, and he was placed where his power flourished and the flower of his destiny was made to blossom and all shids were brought low before him, and all of the land of Dehrthaa and her peoples bowed to him and praised him. And he ascended to the throne and was hailed as Ramshid, the coming forth of Mojtha into the world once more.

But when his mortal form was quashed and his essence ascended to the One Who Frowns, there came after him sons who did not keep to his way. They allowed greed and the dereliction of duty to take root in their hearts so that there was a terrible bloodletting. And it did not cease until the sons of Birsas had all perished bar the one called Dagran - and now as I speak to you the Dehrthaa finds itself splintered between Dagran who rules in the Place Betwixt the Rivers and the shid Arkhus shib Mucazim, who has married himself to Muwayma the granddaughter of Birsas, in the southern Khadaar. In the northern Khadaar the nomads have broken free of their ties to the southern shids and united themselves about a great warlord called Shuhgumir. The shids of Qaywandar, like those of the Mimrabans, are divided amongst themselves and watch fearfully and cautiously what those mighty shidras of the Khadaar, Muraymuna, and Place Betwixt the Rivers do. And in the Muraymuna we have seen the rise of the One-Godders continue unchecked - they have established their state there, first under the Teacher-Sage Roja Karn and then - after his assassination and the cessation of the Teacher-Sages - under the powerful Shidilshid Muhabarat. The unity of Dehrthaa is once more shattered, and we stand at the cusp of a great bloodletting once again.

I will tell you now of the One-Godders of Muraymuna and how they came to be. This movement came about in the late-Shidrasta. It was initiated by Ghinkulo the Teacher, whose simple message was spread through his prolific writings and extensive travels in all directions: God is one and supreme, he said. He is the all-pervading Creator — fearless, timeless and self-existent — who can be realised only through His own grace. All men are equal; discrimination on the basis of one’s position in society or creed as well as the suppression of women is to be denounced.

Ghinkulo advocated the righteous life of a householder against that of the ascetic. He declared that this world is a reflection of divine purpose and so man’s duty is to improve the condition of his fellow beings through, love, compassion, and right conduct. Practical virtue, rather than abstract piety, is the preferred way. Honest work, charity and the remembrance of the true God’s name is the path to salvation and release.

While being clear that his belief system was a break from Dehru tradition, Ghinkulo preached that one’s soul would reincarnate in this universe unless it attains release, which is to be achieved through the grace of the God. In its corporeal attire, the soul passes through cycles of birth and rebirth. Through Divine Grace, it can merge back into the Cosmic Soul and escape the cycle of life and death.

Ghinkulo denounced the oppression and tyranny of the ruling classes, protesting against the conquests carried out by the Mupkinrayas who had ‘stormed across the land with their wedding party of sin from Sondarba’. He lamented the suffering inflicted by the shids on innocent citizens, particularly the womenfolk. His reaction was not just of an eyewitness but also of a philosophical sage, a visionary and a poet. The shortcomings of the age, the profligacy of rulers, the nature of the divine will, and the suffering that mankind has to endure when the whih principles on which the world rests are ignored were all brought out in his compositions which are renowned for their spiritual depth and literary beauty.

This protest can be regarded as the genesis of the clash of the One-Godder faith with the shids.

When Ghinkulo settled down in Sokalkapur on the southern banks of the River Juhmar after more than thirty cycles on the road, he gathered around him a congregation which was a precursor to the community that was to follow. Here he taught the ways of the true worship of God, the practice of true whih – which he defined as duty – the discipline of true reflection and meditation as well as the rejection of outward form and false status based on one’s position in society or wealth. Here started the practice of singing the praises of God. Here too were seen the beginnings of the institution of the communal mess hall. A new community with its own tradition of companionship, values, and beliefs was thus born at the southern bank of the Juhmar. For Ghinkulo and for One-Godders, the lowest is equal with the highest in race as in creed, in social and political life as in religious hopes.

After Ghinkulo’s death, the head of the community who followed him came to be known as the Teacher-Sage. One of these, Buhra Letfu, made very significant social innovations that were to form an important aspect of a distinct One-Godder cultural identity, including the prohibition of the practices of wide immolation for women, as well as the propagation of widow remarriage and marriages between people of different positions in society.

The Teacher-Sage after him was Shurdas, his devoted disciple and son-in-law, who chose to build a town where the River Mur flows into Lake Raiya in Muraymuna. This town would get the name of Shurdaskan, later renamed Rutsa-kul; Lake Raiya would house the Temple of the Hundred Pillars. The One-Godders were encouraged to make contributions in coin, kind, and service for the growth of the town; in fact, the spirit of voluntary labour remains strong among One-Godders to this day.

The Temple was completed by the next Teacher-Sage, who asked a well-known Theistic Mojthast monk to lay the foundation stone. The simple and modest temple, as it then was, had none of the trappings of extravagance usually associated with such buildings. It was lower than the surrounding land and not towering above; it had five entrances and was thus open to people of all positions in society. The Temple was to undergo destruction and desecration many times at the hands of conquering shids, and would be given its present spectacular form by Shidilshid Muhabarat after the death of Ramshid Birsas and the rise of the independent One-Godder state.

Due to the martyrdom of a number of Teacher-Sages at the hands of shids, and as the One-Godder community came to realise that the non-violent martyrdom of sages would not awaken the comatose conscience of the oppressive regime, a martial spirit came into existence under the auspices of one Teacher-Sage Rhugaham. The One-Godders were taught to take up arms, but only in self-defence and for the right cause. Wearing two axes around his waist — one for spirituality and the other for temporal power — Rhugaham gathered a body of soldiers around him and spent much time on martial exercises and hunting.

These developments were a challenge to the shids. The fledgling army clashed with marauding shids on several occasions and emerged victorious, showing that the seemingly all-powerful warrior-ruler class of shids could be successfully challenged. A new spirit of armed defiance and pride in their prowess had entered the consciousness of the One-Godders which was celebrated by the singing of heroic ballads, accompanied by the blood-stirring strains of the sarangi at the Court of the Temporal Throne, the new temporal seat of the faith built right across from the Temple of the Hundred Pillars (which had become the spiritual centre).

Matters came to a head when a delegation of Shedder Rejectionists came to Teacher-Sage Marukbam, requesting him to save them from the conversions being enforced by one shid Fuhara’s priests. After deliberating over the matter, the Teacher-Sage declared that if the shid could convert him to Reformed Ritualism, the Shedder Rejectionists would follow suit. This was a direct challenge to Fuhara who ordered that Marukbam be brought to his seat at Palukban in fetters. Marukbam did not wait for his captors but began moving towards Palukban of his own accord. When finally arrested, he was brought to Palukban in a cage of wood and bamboo.

The priests challenged the Teacher-Sage to perform a miracle or convert to Reformed Ritualism. When he refused, three of his close companions, who had joined him, were killed in his presence. Thereafter, the Teacher-Sage himself was beheaded in the market square; there stands today a One-Godder temple known as the Bloodhall of Marukbam the Saint. It is said that a terrible storm then raged through Palukban and, during the storm, a humble One-Godder recovered the Teacher-Sage’s head and took it to Rutsa-kul, where Marukbam’s son Roja Karn was. The body was similarly smuggled away by another follower to his own hut at a place called Gulik Hill, and the hut was set afire to cremate the body. A solemn memorial made of white marble was later built on this site, the Gulik Shrine.

The jungle shids of the Muraymuna then watched Roja Karn’s growing power and influence with consternation, though the coming of Ramshid Birsas ensured peace. With his death, the One-Godders were unleashed under the leadership of first Roja Karn and then, after his assassination and the cessation of the Teacher-Sages, under Shidilshid Muhabarat. Now all of Muraymuna is in the hands of those unyielding One-Godder warriors.

VIII. The Creeds of Dehrthaa

Know this Mijaranta: the thousand warring creeds and beliefs have intermingled with the blood of every Dehru - you will not find a single one who does not hold to one creed or another. These various religions and beliefs may be based on region, clan, ethnic origin, and other factors, though the great majority of beliefs tend to be variations on the same core elements. Creeds range from polytheistic belief in the gods as real, personal entities that actually and physically exist, to an understanding of the gods as representations of abstract concepts and ideas one is to live by, to dualism, to purist one-godism, to wholly atheistic beliefs.

The traditional religion of Dehrthaa is the ritualistic worship of the Serene Lord, the One Who Frowns, and the Thousand Terrible Things and Faces. This ritualistic religion is organised and led by a class of spiritual teachers known as Priests. Priests can generally be found in every locality and are organised in great temples in major cities. Such temples are usually built on sacred spots, which are identified either through written or oral accounts of the history and mythos of that spot or pilgrimage site, generally telling of the exploits of a deity at a particular place and of wondrous deeds done by worshippers and pilgrims to it.

While ritual remains of great importance across Dehrthaa and the Priests benefit greatly from this continued importance, there is a powerful anti-ritualistic stream, known as the Rejectionists - that is, those who reject ritual. The Rejectionists emerged in the pre-Mojthaic period as a result of the forest movement - this was a movement that saw the “forest” as a place of refuge. Not only were there still heavy forests from Muraymuna to the Khadaar when it arose, but the “forest” also became a metaphor for the life of seeking and reflection, a haven from urban problems and a liminal space for finding the “truth”. The life of contemplation and asceticism was viewed favourably by those who spearheaded the movement and they tended to combine understanding with disciplined action. The Rejectionist stream of religious thought eventually developed from it. You may from time to time find pure forest ascetics, but they are a rarity now indeed.

Beyond the Ritualists and Rejectionists, there is the One-Godder belief system, which is a recent break from the Dehru tradition. There is also the Laugh-Silence Dualist belief system, which perceives the One Who Laughs to be the primal creative force or living spark, without whom existence would not have come into being and so is worthy of worship. There are also innumerable local tribal religions such as the Sky-worship of the Khadaar Nomads. I see your confusion Mijaranta, but have patience and persevere - only then will understanding descend upon you.

Were one to ask a Dehru of any sectarian persuasion as to the core of religion, the most likely response (with some exceptions) would be that it is whih. The term whih implies a sense of reciprocity between tibaya and each individual within nature. This larger cosmos supports all beings within it, and so all beings are obliged to support the cosmos. Whih is carrying out actions that uphold cosmic ‘balance’ and so prevents chaos. In this sense, it pervades all aspects of an individual’s life and pertains to things such as fulfilling of social, legal, and ritual duties in a manner that does not disrupt the cosmic balance. It entails, for instance, a reverential attitude toward life, right conduct toward one’s parents, siblings, and children, right conduct between spouses, and right conduct to people at large. Whih is thus not so much a belief in a deity or performance of rituals, but is a way of existing in harmony with nature.

Ultimately, however, one must seek release from all the world’s processes, a soteriological release into the great silence (in atheistic belief systems) or into the Serene Lord (in some theistic belief systems). Without it, one has nowhere to go and must continue in the world forever in a cyclical process of death, life, devolution, and renewability. This world of suffering, change, and disquietude is the arena from which one seeks release into the utter harmony of either the silence or the Serene Lord. This is natural, for existence emerged from a disruption of the original and sublime silence of pre-existence, and so all beings - and existence itself - yearns for a return to that silence.

The law known as the Law of Cause and Effect is a fundamental logic to this universal process. Those who maintain the balance in their thoughts and actions can expect good to happen to them, while those who disrupt it will reap what they have sowed. One could “use” the Law of Cause and Effect to bring about desired results, including one’s own soteriological release. With time, we have seen this law has come to be used in the hands of the powerful as a legitimation of status and power: our status is the result of our good past cause-acts; while their low status is a result of their bad past cause-acts. Yet many sages have refuted this: for just as there is a logic of cause and effect to the universe, so too in human affairs; good cause-acts can bring about good consequences, no one is locked-in to the results of the cause-acts of previous lives. Your immediate actions will affect your present life too, Mijaranta, not just the next one.

Different spiritual teachers have prescribed different paths that lead one towards observing whih and so towards living in accordance with tibaya. Lists of things to abstain from and things to do (Abstentions and Actions) appear in both Rejectionist and Ritualist schools. But now I shall tell you about those different creeds and beliefs, and after my speaking you will have encompassed all creeds in knowledge. It will remain for you to dive into the great ocean that is each of them if you wish to know more.

  • In the polytheistic beliefs of the Ritualists and in local beliefs, like Khadaar Nomad Sky-worship and others, the god known as the Serene Lord tends to be treated as the ultimate god, though he is largely considered to be far removed from the affairs of mortals or even the affairs of the other gods. Most view all the other gods as being lesser gods relative to the Serene Lord, while some believe that some gods - particularly the One Who Frowns, though the One Who Laughs is sometimes included - have ascended to such a level as to be his equals. The One Who Frowns is believed to have emerged in pre-existence when there was nothing but the Serene Lord. When the Laugh cleft through pre-existence, the Serene Lord opened his eyes and frowned, thus releasing the One Who Frowns into the world to chase down the one who had caused the Laugh. How the One Who Laughs came about is unclear, and there are many different beliefs surrounding the matter, but it is accepted that the world came about as a result of the lengthy chase and wars that took place between the two gods. The war has not come to an end, but the chase ended when the One Who Frowns caused Qaywandar to emerge from the earth and took it for a throne. He now sits atop the hallowed mount and watches over the silk-haired and clay-fingered people, and from there he commands his host of lesser gods known as the Thousand Terrible Things and Faces (the One Who Laughs similarly has a host of such lesser gods). For Ritualists, the Glorified Mojtha is believed to have been an aspect or avatar of the One Who Frowns through Misnaya, one of the lesser gods known as the Thousand Terrible Things and Faces. He came into the world to restore balance and order, and when he returns to the world he returns as an avatar of Misnaya under any name and not necessarily as the Mojtha. The Mojtha’s greatness, for them, lies in his having been an avatar of Misnaya.
  • Mojthast Rejectionists are a diverse religious group who can be broadly split into Theists and Atheists. Theists believe the Glorified Mojtha was an anointed mortal who achieved godhood due to his spiritual and material struggle. Atheists, who do not believe in material gods, believe that the Mojtha was an elevated spiritual teacher and master of men, the first in existence to achieve soteriological release. For Atheists, anyone who achieves release is a manifestation of the Mojtha. For them, Those of the Great Spirit are all Manifestations. Theists believe that the Mojtha himself is reborn into the world in times of strife to bring about his glorious and harmonious rule once more. For them the world is a cycle, the high point of the cycle is the rule of the Mojtha while the low point is the disintegration of it all in preparation for the next coming of the Mojtha and re-establishment of the Mojthaic order. Such is the cyclical nature of all things in existence, from the smallest living creatures to the broad movement of history and the world. Atheists believe that the seed of the Mojtha may be planted within anyone at any time if they are: a. mindful of the way, b. the condition of the times demands the Mojtha, and c. they take an active role in counteracting the prevailing corruption. It is important to note that Theist Mojthasts believe Mojtha to be the ultimate god and do not believe in the Serene Lord or the One Who Frowns, and the pantheon of gods beneath the Mojtha is made up of those who have achieved release.
  • Like Theistic Mojthasts, Shedder Rejectionists have their own pantheon made up of Forest-Teachers and those who have shed “anti-motes” and so achieved release. They are not active gods, but are the embodiment of perfection and the release to which all yearn.
  • In Laugh-Silence Dualism, both the Serene Lord and the One Who Laughs are treated as equally powerful opposites. In their belief, the One Who Laughs is the creative force and living spark, energy and vitality; the manifestation of sound. The Serene Lord is death, cessation (as well as thought and wisdom); the manifestation of silence.
  • One-Godders believe in one god only, who is both transcendent and immanent, meaning that he permeates both within and without the cosmos. The universe is his own emanation, an aspect of himself. While he is thus all-pervasive, he remains separate and distinct from creation. While some One-Godders have no qualms referring to their god as the Serene Lord, others do not do so because that name implies a gender when their god is genderless, and they also wish to differentiate themselves from other beliefs and to make clearer that the One-Godder belief system is a break from Dehru polytheistic and atheistic traditions.

This is all as the Master relayed. The ink has dried but the words have not ended.

The Lady-in-Waiting

Galbar was so interesting. The kinds of prayers that wafted through the world and into the inky realm of Glossolalia were so varied and diverse as to never leave someone bored - not that she was ever bored, of course. The Lady-in-Waiting glanced at the sleeping body of Lucia-Meghzaal and smiled. He was so cute. It was, as she had foreseen long ago, for the best that he should sleep. His poor, little Lucia could not go eternity listening to his mad ravings and whispers, and he... well, he had seemed quite intent on doing just that - and she couldn't have that now, could she?

Oh, it broke her heart to see him yet so torn up over her, unable to just move on already. "Your Lucie-lu has moved on, Meggy, you need to get that into that ink-addled head of yours. You can't go on living like this." She whispered, leaning in and wiping an inky tear from the Lucia-look-alike's cheeks. But, if he did...well, all the better for her, right?

She had watched with interest Shaeylila's plotting and scheming in Ha-Dûna with a small smile. Of course she did not know what Macsal - or even Meghzaal - was; the songs only knew Our Lady. "Oh, what a clever girl you are little Lila," she murmured, "but if you were cleverer you wouldn't let your guard down quite yet, my little vixen."

They had come running to her from Meliorem the moment songs started disappearing, of course. "Oh my lady! My lady!" A group had come crying, "Shaeylila is gone my lady! And Willarda disappeared! Did they come here?" But of course, they had not come here - they were down on Galbar.

"Oh, my dears, this is terrible..." she had cooed, "perhaps... a search party needs to be arranged. I will speak to our Lord without delay. They could have gone anywhere, and we would not want them to fall into the claws of some terrible and malign being now, would we?" The songs cried out melodramatically and fell left and right at her words, and answered in the negative before cascading away to prepare for her visit.

She turned her attention back to the inky flow of prayers and pleas from Galbar. Ah, this one looked quite interesting - loud. A silent scream, a tearing at hair, cold fury that yearned to be unleashed - but remained contained; ah, what expansiveness, what remarkable acting skill for a mere mortal. The best sort of acting was the sort you lived, day in day out. And the best actors knew to maintain the act at all times - even when alone. But this one had not quite achieved that. She needed a release, an escape from the great play. Poor thing. An escape from the play? "What to, my dear? Where would you go?"

"Huh? Wh- who is there?"

"Do you really want to run away? All this effort, all these years, all these pieces falling into place for you to weave and work your way through. My dear, you've underplayed your role."

"Wh- what is this? Oh- gods, its happening, I'm going mad. Oh gods, no no," she started sobbing quietly.

"There there now. You are not mad, my dear. Did you think your silent cries went unheard? I have heard your cry and I have seen your tears. I will heal your pain."

"A.. god?" She was quiet for a few moments, then steeled herself. "I... I don't want healing." The nelf whispered. "They could never hurt me."

"Ooh, that is good. You are strong."

"I know. I had to be."

"Will you be stronger? Or will you... run away?"

"I... I never wanted to be."

"But my girl, what else did you ever want to be? Maybe if you wanted it more you would not be in this state."

"If I wanted it more?" Came the nelf's hesitant response.

"You have entered the great performance, my dear; you have played your part half-heartedly and now claw for the exit. The best performers weave the performance and command it. Why have you not?"

"I... could never do that..."

"For all your strength, my dear, you were weak. It breaks my heart. It should break yours to know it. You could have been stronger."

"B-but.. I..." she paused, "can I still be?"

"Hmmmmmmm," the tension that had built up dissipated suddenly, and the world seemed to smile warmly. "You can, and you will. I will give you the tools to master the performance, I will give your lines power my dear. But you must want it."

The nelf was silent, frowning. The frown turned to a scowl in the darkness, and the scowl became tearful fury. "I want it... so much." A silent sob, a clenched fist.

"Then it is yours for the taking."

In the days and weeks that followed, those womenfolk of Fragrance who were under constant emotional stress due to male abuse found themselves better able to take the taunts and jibes and humiliations of their men - not only that, they found that they (somehow, against the odds) could maintain a semblance of dignity in situations meant to strip them of it. Though their fury and loss reached a breaking point, the smiles on their faces remained warm, sincere, their laughter joyous and contagious. And when they spoke, there was an allure and subtle command to their words that such abusers were hard-pressed to resist. With a great dark flourish and the masked smile of the Lady-in-Waiting, the great performance at Fragrance entered into a new act.

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