09. Homeward Bound
Following Andar’s rousing speech, his kinsmen immediately returned to their homes and began gathering whatever supplies; food, tools and weapons, that might be needed for the journey north, with some also making special arrangements to hide and secure valuables that they were leaving behind on the off-chance they might yet return. Sura made sure to include Yamnaya’s pouch of elements among her own inventory, and advised Harna and Kirti that due to the need for haste they were each allowed to choose only three items of their own to take with them to safety. Both children scowled at the imposed limitation, however made sure to find and include those most recent items gifted to them by their father as well as heavy cloaks and practical footwear for the long journey ahead.
Sura had also packed her own cloak and shawl inside a large tanned leather bag, and just as she was about to set everything outside the front entrance in preparation for their departure in the morning she came across Skara’s hunting knife resting within a deep depression in the wall above the home’s main kiln, still bundled tightly in tattered cloth, that he had been forced to leave behind when he was taken away. She stopped still, dropping the bag at her feet and carefully removed the weapon from its sheath, standing for several moments to admire it in the entryway as her children continued to pack their things.
The weapon was a striking example of traditional valley craftsmanship and had been passed down to Skara by his own father on the dawn of his eighth birthday, so many years earlier. It was a magnificently adorned ivory blade measuring almost a foot in length and which bore a motif depicting the first conquest of the valley as it had been first tamed and then settled by their people centuries earlier. Into the handle was carved the barrel-like torso of a stoic valley huntsman whose powerful arms curved around it, ending in two long spears the heads of which were plunged deep into the chests and throats of wild-men from the hills. The find had caused Sura to choke up with emotion as she remembered her husband, and despite her deepest fears for his safety and the very real possibility that they might not ever be reunited she simply could not bear to leave it behind. She hurriedly tucked the blade deep into her bag and tied its drawstrings tight before setting it down amongst the rest of her family’s belongings by the entryway and settled in herself for a long and restless night.
Well before dawn the following morning, Andar again went house to house throughout the village and rallied everyone to gather once more in the central plaza where several wooden carts had been arranged to transport provisions and supplies. Everything that could not be slung across their shoulders or carried by hand was tied into heavy bundles and baskets and placed securely into the carts before a final head count was undertaken, and as soon as this was completed Andar once more ascended the central podium to deliver instructions to the villagers before they left Nevalı Çori. He thanked them all once again for believing in his brother and for trusting in Sura and himself to look out for their interests, and went on to outline the route that they would take through the highlands to Uru-Mah. He asked that everyone ensure they and their children were well fed, dressed and ready before the group would divide supplies and set out together, ideally within an hour of first light. Though their faces reflected obvious distress and concern for the most part, everyone listened intently as he delivered his speech and when he was finished, returned to their homes for one final inspection before starting out on the long march north.
There were still many miles yet to cover before Skara and his cousins would themselves reach the floor of the green valley and his home. Travelling with two young men and a child had meant that he was unable to set a pace that he might have liked, however he was thankful that the rest of their journey was mostly downhill, and that as far as he could tell any pursuers still tracking him from the capital were now either too far behind to engage them or had otherwise already been forced to return to their king empty handed. Alternating between carrying Yemah on his shoulders and walking hand in hand with the boy, Skara led the three of them the remaining ten to fifteen miles all in the light of day, stopping to eventually rest on the outer slopes preceding the valley only another few miles away from Skara’s home. The non-stop journey from first light coupled with the loss of their father had caused the three young boys to understandably become physically and emotionally drained, and Skara knew that a solid night’s rest before arriving home would do them all a world of good.
As he sat in the dying twilight and set about starting a fire, Asher approached him and asked, “Skara, what will become of my brothers and I when everything that you have foretold comes to pass..? I only ask because although Zemer and I are becoming strong hunters, without our father the three of us cannot provide for ourselves. Though he would argue otherwise, Yemah is still but a child and I do not yet possess the experience and wisdom with which to teach him fully in the ways and traditions of our people.” Asher looked down at his feet as he spoke, suddenly feeling ashamed both by his own shortcomings and for having felt the need to trouble his cousin with such matters so soon after being reunited once again. Skara on the other hand had himself been giving the matter much thought along the way, and replied:
“Asher, your father was a great man and a legendary hunter. He proved consistently throughout his life that the purest valley blood coursed through his veins, and it is by no quirk of fate that you and your brothers have grown to become the brave and capable young men that you are, in spite of what more you have still yet to learn. Because of this, there is no-one that can replace Omer in providing those same life lessons that he might have given you. However if it may be thought a worthy consolation, I would like to take the three of you into my home, and would teach you the ways of the world as I know them. It is no-one’s place to do such a thing but your blood kin, and I would never see the three of you left to fend for yourselves, particularly in light of your father’s actions.” He clasped Asher’s right shoulder tightly with his left hand as he spoke, and extended his right to the young man in a show of solidarity.
Asher only beamed a wide smile and took his cousin’s hand, and Zemer who too had been eavesdropping from the far end of their camp moved quickly across to join them, embracing Skara tightly about the waist. It was the first time in a long time that Skara had once again felt the closeness of family, and he sighed deeply as his thoughts turned to Sura and his own children, now so painfully close that he might have sworn he could hear their voices and laughter carried on the cool evening breeze. Yemah had by now already curled up beside the growing flames of the new fire, somehow now symbolic of the renewal of family ties, and the three of them decided to wait until morning to break the news of their arrangement to him.
The four awoke at first light the next day and, after a modest meal, extinguished what embers still burned in their campsite before setting off to cover the final few miles to the valley. It was mid-morning when they finally reached the outskirts of Nevalı Çori, and as the dark silhouettes of those familiar walls and buildings which made up his home grew on the horizon, Skara found himself becoming overwhelmed with emotion. He had only been gone a week, but for all that he had experienced since leaving, the betrayal, hardship and struggles that followed, it genuinely felt more like a lifetime. He spurred his cousins on, urging them to speed up as they neared the rustic wooden gate to the city, and was himself almost sprinting by the time they arrived at the walls of the village. “That’s strange,” he thought to himself as they eventually reached the entrance, “I can’t seem to hear the sounds and movement of women or children inside, even though the morning’s chores are always most rigorous.” The only noises that could be heard as the four approached were the chirping of birds heralding the new dawn, and the distant bubbling of the river on the other side of the settlement.
The four of them passed briskly through the western gate and strode uneasily along the town’s main avenue, making a beeline for the southern quarter and towards Skara’s home. Skara felt more than a little nervous as he led them between the rows of silent houses, as he was acutely aware that the loyalties of those hunters and villagers that had stayed behind might very well still lie with He-Tauhasa, however he was surprised to find that he could still hear no voices or detect any movement whatsoever from any of the homes and buildings that they passed. Uncomfortable thoughts began to play on his mind as they went along, passing upturned carts, discarded tools and equipment that should normally have been stored elsewhere. Within moments the four found themselves standing outside his house, and Skara was almost afraid to enter. Before he allowed further doubts could play on his mind, he took a deep breath and passed through the veiled entryway and called out to his family.
“Sura, Harna..” his address echoed weakly in the emptiness of the room, “Kirti, where are you..?” He searched both rooms thoroughly, finding no immediate sign of them and began to grow concerned when he noticed that their cloaks were not hanging idle as they typically did from several pegs hammered by the entrance. As Omer’s three sons entered the house he motioned for them to stay as still as possible and keep completely quiet. He had no way of knowing what events might have taken place there in the time that he had been away, and wanted to take no chances now that they were so close to being reunited once again. He moved gingerly across to the far side of the room and almost instinctively placed his right hand into a cavity above the kiln, thinking it wise to take his knife with him before leaving to search the rest of the village however to his surprise, his hand grasped only air. He looked down at his feet to see if the weapon might have been knocked to the floor but it was not there either, or anywhere. Neither were his family, their boots or any sign that they would soon return.
Frustrations building, Skara decided that it was time to leave the modest hut and go out into the village in search of answers. Before turning and ushering his cousins out of his home, he remembered the heavy leather pouch that Yanmaya had gifted him atop the plateau and walked quickly across to the far room he and Sura shared to retrieve it. He hastily threw aside several layers of skins and heaved at the heavy timber board that covered the secret well in his floor and was surprised to find the cavity now completely empty. While cloaks and daggers might have been seen and taken by just about anybody, no-one but Sura could have known to check under their floor, which made things all the more confusing.
Skara stormed out of the house, motioning for the other three to follow and made his way swiftly through the silent streets to the village square hoping to find someone else there that had stayed behind and who might be able to direct him to wherever it was his wife and children now were. When the four of them reached the central plaza, he was shocked at the scene of sheer carnage that awaited them. The square itself was uncharacteristically devoid of life, and pieces of kindling, splintered wood and debris lay strewn about the ground everywhere. A house on its northern edge lay all but in ruins, the near wall somehow so completely destroyed that he could see right inside and the roof and several larger wooden beams which now lay about the ground were blackened as if burnt and in places appeared to be still smouldering. They walked cautiously to its centre, stopping by a large wooden podium that had been erected and Zemer was the first to speak:
“What in the world has happened here Skara, where are the rest of the villagers..? Has there been a.. a raid..?” At the mere mention of an attack, Asher instinctively clasped his bow tightly and Yemah drew his own little knife from his belt, looking warily around as he did. Skara was quick to dispel suspicion, replying “Nay, I can see no signs of either struggle or wounding, and there are no marks where bodies might have been dragged away. Whatever happened here, it’s beyond my ability to guess. Perhaps it was just a fire, but I find it strange that neither Sura nor the children are not at home, and stranger still that we’ve not seen another single soul about anywhere since we arrived.” He looked around, and after becoming satisfied that there were no obvious signs of movement, the four of them walked street to street, calling out for someone, anyone to show themselves.
“Sura..! Harna, Kirti – Is anybody here..?” Their cries echoed eerily between the abandoned homes. “If there is someone out there, hiding, it’s only Skara and his cousins from the hills. Come out and greet us, friends – we mean you no harm.” They continued to call out for several minutes until they were hoarse with no response whatsoever. Skara knocked on several cornices and peered in through the windows as they passed, and Asher climbed right to the top of the western gate to scan the village from a better vantage point. He saw no sign of life save for Skara and his brothers, and rejoined them in the plaza after almost an hour’s search where they debated just what it was they would do next.
Skara grew fearful for his family despite little evidence that anyone in the village had come to harm, and his fear soon turned to desperation, then anger. He suggested that the three boys fan out and conduct a second and more thorough search of all the empty homes and buildings in the settlement while he marched down to the broad river which flowed below the eastern gate to look for further signs. Asher and Zemer unwisely argued with Skara’s direction, protesting that there was little to be gained from searching the buildings again and instead insisted they accompany him to search the shores of the river and the wider landscape beyond.
Skara, desperate to be reunited with his family, was not taking no for an answer and just as their debate was beginning to become heated, Yemah called out suddenly for them to be silent, directing them to quickly turn their attention to the distant end of the northern road from the plaza which ran wide and unobstructed all the way to the north gate. The three of them immediately ceased arguing, and turned to follow in the direction that he had indicated and as they did they noticed a very small, indistinct shape moving against the road, still far off in the distance but slowly making its way along the path back in the direction of the village. “Who could this be – have my people returned..?” Skara thought hopefully to himself. They all squinted their eyes to get a better look and found that it was but a solitary cloaked figure ambling along the road, both hands clutching the handles of a heavy woven basket filled with wild roots and forage.
Eventually, the slow moving figure passed beneath the gateway arch and Skara could see that the visitor was Tiama; an ageing widow from the western quarter who had set out alone before the break of dawn to search for her breakfast on the slopes of the valley. She was understandably stunned to see him of all people waiting to greet her, not immediately recognising the other three, and having been present at his disgrace several days earlier at once asked him what his business was. “Skara Tau, my word – what on Earth are you doing back here..? Why has He-Tauhasa sent you back to us, were you forgiven by his council..?”
She was shocked, confused and understandably a little suspicious to find him unbound and clearly looking worse for wear, and so he quickly replied reassuringly: “Greetings, Tiama. I have just returned this morning, and these here,” he gestured to the others, “are my three young cousins who I have met along the way. I have been sent back after finding He-Tauhasa’s good graces,” he lied, sharing a knowing glance with the boys to ensure they remained complicit, “and have come seeking my wife and children. Can you tell me where they have gone, and what in Anu’s name has happened in the plaza..? There’s ruin everywhere..!”
“Oh.. that,” she began, rolling her eyes in an exaggerated fashion, “never you mind that, that’s just Andar’s work. Your halfwit of a half-brother called a town meeting yesterday, going on all sorts about your Watchers and other such nonsense. He wanted to take everybody up into the hills for ‘safe keeping’ – can you believe it..?” Skara tried his best to look incredulous, and clicked his tongue in agreement. Andar had always been something of a troublemaker, so feigning surprise at his impulsiveness was no great stretch. She went on, “Of course you’ve been made to see sense, how you allowed yourself to become so deluded with such fantastic rubbish I can’t understand. Everybody knows there’s nothing of any consequence to be found up in those hills except for wild raiders and the thickest crop of thistles you’ll ever find growing north of the marsh. Did you know that one time, my sisters and I..”
Skara cut her off rather abruptly, as he sensed that she was about ready to launch into one of many endless stories about times gone by and the lands around the village which she’d known a lifetime, “What then caused a house to burn down in the plaza, and where has everybody gone..?” He asked, “Surely they’ve not actually left for the plateau..?” He had a hard time believing in light of his initial objections that Andar could have easily come around to his interpretation of events at the stone city, and a harder time still imagining that anyone else in the village would feel strongly enough about it follow him if he did decide to leave.
“Aye, into the hills.” She said, “Fools, the lot of them. At first they had the good sense to argue with the boy, he started on about your Watchers’ prophecy and they were simply having none of it. He was looking quite the fool up there on the podium with your wife, that is until he threw that trickster’s vial at a grinding stone, and all hell broke loose. The damnedest thing it was, set the cleaver’s hut aflame in a great flash which scared us all half to death. He’ll have plenty of work to do when he gets back, mind. Just trickery though, an old girl like me can see right through that sort of thing.” She tapped the side of her head knowingly before finishing, “His display was enough to convince just about everyone else to head north, which they did before first light this morning. Now it’s only me and my two sons here, and they’re out hunting.. someone has to maintain stores, you know. I expect the rest of them will be back within the week, red-faced and tails between their legs and then we’ll see who laughs last.” She coughed and cackled hoarsely, appearing to be quite proud of herself for not buying into Andar’s appeal and Skara found it hard not to consider by her disposition that she might have become just a little scatty in her later years.
From his own experiences in the capital, Skara immediately understood that the vial Tiama was referring to could only have come from the inventory provided to him by Yamnaya, and he cursed himself for not having thought to use them to his own advantage before he was taken away. He was surprised that such a wide scale of devastation could have been caused by what was really only a small and unassuming object, and quietly hoped that the need for Andar and the rest to again test their powers did not arise before he caught up to them.
Skara pressed the old woman once more for information, asking her “Exactly how long ago did they leave, and which road did they take from the village..? I must reach them before they ascend the foothills,” he again pretended that he had changed his mind about the Watchers in order to placate suspicion, and implied that he would “explain his error of judgement and return them home to safety as soon as possible.” Tiama turned then and with a single gnarled finger pointed northeast, indicating in the direction of a road that dissected the nearest range, recalling “They moved out through the wider pass not three hours ago, if you’re quick enough you’ll catch them. The hunters lead, but the majority of the group are women and children, such as what was left when the men-folk travelled west. You should have no trouble catching up if you can keep a steady pace.”
She looked over at the other three, continuing, “If that’s all you’ll need from me, I’d best be heading home – my own boys will be back soon and I’ll like to have a few things ready before they return. Good luck catching up to them, Skara. A wonderful family is yours,” she smiled warmly, “seeing you back together again would make an old woman very happy.” Skara gently clasped her hand and thanked Tiama before she wandered off vaguely toward the centre of town, leaving them alone once again to process the information she had provided.
The four elected to quickly polish off a small measure of food that they were able to scavenge from a number of empty huts in the village, scraps of dried meat and roots mostly, before bundling several axes, knives and spears together in lengths of cloth and deciding that they should waste no time in setting out and try to catch the villagers before they reached the foothills of the plateau. Skara was intent on showing up at the gates of Uru-Mah at the head of his people, and felt that missing such a moment for his days imprisoned would only make him feel inadequate and ashamed given his promise to Yamnaya.
They set a quick pace, Skara again carrying Yemah where the child could not keep up and after a couple of hours of navigating the rough and hilly terrain outside the pass, they finally came across fresh signs that the group had only recently moved across the ground where they walked. “Come on..!” Skara shouted back to his oldest cousins, who had begun to lag behind, “We’ve almost got them – by these tracks I’ll wager they must be only over the next rise..!” The three found new energy at the prospect of ending their pursuit, and rushed to the top of a hillock to get a better view of the path ahead, all the while calling out at the top of their voices.
Sure enough, as they ascended the crest of the hill and could finally see beyond they were just able to discern the long and staggered procession of their people as they passed out of the flats ahead and began snaking their way up toward higher ground. Unable to contain himself, Skara stood tall atop the summit and cupped both hands around his mouth, shouting out, “Sura, Harna, Kirti..! Wait for us..!” Though he couldn’t make them out against the crowd from so far away, he could somehow sense that his wife and two children were there among the throng and without signalling the others he immediately bounded down the hillside and broke into a mad dash to close the distance between them.
It took several seconds before their faint cries reached the other group, a number of whom stopped and looked around in confusion. Sura too heard the distant echo of her husband’s voice carried on the wind, and placing a hand on the nearest shoulder of each of her children shushed them both and called out ahead, beckoning the group to stop still and listen. Louder again Sura heard Skara’s cries as he barrelled across the flat, and as she turned and squinted into the distance could not help but squeal in excitement as she finally realised that the call was not coming from the fog of her own imagination, but that her husband was actually there, in the distance – in the flesh. He had come for them.
When they realised what was happening, Harna and Kirti both broke free from their mother’s grip and ran screaming with unbridled joy toward Skara who, when they finally met midway across the grassy plain, scooped them both up in his powerful arms and swung them around and around, smiling the broadest of smiles while they carried on and laughed in delight. Sura too ran forth to meet him as the rest of the villagers turned to witness the reunion, and when she had finally caught up she placed of both her delicate hands on either side of his face and stared through loving tears into his eyes as if she couldn’t believe that it was actually him. When reality sank in, she pulled his lips gently down toward hers and proceeded to give her husband the deepest and most passionate kiss she had ever gifted him. As the two lovers embraced, the watching villagers cheered and whistled with delight. It had been the longest and most difficult week of her life, but in her heart of hearts Sura felt as though the gods had finally seen fit to reward her for all the hardship and worry that she had been forced to endure since he was first taken from her.
Skara took a knee and embraced his family tightly, his wife and children and, when they had finally caught up with them, his young cousins too and together they walked arm-in-arm and shoulder to shoulder back to join the rest of the group, still cheering wildly as they ascended the rise. “My husband, my heart,” Sura whispered to him, “I knew you would return. Even when all hope seemed lost.. I just knew.” She kissed him on the cheek, and he replied, “My wife, my heart.. neither man nor beast could ever keep me from your sweet and gentle music. I promise – by all the gods – never again will we be parted.” Little Kirti giggled and sang for the first time in days as they walked, and Harna only moved quietly, staring up at his father whose clothing was visibly tattered and torn and his body marked and scarred, and wondered just what had transpired in those days since he had been taken.
Andar in particular found it difficult to believe that his half-brother had managed either to escape from or talk his way out of the King’s disfavour, and merely gazed without comprehension at them all for several moments. As they drew nearer, he moved through the crowd and stood before Skara who stopped a foot in front of him and stared expressionlessly back, as if trying to read the other man’s mind. After several seconds, Skara offered him his right hand and Andar took it firmly in kind, staring likewise into his eyes before remarking drily, “It’s just like you to take the scenic route, brother,” to which Skara replied, “Aye, and scenic the West is indeed. If I didn’t think an idiot like you would be lost without my guidance, I might not have bothered back at all.” Andar frowned, holding fast for a moment before his expression finally cracked and he roared with laughter, embracing Skara tightly with a firm pat on the back. “It’s good to have you back with us, a pest as you are. Come, let’s finish this madness of yours together..!”
The family rejoined the smiling group who talked enthusiastically amongst themselves, and several of the other men still present called out to Skara asking that he speak of what had taken place at the capital, what he would recommend they do now and the whys, hows and wherefores of the events that they were gambling their freedoms on. Sensing that his kinsmen were thirsty for an explanation, particularly given their recent resolution to leave the relative safety of Nevalı Çori for the plateau and the unknown, he whispered reassuringly to his family to remain among them and made his way to further up the incline, turning to address the villagers as one. When all were finally silent, he began:
“My brothers and sisters, you have no idea just what a profound relief it is to return and find you all alive and well, and just as importantly, on your way north. Many of you were not so sold to what I had been told of our future when I saw you last, but I see now that most have changed their mind in the days that have followed. I assure you, those words I have spoken when last we met remain true, and the only chance we have of surviving the wrath of the great dragon is through passage to the plateau, where we will find sanctuary at Uru-Mah, the last home of the Watchers in our lands.”
“I realise that for many of you, with your fathers, sons and lovers still in the capital under direction of our mistaken king, such survival in light of what might become of them can only be a bittersweet notion at this juncture. However as I look upon your faces and I here see my kin, the bravest and most noble men, women and children of the valley, I could not live with myself knowing that the greatest number that might be spared of this disaster had not been saved. I have tried as best I could to plead my case for the Watchers whilst under guard at Çatalhöyük, but cooler heads and wiser minds sadly did not prevail. In spite of my greatest reasoning, I was only by the grace of the gods able to flee with my life for the words I had spoken deemed heresy, and to damn near the end of my remaining breath finally find you all when I did.”
Skara spent the next several minutes recounting the incredible events that had befallen him over the last week to the remaining members of his village. The women and children gasped as he recalled with animation the beast that was called Murmesh, cheered as he described his flight from the King’s arrows and sat wide-eyed and somber as he spoke of his uncle’s fate at the hands of the red soldier. Never in their lives had they heard such a tale of valour and peril, or of monstrous beasts from ages passed that might still dwell in the farthest outer reaches of a world they thought they knew. On any other occasion many might have scoffed at such a notion that a creature like Murmesh could have endured into their time, let alone somehow and in secret become their king’s plaything, but after the events of the past several days and given Skara’s earnest in his retelling (not to mention the scars and bruises he carried as proof), the villagers merely sat silent for the most part allowing him to finish.
“And so, we must press on,” he finally concluded, “for if what the council of Watchers has described is accurate, we have only mere days if not hours before the great dragon descends, and all hope is lost.” Many of the women and children of the village choked back tears at the thought of what was to come, mourning already the husbands and fathers who would be trapped in the capital or the borderlands to the west, apparently so far from safety. All however knew the price that might be paid for lingering too long in the foothills, and so after pausing to regroup and give thanks to Skara, the people of Nevalı Çori returned to the way north, and the final leg of the journey to their new home.