11. Wrath of Usumgala
Lapsing in and out of a heavy daze as he lay cradled in Sura’s arms, Skara’s thoughts began to drift groggily back to his own childhood, and those formative years spent in the same valley he still called home. Half awake and yet still firmly immersed in dream, in his mind he ran gleefully through the green fields surrounding Nevalı Çori, untouched and unreachable by whatever dark futures might yet befall him. With near complete lucidity he could feel the warmth of the summer sunlight streaming across his face, and the crisp mountain wind blowing through his hair as he laughed and played with his half-brother through the sea of tall grasses that surrounded his village. In those brief minutes that seemed to last a lifetime, Skara felt truly content. For the first time in what felt like forever, he believed himself safe from harm in a place where he belonged. He was home.
Yamnaya could sense the spirit of the valley man slipping away ever further, and knew that what little time he had left could not be wasted bickering with the veritable pig of a human being that stood and challenged him now. He also possessed the perceptive intuition to realise that those men, battered and bloody, that comprised what remained of He-Tauhasa’s army were now too so utterly broken and exhausted, and left morally dejected by the conflict with their kin, that few had any interest whatsoever in further orders calling for yet more struggle and bloodshed. For the most part, everyone that still remained on the hillside wanted nothing more than just to turn around and go home, and to put the horrible events of that day behind them. This, Yamnaya decided, would play in his favour for what he was going to do next.
The two adversaries, one broad and squat and the other lithe and tall, stood opposite one another for several seconds, perhaps up to a full minute, sizing each other up and simply staring coldly into their challenger’s eyes, as if daring them to make the first move. Before anybody could react, and without the slightest twitch or warning, Yamnaya suddenly threw back his right shoulder, a gnarled staff firmly gripped in the same hand and swung the heavy, knotted end of the weapon swiftly and powerfully upside the left hemisphere of He-Tauhasa’s head, knocking the broader man instantly out cold and sending him crashing to the ground with a thud. For good measure, he then brought his staff back around and thrust the rear end sharply into the King’s ribs, if for nothing else than to ensure that his first strike was true, and withdrew his weapon. The entire motion was executed in a fraction of a second, Yamnaya returning so quickly to the same stoic state as before that were it not for his wandering blue eyes that darted about, searching the throng around him for signs of reprisal, one might have been forgiven for believing they had imagined the act to have taken place at all.
After the moment’s initial shock had passed, the remainder of the capital army began to murmur among themselves as it suddenly dawned on them that they were now effectively leaderless. Two of their number stepped gingerly forward, eyes firmly fixed on Yamnaya for fear of a further show of magic or violence, as they tiptoed across and stooped to roll their fallen commander onto his back and check for signs of life. Once they managed to turn him over, He-Tauhasa, completely unconscious, broke into a loud and reverberating snore like the heavy sawing of wood. Clearly the man was still alive, but in no state to be of any use to anyone for quite some time. Debate between his men died down quickly then, and everyone merely remained where they were and looked to Yamnaya, as if it were somehow up to the Watcher to deliver their next set of instructions. Yamnaya was in equal measure ambivalent as to what should become of them, shifting uncomfortably in their gaze, and so instead turned and directed his attention back to Skara, now white as a sheet and muttering all manner of delusions as he drifted in and out of consciousness.
As Sura wept softly and stroked her lover’s forehead, Yamnaya knelt beside the young family and gently took her hand, beckoning she allow him to assess her husband’s condition. “It’s alright, girl,” he offered in as quiet a tone as he could manage, all too aware that this was the first time she had ever been directly addressed by one of his order, “though there is little time, I fear, I may still be able to help him. Come, let me carry him. At my home atop the plateau, I will do what I can.” Sura sniffed and wiped her doe eyes with the sleeve of her other arm, and merely nodded her thanks to the Watcher. In her state, she was well and truly beyond all capacity for fear and wonder, and numbly rose to follow as Yamnaya held a feverish Skara close and rose to depart the battlefield.
The Watcher and Skara, Sura, Harna and Kirti moved slowly through the throng of villagers still occupying the upper slope of the hill, and as it became clear that the battle was now well and truly over, many rushed down to where the fighting had taken place and He-Tauhasa’s soldiers still stood milling about with uncertainty to search for their loved ones. For most, it was a search which ended in bitter sorrow, as He-Tauhasa’s army had ultimately proved efficient in overwhelming their opponents to a man and slaughtering close to nine-tenths of their number. Heaps of bloodied, mangled bodies lay bleak and silent where they had fallen in skirmish, two and three high in places, and the low, muted groans of the injured and dying only seemed to add to the morbidity of the scene.
Those that had managed to survive had gathered higher up the field of battle, and now watched reluctantly as the women and children of the village picked through the mud and remains for signs of anything they might have recognised. A second rising wail began then to slowly fill the air as wives discovered husbands and mothers came across the broken, twisted bodies of their sons, taken by the storm. Many could not bear to watch the grieving, and much of the remnants of the capital army turned instead to count their own losses, their bodies now stacked at the lower end of the battlefield and make arrangements to leave as soon as practical. They were exhausted, and without their king to spur them on had lost all interest in recapturing their quarry. “To hell with the valley man,” they thought – they were done with bloodshed.
His face a mask of stony concern, Yamnaya slowly strode over the lip of the plateau and led Skara’s family across its length toward the waiting compound. Despite their grief, once the dark and looming forms of the halls and towers of the Watchers’ settlement took shape and rose out of the forest wall ahead, all voices were soon hushed and their focus lost to the eerie silence of the landscape. Just as Skara had never before seen such architecture, Sura too was in awe of the precise and monumental stonework that seemed almost to sprout up out of the dark soil itself, and found a million questions to suddenly boil up inside her. “How is all of this possible..? For how long has this place lay hidden, and what sort of magic and mastery must be needed to fashion such things from the very face of the mountains beyond..?” She wanted to ask. Instead she merely followed the Watcher in silence, guiding her two young children diligently through the entryway and into the compound where, she prayed, Yamnaya might somehow be able to save him.
As they snaked their way into the centre of the settlement and finally reached the open space of the clearing, the silence occupying the air was suddenly broken by the flutter of what must have been ten thousand sets of small wings as, completely without warning, every single bird and insect that dwelt upon the plateau suddenly rose from its perch and took flight in a great, dark cloud. Kirti squealed in fright as the sudden whirlwind of countless black shadows formed a giant vortex around them, and Sura pulled her and Harna close, shielding their eyes until, eventually, the threat had passed. Within moments the great black cloud erupted skyward and shifted due east with deliberate haste, and as quickly as it started, the forest was once again deathly still. “It has begun, then,” Yamnaya muttered lowly, turning his gaze toward the clearing above their heads. “Come, we must move quickly. Follow me into the great hall, I must administer to his wounds while there is still time.” Sura touched the faces of her children softly in reassurance, motioning they follow the Watcher and as they approached the entrance to the great hall, turned herself to glance up at the sky.
In a moment she would never forget, so long as she lived, Sura’s blood froze to ice as she finally noticed the awful point of fire that had appeared in the western sky like a baleful second sun, threatening to unleash a new and unspeakable doom upon all who lived below. The four hurried out of the clearing and into the cold stone interior of the hall, where Yamnaya gently lay Skara’s lifeless body on the great slab which served as a table and ushered the other three to a place across the room. He quickly set about selecting a number of small vials and ingredients from the shelves that lined the walls and stripped Skara of his cloak and effects. The wounds that had been inflicted upon his body were so cruel and severe that Sura was compelled to turn to her children; “Go and wait in the back room, Harna,” she addressed her eldest, “make sure that she does not leave your sight. Everything will be fine, but you mustn’t see this. It is not for young eyes, now go.” Yamnaya frowned as he inspected the valley man, the splintered shafts of several broken arrows still protruding from his flesh, and only when he could finally recognise a pulse and the shallowest of breaths that still animated his body, decided to begin the ritual.
As he carefully soaked a piece of grey cloth with a strange mixture from several dark vials and applied it to Skara’s forehead, he offered Sura some small explanation of what he intended to do, “I will not lie to you now,” he began, “your husband’s wounds are indeed grave. So close is he to death in fact that even I cannot promise that what is about to take place here will be successful. The Ritual of Staying is something that no-one other than those of my order have ever been able to endure. It is the process by which we have been afforded the power to cheat what mortality would take from us before our want, and is an act tailored to a more ancient blood. Blood that you must realise does not flow through his veins.” Sura struggled to understand and to keep herself composed, and only replied, “Do what you can.. do what you must – please. Whatever the price, I cannot have him who I love returned to me after such a time only to see him taken away from me again. It would be too much to bear.” Yamnaya paused and nodded slowly. He could only try, and prayed his own gods would grant exception in light of the circumstance.
Standing at the head of the great table, Yamnaya placed his two lithe hands on either side of Skara’s face and closed his eyes, his head tilted towards the ceiling. While the Watchers had succeeded in preserving much of the alchemy and chemistry that had survived from the age of their former glory, a sacred few abilities that were reserved only for their order, abilities that might as well be deemed magic to those that simply did not possess the power to comprehend their nature, had until that moment never been witnessed outside of their own circle.
What then followed surely fit into that category. As Yamnaya began to mouth a low series of strange, alien syllables, the palest violet light began to wash through his hands and into the body of Sura’s husband, first charging through the Watcher’s fingertips and enveloping Skara’s face, chest and then his entire body. Sura’s jaw dropped and she was forced immediately to take several steps back. She could not believe what she was witnessing, and could only stand wide-eyed as a second, fiercer shade of the same pale light erupted from the half dozen gaping wounds that riddled her husband’s chest and abdomen and filled the cavernous chamber of the hall with a brilliance that could only be matched by the direct light of the midday sun.
Completely dazzled, but unable to bring herself to look away, she watched on in awe as the arrowheads lodged in his body appeared to disintegrate, and the fierce glow from those wounds gradually abate as if the injuries themselves were doorways into her husband’s soul that the Watcher was somehow closing from within. The two remained motionless through it all, however to Sura it seemed as if the very foundations of the great stone hall were now shaking violently in response to the ritual. At its peak, she was forced to retreat to the far wall and hold on for dear life, as it felt like an earthquake was taking place at the ground beneath her feet that threatened to open up and swallow them all in any given moment. Eventually, Yamnaya’s voice, which seemed to have matched the intensity of the aura, began to diminish and so too the pale and mysterious fire that had engulfed them both gradually subsided, withdrawing first from Skara’s feet, legs, torso and chest and eventually returning to Yamnaya’s long fingers where it finally disappeared completely.
It took her a full minute before she finally regained the sensation of stability and was able to believe once again that the great hall was not in fact being torn asunder. Yanmaya was breathing heavily as he finally withdrew his hands from Skara and placed them carefully down on either side of the stone slab, as if to steady himself. The ritual had always been taxing, he knew this after so many countless times that it had needed to be performed, however applying its methods to a human was both mentally and physically draining. Yamnaya dropped to his knees, suddenly unable to support himself under his own power and Sura, forgetting her wariness, rushed across the room to help him once more to his feet. “You’re.. you’re hurt,” she seemed almost unable to believe, “here, please – sit. Let me get you some water.” The Watcher groaned and slumped into a seat at the end of the table as she hurriedly left to draw a pitcher from a tall oak barrel in the corner of the room.
Sura returned quickly and helped the container to his lips, and as he raised his head to take a drink she gasped audibly as she was finally able to see his face in the wan light of the room. Somehow, he had appeared to age a lifetime in only those few moments. Gaunt as he ever was, Sura saw that his pale skin was now the colour of old parchment, and only barely clinging to his sunken cheeks and his thick hair in places seemed to have fallen away completely from his crown. The brightness in his eyes had dimmed, and where before his frame appeared as though cast from wrought iron, he now seemed weak and unable to sit up straight. Whatever magic the watcher had been able to command had somehow seemed in turn to rob him of his own years, and Sura could not help but weep as the tall figure now bent quietly and tried desperately to control his breathing. He was in pain, but despite appearances knew in his own mind that he would soon recover.
Caught up in her sudden concern for the Watcher, Sura had managed to briefly forget about Skara, still lying prone upon the slab. Yamnaya motioned for her to leave him be for a moment while he rested, and as she rose she was startled by a low moaning reverberating from elsewhere in the hall. She turned back to the table in time to see Skara slowly turning over where he lay, amazingly now awake once more and attempting to roll up onto one elbow and speak. “Skara..!” She cried instinctively, rushing over to embrace him, “Skara, my love, don’t you move. Please, stay still. Let me look at you,” She was beside herself, and despite her commands, her loud cry prompted Harna and Kirti to rush from the far room behind the hall where they had cowered throughout the ritual with their hands covering their ears. Now beyond reprimand, they too ran to be at their father’s side.
They three carefully laid their hands upon him and began flooding the poor man with a thousand words of encouragement and relief as he finally succeeded in opening his eyes. Skara struggled at first to adjust from the pitch darkness of near-death, however he soon turned to Sura and simply said, “Sura, my heart. Where have you been..?” She gushed and smiled, and could not resist the impulse to hold his face and kiss him a dozen times before he turned painfully away to cough and clear his throat. After a brief moment of joy, the realisation quickly dawned on him that he had only minutes ago been at the very gates of death. He groaned once more and rose to a sitting position, whereupon he gasped and worriedly reached across his body to feel for what he knew must be many deep and horrible wounds. He was immediately shocked to feel not a single scratch where only before his chest had been pierced by arrows and his stomach slashed in the fray upon the hillside where he had fallen. “How..?” he asked of Sura, “I.. I was surely done for, my wounding was mortal. How is this possible..?”
As if in reply, Yamnaya grunted abruptly from where he sat, and dropped his empty pitcher to the table with a loud thud. Skara turned to his friend, and knew at once that whatever miracle had brought him back from the void, it was the Watcher’s doing. “Yamnaya,” he started, the memory of the other’s return at the close of the day’s battle finally rushing back to him, “I knew you would come. I knew you would not see me fail where you might have known I would.” He then too saw the tortured look of pain that still racked his features, and remarked, “My friend, and that you are and will always be. You’ve not the same look about you as when we first met. Whatever you have done for me, you had no obligation to do, thankful as I am. Please tell me you will be well, I could not see this ordeal through without your guidance.” Met with silence, he turned to Sura with a worried look.
Yamnaya merely raised his gaze, almost imperceptibly, and though it still caused him great pain to speak, replied, “If you think for a moment, Skara Tau, that I would see you through this trial and not be present at the end to claim my due credit, then you’re more a fool than I first thought.” He coughed again as Skara smiled, and then continued, “We’ve invested too much in this madness to see it all fall apart so close to its finish. It’s not over until it is over. And by the gods I promise you,” he said with uncharacteristic warmth, “it’s nearly over.” Harna and Kirti then leapt onto the table top and embraced their father as Sura once more attended to Yamnaya, who eventually regained his stoic composure and joined them in a brief celebration of life, love and a what was a deservedly happy outcome to a very close call.
Once they had recovered enough and Skara was once again able to chance his feet, the five decided to take stock of their situation; they had made it to the compound as planned, however were thus far alone and as Sura was quick to fill him in, the dragon in the skies had finally chosen to reveal itself. By his reckoning, Yamnaya indicated that only hours remained before all hope of any left behind also making their way to sanctuary was lost. With a brief explanation, he left the four and made his way out of the hall and to the curious low bunker across the settlement where, he made clear to indicate, “further work must be done, work that no human should be present to interfere with.” The family of four were free then to leave the hall and wander about the city so long as no unsanctioned meddling was allowed to take place. Skara suggested he and his family head to a large mound at the western edge of the city whereupon they could sit and rest, and get a clear view of the lands surrounding the plateau.
As soon as they re-entered the city center, all eyes were immediately drawn to the fierce ball of white fire that had now set in the north-western sky. Sura’s eyes widened as she realised that it had almost doubled in size since they had first arrived, and was now so brilliant a light that wherever they went, a second lesser shadow was cast at their feet in competition with the afternoon sun. Skara could not shake a deep feeling of unease as he stood and struggled to gaze directly at it, and he wondered not only what sort of horror such a sight might herald, but what the watchers and their magics could possibly do to resist it. Despite his faith in their promise and as much as he tried to hide it, he was afraid for his family, for himself, and for those of his kin that must have at that moment been more wary than ever of him and his leadership. The four slowly made their way to the top of the hill and there they merely sat close and waited, saying very little and holding only onto both each other and whatever scarce hope still remained in their hearts. Skara watched intently across the plateau, praying silently to see any signs of those left behind.
All the while the family reconciled Yamnaya was nowhere to be seen, and as the afternoon dared to become the evening, only the strange, faint sound of hammering and an occasional dull roar like the stoking of a great fire could be heard floating on the breeze. After almost an hour had passed, and the fierce orb of light in the darkening sky had once more doubled in size, Skara could have sworn he heard the sound of distant voices from somewhere far across the plateau. He let go of Sura’s hand and rose to his feet so as to get a clear view, and Sura instinctively did the same. “Sura, I think it’s them, I think they’ve come..!” He exclaimed hopefully. Sure enough, a long procession of slow-moving figures could soon be seen departing the growing shadows at the far side of the plateau, making their way in a staggered line toward the walls of Uru-Mah. Sura gently took Kirti in her arms, the child understandably exhausted and now fast asleep, and Skara beckoned Harna join them in descending from the mound to meet the villagers at the gate.
The family were only too aware of the effect that the tragic events of that afternoon would have had on the women, children and whatever men survived, and so watched with trepidation as the wave of slow moving wanderers approached the western entrance. Skara squinted as the first of their number drew near, hoping against hope that Andar was still well and among them. With all the emotion of his rescue, his miraculous revival and the reunion with his wife and children, it had slipped his mind completely to inquire as to the well-being of those that had survived the slaughter at the hand of the King, and nervously wondered what manner of greeting he would be afforded, knowing that for many it might seem appropriate to hold him personally accountable. A handful of older women were the first to leave the silent wood and stop short when they saw the family, and a single stoic hunter from the valley stood at their head. Somewhat to Skara’s relief, it was indeed Andar that had led his people to the end of their journey, and without hesitating his half-brother almost ran to him when he realised who it was that greeted them.
Upon reaching him, Andar stepped forward and gripped the nape of his brother’s neck with a strong right hand and stared at him with a deep frown, only remarking; “Gods and devils, brother, is that really you..?” Skara had no reply, save for a heaviness in his heart as he noticed the tails of half a dozen dark arrows that still protruded from Andar’s back and shoulders. He was breathing heavily, and despite being the size he was and his best efforts to conceal it, was clearly in a serious state. “Andar,” he replied, his eyes welling up, “my brother, yes – it’s me. I’m okay, Yamnaya.” he trailed off, dismissing his own story. “Look at the state of you. Oh, my brother.. I’m so very, deeply sorry. How in the world can you ever forgive me..?” Andar too was almost overcome with emotion as Skara placed a hand on his shoulder in kind, and did his best to appear strong. “Don’t you worry about me, Skara. It’ll take more than a few little darts to bring down a bull.” He motioned over his shoulder to yet more villagers that were now arriving, and added, “We’ve a score of sick and injured, and they’ll have need of fire and a place to rest and recover. If you’ve any beer or wine in this.. whatever a place this is you’ve led us,” he gestured through the city’s entrance, “I’ll share a drink as I’m sure we both well deserve it. Just you show us the way.”
No sooner had Andar delivered his request, than three more dark shadows broke away from the trees and ran toward them, crying out; “Skara..! Oh Skara, thank the gods..! We knew you’d make it, we just knew..!” It was Asher, Zemer and, following as fast as his legs would allow, little Yemah. The two youngest had been quickly hidden from the fury of the fighting by several of the other mothers from the village while Asher loosed arrows at the enemy, and had quickly become separated in the long confusion that followed. Clearly distressed, but apparently only thankful to know that their cousin had somehow survived, the three were overwhelmed to see him and greeted Skara enthusiastically by leaping forward and almost bowling him over. Solemn as he was, Skara couldn’t help but laugh at this, overjoyed to know that his Uncle’s children had remained safe and moreover, that they could finally join his family in the stone city as he promised. “Boys, boys,” he started, wiping tears from his eyes, “I’m alive and well, but still a little shaken. Relieved to see you all, nonetheless – come,” he indicated to the growing crowd, “everyone follow us to the hall, let’s set a fire and.. well, I’m honestly not sure where to start. This has indeed been a tragic and exhausting day whatever might still come, and none of us need spend more of it on our feet.”
The black procession slowly poured into the city, shuffling along wordlessly with the wary pace of a beaten people. By the hundreds they filled the wide avenues between the squat stone buildings and flowed lazily toward the great hall, where Skara and his family set about searching for clothing, blankets and enough containers with which to distribute water. Andar felt particularly useless, but was refused his services in building fires in the dozens of hearths that dotted the streets, instead instructed to join the wounded inside the hall and have his wounds attended to by those still able. Despite the fact that twilight had set, the growing glow cast by the great fire in the sky now left them all in a continuing sort of half-light, both a practical blessing and an ominous, forbidding threat that seemed to weigh on everything.
Once it appeared that everyone had arrived that would, it became painfully clear just how few of those hunters and soldiers that had stood against He-Tauhasa had survived the conflict. Although the travellers were now safe and could finally find rest, an air of sadness filled the hall and the faces of every one of them knowing that for most, their husbands and fathers had been lost. Skara realised as he looked out at his people that it was now his place to say something, to assume leadership of the situation that they had all found themselves in, and so whispered to Sura that he might stand before them and say a few words. If for nothing else, than to reassure them that they were finally safe from further harm and heartache. He peered into the quasi-twilight outside as he nervously considered just what he might say to them, hoping that Yamnaya would return quickly from his work, but knowing also that they should be made to wait in the dark no longer.
Skara moved carefully through the sea of bodies, many resting and some already fast asleep and took his place at the head of the table directly in front of the main fireplace, which was now blazing away. His heart weighing heavier at that moment than the stone lintel atop it, he raised his hands as if to call for silence and attention, and opened his mouth to speak.