12. The Great Dragon
“If I might have everybody’s attention for just a moment,” Skara began, nervously, “I’d like to ask for your audience.” He was noticeably anxious, but not just for the effects that recent events might have had on his kinsmen. As he stood before them, searching his mind for the right words, whatever they might be, he couldn’t shake the image of that awful vibrant light now in the northern sky, and the impending cataclysm that threatened soon to unfold. The deep and profound sense of fear it had brought with it now seemed to permeate its way into everything, to violate every thought and action he had taken since its arrival and left him feeling completely and utterly powerless, and unsure what possible comfort he could provide his people.
He nonetheless continued, “No doubt you too have all seen the passage of the Great Dragon from its arrival in the West this afternoon. Before this day, my warnings might have only sounded to many of you like little more than the half-insane ramblings of a petty doomsayer. I feel however that the time for denial has surely now passed, for who here can dismiss that sinister evil which so brightly now shines down upon us all..?” He gestured at the open space of the hall around them, “In this place, the Watchers have promised us sanctuary from the Dragon, and while many of our own have bravely fought and indeed given their lives to allow us safe passage to this city of stone, I would assure you that they did not do so in vain. In this place, we will find safety as promised, and in this city we will remain hidden from the beast and the coming of fire and water that those of its founding order have foretold will closely follow.”
“I feel no vindication in what is taking place outside these walls, no sense of personal gratification,” he went on, “I, like the rest of you, would truly like nothing more than to simply pass once more through those gates and return to Nevalı Çori and the lives we have all left behind. To go back to the homes and familiar experiences that we have shared and prepare once more for the summer. To hunt, to laugh and to spend our days in plenty as we have always done. But the reality is that those days are sadly now behind us. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, to be able to tell you what kind of world and future waits for us when this is all over.” He paused, and in a sudden moment of naked self-consciousness felt inexplicably small. He looked around the room, head tilted down and his brow furrowed, “I am but a hunter, a husband and father. A simple man, not meant for this kind of..” He trailed off, and then plucked his courage, “Whatever comes, we are in this together. Whatever story might be told of this day and those left to come, by our children and theirs, ours will be told as the proud and honourable people of the valley. That’s all that really matters. To bloody hell with the rest.”
He stopped speaking and abruptly sat down, clasping his hands and staring intently at the dancing shadow they cast upon the table by the flickering firelight from the hearth. There followed several long seconds of silence as his words were allowed to hang in the cool air of the room before a slow and building cheer arose from the villagers. Many took to their feet and began to praise Skara with an almost exhausted enthusiasm, and in moments, he lifted his gaze once more to see almost the entire hall now standing and clapping, and chanting his name. They had come this far together, and despite all losses it would seem they would remain united as one, through whatever was yet to come.
Skara smiled, and Sura gently took his right arm into her own. It seemed at that moment, the bonds of blood and community would prove stronger than any other force imaginable. Stronger than life, stronger than death.. stronger than any unknown threat from the heavens, or of the Earth. Their cheering continued for some time, eventually subsiding and when more of his kin rose to continue preparing the hall for the coming night, a second new and distant roar could be heard to fill the silence that they left. “What in Anu’s name..?” Skara thought to himself, as the unidentifiable noise gradually grew in intensity and with it, the awful glow that filled the windows to the city outside.
As one, the villagers inside the hall quickly rushed to the narrow windows along either side of the building just in time to witness the arrival of three enormous plumes of white-hot fire that tore across the darkening skies above them from the North with incredible velocity, singing with a single deafening voice akin to the awful chorus of a thousand fallen angels. Dusk immediately became day as the tails of comet fractures that had splintered off from the beast heralded the final arrival of Usumgala and tore the skies asunder as they roared due south and, seconds later, struck land on the far side of the plateau, beyond Uru-Mah. Women and children screamed as their impacts flashed brightly, silhouetting the dark hills and within moments, the sonic boom that closely followed shook the ground with such chaotic fury that the seismic rumble nearly wrested the building from its very foundations, and caused several heavy wooden supports in the ceiling to buckle and send dust and splinters raining down on them all.
Suddenly appearing as if from nowhere, the imposing figure of Yamnaya called out from the doorway with a commanding tone, verging on desperation, “It is time, quickly – everyone get up and follow me, now. Take nothing, get to your feet and by the Gods, make haste..!” No more needed to be said. Yamnaya swiftly turned and strode from the hall, heading straight for the bunker-like building far across the compound, and the score of Skara’s friends and family quickly poured through behind him. As they nervously made their way through the wide streets of the city in a half-stoop, the skies were once more lit up with a brilliant white flash as several more fractures from the great comet broke away from its core and surged across the heavens with the same loud and hideous wail, seeming much closer to them this time. The fierce light and accompanying heat caused many among them to cry out and the children to lose their footing as the earth shook, once, twice and again when the fiery missiles struck the ground in the East and to the south of the plateau. Were it not for the dense, dark forest that ringed the city, the flames of a great and terrible burning could have been seen growing on the horizon in all directions, as the raining storm of hellfire intensified across the entire length and breadth of the southern lands.
Far away, in the dark confines of He-Tauhasa’s great hall, the order of Seers that had stayed behind while their master made war cowered in a brief shared moment of complete and total revelation, before the great and sprawling metropolis of Çatalhöyük was lain to waste by a single giant fracture that pounded the city centre like the flaming fist of a vengeful god. In the fraction of a second, the filth and venom of their insidious cabal was extinguished from the face of the Earth as the once indomitable capital was swept away in a firestorm like a second Sodom. All across the sleeping world, millions faced a wrath of fiery judgement and were consumed by the maelstrom that in some places pulverised the very mountains to dust, and in others summoned forth vast torrents of liquid fire from the veins of the earth beneath them. Clouds of ash blotted-out the skies, and molten rock was vomitted from the tallest peaks and coursed down over the fertile neolithic lands below, as if rushing to meet the dark oceans that were already heaving to break the shores that once restrained them.
Skara raced to keep up with Yamnaya as he and his family were now literally running for their lives. Already a thickening pall of ash and vapour had begun to coalesce in the skies above them, eerily illuminating the near night between bright flashes that lit up their peripheral vision like fireworks. In moments the heavens became an undulating, writhing storm of deep red clouds that whirled and churned overhead with cyclonic fury, and a rising tempest that howled down through the lowlands and valleys below the plateau caused knots of dread to grow in the pit of their stomachs. In a panic, Sura lost her footing and was almost trampled by those villagers that closely followed before Skara managed to wrap his free arm around her waist and haul her back to her feet. He held Kirti tight with his left arm as the young girl buried her face in his chest, unable to bring herself to watch the sheer panic that was unfolding, and Harna now held onto his mother for dear life as she ran, steadying her lest she fall behind again.
Within seconds they had caught up with Yamnaya and arrived at the bunker, the Watcher already standing tall to the right of the low entryway and motioning everyone to make their way into the building as quickly as they could. “Don’t stop, for goodness sake,” he cried, struggling to make himself heard over the gale that whipped up about them all, “keep moving through. Don’t concern yourselves with those behind, you’ll only slow everyone else down..!” While he waited for the procession to enter, the Watcher raised his gaze toward the chaos overhead, and his eyes widened in unmistakeable fear as, through the blood-red clouds and haze above him, the great and horrible face of the beast could finally be seen in its entirety. Usumgala, the great comet, had finally arrived, and the flaming mass of its seven fearsome heads filled the sky with such awful brilliance that he could no longer gaze directly at it, as much for dread as awe.
Greater and more horrifying than any celestial visitor that had approached their world in aeons, the comet was quickly bearing down upon them, headed on an unstoppable trajectory across the night sky to the lands of the Clovis where, now exposed, it would finally exact its ultimate and devastating wrath. In less than a minute, all of the villagers had entered the bunker and had begun to make their way down the broad stone staircase beyond the entryway. Yamnaya stood for a brief moment more, both to marvel at the sheer power of the beast as it tore across the skies above and to also mouth a silent prayer for those of his order so far across the seas, before he too entered the building and heaved a mighty hewn cover stone from an alcove inside, effectively sealing them within what was now to become their sanctuary, or if his calculations proved untrue, perhaps their tomb.
Ahead of Yamnaya and in complete darkness, Skara and his family moved carefully down and along what somehow seemed to be a never-ending succession of cold stone stairs that snaked their way erratically into the earth in a sort of confused spiral. After soon realising the treacherousness of their passage, Sura instructed that they all stop momentarily while she fumbled about in the darkness for something deep inside a pocket in her dress. In frustration, several voices soon called out from the throng that had also been made to stop short behind them, “Why have we stopped moving..?” and, “Come on, we have to keep going..! What are you doing up there..?” The emotional state among the villagers threatened shortly to turn from panic to anger as the instinct for self-preservation tempted to provoke action, but a few moments later, the blackness of the stairwell was dispersed by a weak yellow light, the source of which was a small glass sphere that Sura had kept from Skara’s pouch, and that seemed to react exclusively to the absence of any distinguishable light. She had discovered its quality when packing on the morning of their departure from the village, and had not been able to bring herself to leave such a curious item behind. A decision she somehow knew she would not regret.
Now able to safely discern their footing, the procession moved on for what felt like hours, heading deeper and deeper into a cold and apparently endless catacomb that none of them could have guessed lay waiting beneath the modest stone bunker on the surface. From time to time, the walls of the tunnel shook, sometimes imperceptibly and occasionally with such violence that the group would stop and crouch low as impacts from the maelstrom on the ground above continued overhead. Several times, as dark soil was shaken from the ceiling and rained down on them, Skara caught himself wondering if this was ‘finally it’. He knew that everything they had seen so far was merely a preview of what was coming, that eventually the beast would make land, and who knew what would happen then..? In his mind and from what he had seen, he still had every reason to fear that their complete and utter annihilation remained a very real possibility. Each time he tried to shake the feeling as quickly as it came and continued along the way, as they all did, until eventually they reached the bottom of their descent and passed through a tall and narrow doorway into what was the living, breathing heart of the Watchers’ masterplan.
Skara was the first to leave the cold corridor and enter with trepidation what he was astonished to discover was an absolutely massive natural underground cavern that had been shaped, seemingly by hand, but with an incredible artistry from the very bedrock of the plateau itself. It must have been equal to, or at the very least comparable in area to the stone city on the surface, but with a vast ceiling that appeared to be an almost flawless dome of dark rock that extended with near perfect circular geometry from the farthest walls to a point so far overhead that the now brighter light from the orb in Sura’s hand could not even reach it. More of the villagers followed them in, and their gasps were clearly audible as everyone could do little more than attempt to wrap their minds around where they now were, mouths agape and in total wonder. For all of the wondrous and inexplicable things that they had seen in the city above them, it all somehow paled into insignificance when compared to the strange subterranean world in which they now found themselves.
The floor of the cavern was criss-crossed with wide, crudely cobbled roads and row upon row of small, low set dwellings, somewhat similar to the squat stone buildings on the surface, and from somewhere far across the dark expanse the sound of what must have been a broad and powerful underground stream could just be heard rushing away in the distance. Despite the absence of natural light, lush fields of a weird, deep-green and deliberately cultivated moss seemed to carpet the outer ring of the cave, but what was most confusing was an enormous pyramid of worked earth that immediately drew their attention, rising up in the centre of the cave to a height Skara estimated to be some sixty or seventy feet.
Formed with almost perfect symmetry, the steep bank of pressed earth was crowned with the most bizarre object.. Skara could not even compare the intricate and complicated device that sat atop it to anything he had ever seen in his life. Roughly the size of a small house, but cylindrical in shape and adorned with a myriad of strange parts and pieces, the machine that dominated the underground landscape rose out of the great mound at its heart, and appeared to be tethered to the exact centre of the roof of the cavern by a thin and perfect rod of an unidentifiable metal that shot dead straight from the top of it in a flawlessly straight line. Neither Skara nor his kin had ever seen anything remotely like it, and could do little more than guess at what its purpose and function might be.
Arriving shortly after the last of the villagers had entered, Yamnaya soon joined them in the underground city and as before, immediately moved to heave a second perfectly hewn cover stone from its resting place and set it in the doorway, barring the way back. Still breathing heavily from the effort, he then turned to address them all; “Welcome,” he began with a marked tone of self-satisfaction, “to the salvation of your race. This city, this underground world beneath the world. My people have worked painstakingly for an age to manufacture and create everything that you see around you now, everything that would see your kind survive that which has come to mean the destruction of all you knew of the surface world. Each consideration and every detail; water and warmth, food, light and shelter. In this place, my new friends, you will survive. While the world above burns, and the cities and empires of those societies left behind are washed away and the slate of the Earth cleansed, humankind will survive, here. Humankind must survive. Please,” he beckoned deeper into the cavern with an outstretched arm, “by all means, go forth and explore. Make yourselves at home. This is all for you, and for what may prove to be quite some time, it will be the only home you have.”
At that, most of the villagers moved away from the cavern entrance, still with dumbfounded expressions on their faces, and fanned out into the cave, many unable or still too shellshocked from their ordeal to fully consider what Yamnaya’s words implied. Skara however had mulled on Yamnaya’s short speech, and after a minute felt obliged to ask: “My friend, words surely cannot begin to describe this place. I have a million and one questions, as you no doubt can understand, and while this of course comes from a place of the deepest and most un-repayable gratitude, I need to ask; you made mention of warmth, and light. Yet without the meagre light in my wife’s possession, I see nothing but the stark and impossible blackness one might expect, so deep in the heart of the hills. Of what light and warmth do you speak..?”
Skara of course was right. So deep beneath the surface and beyond the reach of sunlight, the warmth of the winds and the seasons, they had scarce little hope of maintaining any sort of food supply for any reasonable length of time. Indeed, trapped in such a place for weeks, months or even years, the creeping and claustrophobic insanity of their new home would slowly eat away at them in the near darkness, and Skara could only imagine what kind of beasts his kinsmen, or any men for that matter, might become when faced with such a dark and oppressive existence. He continued, “Though I suspect those fields are somehow meant for us, and the stream I can hear no doubt played a part in your choosing this place, how are we supposed to maintain it, or even order, when we are unable to see no more than twenty paces in any given direction..?”
Now, a wry and knowing smile crept across Yamnaya’s face as it seemed the time had finally come to reveal his last and greatest surprise to the valley man. The true core of the Watchers’ plan, the central, pivotal feature of their city below the surface, and something that had grown to become, to him, a source of great pride. He had been the driving force not only in its design, but through his own ingenuity he remained one of only two of his order capable of commanding its power, and controlling its effect. Though so much of their knowledge had been lost, Yamnaya had devoted his life to rediscovering, often through the most painful processes of trial and error, what secrets were required in completing their vision. “Skara, on this occasion and as is often the case, I fear further words can only diminish. Come, let me show you.” As everyone continued to disperse in all directions, Yamnaya politely took the still-glowing orb from Sura’s hand and beckoned Skara and his family to follow. He led them deeper into the vast cavern towards the central pyramid, where they found and ascended a rough staircase that had been fashioned out of its far side, and made their way toward the curious device resting at the top.
When they had almost reached their destination, Yamnaya motioned for the family to remain a short distance away as he moved to a large, ornate chrome panel at its base and set about fumbling with a series of weird cranks, knobs and levers, prodding some and twisting others in a long sequence that baffled the hunter and his wife who could only trade curious glances while the Watcher worked. All of a sudden, a loud and familiar whirring sound started up from within the heart of the strange machine, and as it grew in volume all of the villagers across the cavern suddenly stopped what they were doing and turned to watch what was happening. Yamnaya rose once more to his full height and walked over to a large and opaque semi-sphere, roughly a foot in circumference that protruded from what must have been the front of the device, and spoke. “It is heat you seek is it, valley man..? And light, by which to see..?” Skara’s brow remained furrowed in confusion, and he could only stammer a mono-syllabic, “Y-yes..?”
“Then by all means,” the watcher smiled, “let there be light..!”
Yamnaya then pressed the centre of the large sphere with the open palm of his right hand, and everyone in the cavern including Skara immediately dropped to their knees in shock as a broad and monumental pillar of dazzling white light exploded with a deafening boom from the roof of the machine and coursed along the length of its tether like a bolt of super-charged electricity, finding its earth in the centre of the domed ceiling overhead. The sound of the machine’s activation reverberated loudly around the cavern, and instantly the entire underground city was bathed in a brilliant light, almost as though the entire town and its ecosystem were now spread out beneath a warm and vibrant summer sky. Yamnaya laughed a booming and contagious laugh, as if finally celebrating a long-sought victory. Skara was incredulous, and could not believe his eyes..! Harna let out a loud and enthusiastic cry, and little Kirti giggled with glee as every single one of the villagers remained motionless and merely looked toward it with sheer and total wonder. “Now, do you see..?” boomed Yamnaya, “Where my forebears brought about their own end with their pride, and the reckless use of their knowledge, we have given you a second chance. The race of men will endure, my young friend. The species known as man will live on for many generations to come, as both children of and the continuing stewards to the Earth. It must.”
“Where the knowledge of our predecessors was once used in an ill-intentioned attempt to pervert the laws of the natural world for their own selfish wants, the last of my kind have succeeded in the consolidation of a power thats sole purpose is to preserve life, and to resist those outside forces that would threaten to consume it.” Yamnaya turned then to address not only his friend but each and every man, woman and child that had still believed enough in his kind to follow him into the bowels of the Earth, and continued, “This power we have called The Defender, for that is its purpose. In a new world, now so far from the reach of any gods or devils, in the darkest of hours this gift will provide to us light, warmth and safety from everything that Usumgala would bring down upon us. For so long as the lands above remain in turmoil so too we will be allowed to survive; and when the time comes that you might return once more to the surface, so another chance in this world will be your gift. And perhaps too in turn, for us, a second chance at the next.”
Skara was awestruck, and rose gingerly to his feet. In his wildest imagination he could never have believed such a machine, so great and incredible a power as to turn night into day could possibly exist, let alone be controlled by any mortal man, or even the Watchers. The radiance of the fantastic pillar of light seemed to penetrate to the very core of his being, warming his bones and building his spirits and trust in the future once again. He approached Yamnaya, and extended his right hand which the still smiling Watcher took in kind. “Never have I truly doubted you, since we first met.” He began, “But shamed as I am to say it, I fear I have underestimated you. This, what you have done here is beyond words, and I and my people are beyond gratitude and forever in debt to you and your kind. Thank you, friend. By my gods and yours, we will repay you.”
At that, Yamnaya’s smile left his face as quickly as it came, and was once again replaced with his usual stern sobriety, and he replied, “Skara, you’ve done more for your own people than I ever could have, and as always you sell yourself short. In truth, I feel that it is I that has underestimated you.” He placed a lithe hand on Skara’s shoulder, and continued, “This place that we have created for you, it’s a second chance. You owe me nothing but the promise that you will continue to shepherd your people, to watch over them. And in turn, ensure that they continue to fight, to live.. to survive. Do that, and you can consider all debts repaid.” Skara nodded in reply, feeling that the ten-ton weight of everything that he had been made to endure over his adventure was suddenly lifted, and managed a brief and genuine smile before turning back to Sura and his family.
Now bathed wholly in the calming warmth and light of The Defender, he held them close.
Nestled tightly in the grip of theirs, they held him back.
Far across the vast and violent seas, many leagues south of the fertile lands of the Clovis, those that remained of Yamnaya’s order had themselves worked fervently to complete their secondary sanctuary in the high mountains which bordered the Western coast. Just as the monstrous fury of the great comet finally penetrated the Earth’s atmosphere and struck the planet somewhere far in the north of the continent, the second Defender was activated far below the stone city of Caral Supe, where those of the Americas now too found sanctuary, and the contingency was realised.
“Then the fifth angel sounded: And I saw a star fallen from heaven to the earth. To him was given the key to the bottomless pit. And he opened the bottomless pit, and smoke arose out of the pit like the smoke of a great furnace. So the sun and the air were darkened.” – Revelation 9:1-2
Ancient stone carvings at Gobekli Tepe or ‘Potbelly Hill’ in Anatolia tell of a great comet that is theorised to have struck the Earth somewhere around 11,000BC. A devastating and cataclysmic event which, it has been proposed, may have been responsible for wiping out much of the preexisting megafauna in many parts of the world, reshaping coastlines and that may have played a key role in putting an end to the age old hunter-gather system, paving the way for the rise of agriculture and civilisation as we now know it.
Experts have analysed these mysterious symbols carved onto the enormous stone pillars at Gobekli Tepe in modern-day southern Turkey, to find out if they could be linked to constellations and have drawn conclusions that the event’s origins may lie somewhere in the Cygnus system, some six thousand light years from us. These markings suggest that a swarm of comet fragments hit the Earth at approximately the same time that a mini-ice age is said to have begun, subsequently changing the entire course of human history and giving rise to a long and difficult period of adjustment for those new and, until that time, apparently flourishing and diverse human communities.
Scientists have speculated for decades that such a comet could be behind the sudden fall in temperature during an ensuing period known as the Younger Dryas. Recently the theory appeared to have been debunked by new dating of meteor craters in North America, where the comet is thought to have struck. However, when engineers studied animal carvings made on a pillar, known as the Vulture Stone, at Gobekli Tepe they were surprised to discover that the creatures might actually be astronomical symbols which represented constellations, and the comet.
The idea has already been explored in a number of scientific and speculative works of non-fiction over recent years, as has the theory that those closest cousins to modern man, the Neanderthals, might have dwelt alongside mankind in much more recent history than initially believed, and that their species and its apparently complex societies may still offer more secrets that are yet to be discovered. Alluvion is an imagining of the lives and struggles of a small community that might have existed during this time, and the consequences that such an event might have had not only on the world they knew, but of the challenges it may have brought, and their fortitude and the endurance of the human spirit as they adapted to it.
We must be reminded often that our continued success as stewards of this green and vibrant world still only hangs by a thread, and although we have, at least in recent history, enjoyed a relatively safe and stable environment, everything that we know, love and hold dear might at any moment be threatened again by a similar event. And we must learn to love and appreciate this fragile world accordingly, and with absolute sincerely, for so long as we are lucky to be here.
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.
10. The King’s Last Stand
The Watchers at Uru-Mah had worked tirelessly in the days since Skara’s last visit, making final preparations and completing modifications to their compound in anticipation of the arrival of the free men and women of the valley. Despite the fact that much of the former knowledge and wisdom of their order had been lost or forgotten in the many centuries which followed their hubris, awareness of the coming disaster had long been documented and steps carefully taken to ensure that no matter what, they would be ready and able to defend mankind against it.
For his dedication, Yamnaya had been granted absolute sole direction over their efforts, and when those that laboured had finally reached a point in their work that he might be able to complete all remaining tasks alone, the rest of his order bade him a brief and ritualistic farewell before they gathered whatever tools and equipment were needed and departed to a massive underground bunker, older than any of the other structures at the settlement and all but buried at the far eastern edge of the compound. Within this bunker was housed a strange and mysterious machine from the ancient world, a vehicle of incredible power and engineering crafted by sciences that even the Watchers themselves no longer understood entirely. Oddly shaped, not unlike a bottom-heavy zeppelin in appearance but without any obvious method of propulsion save for a wide, cylindrical hollow which extended from point to stern, the vessel had not been activated since most of their earliest memories (we are reminded that the Watchers were not bound to the same fleeting mortality as men), from the time of first contact with the Clovis, across the seas. And in this hour of desperate need it was to them that their order would return.
Soon after they had all entered the hanger and boarded the vessel, for the first time in an age a warming hum like the charge of a massive build of electricity filled the chamber as the great and ancient Vimana began to slowly draw its energy from the very air surrounding it before it would eventually take to the sky in a fluid and soundless motion. Secretly Yamnaya had envied the journey that his brethren were about to embark upon, however he knew that at least one must remain behind alone to ensure the eventuation of their masterplan. After he stood and watched them ascend into the heavens on a column of pale blue light, silently following the craft with his eyes as it diminished into little more than a tiny speck on the horizon, he turned to resume his duties, working to realise the final blueprint for their last work of manufacture which they had aptly named ‘The Defender.’
As he moved silently about the compound, he was for the first time struck by the cold sterility of the surroundings of what had become his home. Not a day had gone by since his brethren had first settled atop the plateau that there hadn’t been at least a few others present to give life and company to its halls and to his efforts. Now however, stone, silent calculation and a growing uneasiness akin to the calm before a storm seemed suddenly to encase him like a dark cocoon of trepidation and dread. He mused emotionlessly on the feeling for a moment, tracing the path of the sun between the canopy above and reckoned that Skara and the villagers should arrive at their city by nightfall, all things going well. “Best get back to it, else we’re caught by surprise,” he muttered to himself, before returning to his work.
Shortly after noon, Skara and the men and women of the valley finally reached the base of the plateau, where after only a short climb they would eventually ascend to their final destination. The journey had been arduous, and due to the difficulties of travelling with women and children had taken much longer than he might have anticipated. Still, they appeared to be on track to reach the end of their travel within the given window and hopefully then would find safety in the surrounding mountainside. As the golden disc of the midday sun burned hot overhead, they picked up the pace and found renewed spirits with the end of their travels finally in sight. No sooner had they taken to the last leg however, settling into a steady rhythmic march to the summit than the shrill blast of a hunting horn sounded from somewhere far off in the distance behind them, cutting through the balmy stillness of the early afternoon and splitting Skara’s consciousness like the fell strike of a newly keened blade.
The rest of the villagers too had been startled by the sound, and as one stopped dead in their tracks and turned to try and locate the source of the noise. Far off in the distance, barely discernible and only at the very lowest hills proceeding the flat they could just make out a wide, shapeless cloud of moving bodies, clearly an army or some sort of migrating force, that seemed to slowly course in their direction. Squinting as best he could to make out the identity of what he irrationally supposed might be another large group of tardy travellers from the valley, Andar turned to his brother and asked, “Who are they, that follow with such haste..? Have your Watchers promised sanctuary to others from the surrounding lands..?” To which Skara replied, “Not that I am aware of. What I do know, however, is that that herald was not meant as a salutation – the hunting horn would never be used in such a fashion, even under duress. Come, let’s encourage haste and keep them moving. We don’t have time to stop, for whoever it might be.”
Quickly, Skara and Andar clapped loudly and yelled at their kinsmen to snap them out of discussion regarding their pursuers, commanding that they make haste to reach the summit without delay. While the two of them had led the group to this point in the journey thus far, they now deliberately eased their way to the rear of the procession where they might shout encouragement while also keeping a close and watchful eye on those who followed, and were now closing in with clear haste and an apparent fierce resolve. The villagers stumbled over thick clumps of dense grasses and scrambled over loose rocks as their passage steepened, and as the day’s heat began to melt the snow atop peaks far beyond their line of sight, small streams and rivulets which coursed erratically down the slope turned much of the fertile soil in places to mud, making the going ever more difficult.
Eventually, just as the group had the summit within their sights, a second, louder blast of the same hunter’s horn rang out, almost deafening and from much closer this time, prompting them all to immediately stop and turn. As they did, they were finally able to clearly identify the other party, and as he recognised the deep red banners they held fiercely aloft Skara’s blood ran cold. His massive bulk positioned astride the largest royal ox he had ever seen, He-Tauhasa Ihreikas and the entire capital army that had departed Çatalhöyük in pursuit of their prisoner stood armed to the teeth before them and incensed that Skara’s heresies remained unpunished. Their king had swiftly commanded his emissaries to assemble those fighters he had called to the capital for his campaign against the West to instead pursue Skara, and the advancing army had already begun ascending the foothills as he cursed himself immediately for revealing the whereabouts of their destination when pleading for clemency so many days earlier. “Surely such a force is far beyond anything those left of us can resist – do they plan to slaughter us all..?” He thought to himself, suddenly feeling all at once frightened, deflated and desperate.
Realising that they would not all be able to completely clear the lip of the plateau before they were caught from behind, Skara sprang quickly into action, separating all of the men and boys from the women and children and commanded the latter continue on ahead without them. As those unable to fight reluctantly resumed their ascent, he and Andar quickly distributed what few weapons they had brought with them and set about formulating a strategy for defending and, if they could not be successful, at least slowing down their pursuers. By his estimation, the people of the valley were easily outnumbered five-to-one, odds that left precious little hope of any victory should worst come to worst. They formed a defensive crescent across the low of the final hill, and waited nervously, shoulder to shoulder, for the inevitable.
Within minutes, He-Tauhasa’s army closed distance and halted some fifty meters short in front of them. Skara could now finally make out the identities of his close guard, and was surprised to find He-Xur occupying the right hand command position of the King’s forces. He and Andar traded nervous glances from the head of their group as the opposing force merely stood silent for several moments until He-Tauhasa’s inevitable challenge boomed forth in a commanding tone; “Skara of the Valley, it is no small feat that you have managed to slither from the clutches of your King, and the final justice which now awaits you. Nor, sadly, does it come as any real surprise that with your poisonous, treasonous words you have been able to coerce those that have remained in your home into joining you in your misguided quest toward the forbidden city in the hills, where those worms of a vanquished foe reside. Know now however that the chase is won, and I have come to, and by the gods will, see justice done.”
“Justice..?” Skara called back scornfully, “What justice would you see done here, my King..?” He bravely spat the title at the other man, as if the word no longer held any value, and went on; “I have brought you tidings of the only true prophesy which comes from those that know. I have proven my belief in your arena, and would now lead those that I love to safety. I have reasoned, nay, pleaded with you and your council to see the truth, but you would still prefer only to listen to the words of madmen, ghosts who,” he scanned the rest of He-Tauhasa’s forces, not finding a single seer among their ranks, “who would not even join their people this day. If you still choose to believe in the fearful offerings of witchdoctors and would oppose us so close from completing our journey – then go ahead and kill us all. We’ll stand our ground, much as the alternative is death anyway.” The rest of the defenders found their courage then and cheered, raising aloft their axes and spears in solidarity as He-Tauhasa digested Skara’s reply.
Slowly, and even before the events in the sky had come to pass, He-Tauhasa had felt his power over the men and women of the South beginning to wane, and his grip over those assembled to weaken. There had been talk in darkened corners of his soft touch regarding those to the West, and even the occasional whiff of conspiracy borne on the winds and whispers of his court. He had resolved upon their departure to take a stronger stance, to stand by the aggressive precedents set by his forebears and in Skara’s case, make an example of all traitors and challengers to his authority wherever they might be found. In his own mind, he had never had a choice. “Absolute rule must be maintained by absolute means.” Raising a heavy, knotted staff he grasped in his right hand, he signalled his forces to advance on the defenders, only bellowing a loud and terrifying war cry as he spurred his awful beast into a slow trot.
Skara was stunned that it had actually come down to this, that his king would command the armies of the South to attack their own flesh and blood. A vivid shock ran down his spine, and he fearfully gripped his long spear tightly with both hands. Just as the remaining villagers too had readied themselves for what was about to come, and those women and children further up on the hillside stopped and turned to witness the violence that threatened to unfold, a loud and familiar voice rang out unexpectedly from He-Tauhasa’s own ranks, bidding the army to again halt its approach at the final moment. The voice belonged to He-Xur who, with two trunk-like arms outstretched ahead of him first turned to the army of Çatalhöyük and then to his leader, demanding; “Ihreikas, my king – you must stop this madness now..! These people that you would war with this day are our brothers from the Valley, do you not recognise them..? Has the hateful shroud of blind vengeance so clouded your mind that you would cast down your wrath upon those who call you their champion..? Many men amongst us have called them neighbours, friends and family for our entire lives. I will not fight them, not like this – we will not slay our brothers..!”
Murmurs of agreement swelled among those closest to He-Xur, and it became clear that while many of the King’s own men might have followed him blindly into the fray, the menfolk of the Valley, particularly those with their own loved ones, lovers and children so very nearly within their reach would not be so easily led to betrayal. Very quickly a division broke within the ranks separating those who sided without question with their ruler, and those unwilling to participate in an inevitable slaughter. He-Tauhasa’s eyes bulged as the breadth of He-Xur’s treachery hit home, and he turned to face his subordinate; “Such insolence I would expect from those lowest among us, such that I might find leniency knowing that it came from a place of ignorance, but from you, He-Xur – such defiance will not be tolerated. So be it..!” He rallied what was close to two-thirds of the number that had followed him east then, and He-Xur likewise and with only a slight gesture of his right hand brought his soldiers quickly in line to oppose him.
Skara could not believe what was happening. So suddenly had such overwhelming odds been dramatically lessened that he managed to afford himself a quiet sigh of relief, though the situation was still far from positive and odds nowhere near in their favour. He-Tauhasa slowly rode the length of his line, quietly delivering stern words of encouragement to his soldiers as he did so while He-Xur and those who remained loyal to the Valley stood stoic and silent, merely waiting for the signal to attack. There had not been any kind of real civil conflict among the people of the Southern Lands in many years, with most of those soldiers comprising the King’s army too young to have seen or even remembered the horrors of war. Nervous though they were, for the time being the penalty for desertion was repeated enough that they would rather fight than bring down the very real wrath of Ihreikas and his guards upon themselves. A few moments later, He-Tauhasa once more took his place at the fore, and with another short blast from his hunting horn and no further discussion, the battle was begun.
The fighting commenced ferociously as those closest to He-Tauhasa felt compelled, as much out of fear as anything, to prove their loyalty to their leader. The larger force ran recklessly across the hillside all but ignoring Skara and his villagers and crashed haphazardly into those of He-Xur, breaking apart and almost swallowing them up in a loud and frenzied skirmish. Against the cries of the women and children above but without hesitation, Skara beckoned Andar and the rest of his company to descend into the fray, and they too engaged in a wild offensive against the pursuing army, the sounds of shield, spear and axe being splintered, shattered and smashed ringing out loud and constant over the lowlands beyond.
From among the villagers, Sura could only stand helplessly and spectate, and hope that the gods would protect her husband. She brought their children close, shielding little Kirti’s eyes from the bloodshed below and prayed a solemn prayer; “Sky Father, Enlil, your head lifted high in princely worth and who loves righteousness and truth. Named with an august name, for whom Anu has determined a great destiny, and Ninlil..! The valiant Ninurta is your helper. In the E-kur, Nuska the august minister of Enlil, the assembly leader of all lands, is your foremost palace superintendent. Throughout your reign, may you carry your neck high – in princely manner may you lift your head high..! Protect him to whom my heart is promised, prolong the days of his life for Samsu-iluna.” She could now no longer bear to watch, and holding her son and daughter against her bosom turned and crouched away from the scene, hiding her tears lest Skara find distraction in her distress.
So many bodies fell in those first few seconds, succumbing to the sheer horrible might of He-Tauhasa’s forces as they hacked at, slashed and hurled their axes and spears into the unprotected heads and quivering bellies of their enemy. It was by all accounts a complete and utter massacre, and despite Skara’s aid it quickly became clear that without some sort of miracle, the defenders would soon be overcome to a man, leaving the women and children of the village defenceless and without hope for the coming days’ events. Skara looked out across the fray as he held back several of the King’s guards just in time to see both Gidri and Gizzal, brothers he had hunted with and known a lifetime, overrun by his soldiers, beaten down and hacked to bloody death without hesitation or remorse. Throwing his attackers back with a mighty heave of his powerful arms, he called out desperately to Andar and the rest of his hunters to rally and join him in one final push – one last retaliation for those that waited in fear above.
As the hunters of Nevalı Çori fought their way together once more, they soon realised that their time had come. Bodies continued to drop all around them, the forms of adult men that finally cried maternal as their lifeblood drained away from savage wounds while they lay broken and prone on the slope. Even He-Xur, who at the height of battle threw Skara violently aside in order to spare his friend the brunt of a wayward spear, caught the jagged point of the weapon dead center in his own chest and crashed to the earth, the vibrant life in his once fearless gaze extinguished as it searched the skies in sorrow for reprieve. For his part in everything that had brought them there, he had never truly lost touch with his own past, nor abandoned affection for those that made the village he so loved what it was. Skara prayed quickly under his breath for favour in the great judgement beyond, and swore to himself to fight until his dying breath. By both blood and honour, to avenge his friend and to defend his lands and people.
He and Andar spent the next several minutes fighting back to back, Skara parrying a hail of blows with both ends of his spear while Andar brought his own monstrous club raining down again and again onto the heads of his assailants, crushing their exposed skulls into jelly with mighty strikes and sending shards of bone, scalp and brain matter bursting out in all directions. Bloodlust quickly took hold of them both as the enemy continued to advance and they began to chance two, three and even four of their number at a time forward in an attempt to tire out the hunters in the hopes of eventually finding a gap in their defences and bringing the brothers to their knees.
Stones and arrows fell like hailstones around them, and before long Andar had caught a half-dozen shafts in his back and shoulders which slowed his attack and severely limited his movement. Skara too found himself racked with pain as a lone archer at higher ground took careful aim and loosed three bolts at once into his chest which, while narrowly missing his heart and lungs, caused him to double over in agony and forced him to struggle to defend himself as he was made to take a knee. Soon enough, the crimson clouds at the corners of his vision blended with hot blood that cascaded from an open wound in his forehead, and as his ability to make out the forms of those attacking gradually diminished he knelt still and simply closed his eyes, and waited for the final deciding blow that would send him into the world beyond.
Chaos whirled all around them like a maelstrom, and just as the rest of the hunters found themselves completely surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered on all sides, ready to face fate in a final offensive push, an unexpected and incredible boom accompanied by a fierce and persistent flash of white light suddenly erupted violently from between the warring parties and their kin. The sudden explosion stopped everyone dead in their tracks and caused He-Tauhasa’s great ox to buck the mountain of a man from astride its back before it carved a path through the ranks and fled from the battlefield to safety. A thick, grey cloud of smoke appeared to billow out from the very earth itself, choking everyone near enough to breathe it in and fearful and unsure what exactly was happening, both forces stood perfectly still and stared wide-eyed at the heart of the plume until the reason for its appearance could be distinguished.
It was as though time stood still then, and for all those locked in combat a strange catharsis appeared to washed over them like a mountain of cold blood. The lingering cries of the dead and dying seemed to fade into white noise as the fog of war was lifted, and the deep red-green hues of the fresh and shallow lake of blood upon which the opposing forces stood grew to taint earth and sky in a sickening tableaux of wanton death and human suffering. A moment of clarity was shared by all in those seconds, and even He-Tauhasa was compelled to re-evaluate in a flash every action that had brought him and his own to the abattoir of mortal carnage in which they now found themselves. “The Gods have surely left us,” his mind silently cried as he looked around, “for this day, we shame them all.”
Out of the thinning haze, Yamnaya then appeared with a darkness on his face that could have swallowed the Sun. Everyone but Skara immediately took several paces back in shock as the veritable giant of a man strode toward them without so much as pausing, and held aloft a thick leather belt to which more than a dozen glistening vials were strapped, not unlike those that Sura and Andar had used to persuade their kinsmen to join them in their exodus. He stopped several yards short of the closest among them, and without blinking removed and cast a second vial down at his feet which too erupted, birthing a wall of intense white fire several feet tall that coursed linear in either direction, quickly separating the Watcher from those in the fray. After allowing the barrier to burn for a few seconds, he raised a lithe right hand toward them, and spoke in a tone that caused the very earth beneath them to tremble:
“Children of the Valley – stop this madness at once..!” Yamnaya admonished the crowd with a low, booming roar. He-Tauhasa struggled to raise himself out of the mud, propping his torso up on both elbows and stared incredulously over his ample belly at the Watcher and while many in his army could only stand rooted to the spot, dozens more immediately dropped their weapons and ran blindly away from the imposing figure in a mad dash, abandoning their leader without so much as a word and sprinting desperately down the hill to safety. Although Skara could not make out the figure of Yamnaya through all the caked blood and matted hair that covered his bashed and swollen face, he recognised the voice of the one that had sent him on his quest and in spite of himself managed to smile and allow a short and delirious laughter to leave his lips. Andar held his club tight and merely stood warily gazing at the figure standing before him, and not a single soul dared make a sound as Yamnaya regained his composure, and prepared to deliver the remainder of his admonition.
A chill wind whipped suddenly down from the mountains, causing everyone to immediately shiver in spite of the season and although dusk was still many hours away, the shadows at the feet of all who stood before him suddenly were lost to a lightless moment. Yamnaya took several deliberate paces forward, and as the fierce wall of flames began to subside, he continued; “Long into the day have I toiled, for you all, in anticipation of the arrival of your kind. Without rest I have devoted the days and nights since last I spoke with the one whom I trusted to deliver our warning to readying the stronghold at Uru-Mah to withstand the coming curse from above, and now..” he paused, his chiseled features transforming into a mask of dark disdain, “now that all has been completed so that I might finally find a moment’s rest, I am assaulted in my peace by the clash of weapons and warfare on my very doorstep..!” He bellowed the final observation with such unbridled anger that those closest to him either jumped out of their skin or dropped whatever weapons they held and ran to find safety at the rear of the remaining brigade.
After again working to placate his rage, Yamnaya squinted out from beneath the thick hood he perpetually wore and scanned the crowd of cowering men in front of him, as if seeking out a familiar face. His gaze eventually landed on Skara, still crouching in the thick mud of the battlefield and a just for a moment, an almost perceptible flush of panic washed over him. Without speaking, Yamnaya strode through what was now little more than a shallow trench of embers where the earth itself had been scorched and walked over to Skara. As he neared the other man, those forces that still had him surrounded, and Andar too, quickly backed away to clear a space some several yards around them both.
He-Tauhasa could be heard raising his vast bulk back on its feet with an audible grunt from somewhere behind the lines as Yamnaya knelt down and cleared away the thick, bloody mess that covered Skara’s face. Immediately he could see that the valley man was in mortal danger; in addition to a heavy gash that ran across the length of his scalp and continued to bleed profusely, the tails of several arrows protruding from his chest rose and fell in a slow, rhythmic shudder with every desperate and agonising breath he took. Skara was dying, and Yamnaya knew that if there was any hope in saving the man that he had grown to know as a friend, he must act quickly.
Without wasting another breath addressing the crowd that were now looking around at one another with confused expressions as if to ask, “Well, what do we do now..?” Yamnaya scooped Skara up in his arms and quickly turned toward the rise, just as Sura and their two children broke away from the villagers and descended in a half-panic to join him. No sooner had the Watcher taken his first step toward them, however, all were halted by another voice that called out boldly from the throng. He-Tauhasa had watched cautiously up to this point, careful not misstep in deciding how to address Yamnaya but as he turned to leave with his quarry could no longer contain himself. “Wait, Watcher..!” the great man yelled as he pushed his ample girth through the crowd to approach Yamnaya who, sensing the situation that was about to unfold, lowered Skara gently to the ground once more just as Sura, Harna and Kirti arrived to administer as best they could to his wounds.
The Watcher turned slowly to face He-Tauhasa, who cleared the wall of opposing forces in a huff and continued, challenging the Watcher for possession of the fallen hunter. “This man you would so casually steal away from his fate, this man belongs to me. For his heresy, his treachery and crimes against his king, I have pursued him from the capital to the valley, and to these hills and for that, I claim him. I, and no other. You will leave him and return to your hovel in the mountain’s side, such as it is. I’ve no quarrel with you, whatever it is you claim you are – but I warn you,” he stepped toward Yamnaya, and perhaps not so much for lack of wisdom as an abundance misplaced anger made the mistake of thrusting a single fat finger in the Watcher’s face, “contest me if you dare. Know that with my first command, however, those men that still surround you will exact my will in earnest, and will have no need for a second. No amount of magic vials and parlour tricks will outweigh the authority of the line of Ihreikas. Not now, and not so long as there is breath in my body.” No sooner had the challenge been set than the skies seemed to darken still more, and Yamnaya rose to his full imposing height, suddenly seething with anger at the insolence of the gluttonous and poor-mannered man that would issue such a challenge.
No-one upon the hillside dared move as they awaited the response. Sura knelt and cradled her husband close like a crippled child, whispering loving sentiments as tears rolled softly down her porcelain cheeks. In spite of his wounds, Andar stood tall and ready to resume the fight as soon as He-Tauhasa’s order was given, and once more the grey fog of war descended upon the battlefield as the gravity of those next few moments finally dawned on them all.
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.
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.
‘THE MIRRORLINGS’ by Gareth Jack Sansom
It had taken some time for the mirrorlings of Kepler 442b to willingly reveal themselves to Kelly and the rest of landing party, though their hesitation wasn’t entirely unexpected. They were a shy and reclusive species after all, and although they eventually warmed to the strange and ungainly group of explorers that touched down unannounced one morning nearby their village, it was with the greatest reluctance that they first dared to venture out from the shadows of the forest wall to greet them.
Of course, the travellers hadn’t been blind to clues that there was some sort of sentient species living somewhere on the surface. Even from orbit, they could easily discern the clear evidence of large, ruined structures scattered across the two major continents of the planet and the telltale signs of a primitive agriculture that had more recently developed on their outskirts. Despite knowing however, there were certain guidelines that had been put in place which limited potential human relations with alien life forms, and at their core was the basic premise that every newly discovered species retained the right to simply be left alone, should they choose to be. It was a subsequent relief then when the first of the natives poked its funny little head out from the mire and approached them, and all the explorers could do to keep from cheering loudly and frightening him away again.
Not unlike many periods in Earth’s own history, whatever dominant culture once existed on Kepler 442b appeared to be undergoing a dramatic shift of sorts, a period of slow renewal following some kind of long and apparently destructive upheaval in its most recent history. It presented an exciting opportunity for the enthusiastic traveler to come face-to-face with an actual developing alien civilisation, and a once in a lifetime experience for the anthropologically or archeologically inclined that might well make them the envy of their friends and peers back home. Despite advancements in the ease with which interstellar expeditions could now be undertaken, their mission was the first that had actually promised to introduce the crew to a living, breathing alien life form. Understandably, each and every one of them was simply brimming with excitement at the prospect.
There had been a handful of similar missions organised before their own, too many unsuccessful attempts sent forth by the new world government to find and establish contact with civilised life among the many thousands of exoplanets orbiting Earth’s nearest neighbouring stars, however none had been remotely successful until now, and the public budget was stretched far beyond measure when the first clear images and comprehensive data from the surface of Kepler 442b was finally beamed back home. It seemed prudent then that funding for this particular mission be shared amongst both public and private interests, which also opened the door to a number of lucrative advertising investments and even the participation of a small filmmaking crew from one of the world’s largest media networks that joined them to document the expedition. Ultimately it was a somewhat ragtag assortment that had been selected to made the journey, but not an entirely unreasonable representation of terrestrial society at its supposed peak.
Upon arrival, the group of diplomats, potential settlers and hopeful missionaries that had set out from Earth’s Lunar Station several months earlier found themselves to be largely disappointed. For starters, the half-government sponsored and half-privatised First Contact program had boasted ambitiously to deliver to them an “exhilarating, action-packed adventure into the unknown.” The many courses, seminars and rigorous training exercises that the crew had been forced to undertake leading up to it seemed to have all been building toward an advertised climax whereby they would be among the first human beings to either a) discover, interact with and learn from a completely new species, b) plant the terrestrial flag of discovery into the virgin soil of a new world, or c) at least be able to enjoy strange, untainted tropical wildernesses and alien delights beneath the gorgeous warmth of a scorching white sun (a spurious claim, to say the least. Kepler 442b actually orbited an orange dwarf star, and the irritating hue of its resulting daylight made many of them feel quite nauseous for the first few hours until their senses adjusted to the unfamiliar environment).
What the group had found, however, was that space travel was not at all the glamorous and intrepid experience that they had been sold. The journey had ended up taking almost three terrestrial months, even though they travelled at the fastest speeds their ship’s new gravity drive would allow and with a limited supply of power, food and fluids, those last few cramped and filthy days’ travel could not have passed them all by soon enough. Everyone aboard, whether scientist, student or military personnel almost fell headlong from the airlock once the massive landing pod had settled safely on the planet’s surface, and even the most irreverent among them gave thanks to whatever higher power came to mind when the first fresh breath of air that wasn’t mechanically stale and recycled finally filled their thirsty lungs.
To make matters worse, it didn’t appear that any kind of intelligent speculation had taken place prior to the selection process with regards to the inevitable culture clash that might occur when those of a military persuasion and training are thrown in close confinement with the idealistic diplomat, disobedient youth and a crew of snap-happy filmmakers that seemed not to stop shooting for even a moment’s peace. Throw a handful of religious zealots into the mix, and before you know it you’re sitting on a ticking time bomb of human extremes. Somehow though, if not by the grace of someone’s gods, those aboard the Endeavour reached their destination in one piece before the ship’s captain, a gruff veteran by the name of Kelly Miller and his men were forced to revert to their own brand of conflict resolution, much to his private disappointment.
Once on the surface, the landing party established a small encampment in a level clearing on the banks of a narrow stream nearby the pod and Kelly ordered a number of his crew to quickly set about foraging through the strange, tropical vegetation for samples of what best resembled comparatively terrestrial looking fruits and vegetables for analysis. Despite the wicked heat from above, there thankfully seemed to be a cool and constant breeze that rolled off from the massive oceans surrounding the small island continent and so once a makeshift base of operations had been established, many spent their first few hours doing little more than just lolling about lazily in the shade and taking stock of their surroundings.
Local fauna on the surface seemed at first glance to be surprisingly shy and scarce despite the rich and fertile environment, however a family of wealthy tourists that had bought their way in to the experience couldn’t resist filling drive after drive of film and picture recordings as a great flock of what could only be described as giant, wingless amoebas floated by on the first morning against the brilliance of the planet’s sun, bathing the travellers in a strange purple glow as daylight passed through their shapeless, bilious bodies. Where encountered, plant and animal life on the planet were unlike anything any of them had ever seen, and for some that experience alone had seemed to make the journey worthwhile.
The dense forests surrounding their camp were comprised primarily of different varieties of tall, whip-like scrub interspersed with the wide, imposing forms of massive birch-like trees that were completely smooth and featureless along the length of their trunks until they burst to life some two hundred feet above them creating a flawless, jagged canopy which allowed only the palest haze of sunlight through. What most closely resembled giant, sallow pitcher plants also littered the forest floor in places and attracted clouds of small, transparent insects that looked something like tiny flying jellyfish, and it almost began to seem to the travellers as though no vertebrates had managed at all to evolve in the planet’s strange and eclectic ecosystem. Until Dahl came forth to greet them, that is.
Kelly and his officers had just returned from a morning spent atop a nearby hill some several kilometers from base camp, where they combed through the rubble of what appeared to have at one time been a massive, ancient temple complex of some kind that would have towered in antiquity over the thick forest surrounding their clearing. It had taken the small party several hours to safely navigate their way into the heart of the ruins, where he’d noted and made sure to document an avenue of weird and almost frightening carved statues in a state of advanced decay that seemed to glorify a somehow familiar looking worm-like creature, most likely either another benign and airborne invertebrate or perhaps another unseen native that occupied the shallow waters of the nearby stream which babbled softly away in the distance.
It wasn’t unusual even on Earth to come across similar such tributes and monuments from a bygone era, erected in reverence to wild creatures and beasts of burden that might have been crucial to the day-to-day survival of the creative culture and so he’d decided to think little more of them other than making sure to take plenty of pictures to send back to their government and the other assorted financiers of his mission. Kelly and his men had been tasked to collect a certain quota of reports and data that he was obliged to archive during their month-long projected stay on the new world, data that might very well decide whether future missions and colonies would be sent forth and established on the surface of Kepler 442b. “We really are privileged to be here,” he thought, pausing among the monoliths momentarily to drink in his surroundings. And so far, they were lucky that not a single plant or animal appeared to be any cause for immediate concern. In spite of this, the tall, ancient statues that still remained standing caused him to feel just a little bit uneasy.
What made Kelly feel most uncomfortable about the likenesses lay in the detail. Those responsible for chiselling the creatures from the dark, blood-red rock of the hillside had paid careful attention to honour several marked features which might, to most soft-bodied animals, seem somewhat odd; twin sets of tiny pincers, deep set, slanted eyes sat far on either side of their pointed heads and wide mouths in which rows of savage and jagged teeth deeply lined their gullets like awful needles. In the back of his mind, he quietly hoped that this was one creature that wasn’t depicted to scale, and one that his crew didn’t happen to stumble upon unprepared during their stay.
When he and the rest of his men finally returned to the clearing later that day, they entered the camp to find the other members of the landing party standing staggered in a wide, close ring around something at the centre of the encampment, and could see the tops of several telescopic boom stands that the documentary crew had set up to record what he supposed was just another in a long line of crew interviews taking place. “Huh, well I guess these guys are finally ready to kick-off the circus out here,” he thought distastefully as he pushed his way through the crowd, who were all just intently staring for some reason at whoever it was the crew were filming. Everyone included in the mission, regardless of their role and standing were charged with a long list of chores and assignments to complete on a daily basis, and although it might have seemed at times that he was fighting a losing battle, it was ultimately still his job to make sure that they were carried out to a one.
“Alright, alright – guys, we need to pull together and start collecting supplies,” he started, approaching the centre of the circle, “What stores are left on the ship are strictly for the return journey, and I’ll be damned if anyone thinks I’m settling for another sodding ration pack for tonight’s dinner.” The mission had been supplied for the most part by a prominent global ‘New Foods’ group with an abundant supply of freeze-dried, powdered meals for the crew to enjoy, however despite repeated claims that they “wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” not a single option on the menu had even remotely lived up to promises made on the packaging. “We all have a fair idea of what we can and can’t make a meal out of. Now, who can help me..” He trailed off in surprise all of a sudden as his line of sight dropped to Dahl, who turned to the sound of Kelly’s voice and looked up at him with a curious smile (he since learned that this must have been a universal trait).
The creature, which could only be most closely described as a short, cat-like animal that stood almost three feet tall on its hind haunches and was covered almost entirely in a glistening deep blue fur was standing upright in the middle of the group, paws crossed over its pot belly and regarding the landing party with a quizzical look resembling that a young child might make when coming face-to-face with a big cat, gorilla or some other large beast that they had only seen in picture books before. Immediately taken aback, Kelly’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped a little as his mind wrestled for a way to relate the mirrorling to something, anything else that he’d seen on Earth.
The creature cocked its furry head to one side when he stopped short, and let out a momentary gasp that caused the rest of the group around them to fawn and sigh (and though he kept his own reaction in check, it was all he himself could do not to let out an “Aww..” of his own). Dahl’s two round, black eyes were as big as saucers, and widened even further when Kelly instinctively reached his right hand down to clasp the handle of the rifle that hung loosely to one side, prompting him to raise both hands and crouch slightly, remarking, “Hey, hey little guy, don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you.” Standing completely still now, he turned to face Joseph Alvarez, the head of the documentary crew and whispered, “Joey, hey..! What on Earth is that thing, and how long has it been here..?”
Joseph replied with a wide smile, “Your guess is as good as mine, Captain, and about ten minutes now. The little fellow must have wandered in out of the forest somewhere while we were setting out the wind breakers, before we knew it one of the settlers called out and well – there he was, just standing there like a big ol’ technicolour cat, sniffing the air. Can’t speak a lick of English, but he’s a talkative little fellow nonetheless. Go on – say something to him.. it.” Kelly rolled his eyes and then mused for a moment, stroking his red, mottled beard as the rest of the crew looked on, expecting him to take charge of the situation. He turned back to Dahl, starting, “Hey there, little guy.” The mirrorling said nothing, only tilting his head to the left now and making the occasional low, cooing noise. Kelly went on, gesturing with his right hand to his chest, “I.. am Kelly,” he offered slowly, “What’s your name..? You, can you speak..? Do you understand me..?” He pointed to Dahl, and the pause in conversation seemed to prompt it to reply.
The creature raised a small, three-toed paw to its own chest and with clear and reasoned emulation, responded as best it could. In a high and delicate voice which almost resembled a child singing, it replied, “Am Dahl,” and bowed its head slightly forward as it did. Some among the landing party immediately erupted into cheers, and the rest started chattering amongst themselves as the cameras edged closer and continued to roll. This sudden flurry of activity seemed to spook Dahl who tweaked his head around nervously, his eyes flitting from human to human as he clearly searched his surrounds for the quickest way out of what was already a threatening and delicate situation. Kelly immediately knew that if he didn’t restore order right away that the creature would have no choice but to flee to safety, or otherwise do something even more drastic. He called for quiet and the rest of his officers followed suit, putting a finger to their lips and shushing the settlers until all eyes rested silently on the tiny visitor once more.
Kelly was extremely curious now, and wanted to know whether there were more creatures like this ‘Dahl’ nearby. To satisfy his own speculation and to get a better understanding of what else might be lurking in the dense vegetation around them, he spoke once more to the creature. He gestured carefully around to the rest of the group, asking, “We are human, from Earth.” He pointed skyward, a gesture he immediately realised to be a foolish one as Dahl merely followed his raised finger with both eyes and again cocked his head in confusion. “We,” he indicated once more to his fellow travellers, “are many, and are the same. Are there more, like you..?” He pointed at Dahl, and allowed the creature a moment to attempt to comprehend what he was trying to ask.
The small creature furrowed its furry brow, gave a calculating squeak and with its right paw seemed to tease a patch of long whiskers which grew the corner of each chubby cheek. A moment later, it appeared to have reached some sort of interpretation of what Kelly was asking of it, and wide-eyed responded, pointing with one paw to its face and another to the jungle behind Kelly, “You.. you..! Mrpla dazou shu’a, zug-zul a’sha – you..!” It then nodded excitedly, bounded quickly and unexpectedly past Kelly and beckoned them to follow as the circle broke and he hopped away speedily toward an opening in the forest wall.
The entire camp shared excited glances and straight away turned as one to follow, however Kelly quickly surmised that no good could come from the lot of them simply up and abandoning their settlement to take off blindly into the forest in pursuit. He was fast to order a majority of them reluctantly back to work, and singled out Alvarez and another filmmaker, a single missionary (he had little time for them under normal circumstances) and a handful of the ship’s science detail and asked that they join him in following the strange creature out of the clearing, it chirping, bubbling and excitedly pointing out assorted scrub and rocks to its human guests as they went. It all seemed to happen so spontaneously, but Kelly though to himself, “This is why we’re here, after all. Goodness knows I’m going to need to fill out these reports with something, the sooner I’ve got what they need, the sooner I can take a breather myself.” He reasoned that as he was already growing tired of mapping terrain and sampling the ruins and vegetation around the campsite, at least this new visitor might provide a little excitement to lift his spirits.
Once within the dank forest and with the humans in tow the mirrorling quickly picked up its pace, vaulting dextrously over piles of broken stone and clumps of strange, spider-like bushes as it raced through the undergrowth. The humans, already having worked for most of the morning soon began to tire as it led them all further and further into the thick jungle and after almost an hour’s hike Kelly decided that they needed to take a breather if they were going to go the distance. He sharply whistled ahead and indicated to Dahl that they needed to stop for a short time and rest. “We’re tired, buddy,” he gesticulated to the creature, rubbing his thighs and exaggerating the motion that they were in pain, “Our legs hurt, we need to stop.” Dahl responded with an obviously disapproving frown, and if Kelly didn’t know any better he could have sworn the creature was pouting as he searched the forest trail for a suitable place to stop and sit. Joseph and his cameraman were quick to thank Kelly for the opportunity to finally set their heavy recording gear down for a moment, and the head of the ship’s mission, a young reverend by the name of Michael Flaherty took it upon himself to minister to the lot of them, much to the obvious contempt of the party’s scientific contingent.
Sitting on a wide stone by the path and apart from the rest of the group, Kelly unclipped a small canteen from his belt and raised it to his lips taking a much needed gulp of purified water replenished from the ship’s humidifier. As he went to lower the vessel once more from his face, he quickly spat the mouthful back out into the ground in surprise. Dahl had silently crept up to where he rested and was now just staring at him with a curious expression, his dark and circular face only a foot or so away from his own. Kelly’s reaction startled the creature, causing him to bound away again quickly to safety and peer back at him from behind a nearby boulder, clearly rattled by the other’s reaction.
“Hey, hey – it’s alright,” Kelly said with a laugh to the frightened creature, dropping his container and raising his hands in a gesture of peace, “You just startled me is all. Come here and let me get a better look at you. Come on – I won’t bite.” After taking a moment to calm down, Dahl slowly and gingerly left his hiding place and came once more toward Kelly (he was strangely drawn to the leader of the group, intrigued perhaps by his obvious standing among the others). He cautiously approached to within arm’s reach of the commander before eventually dropping down on his haunches and carefully resting his tiny head on the captain’s knee. Kelly quickly glanced over towards Alvarez, Flaherty and the others to see if they were watching, only to find them facing away in the other direction, eyes glazed as the reverend launched into yet another tirade in which he reinforced the need to acknowledge their debt to the almighty by treating the new world with respect, and thanking his god for the bounty of the strange and alien environment in which they found themselves.
Kelly shook his head and turned back to Dahl, who had closed both of his dark eyes and was now making gentle cooing noises as he too recovered from the effort of the journey so far. Deciding that this might also be a universally acceptable gesture, and partly because he couldn’t help himself, he began stroking the tuft of thick hair on top of the mirrorling’s head which caused it to purr and coo even louder. “Well, you are a friendly little thing, aren’t you..?” he smiled. Kelly looked around again, gazing into the heavy shadows which bridged the thick, misshapen trunks of the trees and added, “Let’s just hope for all of our sakes you’re about the most threatening thing out here. I’m not sure how much farther you’re going to take us here fella, and it’s quite a way back now. We can’t afford to be apart from the others for too much longer.” He reckoned by the position of the planet’s sun that they had at least another few hours of good light before they would need to turn back, and was himself still quite keen to see what sort of society the strange little creatures had established so deep in the alien wilderness.
After another few minutes, and when Reverend Flaherty had finally finished his sermon (to the quiet celebration of his audience), the group rose and continued on their way. At several places on their journey they passed close to a number of the wide, pungent pitcher plants Kelly had noticed earlier that seemed to grow in groups of two or three in hollows by the wayside. He found it odd that whenever the party approached one of these plants, the creature Dahl seemed to grow visibly nervous and would chatter quickly and quietly to itself before then leading the group obviously away from and around them, even if it meant crossing into the denser forest by the path. He found this curious, but not knowing quite how to pick the creature’s brain on the matter just yet, decided to think nothing more of it for the time being. “For all I know,” he mused, “some of his own tribe have fallen into those weird things at one point or another. God knows the little guys would have a hard time getting out again, not to mention that smell..”
Dahl seemed now to be growing more and more excited with every step they took, as the forest trail began to widen and the ascent level-out which caused Kelly to believe that they were finally getting close to where the rest of his community or family (he wasn’t quite sure what to expect) lived. Soon enough, after another twenty minutes of hiking they began to hear the excited chattering of dozens of small voices carried on the wind from somewhere up ahead, and within moments they found that they had left the forest wall once more and were entering another larger clearing, not so different in many ways from the one that they had landed in.
Kelly and his men were surprised to be greeted in the open by a wide ring of small, simple huts that had been built by the mirrorlings over the top of a series of shallow dugouts which appeared to have been painstakingly clawed from the earth by many tiny paws. It was difficult to say how long they had been standing there, however the same thick, dark moss that grew over most of the rocks and fallen logs in the forest seemed to cover a large portion of the exterior of the dwellings which indicated that theirs was a settlement that had remained in that place and as it was for some time.
The brilliant light of the sun that shone once more through the break in the canopy above blinded the group momentarily, but as soon as their eyes adjusted they could also make out the forms of many more dozens of tiny heads and wide, curious eyes peeking out from the darkness of the pits and from behind the huts ahead of them. The humans stood cautious for a minute, looking to Dahl for a go-ahead before daring to progress any further into his village. Despite the apparent docile nature of the creatures, all of them knew better than to assume that nothing on the planet was without the ability to defend itself, and so Kelly chose to take caution. As far as he was concerned it was down to their furry friend now, and so they simply stood as still as possible on the outskirts and waited.
After regarding Kelly for a brief moment, Dahl hopped away excitedly into the middle of the ring of houses and began chirping and chattering loudly to the rest of his kin, none of whom yet dared to venture from the safety of their hiding places. After a minute or so of indistinguishable back and forth with several of his own, the group watched on as a lone mirrorling, much older and shaggier than the others crept out from the largest hut at the far end of the clearing and approached Dahl where he crouched. The two then proceeded to chatter loudly (and at some points heatedly) between themselves for a short while, which made Kelly and the rest of the human travellers just a little confused and uncomfortable.
Lieutenant Jim Tannock, a career soldier and one of three other military personnel among the group leaned in close to Kelly and whispered, “Captain, do you really think we ought to be here..? Clearly these things are a little freaked out, and I’ve counted at least thirty of the little guys myself hiding out behind those huts. Maybe we should just head back, give them some time to get used to the idea that we’re out here first. We don’t have the firepower to look after everyone if, you know, things go south..” Several others in the party heard this and became clearly agitated at the possibility that they might somehow come to harm, however Kelly merely mulled his suggestion over for a second and then replied, “No, I’m not convinced any of us are in any danger just yet. Let’s just wait here a little longer. Whatever this one’s saying,” he indicated toward Dahl with the butt of his rifle, “the rest now seem to be listening. Take a look – some of the others are coming out. Let’s give him another minute or two.”
Sure enough, several of the other natives had now begun to creep out from behind the rocks and shelters in the clearing and were now moving cautiously toward Dahl while also keeping their gaze fixed firmly on the intruders. Clearly the first mirrorling to approach Dahl had been regarded as some sort of leader among the others, and it appeared that he had needed quite some convincing that the humans posed no immediate threat before allowing them to come any closer. After several more minutes, conversation ground to a halt between the two creatures and the more authoritative of the mirrorlings broke away from Dahl, carefully approaching a nervous Kelly and his men to stand about a half a dozen yards away before it gave a curious bow, and speaking as much to them as the rest of his village, proclaimed ceremoniously, “Zada, dorpa kuda – thurli’a a’sha zun-zura m’ath.” Immediately as though prompted, the rest of the villagers wandered out from their hiding places, some walking upright and others hopping along on their hind and forelegs and gathered behind Dahl and their leader, before pointing at the visitors and talking quickly and excitedly amongst themselves in their strange and musical dialect.
Dahl wandered back to the humans and, chattering excitedly, tugged at the cuff of Kelly’s fatigues beckoning him to join them. “Well, I guess that’s as close to an invitation as we’ll get boys,” he remarked to the others, and gestured for the rest of them to follow him into the settlement. The other mirrorlings crowded the group as they were led by Dahl and the village leader, who they found to identify as A’thal Worl (A’thal, they decided, was some sort of title bestowed upon him as each of the tribe only appeared otherwise to have a single name) into the largest of the rustic dwellings wherein they were politely sat down and offered an assortment of strange plants and roots which most of the party tried with the greatest grace and dignity to decline. The next hour saw the two groups gesticulating amongst themselves and trying as best they could to understand and find out more about each other, which proved in some moments to be enlightening and others, nothing short of frustrating.
From what the humans were able to gather, there were around fifty or sixty of the little blue creatures that lived together as some sort of tribal arrangement in the village. The mirrorlings were mostly herbivores, much to the visitors’ relief save for a measure of fist-sized gelatinous globs that the creatures had offered to them which turned their stomachs as they wriggled and writhed over the flat wooden dish they were served on. The small creatures hungrily devoured the glistening insects by the pawful when they were politely passed back, much to Kelly’s disgust, as though they were some sort of strange delicacy reserved only for special guests or to be enjoyed on the most important of occasions.
They learned that the males among the tribe were only slightly larger than the females, and both were otherwise almost indistinguishable to the humans save for a series of half a dozen paler blue rings which ran along the length of the long and playful tails of the females. All in all, they found the natives to be a very simple and largely pleasant race, not at all threatening to the humans though their ability to imitate the gestures and speech of their visitors despite their lack of understanding was quite astonishing, and a factor that eventually led to the expedition’s science detail’s decision to refer to them as mirrorlings.
The two groups sat and attempted to engage for some time before Kelly finally decided that they had best return to their camp before the sun set. All in all it had proved to be an educational, if not impromptu expedition, but he had not forgotten about the rest of his crew and travellers back at the pod and knew that there were still quite a few chores that needed to be completed before they would be able to safely settle-in for the night. The group motioned that they needed to leave and the creatures showed an obvious sadness at the prospect, their leader immediately calling for several of the others to bring a small supply of plants and roots to their visitors for the return journey, to which they again tried their best to show an obvious gratitude. In return for the gesture, Reverend Flaherty removed a small gilded crucifix from around his neck, and ever so gently motioned to A’thal Worl to take it. The leader of the mirrorlings soberly regarded the strange object for a moment, first cautiously sniffing and then tasting it before gingerly placing the icon around its own neck and smiling awkwardly, to the laughter of the rest of Kelly’s group. Both mirrorling and human alike rose and bowed, and Dahl conversed with his leader for a brief moment alone before finally leading the humans from the dwelling and back out into the clearing once more.
It quickly became clear to them that Dahl had sought permission to take leave of the village and lead Kelly and his group back to where they first met, and so after waving goodbye to the strange inhabitants of the clearing (a gesture they clearly neither understood nor reciprocated), they re-entered the forest and started back along the way they had come. By the time they finally returned to what could only scarcely be called a path, the planet’s sun was already beginning its slow descent below the canopy above them. The growing darkness quickly brought the strange and ancient forest to life, and for all of the primitive wildlife they had already seen there must have still been thousands of new and hidden creatures obscured in the shadows that began to chirp and whistle all around them as they went. Though their hike had been quite gruelling at times, the buzz of the native fauna and the sudden drop in temperature caused spirits among the group to soar, and many almost skipped along as they took in the unique and enriching experience of simply being there.
All of a sudden, when direct sunlight completely ceased to filter down through the trees, Kelly and the group noticed that Dahl was starting to grow more and more tense and began nervously peering into the blackness between the boughs, and chattering lowly and unintelligibly once more to himself as he went. For whatever reason, the growing dark seemed to make the creature uneasy which in turn caused Kelly and his men to hold their weapons closer and raise their own awareness for anything around them that seemed out of place, or which might resemble a threat. They had no way of knowing exactly what else might lurk in the unexplored corners of the strange new world, and decided that they would take no chances, particularly if nightfall had caused a native inhabitant like Dahl to grow wary.
Eventually they reached the lower foothills leading into their encampment just as darkness closed in completely, and the group allowed themselves to finally breathe easy as the way ahead became wanly lit by the powerful halogen lamps of their camp that penetrated the forest in front of them. As they neared their destination, Kelly began to take notice of several of the large pitcher plants at the edge of his line of sight resting quietly and ominously on either side of the path like clandestine sentinels. He wasn’t quite sure if it was a trick of the changing light, but he could have sworn that several of their dark silhouettes appeared to have broken apart since they last passed them earlier that afternoon, as though they had somehow opened out and bloomed with the setting of the sun. “I must be seeing things,” he mumbled quietly, rubbing his eyes and decided to leave it until morning to return for a closer look knowing full well that there was no way he would be able to draw Dahl, who was for some reason growing still more nervous despite being so close to camp, anywhere near them.
Eventually however, curiosity got the better of him and he picked up his pace to draw alongside the mirrorling, pointing to the dim forms in the shadows. “Dahl, what are those things..?” he asked, not entirely confident he would be rewarded with an intelligible response. “What do those plants do, to make you so afraid – what happens here when the light goes away..?” Dahl’s eyes darted from the path only momentarily before he picked up speed himself, and after searching his mind for a moment for an appropriate human term, managed to reply with only a single word he’d heard the captain utter earlier that afternoon:
Kelly was confused by Dahl’s response and understandably rattled, and he too picked up his pace, calling back to the others to follow suit. Within moments, the group entered the clearing with a sigh of relief and began fanning-out to rejoin the rest of their expedition. Despite there having been much still left to do before they could settle in for the night, Lieutenant Tannock, Kelly and the rest of the group were a little surprised not to see a single member of their landing party either at work in the camp, milling about the clearing nor approaching them to welcome them back and ask about their journey into the wild. Instead, it seemed eerily quiet in the clearing. Although all lamps had been lit and the windbreaks erected as their captain had requested, the encampment was deathly silent and not a single soul appeared to be present, at least not out in the open. They noticed also that there were now a number of strange shells of a dry, organic nature that weren’t there when they left and which littered the ground in several places throughout the camp, causing Dahl to whimper softly for some reason as he passed them by.
Kelly instinctively bent down to pick one of the strange casings up as they walked but as he reached to take it, Dahl suddenly rushed forward and let out a piercing yelp, slapping his hand and causing him to immediately draw back. The mirrorling then regarded Kelly momentarily with a look of unmistakable fear and admonition before bounding away to safety and cowering behind Reverend Flaherty’s legs, trembling in fright. Kelly rose to his full height and simply stared down at the casing, which he now came to realise appeared less benign and more closely reminiscent of a sort of short and thick discarded snake skin. He turned to the others, ordering them to “Keep your eyes peeled for anything suspicious, and don’t any of you touch these things for any reason.. at least until we know exactly what they are. Something’s got the little guy spooked,” he looked warily around the camp, “I don’t want to take any chances.”
Jim approached Kelly as the group stood near the edge of the clearing, and asked, “Captain, where in the world is everyone..? We were the only group supposed to leave the camp today. If I didn’t know any better I’d say something’s up.” “Yeah, you might be right” he replied, “I’ve got a funny feeling myself – it’s a little too quiet.” He called softly to the rest of his men, “Get the reverend and the rest behind you, Coates and Daniels,” he addressed his two junior officers, “take flank and follow us around the clearing. Let’s head for the pod, and try not to draw attention to ourselves.” The group quickly assembled in a formation with Dahl and the reverend at their centre and slowly made their way around the camp, keeping close to the shadows and straining their ears for any sort of sound from the settlers they’d left behind.
After clearing thirty or forty yards unchallenged and upon reaching the pod, Kelly slid the access card that hung loosely around his neck into the receiver to the right of the hatch and punched-in his entry code. The door slid softly open with a low hiss, and at once the small craft lit up and beckoned the group inside. Kelly ordered his two junior officers to remain with Dahl (who was by now almost inconsolable) and the rest of the party outside the gangway and motioned for Jim to join him in cautiously entering the ship, its pale white interior lights pulsating as they drew on energy cells now set to a lower output in order to conserve what little power was stored for the return journey to the orbiter. They tiptoed aboard, holding their weapons high and nodded to each other to indicate that the pod was empty. Kelly lowered his weapon and crossed the entryway to approach the doors to the bridge that had for some reason been closed and secured. This in of itself was strange, as entry into the cockpit of the craft was strictly open only to his officers, and as a rule only ever sealed from the inside.
Raising their weapons aloft once more, the pair stood at attention and ready for anything as Kelly once more swiped the access panel for the heavy automated doors and the entry to the cockpit slowly slid open. Immediately they could detect movement from within the bridge and the pair didn’t waste a second, rushing in with their rifles drawn and yelling loudly for the occupants to “Freeze..! Drop whatever you’re doing and put your hands where we can see them..!” Two of the company’s settlers, a young man and woman were found to be sitting at the controls to the vessel and as the soldiers entered they both immediately swung around in their chairs in unison and without warning leapt towards them, fists flailing and both uttering a deep and unsettling growl that neither of the men had ever heard another human being make before.
Quick as a flash, their training took over and they each thrust the butts of their rifles directly at the settlers’ heads with a precision strike, successfully knocking both of them completely out cold before either could land a blow. Both bodies slumped to the floor of the pod with an almighty crash, and once again the ship fell silent. In that moment, Jim and Kelly could do little more then just stare at each other in astonishment, neither of them expecting to be met with aggression nor understanding what on Earth could have made the two react so violently, or for that matter what two unskilled settlers with zero flight experience could have possibly been doing at the ship’s computer. “What the hell..!” Jim started, “Since when are civilians given access to the pod, and what was with that noise..?!” he asked in exasperation. “I don’t know,” Kelly panted, “but I’ll promise you, I’m going to find out.” They then both knelt low toward the inert bodies on the floor for a closer look as Daniels, still guarding the entryway to the ship called in from outside:
“Hey, guys,” his voice could be heard echoing through the pod, “what the hell was that commotion..? Is everything alright in there..?” Kelly responded, “Yeah, yeah.. just a couple of civilians, dicking around at the console. Probably drunk or something. Just keep an eye out for more out there, will you..?” He reached down and clasped the shoulder of the female settler who was lying face down beside the captain’s chair, but as he was about to turn her body over to ascertain an identity, his stomach flipped as he noticed something strange and unusual resting at the base of her skull. “What in the weird..? Hey Jim,” he pressed two fingers gently into a sizeable bulge that had formed under the skin, roughly the size and shape of a small toy football, “get a load of this.” “What is that, is it some kind of tumour..?” Jim replied. Before Kelly could answer, the dark growth beneath his fingers suddenly moved and his hand immediately drew back like a shot.
“Holy shit..!” Jim exclaimed, as the bulge continued to writhe and shiver beneath her skin, appearing to bury itself deeper into the settler’s neck. Her body twitched slightly as it did, and then the same reaction began to suddenly occur in the male settler as though the two were somehow linked. “What is it, is there some kind of THING in there..?” Jim asked, incredulously. Before either of them could articulate a guess, the sound of a loud round of rifle fire split the air inside the cabin and the pair heard the panicked shouts of both Coates and Daniels as they hollered and argued with someone or something outside the pod. “Quickly – cuff these two and let’s get the hell out of here, now..!” Like a flash, they drew restraints from their utility belts and swiftly fastened them around the wrists of the two unconscious settlers before racing out of the pod and down the gangway to join the rest of the team who they found to now be either crouching against the hull of the pod or else firing erratically into the shadows around the encampment.
As soon as they left the rear doors, Jim and Kelly were confronted by a deep and familiar growl that gurgled from the throats of nearly two dozen of the other remaining settlers who had rushed from the forest moments earlier and were now surrounding the ship in a wide circle, staring coldly at the two privates who were firing sporadically at the feet of any that dared to try and approach them. “Captain, captain..!” screamed Daniels, “They just appeared like a swarm out of nowhere and rushed right through us. Three of them, they just grabbed the reverend and dragged him out into the trees, we’re holding the rest off but they’ve gone completely out of their minds..!” The settlers growled and gargled menacingly in the blinding light, but didn’t dare to come any closer while the officers had their weapons trained on them. Several of the science detail were cowering with their faces buried in their hands, simply refusing to acknowledge the situation and although Kelly strained his eyes against the glare searching the clearing for any sign of Dahl, the strange little creature was now nowhere to be seen.
As his sight readjusted to the bright light of the external lamps, Kelly was able to distinguish the same misshapen growth on the necks of each and every one of the settlers that their counterparts within the pod had shared and the same cold and lifeless look in their eyes. A number foamed at the mouth and all were absolutely filthy, their clothing torn in places and their arms and faces caked with mud and some sort of thick sap-like resin from somewhere, as though they had been tearing at the vegetation of the forest with their bare hands, or pulling open the stems of those bulbous, foul smelling..
Kelly could now detect the same heavy, rotting odour from the plants that wafted across from the settlers and immediately realised that whatever it was that had caused them to behave this way, those strange, evil looking plants had something to do with it. He addressed the defending detail, ordering Tannock to join the other two in threatening fire and called out to their attackers in the vain hope of appealing to whatever reason remained and perhaps negotiating a way out of a what had become a quickly escalating situation.
“Hey..! It’s me, Miller. What is it you want..?” he yelled, “What’s come over you all..? What happened here while we were gone..?” No answer came from the group, who seemed only to be shuffling ever so slowly toward them, testing the limits of the humanity of his officers who were still reluctant to fire directly at them. Unexpectedly, at Kelly’s questioning a lone member of the film crew that had been forced to stay behind with the others stepped boldly forward from the throng and extended his right arm toward him, as though pointing. For several seconds, no-one on either side moved a muscle until the cameraman replied, speaking with the same thick and uncomfortable gargle that the rest of the group had made:
“We want.. the ship. Give us the ship.”
The hairs on the back of Kelly’s neck bristled as a wave of fear coursed through his body. “What does he mean, give us the ship.” Tannock asked, “None of these civilians even knows how to start the engines, what the hell is he talking about..?” “I don’t know,” Kelly stammered, “but I do know that there are far more of them than there are of us, and if they decide to rush us – we’re done for.” Kelly, who was himself a tall and imposing figure arched his back and stood at full height, replying defiantly, “The ship is ours, you can’t have it. What’s the matter with you people, come to your senses. Tell me what happened here, what can we do to make you stop with this, this insanity..?” He asked in a last appeal to whatever or whoever he was addressing, now realising that somehow it wasn’t only the same meek civilian he had landed with so many hours earlier who now stood in front of him. “We can help you, all of you.. just back away from the pod.”
“The ship is OURS,” came a last gargle from the other man, “You can only submit..
.. you can only DIE.”
At this, the settlers all threw their arms wide as one and with a horrifying, inhuman shriek which cut them to the core burst into a full sprint, running straight toward the pod and those defending it. Kelly screamed at his officers to “Open fire now, take them out – as many as you can..!” His crew immediately let loose a volley of rifle fire at the group, seemingly killing a half dozen in seconds as the rest rushed forward undeterred. Some had even taken direct shots to the legs and torso from the volley, but somehow incredibly still scrambled ahead, almost baying for blood as they closed distance with the officers. Kelly knew they didn’t stand a chance – there were simply too many, and they seemed to be behaving with an almost animalistic frenzy. He was done for.. they were done for. For the first time in his life he prayed quietly to himself, hoping that whatever was about to happen to them would happen quickly and painlessly.
Suddenly, just as the mass of flailing bodies were about to reach them, everyone was stopped dead in their tracks by a loud and sudden blast of noise from the far off in the forest behind them. From beyond the shadows, the piercing, dissonant sound of a loud and mighty trumpet split the night and brought the settlers to a complete standstill, as though they somehow recognised the shrill and discordant noise. Kelly searched the darkness for the source of the sound as his officers held their weapons still, shaking with adrenaline and fear but couldn’t make out anything for the silhouettes of the trees surrounding them. Only a moment later, the high and musical voices of what must have been hundreds of diminutive mirrorlings erupted from the edge of the clearing as a veritable army of the small creatures flooded into the light of the camp and rushed towards the settlers brandishing all manner of fashioned clubs, rocks and other strange and unfamiliar weapons.
The invading mirrorlings quickly overran and toppled their assailants in seconds, throwing the settlers roughly to the ground and holding them prone in the dirt, several of the small creatures to a man. It took the weight of two or three of them to secure each flailing limb as the settlers growled and violently thrashed about, however in a few short minutes, each and every one of them had been pinned face down and held secure. Jim, Kelly and the rest could simply not believe it. They couldn’t have been followed, and there was no way for the tribes to have anticipated what was unfolding – unless somehow they knew. Somehow, the mirrorlings had understood what was to take place that night, and they had been assembled to protect their new friends from harm. From the rear of their number, what must have been several villages worth in all, Dahl suddenly emerged once more and approached Kelly, a grave look of concern crossing his small and cat-like face. Kelly was dumbfounded and couldn’t contain himself, and quickly moved forward to thank him.
“Dahl,” he started with a gasp, “What happened to these people, and how.. how did you know..?” He remembered his manners, and thanked the small creature a hundred times over as he looked down at the rest of his companions who were still writhing violently and trying unsuccessfully to free themselves. Dahl only nodded in reply, still looking extremely worried and deftly raised a small and curious metal blade he held at one side, which Kelly had only just noticed was there. It was stranger still that the thin weapon appeared to be extremely old and intricately fashioned, and apparently far beyond the technological capabilities of a tribe of creatures that he regarded as little more than hunter-gatherers with no discernible ability to have forged. Before Kelly could attempt to form another question, his eyes bulged in shock as Dahl reached down suddenly and in one swift move, cut a long and precise slit across the base of the nearest prone settler’s neck and in almost the same motion yanked a thick, dark and worm-like parasite from the open wound.
Coates and Daniels retched and Jim could only articulate the words, “Christ, I’m going to be sick,” as the long, savage looking parasite wriggled and writhed in Dahl’s tightly-clenched paw, its two small, dark eyes flitting around menacingly as its pincers sliced the air either side of a wide mouth that supported row upon row of thin, needle-like teeth. “The statues..!” remembered Kelly, as he finally recognised the same sinister features that adorned the monstrous architecture that lined the esplanade of the temple complex atop the hill. Dahl understood Kelly’s expression at once, and nodded solemnly before raising the relic once more and dispatching the cold creature with one fell strike before casting its lifeless and disgusting body to the ground.
Dahl then turned to Kelly without so much as a pause, and with a tiny paw reached out and clasped the captain’s hand. All of a sudden, Kelly felt his subconscious yanked sharply in a direction he didn’t know existed and through an ability miles beyond his own comprehension which left him completely helpless, the mirrorling somehow connected with his new friend through a power that can only closely be likened to telekinesis. In the space of a few short seconds that felt like a lifetime, Dahl showed to Kelly the true nature of his people, flooding his mind with their history; the rise and fall of a once advanced and civilised empire that spanned the entirety of the planet, their own hubris and the usurping of their leaders to the sinister cunning of the pitcher worms and their hateful, twisted desires.
He learnt that the mirrorlings were once the gentle and diligent caretakers of Kepler 442b, having evolved in the beginning in harmony with the lush environment of their world and the multitude of strange and docile creatures with which they shared their version of paradise. As generations passed however, and is sadly the want of much intelligent life their mastery over the land and its native life excelled to a point where they risked losing it all to their own desire to create and destroy, much as Kelly’s own people had done in the great wars of Earth in the twentieth century.
One fateful night many generations ago, the skies above their world grew light as day and rained down fire across the continents as many thousands of great and terrible meteors bombarded their towns and cities, destroying much of what they had taken centuries to create. It was soon after this catastrophic event that the first of those awful pitchers took root, and the worms crawled forth to overcome their people and enforce their evil will just as they must have done many times to countless planets before. Theirs was an alien plague that sought to conquer world after world, moving on as a swarm of spores when all the wealth and beauty of a host world had been usurped. Through their cunning and the knowledge of past hosts, they would manufacture a dystopia wherever they landed and once their appetite had been sated, find a way to depart the ruin they left in their wake.
After a great civil war in which the lives of a great majority of the mirrorlings were tragically extinguished as the invaders took control, a dark age of oppression which lasted centuries soon followed as the worms took their best and brightest as hosts, forcing the defeated population to toil restlessly to create those same monuments and temples that Kelly had visited shortly upon arrival. The aliens ruled their world as gods for an age, cruelly working the mirrorlings to satisfy their every need and conspiring among themselves to develop a means by which to leave the planet’s surface and return once more to the stars, and to their next conquest. It wasn’t until one day, by the sheer force of will and the greatest secrecy, that a rebellion was formed.
As the sun set on another hot Summer’s eve in which more of the pitcher worms’ young would crawl forth from the plants to take hosts, every last free mirrorling took up arms and slew their oppressors, tearing down the temples their kin had been worked to death to create and defiantly burning every one of those sinister plants that they could find. Unfortunately, their own numbers by then had declined drastically and although they returned to the forests wiser than to ever again become an attractive host for the evil seedlings, by now they lacked the force and technology to do away with them completely. From out of those dark and frightful days, an uncomfortable and ever vigilant coexistence was established that lasted from then until Kelly and his group arrived, and the ambitions of the pitcher worms was reawakened.
After only a moment, the pain and sheer flood of emotion became too much for his own primitive mind to bear, and Kelly was forced to disconnect from the experience, falling to his knees in shock as the sheer enormity of their misunderstanding finally dawned on him.
The strange translucent larvae that Kelly and his men had been offered earlier that afternoon he realised were nothing other than the infant form of the same pitcher worms that had swarmed the remaining settlers shortly after his party had left the camp, harvested by the safe light of day by the mirrorlings and devoured ceremoniously as a symbol of their undying hatred toward their former oppressors. They were apparently of little danger in that state, lacking the strength to break the tough skin of a mirrorling until fully matured and otherwise harmlessly digested en masse as a final act of rebellion.
The monuments that Kelly had stumbled upon that morning had been erected at the height of the enslavement of Dahl’s people, and were it not for their technological unreadiness to carry the worms off from the planet’s surface and towards the stars the rebellion that freed the mirrorlings from the grip of terror and slavery so many generations earlier might never have taken place. The mirrorlings knew, and had learnt through the harshest of lessons in the most brutal of ways that what might well be the paradise of Kepler 442b to some hid in its deepest shadows a far darker reality that few had the experience with which to coexist.
A’thal, Dahl and the rest of their kin quickly set about extracting the remaining parasites from the settlers and an already freed Reverend Flaherty was brought forward from the throng to rejoin the rest of his fellow humans, still mostly in deep shock and yet to fully regain control of their senses. The stress of being made vessels for the sinister and highly intelligent will of the worms had taken a heavy toll on many of them, and despite assurances that they would be fine again in time, Kelly ordered his officers to watch over them for the remainder of the night and for every man, woman and child to remain vigilant for any more of the small parasites that might attempt to infiltrate the camp. After making sure that the area was indeed clear, the mirrorlings made it known that they would now need to return once more to the watch and safety of their own villages, and Kelly promised them that he would make arrangements at first light to take his people off of the planet’s surface and back to the skies from whence they had come.
Now lucid and beyond gratitude, Reverend Flaherty thanked A’thal at length, who in turn attempted politely to return the small crucifix that he had been gifted earlier that day. The action was met with only a smile, as Michael responded; “No, that’s yours my friend. Keep it safe as a reminder that today, as on all others, someone out there is watching over you. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, and God bless. Until we meet again.” A’thal bowed low, and waved awkwardly before rejoining his brethren and slowly marching them back into the surrounding woods and to their respective homes. After several long moments only Dahl remained among them, and when everyone in his party was accounted for Kelly knelt low and addressed the mirrorling one last time.
“Dahl, my friend. We can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done for us this day. The people of Earth, and I daresay others that might have suffered if those creatures had once more found their way off of this strange world and out into the stars are indebted to you.” He was tired, and tried his best not to appear too emotional in spite of himself. “I’m not sure how we can ever repay you, other than to ensure that none of our kind return before we are able to find a way ourselves to best those devils that your kind have once beaten. Thank you, for everything.” He reached down to clasp the creatures paw, and although the gesture was foreign to him, Dahl reciprocated and bowed his own head in acknowledgement, closing both his saucer eyes as he did.
Moments later, the first of the mirrorlings to greet the travellers turned and rejoined his tribe in the forest, leaving Kelly and his officers to attend to their wounded and take stock of their situation. Although they all remained safely locked in the pod throughout the remainder of the night, scarce few words were exchanged and not a single one of them dared to sleep a wink for fear of what might happen if, somehow, one of those strange and awful worms managed to find a way on-board the craft.
Early the next morning, the pod’s engines fired and the human travellers left the surface of Kepler 442b, soaring swiftly through the planet’s atmosphere before finally docking once more with the waiting Endeavour. Before commanding her gravity drive be primed for the fastest possible speed out of orbit, Kelly was obliged to send a single brief preceding message back to the Lunar Station to be forwarded to the World Government’s Space Association. His message read:
“20860309 – WGSA Off-World Communication. Origin Kepler 442b. Despite all indications the planet is void of life and geologically unstable. Uninhabitable, and an extreme danger to human life. Avoid at all costs.
We’re coming home.
07. A Long Road Ahead
The mood among those left behind at Nevalı Çori following the march of their brethren to the capital had been one of a deep and uncomfortable nervousness and worry. Although Andar had stayed behind with several of the other hunters, their constant and almost daily need to leave the village in search of fresh food in the absence of the rest of their people had left Sura and her two children feeling, at times, extremely scared and vulnerable. The women and children of the village had no way of knowing exactly how long their husbands and fathers would be gone for, nor could they know if it was even likely that they would survive serving in their king’s campaign against the west. For many of the women, it was almost as if they had already been widowed, with no guarantee that they would ever again have their loved ones return to restore the balance in their lives and for Sura, the reality of her husband’s imprisonment caused this feeling to become even more intense.
In spite of this, she had gone to incredible lengths to keep Harna and especially little Kirti’s spirits high, and while he was not away on the hunt Andar too had devoted a great deal of time and face to making sure that they were both kept distracted, happy and healthy. In truth, Andar had always somewhat envied his half-brother’s lot in life, he himself never yet having married or fathered children and he had embraced the opportunity to get closer to his niece and nephew, basking in the love and attention that they had always lavished on their uncle. It had been nearly a week since Skara had been cast in bonds and taken from them, and no messengers had yet been sent for nor arrived from Çatalhöyük to bring them any news of his situation. They could only hope and pray to the Gods that he had somehow found mercy in the court of He-Tauhasa.
On the morning of the sixth day, Andar returned from the hunt to find Sura weeping openly in the house that she shared with his brother, and had tried his hardest to comfort her. Both of her children had left to play by the river, leaving her to finally feel free to let her own guard down and once she had regained her composure, he asked her why she wept so. Fighting back tears, Sura responded with a question, “Andar, you are my husband’s brother. I know of the heresies that He-Xur has accused him, and I fear and understand that everything that he has said and claimed to have seen will not find favour among the Seers..” Again, she wept and again Andar consoled her, cooing and gently trying his best to calm her down.
She went on, “I can’t claim to know whether those warnings that he has given us carry any truth, but if my love does not return to us can we really let him go to his death in vain..? How can we just stay here and allow everything that he might give his life for to be made meaningless..?” As the words crossed her lips and the harsh reality that the love of her life might already be dead sank in, Sura finally completely broke down, sobbing openly and uncontrollably. Andar too had begun to feel a deep sorrow at this thought, however his own misery quickly turned to anger and he cursed Ihreikas and the Seers out loud and with every vile term that he could remember. “No-one should have such power as to strip a man of his life and livelihood over such trivial things.” he said angrily, “Where is the honour in such an act..? To hell with Ihreikas!” He burned, and she wept.
The two sat quietly within her home for a long while, and Andar decided to entertain the possibility that those things that his brother had believed and which had led to their situation might have some value. His thoughts turned to the Seers, and he considered much to his initial disgust that what the Watchers had told to Skara might in fact, somehow, have come from a place of wisdoms beyond his own ability to comprehend. After all, he had trusted in those stories their father had told them when they were younger, of the knowledge of the Ancients and of their almost godlike understanding of the ways of the world.
“Sura,” he asked her, “have you ever known your husband to be a man easily taken by the deceptions of others..? Can you recall a time that Skara might have ever been led from reason by those seeking to make a fool of him..?” Sura looked up at Andar, sniffed and wiped her eyes, now able to speak again, “I have always found him to be wary,” she replied, “even more so than most and sometimes even to the point where it has driven me to complete and utter distraction.” She laughed out loud for a second, reminded of the stubbornness and general skepticism of her husband whenever she had tried to spark up a conversation about the godhead, divine signs or the Seers’ abilities to interpret them. Andar went on:
“Skara spoke of our need to get to safety, to return to the plateau before another week passes. I have never in my life seen him so taken by the prophesies of any order, nor so deeply concerned at the possibility that all our lives might be in danger. I wonder..” he trailed off in thought, lost for a moment before continuing, “I wonder what might be gambled if we were to make such a journey and return. Those who have left for the capital will not arrive back at the village for many weeks, if everything that I believe Ihreikas has in mind will come to pass. We just might be able to make the journey ourselves, to reach the city of Uru-Mah which I too have seen and if in fact no great disaster comes to pass, we might also return without He-Xur, the King or anyone else becoming any the wiser.” He stroked his thick, blonde beard as he mulled the thought over, and the more that he did the more he began to feel as though not only could they pull it off, but that he might just owe it to Skara at least to try.
Sura looked up at her husband’s brother with wide doe eyes, and for the first time in days he saw in them a small glimmer of hope. She too knew that there was every possibility that Skara had not been truthfully informed of those events that he had believed would come to pass, however with his future uncertain and her facing the very real possibility that she might never again be held in the arms of the man to whom she had given herself, she felt that such a journey might in some small way vindicate him.
“Andar,” she said softly, “I think we should go. For your brother’s sake, I think we should take those left in the village and go to the plateau. If for nothing else, and should the worst come to pass, we would be forever remiss to ignore Skara’s warning. We must.” They each drew a heavy breath, both finding new hope in the prospect of the journey and relieved that they might at least have the opportunity to validate Skara’s fate, whatever it might be. “We should speak with the others,” Andar said, “prepare provisions and take our people north, if only to be safe.”
As the first light of dawn reached over the tree line atop the western ridge, Skara, Omer and his three boys left the rustic log cabin that they had called their home for so many years and made their way cautiously into the dense woodlands to the east. They had not been visited during the night by any of the King’s huntsmen, Skara guessing that they too had made camp somewhere below the ridge and he knew that they would more than likely resume their pursuit as soon as morning had broken. The five of them had gathered and tied a small store of food, stones and arrows in bundles of heavy cloth which they then fastened across their shoulders, and set off along one of the many trails that Omer’s sons had carved into the hillside.
The journey was slow going at first, as the forest to the east was extremely old and had grown out of a sharp incline, and the uneven ground was still very damp and in some places made finding a foothold quite difficult. About an hour into their descent, the group reached a wide granite shelf on the side of the hill that opened out into a steep cliff face overlooking the valley, and the four of them paused momentarily to assess how they might best navigate their way down to the bottom. Omer had suggested that they continue to their left, working their way along a more even path which followed the ridge north before allowing them to gently descend to the lower slopes. Asher however argued that they should ascend the shelf south and then climb down the bare rock face, as this would mean that they would reach the bottom quicker, and that their pursuers might be thrown off their trail as their feet left the soft ground of the forest floor. The two bickered at length about which option was the most sensible, prompting the other three to sit and rest momentarily by the wayside.
After several minutes spent debating, the group suddenly heard the unmistakeable crack of branches breaking underfoot, before the air was split by the cry of a man who had fallen into one of many pits the boys had dug to trap game along the ridge. All five men froze instantly, peering into the harsh morning light and strained to hear whether there were any further noises when all of a sudden, three dark figures ran wildly from the trees below and called out to them, rushing to ascend the rocky outcrop and met them in combat. They had been spotted..! Omer quickly beckoned his three sons to move past him and ordered them to climb the rise and make for the rocky cliff that Asher had earlier suggested they descend. He and Skara held their spears out wide, and they too backed away from the approaching men, closely following Omer’s sons to the edge of the cliff.
The hunters were closing distance rapidly, their war cries filling the air as the five took turns at carefully finding their way off from the rise on which they had been trapped. Several more arrows whistled past them, missing their mark as one of the hunters stopped still and fired in an attempt to strike them before they descended past the rocky lip. Skara knew that they would not all be able to make it over before their pursuers reached them. He turned and dropped his weapon, and realising that they held a slight advantage in finding themselves on higher ground began hurling large stones from the outcrop down the incline in the direction of the attackers.
Several of the smaller rocks caused their pursuers to lose their footing, but the hunters were still gaining speed and within moments, one of them had caught up to the party, wildly waving his spear about and trying to land a blow on Omer who did his best to block the sharp point of the other man’s weapon. The three of them tussled and fought to hold their footing until eventually Skara and Omer formed a barrier by crossing their spears and managed to hurl the man back, sending him rolling away in the direction that he had come.
Omer knew then that they would not stand a chance at defeating the three men in close combat once they had all reached the party. Skara was a solid fighter, and on any other day might have been able to hold his own against two such men but he was still tired, and his injured feet prevented him from holding ground as well as he otherwise might have been able. Omer himself was no longer the strong and robust man that he once was either, however as he looked around them a plan quickly dawned on him. They might not have had a chance in close combat, but there was a way that he might be able to knock the men from the ridge and send them crashing down into the forest below. He quickly turned to Skara, ordering him to “Follow my boys down into the rocks – take them off this god-forsaken cliff as fast as you can and leave these three to me. Go, now..!” He shoved Skara roughly back towards the southern end of the rise, and turned once more to face their attackers.
Skara was reluctant to leave his uncle, but sensed in his tone that he had figured out a plan with which to deal with the three and so turned and began to make his way down the rise. As he gripped the rock face, he turned to look after his uncle one last time, calling out, “I hope you know what you’re doing, Omer. Hurry up and follow us to the bottom, and don’t try anything foolish..!” He found his footing and slowly began to make his way down the cliff as Omer sized up the three men who were all now nearing where he stood, and then turned his attention toward a large pile of boulders he had earlier noticed lying against the face of the rise.
In the split second that he stood there sizing up which of the rocks he would choose, the face of his brother Agar flashed into his mind. He remembered the events of that fateful night, during which his own pride had caused him to lose the dearest person in his life. He recalled his failure to move that one final stone which then dragged his brother from the cliff on which he had stood and out into oblivion below. From out of the emptiness that he had felt ever since that day, he suddenly found a deep well of anger, a rage that fountained up within him and which would give him the strength that he knew he needed to protect his nephew and his own sons. No longer would he remain crushed by the events of that night, so many years ago. No more would the burden of his own failing strength hold him back. No more..!
Omer let loose a monstrous roar that boomed throughout the valley and turned to reach for the largest boulder that sat by the wayside. Skara, himself only just over the summit of the ridge raised his head over the top when he heard his cry and was just in time to witness his uncle grip a massive stone of incredible size and heave it off of the ground
For the first time since they were reunited, Skara did not see the grizzled and weary man that had greeted him so distantly the night before. Instead, the Omer of his youth was there, the knots and threads of the powerful muscles in his back tightening and holding fast as he tore the boulder from its position and hoisted it up to the height of his chest. The three hunters were mere yards away from Omer at this point, the bowman running to join his comrades in the fray but as he roared they stopped dead in their tracks, realising what was about to happen. Omer turned slightly as he held the stone aloft, calling back to Skara, “Move, child – go quickly and take my boys to safety..!”
He then pivoted left and with a resounding cry, tossed the massive stone in the direction of the hunters. The boulder was almost three feet wide, and the ridge on which they stood only slightly wider and so the stone crashed to the ground with a loud boom and rolled directly into the three men, immediately barrelling two of them off over the side of the cliff face and into the dark forest below. The third man was too far from the edge, and was quickly crushed into the earth by the weight of the stone which moved over his writhing body like a rolling-pin with a sickening crunch. The stone continued down the way for another thirty or forty feet before finally crashing over the edge of the ridge and down into the sea of green below and Omer stopped to catch his breath, peering over the ledge to see if there was any sign of the two hunters that had been forced off of it. As he coughed and struggled to regain his composure, he found the two of them lying prone in the dirt at the bottom, several feet away from each other. The drop itself must also have been a good forty feet, and to his relief neither of the assailants appeared to have survived.
He clicked his tongue as he walked over to the third man, finding the weight of the boulder to have crushed his skull and burst his torso open like a fresh fruit, leaving a smear of dark blood trailing behind it as it rolled away. Satisfied, Omer nodded and thought to himself, “For what it’s worth I may be old, but by the Gods when push comes to shove – I’m still the second strongest man in the valley.” He then prayed a silent prayer for his brother, and dedicated his feat to the memory of the only man in his life to have bested him in a show of strength. Omer turned and began to move back to the southern edge of the ridge to rejoin the others, however just as he was about to call down to the four of them, the hairs on the nape of his neck stood on end and something in the back of his mind made him somehow aware that he was once again not alone on the trail.
From where he stood, Omer could see that Skara and his sons had already cleared the cliff face and moved out to take up a position where they could see him from the ground below. As he leaned over and was about to call out to them, the look of horror on their faces immediately prompted him to turn once more towards the northern end of the ridge, in the direction of where the hunters had left the trees moments earlier.
Out of the same forest wall strode a fourth man of staggering proportions, dressed head-to-toe in blood red cloth and who sported a familiar polished chest plate emblazoned with the unmistakable sign of the running ram. From the bottom of the ridge, Skara immediately recognised this to be the King’s champion, who now stood stoic at the foot of the rise and glared up at Omer from behind his scarf, his two dark eyes burning at the other man as he sized him up. Strapped to the warriors left arm was a wide, dark wooden shield, also adorned with the white emblem of Ihreikas and in his right hand he carried a cruelly fashioned pike that was fitted with a row of heavy barbs along its length, and which opened out into a long and vicious polished obsidian blade at one end. Skara could not believe that He-Tauhasa had sent his greatest fighter to pursue him, and was immediately frightened for his uncle, calling out:
“Omer, you cannot stand and fight this man, you must trust me – quickly, make your way down to join us..!” He was suddenly frantic, knowing that his uncle would already have grown tired from his earlier confrontation and feared that he would not be able to defeat the other man who was already ascending the outlook with long measured strides to meet him. Even by the way he moved, Skara could tell that the champion was a highly seasoned fighter, in no way exhibiting the same foolhardy gusto that the three other hunters had shown in rushing to meet them in combat. The warrior held both his arms high at right angles, and carefully navigated the ground ahead as he closed in on Skara’s uncle.
Omer however was not afraid, and as soon as he could make out the insignia of the house of He-Tauhasa quickly made up his mind that if this was an opportunity to slay a direct representative of the same ruling class that he so secretly despised, he was going to take it. He called back to Skara, declaring boldly, “I have no fear of the King and his servants, boy – stay where you are and pay close attention, and you might just learn a thing or two.”
“Allow me to show this overdressed city-dweller how we fight in the hills.”
He kneeled briefly to collect both his own spear and the one that Skara had dropped earlier, and stood his ground as the other man advanced. Skara realised that Omer knew nothing of the soldier he was about to face, and so told his cousins to stay put before rushing to reascend the rock face and join his uncle, finding the way back up the cliff much slower going than the descent. He had only secured his first foothold when the champion closed the distance between himself and Omer, and the two finally met in combat. Wasting no time, the warrior in red proceeded to swing his awful weapon in wide, sweeping arcs, controlling it with one hand and with a powerful continuing motion attempted to force Omer back to the far edge of the ridge.
Omer was at first unsteady on his feet, backing away slowly from the other man as he watched him deftly handle his weapon and tried to figure out how best to break his defences. He took both spears and, waiting for the champion’s blade to swing right-to-left across his body, crossed his weapons in its path, stopping the soldier’s advance. As he held the other man’s weapon steady, he launched a powerful kick at the warrior which landed square in his chest, causing him to stumble back several feet and withdraw his weapon. It was Omer’s turn now to attack, and he skilfully swung both his spears in a circular motion around his body and ran towards the champion, hoping that he might land a quick blow and catch him off guard, however his opponent quickly recovered from the kick and again moved towards Omer with his shield outstretched, absorbing every strike as it came.
Seeing this from the cliff, and still too far from the top to join his uncle, Skara felt powerless watching the two men face off. While his uncle was still a large man with a solid frame, his opponent appeared to be much younger and by far the quicker of the two, handling his weapon with an incredible dexterity for a man of his size. As the champion edged closer to Omer, he completely surprised him by breaking into a sudden sprint and rushed shield-first into his spears. Omer’s attack was stopped short and he was knocked backwards and onto the ground, from where he quickly swung his spears at the other man’s legs to try and create distance between the two once more. The champion merely danced around his weapons for several seconds before first trapping one underfoot and then the other which forced Omer to release his grip on the handles as he lay prone in the dirt and now completely defenceless.
At this point Omer realised that he was in serious trouble, and as his opponent leaned back to swing his savage pike over his body and down toward his head he quickly drew two short hunting knives from his sides and again crossed them to block the warrior’s weapon, its heavy stone blade coming to a stop mere inches from his face. The champion was clearly beginning to grow frustrated at the older man’s resilience, and swing his pike even harder several more times at his opponent who succeeded each time in blocking his strike. Just as Omer felt that he might try to raise himself up to his feet, the champion sharply jerked his weapon on its axis, sending the back end quickly and powerfully into the other man’s unprotected groin. Immediately Omer saw stars, doubling-over where he lay and for a split second, he completely let his guard down. Skara had nearly reached the summit of his climb and was just in time to peer over its edge to see the champion standing over his uncle who was lying bent and in terrible agony.
As the champion stood over him, he raised his head and stared at Skara from across the ridge. Skara screamed at his uncle to get up, and the soldier in red raised his left arm toward him, pointing first at Skara, and them in a motion imitating the cutting of his own throat dragged his thumb across the width of his neck. Skara’s blood ran cold and he knew what was about to happen yet he was still too far away, still unable to reach him in time to stop it. His cry rang out across the valley as the champion spun his weapon around, and gripped it tightly in the middle with both hands before quickly and savagely plunging the stone blade deep into the soft flesh of his uncle’s throat and down into his chest, twisting it as he did. As Omer tried to draw breath, dark, rich blood fountained out from the wound at the top of his chest, and the cries of his three children pierced the air as they too watched on in horror from the bottom of the ridge.
The champion’s blade stayed embedded in his opponent for several moments as he stood still and simply watched the other man, waiting for him to die. It was as though the experience had become cathartic; the screams filling the air, the sound of men choking on their own blood. The act of killing had slowly become a joy for the King’s champion, and after seeing Skara in his halls for the first time and then on the battlefield within the great arena, he had approached Ihreikas to request leave of the city in order to carry out his sentence personally. “Execution is one thing,” he had thought to himself, “but a fair fight, combat amongst equals and the hunting of men – this is what a true champion craves.”
The warrior withdrew his blade from Omer’s neck as his writhing body finally became limp, and he wiped the blood from its edge on his quarry’s cloak before turning his attention to Skara, who had finally ascended the top of the ridge. Killing Omer was incidental, but he was pleased with the effect that it would have on Skara and knew that the anger such an act might instil in him would provide good sport.
As soon as Skara clambered over the edge, tears still in his eyes to face him, several arrows soared through the air from below the ridge having been fired by his three nephews at the other man. The champion took a knee and held his shield low, catching all three as they reached him. Skara did not wait for their next volley to arrive, moving towards his opponent and stopping ten or twelve feet away from where he stood. He threw his arms wide to show that he was unarmed and, shaking with anger, called out to challenge him:
“You,” he began, pointing at the soldier, “I know you, I remember you from the halls of Ihreikas. Do you remember me..? You have taken something from me this day, and by the Gods I will make you pay in kind.” He stopped to think then for a moment about how he might go about making true on such a threat, deciding cleverly to appeal to the soldier’s ego. He pointed to the body of his uncle, continuing, “This old-man that you have killed, he was nothing to you. You are a warrior of the King, are you not..?” The champion paused for a moment, breathing heavily and then solemnly nodded, still standing over Omer’s inert body.
Skara continued, “Then honour your king in fair an equal combat. Fight someone who might challenge you, someone who might beat you,” the champion stiffened and inhaled deeply and audibly through his nostrils. The very idea that he could be bested in single combat brought him close to a rage, but Skara finished, “Fight me, champion. Hand me my uncle’s weapon, that I might strike you down and prove that you are a weakling and a coward after-all..!” He laughed derisively and the champion stood still, however Skara could now see that he had gently begun to shake, his massive, broad shoulders quivering ever so slightly as he finally achieved total apoplexy.
The red soldier took several paces back from his fallen opponent, his eyes darting warily left to the boys in the forest as he did and spoke then for the first time. Out from behind his red facecloth came an awful voice that rattled with such a deep and coarse tone that it almost resembled the crunch a heavy boot might make on a gravel road. By his pronunciation alone, Skara could instantly tell that the other man no longer owned a tongue, perhaps taken as punishment for an earlier transgression of his own, as the following words, “You – fight..!’ burbled up crudely and uncomfortably from the champion’s throat.
The warrior pointed to the fallen spears by Omer’s side, gesturing for Skara to pick them up and his breathing suddenly became heavier as he began to work himself up into the kind of frenzy that he needed to sustain in order to last in combat with a man of Skara’s stature. Skara walked over to Omer, his heart filling with sadness as he was finally able to take a closer look at his uncle’s body, and then he too began to feel an anger rising from within. “This man,” he thought to himself, “has robbed me of the chance to know my father’s brother. This man has killed a hunter of the Tau line, and has taken my nephews’ father from them before his time. This man.. will pay with his life..!” He scooped up both weapons and raised his powerful arms wide in a bold gesture of defiance.
“Vengeance rides on swift wings,” he thought coldly, “and mine will fly fast and true.”
‘THE VISITOR’ by Gareth Jack Sansom
“Open your mouth and take your medicine, or I’ll have no choice but to use force,” promised Stanley as he struggled to keep his patient still. He was doing his very best to administer a carefully prescribed dose of the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine to a particularly troubled inmate, Lyall Murphy, so that he could send the rest of his patients off to sleep without incident. Unfortunately, Lyall had been a disruptive force among the rest of the hospital population for the entirety of that day, kicking and hollering, thrashing about and just generally stirring up dissent among the other patients. Now refusing to swallow his pills, Stanley had taken it upon himself to isolate him in the recreation room in the hope that he might cool off after a little time spent separated from the others, however this had somehow only seemed to fire him up even more.
As much as Stanley tried to be patient, if he was being honest he had taken just about all he could handle from one individual in a day. He was himself a tall and extremely well built man, known amongst the others as something of a gentle giant but he would often warn them that he’d one day lose his temper and there’d be hell to pay, if he was ever pushed too far. As yet it had never come to that – he was a professional, after all.
He firmly gripped Lyall’s nostrils, and after a minute the other man was forced to open his mouth once more to breathe. Stanley threw a small plastic cup’s worth of brightly coloured pills down his throat and held his other hand over his mouth until he was confident they had been ingested. Leaning in close, he whispered to Lyall as he rose to leave, “One more outburst like that, and it’s restraints for you – do you understand..?” Lyall suddenly went as white as a sheet, nodded and lay placidly on the floor muttering all manner of delirious nonsense to himself, leaving Stanley free to continue on with his rounds.
The staff and detainees at Flagstaff Asylum had always shared a tenuous relationship. Local media on several occasions had chosen to run exposés on the treatment of the population, putting the arguably questionable methods of the hospital’s new management under a microscope, but they had always insisted that their treatment of the inmates would stand up to any scrutiny. “Tabloid journalism, at its most pathetic,” was their response, and without any legitimate cases of malpractice making their way into the public domain, interest in the facility eventually faded from the spotlight altogether. The tough love approach seemed to work, and even if there were complaints to be made, the mentally ill were in no position to make them. For most of the staff there, the end well and truly seemed to justify the means.
Just as Stanley turned out the lights and was about to lock the solid wooden doors once more, Lyall suddenly sat bolt upright, eyes glazed and frothing at the mouth and screamed at the top of his lungs, “You can’t keep us here forever, don’t you see that..? They’re coming for us Stanley – they’ll be here any minute..! They’re coming..!” He then leapt to his feet and rushed to the far end of the room, still screaming, and pounded his fists repeatedly against the concrete walls and barred windows. Stanley could only shake his head and continue on his way down the main corridor of the facility. “It’s a shame that after so long, he still won’t trust me with even the most routine activities.” He sighed, conceding that the job was a thankless one but that he could only do what he could do.
He spotted another colleague as he walked, a pretty young woman by the name of Wendy Lee who herself had spent the afternoon looking after a different group of patients at the far end of the facility. She winked at Stanley as he passed, and he immediately went bright red. “How are the others doing, Wendy..?” he stopped to ask, his voice almost breaking. “Sleeping like babies, I think we’re in for a quiet one, Stan – touch wood.” she laughed. He had always taken a liking to Wendy, for as long as he could remember. She had such a kind face, and a cute, almost musical laugh that had become contagious among the other workers at the asylum. “Maybe after tonight I should finally go ahead and ask her out for a drink,” he though optimistically to himself. “You never know, right..?”
Lyall was still belting the walls and windows of the recreation room down the hall and screaming as loud as he could. “Well, almost quiet,” Wendy added, “what’s the matter with that one..?” She gestured with a thumb, to which Stanley gave another sigh, “He’s been like that all afternoon. Won’t sit still, flat-out refuses to take his meds or cooperate. I’m beginning to think we might need to get a little tougher with him. I’ve tried just about every other method that we’ve used with the others, but for some reason he just won’t quit. Sometimes I think in his mind, he runs the place,” he laughed, and so did she. “Well, if he still has the energy in the morning, I’m sure we can look at other options – we’re not licked yet,” she offered. He smiled again, and turned to let her get back to what she was doing.
No sooner had he left her and was about to turn the key on another cell, a deeper and more ominous noise suddenly boomed throughout the main corridor, quite different to Lyall’s protests. Out of the near-darkness of the far end of the building a loud, low rumble seemed to have come from the direction of the front doors to the eastern wing, which housed most of the more troublesome inmates and in which Stanley now worked. It was well past 9pm, and they had already locked and bolted all of the main entrances and exits to the building in preparation for another long night’s shift. He stopped still for a minute, the hairs on the back of his neck at attention and just stared ahead, ears cocked and straining to discern if the noise continued.
After a while, the moment seemed to pass and he decided that he must have been hearing things, perhaps just the central heating system firing up (it was a cold August night, after all). There had been no checks scheduled for that night or visitors ever allowed into Flagstaff past sundown, and no reason for that to change. “Pull yourself together, Stanley,” he thought to himself, “It’s not like it’s your first night in the looney bin.” He had been at the facility for nearly four years now, long enough to know when his imagination was getting the better of him. He shrugged his shoulders and continued on his way, whistling nervously.
Long nights at the asylum often had a way of taking their toll on even the hardiest of the men and women that worked there. It wasn’t uncommon for new staff and nurses to call it quits after only a few weeks on the job as the lengthy shadows, loneliness and strange sounds of the facility got the better of them. It took a special kind of mental fortitude to deal with that environment, and Stanley felt that he was a unique sort of character in his ability to simply shrug it off and keep a cool head, focusing only on the task at hand. The asylum was filled with men and women that needed to be taken care of, simple people with complex problems, but all of them capable of being rehabilitated given the right treatment. It was a difficult calling, but he was more than qualified to handle it.
Mind back on the job, he finished medicating his next inmate who had also frustratingly chosen to resist, and had only taken a half a dozen steps or so from the cell when he heard the same strange sound again, much louder than before and this time persisting for almost half a minute; Boom! Boom! Boom! He froze dead in his tracks. He could feel the floor under his feet tremble slightly with each loud crash, and several of his colleagues must have also heard it as they too left the cells they were attending to and joined him in the corridor, all looking around uneasily at each other. This time from where he was standing he could clearly see the two solid doors in the distance shake and buckle violently against the force from whatever it was that was on the other side.
Wendy was suddenly right beside him once more, and was the first of them to speak, “Stanley, did you.. did you hear that too..?” she asked, her voice quivering “What’s making that awful noise – what’s out there?” Most of the power to the facility had already been shut off for the night, and so the common areas were now only bathed in a wan and eerie fluorescent half-light which made things seem all the more hazy and surreal. Before Stanley was able to respond, a familiar shrill and mocking laughter erupted from the hallway behind them and split the uncomfortable pause:
“They’re here..! Hahaha, I told you they’d come..! They’ve heard me calling, you can’t stop them now. I told you – you’re all finished! Hahaha..!” It was Lyall, who had given up pounding on the walls and now pressed his face against the thick glass of the recreation room doors, calling out through the gap in between. His almost frenzied delivery chilled them to their cores, and they all turned and stared nervously toward Stanley for any sort of direction. On any other night he might have simply ignored Lyall’s warning, but something about tonight felt different. Somehow the shadows cast by the after-hours tubes along the corridor wall seemed somewhat longer than usual, and a little darker. Earlier that afternoon, he could have sworn he’d heard a strange, far-off wail on the wind as he had locked the doors, and he just couldn’t shake a deep and uncomfortable feeling that he was constantly being watched from somewhere, by someone..
Boom! Boom! Boom!
The crashing came again from down the hall, almost deafening this time and was accompanied by the unmistakeable sound of strange, muffled voices and splintering wood. Whoever or whatever was on the other side of those doors, it was only a matter of time before the hinges gave way to their relentless pounding, leaving both the staff and inmates at the facility largely unarmed and with nowhere to hide. “What the hell is going on..?” Stanley thought, finally calling out, “Hey..! Who’s there..? Nobody’s allowed in here at after dark – NOBODY, do you hear..?!” He started to panic as the noise continued unabated and reached into his long white coat, unclipping his baton and desperately issuing instructions to the rest of the group. “Travis, Simon – lock the cells and go and get the torches. Wendy, stay close to me, the everyone else go and get out of sight. Hurry, I don’t know how those doors are going to hold..”
Before he could finish the thought, the front entrance suddenly burst open with a tremendous crash, and a dozen heavily armed special response officers flooded the corridor, weapons drawn and shouting loudly for everyone to “Drop what you’re carrying and get on the floor..!” Wendy threw her arms into the air and laughed an insane, piercing cackle as Stanley immediately charged at the officers, swinging a heavy black baton and screaming madly as he rushed towards them. Dr. Lyall Murphy remained lucid just long enough to cry out desperately from the recreation room, “In here, officers – they’ve locked the staff in the cells and have been force-feeding us their medication all day. Some of them have stopped breathing. Oh god, please – you have to hurry..!”
06. Return to Nevalı Çori
Battered, bruised and beyond exhausted, Skara ran as fast as his legs would carry him out through the city gates, putting as much distance as possible as quickly as possible between himself and the ramshackle sprawl of Çatalhöyük. As scattered and confused as the city guard now were, he knew that it would only be a matter of time before He-Tauhasa’s soldiers had either cornered and trapped, or else put the monster called Murmesh to death before then realising that he too had made his escape. He knew also that there were an almost endless number of seasoned hunters and trackers in the service of the king, and that with their skill and better knowledge of the wide, flat lands surrounding the city they would likely close in on him within hours.
He ran due north for several miles, following the largest of the many rivers that fed the estuary before branching east and making his way quickly and quietly back up the long and gradual incline that his captors had brought him down several days earlier. He was very careful to mask his footsteps, backtracking in several places as he went but he knew that this would do little to slow down the skilled hunters of the south who would be spurred-on by the promises of great reward for his recapture.
He realised that his only real hope of evading them would be to reach the rolling hills west of the valley, hills which he knew like the back of his hand and where he might at least have a chance at finding refuge either in the company of other southern families nearby the valley, or else otherwise in the thick forests around the edges of the lower lands. It didn’t help that he’d had to make his escape in broad daylight, and although there were dense woods dotting the landscape around the city, there were all too many long stretches of open grassland that he would have to cross before finding any real cover.
He gritted his teeth and simply ran and ran for hours until his legs ached, his lungs burned and his heart felt as though it would give out at any moment. Already mid-afternoon, the wind was blowing east which favoured him, but carried on every strong gust were the far-off calls and voices of those in pursuit, ever so faint but growing louder as the hours wore away. Eventually, he followed a small stream which he knew would lead him toward higher ground and stopped to rest once he had reached a particularly thick crop of trees, perhaps only one quarter of the way to safety.
At the top of a rise within the wood he came across a large limestone outcrop from which a small waterfall cascaded, fed from somewhere within the rocks and he knew he could safely stop and drink the water, rest his legs and wash the dozens of small cuts and open wounds on the soles of his feet that he had suffered running barefoot from the city. He drank his fill from where it landed, taking care not to overdo it and run the risk of a cramp before he needed to again press on. To get a better view of the path he had taken and to also discreetly scan for his pursuers, he carefully climbed to the top of the rise and from behind the thick scrub, peered out over the lower lands and across the incline behind him for any sign of movement. Far off in the distance, he could clearly see the dark blotch of Çatalhöyük on the horizon and the telltale plumes of smoke which rose from the many open hearths of the city, and could also make out the tiny, dark shapes of what must have been large hunting parties moving slowly away from it. “Good,” he thought to himself, “they’re such a distance away still that I might actually have a chance at losing them.”
After several long minutes spent making sure that all were in fact a safe distance away and accounted for, he rose from his position behind the thicket and turned to make his way over the rise and continue on his journey. As he turned to leave however, he heard an unmistakeable whistle shoot past his left ear, followed immediately by a faint splash as something struck the stone behind the waterfall next to him and dropped into the stream below. “Arrows..!” his mind screamed, “They’re already here..!” He froze for two-tenths of a second, terrified his poor legs would not react and carry him to safety as he knew the next one’s aim would be true.
Thankfully without another moment’s hesitation, he bounded through the dark trees leading out of the rise and launched himself into the thick forest above it, quickly finding a second wind and moving at a speed he didn’t even think was possible. Thoughts raced through his mind as he heard a man’s voice calling out for him to stop, and he considered among many things turning around and facing his attacker head-on. He remembered then that he had nothing practical with which to defend himself, and in spite of his size and strength was at that moment very hungry, weak and almost completely out of breath.
The forest was dark and damp, and branches whipped and tore at him as he fled. Old cedar trees rose up everywhere, and the higher branches of these interlocked above his head to form a thick ceiling which only let a small amount of light through where gaps had formed. Large slabs of granite jutted out intermittently from the forest floor, which was itself uneven and in places held large pools of murky water. Several times Skara nearly came crashing to the ground as he slipped on fallen logs and rocks all covered in a bright green, slick moss that seemed to grow over everything, and those wounds that he had washed on his feet again tore open in several places as he failed to safely navigate sharper stones and branches. After sprinting for a time, he could no longer hear the footfalls or cries of his pursuer and started to believe that he just might succeed in outrunning him.
He considered then finding refuge in the canopies above, his eyes darting about as he ran searching for a strong and reliable tree that he might climb to stop leaving tracks, at least until his attacker had caught up to him but he knew that there was still not enough of a distance between them that he could risk doing so unseen. His only option was to run, and the only way to run was forward. He began to tire as he weaved through the trees, his legs now burning and his lungs feeling as though they might explode. “Surely I can’t go on much further,” he thought to himself, “I’m not built for running, and not for such long distances.”
As his strength faded completely he realised that it was only a matter of time before he would have to slow, and then eventually stop altogether. Just as he was considering whether surrender might in fact be a viable option, the wood through which he was being chased thinned out, and eventually opened into a wide clearing which rose toward what he could only guess were the early beginnings of the rolling hills. He had travelled a great distance, but was still too far away from safety. As he cleared the wall of trees, he immediately veered left and slid haphazardly behind a large group of granite boulders which might have at least offered coverage and protection for several seconds. He had no idea how close his assailant now was (he had not heard his footsteps or cries for several minutes), but exhausted and physically spent, he lay still where he landed and caught his breath as carefully as he dared.
For several long moments, Skara lay behind a large boulder at the edge of the clearing. “If the archer was as close behind me as I think he was,” he thought to himself, “then there is no way that when he reaches this clearing he’ll believe that I have crossed.” He dared not move however, and keeping his head cocked low strained his ears for any noises from the forest wall. He heard nothing. Not footsteps, not the telltale snap of branches underfoot. Several more minutes passed, and he raised himself up into a crouching position, still careful not to allow any part of his body to be seen over the top of the boulder. His gaze fell upon a strong and sturdy length of cedar branch where he hid, and very slowly and carefully picked it up, waiting even longer before making the decision to peer over the rock to see if there was any sign of his assailant. “Perhaps,” he thought with a brazen optimism, “I did lose him in the woods, and the way ahead is safe for the moment. If it is, surely it would be foolish to continue to wait here, while the others catch up to me..” He nervously placed a palm on the boulder and slowly eased himself up.
Just before he could raise himself higher to take a look however, several nesting grouse were disturbed at the edge of the clearing only several yards from where he hid and the sound of quiet cursing could be heard. The archer had indeed trailed him, and was now standing directly on the other side of the huge boulder, searching the clearing for signs of Skara’s entry into the open. His mind raced as he considered his situation; within seconds, the other man would find his tracks and notch his bow, leaving him without any defence whatsoever. The hunter might of course be armed with a long blade, which he could also at that moment be wielding and prepared to use as soon as he dove out from his sanctuary to meet him.
“In either case,” he thought to himself, his mind already made up, “my only chance is to strike now, and continue running for the hills. Lingering here can only be a death sentence.” And so after saying a quiet prayer to Anu, he began to square himself up, gripped the heavy branch tightly in his massive hands and tensed his muscles for what would be his one and only chance of escape.
Like a coiled spring, Skara leapt over the boulder he had hid behind and swung the large branch with all his strength at the unsuspecting hunter, who himself was only seconds away from peering over the top of it. The blow was true and caught the other man completely by surprise, striking him square on the right side of his head and sending him crashing into a pile of rocks and branches. Skara was shaking as he composed himself, but could not take any chances in risking that the hunter might continue his pursuit or alert the others and so struck the man several more times with the branch to ensure that if he did survive, it would be more than just a few minutes before he awoke. Skara puffed heavily and threw the branch into the woods, pausing only momentarily to catch his breath before searching the hunter for weapons.
As he struck the pile of rocks, the hunter had landed on his bow, snapping it clean in half. “Damn it to hell,” Skara swore under his breath. In addition to being able to accurately fell game from a half-mile away with a spear, he was a more than capable archer and the bow would have come in handy in warning off the rest of his pursuers.
He pulled several barbed arrows and a medium-sized ivory blade from the hunter’s tunic, and making sure that there were no other items which might assist him, left the body where it lay. He draped several leafy branches to cover it and made his way across the clearing and into the gentle hills beyond. “That was too close,” he thought to himself as he entered the safety of the forest once more. “If one of them managed to sneak up on me like that, surely there can’t be others too far away, perhaps already in the woods. I’ll need to move more quickly, and take better care not to leave an obvious trail.” He tore several strips of cloth from his tunic before pressing on, and tied these around his feet in an effort to protect the worst of his injuries. It was mid-afternoon now, and he knew that he needed to find some sort of shelter wherein he might light a small fire once the Sun had gone down. He scoured his surroundings as he ran on, peering through the dense forest for any signs in the landscape that he might have recognised.
“I remember that there were kin from the valley that settled in the hills west of Nevalı Çori, many years ago. I wonder if they are still near, and whether I might find refuge with them.” Skara was remembering his father’s brother, Omer who had left the green valley following his father’s death to chance his fortune and the livelihood of his wife and three sons in the wilderness, alone. He had not seen his uncle in many years, as they had seldom had cause to return to the village and had taken issue with the growing influence of the capital on the day-to-day affairs of its people. This, Skara felt could work in his favour given his current situation, if of course they were still local to the area and if they even wanted any part in the mess that he had gotten himself into. He pressed on deeper into the forest, finding the landscape to gradually steepen as he progressed further into the undulating hills southwest of his home.
After another couple of hours navigating the woods, he came to a single barren peak that jutted out of the surrounding forest and which might serve well to provide him a clear and uninterrupted view of his surrounds. Careful to listen for any sounds of movement through the undergrowth before he did, he ascended the stony crag and carefully looked about him to find his position. The forest canopy below stretched as far north and south as he could see, and the clearing to the west that he had crossed earlier was now only a lighter patch of green in the very far distance. Looking out east, he noticed that the undulating hills preceding the valley rose only steeper, but he could just make out the definite shape of the final summit ridge on the horizon, after which he could begin his descent into the valley. Curiously, in the quickly fading light he also noticed a faint plume of smoke rising from a fire that had been lit at the southern end of the ridge. The smoke was too far away for him to see whether people or any sort of shelter surrounded it, but he decided that if he hurried on his way, he just might be able to make it to the source before darkness completely closed in.
He climbed down from the rocky crag and prayed quickly for speed and safety, before setting off east once more. He had not heard the sounds of his pursuers since leaving the clearing, and allowed himself to relax a little and focus more of his attention on safely navigating the steeper terrain rather than just blindly covering it. As he reached a higher elevation, the trees became larger and the undergrowth wilder and more invasive. He used the blade that he had taken from the archer at the clearing to machete his way forward, cutting away at branches that appeared to have stitched themselves together. After another couple of hours of this, he stopped momentarily to rest within the shelter of a large juniper tree, crouching inside a wide hollow in its trunk. He had not rested for more than five minutes before he again picked up on the faint sound of voices somewhere in the lower forest behind him. He immediately sprang-to from his hiding place, and set off once more in the direction of true east. “If I can’t make it to that settlement,” he thought to himself, remembering the plume of smoke atop the valley ridge, “then I’m well and truly done for.”
The last hour of twilight turned out to be a game of cat and mouse, with Skara desperately trying to ascend to the far ridge and the voices and calls in the woods behind him growing stronger and louder as he went. Just as the last rays of evening light sank beneath the horizon, the forest suddenly became deathly quiet and Skara stopped and held his breath to listen for his pursuers. To his horror, the familiar whistle of an arrow flying by broke the silence, and several voices – four or five if he heard correctly, called out for him to stop where he was immediately and surrender. He ignored their warnings, as he didn’t doubt for one second that He-Tauhasa had demanded he be brought back to the city dead or alive (and in however many pieces they deemed practical), and bounded up the side of the ridge which steepened drastically as he neared the summit.
“Almost there,” he thought to himself, as several more arrows whistled past him and lodged themselves into the trunks of trees behind. He gritted his teeth and for the last few hundred yards, broke into a wild sprint, climbing to the top of the valley ridge as if he were part animal. Once over the summit, he continued his marathon in the direction of the plume of smoke that had caught his eye earlier and as he neared the clearing and headed for the source of the fire, the thick trees of the forest thinned out and he broke into a brisk walk, in an attempt to finally catch his breath. For a brief and fleeting moment, it seemed as though he had finally broken away.
He was no more than twenty or thirty yards from breaking through the wall of the forest when he heard a loud cracking sound in the darkness behind him, and the unmistakeable stretching sound of a bowstring being loaded. “Stop right where you are, thief,” called a voice from somewhere in the shadows. The voice seemed a little unsure of itself and sounded like it belonged to a younger man, but Skara dared not turn around, stopping immediately and stretching his arms wide in a gesture of submission. Already the dark shadows of the woods around him were ever so wanly illuminated by the roaring fire in the settlement ahead, the light from which broke through the trees in front of him. As he stood motionless and before he could speak, another voice called out to him, “Drop your weapon, and get on your knees. You’re surrounded and outnumbered – don’t try to do anything foolish.” It was another young man, and again Skara obeyed, dropping his long knife quickly onto the ground beside him and half turning his head to respond.
By this time, Skara was almost beyond caring. He was completely exhausted, spiritually drained and had finally come to terms with the fact that the fight, for him, was well and truly over. “What has your king Ihreikas promised you for my capture..?” he called back hoarsely, “I truly hope it is enough for the work I’ve put you through.” He gasped as he struggled to fill his lungs, continuing, “If you’re going to kill me, then hurry up and kill me. I could use the rest.” He then dropped to his knees, and coughed violently as he finally regained composure and his powerful heartbeat began to slow. Strangely, the voices from the dark said nothing more to Skara for several moments. Instead, he heard low whispers from the two as they bickered among themselves, one of them sounding quite exasperated as they argued.
He could not quite make out what they were saying, but before he had a chance to ask who they were, the second voice again called out to him: “Are you.. of the valley..?” Skara was immediately confused, as the young man continued, “What is your name, stranger..? If you’re not a raider, then who are you, and what are you doing wandering so close to our home..?” Skara thanked the Gods..! He realised straight away that he hadn’t been captured by those huntsmen set out to return him to the city. These must have been men from the settlement up ahead and so he relaxed ever so slightly, but chose his next words extremely carefully:
“I am only an honest hunter from the valley, like yourselves. I have come from the capital to escape punishment for defying the king where I felt his Seers had failed him. My name is Skara Tau, and if you would help me return to the valley which is my home, I would tell no-one that you did.” He stiffened slightly, and felt it necessary to provide a little more information to the two, for all their sakes, “I have been pursued from the lowlands west of here for a day now, and those who would seek to take me back to the capital cannot be very far behind. I beg you, please help me find safe passage home, and keep me from their slings and arrows.” He was placing a high amount of faith in his own dealings with the more isolated families that lived in the hills around and beyond his village, knowing that while most of them had either feared or despised the leadership of Ihreikas whose rule they saw as an interference in their affairs, there might too be those more loyal to the house of the king that might very well fire arrows into his back regardless for such talk.
He did not have to wait too long to find out, however, as no sooner had he finished speaking he was knocked clear off his feet and onto the ground by one of the young men in the dark, the other laughing as he yelled, “Skara, our cousin from the valley..! Is it really you..?” He was shocked and confused for several seconds, before the words sunk in and he realised who it was that had captured him. “Skara..!” the other voice called out, “What in all the Gods names are you doing here..? We thought you were a raider..!” the other adding, “And what’s this talk of punishment now, and of that pompous upstart, the king..? Come, follow us into our home and the light and let’s get a look at you..!” Somehow, Skara had managed to bump into two of his three cousins, the children of his father’s brother and had nearly stumbled right on into their encampment atop the valley ridge. The three of them moved out of the darkness of the forest without and after their eyes adjusted to the light of a roaring fire in the clearing, he laughed and clasped the two of them tightly. It was the first time in days that he had felt anything near to genuine happiness.
The two young men that had confronted him were the eldest of his uncle’s children, Asher being the oldest and Zemer the middle child. They were in their late teenage years now, and had already had many years of experience hunting with their father, Omer. Skara soon learnt that Madala, their Mother had passed-on shortly after the family had left the village, leaving the four men to look after themselves and the family home. Yemah, the youngest of the three brothers was only just at an age where he was allowed to join them as they hunted the forests around their small wooden house, however was still not yet able to accompany his brothers as they hunted by night. Skara and his two cousins moved around the fire and into the wooden house to greet Omer, and talk more of the road that Skara had taken and what threat might yet still find them at the house if they did not take precautions.
The three of them entered the house, and Zemer immediately called out to his father, announcing, “Father, we have returned, and you will never guess what we have found in the woods..!” There was a small fire pit in the far end of the larger, central room of the dwelling, which itself was a rough but solid collection of large wooden logs, piled up and interlocked at every corner so as to keep the chill winter air of the upper ridge at bay. Animal skins were piled throughout the floor of the house and secured to cover any gaps in the walls and ceiling, which itself was a thick layer of stretched auroch hide. Skara was more than thankful to be out of the cold, and nearly wept with happiness when offered a cut of wild rabbit that was roasting over the inner hearth. After a minute, Omer could be heard moving around from within the smaller rear room of the dwelling, cursing as his foot struck something hard and heavy in the darkness. He emerged from the back room, immediately regarding Skara with a mixed look of faint recognition and mistrust.
Skara’s only memories of Omer were always linked to those of his own father, as the two twin brothers were almost inseparable while he was growing up and they both still lived in the valley. Agar, his father and his brother were not unlike Skara and his own half-brother Andar in a way, both sets of brothers somewhat of a living legend among the people of Nevalı Çori. Both of them were also extremely tall and brutishly strong, and had always tried to outdo each other when it came to any physical labour or challenges that might have been issued by their friends, family and each other. Whenever a task such as reinstating the wheel of a broken cart arose, or the opportunity to demonstrate their strength was given, they both leapt at the chance to prove themselves. It was unfortunately this friendly competition that in the end, worked to break them apart, and which resulted in Agar’s untimely death.
When Skara was only thirteen years old, he had accompanied both Agar and Omer, among others on a hunting trip in the eastern flats above the valley. The group had been tracking a large heard of bison that had wandered down from the north and were waiting until dusk, when the animals had settled in to sleep before deciding to strike. As the group waited by the fire in the shelter of a sandstone outcrop, out of sight of the herd, their conversation had inevitably turned once more to bravado as the two continued to promise to outdo the other at whatever feat could be suggested. Greater and greater were the boasts of strength that the two claimed to have been able to accomplish until finally another member of the group suggested that they settle their dispute once and for all by climbing to the top of the steep cliff, and lifting and hurling the largest stones over the top that they were able to. Neither of the brothers could resist the challenge, and both Agar and Omer made their way around the rise and to the top of the cliff face, where rocks and boulders of all shapes and sizes lay.
Once settled, the two brothers then took turns at heaving and hurling stones over the edge of the rock face, each one slightly larger than the last and each brother challenging the other to follow until they were lifting and dropping boulders of a mass that even they found excruciating to carry. Eventually, the two would reach a stone that either one or the other would be unable to lift, and this would be when a victor could finally be decided. At last, Omer had reached one final massive boulder, roughly the width of his shoulders and the shape of a human torso. With an almighty heave, he tried with all his might to lift the stone, and while he might have moved it several inches off from the ground and was able to drag it closer towards the edge of the cliff face, he simply could not muster the strength to lift it up and hurl it over. Finally, Agar had been given a chance to either defeat or draw with his brother, and the latter in his mind was never even an option.
With an almighty heave, Agar was himself unable to lift the stone off from the ground, and he tried and tried again to move it. Agar was only slightly taller than Omer, and his brother rounder in the belly, and Omer roared with laughter as his brother failed to do what he himself could not accomplish either. “It would seem, brother,” he had taunted, “that you and I are an even match after all – with neither of us the better man..!” Agar was incensed at the notion that he had once again been unable to best his brother, and spurred on by his taunts leaned in for one final and desperate attempt at moving the monumental stone.
He roared into the cold night air, his breath clearly visible and with one last heave finally succeeded in lifting the boulder clear off of the ground. None of the party could believe what they were seeing – he had done it..! Agar’s barrel-like arms were bursting and the veins on his neck jutted out as he looked upon his brother with the greatest satisfaction of his life. Omer’s heart sank, finally realising that he had lost, and could only shake his head. Agar’s triumphant laugh boomed across the rise, and he smiled at his brother one last time before turning to send the stone over the edge of the cliff face.
It was at that moment that the section of ground upon which he stood gave way, sending both Agar and the boulder crashing down over the edge and to the earth below. It happened so quickly that neither Skara nor any other member of the hunting party at first realised what had happened, standing dumbfounded. At one moment, his father had stood before him, appearing to him to be the strongest man in the world and the next – he was gone.
Skara would always remember this as being a turning point in his life, which contributed heavily toward the feelings of duty and responsibility that had shaped his commitment to his family, friends and people. His uncle Omer on the other hand never truly recovered, falling immediately into a deep and dark depression for many years from which Skara had not been around to see him recover.
Clearly, the loss of his brother as well as the many difficult years that followed had taken a heavy toll on the other man. As he moved out of the shadows and into the weak light of the hearth, Skara saw not the strong and proud uncle that he once knew standing before him, but the tired and weary frame of a much older, weathered and beaten man. In truth, the years following the death of his brother had not been kind to Omer. He had always blamed himself for what had happened, and in losing his twin he had also lost a large piece of himself. Omer’s decision to move his family away from the village had been in part to escape the constant reminder of his folly, and although there had always been a competitive element to their relationship, he had loved his brother Agar very dearly.
Omer hobbled out of the doorway and into the room, and placed a large left hand on Zemer’s shoulder before looking Skara up and down, remarking, “Who are you then, stranger, and what brings you up onto the ridge at this hour and to our home..?” Skara took a moment to allow his uncle to search his face for something in it that he might have recognised, before replying, “Uncle Omer, I am Skara, your brother’s son. I have travelled far from the capital, and I would greet you this night and ask for your help in finding safe passage back to the valley. I have come to harm on my journey, and there are hunters all through the woods without that would see me dead, or else returned to He-Tauhasa for accusations of heresy. I plead with you to help me in my journey.” Skara bowed his head, and waited for the other man to respond. Omer mused for a moment, narrowing his eyes and looking the valley man up and down as if trying to ascertain if he really was who he claimed to be.
After a long pause, he grunted softly before moving closer toward Skara and, placing a strong right hand on his shoulder, searched deep into the other man’s eyes. “So, Skara.. it has been many, many years since last we met. What in Anu’s name have you done, to have your so-called king send out his hunters to find you..?” He seemed to be distracted by the appearance of the other man, Skara had guessed it was because he had in many ways grown to resemble his father, and was possessed of the same strong features; long, flowing dark hair and piercing blue eyes. From a distance, he could have easily been mistaken for him, although Skara was slightly shorter and did not quite possess his father’s monstrous build. Skara replied, “It has indeed been a long time, uncle. I had heard word that you had taken your sons west of the valley, and hoped that I might find you still close by.”
He then went on to recount the events of the past few days to Omer, his sons watching on and hanging by every word as he told them of the council of Watchers and their ill-omen, of He-Tauhasa and the Seers and of his flight from the capital. When recalling Murmesh and his experiences in the great arena, Asher and Zemer were left wide-eyed and incredulous, and their younger sibling Yemah must also have been listening from the other room, as he quickly rose to join them in front of the hearth to hear the remainder of Skara’s retelling. Throughout this recollection Omer mused, cleared his throat and sighing several times and tut-tutting when Skara spoke of Ihreikas and his response to Skara’s telling of the Watchers’ interpretation. He spoke quickly and eloquently, and made it very clear to Omer that it was only a matter of time before those same hunters that had followed him from Çatalhöyük realised that he had not lingered to hide in the forests at the foot of the ridge and would arrive at his home to inquire as to his whereabouts. Once he had finished speaking, he looked to Omer with concern and waited for his uncle to process everything that he had been told.
Omer thought for a long while, carefully contemplating everything that Skara had said as he stared into the vibrant embers of the hearth. His mind raced with concern for the events that the Watchers had predicted, and with the fear of what fate might befall his sons if he did not help Skara leave the ridge and return to Nevalı Çori before the king’s hunters caught up to him. Before he could speak, Skara looked across and asked of him, “Will you help me, Uncle..? I have never needed the help of any man more in my life than at this moment. If I leave you now and continue on my way alone I fear that I will not make it back in time, if at all.” Omer paused before looking up at Skara, and responded, “I will help you.” He gestured toward his sons, “We will help you, and not just because I have no great love for Ihreikas and his order of grey ghosts. You are my brother’s son, and through his passing I am indebted to protect you,” he frowned then, “as much as I had failed to do him.”
The four of them sat solemn then for a time, before Omer rose, addressing his three sons, “Asher, Zemer – collect your spears and slings, and make sure you take all the stones you can carry. Find your sharpest blades and give one small knife to Yemah. Gather your heaviest cloaks and prepare yourselves, we are leaving for the valley and then to follow your cousin north, by way of the Eastern pass.” He turned to Skara, adding, “My boys have set traps all along the widest way through the hills and down into the valley in the hopes of bringing down larger game. It might not give us the best cover, but it will work in our favour to navigate what they have set, and hopefully slow a few of the king’s hunters down along the way.” Skara smiled a nervous smile, but was extremely grateful to his uncle for making the decision to follow him. Though their aid in reaching the valley was vital, it would have only been bittersweet if they did not join him at Uru-Mah, once Sura and his own children had been brought to join them.
In a flurry of activity, the four of them collected weaponry and provisions for their journey, and after extinguishing the fires of the settlement both inside and out, settled quietly in the dark for the remainder of the night, waiting patiently for first light before they started out. Skara himself meant to rest only for a moment, falling immediately into a deep and well needed sleep however as soon as he closed his eyes.