.. here is another teaser chapter from the ‘Alluvion’ novel:
02. A Watcher in the Dark
The Watcher loosed himself from the surrounding shadow as silently as a bat glides across a moonless night sky, positioning himself between Skara and the direction of the camp and immediately but carefully raised a right hand, palm-forward in a gesture of peace. Tall as Skara was, the hooded shadow of a man in front of him stood almost a full foot taller and cut an imposing and forbidding silhouette against the wanly moonlit sky behind him. He was dressed in a long black cloak, and Skara could only stand frozen, transfixed by the sight of the other figure as the Watcher quickly spoke to him in a deep and even voice, the pitch of which rooted him to the spot:
“Be still, friend, I mean you no harm. The Watchers mean you no harm.” He paused for a moment, as if to assess whether the other might turn and run before continuing, “I am Yamnaya, of the stone city of Uru-Mah. You have come to us seeking wisdom, to know why the stars bleed, is this so..?”
Skara could not answer him, squinting through the darkness to better read the other form. He still could not believe what he was seeing, as if it were some sort of elaborate trick being played at his expense. Could this really be one of them, a Watcher..? Surely the legends were only that.. he shivered visibly then but before he could reach a conclusion of his own making, the figure slowly moved closer towards him and, as if sensing his disbelief, spoke once more:
“I assure you, we mean you no harm and yes, we are the children of the Ancients and men.. your legends tell no lies.” At this, the stranger threw back his hood, revealing the frame and features of a man not altogether human. At least not as any man Skara had ever seen. The stranger’s jaw was strong and impossibly wide, as if hewn from solid stone. His brow weighed far heavier upon his face than Skara felt practical and the form of his skull was clearly evident of interbreeding with another, far more alien race of men. High upon the corners of either brow were also tattooed strange, sharp symbols, the geometry of which he had never seen before and the stranger’s long and flowing mane of hair was practically white about his shoulders. Skara then found his tongue, plucked his courage and could not help but exclaim the following, to the quiet amusement of the Watcher:
“Surely there are two of you beneath that cloak..! I’ve never in my life seen a man the size of you, what is it you mean to say, and what do you want..?” He remembered his spear and clutched it tightly, though making sure not to point the business end anywhere in the stranger’s direction. Before the Watcher could reply, his words registered and Skara again spoke, “We come only to hunt the lands below yours, my company seeks no quarrel with the Watchers in the high hills. Of the Seers and their omens, it’s neither my place nor study to speak of such things,” he paused for a moment, “though I suppose by the sound of it you very well might.”
“What have they told you, your Seers,” sneered the Watcher, doing very little to mask his contempt for the religion of men, “what have they told you of the stars that bleed..?” The figure narrowed his dark eyes toward the huntsman, leaning closer on a gnarled cane that Skara had only just now noticed in the shadows of the other’s cloak. A cane that might have been the width of a sapling and hooked sharply at one end, making Skara uneasier still. He became only too aware of the immediate physical danger this Yamnaya might pose to him, should he rouse a temper. He remained calm, and carefully chose his words;
“Only that it is a sign of great change, a sign of either war or catastrophe,” he gulped, “Some say those mountains of ice move again from the North. Whether this true I cannot say. We of the valley only wait for word from the capital.” He felt uncomfortable giving any information so easily over to the figure, quickly returning fire with a question of his own he hoped might nudge their meeting toward its end, “What is it you want from us, Watcher..? Do you mean to move us from your lands, or else frighten us from e’er returning..?” Skara noticed to his curiosity that although the air around the two had stilled completely, no-one from the company, in spite of the deathly silence had risen to investigate.
Skara chanced at a quick glance at the night sky in an attempt to figure out how much time had passed since he had assumed watch, and whether relief might be on its way. The Moon however had now become obscured behind a thick, dark cloud, and he dared not take his eyes off the stranger for as long as it might take to read the stars. Hoping to keep the Watcher talking, he returned his gaze to him and raised both eyebrows, as if to indicate the other’s answer was overdue.
The Watcher however ignored his question, musing momentarily on the news of the Seers before offering, “Your Seers are half-right, as blind as they truly are. The signs are indeed of ill omen, and speak of a great event that is soon to pass. Your king would do well however not to waste what little time he has on warfare, for what is to come cannot be felled by spear nor sling and nor can it be averted. It is not the gods of men that mar the heavens so, and not even the old Gods of the Ancients. This is the sign of a great and terrible new disaster, the likes of which the world has not seen in an epoch.” The Watcher raised himself to his full and imposing height, and continued as through reciting words well rehearsed;
“The stars of Cygnus themselves do not bleed, they instead reveal to us the hidden presence of a powerful weapon. A dragon of stone and fire, and with seven terrible tails that would spell the end of all men, all beasts of the earth and creatures of the sea. The stars show us the coming of a rain of fire from the skies so fierce that it would vanquish those old foes called the mountains of ice, and cause the oceans to run over the Earth, washing away all but the highest peaks as they do.” His gestures became more dramatic as the intensity of his prediction grew. “When Usumgala, this awful dragon lands, the Sun will hide for an age, and the Moon and stars will be shaken from their stations. If preparations are not made, this event will spell the complete and utter annihilation not only of the people of Silur-Mah, but those kingdoms to the west, and the ones who call themselves the Clovis, far across the seas..” Yamnaya paused momentarily to consider whether he was making himself clear enough.
“There will be a warning, three days the eve to whence the great dragon will arrive. From the head of Cygnus will shine a new star, a beacon that will grow ever greater until those final moments. When the beacon breaks and moves to the East, all will be lost.” He focused on Skara then, raising a long right forefinger as he spoke, “Only the watchers then might give men the tools to endure.”
“But what of this weapon,” said Skara, clearly frustrated but trying to understand, “who is responsible for this, this horrible, terrible power..? Surely there is a way, a way to strike first..” He could not simply accept that there was nothing more that could be done to save his people. He had doubted the words of the Seers, even when the reality of a threat from the Western Empire was so much more plausible, however when Yamnaya spoke, he found he could not dismiss entirely the earnest in his words, nor doubt the seriousness with which he spoke.
Staring out into the darkness and recalling the first march of the mountains of ice, the Watcher replied, “This is a weapon of the world, child, and must return to it. The dragon exists only to mark the close of our cycle..” he paused for a moment, as if reflecting, “and just maybe, the beginning of a new. There comes a time when all dies of the universe must be recast, and the balance of the world restored. Even an empire of a thousand years will eventually fall, and stone crumble to dust. Even the mightiest of men are not Gods, in spite of what secrets they might come to master.” The Watcher knew this only too well, remembering the fate and hubris of his forebears, and their legacies left to him.
It was the alchemy of the Ancients, which had first brought about the wandering Ice from the North those many aeons ago. It was their sorcery and stubbornness, their pathological need to control the world about them that became their undoing. Toying with the laws of nature, and of the seasons, they had believed themselves able to correct for and compensate the natural Winter and for a time, they had succeeded.
For Summer after Summer, the cycle appeared to have changed. Harvest upon harvest had far exceeded all needs of their people, and it seemed to all that they were at the very cusp of a golden age. For every action, however, comes a reaction. The balance of the world, the ebb and flow of the seasons is as much a necessity as night and day and within a generation, their Southern continent was sunk beneath the waters, and the light of the Sun denied to them for an age. In their quest for control, the Ancients had neglected to pay respect to the laws of nature, and its careful balance which cradles all men, and it was this burden that still weighed heavily on Yamnaya’s shoulders.
Skara however still did not fully understand the other’s prediction, struggling to reconcile the justification of such a terrible event against his own lot and the lives of his company. He remembered those men still sleeping by the campfire, and thought only of their lives and families. They were simple folk, hunters, gatherers and craftsmen, hardly possessing of any great powers or delusions of grandeur. Why then must they suffer..? Why would the Gods will such a catastrophe to pass..? He still had so many questions for Yamnaya, of the dragon and of the Ancients. Questions the Watcher had sensed were forthcoming.
“The night wears on, and I would bid you join us tomorrow at Uru-Mah to the north, there I might speak more of these events and those passed. I would urge you to listen to what we might say – a great change is coming, and the fate of your people may well depend on it.” At this the Watcher turned and left, rather abruptly. Skara was not altogether satisfied, but equally unsure whether his persistent questioning and demands for answers might tempt the other to anger.
Skara looked after him, watching the figure stride carefully along an unseen path and had the quick sense to call-out one last time, “How would I find you tomorrow, Watcher..?”
“Lowly Yamnaya called back, “Follow the stones, man of the valley.. follow the stones.”
“Follow the stones..!” he muttered to himself. “What on Earth does he mean, ‘follow the stones’ – bleeding stars and roaming stones. Anu help me.” He prayed a swift and silent prayer to the God of the Sky before starting slowly back towards the camp, shaken and confused by what had just happened.
As the Watcher moved out toward the crest of the plateau and away from sight, a cold breeze started up from the valley once more and chilled Skara through to his bones.
He was awakened the next day by a swift kick to the ribcage. It was late morning, and exhausted by the night’s events he had managed to sleep right through the hunter’s breakfast that the rest of the party had put together. “Get up, lazybones..!” the culprit leaned-in to shout gruffly into his ear, before stepping back to line up another kick, “Get up or by the Gods we’ll go without you..!” It was his half-brother, Andar of course. Who else among their company possessed the courage and lack of subtlety to strike him while he slept..? It came as no surprise to Skara, who rolled over and groaned in resignation.
The two had shared a father, and following the death of Skara’s mother to an infection when he was very young were raised as brothers in his home. They had both been taught to become peerless huntsmen from the earliest age, and both had inherited the stature and fearsome features of their father’s side. While still boys, their constant fighting and competitive edge had been troublesome for their friends and family on many an occasion. As they grew larger and more capable, other hunters and even warriors passing through from other towns and the capital would steer well clear of them as they bickered, waiting for the dust to settle before daring to get involved. It was perhaps only their equally comparable size that had, up to this point, prevented either of them from accidentally (or wilfully) slaying the other.
Just as the massive leather boot swung-in again to strike, Skara threw off his skins and, catching his brother’s foot squarely, threw it up in the air sending him flying backwards and crashing through the makeshift spit and onto what remained of the fire, to the derision of the rest of the group. Andar deftly rolled off from the embers with a yelp, quickly extinguishing his cloak and allowing Skara to jump to his feet in preparation for any further fight from the other man. Andar merely rose and shook the ashes from his shoulders with a laugh, before wandering off to collect his weapons, calling back, “Gather your spear and sling, brother. The day waits for no-one.”
“There is a hunt to begin,” Andar thought cheerfully to himself, “and plenty of hours in the day to strike back.” Such were the pleasures in his life.
The party moved out in pairs and groups of three, two sets of brothers, Skara and Andar and the two Temen brothers Gidri and Gizzal would move northwest and northeast around the plateau. Hurin and Zimah moved west while three sets of three covered the eastern and south-eastern steppes of the foothills, more in search of forage than game. Their names were not as easily recalled by Skara, nor were their skills in the hunt worthy of taking to larger game on this occasion.
“Come, brother,” said Skara, cocking his head in the direction of the hillock where he had stood watch the previous night, “let us stray true north for the plateau, before returning farther east. I have a feeling there are larger prey in the long grasses than the valleys below, pray let’s see if I am right.” He turned and started immediately out in the direction he had chosen, hoping that Andar would value his assertion and follow. In truth, he was hoping once more to pass-by the crest where he had spoken with Yamnaya the night before, if only to reassure himself that the meeting did in fact take place. He had awoken groggy and from a deep slumber, and could have been forgiven for suspecting that the Watcher had appeared to him in dream only.
Andar grunted loudly and stood for a moment, throwing his gaze first northeast and then back towards his brother before setting off in a half-run behind him, calling out, “Aye, we’ll play in the grass if you like, but if there’s no sign of the world’s slowest and fattest gazelle come sunset you’ll cop more than a kick in the ribs, dear brother.” He caught-up to and sprinted by Skara, slapping him upside the back of his head as he did and the two took-off for the plateau laughing as young boys, Skara running straight past the gnarled cane the Watcher had left planted by the hillock to mark the way.
The two ascended the hillside via an unmade track worn into its face, reaching the summit just after the Sun reached its zenith. The plateau was long and wide, at the farthest northern end ascending into a mountain range and otherwise falling-away into steep slopes and sheer cliffs at either side and teeming with wild grasses and blooming wildflowers at its edge. Both men had been hunting here with their father many years earlier, again at the close of a particularly harsh Winter and so both had expected to find fertile grounds as they marched on. The hillsides were sparsely forested, which meant that it was likely for small groups of various breed to seek safety in the tall grasses, where predators could likewise be easily spotted. These lands were of course forbidden, and though they had never shared the fact with their kin, their father was brazen and had never been one to adhere to those laws he did not completely understand.
What first surprised the two as they reached the summit were the appearance of long, fresh trenches cut into the solid bedrock of the southern entrance to the plateau, as if by the massive claws of some titanic creature. Stone had been removed from the ground, and dust and rubble piled-up on either side of what appeared to be a dozen long quarries set into the earth. “What in Anu’s name..” started Andar, before the two of them heard the long and unmistakable sounding of a blow-horn split the air from far across the clearing. The two brothers glanced quickly at each other and as if sharing the same thought jumped-down into the nearest quarry and slowly looked-out over the rim, scanning for any sign of where the trumpet blast might have come from.
Far off across the grass, Skara noticed an imposing shadow that did not fit with his memory of the landscape, rising up above the tree-line on a hill towards the far promontory connecting the plateau to the mountains beyond. From the distance at which they crouched, neither man could clearly make out just what the structure was, if indeed it was a structure at all. It appeared to be the crowns of several large, dark pillars, silhouetted against the rays of brilliant midday sunlight which illuminated the plateau. “There,” said Skara, pointing toward the shadows, “the horn, I think it came from out beyond those trees..” “So what if it did..?” came his brother’s nervous reply, “We’re ill-prepared to do battle. I’ve never heard talk of a village out across these fields, but let whoever it is have it, I’m going back and warning the others.” At this he rose up and out of the pit, crouching low behind a mound of earth and waited for Skara to join him.
“Brother, I would see what lies ahead. Never was there a village in these parts, this I remember, but we are only several leagues from home. I would know who and what they are, and what shadows rise out of the forest ahead.” He recalled the Watcher’s invitation, and felt somehow compelled at least to investigate. “Go back without me, and I will join you at the camp.” At this Skara too rose out of the pit, crouching behind another mound of earth beside it and looked first at the structure in the distance, and then back at his brother for acknowledgement.
“You are a fool, Skara Tau,” started Andar, “we have no idea who or what is out there, come to your senses and come back with me to join the others. Together we might return, at least with greater numbers to look and see.” He grabbed Skara by his right upper arm, and beckoned they both return along the trail that had brought them there. Skara immediately freed himself from Andar’s grip, and slowly moved north around the clearing, hidden by the bushes surrounding it and defiantly called back to him, “tell the others not to approach the clearing, and to wait for my return.. I will be rejoin you before the Sun reaches the valley tomorrow.”
“You are a fool..!” Andar called hoarsely once more, loud enough for his brother to hear but not so loud that his voice might carry across the clearing. He shook his head and crept back to the crest of the hill, and started back down the path in the direction of their camp. “What manner of a woman must his mother have been,” he thought to himself, “that the wisdom imparted to us by our father might be forgotten at the moment’s notice.” In truth, his anger masked concern, as though they may have shared a fiercely competitive streak, theirs was a stronger bond than most. For as we know, blood binds with an unbreakable strength, and forges a connection not only of the body, but the spirit.
Skara set off through the undergrowth, careful not to stray too close to the edge of the clearing where he might be noticed, nor tread too loudly into the frost which still lay in the deeper crevices of the earth, leftover from the throes of the Winter fall. The clearing was a vast and flat expanse, marked by several shallow pools where snow had melted into clear water, and at which several larger beasts carefully came to drink their fill. “Curse those bastards across the way,” he swore under his breath, “that would deny me the chance to prove my right to Andar – I knew there’d be game on higher ground..!” He pressed-on until he reached the line of trees at the far side, and moved through them until he arrived at what appeared to be the edge of a smaller, man-made rise unseen from where they hid earlier. He moved towards the far edge of the tree line, and peered out at what lay beyond.
Just as he first gazed up at the outer wall of a ringed building, catching a closer glimpse of the top of one megalith that peeked over its edge, the horn trumpeted a second time, much closer and louder than before. He saw a band of slow-moving cloaked figures move in unison from within the structure along a carefully maintained road, disappearing from view behind a mound of dark earth that had been piled at the edge of the rise. He quickly dropped to the ground, rolling behind a thick crop of bushes until they passed from view. Skara, as curious as he was afraid then seized the opportunity to get a better visual of the compound, and crept carefully around and toward the summit of the mound of earth, hoping for a wider view. As he reached the ascent he slowly and, without drawing breath, peered over the edge at the landscape beyond.
The tree-line had indeed obscured much; he found there to be numerous smoking hearths and mounds surrounding a half-dozen deep pits, apparently dug as foundations for piles of quarried rock which ringed the outer edge of the second clearing. The earth had been marred in several places by objects and material that had been dragged along, and yet there appeared to be no deep lacerations to the earth around the stone blocks which Skara found strange. All throughout the settlement fires were burning, and many strange and alien looking tents and houses remained partially obscured from view, beyond the edge of the clearing and toward the promontory bordering the mountains beyond.
The stone that lay piled around the edge of the clearing resembled in size and fashion the same stone removed from the great quarries he had passed across the larger plateau, toward its far distant edge. Skara thought to himself, “Surely no man could have moved such an amount of stone so far, without the marks of great effort and the hooves of beasts to pull them.” He then recalled words from his conversation the night before; ‘Follow the stones’.. “Follow the stones indeed”, he laughed quietly to himself as the words finally made sense.
For several minutes, he simply sat and watched the black-cloaked figures wander about the encampment, and as best he could tried to catch a glimpse of their faces beneath their hoods. In truth however, he need not have bothered as by their stature alone, and if he had not dreamt his meeting with Yamnaya the night before, he knew them to be the Watchers, come down from the high hills to the plateau. He had however no idea what this settlement meant, nor the purpose of the strange monoliths which littered the clearing. After several more long moments had passed, he began to feel as though he should return to his brethren, as with each passing minute he felt more and more uneasy, as though he risked being seen.. as though he was already being watched.
“Valley man..!” A deep and familiar voice suddenly boomed from behind him, causing the hairs on the back of his neck to once again stand on end. “Why do you hide in the dirt, did I not extend invitation to you in the evening..?” Skara slowly rolled over, turning his head slightly as if there may have been some chance the voice had not been directed at him. “Come down from your dirt and join us, for we eat soon, and pray. Surely you have not yet hunted your fill, and might meet and share in a meal with us, the Watchers of the North.” He slowly rose to his feet, and proceeded to stumble down to the base of the mound to address Yamnaya, apparently as real as everything else around him, and not the stuff of dreams.
“Aye, hear I am,” replied Skara, feeling nervous, trapped and excited all at once, “though I must be returning to my company. The day drags on, and there is still much we must accomplish before sundown..” “Nonsense..!” scoffed the Watcher, in a rare show of genuine good humour, “The day is long, and we have much to discuss. Pray stay awhile, and let me introduce you to the rest of our order.” The taller man moved aside and with a long, gaunt arm, gestured in the way of the central road of the settlement. Skara felt that it might still be foolish to tempt fate by refusing Yamnaya’s invitation, and so together they made their way through plumes of smoke and into the heart of the village.