The Last Belurian Village
Setena sang. She was the only woman who worked there in the sand who was not forbidden to sing. She sang of frolicking near the sacred waters. She sang of carefree village celebrations. She sang of kin long passed. Setena had once lived in her mother’s village near the Great Ocean, Vvadana’s ocean. That village had been one of the first attacked. Setena was its only survivor. Now she lived among her father’s people, among the people of the largest desert village, among those of Belus.
She seemed young and soft; still hopeful, despite the hardships she had known. While her voice was strong, her body was weak. She had been a great beauty, but now bore a gnarled scar across her plump cheek. Combined with the whiskers, slashed short by an angry conqueror, the scar gave the illusion that her head was crumpled on one side. Nevertheless, her nightmares were fading into distant memories and her face no longer ached from that foreign blade. She seemed to have found some peace.
Beside Setena sat Kapria, strong and wise, the sister of Setena’s father. Her scars were not caused by violence, but by life in the unforgiving sands, life far from the plenty of the water villages, life with some small portion of death in each day. Her skin was worn to a dark grey by the sun, wind and sands of her home. Her hands moved rapidly, from experience and necessity, rather than youth and enthusiasm. Her voice was gruff, a harsh whisper, like the dusk winds as they thrashed across the Wastelands when both moons were full.
Kapria searched the horizon, scenting for danger. She looked back to her work, dismissing her fears. She seemed to smell danger in every place and time, since the destruction of the water villages. So long ago was that, now, that Setena sung the working song for all her kinswomen. Kapria did not sing for Notan, her husband, dead defending another village two moon cycles ago.
On Kapria’s other side sat Gatie, her daughter. Setena’s song and the feel of the sand between her fingers as she worked was a comfortable buffer around Gatie. The battles, both waged and resisted, which scarred her kinswomen, had hardly touched her. The loss of her father had not meant much. He had had little time for her when he was alive, so she hardly noticed his absence beyond the prohibition against singing.
Gatie had lost no faith in her tribe’s traditions and her convictions had never been tested. She wore a air of blissful innocence. On her smooth, round, azure face, it was easy to read that she knew nothing of the world save what had been taught to her by her elders. She saw her mother look to the horizon, searching. Taking a cue from Kapria, Gatie smelled the possibilities on the wind and was wary. The desert smelled of change.
As the Black Shell soldiers approached, Setena rose involuntarily, watching her kinswomen scrambling towards the huts. She did not need to look up to know what was flying through the desert sky towards the village. That jagged hum had been in every dream she had had since her own village was lost. The sand called to her. The deep sand was only a few meters behind her. She turned and ran, punctuating her action with a great diving leap into the depths of the Wastelands. After she disappeared, the ground restored itself behind her.
Setena did not swim the same way through sand as one swims through water. Instead, the sand before her pushed to all sides and the sand behind her fell back into place after she passed. As she swam the sand, feeling as far ahead as she could, memories flooded back to her. In the first attack, they had come from across the waters. That was portentous. The soldiers had come not to take over, but to destroy. They had reveled in destroying the village and her people. Setena pulled herself back to the present. She wished she had communicated how she had survived the first attack, but women were forbidden to speak of warfare and, more than that, she had been warned never to tell anyone of her ability to swim the sands. All she could do now was do for herself and hope the others could find their own salvations.
When the raid started, Gatie rushed for the baskets. She scrambled in, holding back a gasp as the reeds dug into her back. She had never expected to use a hidden basket like this. She always thought that she would defend her village if it was attacked, but all the Alurian raid drills of her youth took hold of her and she began the chant of silence. Soon the screams and weapons fell quiet and Gatie slept, drained from her mental exertion.
Gatie awoke to light, sound and the acrid smell of Black Shells. They pulled her from the basket, shouting, grunting and poking at her. She knew little of their language, but she had picked up enough of it to know that they were spinning crude fantasies about what they could do with her body.
One who looked in charge arrived. He spoke sharply to the others and they dragged her to the leader’s hut, her father’s hut. Some new Black Shell clothing was thrown at her to replace those the soldiers had mangled and stained while pawing her. The clothes smelled better than she did, so she put them on. The-One-Who-Looked-In-Charge kept her waiting half a day, while her fear grew. What made her most anxious was that she could not feel anyone around her who was not of tainted Black Shell blood.
When at last The-One-Who-Looked-In-Charge came to her father’s hut, he spoke to her in her own language, “I find Belurians to be enticingly exotic.” He played with one of her whiskers as he spoke, invading the space in front of her face. The acidity of his breath made her dizzy. He reached down and raised her shackled wrist to his mouth. His saliva burned the sensitive skin on the inside of her arm, leaving a puckered scar near her wrist. “I hate to have had to keep you chained, but I couldn’t risk your running away before I had the chance to make my offer.”
“What do you offer?” she answered him in his own language to show him she was strong. Breathing was difficult, as he remained close to her face.
He smiled in a way he thought was sly and posed, “I offer pleasure and protection.”
“What must I give in return?”
“My body and spirit this ‘Nothing’ means!”
“Yes,” he smiled. “You don’t need these.” He unshackled her.
“I haven’t agreed.” She was eyeing the weapon that hung at his waist, contemplating how far she could get before her death, how likely she was to kill him or a few of the others before they cut her down. It was in vain, she knew, she hadn’t the strength to kill anything.
“I will not force you to stay. The Naedrani Rays and sands will do it for me.”
“Am I free?”
“Yes. I’ll even provide you with food and water, if you are foolish enough to try the journey.”
“Better the Naedrani than you.”
“As you wish.”
He gave her provisions and walked her to the edge of her burnt out village. They passed charred and fetid bodies, men of her village, Blacks Shells too. “The Wastelands is harsh; you can still remain here and be safe.”
She did not answer- just stepped away, took the first step of her journey- but as she did, his hand caught her arm and pulled her back. It seemed just like the cruelty of the Black Shells to offer freedom and snatch it back at the last minute.
“Take this.” He handed her a medallion on a chain.
“What is this?” She examined it. It showed his face and some Black Shell writing.
“This will keep you safe if you survive the Wastelands. With it you can come and go as you please in any place held by my people.” Then, he kissed her. His touch burned her face, lips and tongue.
When he released her, she asked, “Why do you do this?”
“You question me?” he asked angrily, “You ought to be grateful. I have given you water, food and protection and you ask why? If another Belurian questioned me so, I would take my gifts away from her. I would probably take her life, too. Just be grateful that I’ve given you this much.”
“For the food grown by my mother, and the water from the well dug by my father, I should be grateful? You killed them to get it, and I should be grateful! I am not grateful. I will never be grateful to you. Your enemy is what I will be.” As she hissed the last sentence, she took the second first step of her journey and he did not touch her.
From a few meters below and to the right of Setena, she smelled a large Naedran racing after her through the sand. She increased her speed, hoping to outrun the sand ray, hoping to feel the slow pull the solidness of the larger rocks have on the rest of the sand, hoping to rise above some rocks into the shallows. The Naedrani don’t like the shallows, they tend to run into the rocks and hurt themselves. The serpentine creature was gaining speed on her but she felt no rocks near. Suddenly from above her, she heard the rushing of a great number of the creatures. She was below a Naedrani nest. She plunged lower to avoid the mass of worms. She was deeper now than she had ever been and she smelled water! Heading deeper still, she broke through to the water, an underground river. If the Naedrani were anything like those near to the water villages, they would not attempt to go into the river, lest they drown. She gentled and let the water carry her along with the current.
Resting, hoping to regain some of her spent energy, she thought back to the first time she swam the sands. She and her older sister had joined the village’s other children in the Great Ocean. As they frolicked, Setena reached the shore and simply kept swimming. She was too young to know that this wasn’t normal for her people to do. Her sister was the only one who saw what she could do. She warned Setena not to repeat her actions or tell anyone about her ability. Yet, the sands called to her and, a few years later, Setena made a habit of swimming alone in the Great Ocean and practicing her forbidden skill. She had not dared swim the sands here in the desert before. The Naedrani near the ocean did not grow to nearly so large as these. They were not so great a threat.
When she determined that she was far enough away from the village and the Naedrani nest, she ascended through the sand and found shallows in which to hide.
Learning the Words
Young Daulis slipped between the rocks, into the cavern and hid silently in the shadows to listen. He had known about this little used tunnel into the sacred meeting place for weeks, but he had not had the courage to use it until today. The councilors had already assembled but they did not speak. They would be silent until Katid arrived to lead them. It was their way, as it had always been. The young ones never understood such delay. They could not see why the leaders of a strong people did not spring into action, even if this action was more terrifying than any other the council had ever considered.
Merely to speak the words was taboo; one did not say them, one said, “un-down” or “not in the ground”. Although all knew that the words existed, only Katid, the Elder, and a select group of traders knew them. Only the traders were allowed to use them, because they dealt with the Belurians, the people who lived not in the ground. Daulis had spent much of his childhood wondering and fantasizing about what was there. He never had the courage to defy the Elder and go look for himself.
From his dank hiding place, Daulis could hear the rest of the village gathered in the passageway outside the meeting place. He heard them whispering rumors and questions to each other. When a hush fell over them, he knew that Katid was coming. Daulis saw him in his mind’s eye, slowly making his way down the stone steps from his grotto and through the village corridors to the meeting place, as he had done so many times before. The bells were rung and Katid was escorted in and seated with all due circumstance. His chair sat in one of the only two places in the village from which one could see un-down and out of the rock that surrounds every room, cavern and corridor of the village. This cavern and the grand cavern were the only ones with light from not in the ground, all others needed torches or cooking fires to see.
Daulis’ curiosity to hear The Words was intense and palatable, his breath coming fast and his blood pounding hard in his veins. Daulis could see Katid speak, but he could not hear him. The boy tried to shift slowly out of the shadows in search of Katid’s words. Panic filled his stomach. He was going to miss the beginning of the council’s discussion, perhaps miss even the whole of the short meeting. He edged closer to the light, breathing as slowly as possible. A monstrous noise splashed through the air, rolling through the village, bouncing off the walls, as the Ritual Sckrimmel Blades crashed to the floor. The councilors were on their feet in an instant, staring in horror at the boy before them. Daulis was clumsily trying to restore the weapons to the place they had held, undisturbed, for a hundred generations.
“How can you have so little respect for the council as to come into the meeting place uninvited?” Gatain ip Katid, the next leader of the village, asked him, disgust evident on his face.
“Don’t scold the boy, Gatain, he is just curious,” said Katid, smiling gently and reaching out his hand. “I did a similar thing myself, in the time of your grandfather. He did not mean disrespect, did you boy?”
Although it was unthinkable not to answer Katid, Daulis’ voice caught in his throat. It was all he could do to shake his head in response. Katid motioned him closer and Daulis obeyed, walking slowly off the sacred altar and down onto the council floor, certain he was walking to his death or banishment.
“Father, why are you welcoming him when you should be calling in the warriors to take his head? I swear, old man, you have lost all of your reason. I will deal with him myself!” He stepped towards Daulis menacingly. Katid raised his hand and Gatain stopped.
“My son, can it be that your keen eyes do not see what my failing, aged eyes do? The people face a menace from un-down, the Blades of Sckrimmel have left their home and a boy has presented himself to the council. He is the answer.”
Katid’s words hung in the room. Everyone, from the smallest child to the lowliest of traders, knew the prophesy Katid spoke of. The One must journey into the not in the ground to save the people.
“Father, you cannot be serious, this boy is not the One, he is Daulis ip Saloot, the son of a trader. He doesn’t have a hunter’s rank and never will.” Gatain spat. “You’re a frightened, old fool, father, looking for a religious answer to a warrior’s question. If the council had any courage, it would have replaced you long ago. . . .”
“This meeting has been too long,” Katid snapped. “The people will be restless.” He grabbed Daulis’ arm and dragged him out of the meeting place, into the middle of the grand cavern, the place where public beheadings took place.
The crowd, which had been waiting on the steps down to the meeting place, watched silently. They would not speak before Katid; that would be an offense against his rank. Katid did not make them wait.
“This is Daulis ip Saloot. This is The One, The One who will look UP!” As he said this, he pulled Daulis’ head into his arms and forced it un-down. Daulis closed his eyes, but not before seeing a flash of deep bluish-grey.
As a stunned cry went out from the crowd, Daulis fell to his knees, beating his chest in grief and wailing as one banished and shamed. He had seen it and he could never go back. The only sound he was aware of was his Mother’s piteous keening.
The book was old and crumbling. It lost pieces every time it was touched. That was why no one other than the Elder was allowed to read it. Katid took it out of the chest in which it lay and placed it before Daulis. “You do know how to read the old language, don’t you boy?” His voice was like the crackling of the book’s leaves as pieces of it fell off to pursue their own destinies.
“No sir, I can read a ledger and tabulate rolls, but I was not allowed to learn the reading of words.”
“Well, keep a steady ear, you have much to learn before you can take your journey, and time is slight. If you undertake the Journey of the One without certain knowledge, you will die before you reach the other side of the Wastelandss.”
Daulis always wished that he had learned to read. He had always been envious of the hunter class boys selected to train for leadership. He remembered how they were called away from their games and pretend basler hunts to the meeting place. Once he had followed them, wondering what they did inside. The door was slammed in his face as he asked the question.
That door had been harder to take than any of the other things denied him because of his trader status. He had run home then and scolded his father for choosing to abandon the family’s hunter past for the security of trading. His father had let Daulis rant and then said, “My son, there are aspects of this world that you do not understand yet. When the time is right, I will tell you the story of the Belurian Notan, who helped me to know that my destiny was not that of a hunter.” Saloot had never told his son that story. The time had not been right yet.
While Daulis had drifted off into his memories, Katid paged through the Book of All Things until he found the spell of knowledge. He had never worked an incantation, though he had practiced focusing his power for hours each day in preparation for this moment. No Alurian had worked an incantation since the time of Catarian, when it was needed to save both peoples from a mad and false prophet.
Katid began. The power surged quickly to his mind and that part of it which held knowledge. He would try to give Daulis all of it but would start with reading. If Daulis could read, perhaps he could find his way with just that. As Katid uttered the first syllables, he felt his control slip away. All was light. All was darkness. All was gone.
Daulis’ memories were interrupted by a flash of Bluish-grey somewhat lighter and somewhat darker than the sky. He saw the Elder fall slowly, as if held back from his decent by the rushing winds that blew through the forbidden corridor. Daulis’ eyes were opened then. Two frightening things lay before him. While, the fallen figure of the village leader on the floor, dead without a battle, scared him, the Book of All Things and the fact that he suddenly knew what the words meant, terrified him.
He fled, running through the village to the house of his father. Stopping there only long enough to gather his father’s desert pack, his own cloak and spear and the small amount of provisions his mother hurriedly packed for him. He decided to go despite Katid’s warning that he did not have enough knowledge to survive the Wastelands. He had to go now before Gatain found his father dead and had him beheaded for killing Katid and looking up.
Up- Daulis had somehow gotten used to the word already. He had gotten used to much in the short time since he was dragged onto that platform this morning. It was dusk. As he passed through the forbidden corridor that led out of the village tunnels, Daulis turned and looked down at his home with eyes both young and old. His father was running to him. He had never seen his father run.
“Daulis, my son, you must not go yet! I have much to tell you. So much I have failed to teach you.” He was winded and bending over from his exertion. As he caught his breath, his son responded.
“Father, I must go before Gatain finds me. There is no way the council will spare me. I have seen the sky and killed Katid.”
“Still, there are things I must tell you. It is not the first time you have been near to the death of a leader. Katid’s father, Recatt, was dying when your mother was full with you. He died the very night you quickened. As you know, any child born on the same day that an Elder dies is not a child at all, but the spirit who took the elder’s life in disguise. If you lived you had to be put not in the ground to return to where you came from.”
“But, Father, I did live. I was not left to die, and I know I am not a spirit come to take Recatt’s life. At least I did not mean to take his life. I didn’t mean to take Katid’s life either, but I am sure I did. Oh, why did you let me live, Father?”
“I did not. You came from your mother already dead. Katid said that the same spirit that came for Recatt came for you. So, you were both set outside this very corridor for your spirits to look for safety. As your guardian relatives, Katid and I kept watch over your bodies until the morn. By the light of the first sun’s dawn, we saw something amazing. You were quick. Katid lifted you up into his arms and spoke two words; ‘He lives.’ I was not then, nor am I now, sure if he spoke of you or Recatt.”
Daulis stood mute, not knowing what to say in response to this incredible story. He felt in his bones that this strange story was true. It explained the curious and sometimes reproachful looks he had gotten all his life. He had assumed they were just because he was the son of a trader. Now he saw it was much deeper a shame. It also explained the way Katid had treated him kindly all his life. If Katid did think Daulis had Recatt’s spirit, then he could easily accept Daulis as The One.
“Father, why did you or Mother not tell me this before?”
“We were just grateful you were alive and with us. On several occasions, Katid and I discussed telling you, but we always decided you were too young. I still think you are too young, but Katid did not. Go now, Gatain will not be far behind by now.” Saloot pulled his son into his arms one last time and walked back down to the village again. Daulis watched him go. Then he left his village behind and stepped from the corridor onto the night sands, searching for dangers.