Here is a quick teaser chapter, from the forthcoming ‘Alluvion’ novel:
‘ALLUVION’ by Gareth Jack Sansom
ii. Prologue: Fall of the Ancients
‘.. this knowledge was given me, through the words of our elders that when the world was still warming there dwelt to the north a powerful race of men unlike any that we today could call our kin. Hidden far beyond shadow for centuries, they were a cruel and calculating people, possessed of a terrible wisdom and intelligence inherited from ancient times, and which they would have used to control and enslave the free-men of the Southern lands. The Ancient Ones, as we called them, were as deadly in the fields and vales of the South as they were in their cities beyond the mountains of ice, and stories of their raids and acts of savagery on the lands bordering the North remain to this day the tales told to scare our children on cold nights by the firelight.
I have come to know that the Northmen were in fact the first men, who millennia ago had once conquered and subdued the world from the farthest south and across the seas, and through sorceries since lost to them had mastered the secrets of fire and flight. In an age where true monsters still roamed the Earth, the Ancient Ones rose to proclaim themselves as a godhead; a power without equal. Matchless artisans, they had hewn a great many marvels and empires from solid stone, and would have sustained dominion over the world had the great mountains of ice not marched from their Northern realm to reclaim those lands taken from them. In a swift and catastrophic upheaval, the Southern continent which they called their home was too vanished beneath the seas as if by the throes of a wrathful leviathan, leaving their scattered brethren without to endure the coming Winter, near endless as it was.
For the true Gods are indeed jealous, and spare no avarice for the likes of mortal men.
What few survived emerged from the ice aeons later to find a new and different world, filled with new and different people. As the climate warmed and the men of the North ventured farther from conditions they knew, they were shocked at the multitude and prosperity of those frail, primitive creatures that had usurped the now fertile lands beyond their frozen prison. Enraged and incensed by their unearned entitlement, and with minds harkening to prior greatnesses now little more than a fading memory, they declared total and immediate war upon the free peoples of Silur-Mah in an effort to reclaim their world.
It is said then that a struggle for control of the South and indeed for the very survival of humankind spanned generations, costing the lives of countless thousands on either side and by the destructive forces of northern alchemy, reduced cities and vast tracts of land to little more than barren wastes. Only through the sheer strength of numbers were the people of Silur-Mah, or the ‘Magnificent South’ eventually victorious, as although the Ancient Ones may have been blessed with knowledge and extraordinarily long life, their numbers had become scarce and reproduction far diminished. Few that survived were captured, tortured and paraded through the towns of men in the years that followed, the rest put quickly to death in perhaps the most holistic genocide the world had ever seen.
Those half-cast as a result of their capture and the atrocities that followed the burning were exiled to the hills and wildernesses outside the city gates, seldom seen and reviled to the end of their days. It was decreed an abomination that the Gods would allow the blood of Northerner and Southerner to mix, the resulting seed and spirit regarded as a tainted monstrosity in the eyes of their religion. It has been said that the half-cast, miserable as they were came to refer to themselves as Watchers, and that theirs is a secluded and seldom seen settlement I have come to know as Uru-Mah, several leagues to the north.
Hundreds of years have passed since the War of the Ancients, warm and fertile years and seasons that have seen the men and women of the South blossom once more. Villages, through hunting grounds now teeming with game have swollen into city-states, others by tactful trade and military might have become strongholds and places where the higher arts are allowed to flourish, and the religion of the Seers is studied without distraction.
It is from a small village of hunters and gatherers to the south of Uru-Mah called Nevalı Çori where our story begins, in the home of the family Tau on the first morning of Spring, the year 10,908BCE..’
– Skara Tau, 23AC
01. .. of Antlers and Aurochs
“Give that back..!” demanded Kirti in a fluster, “Give me back my doll, or I’ll tell Father and he’ll make you give it back..!” She then proceeded to ball her little fists, clench her tiny teeth and give him as threatening a glare as she could muster, from well above her eyebrows. Small though she was, what she lacked in stature she more than made up for in earnest.
“It’s not yours,” teased her brother, Harna, “Father gave it to us both, and you’ve played with it long enough..!” he exclaimed, before grinning cheekily and running out of the house, his sister at his heels screaming in hot pursuit. He was lying of course, and in truth he could have cared less for the toy, but as with all young boys through the ages, Harna just could not resist winding up his little sister.
The two siblings had been cooped up in close quarters for all of what had proven to have been a particularly long and uncomfortable Winter, and were now unsurprisingly bursting at the seams with energy at the first rays of Spring sunshine. Kirti was five years old, flighty and with soft blonde hair while Harna was nearly eight, tall for his age with piercing blue eyes and thick, dark hair like his father and according to constant reminder from their mother, should know better.
The two ran frantic into the now bustling central plaza which divided the four precincts of their village, spooking a mule laden with fresh fruit and wild roots and nearly knocking over a butcher’s bench in the process. If one thing above all else could be considered vital to the peaceful coexistence of their modest community, it must have been the daily hunt for and division of fresh meat, fruits and roots. It is this fact which prompted the butcher whose table had been upset to raise both children sharply from off their feet by the scruff of their necks before bellowing loudly for all around to hear:
“Where is the mother of these two wild animals, who would nearly cause waste of a morning’s hunt..? Come out and claim them, woman, before it’s them that meets my blade..!” Several villagers, women and children stopped then and looked around, waiting for an answer for what was in truth a frightening thing to say of children.
“Let them down, butcher,” returned a voice from the crowd. A man of staggering height and build moved slowly through the crowd of mid-morning onlookers to address the butcher, graceful and even-voiced in spite of his stature, “they only play as any children might after the Winter we’ve had.”
The voice belonged to one Skara Tau, a huntsman and father to the two children. Skara had himself only just returned from the hills north of the village with his first kill of the season, delayed from a meeting previously arranged with an emissary from the city capital, Çatalhöyük. At this, the other man released the son and daughter and returned to his work, muttering warnings for wild children to no-one in particular as he did. Both siblings ran immediately for their father, Kirti pausing only momentarily to poke a tongue back at the butcher, who dismissed the gesture with a wide swipe of one hand.
“Father, Father..!” gushed the two children, both of them gazing excitedly upwards toward the mountain of a man who kneeled to embrace them both, “Did you meet with Mua’dar..? Did he bring you news from the capital – has he brought word from Ihreikas..?” they blurted, asking whether their father had received decree from their king to the west.
“Yes Daddy, did you bring us back anything from your journey, a doll for Harna, maybe..?” chimed Kirti with a smirk, prompting a red-faced scowl from Harna, embarrassed at the inference that he would actually still toy with such things. He quickly pushed the effigy they had quarrelled over moments before towards his sister, and returned an expectant gaze towards his father, who was still processing their flurry of questions.
“There is word..” he started, “but I’ll have you know in time. Now where’s your mother, I’ve game to have her prepare.” He again raised himself, hoisting Kirti up with a strong right arm and with a gentle left hand upon Harna’s shoulder, guided the two of them back towards the family home. Skara noticed then that their faces had dropped somewhat at the dismissal of their inquiries, and so as they walked discreetly produced two magnificently adorned articles from within the folds of his cloak; one woven headdress, beautifully crafted from vine and bead and embellished with red silk which he handed to Kirti, who squealed with excitement.
For Harna he had been gifted an ivory dagger from the emissary, into the handle of which was carved an intricate relief depicting the hunt and capture of a wild gazelle, its antlers stretching out to form the hilt. The blade was double-edged, and sliced Harna’s thumb ever so slightly as he ran it across its length, to test. “Now you be careful with that blade, child,” Skara warned, “that one is no toy. I had it carved just for you, to prepare for many a successful hunt ahead. I expect you’ll join us in a season or two, despite what your mother might say.”
Kirti bubbled and squeaked over her headdress for the remainder of the walk back to their home, while Harna, transfixed by the craftsmanship of the ivory blade and the promise of the hunt did not say a single word.
The three reached the small wooden hut at the southern edge of the village, and both Harna and Kirti immediately ran inside to admire their gifts, to Skara’s laughter. He then wandered around the outside of the circular building, hoping to find Sura, his wife and the mother of his children working either at the grinding stone or else preparing a bench for the morning’s kill, however she was nowhere to be found. “Strange,” he muttered to himself, “perhaps she has taken clothing, and is with her sisters at the river..“ and before he could finish the thought, two slender hands crept from around the back of his head, covering both of his eyes. “Guess who..?” sang a soft voice, through a creeping smile she could not suppress.
“I’m not sure,” said Skara lowly, trying with all his might to stifle a smile himself, “but it sounds like.. RAIDERS..!” he shouted and turned quickly around and with his barrel-like arms lifted Sura high into the air by her tiny waist, spinning her around several times as she gasped and laughed with delight. He had been away for several days, roaming the hills and valleys in search of game (it had been said that a herd of auroch had passed nearby the village on the day of their departure, an opportunity that if true, simply could not be ignored), and Sura had missed her husband deeply, as always. Skara gently lowered her back to the ground, the two embracing passionately and once again, they were complete.
Skara brought his wife back to the far room of the house, beyond a hanging curtain where they then made love as husband and wife all the more meaningfully for their time apart. As always when he left for the hunt, his wife played constantly on his mind. Her soft voice, gentle curves and the touch of her body. She too ached for his return, and once across the threshold they could never wait for very long before shedding their clothes. Nothing about this was unusual in their village, either. Sura’s passionate cries as she was fulfilled were as typical in the air as the songs of birds, the cries of the newborn or the last breath of the dying. Such was the relationship with love, life and death in the village of Nevalı Çori.
“How was the hunt, my love..?” she asked lovingly from their couch as he caught his breath, “Tell me, did you find the auroch..?” She gazed expectantly up into his eyes, studying them as if believing she could find the answer there even before he spoke.
“Aye, we found a few.. stragglers only, the weak and ill. The herd must have made swift passage across the valley before we set out, possibly spooked by a predator.” He appeared visibly disappointed momentarily, dropping his countenance however he quickly recalled their fortunate return, “We may not have auroch enough to share amongst us, but bison we found on our way back to you – three were taken and remain in the plaza to be divided. We’ll not need leave of the village again for days.”
At this, Sura beamed – a successful hunt often meant a longer time spent together, the four of them as a family. So often through the Winter months, when game was most scarce and the soil unyielding the huntsmen would leave sometimes for days at a time, unable and unwilling to return until sufficient food could be brought back to feed their families. During these times, those left behind would often turn to talk of raiders and speculate as to whether the hunters would return. Sura too had become uneasy during these absences, and often found herself at the receiving end of covetous stares from those children and men left behind. Fortunately however, they were never so far from returning and with the imposing presence of Skara within striking distance, she feared neither man nor beast.
“Always must you leave us, but ever you provide,” she smiled, “I will leave shortly for the plaza, and return with your claim. Meanwhile, pray tell me – did you meet with Mua’dar, and what of it..?” Skara had made a point of keeping his family appraised of any dealings with the capital. As He-Xur, the blood-chieftain of their village had been in the court of their king at Çatalhöyük for many weeks, Skara, as strongest and the most able hunter had been named the honorary chieftain in his stead, receiving all word and counsel from the capital by way of emissary. His duties otherwise were largely unaffected, though a larger claim of any hunt was offered and of course warmly welcomed for his trouble.
“Come,” he replied, “let us gather the children, and I will tell you of Mua’dar and of the capital.” They walked arm-in-arm into the larger room of their home, and sat with their children by the dying morning fire, both of whom stopped admiring their gifts and looked expectantly to their father, remembering now those earlier questions left unanswered. Skara stoked the embers, in an attempt to chase the spring chill from within the dwelling, and started with a long, drawn-out sigh:
“Mua’dar has spoken of tensions in the capital..” he started, furrowing his brow, “the Seers have foretold of hardship, of omens proclaiming a great conflict, a destruction. They say that the constellations bleed, and a time for war again draws near..” he paused for a moment, first to reflect on his words, and then to assess the level of panic in the faces of his kin. Met with only looks of controlled concern and thirsts still unslaked, he went on, “Many of their order interpret these signs as a foretelling of a catastrophe, or famine. They believe that the Gods are once more vengeful toward the South, and would again send forth their mountains of ice to destroy us. Our king He-Tauhasa Ihreikas however, and indeed He-Xur believe this sign to tell of a coming war, of an invasion from the West..”
“An invasion..?” Sura interrupted him, unwilling or able to comprehend just what this might have meant. Nevalı Çori had never seen conflict, not since their kin had settled in the green valleys south of the high country several hundred years earlier. Their village was founded and had established itself as a small but close-knit community of hunters and craftsmen, and was hardly prepared at all for defence against invaders. In truth, the only reason that the bands of nomadic raiders that roamed about the hills and valleys to the North had never attempted ingress into the village was due to the ready abundance of game, clean streams and rivers teeming with fish and perhaps also, the promise of retribution from the capital.
“An invasion.” Skara went on, “Few among the Seers subscribe to this interpretation, but they are the highest of their order and carry the most influence. Ihreikas would risk poorer fortune still to go against the recommendations of his priests, and so considers arming the capital to prepare for war. He would strike our neighbours to the West before they would have a chance to do the same, and seeks counsel on whether to call home his villagers to join him.” Skara stared solemnly into the embers for a moment, considering the gravity of those words spoken. “No command has yet been given. We as they merely await the signs, and can do little more for now.” He waved a backhand at the air beside him, as if dismissing the situation for the time being.
There was a long silence as the three digested the information given to them. After several moments, Kirti was the first to speak, looking her father square in the face and with a complete deadpan seriousness, arguing, “They’re wrong, you know. The signs mean the Gods are blessing me with a sister, so that when Harna steals my toys we can beat him up..!” She laughed and without warning jumped up on her brother’s lap, landing with such force that his eyes nearly popped out of his head. As was the only reasonable reaction to such news. Skara laughed a booming laugh while Sura just smiled, and shook her head.
If only she could have shaken the feeling of dread gnawing deep in the pit of her stomach.
Three comfortable days had passed since Skara’s return to the village before stores had again run low, and the need to send the men of the village out once more to hunt had arrived. The bison from their last trip had been plentiful enough to allow for a great feast on the eve of their return, and amidst open fire and clear skies, the entire village had gathered to celebrate the beginning of the Spring season. In a rare gesture as thanks to the Gods for the end of another Winter, crudely-brewed beer stored throughout the Winter was offered to all, and the merriment and festivities carried on well into the night.
On this day however, Skara addressed his huntsmen asking of them to follow him further north this time, to where the frosts had now only just begun to melt and wild boar and oxen would return to the hills surrounding the green valley. He suspected that larger game would return to the hills quickly in search of fresh blooming plants and grasses, rejuvenated by the coming warmth and not expecting to yet encounter predators that were likely still weak from months of hibernation, or else themselves hunting farther south. Once all were prepared and present he began, addressing them with a trademark curtness: “We head north,” he started, “several leagues and if we must, as far as the foothills of the great plateau. We’re looking for larger beasts this time, and any man able to fell an oxen or auroch has his choice of share. We leave immediately.”
At this the company hoo-ha’d abruptly, and offered farewell and comfort to their families before beginning their long march north. Skara embraced Sura and the children, perhaps a little tighter than comfortable before telling them, “Look after your dear mother as always.” He turned to Harna, “Don’t let any harm come to her, and if you play up – you know I’ll find out.” He gave them both a stern look, before then smiling broadly, matting their hair and after a quick and passionate kiss, bid Sura farewell once again.
Skara did not like to leave Sura and the children, and were it not his duty to would have loved nothing more than to spend his remaining days doting on and teaching them the ways of the world. His stories, few as they were of the capital and of legends passed-on to him by his father, and his father before him, tales of beasts and Northmen, of Seers and spells had entranced Harna and Kirti on long, cold Winter nights by the hearth. He remembered his own sense of wonder in hearing for the first time of the heroism and valiance his forebears had shown in carving through the wild-men and predators that once called the green valley theirs, and of his disbelief at the sheer scale of the War of the Ancients as told by his grandfather. “Surely,” he had thought to himself, “no race could be possessed of such power as those Ancients are said to have wielded.”
If he was to be completely honest, part of him still doubted the truth in many of those stories. Stories that had told of villages and cities burned to the ground in a hail of fire, conjured from the heavens, or of giant war elephants from the North descending from the mountains, armour-clad and as big as hills trampling whole armies underfoot. Compared to the world he knew, the modest life of a hunter in the valley, such stories might as well have come from the imaginations of his children, rather than being told to them. It was his duty, however to honour his forebears by passing down these and other such tales, as much as it was his duty to leave for the hunt to sustain them, and the rest of the village he loved. “Such is my lot,” he ever mused, “and that of the company I keep.”
The group departed the village mid-morning, heading first east to leave the valley, then north by northwest following by night the guiding light of Deneb until they would reach the foothills. There they would camp and prepare for a full day’s kill, praying first to the pantheon for their slings and arrows to fly true, and spears and blades to cut deep. The company on this day was as always every able-bodied male of age, and only children as young as ten and those unable to endure the hunt for legitimate reason were allowed to stay behind. Often this might well comprise the aged or infirm, or the otherwise handicapped however on this occasion only Harna and a number of other young boys were left at home. The Winter had indeed been harsh, and all three village elders that remained that year were claimed before its break.
As they walked, the group began as they always would while still within earshot of the village by breaking into the Lover’s Song, as each of them had heard their fathers sing before them when they too left the mothers of their children, and departed for the lands beyond. The song began, as follows;
“While they, the women did pass on their way
While She, Inana, did pass yesterday
While they passed the day, and did so dancing
They sang sweet songs, and on into the evening
They met us, they met us
The High, the friend of Anu did meet us
The High took us into his arms and He met us
Ucumgal-Ana embraced us about the neck
Oh let us go, so that we might return to our home..!
Friend of Enlil let us go, so that we can return to our home..!
What lies can we offer our mothers..?
What lies can we offer our mothers, Ningal..?
Let me teach you, said She, let me teach you, Inana
Let me teach you the lies of women;
My lover was dancing with me in the square
She ran playfully with me, banging her drum
She sang her sweet songs for me in the square
I passed the day there with her in pleasure
Offer this as a lie to your own mother
As for me, let me make love with you by moonlight..!
Let me loosen your combs on the holy and luxuriant couch
May you pass a sweet day there with me in voluptuous pleasure..”
It is true that the song did go further into much more graphic detail regarding the inferred divine liaison, but it would only serve so much a purpose to delve into this at this point in the story. Suffice it to say, all took care to ensure that their loved ones were well and truly out of earshot at this point.
The company carried on singing, gathering more and more gusto with each verse until finally they were completely beyond sight of the village and once again in the wildernesses without. Skara reflected on their choice, theirs a song for men and men only. A song for those who would leave their loved ones behind, their mothers and women and who might seek to stave-off those feelings of loneliness, of longing for the warmth of home that came to all men. Knowing the Gods might provide, if only a fantasy to warm their hearts on the journey away was comfort enough to many. “Though this as painful as ever was,” he reckoned, “it could not compare with what might come to pass if the Seers visions are true.”
The group carried on their march into the day, crossing dozens of new streams birthed from the melting snow of the slowly thawing North as they went. The landscape was quickly turning from white and grey to a luscious, vibrant green as the waters and warmth fed the blooming hills. Flowers had begun to blossom from their thicket sanctuaries, trees were bursting into life and the air was filled with the songs and whistles of birds returning to nest amongst the canopies. The company felt a renewed sense of vigour as the day wore on, each man happy and optimistic at the visible promise of another bountiful season ahead.
Toward the end of the first day they found themselves making excellent time, having already reached the flats surrounding the foothills and so set a camp and fire to rest and prepare for the coming kill. Though they had not journeyed a great distance from their home, the lands around them were still somewhat unfamiliar and so a watch was arranged throughout the night to ensure that there were no surprise visitors. There had been talk of raiders farther north and east of the lands in which they found themselves, and as many of them were family men there was a feeling that extra precautions couldn’t hurt. The group drew lots for watch, set a fire and settled-in for a restful night’s sleep.
Just before midnight, Skara felt the touch of a cold hand on his shoulder, raising him to take a turn at watch on the northern edge of the campsite. It was a young forager-boy, who looked more than desperate for a good night’s sleep. As was his lot, he grunted, shook himself awake and made his way to the crest of a hillock overlooking the camp on one side, and the long and gradual incline preceding the plateau on the other. He stood first for several minutes, staring into the darkness to allow his eyes to adjust from the firelight he had awoken to, and standing face-first to a gentle mountain breeze, leaned on his spear and waited to be relieved.
Standing alone with his thoughts, he began to recall the folklore which surrounded the plateau, and the high-hills to the north. It had been said, in passing and through storytelling in his younger years that those half-bred, those born of men and the Ancients who called themselves the Watchers had settled several leagues to the north of where they now were camped, though neither he nor anyone he had ever known had ever actually seen them. He had only the stories of his childhood to go by and the warnings of his own father not to stray too close to the high hills, “lest the Watchers take their vengeance.” Children’s stories, he believed. As the years wore on, Skara found less and less patience to entertain the tales and warnings of monsters and beasts unseen, finding drama enough in the day-to-day struggle of the hunt, of a wife and the raising of two small children.
Suddenly however, about an hour into his watch, the winds stilled completely and Skara became aware of a presence, one that was extremely close-by. He started up, pulling his spear from the earth and turned a slow and complete 360 degrees, scouring the darkness for shadows that did not belong, his ears straining for the faintest scratch of movement in the undergrowth. The hairs on the back of his neck at full attention, he called weakly into the night so as not yet to awake the others, “Is anyone there..?” he started and waited a full minute, still straining for any sort of an answer. He called again, this time only ever so slightly louder, and walked softly out in the direction of the plateau, finally beyond reaches of the firelight..
.. it was then that he revealed himself, the Watcher in the dark.