The Last Wolf King

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Dr. Neyrev is determined to add one more story to the anthology of Tur legends he's been collecting for years. However, getting it may turn out to be riskier than he bargained for.
If you're new to the world of Sevia, this little story is a great way to get a feel for the Shards of Sevia series, and a taste of what's to come.

President Morsav died on a muggy evening in the middle of July. That spring, he had survived an assassination attempt—the fifth, if I remember correctly—only to succumb to cancer a few months later.
The university where I teach canceled summer classes for the rest of the week; flags flew at half-mast all over Sevia, and the gang of thugs now known as the Sevian Nationalist Party overthrew our fragile government and put one of their own in power almost before the news channels stopped showing footage of Morsav's state funeral. Before July was over, I found myself thanking God that my own son was safely buried, too.
However, none of these occurrences were what fixed the date of July 16th in my mind. That was the day I recorded the tale of "The Last Wolf King" for the CD that goes with the new addition of my book, "Myths and Legends of the Tur," thus completing a decade-long project. Perhaps I was shortsighted; perhaps I set too much store by my own work, but I believed, and still believe, that the existence of that anthology was as vital to Sevia's future as the rise and fall of this president or that political faction.
That morning, I finished work early. Since I didn't have to lecture in the afternoon, I dropped by my nephew's cafe. This was partly because his chilled borscht is an excellent lunch on a hot day, but mainly because I wanted to speak with my young friend, Arjun, who worked for him.
I hadn't had any luck finding someone who could recite "The Last Wolf King," which is one of the oldest and most obscure tales in my anthology. It occurred to me that Arjun might know it himself, or at the very least be able to tell me of someone who did. When I arrived at the cafe, I went straight to the kitchen at the back.
Rama, Arjun's brother-in-law, a lean young man with piercing eyes, was alone inside, though the door to the alley was swinging as though someone had just gone out. One of those "Mayhem and Death for the Sevian Oppressors," rap numbers blared from his phone. He was sweeping the floor, singing along softly to himself.
Rama glanced up when I opened the kitchen door, and his face turned red. He fumbled with the phone, silenced it and hurried out without saying anything to me.
I didn't understand why he was embarrassed; it wasn't as if I hadn't heard that kind of song before. I sat down on a bench opposite the refrigerator and pulled out my own phone to text Arjun.
As I did so, Arjun came in through the back door carrying an empty bucket with potato peelings still clinging to the sides.
"Welcome, Dr. Neyrev," he greeted me with his gap-toothed smile. "Rama told me you'd come. What can I do for you?"
"Come sit for a minute," I said, patting the bench beside me. "I need your help with something." I opened my briefcase and brought out a copy of the first edition of "Myths and Legends." I can't remember now if I'd told him about it before. I probably had. Of course, I've given him multiple copies of "Literacy for Adult Speakers of Tur" over the past few years. I'm pleased to say he can read Tur very well now. In fact, he's begun helping me teach others. His intelligence and dedication are wasted scrubbing dishes in a cafe kitchen, but the shame of it is, that's the best our city of Dor will offer him.
Arjun set the big book in his lap and studied it, tracing the Cyrillic letters on the shiny cover. "So, Tayar and the Moon's Daughter and the story of Idil and Lashmi and the Wolf King story and the Black Bull Songs are all in here? Translated into Sev?" he asked.
"Those, and many more. Each story is written in Tur and Sev in parallel columns, like this." I opened the book and ran my finger down the page. "Tur to help preserve the language, Sev so the majority of people in Sevia can enjoy these stories. They're not just Tur stories; they're part of our national heritage."
He bent his head over the pages, and his twisted hair fell over his face. I wished I could see his expression.
"So, now the same Sevians who are shaking their heads over news stories about Tur people robbing houses or or starting riots, can read the story of Tayar and the Moon's Daughter," he said quietly. "That doesn't seem right."
"I think my translation is important for that very reason," I said. "I hope that having part of the Tur soul accessible to the Sevian majority in our country will help build respect, and trust, between us. That's why I've spent the last ten years working on this anthology."
He nodded slowly. "Maybe. But I think we should be allowed to keep one good thing for our very own."
I took the book back and flipped through the pages. Suddenly, President Morsav's death, the coup, and the probable war didn't seem important—the only vital thing was for this young Tur man to understand what I was trying to do. "I think you Tur go out of your way to be different—exclusive—because you know you're struggling to survive, at least as a distinct people with a viable language."
Finally, Arjun looked up at me. He was a redhead, like his father, with the same round cheeks and hazel eyes. Sometimes I forgot it wasn't my old friend I was speaking with, but only his son.
"Sevians and Tur really aren't so different," I said,pushing my glasses up higher on my nose. They don't fit nearly as well as they did before I sat on them. "Technically, we're all Sevian because we live in Sevia, right? When I'm walking down the street, half the time I can't even tell who's Tur and who's Sevian."
"I always can," said Arjun.
"These stories are your people's gift to all of us."
The kitchen door swung open. "Uncle Peter!" my nephew, Boris, exclaimed. His white canvas apron was stained purple with beet juice and his broad shoulders seemed to fill the little space. "What brings you here?"
"The borscht, of course."
"You're not teaching today?"
"My lecture on Sevia's foreign relations is postponed until next week because of the President's passing."
"Hmmm," said Boris, looking thoughtful. "Maybe I should have closed the cafe."
"Why? I don't think President Morsav and potatoes have much in common."
He didn't laugh.
Arjun stood. "Mr. Boris, you are very fine? The girlfriend is fine?" he asked in Sev.
Boris smiled a little. "Yes, I'm fine. Anna's doing well too." He opened the refrigerator and began taking out jars of pickled vegetables—beets, carrots, and cucumbers. The crisp smell of vinegar filled the little kitchen.
I stood, and put a hand on Arjun's arm as he moved away. He turned to look up at me; I'm taller by a good six inches. "I don't want to see your Tur language and culture disappear any more than you do. After all, my whole life revolves around studying it, teaching it, and trying to preserve it. But if your people aren't willing to share, I can assure you it will soon be gone."
Arjun nodded again. He didn't say anything.
"I'm planning to publish a second edition of this anthology soon. The new edition will include a CD with recordings of Tur people reciting the traditional stories, just the way they've been passed down through generations."
"That's a good idea." He tugged at the twists of copper hair that hung over his right ear.
"It was Oxsana's idea. I'm still looking for someone who can recite "The Last Wolf King."
"I know that one!" Arjun exclaimed, his face relaxing into a smile. "At least I used to. Let's see..." He cleared his throat and began to recite.
"In the Days Before, Sundar was Rais from Beyun to the sea. He was more feared than any Rais before, more merciless, more powerful than any Rais before.
The Plains People and the Mountain People called him the Wolf Rais, because the pit of the Black Wolf yawned beside his throne. All the chieftains of Tur Fen and Tur Kej and Duna and Lash and Sevia sent him tribute every year, ten black bulls and ten black cows. Their fear made his power flourish. One spring, in the Days Before, the Chieftain of Duna looked down from his walls and saw that there were no black cattle in the pens. The snows melted late and his people were starving..."
Arjun's voice trailed away. He was silent for a minute, thinking. "Well, I used to know it all." He sighed. "I'm losing my edge."
"Where did Rama go?" I asked. "I imagine he knows it. After all, he's named for the hero."
"He left."
"Maybe another time, then."
Arjun glanced over at Boris and rubbed his hand on his apron. "Well, I can tell you what happens, but not in exactly the right words. Rama, the chieftain's son, travels to Beyun and tells the Rais that they have no tribute cattle this year. The Rais is furious and says he'll throw Rama into the Wolf Pit since he can't provide the cattle. And then—" He clapped his hands. "I know! You need to talk with Erkan's grandma. She knows all the stories, and then some."
Erkan and his younger brother and sister lived with their grandmother in the same apartment building as Arjun's family. I'd seen her a few times, but never spoken with her much.
I stooped to pick up my briefcase. "Of course. I don't know why I didn't think of her before. I'll certainly do that."
"Why not come this evening? I'll call Erkan so he can let her know. My shift ends early today, so we can go together. It's safer for you if you're with me, especially now." He swung his arms and began rolling up his sleeves. "I'd better get back to work, or Boris is going to start yelling at me." He turned just as Boris lifted the broom out of the corner. "The floor is sweep," he called. "Rama doing it before."
Boris let the broom fall back against the wall with a clatter. "Go find yourself a spot on the patio," he said to me. "It's too stuffy to eat in here. You want a soda? I was going to have one."
It was hot out on the patio too, but the green awning kept the sun off. The breeze that rustled through the leaves of the nearby birch trees sounded refreshing, at least. It didn't do much to cool the day. I sat down at one of the little tables and pushed the chair back so I could stretch my legs.
Boris followed me out, a dripping can of Coca Cola in each hand. "So Arjun's taking you down to Pasha neighborhood this evening? Does Aunt Oxsana know?" He set one soda on the table and ripped the tab off the other. "You never did buy that gun I told you to get, did you?"
"Too many questions," I laughed.
"You might get robbed," he said, his dark eyebrows drawing together.
Sometimes, I almost forget that Boris isn't really my son, since he's lived with us ever since he was fifteen. But this particular conversation always reminds me that he isn't. I need to explain things to him that my son, Sasha, would have understood without words.
Condensation pooled on the glass tabletop as I slid a finger down the side of the chilly can. Boris's sadness and fury have run very close to the surface ever since Sasha left us. The wrong word can bring them both gushing out, impossible to separate. Sasha understood him far better than I.
"You know I've never carried a gun, and I won't start now," I said, keeping my voice low and even. "That would be breaking trust with Arjun and Rama and Erkan. All my friends in Pasha. My Tur people."
Boris wiped sweat off his forehead with his forearm. Water dripped from the red can in his hand. "You could take that trust too far and get killed. I worry about that a lot, ever since we lost Sasha the way we did. You're not being fair to Aunt Oxsana to risk it."
Arjun came over with a bowl of borscht and some fresh bread for me. He must have heard Sasha's name in our conversation because he kept his eyes fixed on the tray he carried.
I had never told Arjun the details of Sasha's death. It made no difference to me who killed Sasha...Tur, Russian, Greek, or Sevian. He was dead; that was all that mattered. All the same, I simply could not make myself explain to Arjun that a Tur man had stabbed my son. But somehow he had found out, or guessed.
"I'm sorry," he said when he saw me a few days after it happened. He didn't use the word that meant, "I'm sad for you," but the one that meant, "Forgive me."
"Thank you, but this has nothing to do with you," I said.
He'd stood without moving, head lowered, hands at his sides. "Yes it does. I'm Tur," he said.
I did not cry when Boris called to tell me he was at the police station in Pasha, standing over my son's body, but I cried then.

***
Arjun and his family had a little second-floor apartment in Pasha, the larger of Dor city's two Tur districts. Most Sevians avoided that part of the city if they could, but I visited him there often.
Up until the time of President Morsav's death, the Tur of Dor had enjoyed a measure of autonomy, answering to the leaders of the various neighborhood militias rather than the national government. But the Sevian Nationalist Party, also known as the White Horses, made no secret of the fact they wanted the Tur "invaders" wiped off the face of the earth.
"Has Rama told you what he thinks is going to happen?" I asked Arjun in the taxi on the way to his house.
"No, not really."
"Is he—?"
"I only see him when he comes to work. He's not living with us anymore."
"Then it's just you and the girls. Don't you think you need Rama around help maintain your sanity?" I asked, trying to make him laugh. It also occurred to me that he might be safer with a member of Rayad, the largest Tur militia, living in his home.
"No," he said, staring out the window at a group of young men standing on the sidewalk. Two or three of them had handguns tucked into waistbands or back pockets.
I didn't press him further, but I couldn't help worrying for Rama because he was so young and stupid.
"Maybe I shouldn't have told you to come tonight," Arjun said softly.
"You couldn't have kept me away," I said. "Erkan's grandmother has my story."
We got to Arjun's apartment and climbed the stairs to the second floor. His younger sister, Preen, and her baby daughter were waiting to greet us along with Erkan's grandmother. The tiny, wrinkled woman was almost lost in the riot of red and yellow sunflowers on her silk blouse.
Their apartment was being painted, she told me. I'd be much more comfortable and things would be quieter in Arjun's. With little Sitabi around, I wasn't convinced of that, but it did seem the better option.
Erkan's grandmother looked fragile but her voice was deep and husky after decades of cigarettes. She couldn't stop smiling as she and Preen ushered us into Arjun's sitting room.
I chose a spot on the saggy couch, and Preen brought us tea. After she put the tray on the end table, she sighed and rubbed the back of her hand across her face. The skin under her eyes was dark with fatigue. Sitabi scooted across the floor and wrapped herself around her mother's ankle.
"Is Sitabi walking yet?" I asked.
Preen smiled. "She does if she's holding my hand, but soon she'll be doing it on her own." She eased her foot free and started back to the kitchen to get a tea cake, her long braid swinging behind her with each step.
I showed Erkan's grandmother how to hold the little recording mic properly—close to her mouth, but not too close. When she nodded to me to show she was ready, I turned on the recorder.
Just as she began the story, my phone vibrated in my pocket. I ignored it. It buzzed again. Then again. Preen came in and set the cake dish on the table with the faintest of clicks. As she straightened, a loud ringtone began to play on her phone. She clapped her hand over her mouth and dashed out of the room with it, not wanting to spoil the recording. I motioned to Erkan's grandmother to keep going and walked into the hall to check my own phone. As I suspected, it was Oxsana. Two missed calls, and then a text.
Where are you?
Erkan's grandmother continued reciting without even looking up.
"The guards of the Rais tied Rama hand and foot and told him he would be the Wolf's food at the next moonrise.When the throne room was empty and everyone was asleep, even the guards, the princess, dressed in fur and velvet, with a net of silver coins on her black hair, came softly in. She knelt beside Rama to cut him free, and he woke looking into her deep eyes.The princess handed him the knife and a coil of rope and told him, "Take this rope and go down into the Wolf Pit. Kill the Black Wolf and deliver our kingdom from his curse. Kill the Black Wolf and deliver me from my fear." Together, they tied the rope around a pillar. Then Rama stepped to the edge of the Wolf Pit and lowered himself down into the darkness.The place smelled of the bones and blood of cattle. When he came to the end of the rope, the floor of the pit was still far below him. He thought of the green hills of his father's land that would be his someday, but most of all he thought of the princess's luminous eyes. He let go of the rope and fell, down and down. Before he hit the bottom, a shape of snarling darkness leaped on him and sank its teeth into his shoulder."
Erkan's grandmother paused and glanced up.
Preen was waving at us from the kitchen doorway, her phone clenched against her chest, fear in her big hazel eyes.
I hurried over to her.
"I just got a call from Rama," she said. "There's fighting in Sevdarad neighborhood. White Horses came down and torched some cars. A shop, too, I think. Rama thinks they're headed this way." She bit her lip. "It could be really bad."
"That's probably why Oxsana has been trying to call me," I said.
"You should go," said Preen. She slipped her phone into the back pocket of her jeans and tugged her shirt down to cover it. "I'm sorry about the recording. Maybe another day?"
My phone vibrated again. Another text from Oxsana.
Peter, come home now.
As I walked back into the sitting room, I could still hear Erkan's grandmother telling the Wolf King story the way Tur people have been telling it for at least four hundred years. It occurred to me that I might not see her, or Preen, or Arjun again for a long time.
"The Black Wolf was dead. The reign of the Wolf Kings was ended. No longer would they terrify the land from the Mountains to Beyun, from Beyun plains to the sea.
But Rama felt the curse of the wolf's bite creeping from his shoulder, down his arm. Hesaw that his left hand was already a massive paw, covered with black hair. Suddenly, he understood how the Wolf Kings passed on their kingship and their power."
She paused. The yellow afternoon light made patterns on the rusty red carpet where Sitabi lay curled, fast asleep with her thumb in her mouth. The only sound was the ticking of the clock on the wall.
Then the rattle of automatic rifles filled the silence. The sound of an explosion made us all look toward the window. I saw a plume of dust rise and drift away between the buildings a few blocks away. I leaned over and stopped the recording.
"We should go," Arjun said.
"I know. I'm leaving," I said.
"I'll come with you."
"No, you had better stay here." I wanted to tell him how much I loved him. I wanted to explain what his father had meant to me, how I'd be in his debt forever. My mind filled so fast with all the things I wanted to say that in the end I didn't say any of them.
Arjun and Erkan's grandmother followed me down the steps and out into the street.
"I really should go with you," Arjun said. He put a protective arm across my back, even though at twenty-four he was barely half my age.
"No, you shouldn't. Goodbye." I turned to Erkan's grandmother. "Thank you so much for your help with the recording."
"I didn't finish," she whispered. Tears formed in her eyes as she handed the recorder to me.
I took her hard, dry hand and brought it to my forehead. "Thank you anyway. It was perfect."
It took me at least twenty minutes to hail a taxi because the streets were emptying fast. When I finally did, we started north through Pasha neighborhood on the main thoroughfare that runs parallel to the river. Just before we crossed into Sevdarad, the taxi driver slowed and came to a stop. Ahead of us a delivery van and a battered taxi were parked lengthwise across the road, blocking it.
Men with rifles stood between the vehicle roadblock and us, five or six of them, maybe more. All Tur, of course, with their proud warrior locks knotted on their heads and the curving Bull's Horns symbol sewed onto the backs of their jackets.
For a moment, the same fear I had fought against ever since Sasha was killed almost overwhelmed me. Maybe I had taken trust too far that night, too. Maybe I had risked too much. Sasha wouldn't even have been down in Pasha if I hadn't told him to deliver those boxes of workbooks to the night school while I was away. Had I made the same mistake again? At least it was only me this time.
Three men came jogging toward my taxi, sliding the straps of their Kalashnikovs off their shoulders as they came. One of them bent down and peered in through the window. He had wide-set, greenish eyes and a broken front tooth. When he realized I was Sevian, he yelled, "Get out, get out now!"
The taxi driver, who was Tur, sat without moving, staring straight ahead. I was thankful they left him alone.
Slowly, I unbuckled my seat belt and climbed out.
"Keep your hands high. Get away from the car," the man said, waving his rifle at me. Two of his friends joined him.
My heart was pounding so hard my hands were shaking as I raised them over my head. I made myself smile at the men. "I'm just on my way home," I said. I meant to speak Tur, but it came out in Sev.
A fourth man came running up, his rifle in one hand. I recognized that thin, acne-scarred face and ragged beard. It was Rama. Maybe he'd be able to explain that he knew me, that I wasn't an enemy, that it would be safe to let me go.
His eyes went wide with shock when he saw me, but he didn't say anything.
"Rama, do you know how the story of the Last Wolf King ends?" I asked, switching to Tur.
All four men stared at me in confusion.
"Of course I do," said Rama. He lifted his Kalashnikov and balanced the butt end on his shoulder so the barrel pointed at the sky. "You want the very end?"
"Yes, just the last few lines."
He glanced toward his friends, licked his lips, and began to recite.
"When the morning light began to shine down into the wolf pit, the princess ran to the edge and called, "Rama! Rama, are you the victor?" Rama looked up from the darkness, blinded by the yellow light that his eyes could no longer endure and said, "Yes, I am the victor. The last wolf Rais is dead." Then, with the hand that was still human, he raised his knife and stabbed himself through the heart."
Rama hit his own chest with a clenched fist at the last line. Then he gave me his slow, shy smile. "Do you have that one in your book, Dr. Neyrev?" he asked.
"Yes, I do."
Rama turned to the other men. "I know him. He's a friend. As far as I'm concerned, he's free to go. I swear on my life he won't make any trouble for us."
He stepped away from me and so did the others.
Slowly, I climbed back into the taxi and folded my shaking hands in my lap. They waved for us to drive on. The men up the road backed the vehicles out of the way so we could get past.
"Have a good evening," Rama called to me as we drove off.

 

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this story, you can visit https://shardsofsevia.wordpress.com to learn more about me and my Shards of Sevia novels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Submitted: June 29, 2020

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