A cowled figure rode quietly across a wooded landscape. The first rays of the dawn lit the sky with a soft white glow. After a few miles the man came to a fork in the road. Without slowing he guided his horse along the left branch. The man knew these roads very well, having travelled them for many years. Although the road was dim and many trees formed dark shadows along both sides, neither the man nor the horse showed any signs of fear.
Several miles later he came in sight of a small village to one side of the road. Even at this early hour the villagers were at work, rising with the sun to tend fields and livestock. Although every person he passed looked towards him, none spoke, none returned his warm smile. Halfway down the main street, he turned into a narrow alley, heading for a small house that formed the end of it. On the door step stood a portly man, tall, with a rosy cheeked glow to his tanned face.
"Good morning, Brother" said the man mechanically, "She's this way." He stepped into the house to lead the way.
Brother Irator replied cheerily, "Good morning sir, all is well I trust?"
The man stopped, turned round and said slowly "Yes Brother" then carried on up the stairs and into a small room. A bed took up most of the space. In the bed lay a woman of similar appearance to the man, nursing a new-born baby.
"If you could just lay her down here at the end of the bed, then I can work better." Brother Irator smiled at the woman, who merely did as she was ordered.
The baby began to cry as Irator opened out the rough blanket to leave her naked and shivering in the cold of the early spring day. The parents watched motionless as Irator removed a clay jar, some herbs, a vial of yellow liquid, a thick oiled cloth and a small iron bowl from his pack. He placed the clay jar at the head of the squalling infant and removed the top. Next he poured the liquid into the bowl and added the herbs, which began to smoulder. Irator placed the bowl between the feet of the baby who cried louder at the cold touch. The Brother knelt down at the foot of the bed with his feet out of the door. A prayer of archaic origin began to issue from his mouth. The prayer grew faster, more complex, his hands wove a net of symbols in the air above the girl.
The atmosphere in the tiny room seemed suffocating. A strange thickness, almost a taste, filled every space, every corner, until the thin walls threatened to burst outwards. The air around the little child began to shimmer, as though great heat welled up from her skin. The shimmering gathered into a child shaped cloud, it pulsed and rolled towards the clay jar. Then suddenly with a thunderous clap the prayer stopped. The cloud rolled up and shot into the jar.The baby screamed once then fell silent. With lightening speed Brother Irator grabbed the clay lid and slammed it shut. He took the cloth and bound it tightly around the lid, forming a seal. The child lay quiet for a few moments, then fell into a deep sleep. She would never cry again.
Brother Irator sat back on his heels. He was seemingly unaffected by the ritual, not a bead of sweat, no signs of breathlessness. The parents listened carefully as the Brother advised them on caring for the infant for the next few days. Although they themselves were sweating and a little agitated, their eyes showed nothing but dull obedience.
After the customary breakfast Irator bid the family farewell, mounted his horse and rode out of the village. He whistled a merry tune as he rode along in the morning sunshine. He was happy with his day's work, another Essence safely captured, another child who would grow up healthy, well fed, in a balanced,orderly society free from poverty, violence and crime. No one taking too much, leaving the weak with left-overs and scraps.
Of course there had to be some such as himself who had to bear the burden, carrying his Essence within him. But that was a small price to pay for being able to bestow the Gift on others. Irator turned his horse towards the east and trotted off. Another child to rescue, he thought to himself, and smiled.
From a deep, earthy cave several miles from the nearest village, came a sound not often heard. A girl of about six was rubbing her knee through patched trousers and crying. Large tears ran down her face matting long dark hair to grubby cheeks.
"Shush dear, you must be quiet, someone will hear." The woman was about forty, but looked much older. She was painfully thin, with a pale, almost yellow complexion. The shapeless dress she wore over patched leggings had seen better days, barely keeping her covered, much less warm.
"But ma, it hurts, I fell over that root over there, why can't I cry when it hurts?" sobbed the girl The woman coughed against her sleeve, trying to stifle the sound.
"I've explained all this before, the Brothers don't like crying, they will take you away from me. You must be brave." The girl sobbed a few more times, then quieted.
"I don't like the Brothers, and the next one I see I'm going to tell him!"
The woman grabbed at the child and slapped her face, "Kymar, you must never say that again! Promise me you will never say that, if you see a brother you must hide, do you hear me, hide! run away! never let them near you." She shook the girls shoulders,"Promise me!" Kymar sobbed quietly but new tears rolled down her face, leaving slightly cleaner streaks. "I promise ma, I promise." The woman hugged the girl tightly to her, hiding her own tears.
She couldn't stand the thought of her daughter's bright eyes being dulled by the witch-craft of the those brutes. For six years she had kept the secret of Kymar's birth. Moving from place to place, caves, tree-houses, holes in the ground. Living hand to mouth, running in the dead of night. Never enough food, never enough anything. But all this she had gladly suffered to hear her daughter laughing, playing, learning. Kymar was such a bright girl, keen, a fast learner, always eager to know. And always questions, day and night. Sometimes the answers didn't, or couldn't, come. Some things were better not said, not yet.
She coughed again. Being forced to live in this damp hole in the ground wasn't doing her any good. Her coughing was eased by certain herbs, but these weren't always available. The forest provided much of what they had, but some things were only available in villages. The villages were dangerous places for those with bright eyes.
A rumbling noise startled her out of her reverie. She knew immediately what it was.
"Kymar, come here, sit with mother, and keep very quiet." she whispered. The girl started to protest, then noticing the look of fear on her mother's face she obeyed. They sat huddled together in the dark cave, waiting for the soldiers to pass.
But this time the soldiers stopped. The girl clung against the woman as a deep voice sounded in the cave entrance. The soldier clumped around for a while then went silent. A few minutes later the unmistakeable odour of urine wafted down. There was a loud exchange of banter as the soldier pulled his clothes back on and mounted his horse. The sound of hooves died away. Although the child squirmed impatiently, the woman kept tight hold until she was satisfied they had really gone. It was time to move on. This was no place for a child.
She vowed that one day her child would walk in the sun, to feel its warmth and marvel at it, to take the time to wonder at its brilliance. Not to see it and not notice, not to feel it and ignore its power, like the others. The dead eyes. The human cattle, slaves to the Warlocks.
A young boy made his way along a narrow ledge no wider than his foot. His right hand held on to a crumbling stone cliff, his left stuck out in mid-air. He was about 60 feet down from the top of a sheer sandstone cliff, with 40 feet below. None of this seemed to bother him. He was twelve years old, of less than average height, with light brown hair, greenish eyes and a wide smile.
The boy's companion followed some 20 feet behind. He wasn't holding on at all, nor was he particularly watching where he was going. He was almost as tall as Garen, wider at the shoulder with longer arms. Although he was only eight, he had matured much faster than his friend, making them equal in most things.
Garen stopped for a moment, steadied himself then turned to watch his friend. Garen was always amazed at the way Sciel could climb almost anything with very little effort. He was a good climber himself, but compared to Sciel he was an old man on crutches.
"Come on Sky, we haven't got all day," grumbled Garen.
"I hungry, can we eat yet?" complained Sciel in a surprisingly deep voice.
"That's all you think about, we can eat after one more go." With a quick glance at each other the two friends suddenly turned and leapt off the cliff.
Garen slid into the sea with hardly a ripple, long practice had made him good, even for a twelve year old. There was very little else to do, except the chores his father gave him to keep him quiet.
Sciel didn't reach the water. Eight feet short of the calm surface his long, muscled arm shot out, grabbed a slight overhang and brought him to a dead stop. A human would have been severely injured by this move, but Sciel wasn't human.
"Ah, Sciel! You said you wouldn't do that this time, you promised!" Garen whined from the water.
The ape-like creature hung casually by his three fingers, picking bits of seaweed off the cliff and trying them. After discovering they weren't too bad, and eating a good mouthful, he looked down at Garen. "Don't like getting fur wet, it takes long time to dry. If I don't jump, you don't jump. Don't want to spoil your funny."
"It's O.K. Sky. I shouldn't make you do it, and it's fun, not funny..."
Garen froze as Sciel's eyes locked on a spot out to sea.
"Boat." He said. A single word that said many things. Only rarely did the pair see boats of any kind. Mostly they kept far out to sea. No one came to this island by choice. Occasionally they would see boats nearer to shore, the Warlocks travelled to the further villages by boat if the sea was calm. Garen's father had taught him how to spot their kind of craft, Garen had passed the knowledge on to Sciel. They were high sided with a prow at either end. This was one such boat.
Garen kept as low in the water as he could, letting the slight swell move him up and down. He kept his brown hair facing out to sea, hoping that whoever was in the boat would see only a Teff playing with the flotsam. The Teff were of little interest to the Warlocks, but a boy playing, that was a different matter entirely.
Brother Irator knocked quietly on the sturdy walnut door. A muffled voice that seemed to come from quite a distance away told him to enter. He pushed down the wooden handle and slowly eased the door open. He entered the large room, walked quickly across the carpeted floor and out into a high walled garden. At the far end of the rows of neatly planted fruit bushes a tall figure dressed in a plain brown robe beckoned him. Treading carefully, Irator made his way over.
"No problems at all today, Brother?" Inquired the Head priest without preamble.
"No, Brother Parsathan, all is well." Parsathan stooped to plant another strawberry plant. He used a silver trowel which was always spotless and a steel rule to measure the exact distance between each plant and row.
Parsathan stood to his full six feet and looked down at Brother Irator, fixing him with his brown eyes.
"What of the wild folk living by the coast? They must be located and given the Gift before they hurt themselves."
"Yes, of course Brother Parsathan, but those forests are very dense, there are not enough Peace Keepers to cover the whole area. Krane, even now is setting restraining devices in an effort to enable us to bestow the Gift on these unfortunate few, she hopes to bring you news herself, later today."
A large Bee flew past Brother Irator's nose, he froze instantly.
"That is very good, Brother Krane is proving to be a very resourceful woman." A loud buzzing caught Irator's attention. Parsathan turned to the sound, reached into a spider's web and pulled out the Bee. He pulled off some of the attached web, then gently let it go. The Bee flew around his head twice then disappeared into an old apple tree. "Making her captain of the Peace Keepers was one of my better ideas."
Parsathan pulled another plant from a trug and carried on planting. Irator took this as an end to conversation, he turned and carefully walked out, keeping both eyes open for Bees.
Parsathan was fond of his Bees. The last captain had swatted one of the Bees after it stung him on the hand. Parsathan had said nothing, but was seen later in the workshops. That night the captain laid down on his bed, triggering a massive hand which had fallen from the ceiling crushing him in his bed. Parsathan had later claimed the body and added it to his large compost heap.
Rain fell softly from a grey sky, dripping off the leaves of the tall grey-trunked trees. A fine sea mist rolled slowly across the vale, hiding the young woman from prying eyes.
This is fine weather for grave-digging thought the woman. The ground is soft, the mist hiding the site and muffling the sound. She had been thinking these thoughts for several hours, since discovering the body of her mother in one of those traps. For most people the traps were little threat, a few moments work with a knife and you were out. But mother didn't carry a knife, she lacked the strength to wield one anyway, the disease in her lungs, made worse by this cursed damp, had robbed her of her health. She could barely talk, let alone walk, but she insisted on going to the village for the bi-annual counting, lest she be missed. She had made it there without any problems. Coming back...
Kymar wiped the tears from her eyes leaving mud streaked across her face, digging with an old metal dish was bad enough without the added complication of emotion. She could have taken the body, (The body, not my mother, no, not that) into the village and left it for someone to find. But then "They" would have had her again, she would have hated that. So Kymar was determined to bury her near their home of the last Three years. Not too near of course, (She could hear her mother saying, so clear, picture her face so sharp) in case "it" was discovered.
The daylight had faded, the sea-mist blown away by the time she had finished. She had left the face uncovered for hours, unable to find the strength to accept the fact that her mother no longer had need of breath. She had cried loudly until a noise in the forest had startled her to awareness. Her mother's long years of training had taken over then, she had quickly filled in the last of the shallow grave, apologising as she did, scattering leaves over it to hide the traces of activity.
Kymar melted silently into the undergrowth, looking back many times in the direction of the unmarked grave, vowing one day to return, to mark the place with the biggest headstone she could carry.
She wandered off through the twilight of the forest, the great grey trunks damp and cold. Her mind wandered too, back to happier times. She realised only too well that happy was a subjective term. The soldiers had rid her of any chance at a normal childhood. But her mother had done her best, setting time aside each day for learning, time for playing, time for sitting and quietly watching the forest. Everything she knew was taught to her by her mother; How to play, how to keep quiet even when you want to cry, how to tell juicy snow berries from poisonous ice berries, how to run away if soldiers neared. How to die quickly when they captured you.
As these thoughts and many years worth of others coursed through her mind Kymar walked, not stopping for rest, food or shelter. Every step was accompanied by a tear. She had a lot of tears, she would wander for a long time.
- Copyright Steve Dean