08. The Red Soldier
Omer’s sons had seen Skara pick up their father’s weapons and advance toward the red soldier, and so they dropped their own bows and ceased firing at the man for fear of accidentally hitting their cousin by mistake. The young brothers could only stand powerless and watch from the forest floor as the two moved threateningly towards each other atop the ridge, preparing for what would no doubt be the most ferocious battle that either fighter had experienced. To his brothers’ surprise, it was little Yemah that was the first of the spectators to call up to his cousin and offer encouragement. He had simply dropped to his knees and begun to cry when he witnessed his father fall at the hands of the man in red, however he was now cursing wildly with every profanity he could remember and screaming at Skara to “Kill that mongrel, slay the red dog who killed our Pa..!” and, “Put him in the ground, dear cousin – cut this coward’s head off..!”
His two brothers were themselves still stunned by what had just happened, but quickly they too joined in on the cheers and threats that their younger sibling was sending up to the two warriors, calling for the soldier’s head and begging Skara to throw it down to them when he was slain. The champion quickly and carefully moved back several yards to allow Skara to clear Omer’s body, and the two sized each other up for a good ten seconds before Skara screamed a loud war cry and rushed towards his opponent, first crossing his spears and charging forward with all his weight behind them in an attempt to mow the other man down. Their weapons clashed, Skara catching the champion’s pike in his crossed spears and the two of them blocked and parried each other’s left and right strikes for a good minute as Skara’s surge of adrenaline allowed him to push the other man back another several yards where the two found a slightly wider section of the ridge on which to do battle.
The soldier’s strength was unbelievable, and although Skara had managed to gain some ground he quickly found that he was making little progress in tiring the other man out as he rained blows down upon him left and right. The champion soon picked-up on Skara’s rhythm and blocked a few more strikes before finally finding an opening in his defences and, swiftly raising the rear end of his pike, struck Skara on the left side of his face jarring several teeth and causing his mouth to quickly fill with the metallic taste of his own blood. This did not slow Skara down however, and soon enough he managed himself to land a solid blow squarely on the other man’s chest which caused him to lose his breath momentarily, allowing Skara to run the blade of his other spear across the red soldier’s leg tearing right through his tunic and into the flexed muscle behind it.
The sensation of pain and the sight of his own blood incensed the champion, further compounding his rage and it was now his turn to charge. Changing his own attack, he swung his pike fiercely across Skara’s forearms knocking the spear right out from his left hand and slicing a sizeable chunk of flesh off from it in the process. The dislodged spear flew out over the ridge, and he could only glance after it as the weapon dropped down to where his young cousins stood so many yards below. They gasped aloud, and Skara realised then that wielding only one thin spear against the sturdy pike the champion brandished would be of little help.
His mind raced for a play that might again give him an advantage, and he decided to momentarily abandon the offensive and allow his opponent to hammer-down several blows unopposed. If he was quick enough to dodge the sharp edge of his pike as it swung down toward him, he might just be able to strike in the time that it would take him to again raise the heavy weapon. He was conscious of the fact that the champion only had one hand with which to swing, as his shield-arm was still weighed down and hoped that the gods would provide him the speed he needed. As the champion delivered a wide arc, attempting to strike Skara on the right shoulder, he pivoted back and quickly thrust his spear forward running the edge of the weapon straight down his attacker’s left wrist and severing both of the heavy leather straps that held his shield as well as several critical veins in his forearm as it went.
The soldier roared in agony as his shield disappeared over the edge of the rise, landing only a few short feet away from where Skara’s spear had fallen and he immediately brought his gaping wrist in to his torso, holding it tight against his body in an attempt to slow the flow of blood. Already the warrior was beginning to turn white, and he knew in the back of his mind that the massive gash that Skara had dealt him would in time undoubtedly prove fatal. He staggered back several yards and realised then that he only had one choice if he was to triumph over the valley man. He drew back his right shoulder and lined Skara up for one final, fatal charge. If he could not best the other man in honourable combat, he could at least end both their lives by impaling him in a full-frontal rush, or otherwise drag Skara over the side of the ledge with him to both their certain deaths below.
He was breathing heavily now and Skara’s mind raced as he looked warily at his opponent, trying to somehow anticipate what his next move might be. The red soldier warmed up with a long groan which grew quickly into a frenzied scream, and without hesitating he charged at Skara throwing his full body weight behind his pike which he now held levelled at his chest. His powerful legs carried him quickly, allowing him to close the distance between them in moments and all of a sudden it dawned on Skara just what it was he was trying to achieve.
Though the section of the ridge on which they both stood might have been a few feet wider than where they started, there was still scarce little room and nowhere left to hide as the other man barrelled forward. All that the champion needed to do was to throw him momentarily off-balance and secure a good grip on Skara as he toppled from the rise. There was no room to sidestep the attack, and Skara knew that his only hope in that moment would be to hurl his weapon at the soldier from where he stood. There could be no room for error and no second chances. His aim must be true, or else he and his cousins were all surely doomed.
Skara raised the remaining spear in his right hand, lined up his adversary and with a deep breath drew his shoulder sharply back to strike. Time seemed to have slowed down completely in that moment, as though everything around him was happening in slow-motion and the cries of a thousand negative voices burned his mind like acid rain, eating away at his confidence. Just as he was finally about to loose his weapon, the champion only a few yards away, the red soldier was all of a sudden stopped dead in his tracks, freezing mid stride and just posing stoically with his weapon held aloft like a huge stone statue.
Somehow, incredibly, his opponent’s rush had come to a grinding halt at the edge of the ridge before he dropped his weapon to the dirt and suddenly took a knee. It was several moments before Skara realised that what were the tail ends of two small arrows had suddenly appeared protruding from out of the left side of his enemy’s face, the points of which were now lodged firmly in his left cheek and temple. Dark blood fountained quietly away in a thin stream from the side of his head as the soldier’s heart pumped its last throes into the open air of the valley, and with a low groan the champion dropped onto his side before his body rolled over the edge of the ravine and crashed loudly down into the forest below.
For several long seconds Skara simply stood right where he was, his spear still raised high and his mouth agape in an expression of pure astonishment. He was shaking hard as adrenaline surged through his body and the very real promise of expected death still clouded his vision. He felt as though he could vomit, but instead turned over the edge of the ridge and looked down for a sign of where the two arrows had come from. Peering back up at him from below, Asher and Zemer now stood tall, their hunting bows still at arm’s length and with expressions of satisfaction on their faces from having watched the body of their father’s killer plummet to the ground in front of them. Sensing that their cousin was in mortal danger, they had dismissed all risk in firing at the charging soldier, tracking ahead of him as he ran just as Omer had taught them to do when hunting deer in the highlands around their home. Skara moaned loudly when he realised that it was finally over, relief washing over him like a tidal wave and called out to them to stay right where they were.
He staggered back across the length of the ridge and slowly but carefully worked his way down the rocky cliff once more, mindful not to apply too much pressure on his right hand which was still bleeding profusely from where the soldier’s pike had sliced into him. After several nervous minutes watching on, Omer’s three sons rushed across to greet him at the bottom and the four of them embraced, breathing heavy sighs of relief and praising the gods for watching over Skara and for guiding their arrows.
Once they had come to terms with the fact that the battle was over, the realisation quickly set in that high above them the body of their uncle and father lay dead, his flame extinguished by the King’s right hand and their thoughts and words turned suddenly to mourning. So quickly had their bravado turned to despair knowing that an honourable fighter, peerless hunter and a cherished member of their own family had been taken from them. Skara cursed the King’s champion, the King and the entire bloodline of the ruling family as he pounded the bare rock of the cliff uncontrollably with both fists in grief and anger. After a time he turned to Asher, instructing him to make arrangements to cover Omer’s body lest the creatures of the forest disturb it.
Together with his brother Zemer, Asher climbed once more atop the ridge and piled loose stones carefully over and around the body of the man that had raised them since birth. A role model that had taught them to hunt, to fight and through his careful and diligent guidance had made them into men. The eldest two brothers fought back tears as they shared in a silent prayer for his spirit, Skara trying his best to make them understand that the manner of his death was most honourable and would find favour amongst the gods, and that he had reserved for him a place at the right hand of Anu in the world beyond.
In contrast, the body of the champion was left to rot as it lay. Skara removed his head from his shoulders with Yemah’s blade and placed it crudely between his hands to mark his dishonour in slaying Omer and in so doing also marr his relationship with the pantheon in the afterlife. The four stayed in that place for a long time, reflecting soberly on the battle and events that had brought them there before finally moving on, deciding that no good would come from simply lingering in their grief. Yemah wept openly long into the afternoon, stopping only to sleep as Skara held him close and carried him over one shoulder for the remainder of the day’s travel.
Back in Nevalı Çori, Andar had taken upon himself to speak with the remaining hunters in the village individually, asking that they join him that day for an urgent meeting in the town plaza concerning matters of Skara and the King’s decree. He had also run from house-to-house and, without going into any great detail, asked every man, woman and child that remained to gather their friends and families and meet with him on urgent business, requesting that they attend at mid-afternoon without exception. Several hours earlier, he again met with Sura and the two of them sat and discussed at length what they would say to the people of the village about their plan, and how they might most tactfully go about saying it. Andar started, asking Sura if there might have been anyone else among them that had shown signs of sympathy in the days following Skara’s imprisonment, that they might ask their assistance in persuading the others.
She responded rather defeatedly, “Few have had the courage to even speak to me since he was taken away, and fewer still if any have offered any real support for his words and actions. I do suspect however that if more among those left behind were to have opposed He-Tauhasa and his campaign, we might have faced greater difficulty in getting on with our lives without a great many of his soldiers left stationed here to keep the peace. I think that if there were any among them that truly supported Skara, they would have already made themselves somehow known, though I also hold confidence in the fact that the prospect of war appeals to very few, particularly the wives and mothers. Just take a look at the fear and worry in the faces of the children Andar, and consider the additional burden that you and the other remaining men have had to shoulder in the days since the others have left.” Andar nodded. He had no choice to agree with everything she had said, as no-one was particularly thrilled to have been left behind and everyone that had had been forced to work twice as hard in order to keep everything running smoothly.
They decided to address the villagers together and in the hours preceding the meeting prepared themselves and readied the plaza, relocating a large wooden podium to the centre of the town square from which they might address the villagers when the time came. At mid-afternoon, they returned together with Harna and Kirti to the centre of the village and waited for their people to arrive. At first it appeared that no-one would show, and Sura began to feel anxious but as the minutes wore on they began to appear, at first only in dribs and drabs and eventually by the dozen until all who had remained behind were ready, present and accounted for. Andar first waited for the large group to settle as they talked among themselves for several minutes before he raised his hands and beckoned them to fall silent. His eyes scanned across the throng, and after he was satisfied that everyone had shown up and were now ready to listen, he began speaking:
“Friends and family,” he began nervously, “you may be wondering why I’ve asked you all here today, and why I have made you step away from the valuable work that you’re all doing. I’ll begin by saying that were it not concerning a matter of great importance, I would not waste your time in such a stressful state as our village has been of late. I know that there is much that needs to be taken care of with our brothers away at the capital, and I appreciate you lending me your time this afternoon so that I might speak with you.” At a momentary pause in his delivery, one of the older mothers from the rear of the crowd not known for her patience called out loudly, “Come on young Andar, get on with it already..! We can’t all of us waste an entire afternoon standing here and listening to you drone on – out with it..!” Several others among the crowd spoke up in agreement, and several more laughed as Andar squirmed at the podium. Still slightly embarrassed, he continued nonetheless:
“Alright then, well.. to get to the point, I’ve asked you here today to talk more of our king’s decree, and hope that I might sway you to consider that perhaps this war is not in fact the best course of action delivered from the soundest of minds. I would like to to discuss the words of my brother that have brought He-Xur’s wrath down upon his shoulders and I wanted to stand here before you and make it known that I too now believe those words to hold value, and that I have lost confidence in the decree of the Seers as told to us by He-Xur.” Several of the women gasped, and others murmured while the other hunters that remained only watched on with arms crossed, as yet not quite convinced at how to react. Andar went on, knowing full well that any crowd’s attention was fragile and that he was taking a very big gamble in choosing to believe that the rest of the village felt as he did towards the war, let alone the King’s decree:
“This past week you have seen friends and family, brothers and husbands – good, honourable men stolen away from you to fight in a war that we feel,” he gestured to Sura who stood behind him and to his right, “should never have been declared in the first place. Not only this, but I have personally never in all my years known my brother to tell a lie, not even to save face.” He looked around at the crowd, and began pointing at several of the more vocal men in the audience he knew to have shared a friendship with Skara, “Have you, you or any of you ever known Skara to be taken by the fancies of fairytales and folk-stories. Have any of you ever succeeded in making a fool of my brother, or in any moment found to be of slow wit..? I know I have not, and neither, I suspect, has anyone else among us. The more time that I spend thinking about this war and the more I reflect on the words of my brother, the more my heart sinks as I feel as though we’ve gone into this mess the complete wrong way around. I had followed Skara to the plateau, and while I myself did not meet the men that he met, I have seen the tops of the towers at Uru-Mah and I now believe his words to be true. They must be.”
The crowd by this stage was now very much alive, with several groups talking amongst themselves, some frowning heavily and muttering under their breath and others looking skyward as if for some kind of guidance to help them get their head around what was being said. Before anyone else could speak, a stocky butcher named Taran Ruhl who felt as though he had been grossly inconvenienced by having to attend the event pushed his way through the crowd and addressed Andar directly: “It’s all well and good you can’t accept that your brother might have been mistaken, this sort of family loyalty is of course to be expected. But how do we,” he waved his right thumb back at the crowd behind him, “how do we know that he met with who he says he did. What proof do we have that those phantoms you say spoke with Skara were even Watchers at all..? We all love you and your family, Andar, and we’re thankful for Skara’s direction these past weeks but we risk everything in questioning anything from the capital, and you know this. We just can’t do it on a fool’s whim.”
At this, almost everyone present nodded their heads at each other and muttered in agreement, some staring at the ground as the gravity of the situation Andar had placed himself in dawned on them. He was a little flustered himself now, and if he was honest somewhat unsure as to how he might actually go about convincing them and even himself that what he had seen at the plateau was in fact the city of the Watchers. He turned to look back at Sura, however quickly discovered that she had left his side at the height of the commotion and was now nowhere to be seen. He looked right and left and out across the crowd, realising that she had completely disappeared.
“By the gods,” he thought to himself, “it’s just my lot as always for a good woman to leave right when I need her most.” He turned back to the gathering, who were now asking him all sorts of questions about exactly what sort of proof he had and why he himself would believe such nonsense. Several of the other hunters had begun to turn and talk only among themselves, and by their expressions alone Andar quickly realised that they were weighing up their loyalty to Ihreikas and more than likely discussing whether moving against him might be their safest option (or perhaps one that might yield reward from the capital).
Just as the crowd began to work themselves up to some sort of conclusion, a familiar voice returned and called out from behind Andar, pleading with those gathered to stop talking once more and listen. Andar turned to see Sura again ascending the wooden stairs to the platform, and as she did he noticed that she now walked with a curious leather sack slung across her shoulders which she carried close and with extreme care as if a child or something equally fragile were resting inside of it. In cleaning their modest home the day before, Sura had stumbled across the pouch full of compounds given to Skara by Yamnaya, and had realised straight away that it must have been gifted to him at some point on his journey to the plateau. The rest of the crowd too noticed the strange bag, and all fell silent as she reached the podium and beckoned Andar to let her move forward and speak.
“My friends, I would ask that you show patience to us as we plead my husband’s case. Neither was I with Skara when he met with the Watchers in the north, but I have come to believe his words as true and fear that his prophecy too will come to pass in only a few short days.” She removed the leather pouch and held it aloft, “The elements inside this bag were given to him at their meeting, and though he has not spoken of their purpose I would now hope to find among them something that might convince you that his story is the truth, and that those were indeed the children of the Ancients that came to him on his journey.” She then opened the pouch and fumbled through its contents, hoping to quickly find some kind of conclusive proof of the sorcery of the Watchers. Several containers with lockable lids did not appear to contain anything of remarkable interest, however she did remove one vessel which appeared to contain a pale, thick paste which she opened, sniffed momentarily and handed to the crowd to sate their curiosity.
The group passed this and several of the other jars around, cautiously poking at and discussing the contents and commenting on the strange nature of the weird and colourful ingredients contained therein. One such jar reached the same older woman who had earlier pushed Andar to hurry in his delivery, and she remarked loudly with a scoff, “Powders and ointments – the same as any shaman in the wilds might try to barter with. How is this evidence of anything more than a gullible mind and fool’s medicine from the hills..?” Several women around her also spoke up to agree, each and every one of them suddenly having a story of their own to share and Andar noticed the same few huntsmen that he had seen conspiring earlier again eyeing him off and subtly gesturing to the knives and weapons strapped to their belts. Sura desperately rummaged once more through the pouch, hoping to find something else that would prove without a doubt that Skara had been telling the truth. Before she could however, one of the hunters moved forward and spoke:
“We’ve heard enough of this foolishness..! We’ve all come here today as you’ve asked and you’ve delivered to us nothing that would sway us in our opinion of a man who, I must point out, has already had his sentence passed. What are we doing here..?” he raised his hands and turned around to address the crowd, “Do you in fact have anything new to show us, or should we return to our work..? Many of us still have much to do before sundown, and scarcely enough hands to get it done.” Most of the crowd agreed, and as several of the group began to dissipate from the rear of the crowd to return to their homes and those same hunters moved closer toward Andar with a new fire in their eyes, he knew that he needed to do something drastic to avoid finding himself on the receiving end of the same fate as his half-brother.
While Sura was still rummaging through the contents of the sack, Andar rudely tore it from her grip and reached in to take one of several closed vials that he had been eyeing off earlier from his position beside her. He took the brightest compound he could see; a sphere containing a tightly compressed and vivid red powder and thrust the bag roughly back at her as she quietly protested. Just as three of the more animated hunters approached the podium, he grasped the vial tightly in one hand and threw back his massive shoulders, lining up his aim with a heavy grinding stone that rested vertically against a dwelling on the far northern edge of the plaza.
He hurled the vial quickly and with all his might at the stone, hoping somehow and with really very little to go on that in breaking it, something impressive might happen. He didn’t know exactly what it was that he was expecting, praying at the very least that some visible evidence of the alchemy contained within it might burst forth and prove without a doubt that what what they were saying held water. What he hadn’t expected however was what actually happened when the tightly packed glass sphere did shatter against the stone, and its contents suddenly mixed with the cold open air around it. In the split second that it took to cover the distance across the plaza, the vial exploded with a deafening bang and everyone gathered immediately fell to the ground as a monstrous ball of searing white fire erupted suddenly out in all directions, sending with it a shock-wave that broke apart several wooden carts and tables and blew the nearest wall of the house the stone had rested on into kindling.
A thick cloud of black smoke filled the air and small pieces of the destroyed wall rained down all around them like matchsticks as the roof of the house caught fire and collapsed into itself. The loud boom had momentarily deafened most of the crowd including Sura, who was now on her knees holding both hands over her ears and almost every child present was either crying or screaming as their mothers slowly clambered to their feet. Andar groaned loudly as he raised himself up and shook his head from side to side. If he could have predicted what kind of reaction the small vial was going to produce, he might have tossed it further away from where he was standing and it took the better part of a minute or two before the ringing in his ears subsided and he again could look out across the crowd, a number of whom had rushed to throw water on the roof of the damaged building that was now burning heavily. As he did look out over them, he quickly noticed the expressions of shock and understanding that had replaced the looks of skepticism and derision in their faces moments earlier, and could not help but break into raucous laughter in spite of himself.
Andar moved once more to the podium as the crowd collected their senses and without wasting any time, bellowed, “My friends, do you believe us now..?” He held his arms wide and raised both his eyebrows in sheer delight, laughing again as the crowd looked first around them at the scale of carnage that such a small vial had caused and then fearfully to Andar, Sura and the pouch which now lay on the floor beside the podium and that as far as they knew, contained more of the same. The hunters that had earlier regarded Andar with suspicion quickly did a one-eighty, now deciding that their scepticism had been misplaced and it was Taran who was the first among the crowd to respond, declaring, “Aye, there’ll be no questioning that now.” He pointed toward the debris with one hand and with the other stuck a thick index-finger into his left ear, wiggling it about to try and restore his hearing. “You two have made your point. Now give us just a minute to settle this lot down before hearing more of what you have to say.”
Ander smiled and went to help Sura to her feet, apologising as he did and assuring her that he had no idea exactly what was going to happen but that he “had to try something.” She awkwardly rose, dusting pieces of timber from her shoulders and garment and bent down to pick up the leather bag that she had dropped in her confusion. She then stopped for a second, lost in thought and looked up at him, replying in no uncertain terms, “Andar, I never, ever want to see you acting again without thinking and if you cannot help yourself, as I know you often can’t – at least give me some warning first.” Her hearing was beginning to return now, and she coughed thickly before asking him, “It looks like we have won them over, for the time being anyway. What now..?” He replied, “Well, all we need to do is convince them to follow us north to the plateau. They at least now know that the Watcher’s safehold exists, all we need to do is make them understand that we risk nothing in making the journey.” Sura nodded and agreed and the two of them turned again to address the crowd, asking first if there was anyone among them who might have been hurt by their demonstration.
When all were accounted for and those that left had rushed back to join them, Taran again motioned to speak, asking of them, “So you’ve proven that Skara met with more than mere wild-men on his journey north, and in doing so I and the rest of us might then be led to believe that his warning should be taken seriously. But the question remains that if we were to follow his instructions and seek shelter at the plateau, what guarantee do we have that if he is in fact mistaken, He-Xur will not simply return with the King’s soldiers and make an example of us for our disobedience..? Can either of you guarantee that we’re not better off just waiting here for the rest of them to return before taking any drastic steps..?” Several among the crowd agreed, however now much more politely stood and waited for an answer from the two at the podium.
“You were all present when Skara spoke of what he had been told would come, and you all know how soon it was that he warned us to expect it.” Sura replied, “If his reckoning is true, we only have a few short days to find safety with the Watchers which means we must leave no later then first light tomorrow if we are to make it to Uru-Mah. Ihreikas and his campaign against the west would surely take weeks and maybe even months to unfold and while we simply don’t have the time to spare waiting here before this catastrophe arrives, neither do we have to fear that any such force might arrive from the capital in the time it would take us to reach safety and, if disaster does not come to pass, return home before anyone would ever know. I promise you, we have nothing to chance in going, and perhaps everything to lose if we delay.”
The crowd murmured among themselves for a time, however Sura’s plan just could not be faulted. Their situation was very clear, and whether or not they subscribed entirely to what had been proposed, everyone present knew what time remained should the worst come to pass. Although the whys, hows and wherefores still needed to be settled, Andar sensed that those that had remained were now behind them and called out loudly from the podium, “Who among you will join us on our pilgrimage north. Will you come with us to the stone city and seek safety from the dragon of the skies..?” As one and with varying levels of confidence, the people the villagers shouted “Aye..!” finally ready to accept Skara’s rendition of events. “Then let us make haste and move at first light tomorrow, the earlier the better.”
The villagers discussed what preparations would need to be made ahead of their journey to the plateau, and elected to begin gathering food and supplies that afternoon for what would undoubtedly be a long and difficult road ahead.