Chapter 1: Chapter One

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

Reads: 155

Chapter One

Berant’iti stares down at us but Gurn’iti sees all, Gurn’iti knows all. Agarthan saying

 

He could see the village, laid out in the remnants of the early morning mist, bathed in a low spring sun that cast long, dark blue shadows across the landscape. A brilliant cobalt sky was cast about by ragged grey clouds that were blown swiftly across the horizon by a sharp east wind, full of crying gulls.

Yes, he could see the village but his injuries meant that he would never make it out of the ditch he found himself in and through a mile or so of wheat and barley fields. Then on past orchards full of dark brown, hairy pigs and small plots of well-kept vegetables, passing ponds full of hump-backed fish, dotted with ducks and geese. The fringes of the village, full of noisy, boisterous roosters and smothered with small, rusty brown hens, were typical of all village life in Agatha.

He could tell from the smoke drifting from the rooftops that the village was preparing to start its day as it did every day. The older children being sent for water while the youngsters were sent out to scour the village for eggs from the many places the hens would nest.

The women would start to make the typical Agarthan morning meal of a pancake-like oatcake and boiled eggs then would go off to milk the cows and goats then check the day's batch of korek, an ale brewed from barley and drunk by the men with the evening meal.

After breaking their fast, the men would set off to their trades making pots, willow baskets, or iron implements or would carry spades and hoes and leave for the fields to weed their crops or one of the many other tasks that provided food for the tribe.

He sighed, thinking of the tranquil rhythm of early morning village life but was brought back to reality by the thoughts of the two important things racing through his mind.

This morning he needed to somehow gain the help of the people of this village for two important tasks, one for the good of his ‘Numa’ - his spirit being, the other for the good of his people and the people of another village far away. He closed his eyes and sighed, his heart saddened by the knowledge he was dying and the fear of being alone and away from his people and he knew that when he died he would never make it to the far-away village and complete his task.

Pulling his wolf-skin cloak tightly around his shoulders, he squatted down again making himself as comfortable as anyone could in a shallow, water-filled ditch. He lifted his tunic, feeling for the small slit wounds the arrows had made after he had pulled them out. He did not count the number that had hit him, only knowing that two had been tipped with small, vicious, barbed iron heads which he had been unable to remove so he had broken off the shafts leaving small, snapped lengths showing.

Across Agartha, there were gangs of brigands and robbers, outlawed men that sometimes ganged together to rob travellers and traders but more often roaming alone, inexpertly carrying nothing more than a stout stick who could be fought off and survived. Larger gangs were organised and armed with bows and sharp, village forged steel. It was one of these gangs that the stranger ran into thirteen days into his journey and it was one he barely survived.

He had been asked to create the item by the elders and it had taken him the best part of a year to arrange for the finest craftsmen to create the circlet, a band of pure gold, studded with precious and semi-precious stones and had then spent a full moons turn imbuing the item with a powerful light magik. When it was finished he gathered his bags and left the village with his familiar, a blind boy of fifteen summers named Baral’iti, setting off for the village of the Broken Axe people. They had been walking for two weeks and had not encountered a single person so they had become accustomed to whistling and singing to amuse themselves as they walked the lonely paths. On the day of the attack, they had just started back having just stopped for a mid-day meal when he saw an open area, surrounded by trees on the path ahead. He stopped and looked up the trail, carefully studying the wooded area fringing the glade, thinking this a very good place for an ambush.

‘Do you feel what I am feeling?’ he whispered.‘I do, there is danger here, I feel it. he replied.

He immediately felt his magikal senses engage as he took a few steps forward gaining a better view of the trees, casting his gaze over the area looking for signs of human activity. He stood for an age but could see nothing obvious and so they walked forward a little, arm in arm, all the time looking for the slightest activity from the trees along its edges. He drew his tang’i knife and stood in the centre and waited, scanning around, hardly breathing, looking and listening for anything out of the ordinary. Nothing. They stood stock-still both hardly daring to breathe. The wind blew through the trees as the birds sang giving no sign humans were disturbing them. All seemed well. He took what seemed like his first breath in an age and at the same time relaxed just a little, replacing his knife in its scabbard with a thin metallic snick. He cast his eyes over the ground one more time and feeling foolish at his fear laughed out loud.

‘You fool, there isn’t even a rabbit here!’

‘I am not so sure, I feel danger still, be careful, master.’

They started back on the path and as they did so he started to whistle a well know folk song and when he got to the chorus, sang a few lines. As they reached the point where the path re-joined the forest he stopped to adjust his travelling bags and just as they were about to set off two men stepped out of the forest with their knives held out. Both were tall and well built. One had blond, shoulder-length hair the other dark and cropped. The blond man had a vicious scar across his face from nose to ear and a well-broken nose the other had a well-pummelled face and a spiteful look in his eyes. They both held tang’i knives and the blond one held a short sword. He saw immediately that these men knew the meaning of the word violence and he knew they were in trouble.

‘Stay where you are. Do not move.’

He threw up his hands to show he had no weapons then he shrugged his shoulders and eased his travelling bags so that he might be able to run more easily should they need to.

‘Easy friends, we carry nothing of value.’

‘We’ll be the judges of that. Take off those bags, both of you, and do it slowly.’

He heard a sound behind him coming from the forest and he turned his head to see what it was. Emerging from the forest edge was a half dozen men with bows, arrows nocked, pointed at them waiting quietly. He turned back, his mind racing, weighing up the possibilities. He leaned into Baral’iti and pushed slightly to give himself some room then reached around to his tang’i knife and slowly slid it from its sheath, keeping the flat of the blade in the palm of his hand. He turned his body slightly to face the blond man then whipped his hand forwards letting the knife fly and burying it deep into his throat, blood welling up onto his tunic in a wide red stain. He stepped forwards quickly as the blond man fell, catching hold of his right hand and thrusting it up into the dark-haired man’s chin and pushing it into his skull, dropping him like a stone.

He went over to the two dead attackers and took his knife from the blond man's body becoming aware of the arrows hissing around him.  He had to move and quickly, more arrows, this time they were hitting home. Baral’iti had been hit once, twice, three times, four, a look of pained surprise on his face, his mouth open in a silent scream, then another arrow hit him in the neck, and blood came pumping from the wound in great gouts, staining the arm of his tunic. He fell onto the dusty path and the blood ran out and pooling under him. He knelt beside Baral’iti and took from him a bangle on his right hand and two rings on his left-hand fingers and stuffed them all in his tunic pocket. He shook his head to clear it and it brought the scene into focus. Arrows were hissing around him and as soon as he stood up to flee the glade, some of them started to hit home. One, then another into his back as he fled the glade, a third then a fourth, then he lost count. He pulled them out as he ran away, all but two that would not budge, so he kept running as fast as he could for as long as he could then he found somewhere to hide until his pursuers gave up and left. He wept for the loss of his familiar, he had lost his connection to the magikal world and he felt lost and alone without it. The boy had come to him when he was only ten summers old and they had been together ever since and now, without him he was utterly bereft.

He sat motionless and silent for half the day until the sun dropped below the horizon and still he dares come out from his hiding place and see to his wounds and the two barbed arrows that he could not remove.

He did not sleep at all that night as he readied himself as soon as the sun came up the next morning to try to put some distance between himself and his attackers. He walked all day without stopping and when he made a camp that evening he was finally able to assess the extent of his injuries. He could feel the places where the arrows had hit but it took a few days or so before he realised they were poisoned arrows and he was becoming sick with the arrow poison with no means to counteract it.

It took him two weeks or so to reach the village whose defensive ditches he sat in now. He sat in the ditch knowing he could not depend on its people to carry out his tasks and so he just sat there, waiting, waiting for some way to pass on the knowledge of his task.  

As the days passed he gradually grew worse as the poison started to affect him. He knew, as all men did,  that the best poison was made by the women of the tribe who would grate a rare type of tree bark, soaking it in water for several weeks, until it made a red coloured liquid which they mixed with human excrement to make a thick paste. Arrowheads were then dipped in the paste and hung up to dry. 

When hunting the men would feather an animal with poisoned arrows, then track the dying beast for a day or so until the poison rendered it incapable at which point the men would catch up and kill it.

He knew the poison was affecting his ability to stand and he suspected that if he was to succeed in getting someone from the village to take up his task he must act quickly before he lost his ability to reason too.

His stomach boiled and complained as he dropped onto his knees momentarily and retched into the ditch bringing up bright yellow bile, certain that this was further evidence of the effect the poison was having on him.

He could see something oozing from the wounds on his side and he dabbed at them with the cuff of his sleeve. He could not see the wounds on his back nor could he reach them but he wished he could because those were the most painful.

He looked down at the eye tattoos on the back of his hands and he knew that Gurn’iti was watching closely, taking note of how he was going to his death. Would he hold fast to his spear shaft, grit his teeth and fight his way to the spirit world or would he give up his Numa begging for his mother with tears in his eyes? Gurn’iti wanted to know these things.

He knew little for certain of the people of the village and was sure they would not treat him with absolute hostility but he could not be sure they would take much care of his Numa once he was dead and right now it was his Numa he was most concerned with. He had no intention of being rounded up by Thetant’iti and taken down to Aner’dul, his frozen underworld home. No, Thetant’iti must gather other men’s spirits today because today he had decided to take hold of his spear and go raging into the spirit world, and for that, he must plan.

First, if he was doomed to die out here in this muddy ditch, then, whoever found him would know that Berant’iti, and all the other Gods, had watched him and because of this they will have no choice but to return him to his people or the Gods will be angry. He thought this a great gamble with his spirit being but he felt he had little choice. The gamble being would someone find his body and give it over to a spirit guide to release his Numa to the otherworld or would they would find his body, strip it of his possessions and leave his corpse for the wild animals to devour, leaving his Numa trapped as a Ghost, forever wandering the realm of men.

He shuddered. He could not tell if it was fear or cold but regardless, it was getting worse.  

He gently touched a small wound in his stomach. It was heavily infected with evil-smelling pus, was red and swollen, and very painful. He looked up at the ragged grey clouds and a smile crossed his lips. He shook his head a few times to try and clear his head of the arrow poison and spoke to the Gods.

‘Today will be a good day to send my Numa to the spirit world and join my Father and his Fathers, Fathers in the spirit village.’

But that would depend on the people of this village. It would depend on them washing and anointing his body in oils then burning it on a giant pyre and eventually taking his bones back to his village of Anken’dul, many, many days travel from where he was now, back to his ancestor house, his bones gathered up in a funerary jar.

He balled up his right fist and held it out straight to the sky pointing the eye tattoo on the back at the sun, hiding behind a dull grey cloud. He muttered a prayer to Gurn’iti telling him to look for him, to find him and make note of him, and to help him find his way to the Numa’dul.

When he finished the prayer he reached round to the smaller of the soft leather bags he carried and from it produced a small amount of food in a soft rabbit skin pouch. Inside it, he produced a large, dry crust of bread, a small wedge of goat's cheese, five large blackberries, and a few walnuts he had foraged a few days previous. After he ate he cupped his hands and drank some gritty water from the ditch, feeling the small meal had settled his stomach and was the better for it.

The sun came out from behind the grey scudding clouds and warmed him with some early spring sun. It was as if, after all his trials, Berant’iti had, at last, noticed him. He closed his eyes and looked up to the sky, trying to remember his wife and children back in the village and what they would be doing this early in the morning. He saw his wife making oatcakes on a flat, bluestone by the fire and boiling eggs for their morning meal. He saw the little ones playing on the rushes with the little wooden toys he had made for them and the baby wriggling contentedly in the basket he had traded for four days of back-breaking tree felling. When he opened his eyes he was astonished to find huge wet tears so he reached up with the cuff of his tunic and dragged them across his face. Then as quickly as they had come the images were gone and he was back in a cold wet ditch far from home, dying from arrow poison, close to death, soon to know the destination of his spirit being.

He hoped that the people of this village would help return his bones to his people and his Numa onto the otherworld although he thought it more realistic to prepare for it to descend to Thetant’iti’s frozen home. But before he organised his Numa however he needed to arrange for the orderly passage of the precious object that had been the whole purpose of his journey and, he thought, that might not be such an easy task.

He had been carrying the item since he left his home village, having been sent by his people on a mission of great importance and to carry out the mission accompanied only by his familiar for it was agreed by the elders of his tribe, that a large party of guards and other attendants travelling through the wild places would attract attention from the bands of outlaws and brigands that roamed the open countryside.  They decided that he, travelling only with his familiar and carrying the item surreptitiously, might slip through the landscape without drawing any attention to themself. He thought it best to travel with no weapons except his tang’i knife and without a pack-horse and only carry what they needed in their leather travelling bags and a couple of felted wool bags of personal items.

The aim of his task was simple, he was to meet with the shaman of the tribe of the Broken Axe where he would present her with the magikal golden circlet, made from a wide band as a gift from the chief of the tribe of the Burning Man. The offer was made to bring together two tribes that had once, long ago, been one tribe. This is their story.

Many, many years ago there lived a happy tribe of people living their happy lives together under the rule of a wise and gentle king who ruled his people well. His wife, an olive-skinned beauty with almond-shaped eyes and jet black hair, gathered the women of the tribe together as any kindly mother would. The king had a childhood friend, a friend so close that they were more like brothers. The kings' friend, a fearsome warrior, led the men that protected the king and the people alike. The king had a daughter and his friend; a son, both friends since childhood. One day the king’s daughter and the warrior’s son went to the king and declared they had fallen in love and swearing undying love for each other and asking the king for his permission to marry because they wished to do things correctly. But things did not go well. Despite everything, the king was angry with his friend’s son and stern with his daughter. They could never marry, he said because, unknown to her, she was to marry the son of the elder of a nearby tribe uniting their families and peoples. A bride price had been paid and gifts exchanged; oaths had been sworn, nothing could be done. She must do as she was told for the good of her king and her people. The king said he would do all he could to find someone suitable for his friend’s son and that would be an end to the matter, the two cannot marry. The youngsters were inconsolable at first and so determined to marry they hatched a plot to run away together which failed, so the daughter threatened that if she could not marry her love she would take poison. The king, beside himself with anger, placed the couple under a form of house arrest. The daughter was given to the care of three old crones who guarded her night and day and the warrior’s son was chained in his clan’s hut and guarded with spears and swords by his uncles.

When the people of the tribe found out what had happened there was much unrest and, when the warrior returned from his hunting trip and learned of the king’s treatment of his son and the arrest of his daughter, his anger knew no bounds.

He went to the king and, at first, pleaded with the king, for the sake of their friendship, to allow the two to marry. He begged the king to allow his daughter to marry for love rather than marry someone she did not know and had never even met. However the king would not be moved by his pleadings and so the warrior resorted to threats and eventually, in angry desperation he called for the entire people to be gathered, calling for all the people to come to the village and once they were assembled in the gathering place the warrior, the king, and the two lovers came to the people. There was a great deal of murmuring and muttering and general discontent. After all, many of the people wanted the king’s daughter and the warrior’s son to marry for love and did not want her to be sent far away to other people because they knew her and loved her.  Eventually, the warrior spoke and what he said sent a shock through the people. He told them that he no longer loved his friend, the king, and no longer wished to live under his rule. He had decided to take himself away from the protection of this tribe and was going to start again, afresh, somewhere else far, far from here. He said that he would take, under his protection, anyone who would come with him and that would include, if necessary, the king's daughter. He would protect her life with his own. The king was so angry he told the warrior that if he did as he said he banish him forever. And further, every person who went with him would be banished as well.

The very next day, and for the next several days, the people of the tribe of The Burning Man divided, unhappily into two and the people that moved far, far away eventually became the people of the Broken Axe, a name that was chosen for its symbol of the break with the main tribe.

And for many generations, the two tribes had not the slightest contact.

Until Now.

He opened the larger of the felted wool bags and pulled out a fine doeskin pocket stitched along its edges in a red-dyed thread and buckled with an engraved silver clasp. He opened it, desperately unhappy that he would not be able to complete his task but knowing he must ensure the circlet made its way to the Broken Axe people, despite his death, for the mission to be successful.

He sat and thought for a while and wondered how he might contrive a situation that would help him secure the success of his mission. He must make certain someone knew the story, hoping somehow they would see the seriousness of his task and carry on the mission delivering the circlet to the Broken Axe shaman.

He mustered all the strength he had and, using his spear to prop himself up, raised himself to his full height, scanning the horizon. There, across the ditches was a small gathering of children playing. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

‘Whooooooop, Whooooooop! Whooooooop!’ he yelped as loudly as his ailing body would allow.

The children stopped what they were doing and looked around trying to locate the source of the unusual sound. The stranger lifted his right arm and waved yelping again.

‘Whooooooop, Whooooooop! Whooooooop!’

This time the children located the source of the sound and turned in his direction. Some of them pointed, the rest put their heads together, peering along their outstretched arms helping each other to spot the stranger’s position. They started to walk in his direction, then as quickly as they had started, stopped and gathered in a small circle. He thought they might be discussing the dangers of approaching a stranger at the far edges of the village boundaries and perhaps whether they should return to the village to fetch adults. It seems they couldn’t make their minds up so some of them chose to do the former while others chose the latter, quickly splitting in two, some going back towards the village the rest walking towards him.

‘Thanks be to the Gods’ he mouthed, thinking now, with a little luck, he could weave a story that the children would be able to repeat to the adults and which might just convince them to carry on and deliver the golden circlet rather than chop it up and distribute it amongst the tribes elite.

Three children arrived and stood twenty feet away from him. The oldest looking of the three, spoke up.

‘I think I know all of my people and I’m sure you’re not one of them. Who are you?’

He quizzically tilted his head.

‘My name is not important, but I have a task for you that is. Are you a clever boy?’

The boy stood tall and pulled back his shoulders making himself look a little larger than he was.

‘Of course, I’m ten summers old, nearly a man. Whatever it is that you need me to do I am capable, old man.’

The boy’s boastfulness was just scared bragging and the stranger knew this so he ignored the disrespect and carried on.

‘I have a task for you that involves the sun god Berant’iti himself. It is a serious matter, and just the kind of thing for someone who is nearly a man.’

The boys all looked at each other and wordlessly weighed up the stranger.

The stranger suddenly started to shiver violently. The effort of standing for so long and the effects of the arrow poison became too much for him. He lost all the strength in his legs and began to slowly slide down the spear shaft, crumpling back into the small ditch and letting go of his spear which clattered into the ditch. At this, the boys moved closer, sensing the stranger as less of a threat; the oldest boy moved closer still, close enough to hear his ragged, panting breath. He knelt beside the injured man, lifting his head and speaking with unusual gentleness.

‘You will need to tell me what it is you want me to do or how will I be able to help you?’

The stranger turned his head, looking directly at the boy. He gazed at his oval, smoke-smudged face with its fleshy lips and wide nose with bright hazel eyes framed by shoulder-length, jet black hair. He pointed down the ditch towards a pile of bags.

‘Pass me the larger of the felted wool bags there.’

The boy did as he was bid and crouched down next to the stranger. The other boys stood off, out of earshot, staring intently. The stranger took the bag and held it close to his chest. He took a deep breath and spoke.

‘I’m going to tell you a story that I want you to try to remember. I want you to repeat it to the chief of your tribe and when you finish I want you to hand him this felted wool bag. You must not look into this bag as it will be under the protection of Berant’iti himself, you must tell that to your chief as well.’

The stranger reached round into one of his tunic pockets and pulled out a cloak pin. He closed the felted wool bag shut with the silver clasp and sealed the flap with the cloak pin. Turning to the boy he pointed to the figure on the pin.

‘Do you know who that is?’

‘That is the Sun God Berant’iti in his boat, why?’ replied the boy.

The stranger smiled and nodded.

‘You are indeed a clever young man; your father must be proud of you. This bag is now protected by Berant’iti himself and must not be opened by anyone other than the people I am about to list, do you understand?’

The boy nodded and the stranger passed the bag for the boy to hold. The boy looked closely at the bag turning it over in his hands and paying particular attention to the cloak pin.

Then the stranger told the youth a shortened story of the two tribes and the effort to re-join them by the gift of the magikal circlet. He told him about the precious item, but did not show him it, and then asked him to repeat what he had said. When he had done so the injured man sighed and sagged further into the ditch.

‘Go now, go and do as I have bid. Berant’iti will look down on you with pride, nearly man.’

The boy stood up and slung the bag across his shoulder which at first nearly dragged on the ground, so he took it off and tied a large knot in the plaited straps shortening them a good way, making the bag tuck neatly in the small of his back.  He motioned to his companions to come with him but they were transfixed by the dying stranger so he snapped his fingers a few times to get their attention. Together they climbed out of the ditches and at the top, the boy stopped and turned, looking, briefly at the dying man. He shrugged his shoulder, adjusting the position of the bag and as he did so he turned and headed back towards the village.

The stranger took a deep breath silently praying to all the Gods he could remember.

He sat alone in the ditch, rocking on his heels until his prayers ended and he fell silent. After a while his breathing became slow and laboured and then it stopped.

Now his Numa would discover what man and the gods had in store for it.

Now, if the Gods answered his prayers and the boy remembered the story he was told, the fate of the two tribes would be decided.


Submitted: April 15, 2021

© Copyright 2022 agarthan. All rights reserved.

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