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.
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.
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.”
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.
05. Murmesh the Terrible
“Most grand and high above us,” He-Xur began, “I return to you as promised, and have brought with me several hundred good men of the valley to join you in your campaign against the West. I submit these lives to you, and to the protection of Çatalhöyük in those darkest of times that lie before us.” Skara chanced to briefly raise his head to catch a glimpse of his king, whom he himself had not seen in many years since his own father had brought him to the city as a child. He was astonished at the sheer scale of the other man, who had grown extremely red and fat in his affluence and was now possessed of a mass that appeared entirely impractical.
To Skara, he seemed almost to have become a complete caricature of the robust and muscular figure that he remembered meeting in his youth. He-Tauhasa’s thick, dark hair had thinned at the front, his teeth had yellowed (and several were now missing), and he coughed and spluttered almost constantly as though his lungs carried a sickness, even as he sat completely still. To his immediate left and right, almost completely in the shadows beside the throne stood two strange, lithe figures. Both were tall and thin and completely bald, save for a small tuft of plaited hair at the back of their skulls and they were clad mysteriously in thick grey robes without any kind of adornment whatsoever. These he knew straight away to be Seers, chiefest among the King’s advisors and the cause and reason for their journey to the capital.
Alone and to his far right stood a single solitary soldier, an absolute mountain of a man who was curiously the only king’s representative that Skara had seen within the capital who wore any real sort of armour. The figure was clad in a heavy red leather tunic which extended down almost to his feet, and was wearing a strange polished chest plate upon which was burned the image of a running ram, the emblem of He-Tauhasa. Skara could not make out the features of this man who stood solemn and completely silent throughout his audience with the King, as his entire face was obscured by a similarly dyed red cloth save for a narrow slit from which two cold, dark eyes stared out at him. He decided that this must be the champion of Ihreikas, and perhaps the most distinguished and decorated of his warriors. He-Tauhasa regarded the Lord of the valley with a grunt and a nod, before replying;
“You honour me, He-Xur as always, and your contribution to the safety of Silur-Mah shall be noted in the chronicles of our time. Now tell me,” he motioned to the captive valley man with a wide sweep of a chubby right hand, “who is this prisoner that you keep, and would bring before me. Who is this huntsman that you have restrained, and what are his crimes which warrant such bondage..?” He-Xur glanced down at Skara with a look of calculation, before responding, “This man is Skara Tau of the village Nevalı Çori whom I have trusted with the affairs of his people in my absence. This man has until my return served to administer the affairs of his kin, and has done so without question. However, upon our return to the village, he has betrayed both your divine order and the wisdom of those that counsel you, refusing to obey your call to serve his realm in its hour of need and blaspheming the Seers. Thus, I have decreed that he is to be treated as an enemy of the Southern lands, and have brought him before your great authority to be punished, as is our law.”
The other man frowned deeply as if considering his words carefully, grunted again and raised his somewhat grotesque body from the throne, stepping down to stand directly in front of Skara to address him, “So, Skara of the family Tau. Are the words of your lord true..? Do you defy an order that has come directly from the house of the King and therefore from the Gods themselves, and oppose our campaign against those savages from the West..?” Without pausing long enough to allow him to answer, he went on, “I would have never expected such insolence from a man of your line. Your father I knew in fact, before his passing to be a loyal and honourable man commanding of much respect. What would he say to you now, to see you claiming such treason as to oppose the will of the Gods and your king..? Speak now, Skara,” he turned as if also to address the entire throng of minders and delegates present in the room, “tell us that these accusations are in fact not the truth.”
“My King,” Skara began, locking eyes with the Seer to the right of the throne as he did, “what He-Xur has told you is true. I cannot condone open war upon the West where I have been counselled otherwise. I do not believe that the Seers..” he chose his words carefully, “I do not believe that you have been provided the correct interpretation for those signs that would direct you toward this action, and I must object, much as it might mean my own death.”
“My death, or worse..” he thought soberly to himself.
“Very well, Skara of the valley. As you so wish, and so will be our duty, but before passing judgement I would know; of what counsel do you speak..? On whose tongue have you gambled your life and the lives of those you call your kin – speak..!” His voice shifted quickly to a more commanding tone which boomed throughout the wide open space of the hall. Skara raised his head, straightened his shoulders and stared directly into He-Tauhasa’s eyes, “The Watchers of the North, my king. Those of the high hills speak of a far greater calamity, and have interpreted from the signs in the heavens that a great dragon, a beast of seven tails and the power to end all life in the Southern lands would descend from the stars with the fury of a thousand suns to swallow the oceans and destroy your kingdom. They have promised us safety within the walls of their city at Uru-Mah, and would aid us in protecting our people from this disaster. Of this, I am sure and believe all that I have come to know, and this is why I cannot follow you.” He looked then around the room, hoping to have raised at least some curiosity from those present. It was however the Seer to the left of the throne that descended to join his king, and spoke:
“Skara of the valley,” the voice seemed to slither from between the priest’s lips, which were laced with a thick, black paint that matched the colour around his eyes. Eyes that seemed to dart all too often at the king as he spoke. “What do you know of the will of the Gods..? What evidence,” he snorted, causing an anger to well-up within Skara, “what proof have you brought us to support these wild and, fantastic, stories of which you speak..? Tell us of this dragon will you..? Surely such fairytales have no place in the house of a king whose family have forged the greatest empire in living memory, an empire built entirely on the foundations of reason and divine trust that those of our order have accurately and honourably provided for generations..?” The Seer appeared to be addressing his king, He-Xur and those delegates present from other communities more than Skara himself, and he began to feel angry and nervous in coming to realise the true extent of the influence that the Seers had upon his rulers.
He replied: “Seer, I would not debate the details of prophesy with you. Of your order I admit to knowing very little, and cannot claim myself to have shared a direct audience with the Gods. However I do trust in the wisdom of the Watchers, and have seen the scale of their knowledge and power first hand.” The Seer interrupted Skara, changing his voice to a more mocking pitch and correcting him, “You have seen nothing of the power of the Watchers, who are no more an educated and divine order than any other motherless, dishonourable exiles from the Northern hills. The residue of those godless heathens are no more children of the great god Anu than their animal forebears. Their words are poison, and their claims can only be self-serving.”
“My King,” the Seer continued in a more gentle tone, speaking now directly to He-Tauhasa, “was not their order the barbarian bastard breed of a savage tribe, whose only reason for being was to destroy your ancestors and drive them from their lands..? Would not these ‘Watchers’ understandably harbour a deep and burning resentment for the descendants of those that had driven their forefathers from our lands and to their knees, and banished them into the cold wastes of the North..? Surely the notion that any benefit could come from those who I would remind you, if I can, that it is an act itself punishable by death merely to fraternise with is not any more realistic than say.. magic dragons from the skies..?” He laughed at this and looked sarcastically at Skara, raising derision from the crowd which fuelled him to respond;
“The Watchers have taken me into their city, their sanctuary in the hills and have shown me their faces. I have shared in their food and stores and have been gifted many things that they had no obligation to give, and not once have I felt threatened in their lands. Theirs is as peaceful and enlightened a society as ours in the South, and in some ways..” he raised his wrists and binds to support his argument, “in some ways perhaps even more so. The Watchers have knowledge of a great many things that your order do not, and have freely and wilfully offered to provide assistance to us through the coming darkness, a darkness that comes quicker with each day that passes.”
“I have seen them, and I have felt no hatred, nor have I seen any cause to doubt the predictions that they have provided me. I have been treated honourably and with respect by the Watchers and I promise you, if you refuse to accept their help there won’t be anything left for anyone to war over.” He turned and gave the Seer that had challenged him a look that could have killed. “What I have told you is the truth, and catastrophe is indeed coming. A great fire from the heavens will arrive, and tear your kingdom asunder.” As he looked around the room once more before continuing, he noticed a trace amount of fear in the eyes of those soldiers and onlookers around him, and also sensed a faint waver from the Seer. He knew that he needed to press on. “Thousands on thousands will die immediately, and Çatalhöyük and everything that you hold dear will burn to the ground. Your empire will exist no more, and when the mountains of ice to the north are vanquished, the oceans will rise and flood over the land, and wash your order and kinsman away before the Sun is stripped of its glory, and for a thousand godless years..”
“Enough..!” interrupted He-Tauhasa with a booming roar, which shook the ground beneath Skara and drained all colour from his face. “How dare you enter the house of the bloodline of kings and speak to me of those wretched phantoms, the children of men and beasts as if they were absolved of their father’s guilt..? I will hear no more.” He-Tauhasa stiffened and threw both of his arms wide, shaking at the belly as he did so and declared; “Your Lord was right in bringing you before me, but I will hear no more slanderous lies which have come from those exiled beyond our gates. The Southern lands exist today only by the grace of the Gods, my forebear He-Kuirsna and by the blood spilt protecting her from the Ancients, and the words of their pitiful descendants cannot be anything more than the sinister plots and schemes of treason and overthrow.”
“My council of Seers are the divine voice of the Godhead, and have been since before your father’s time. If theirs is the vision of war from the West, then this is what will come to pass. No more will the poisonous mistruths of those half-bred animals be tolerated in this city, and I declare that any further talk of those lies that you have brought before me today will be met with death..!”
He pointed at Skara, and staring into his eyes with a burning judgement that flirted with pure hatred, announced, “You will be taken to the great arena at the north of the city, and for your false witness will be given to Murmesh the Terrible when the sun rises on the morrow, as the Gods will. He-Xur..” he gestured to his subordinate, “get this heretic out of my sight..!” A group of citizens that had gathered outside the hall erupted into cheers at the mention of the name, and began chanting it as though it belonged to a great champion, Skara fearing perhaps the monstrous soldier in red. “Murmesh, Murmesh, Murmesh..!” they yelled and screamed in a frenzy. Any hold that Skara’s speech might have had over them at that moment had been immediately broken, and a wave of excitement extended from the great hall throughout the city akin to a bloodlust among predators.
“Murmesh,” Skara mouthed silently to himself, as he was yanked viciously to his feet, “never have I heard of a warrior called Murmesh.” The name was completely foreign to him, even as he searched his distant memory. The title, however, could only suggest that the odds were not stacked in his favour. Still as white as a sheet, he was paraded once around the room before being led from the throne to the cheers and jeers of those watching on and as he was, caught sight of the Seers flanking their king. Both of those strange robed acolytes were smiling broadly like vultures and exchanging glances of pure and unmitigated joy at their own validation, and the promise of their continued infallibility in the house of their ruler. Skara knew somehow that it would not be the last time that he would see those smiling devils before too long, and vowed quietly that if he were to somehow break free from his sentence, that they would be the first to face retribution. This he vowed, to his Gods and those of the Watchers.
Skara was led from the hall by He-Xur and several of the city’s soldiers and was taken to a holding cell at its northern edge. As the group snaked their way through the erratic and winding alleys between buildings, he was pelted with rotting fruit and vegetables by children and cursed by the men and women that called the city their home, until his captors broke away from the central district and they neared the outskirts of the metropolis. The road they had taken led them up a steep rise and towards a wide enclosure made out of the earth and walled by thick logs and stones stacked awkwardly to ring a deep, wide depression in the ground that appeared to have been only freshly dug by the people of the city.
Skara caught a distant glimpse of the inside of the depression as they neared the crest of a hill overlooking it before they reached his prison. He noticed that the earth within the enclosure had been deeply trodden and gouged in many places by something large and extremely heavy. Several citizens of the city were inside the enclosure, apparently reinforcing the walls around it, and he could just make out from where he was that in some places, the dark soil of what he later knew to be the great arena held deep pools of blood and water. He shivered visibly as they veered-off from the hill and made for a series of crude pits, which served to house the enemies of He-Tauhasa awaiting punishment.
As he was thrown into one such pit near the Northern wall, and before the wooden grate above him was closed and its latch secured, one of his captors leaned-in above him and said; “I would hope and pray that a man of your size can run, my friend. For whatever strength might have served you until this day will do you little good tomorrow.” At that, the grate slammed shut and Skara stared once more into the darkness, wishing he were home. When the footfalls and voices of the soldiers and his lord were out of earshot, his thoughts turned to his son and daughter, and he wept openly beneath the sky and, eventually, the stars above him. Stars which he blamed for everything that had led him to that moment.
After a long and uncomfortable night spent in a dark and filthy hole, Skara was woken up rather abruptly by a bucket of freezing water that was dumped through the roof of his cell and onto his head. The shock of the cold water on his skin immediately caused his breath to shorten, and his senses instantly to snap to attention. A gruff voice called through the grate above him, “Rise and shine, prisoner. Today is your big day..! The King wants you washed and decent before he makes an example of you,” and at that, a crudely-woven rope ladder was dropped over the edge. Skara climbed up and out of the pit, holding himself and shivering violently in the crisp morning air, and was escorted by the guards to a small hut nearby to be washed and dressed for what was to follow. Two giggling handmaidens were on hand to assist with this, to which Skara did not object however he was careful to bundle his own robes and kept a careful eye on them as he bathed. When he was washed and dressed in a simple tunic that they had provided, he gathered what remained in his clothing and was bound once more at the wrists before being led from the building.
As the group arrived at the foot of the hill which he had passed over the day before, they were joined by two more guards who were wielding flaming torches and escorted around the rise toward the arena. Skara could already hear the excited buzz of several hundred voices in the distance, and as they neared the walls he realised that he had been deceived as to the true scale of the structure into which he was being led. The walls of the arena towered above him as they approached, and pyres had been lit all at the tops of several scaffolds around its outer rim. He was guided through an entrance at what must have been the rear of it and into a dark tunnel that had been dug out from the mound of earth that ringed the central stage. After a short distance they reached a larger chamber which he guessed would have been northeast of its center, and there Skara was instructed to sit and wait. “He-Xur wanted to speak with you, before we take you further,” one of the guards told him. He groaned audibly as he dropped and sat cross-legged on the flattened dirt floor, his eyes adjusting to the dark and there they waited patiently for his lord to arrive.
Several long minutes passed, and the noise from within the arena had grown so intense that it could be heard even through the tunnel and inside the chamber in which the group had stopped to wait. Just as Skara was about to begin asking further questions of his captors, voices could be heard in the far tunnel continuing on past their room, and within moments He-Xur emerged from the shadows, wielding a long parcel wrapped in cloth and sporting a sombre look on his face. He moved to the centre of the room, regarded Skara briefly with a nod and dropped the bundle to the ground, before speaking:
“I have no doubt, Skara,” he began, “that you understand that it is the will of our king He-Tauhasa that you should fall in combat today for your heresy. It would appear that he has chosen this punishment both as a spectacle for the citizens of Çatalhöyük to enjoy, and perhaps in part also in honour of his relationship to your father, whom he considered at least at one time to be a dear friend and ally. Our king will address his people before you are led to meet your fate. He will use your death as an example in proving to those that would refuse to heed his call to war that a coward’s death is all that will be offered to them. I have been commanded to bring you a choice in weaponry, with which you might honourably participate in your end, though I fear that your choices will do you little good this day, whatever they might be.” He then proceeded to unroll the bundle that he had brought with him and several axes, spears and, curiously, a long length of woven rope rolled-out.
Skara paused momentarily as he considered He-Xur’s words and the options that were laid out before him. He also contemplated the seemingly hopeless situation that he found himself in, and the intentions that he had had in making the choices he had made. In the end, he decided to try one last time to appeal to He-Xur on a personal level. “My lord,” he started, “did nothing that I have said make any difference to you..? I have known you since we ourselves were children. I have hunted the valley with you in youth, and I have stood by you as you claimed the rulership of our people, before we grew apart. Knowing this, can you still look me in the eye and tell me truthfully that you do not find some reason, some shred of believability in what I have seen, however small..? I have always stood by you, first as a brother and then as your subject. Surely as I go to my own death, I am owed your honest truth.”
He-Xur looked at Skara for a time, and after a lengthy pause let out a long and resigned sigh. “Skara..” he seemed to be lost for words for a moment, and then realised that whatever words he might have chosen to speak next were not words to be shared lightly. He motioned the four guards to enter the far tunnel, advising them that he would bring Skara through himself in a moment. “Skara, when I ascended to the head of the people of the valley, I have had to change a great many things. No longer could I live as carefree as you and your kin lived. I learned that I must be responsible, not only to He-Tauhasa but to the people of Nevalı Çori. Should there ever be a hardship in the village, I too would suffer the burden with the rest of you. However it is only by the grace and protection of He-Tauhasa that we are allowed to live or die free. It is also by the allegiance of our people to the greater kingdom that we are not seen as a threat and an enemy of peace in the Southern lands. Come whatever may, I must therefore always support his judgement, whatever I might believe and particularly in audience with our people. Do you understand..?”
For the first time in many years, Skara found in his He-Xur’s countenance a deep and genuine empathy as he extended his right hand to him in a show of friendship not as his lord, but the man he once knew.
Skara did understand then, and began to consider that perhaps if he might have taken a more private and calculating approach to his warning, things might have worked out differently. He nodded in response, and clasped He-Xur’s hand in kind. No more needed to be said, however as He-Xur cut the bonds from his wrists he cocked his head towards the bundle of weapons that he had left, whispering to Skara, “If I were you however, Skara Tau – I would choose the rope.” He then winked, and Skara immediately reached for the spool of heavy rope and wrapped it around his right shoulder before He-Xur led him down the far tunnel where they met with the rest of the guards. The six of them passed through a small doorway which led out of the greater structure, and into the depression at its center. In the fierce sunlight, he could just make out the silhouetted figure of He-Tauhasa and his champion in the middle of the arena, flanked by a dozen soldiers of the Southern army and found that there were hundreds if not thousands of spectators from the city in attendance, some standing and some sitting around the huge mound of earth that surrounded him.
The arena itself was crudely constructed, comprising essentially of a massive bowl of earth that had been excavated and arranged to form a steep embankment. Heavy stones had been piled at its lower edge to form a wall some twelve feet high at ground level, and behind the steep rise whereupon the people of the city sat, an arrangement of stones and wooden logs formed an outer wall upon which nine tall fire scaffolds had been built. At the far east and west ends of the arena, two massive stone boulders were set in place to cover larger entrances to the depression (which Skara had guessed allowed for the passage of greater beasts and equipment), the western such boulder sitting at the foot of a much larger stone enclosure. As his eyesight adjusted once more to daylight, Skara was welcomed with a massive roar from the crowd that had gathered, and he nervously acknowledged their booing and cheering with a dispassionate wave of his right hand as he made his way towards He-Tauhasa, who was nearing the end of his speech:
“People of Çatalhöyük, I therefore thank you again for joining us in witnessing the living justice of your Gods as this man,” he gestured toward Skara with a flabby outstretched right arm, “pays penance for his heresies, and faces punishment for defiance of his king. May the Gods exact their will, and his soul be weighed accordingly in the world beyond.” He-Tauhasa moved toward Skara, bowing only slightly to acknowledge the other man before he, his soldiers and curiously, his champion too, still dressed head to toe in the same red garb that he had seen him in earlier passed him by and returned through the tunnel that he had left, the other guards joining them as they did.
“Strange,” Skara thought to himself, “that the greatest of the King’s warriors might also take leave of me. If that soldier is not the one I am to face in the arena this day, then who or what in the world is this Murmesh that I have been brought here to fight..?”
At once, Skara was all alone save for a number of workers at the western end and for several minutes he stood beneath the brilliant mid-morning Sun, looking around the arena and turning a full 360 degrees as those assembled booed, hissed and cursed him. After a long moment passed, he heard a wooden door snap shut as the small entryway was locked and sealed, and He-Tauhasa took up position among the crowd at a rise in the stands true north of the centre of the arena. He noticed roughly a dozen Seers, identifiable by their token conspicuous grey robes take up position on the opposite side of the arena, and when all were present and prepared, the crowd started with a familiar chant of “Murmesh, Murmesh, Murmesh..!” before a loud horn was sounded by the King’s herald, and a flurry of activity could be heard at the western end of the arena.
Just as several-dozen attendants took up position at the massive stone boulder and began heaving at a number of thick, heavy ropes tied around it, another massive trumpet blast shook the ground. The blast of this second trumpet however was entirely different to the one preceding it, and caused the entire crowd to become deathly quiet. Skara’s knees became weak as the boulder rocked from its position and began to roll away, revealing a massive entrance opposite where he stood and yet another far louder and more powerful blast came directly from within the massive tunnel that had been carved from the earth and which led to the mysterious enclosure at the opposite end. He strained his eyes to see into the darkness of the opening, but could only make out blackness as the attendants finally freed the boulder completely, and they themselves scrambled desperately for the last small entrance in the arena wall, which they quickly closed and locked behind them.
Skara found himself completely alone within the arena now, the crowd around him seeming all at once to be holding their breath and waiting. Just as he was about to make his way toward the massive opening in the wall, he felt the earth beneath him begin to tremble, and a series of what felt like loud and terrible footsteps started up, causing the crowd to once again erupt with cries of excitement. With a steady saunter, the trumpeter left the shadows and moved into the arena, and as it did Skara finally realised just how impossible his situation was.
Out of the shadows of the far enclosure, Murmesh walked. Not a man as he had reckoned, Skara recognised immediately the monstrous form of a great beast from the stories and legends that had been told to him as a child. Murmesh was in fact the name given to a great war elephant, those same beasts of old that the Ancients were said to have harnessed and which should have departed from the world following the last retreat of the northern ice. Some twelve feet tall, covered with thick, matted hair and with sharpened tusks stained with dark blood that he could only have assumed remained from previous sacrifices, Murmesh rose up on his hindquarters, bringing both heavy forelegs crashing to the earth with a massive boom which shook the ground and gave a monstrous roar which sent the crowd into a frenzy. Skara stood rooted to the spot, completely frozen by fear and his jaw dropped. Never in his life had he seen such a mammoth beast, and neither in this life nor the next would he have a hope of overcoming it alone. Not with rope, not by spear.. not with a dozen soldiers. “Where and how,” he thought incredulously to himself, “did they find such a creature..?”
Murmesh stood still for several moments, looking around at the crowd and adjusting to the open air of the arena following a lengthy spell in a dark and, what must have been to him, cramped enclosure. The great beast grunted deeply and started a slow meander, looking first back at the entrance behind it and then out across the depression before setting its sights on Skara, alone and trapped within the confines to the arena. Skara began to panic as the creature’s cold, black eyes widened, it snorted and gave another shrill blast from its trunk. It would be impossible for him to defeat the beast in combat, and there was no way that he could scale the arena walls to reach safety. Even if he could have navigated his way to the top, the crowd and soldiers that lined the summit would just as surely throw him back, if they did not kill him where he was. Slowly, Murmesh began to wander across from the far end of the arena and Skara knew he had to do something.
In addition to the spool of rope that He-Xur had given him, there was also a sharp ivory hook that had been secured to one end, effectively providing at least some minor offensive ability. As the creature began a slow trot toward him, he knew that he might only have one chance of stopping or at least slowing the creature down before he could formulate a plan that might keep him from winding up as little more than another darker shade of red on its tusks. Murmesh was enormous, well and truly living up to the title that the people had given him and as he moved closer and Skara edged further back towards the eastern stone slab, the elephant was almost galloping. Skara seized his chance to take advantage of the fact that he was at least quicker than the beast. Moments before Murmesh would have run him down, and hoping that the weight of the creature and the momentum of its first attack would carry it into the remaining stone boulder (perhaps dislodging it), he sprinted and dove left of the monster at the last second, sending it tusks-first into the earth before the stone and its body crashing straight into the wall.
As Murmesh struck the boulder, a great cry rose from the crowd, concerned only that the monster might be injured. The stone itself however was extremely large, solid and only rolled ever so slightly back on its axis before falling once more into place, keeping Skara trapped and the crowd as safe as ever from the spectacle. The beast was stunned momentarily, however it quickly regained its footing and once again and scanned the arena for Skara. Murmesh was enraged, not only by the failed offensive but it had itself been kept a constant state of torment, suffering regular and savage abuse from its handlers within the far enclosure in order to keep it in an ongoing state of frenzy. The giant creature spotted Skara once more, who had by now unwound the spool of rope in the animal’s confusion but before it had a chance to attack again, he was already swinging the hook above his head, and loosed it at the creature’s front left leg. Skara’s aim was true, and the hook swung right around the animal’s limb and on its return buried itself into the heavy muscle of the foreleg, causing it to roar in pain.
Skara knew that the only chance that he might have of slowing the animal down would be to cause Murmesh to lose his footing, and he hoped that he might be able to bind its legs if he could to move fast enough. Holding the remaining rope, he sprinted again as fast as he could to the right of the monster, hoping to run once around it before it could charge again. He was not quick enough however, and the elephant was still too close to the eastern entrance for him to move safely past it. Murmesh caught Skara on the run and with one great swipe of his trunk, knocked him from his feet, straight into the stone boulder and onto the ground. The crowd at this point were all on their feet, screaming for the animal to put an end to the valley man. He-Tauhasa was smiling the broadest of smiles from his position at the way the event was unfolding, while He-Xur watched on beside him, doing his best to mask a growing concern. Skara was a broad and capable man but this, he felt, gave him little chance of an honourable end. The Seers for their part watched on with an entirely emotionless devotion to the spectacle.
Skara lay in the dirt for several seconds, dazed somewhat from his head having smashed against the stone and searched the ground around him for the end of the rope. He could not find it for the dust, and raised himself up for a better look however as it cleared, he noticed that the dark shape of the beast had already moved out from the edge of the arena, dragging the rope with it and now stood at its center. Murmesh had created distance between itself and what it reckoned was an already defeated opponent, and was now lining Skara up for one final, fatal charge. A charge that it knew he was too battered to evade and, without his rope and weapon, would be unable to contest.
The creature sized him up from a distance, and Skara realised that this would be his last stand. He raised himself up to his full height and glanced in the direction first of the Seers, and then straight toward He-Tauhasa who only raised his chin slightly skyward as if to acknowledge the gesture. Skara moved back towards the boulder and held both arms outstretched, gripping the rock. Time itself seemed to slow down as he stood clasping the cold stone blocking the eastern entry to the arena and as he did, he recalled the words of a friend, words that suddenly took on a new meaning:
“Should you find yourself somehow trapped, and the only way of escape to move through solid stone.. you will do well to remember to use this. Of it, I can say no more that you would understand.” They were the words of Yamnaya, and they were spoken in reference to the same small, spherical vial that he had chosen to keep with him at all times following their meeting. He had buried it in his robes when he was led from the village, and had brought it with him on this day, tucked into his tunic. Though he might not have understood much about the compound he carried, he knew somehow that it was meant for this moment.
He fumbled within his clothes as the shadow at the center of the arena first kicked at the earth before it, and then broke into a trot and then a gallop toward him. “The vial..!” He panicked, “Where in Anu’s name is the vial..?!” The compound must have slipped from the hidden pocket within his clothes when the beast had belted him against the wall, and as the dust cleared completely he could just see it glinting in the sunlight some ten feet away of him in the direction of Murmesh, who was quickly gaining speed. Knowing that it might be his only chance, his legs sprang quickly and thankfully into action this time, and he immediately dove forward to take it.
With the creature quickly closing in, he leapt forward and landed face down in the dirt in front of the vial and with his outstretched right arm picked it out of the dust and in the same motion, turned and threw it as hard as he could, as accurately as he could at the stone boulder behind. Those in the crowd had sensed that there was something more to the prisoner lunging forward in the direction of the beast, if not just an act of pure insanity and as it closed in held their breaths as one. To Skara’s astonishment, his aim was true and the crystal vial shattered directly in the center of the massive stone boulder.
What happened next caused not only the spectators in the arena to gasp audibly, but the creature itself to stop dead in its tracks. As the invisible contents of the vial erupted over the boulder, an incredible flash of violet light burst forth from it in every direction, as if coming from the stone itself. Many shielded their eyes including Skara, and Murmesh stopped some twenty feet short of the prone man, rearing up onto his hind legs and bellowing in fright. The flash of light persisted for several long seconds, blinding everyone before returning to the surface of the stone, which began to glow a deep and fiery red, giving off an incredible heat as it did.
The boulder flared intensely for another several seconds, before an amazing change began to take place in its composition. Much the same as ice might be heated directly into steam when struck with a hot iron, the stone itself appeared to sublimate in reaction to the compound, becoming lighter than air – the boulder literally dissipated into a thin vapour which was taken by the wind and before anyone realised it, it was simply no longer there. It truly was an incredible moment, the sort for which there is no appropriate human reaction. It might have been reasonable then that Murmesh was the first creature in many long moments to move, as it immediately saw its ticket out from the arena, trumpeted loudly and galloped out through the entrance into the space beyond where before the way was blocked. The great creature roared and thundered past Skara and as it did, the crowd suddenly realised that he was free and immediately descended into uproar.
Skara himself was also stunned, and could not believe that in the massive opening through which the creature fled had stood a giant wall of stone only moments before. As the panic intensified however and the sound of barking orders from He-Tauhasa’s bodyguards filled the air and mingled with the screams of the spectators, Skara leapt to his feet and he too ran out through the opening and into the city beyond. Ihreikas shouted loudly for his soldiers to restore order, and as Skara bolted through the gate he locked eyes once more with the solemn champion of the King for only a moment as he stood beside his master, feeling a cold chill run down his spine as the other man remained motionless, simply staring after him as he ran.
What followed in the great arena was the longest period of anarchy seen within the walls of the capital since the foundation of the city, as men, women and children all scrambled from their positions and made their way desperately either to safety, or back out into the city to warn their friends and family that the beast had been loosed. Skara sprinted straight for the nearest northern exit in the city walls, and as the guards had quickly abandoned their posts to assist in controlling the population, managed to slip away unchallenged.
.. here is a third teaser instalment from a work in progress:
03. The Council of Seven
Ten or twelve yards west of the central hearth, the two approached a large meeting hall some six or seven cubits tall, fifteen wide and around twenty-five deep. Obviously the central meeting point to the settlement, Skara could not help but be awestruck at the size and craftsmanship involved in erecting such a structure. Neither the people of Nevalı Çori, or indeed Çatalhöyük for that matter had ever had need nor reason to commission or occupy such a building. He was truly impressed, and confused for not only was the structure exceedingly large compared to those of his home, but its inner walls were lined with wide shelves on which rested hundreds of strange vessels. Vessels which, unless some magic had clouded his vision, appeared themselves to be invisible and which contained strange and colourful contents. He also smelled the enticing aroma of roasting meat wafting from another building nearby, and began to think that perhaps they had taken a wrong turn.
He raised a finger as they stood by the entryway, prepared to ask one of many questions that he already had, however the other sensed his inquiry and instead first beckoned him to enter and sit at a large stone bench in the centre of the room. “First thing’s first, valley man,” he said, “as discussed, I would introduce you to the leaders of our order to speak further of last night, before we eat. Please, join us for a short time.” One by one, six other cloaked figured made their way into the building from a discreet rear entrance, and also took up places at the bench. In spite of the cold air within the stone room, Skara began to sweat. When all were seated, a single Watcher at the far end of the table nodded to Yamnaya, prompting him to speak:
“Swiderians, Solutreans and Gravettians,” he began, addressing several particular individuals as he did, “we today honour an oath pledged at the time of turning, and in tribute to the human mothers, fathers and benefactors who bore us, and have played a part in our order, our kinship and indeed perhaps by well-veiled mercy, our continued part in this ever-changing world. Brothers, I thank you for indulging me this meeting, and honour your contribution.” At this the other six Watchers balled their right hands into fists and without warning, smashed them down onto the bench, causing a resonating boom throughout the open space of the building and scaring Skara half to death in the process. Yamnaya went on:
“Our world as we well know faces a grave and hastening chapter. We have been blessed with the foresight to know of what force hastens to destroy the lower lands, and close the present cycle of time in preparation for renewal. We know too that the future of our world rests not in the blood of the Ancients, dilute as it remains but in the ascension of men to the mantle of power, however this force, Usumgala would put an end to the line of men. Without man, so many thousands of years of struggle would all be for nothing.” He paused momentarily, and Skara noticed several of the hooded figures around the table nod their heads in agreement.
“We know what must be done, Yamnaya,” said the Watcher at the head of the table, “what we must decide is how it will be carried out. We know that the men of the green valley might be saved at least in part, whether by their own volition or otherwise by our interference, when the time is right. What we must decide is whether it is worth the sacrifice of those men across the sea to focus all of our attention here, and whether if we divide our attention might we fail in securing the bloodlines of either of them. We simply lack the numbers to do both, and to do both efficiently.” Again, several of the other Watchers murmured in agreement with the speaker at the far end of the table, and one whose name was Amagi questioned why they had even bothered to meet in the first place. Yamnaya started again, and seemed to have a plan that he had not yet revealed to the rest of the council:
“Your concerns have merit, brother Modvin,” he spoke loudly and clearly, “however this is what we have been preparing for, and today is why I have brought this man of the valley into the council at Uru-Mah. I am fully aware,” he continued, “that those of the Clovis have precious little time, if enough at all to have their own bloodlines and culture preserved, even if we are to depart immediately to travel across the seas. However I believe that it is possible. I believe that at our current progress, we are ahead of expectations for having completed this compound, and that were we to complete the necessary arrangements, we might secure the safety of those beyond the sea by trusting the men of the South with their own safehood, here in the rise and in the hills beyond.”
Skara was beginning to develop a headache, and was understanding little if anything of what these giants of men were talking about. What were these preparations Yamnaya was referring to, and of preservation from what..? Surely this disaster was beyond their ability to defend, this had been discussed earlier. And who or what were the Clovis..? And what did he mean, travel across the seas..? He rested his head in his hands, as though the weight of their conversation had filled it beyond carriage and stared at the polished stone bench top. “What do they want from me..?” he lamented quietly to himself.
“Brother Okmi,” started Modvin, addressing a particularly sullen Watcher to his right, “you have been charged with maintaining our fleet for time immemorial. Tell us, how long would we need to travel to cross the waters of the Western Sea..?” He turned to the figure, one who had neither muttered nor nodded approval at either man earlier in the discourse, rather had kept his strange head down and, Skara had only just noticed, his eyes fixed on the valley man. He coughed momentarily and spoke:
“The fleet has been ready for an age,” he said slowly, not shifting his gaze from Skara, “and would make port first at the Northern Empire within a week, returning to the region we know as Caral-Supe another three days hence.”
“And if Yamnaya’s plan were to pass, how late would we remain at Uru-Mah before losing this window to the West..?” Okmi’s countenance dropped, and his heavy brow wrinkled as he considered the question thoroughly, “We must depart the Eastern Shores within twelve days, and must not linger a day longer.” He dropped his gaze momentarily from the valley-man, and the rest of the council murmured in discourse of the situation in which they found themselves.
“Yamnaya,” he turned back to him, “do you truly believe that the men of the valley can shoulder the burden you would place upon them..? Does this one, Skara, possess the ability to rally his kinsmen of the South to shelter within the compound at Uru-Mah..?” The remainder of the council turned then and stared at Skara, who felt as if he was sweltering in their gaze, six sets of piercing blue eyes searching deeper than flesh for what they sought to find in him. Yamnaya paused for a longer time than Skara could bear, and locked eyes with Modvin, announcing, “He is the one whom I have chosen, and him it must be. There is no-one else.” Skara felt physically ill, but felt that it was finally time for answers, and spoke:
“Watchers of the North,” he began, his voice breaking as he tried to keep his composure, “I know not of what plans you speak, nor what it is you would have me do. I am but a simple hunter from the valley, and have only last night learned that the children of the Ancients and men do in fact still dwell in the high hills, but I beg of you, tell me what it is you want from me. I would know, and tell you whether the burden is mine to bear.” He felt foolish, and could not help but do so in the company of their order. The council murmured once more, and Yamnaya’s face dropped slightly as he realised that Skara had still failed to fully comprehend the purpose behind their invitation.
“Our order have discovered,” began Modvin, “that you are the head of your village, the leader of the men and women of the place you call Nevalı Çori, is this correct..?” The valley man knew his answer, and said, “In our leader’s stead, I am the head of our village, yes..” to more murmurs from the council, which prompted Skara to stiffen, “and until such time as our chieftain returns from the capital in two moons hence, I am the one who leads.” Modvin continued, “Then, Skara of the valley” he softened, somewhat, “what we offer to you and your kin might be your only hope for enduring the events which those stars have prophesied.” Modvin raised himself from the stone bench, and using his hands to gesticulate, continued: “This settlement, this compound to which you have been invited has been prepared by us, the Watchers so that man may survive the catastrophe which threatens to destroy us all. These walls, these hearths and megaliths have all been engineered by those secrets passed-down to us by our forebears who, in their greatness even so many centuries ago foresaw the coming of the dragon which is of seven tails so that men might persist upon the Earth long after the flames of a great burning have subsided.”
Skara was finally beginning to comprehend the enormity of the responsibilities that Yamnaya had promised him, and the sacrifices that the strange men of the order were making on his behalf. Stunned and not quite sure of what to say in reply, he sat wide-eyed and said nothing, until Yamnaya spoke again:
“Skara, the sands of time run short (a reference which he failed to recognise, but understood in context), and there can be no delay if we are to save your people from annihilation. We have built this city so that you and your kin might hide from the dragon, and return to the world once the peril has passed you by.” He turned and spoke directly to Skara, his pale blue eyes staring directly into his, searching for solidarity, “Can you rally the men and women of your kin to take shelter here, before the new Moon rises..? Can you save the ones you love from the endless Winter, where our forebears failed theirs..?”
Skara’s head was spinning. The scale of what was to come to pass, the thought of losing forever the life he and his family had built at Nevalı Çori and the monumental task of convincing those he had grown to call his kin to likewise leave their world and everything they knew behind was impossible. Impossible, but if what these strange men were saying were true, the only way to avert certain disaster. He stood and paused for a long moment, looking around him at the strange faces of the Watchers of the council, one by one before replying with the only answer that a rational man could give;
“Aye, and damned if this is the truth.” He looked down at the cold stone in front of him, and then back to meet Yamnaya’s gaze, “I will return with my kin to your compound, and if it is the only way, I will bring the villagers out from their homes also, and to your walls for safety. I will do this, because it seems.. that there is no other way.” His reply exhausted him to say, and prompted solemn nods from all of the council of seven before him, even Okmi who for the first time broke his stare completely from the valley man to the stone bench below. He dreaded already the task ahead, and doubted deeply that any would follow him. And why should they..? If not for his own experiences, of seeing the Watchers themselves for the first time in an age and the awesome architecture of their compound he would not have believed it either. He sighed deeply, before asking one last question of the council; “So what now must be done, where do we go from here..?”
“Valley man,” boomed Yamnaya with a broad smile, moving toward the rear entrance to the hall, “come, and I will show you the way.”
Skara stayed amongst the Watchers at Uru-Mah until well into the night, at last sharing a hearty meal and speaking at length with the council, and learning of the secrets which promised to keep the compound safe from harm following the wrath of the dragon. Though he understood very little of their lengthy explanations, he left convinced that theirs was the only refuge against the coming event, and after a heavy meal and a restful night’s sleep beside a warm hearth, he was bade farewell by Yamnaya, Modvin and the rest of the council early the next morning.
Before he departed the plateau, Yamnaya gifted him a pouch containing several strange vials and ointments, warning him, “These elements I gift to you are given to insure against any who might wish to deny you safe passage to your village, and your return to the plateau within the fortnight. They are varied in their uses; some merely for the healing and restoration of one’s constitution,” he gestured towards several lighter-coloured jars to one side of the pouch, “and others that are.. less stable.” He indicated several round glass containers without lids, designed it would seem to be thrown rather than opened, or their contents removed.
“This,” he removed one small and almost perfectly spherical vial, clear and seemingly containing of nothing but air, “this is perhaps the most volatile but powerful of our elements, and should be treated with due respect. Much of the splendour of the great cities of old is owed to it, and without it our ancestors might never have had the ability to construct an empire on the scale that they did. Should you ever find yourself somehow trapped, and the only way of escape to move through solid stone.. you will do well to remember to use this. Of it, I can say no more that you would understand.” The vial felt extremely heavy in Skara’s hands, despite its size and something in the back of his mind told him that this should be kept close at hand, for whatever unknown need might arise.
Yamnaya then bid Skara good luck, reciting a swift prayer in a dialect that was completely alien to him and directed him south from the compound. Skara left through a stone arch at the northern edge of the plateau, and marched with a determined resolve across the grassy plain, through the quarry and out over the ridge of the clearing. He made haste to return to the path that he and Andar had walked the morning before and quickly but carefully made his way down the hillside, dodging and weaving through the thickets and low-lying scrub and eventually arriving at the hillock by the campsite once more. The descent had taken several hours, and by the time he neared the campsite it was already well past mid-morning. “They must surely believe me dead by now,” he mused, “or else taken elsewhere by the Watchers in the hills. I hope against hope they stayed, delayed as I am..”
As he made his way over the crest, he was suddenly stopped dead in his tracks by the fearsome war-cry of a dozen raised voices, yelling loudly from the far ends of spears pointed directly at him. He froze, startled for a moment before recognising that it was just the rest of his hunting party that faced him, wild-eyed and with their bodies and faces painted with the fresh blood of slaughtered game, as if they were prepared to meet in battle with the men of the hills. He immediately started to laugh, in spite of himself as they looked completely ridiculous; hunters and gatherers, grown men with crude weapons in their hands and poorly applied war-paint. Upon noticing that he was laughing, the rest of the party looked around at each other’s faces, and they too began to laugh. No-one could have said they looked any more threatening than a group of filthy children, faces smeared with food and hardly at all frightening. There were however several quiet sighs of relief at seeing Skara return alone.
After several moments, Andar was the first to speak: “Brother, o brother, you gave us quite the fright, you fool..! Where have you been, and what have you seen across the flat.. and what is that silly looking sack you bring, tied to your waist..?” He pointed at the pouch provided to him by Yamnaya, which Skara hastily tucked away into his cloak and out of sight. “Never you mind that,” he replied, “I would tell you of the men of the plateau upon our journey back for I am weary of this travel. Here I am returned and in good health, let us leave this place and return to our kin. That is of course if any of you have had the time to actually hunt while not playing dress-ups in my absence..!” Such a challenge might have raised anger on any other occasion, but no sooner had he finished speaking than the group parted in front of him to reveal four enormous auroch that the group had dragged to the camp late in the evening before, already tied and staked to be carried back to the village.
“By Enki and Anu..!” he exclaimed, “I knew the herd could not have moved far from the valley. This is more than would last the village for days – who of you is responsible for felling these magnificent beasts..?” The two sinewy brothers Gidri and Gizzal stepped forward, backs arched and chests proudly puffed-out as they stood to claim their kill. “We tracked the herd just west of the plateau, and struck as they stopped to drink at the meltwater where several streams met,” started Gidri with Gizzal, the younger of the two continuing, “We struck-down one of them each and dazed by the afternoon sunlight, two more were slain before the rest ran away. We found the others and brought them from the Eastern slopes to help move them.”
The two were clearly proud of themselves, both knowing that as the kill was theirs, two of the choicest shares would be given to the Temen household upon their return. Skara nodded his head in appreciation, confirming, “You two will indeed be given the hind and belly of these beasts, so as you choose. There is however one problem I see with your choosing to slaughter four of these creatures for a party our size. How by Ninurta’s grace are we expected to carry them all back..? We’d need twice our number..!”
They all laughed, knowing well that only two could be returned to the village among the thirteen hunters and began butchering one of the remaining two to cook and eat their fill before departing, so as to waste as little as possible. The final untouched auroch they presented to their Gods upon a pyre in sacrificial thanks for providing once more the game they sought, and with which they might feed their families, at least for a short time.
The group cleared their camp, packed up their weapons and utensils and departed south again. The march home would be a slow and dangerous one, as not only were they severely handicapped, carrying two one-ton creatures between them but also the threat from raiders and wild-men on the roads through the valley was all too real. As always, the duty rested on Skara to raise the group’s spirits and momentum as they marched, and he decided to tell them part of what had transpired across the plateau, careful only to speak of the Watchers and their city and not of the impending doom that called him there. He spoke at length of their strange features, the structures of the compound and of Yamnaya’s visit to him the night before, explaining that they had merely desired to make contact with the men of the valley, in the hopes of making trade at a later time.
“Trade, with those freaks..?” said Andar, spitting in the grass as he did, “They’ve slipped you something in your wine if you’d even consider that. There’s nothing in the world those half-breed monsters – if that’s even what they were – have to offer us. If everything we’ve been told is true, we have absolutely no reason to return to that god-forsaken place, ever.. unless with warriors from the capital to drive them back into the mountains..!” He cursed and mumbled a great deal more about old tales and bad ideas, before adding, “You should have come back to the hunt with the rest of us, rather than wasting a full day and night entertaining those beasts of men.”
Skara wished his brother was right, and by his reaction to talk of the Watchers decided that it would be a monumental task convincing anyone of the valley to return with him to the plateau. He knew he had to figure out an angle by which he could convince his family that what the Watchers had told him was the truth, and if he could convince his family at least, he could avoid returning to Yamnaya empty-handed. For he knew their time was short, and that the stakes could not be set any higher.
The group reached the village at sunset of that same evening, entering the central plaza amidst cheers from the women and children left behind as they caught sight of the massive creatures that the party had brought back with them. Everyone there knew the value of the auroch. Unlike the bison or gazelle, its hide was extremely tough and thick and could be used not only for clothing but as a strong leather to seal the wooden houses of the village. Its fat would be used for many purposes by the villagers including weatherproofing and the treatment of clothing and the meat was of a far greater quantity and more enjoyable quality than any smaller game in the area. Their brothers, fathers and husbands had done well this time, and they knew it, beaming as they welcomed them back.
The kill was placed as always in the central plaza, for the first butchery to take place and the larger portions of the animals to be divided. The men of the hunting party returned to their homes and families and Skara, tackled to the ground on-sight by Harna and Kirti as soon as they saw him took his children back to their mother and himself to a well-earned wash and rest. Sura as always welcomed her husband back with a strong embrace, and for the longest time that he would since remember, Skara enjoyed their company long into a warm and peaceful night at their humble home in the valley. Whatever the coming days might have brought, the memory of those nights spent together as a family were and would remain the best of his days.
The next morning, the Tau family awoke to the loud buzz of friends and neighbours outside their home as they ran and conversed loudly of visitors from the West. The sound of the footfalls of many heavy feet marching into the village from the open road to the capital roused Skara and Sura from their slumber, the children having already awoken and left through the doorway to greet the visitors and they shook the sleep from their own eyes to join them. “Who could this be,” he thought, “to arrive so early in the day, having marched through the night..?” Sura must have been thinking the same thing, asking of him, “He-Xur is not due to return to us for another two Moons, is this not what was decided..?” She looked at him with worrisome eyes, as if he might have had an answer. They both hurriedly clothed themselves in robes and leather shoes and made their way out of their home and on in the direction of the Western gate to see what all the fuss was about. Skara had hidden the sack provided to him by Yamnaya in a safe compartment underneath their house, however had kept one distinct vial with him since their encounter, hidden deep in the folds of his robes. As they rounded a corner, the two of them ran smack bang into a crowd of villagers that had also gathered.
It was in fact He-Xur who had returned to the village a great deal earlier than expected. Their leader had arrived in full dress, sporting a long and flowing cloak and ceremonial headdress, as brilliant upon his head as it was pompous and had brought with him several dozen representatives from Çatalhöyük. Those with him looked more like soldiers than Skara was used to seeing in the valley and he was surprised and concerned at what had brought their chieftain home at such short notice, and why he had returned with such a show of force. He-Xur nodded in recognition at Skara as he passed their quarter in rank and made for the direction of the plaza. Skara bid his family to follow, and they and all of their friends and neighbours made their way behind the troupe to welcome them and discover what all of this meant.
The party entered the plaza in formation, and the soldiers surrounding He-Xur parted to the north and south of the square, holding order while the leader of their group took to a raised podium at its center, and addressed the smiling and cheering crowd for the first time since his departure more than a month earlier.
.. here is another teaser chapter from the ‘Alluvion’ novel:
02. A Watcher in the Dark
The Watcher loosed himself from the surrounding shadow as silently as a bat glides across a moonless night sky, positioning himself between Skara and the direction of the camp and immediately but carefully raised a right hand, palm-forward in a gesture of peace. Tall as Skara was, the hooded shadow of a man in front of him stood almost a full foot taller and cut an imposing and forbidding silhouette against the wanly moonlit sky behind him. He was dressed in a long black cloak, and Skara could only stand frozen, transfixed by the sight of the other figure as the Watcher quickly spoke to him in a deep and even voice, the pitch of which rooted him to the spot:
“Be still, friend, I mean you no harm. The Watchers mean you no harm.” He paused for a moment, as if to assess whether the other might turn and run before continuing, “I am Yamnaya, of the stone city of Uru-Mah. You have come to us seeking wisdom, to know why the stars bleed, is this so..?”
Skara could not answer him, squinting through the darkness to better read the other form. He still could not believe what he was seeing, as if it were some sort of elaborate trick being played at his expense. Could this really be one of them, a Watcher..? Surely the legends were only that.. he shivered visibly then but before he could reach a conclusion of his own making, the figure slowly moved closer towards him and, as if sensing his disbelief, spoke once more:
“I assure you, we mean you no harm and yes, we are the children of the Ancients and men.. your legends tell no lies.” At this, the stranger threw back his hood, revealing the frame and features of a man not altogether human. At least not as any man Skara had ever seen. The stranger’s jaw was strong and impossibly wide, as if hewn from solid stone. His brow weighed far heavier upon his face than Skara felt practical and the form of his skull was clearly evident of interbreeding with another, far more alien race of men. High upon the corners of either brow were also tattooed strange, sharp symbols, the geometry of which he had never seen before and the stranger’s long and flowing mane of hair was practically white about his shoulders. Skara then found his tongue, plucked his courage and could not help but exclaim the following, to the quiet amusement of the Watcher:
“Surely there are two of you beneath that cloak..! I’ve never in my life seen a man the size of you, what is it you mean to say, and what do you want..?” He remembered his spear and clutched it tightly, though making sure not to point the business end anywhere in the stranger’s direction. Before the Watcher could reply, his words registered and Skara again spoke, “We come only to hunt the lands below yours, my company seeks no quarrel with the Watchers in the high hills. Of the Seers and their omens, it’s neither my place nor study to speak of such things,” he paused for a moment, “though I suppose by the sound of it you very well might.”
“What have they told you, your Seers,” sneered the Watcher, doing very little to mask his contempt for the religion of men, “what have they told you of the stars that bleed..?” The figure narrowed his dark eyes toward the huntsman, leaning closer on a gnarled cane that Skara had only just now noticed in the shadows of the other’s cloak. A cane that might have been the width of a sapling and hooked sharply at one end, making Skara uneasier still. He became only too aware of the immediate physical danger this Yamnaya might pose to him, should he rouse a temper. He remained calm, and carefully chose his words;
“Only that it is a sign of great change, a sign of either war or catastrophe,” he gulped, “Some say those mountains of ice move again from the North. Whether this true I cannot say. We of the valley only wait for word from the capital.” He felt uncomfortable giving any information so easily over to the figure, quickly returning fire with a question of his own he hoped might nudge their meeting toward its end, “What is it you want from us, Watcher..? Do you mean to move us from your lands, or else frighten us from e’er returning..?” Skara noticed to his curiosity that although the air around the two had stilled completely, no-one from the company, in spite of the deathly silence had risen to investigate.
Skara chanced at a quick glance at the night sky in an attempt to figure out how much time had passed since he had assumed watch, and whether relief might be on its way. The Moon however had now become obscured behind a thick, dark cloud, and he dared not take his eyes off the stranger for as long as it might take to read the stars. Hoping to keep the Watcher talking, he returned his gaze to him and raised both eyebrows, as if to indicate the other’s answer was overdue.
The Watcher however ignored his question, musing momentarily on the news of the Seers before offering, “Your Seers are half-right, as blind as they truly are. The signs are indeed of ill omen, and speak of a great event that is soon to pass. Your king would do well however not to waste what little time he has on warfare, for what is to come cannot be felled by spear nor sling and nor can it be averted. It is not the gods of men that mar the heavens so, and not even the old Gods of the Ancients. This is the sign of a great and terrible new disaster, the likes of which the world has not seen in an epoch.” The Watcher raised himself to his full and imposing height, and continued as through reciting words well rehearsed;
“The stars of Cygnus themselves do not bleed, they instead reveal to us the hidden presence of a powerful weapon. A dragon of stone and fire, and with seven terrible tails that would spell the end of all men, all beasts of the earth and creatures of the sea. The stars show us the coming of a rain of fire from the skies so fierce that it would vanquish those old foes called the mountains of ice, and cause the oceans to run over the Earth, washing away all but the highest peaks as they do.” His gestures became more dramatic as the intensity of his prediction grew. “When Usumgala, this awful dragon lands, the Sun will hide for an age, and the Moon and stars will be shaken from their stations. If preparations are not made, this event will spell the complete and utter annihilation not only of the people of Silur-Mah, but those kingdoms to the west, and the ones who call themselves the Clovis, far across the seas..” Yamnaya paused momentarily to consider whether he was making himself clear enough.
“There will be a warning, three days the eve to whence the great dragon will arrive. From the head of Cygnus will shine a new star, a beacon that will grow ever greater until those final moments. When the beacon breaks and moves to the East, all will be lost.” He focused on Skara then, raising a long right forefinger as he spoke, “Only the watchers then might give men the tools to endure.”
“But what of this weapon,” said Skara, clearly frustrated but trying to understand, “who is responsible for this, this horrible, terrible power..? Surely there is a way, a way to strike first..” He could not simply accept that there was nothing more that could be done to save his people. He had doubted the words of the Seers, even when the reality of a threat from the Western Empire was so much more plausible, however when Yamnaya spoke, he found he could not dismiss entirely the earnest in his words, nor doubt the seriousness with which he spoke.
Staring out into the darkness and recalling the first march of the mountains of ice, the Watcher replied, “This is a weapon of the world, child, and must return to it. The dragon exists only to mark the close of our cycle..” he paused for a moment, as if reflecting, “and just maybe, the beginning of a new. There comes a time when all dies of the universe must be recast, and the balance of the world restored. Even an empire of a thousand years will eventually fall, and stone crumble to dust. Even the mightiest of men are not Gods, in spite of what secrets they might come to master.” The Watcher knew this only too well, remembering the fate and hubris of his forebears, and their legacies left to him.
It was the alchemy of the Ancients, which had first brought about the wandering Ice from the North those many aeons ago. It was their sorcery and stubbornness, their pathological need to control the world about them that became their undoing. Toying with the laws of nature, and of the seasons, they had believed themselves able to correct for and compensate the natural Winter and for a time, they had succeeded.
For Summer after Summer, the cycle appeared to have changed. Harvest upon harvest had far exceeded all needs of their people, and it seemed to all that they were at the very cusp of a golden age. For every action, however, comes a reaction. The balance of the world, the ebb and flow of the seasons is as much a necessity as night and day and within a generation, their Southern continent was sunk beneath the waters, and the light of the Sun denied to them for an age. In their quest for control, the Ancients had neglected to pay respect to the laws of nature, and its careful balance which cradles all men, and it was this burden that still weighed heavily on Yamnaya’s shoulders.
Skara however still did not fully understand the other’s prediction, struggling to reconcile the justification of such a terrible event against his own lot and the lives of his company. He remembered those men still sleeping by the campfire, and thought only of their lives and families. They were simple folk, hunters, gatherers and craftsmen, hardly possessing of any great powers or delusions of grandeur. Why then must they suffer..? Why would the Gods will such a catastrophe to pass..? He still had so many questions for Yamnaya, of the dragon and of the Ancients. Questions the Watcher had sensed were forthcoming.
“The night wears on, and I would bid you join us tomorrow at Uru-Mah to the north, there I might speak more of these events and those passed. I would urge you to listen to what we might say – a great change is coming, and the fate of your people may well depend on it.” At this the Watcher turned and left, rather abruptly. Skara was not altogether satisfied, but equally unsure whether his persistent questioning and demands for answers might tempt the other to anger.
Skara looked after him, watching the figure stride carefully along an unseen path and had the quick sense to call-out one last time, “How would I find you tomorrow, Watcher..?”
“Lowly Yamnaya called back, “Follow the stones, man of the valley.. follow the stones.”
“Follow the stones..!” he muttered to himself. “What on Earth does he mean, ‘follow the stones’ – bleeding stars and roaming stones. Anu help me.” He prayed a swift and silent prayer to the God of the Sky before starting slowly back towards the camp, shaken and confused by what had just happened.
As the Watcher moved out toward the crest of the plateau and away from sight, a cold breeze started up from the valley once more and chilled Skara through to his bones.
He was awakened the next day by a swift kick to the ribcage. It was late morning, and exhausted by the night’s events he had managed to sleep right through the hunter’s breakfast that the rest of the party had put together. “Get up, lazybones..!” the culprit leaned-in to shout gruffly into his ear, before stepping back to line up another kick, “Get up or by the Gods we’ll go without you..!” It was his half-brother, Andar of course. Who else among their company possessed the courage and lack of subtlety to strike him while he slept..? It came as no surprise to Skara, who rolled over and groaned in resignation.
The two had shared a father, and following the death of Skara’s mother to an infection when he was very young were raised as brothers in his home. They had both been taught to become peerless huntsmen from the earliest age, and both had inherited the stature and fearsome features of their father’s side. While still boys, their constant fighting and competitive edge had been troublesome for their friends and family on many an occasion. As they grew larger and more capable, other hunters and even warriors passing through from other towns and the capital would steer well clear of them as they bickered, waiting for the dust to settle before daring to get involved. It was perhaps only their equally comparable size that had, up to this point, prevented either of them from accidentally (or wilfully) slaying the other.
Just as the massive leather boot swung-in again to strike, Skara threw off his skins and, catching his brother’s foot squarely, threw it up in the air sending him flying backwards and crashing through the makeshift spit and onto what remained of the fire, to the derision of the rest of the group. Andar deftly rolled off from the embers with a yelp, quickly extinguishing his cloak and allowing Skara to jump to his feet in preparation for any further fight from the other man. Andar merely rose and shook the ashes from his shoulders with a laugh, before wandering off to collect his weapons, calling back, “Gather your spear and sling, brother. The day waits for no-one.”
“There is a hunt to begin,” Andar thought cheerfully to himself, “and plenty of hours in the day to strike back.” Such were the pleasures in his life.
The party moved out in pairs and groups of three, two sets of brothers, Skara and Andar and the two Temen brothers Gidri and Gizzal would move northwest and northeast around the plateau. Hurin and Zimah moved west while three sets of three covered the eastern and south-eastern steppes of the foothills, more in search of forage than game. Their names were not as easily recalled by Skara, nor were their skills in the hunt worthy of taking to larger game on this occasion.
“Come, brother,” said Skara, cocking his head in the direction of the hillock where he had stood watch the previous night, “let us stray true north for the plateau, before returning farther east. I have a feeling there are larger prey in the long grasses than the valleys below, pray let’s see if I am right.” He turned and started immediately out in the direction he had chosen, hoping that Andar would value his assertion and follow. In truth, he was hoping once more to pass-by the crest where he had spoken with Yamnaya the night before, if only to reassure himself that the meeting did in fact take place. He had awoken groggy and from a deep slumber, and could have been forgiven for suspecting that the Watcher had appeared to him in dream only.
Andar grunted loudly and stood for a moment, throwing his gaze first northeast and then back towards his brother before setting off in a half-run behind him, calling out, “Aye, we’ll play in the grass if you like, but if there’s no sign of the world’s slowest and fattest gazelle come sunset you’ll cop more than a kick in the ribs, dear brother.” He caught-up to and sprinted by Skara, slapping him upside the back of his head as he did and the two took-off for the plateau laughing as young boys, Skara running straight past the gnarled cane the Watcher had left planted by the hillock to mark the way.
The two ascended the hillside via an unmade track worn into its face, reaching the summit just after the Sun reached its zenith. The plateau was long and wide, at the farthest northern end ascending into a mountain range and otherwise falling-away into steep slopes and sheer cliffs at either side and teeming with wild grasses and blooming wildflowers at its edge. Both men had been hunting here with their father many years earlier, again at the close of a particularly harsh Winter and so both had expected to find fertile grounds as they marched on. The hillsides were sparsely forested, which meant that it was likely for small groups of various breed to seek safety in the tall grasses, where predators could likewise be easily spotted. These lands were of course forbidden, and though they had never shared the fact with their kin, their father was brazen and had never been one to adhere to those laws he did not completely understand.
What first surprised the two as they reached the summit were the appearance of long, fresh trenches cut into the solid bedrock of the southern entrance to the plateau, as if by the massive claws of some titanic creature. Stone had been removed from the ground, and dust and rubble piled-up on either side of what appeared to be a dozen long quarries set into the earth. “What in Anu’s name..” started Andar, before the two of them heard the long and unmistakable sounding of a blow-horn split the air from far across the clearing. The two brothers glanced quickly at each other and as if sharing the same thought jumped-down into the nearest quarry and slowly looked-out over the rim, scanning for any sign of where the trumpet blast might have come from.
Far off across the grass, Skara noticed an imposing shadow that did not fit with his memory of the landscape, rising up above the tree-line on a hill towards the far promontory connecting the plateau to the mountains beyond. From the distance at which they crouched, neither man could clearly make out just what the structure was, if indeed it was a structure at all. It appeared to be the crowns of several large, dark pillars, silhouetted against the rays of brilliant midday sunlight which illuminated the plateau. “There,” said Skara, pointing toward the shadows, “the horn, I think it came from out beyond those trees..” “So what if it did..?” came his brother’s nervous reply, “We’re ill-prepared to do battle. I’ve never heard talk of a village out across these fields, but let whoever it is have it, I’m going back and warning the others.” At this he rose up and out of the pit, crouching low behind a mound of earth and waited for Skara to join him.
“Brother, I would see what lies ahead. Never was there a village in these parts, this I remember, but we are only several leagues from home. I would know who and what they are, and what shadows rise out of the forest ahead.” He recalled the Watcher’s invitation, and felt somehow compelled at least to investigate. “Go back without me, and I will join you at the camp.” At this Skara too rose out of the pit, crouching behind another mound of earth beside it and looked first at the structure in the distance, and then back at his brother for acknowledgement.
“You are a fool, Skara Tau,” started Andar, “we have no idea who or what is out there, come to your senses and come back with me to join the others. Together we might return, at least with greater numbers to look and see.” He grabbed Skara by his right upper arm, and beckoned they both return along the trail that had brought them there. Skara immediately freed himself from Andar’s grip, and slowly moved north around the clearing, hidden by the bushes surrounding it and defiantly called back to him, “tell the others not to approach the clearing, and to wait for my return.. I will be rejoin you before the Sun reaches the valley tomorrow.”
“You are a fool..!” Andar called hoarsely once more, loud enough for his brother to hear but not so loud that his voice might carry across the clearing. He shook his head and crept back to the crest of the hill, and started back down the path in the direction of their camp. “What manner of a woman must his mother have been,” he thought to himself, “that the wisdom imparted to us by our father might be forgotten at the moment’s notice.” In truth, his anger masked concern, as though they may have shared a fiercely competitive streak, theirs was a stronger bond than most. For as we know, blood binds with an unbreakable strength, and forges a connection not only of the body, but the spirit.
Skara set off through the undergrowth, careful not to stray too close to the edge of the clearing where he might be noticed, nor tread too loudly into the frost which still lay in the deeper crevices of the earth, leftover from the throes of the Winter fall. The clearing was a vast and flat expanse, marked by several shallow pools where snow had melted into clear water, and at which several larger beasts carefully came to drink their fill. “Curse those bastards across the way,” he swore under his breath, “that would deny me the chance to prove my right to Andar – I knew there’d be game on higher ground..!” He pressed-on until he reached the line of trees at the far side, and moved through them until he arrived at what appeared to be the edge of a smaller, man-made rise unseen from where they hid earlier. He moved towards the far edge of the tree line, and peered out at what lay beyond.
Just as he first gazed up at the outer wall of a ringed building, catching a closer glimpse of the top of one megalith that peeked over its edge, the horn trumpeted a second time, much closer and louder than before. He saw a band of slow-moving cloaked figures move in unison from within the structure along a carefully maintained road, disappearing from view behind a mound of dark earth that had been piled at the edge of the rise. He quickly dropped to the ground, rolling behind a thick crop of bushes until they passed from view. Skara, as curious as he was afraid then seized the opportunity to get a better visual of the compound, and crept carefully around and toward the summit of the mound of earth, hoping for a wider view. As he reached the ascent he slowly and, without drawing breath, peered over the edge at the landscape beyond.
The tree-line had indeed obscured much; he found there to be numerous smoking hearths and mounds surrounding a half-dozen deep pits, apparently dug as foundations for piles of quarried rock which ringed the outer edge of the second clearing. The earth had been marred in several places by objects and material that had been dragged along, and yet there appeared to be no deep lacerations to the earth around the stone blocks which Skara found strange. All throughout the settlement fires were burning, and many strange and alien looking tents and houses remained partially obscured from view, beyond the edge of the clearing and toward the promontory bordering the mountains beyond.
The stone that lay piled around the edge of the clearing resembled in size and fashion the same stone removed from the great quarries he had passed across the larger plateau, toward its far distant edge. Skara thought to himself, “Surely no man could have moved such an amount of stone so far, without the marks of great effort and the hooves of beasts to pull them.” He then recalled words from his conversation the night before; ‘Follow the stones’.. “Follow the stones indeed”, he laughed quietly to himself as the words finally made sense.
For several minutes, he simply sat and watched the black-cloaked figures wander about the encampment, and as best he could tried to catch a glimpse of their faces beneath their hoods. In truth however, he need not have bothered as by their stature alone, and if he had not dreamt his meeting with Yamnaya the night before, he knew them to be the Watchers, come down from the high hills to the plateau. He had however no idea what this settlement meant, nor the purpose of the strange monoliths which littered the clearing. After several more long moments had passed, he began to feel as though he should return to his brethren, as with each passing minute he felt more and more uneasy, as though he risked being seen.. as though he was already being watched.
“Valley man..!” A deep and familiar voice suddenly boomed from behind him, causing the hairs on the back of his neck to once again stand on end. “Why do you hide in the dirt, did I not extend invitation to you in the evening..?” Skara slowly rolled over, turning his head slightly as if there may have been some chance the voice had not been directed at him. “Come down from your dirt and join us, for we eat soon, and pray. Surely you have not yet hunted your fill, and might meet and share in a meal with us, the Watchers of the North.” He slowly rose to his feet, and proceeded to stumble down to the base of the mound to address Yamnaya, apparently as real as everything else around him, and not the stuff of dreams.
“Aye, hear I am,” replied Skara, feeling nervous, trapped and excited all at once, “though I must be returning to my company. The day drags on, and there is still much we must accomplish before sundown..” “Nonsense..!” scoffed the Watcher, in a rare show of genuine good humour, “The day is long, and we have much to discuss. Pray stay awhile, and let me introduce you to the rest of our order.” The taller man moved aside and with a long, gaunt arm, gestured in the way of the central road of the settlement. Skara felt that it might still be foolish to tempt fate by refusing Yamnaya’s invitation, and so together they made their way through plumes of smoke and into the heart of the village.
Here is a quick teaser chapter, from the forthcoming ‘Alluvion’ novel:
‘ALLUVION’ by Gareth Jack Sansom
ii. Prologue: Fall of the Ancients
‘.. this knowledge was given me, through the words of our elders that when the world was still warming there dwelt to the north a powerful race of men unlike any that we today could call our kin. Hidden far beyond shadow for centuries, they were a cruel and calculating people, possessed of a terrible wisdom and intelligence inherited from ancient times, and which they would have used to control and enslave the free-men of the Southern lands. The Ancient Ones, as we called them, were as deadly in the fields and vales of the South as they were in their cities beyond the mountains of ice, and stories of their raids and acts of savagery on the lands bordering the North remain to this day the tales told to scare our children on cold nights by the firelight.
I have come to know that the Northmen were in fact the first men, who millennia ago had once conquered and subdued the world from the farthest south and across the seas, and through sorceries since lost to them had mastered the secrets of fire and flight. In an age where true monsters still roamed the Earth, the Ancient Ones rose to proclaim themselves as a godhead; a power without equal. Matchless artisans, they had hewn a great many marvels and empires from solid stone, and would have sustained dominion over the world had the great mountains of ice not marched from their Northern realm to reclaim those lands taken from them. In a swift and catastrophic upheaval, the Southern continent which they called their home was too vanished beneath the seas as if by the throes of a wrathful leviathan, leaving their scattered brethren without to endure the coming Winter, near endless as it was.
For the true Gods are indeed jealous, and spare no avarice for the likes of mortal men.
What few survived emerged from the ice aeons later to find a new and different world, filled with new and different people. As the climate warmed and the men of the North ventured farther from conditions they knew, they were shocked at the multitude and prosperity of those frail, primitive creatures that had usurped the now fertile lands beyond their frozen prison. Enraged and incensed by their unearned entitlement, and with minds harkening to prior greatnesses now little more than a fading memory, they declared total and immediate war upon the free peoples of Silur-Mah in an effort to reclaim their world.
It is said then that a struggle for control of the South and indeed for the very survival of humankind spanned generations, costing the lives of countless thousands on either side and by the destructive forces of northern alchemy, reduced cities and vast tracts of land to little more than barren wastes. Only through the sheer strength of numbers were the people of Silur-Mah, or the ‘Magnificent South’ eventually victorious, as although the Ancient Ones may have been blessed with knowledge and extraordinarily long life, their numbers had become scarce and reproduction far diminished. Few that survived were captured, tortured and paraded through the towns of men in the years that followed, the rest put quickly to death in perhaps the most holistic genocide the world had ever seen.
Those half-cast as a result of their capture and the atrocities that followed the burning were exiled to the hills and wildernesses outside the city gates, seldom seen and reviled to the end of their days. It was decreed an abomination that the Gods would allow the blood of Northerner and Southerner to mix, the resulting seed and spirit regarded as a tainted monstrosity in the eyes of their religion. It has been said that the half-cast, miserable as they were came to refer to themselves as Watchers, and that theirs is a secluded and seldom seen settlement I have come to know as Uru-Mah, several leagues to the north.
Hundreds of years have passed since the War of the Ancients, warm and fertile years and seasons that have seen the men and women of the South blossom once more. Villages, through hunting grounds now teeming with game have swollen into city-states, others by tactful trade and military might have become strongholds and places where the higher arts are allowed to flourish, and the religion of the Seers is studied without distraction.
It is from a small village of hunters and gatherers to the south of Uru-Mah called Nevalı Çori where our story begins, in the home of the family Tau on the first morning of Spring, the year 10,908BCE..’
– Skara Tau, 23AC
01. .. of Antlers and Aurochs
“Give that back..!” demanded Kirti in a fluster, “Give me back my doll, or I’ll tell Father and he’ll make you give it back..!” She then proceeded to ball her little fists, clench her tiny teeth and give him as threatening a glare as she could muster, from well above her eyebrows. Small though she was, what she lacked in stature she more than made up for in earnest.
“It’s not yours,” teased her brother, Harna, “Father gave it to us both, and you’ve played with it long enough..!” he exclaimed, before grinning cheekily and running out of the house, his sister at his heels screaming in hot pursuit. He was lying of course, and in truth he could have cared less for the toy, but as with all young boys through the ages, Harna just could not resist winding up his little sister.
The two siblings had been cooped up in close quarters for all of what had proven to have been a particularly long and uncomfortable Winter, and were now unsurprisingly bursting at the seams with energy at the first rays of Spring sunshine. Kirti was five years old, flighty and with soft blonde hair while Harna was nearly eight, tall for his age with piercing blue eyes and thick, dark hair like his father and according to constant reminder from their mother, should know better.
The two ran frantic into the now bustling central plaza which divided the four precincts of their village, spooking a mule laden with fresh fruit and wild roots and nearly knocking over a butcher’s bench in the process. If one thing above all else could be considered vital to the peaceful coexistence of their modest community, it must have been the daily hunt for and division of fresh meat, fruits and roots. It is this fact which prompted the butcher whose table had been upset to raise both children sharply from off their feet by the scruff of their necks before bellowing loudly for all around to hear:
“Where is the mother of these two wild animals, who would nearly cause waste of a morning’s hunt..? Come out and claim them, woman, before it’s them that meets my blade..!” Several villagers, women and children stopped then and looked around, waiting for an answer for what was in truth a frightening thing to say of children.
“Let them down, butcher,” returned a voice from the crowd. A man of staggering height and build moved slowly through the crowd of mid-morning onlookers to address the butcher, graceful and even-voiced in spite of his stature, “they only play as any children might after the Winter we’ve had.”
The voice belonged to one Skara Tau, a huntsman and father to the two children. Skara had himself only just returned from the hills north of the village with his first kill of the season, delayed from a meeting previously arranged with an emissary from the city capital, Çatalhöyük. At this, the other man released the son and daughter and returned to his work, muttering warnings for wild children to no-one in particular as he did. Both siblings ran immediately for their father, Kirti pausing only momentarily to poke a tongue back at the butcher, who dismissed the gesture with a wide swipe of one hand.
“Father, Father..!” gushed the two children, both of them gazing excitedly upwards toward the mountain of a man who kneeled to embrace them both, “Did you meet with Mua’dar..? Did he bring you news from the capital – has he brought word from Ihreikas..?” they blurted, asking whether their father had received decree from their king to the west.
“Yes Daddy, did you bring us back anything from your journey, a doll for Harna, maybe..?” chimed Kirti with a smirk, prompting a red-faced scowl from Harna, embarrassed at the inference that he would actually still toy with such things. He quickly pushed the effigy they had quarrelled over moments before towards his sister, and returned an expectant gaze towards his father, who was still processing their flurry of questions.
“There is word..” he started, “but I’ll have you know in time. Now where’s your mother, I’ve game to have her prepare.” He again raised himself, hoisting Kirti up with a strong right arm and with a gentle left hand upon Harna’s shoulder, guided the two of them back towards the family home. Skara noticed then that their faces had dropped somewhat at the dismissal of their inquiries, and so as they walked discreetly produced two magnificently adorned articles from within the folds of his cloak; one woven headdress, beautifully crafted from vine and bead and embellished with red silk which he handed to Kirti, who squealed with excitement.
For Harna he had been gifted an ivory dagger from the emissary, into the handle of which was carved an intricate relief depicting the hunt and capture of a wild gazelle, its antlers stretching out to form the hilt. The blade was double-edged, and sliced Harna’s thumb ever so slightly as he ran it across its length, to test. “Now you be careful with that blade, child,” Skara warned, “that one is no toy. I had it carved just for you, to prepare for many a successful hunt ahead. I expect you’ll join us in a season or two, despite what your mother might say.”
Kirti bubbled and squeaked over her headdress for the remainder of the walk back to their home, while Harna, transfixed by the craftsmanship of the ivory blade and the promise of the hunt did not say a single word.
The three reached the small wooden hut at the southern edge of the village, and both Harna and Kirti immediately ran inside to admire their gifts, to Skara’s laughter. He then wandered around the outside of the circular building, hoping to find Sura, his wife and the mother of his children working either at the grinding stone or else preparing a bench for the morning’s kill, however she was nowhere to be found. “Strange,” he muttered to himself, “perhaps she has taken clothing, and is with her sisters at the river..“ and before he could finish the thought, two slender hands crept from around the back of his head, covering both of his eyes. “Guess who..?” sang a soft voice, through a creeping smile she could not suppress.
“I’m not sure,” said Skara lowly, trying with all his might to stifle a smile himself, “but it sounds like.. RAIDERS..!” he shouted and turned quickly around and with his barrel-like arms lifted Sura high into the air by her tiny waist, spinning her around several times as she gasped and laughed with delight. He had been away for several days, roaming the hills and valleys in search of game (it had been said that a herd of auroch had passed nearby the village on the day of their departure, an opportunity that if true, simply could not be ignored), and Sura had missed her husband deeply, as always. Skara gently lowered her back to the ground, the two embracing passionately and once again, they were complete.
Skara brought his wife back to the far room of the house, beyond a hanging curtain where they then made love as husband and wife all the more meaningfully for their time apart. As always when he left for the hunt, his wife played constantly on his mind. Her soft voice, gentle curves and the touch of her body. She too ached for his return, and once across the threshold they could never wait for very long before shedding their clothes. Nothing about this was unusual in their village, either. Sura’s passionate cries as she was fulfilled were as typical in the air as the songs of birds, the cries of the newborn or the last breath of the dying. Such was the relationship with love, life and death in the village of Nevalı Çori.
“How was the hunt, my love..?” she asked lovingly from their couch as he caught his breath, “Tell me, did you find the auroch..?” She gazed expectantly up into his eyes, studying them as if believing she could find the answer there even before he spoke.
“Aye, we found a few.. stragglers only, the weak and ill. The herd must have made swift passage across the valley before we set out, possibly spooked by a predator.” He appeared visibly disappointed momentarily, dropping his countenance however he quickly recalled their fortunate return, “We may not have auroch enough to share amongst us, but bison we found on our way back to you – three were taken and remain in the plaza to be divided. We’ll not need leave of the village again for days.”
At this, Sura beamed – a successful hunt often meant a longer time spent together, the four of them as a family. So often through the Winter months, when game was most scarce and the soil unyielding the huntsmen would leave sometimes for days at a time, unable and unwilling to return until sufficient food could be brought back to feed their families. During these times, those left behind would often turn to talk of raiders and speculate as to whether the hunters would return. Sura too had become uneasy during these absences, and often found herself at the receiving end of covetous stares from those children and men left behind. Fortunately however, they were never so far from returning and with the imposing presence of Skara within striking distance, she feared neither man nor beast.
“Always must you leave us, but ever you provide,” she smiled, “I will leave shortly for the plaza, and return with your claim. Meanwhile, pray tell me – did you meet with Mua’dar, and what of it..?” Skara had made a point of keeping his family appraised of any dealings with the capital. As He-Xur, the blood-chieftain of their village had been in the court of their king at Çatalhöyük for many weeks, Skara, as strongest and the most able hunter had been named the honorary chieftain in his stead, receiving all word and counsel from the capital by way of emissary. His duties otherwise were largely unaffected, though a larger claim of any hunt was offered and of course warmly welcomed for his trouble.
“Come,” he replied, “let us gather the children, and I will tell you of Mua’dar and of the capital.” They walked arm-in-arm into the larger room of their home, and sat with their children by the dying morning fire, both of whom stopped admiring their gifts and looked expectantly to their father, remembering now those earlier questions left unanswered. Skara stoked the embers, in an attempt to chase the spring chill from within the dwelling, and started with a long, drawn-out sigh:
“Mua’dar has spoken of tensions in the capital..” he started, furrowing his brow, “the Seers have foretold of hardship, of omens proclaiming a great conflict, a destruction. They say that the constellations bleed, and a time for war again draws near..” he paused for a moment, first to reflect on his words, and then to assess the level of panic in the faces of his kin. Met with only looks of controlled concern and thirsts still unslaked, he went on, “Many of their order interpret these signs as a foretelling of a catastrophe, or famine. They believe that the Gods are once more vengeful toward the South, and would again send forth their mountains of ice to destroy us. Our king He-Tauhasa Ihreikas however, and indeed He-Xur believe this sign to tell of a coming war, of an invasion from the West..”
“An invasion..?” Sura interrupted him, unwilling or able to comprehend just what this might have meant. Nevalı Çori had never seen conflict, not since their kin had settled in the green valleys south of the high country several hundred years earlier. Their village was founded and had established itself as a small but close-knit community of hunters and craftsmen, and was hardly prepared at all for defence against invaders. In truth, the only reason that the bands of nomadic raiders that roamed about the hills and valleys to the North had never attempted ingress into the village was due to the ready abundance of game, clean streams and rivers teeming with fish and perhaps also, the promise of retribution from the capital.
“An invasion.” Skara went on, “Few among the Seers subscribe to this interpretation, but they are the highest of their order and carry the most influence. Ihreikas would risk poorer fortune still to go against the recommendations of his priests, and so considers arming the capital to prepare for war. He would strike our neighbours to the West before they would have a chance to do the same, and seeks counsel on whether to call home his villagers to join him.” Skara stared solemnly into the embers for a moment, considering the gravity of those words spoken. “No command has yet been given. We as they merely await the signs, and can do little more for now.” He waved a backhand at the air beside him, as if dismissing the situation for the time being.
There was a long silence as the three digested the information given to them. After several moments, Kirti was the first to speak, looking her father square in the face and with a complete deadpan seriousness, arguing, “They’re wrong, you know. The signs mean the Gods are blessing me with a sister, so that when Harna steals my toys we can beat him up..!” She laughed and without warning jumped up on her brother’s lap, landing with such force that his eyes nearly popped out of his head. As was the only reasonable reaction to such news. Skara laughed a booming laugh while Sura just smiled, and shook her head.
If only she could have shaken the feeling of dread gnawing deep in the pit of her stomach.
Three comfortable days had passed since Skara’s return to the village before stores had again run low, and the need to send the men of the village out once more to hunt had arrived. The bison from their last trip had been plentiful enough to allow for a great feast on the eve of their return, and amidst open fire and clear skies, the entire village had gathered to celebrate the beginning of the Spring season. In a rare gesture as thanks to the Gods for the end of another Winter, crudely-brewed beer stored throughout the Winter was offered to all, and the merriment and festivities carried on well into the night.
On this day however, Skara addressed his huntsmen asking of them to follow him further north this time, to where the frosts had now only just begun to melt and wild boar and oxen would return to the hills surrounding the green valley. He suspected that larger game would return to the hills quickly in search of fresh blooming plants and grasses, rejuvenated by the coming warmth and not expecting to yet encounter predators that were likely still weak from months of hibernation, or else themselves hunting farther south. Once all were prepared and present he began, addressing them with a trademark curtness: “We head north,” he started, “several leagues and if we must, as far as the foothills of the great plateau. We’re looking for larger beasts this time, and any man able to fell an oxen or auroch has his choice of share. We leave immediately.”
At this the company hoo-ha’d abruptly, and offered farewell and comfort to their families before beginning their long march north. Skara embraced Sura and the children, perhaps a little tighter than comfortable before telling them, “Look after your dear mother as always.” He turned to Harna, “Don’t let any harm come to her, and if you play up – you know I’ll find out.” He gave them both a stern look, before then smiling broadly, matting their hair and after a quick and passionate kiss, bid Sura farewell once again.
Skara did not like to leave Sura and the children, and were it not his duty to would have loved nothing more than to spend his remaining days doting on and teaching them the ways of the world. His stories, few as they were of the capital and of legends passed-on to him by his father, and his father before him, tales of beasts and Northmen, of Seers and spells had entranced Harna and Kirti on long, cold Winter nights by the hearth. He remembered his own sense of wonder in hearing for the first time of the heroism and valiance his forebears had shown in carving through the wild-men and predators that once called the green valley theirs, and of his disbelief at the sheer scale of the War of the Ancients as told by his grandfather. “Surely,” he had thought to himself, “no race could be possessed of such power as those Ancients are said to have wielded.”
If he was to be completely honest, part of him still doubted the truth in many of those stories. Stories that had told of villages and cities burned to the ground in a hail of fire, conjured from the heavens, or of giant war elephants from the North descending from the mountains, armour-clad and as big as hills trampling whole armies underfoot. Compared to the world he knew, the modest life of a hunter in the valley, such stories might as well have come from the imaginations of his children, rather than being told to them. It was his duty, however to honour his forebears by passing down these and other such tales, as much as it was his duty to leave for the hunt to sustain them, and the rest of the village he loved. “Such is my lot,” he ever mused, “and that of the company I keep.”
The group departed the village mid-morning, heading first east to leave the valley, then north by northwest following by night the guiding light of Deneb until they would reach the foothills. There they would camp and prepare for a full day’s kill, praying first to the pantheon for their slings and arrows to fly true, and spears and blades to cut deep. The company on this day was as always every able-bodied male of age, and only children as young as ten and those unable to endure the hunt for legitimate reason were allowed to stay behind. Often this might well comprise the aged or infirm, or the otherwise handicapped however on this occasion only Harna and a number of other young boys were left at home. The Winter had indeed been harsh, and all three village elders that remained that year were claimed before its break.
As they walked, the group began as they always would while still within earshot of the village by breaking into the Lover’s Song, as each of them had heard their fathers sing before them when they too left the mothers of their children, and departed for the lands beyond. The song began, as follows;
“While they, the women did pass on their way
While She, Inana, did pass yesterday
While they passed the day, and did so dancing
They sang sweet songs, and on into the evening
They met us, they met us
The High, the friend of Anu did meet us
The High took us into his arms and He met us
Ucumgal-Ana embraced us about the neck
Oh let us go, so that we might return to our home..!
Friend of Enlil let us go, so that we can return to our home..!
What lies can we offer our mothers..?
What lies can we offer our mothers, Ningal..?
Let me teach you, said She, let me teach you, Inana
Let me teach you the lies of women;
My lover was dancing with me in the square
She ran playfully with me, banging her drum
She sang her sweet songs for me in the square
I passed the day there with her in pleasure
Offer this as a lie to your own mother
As for me, let me make love with you by moonlight..!
Let me loosen your combs on the holy and luxuriant couch
May you pass a sweet day there with me in voluptuous pleasure..”
It is true that the song did go further into much more graphic detail regarding the inferred divine liaison, but it would only serve so much a purpose to delve into this at this point in the story. Suffice it to say, all took care to ensure that their loved ones were well and truly out of earshot at this point.
The company carried on singing, gathering more and more gusto with each verse until finally they were completely beyond sight of the village and once again in the wildernesses without. Skara reflected on their choice, theirs a song for men and men only. A song for those who would leave their loved ones behind, their mothers and women and who might seek to stave-off those feelings of loneliness, of longing for the warmth of home that came to all men. Knowing the Gods might provide, if only a fantasy to warm their hearts on the journey away was comfort enough to many. “Though this as painful as ever was,” he reckoned, “it could not compare with what might come to pass if the Seers visions are true.”
The group carried on their march into the day, crossing dozens of new streams birthed from the melting snow of the slowly thawing North as they went. The landscape was quickly turning from white and grey to a luscious, vibrant green as the waters and warmth fed the blooming hills. Flowers had begun to blossom from their thicket sanctuaries, trees were bursting into life and the air was filled with the songs and whistles of birds returning to nest amongst the canopies. The company felt a renewed sense of vigour as the day wore on, each man happy and optimistic at the visible promise of another bountiful season ahead.
Toward the end of the first day they found themselves making excellent time, having already reached the flats surrounding the foothills and so set a camp and fire to rest and prepare for the coming kill. Though they had not journeyed a great distance from their home, the lands around them were still somewhat unfamiliar and so a watch was arranged throughout the night to ensure that there were no surprise visitors. There had been talk of raiders farther north and east of the lands in which they found themselves, and as many of them were family men there was a feeling that extra precautions couldn’t hurt. The group drew lots for watch, set a fire and settled-in for a restful night’s sleep.
Just before midnight, Skara felt the touch of a cold hand on his shoulder, raising him to take a turn at watch on the northern edge of the campsite. It was a young forager-boy, who looked more than desperate for a good night’s sleep. As was his lot, he grunted, shook himself awake and made his way to the crest of a hillock overlooking the camp on one side, and the long and gradual incline preceding the plateau on the other. He stood first for several minutes, staring into the darkness to allow his eyes to adjust from the firelight he had awoken to, and standing face-first to a gentle mountain breeze, leaned on his spear and waited to be relieved.
Standing alone with his thoughts, he began to recall the folklore which surrounded the plateau, and the high-hills to the north. It had been said, in passing and through storytelling in his younger years that those half-bred, those born of men and the Ancients who called themselves the Watchers had settled several leagues to the north of where they now were camped, though neither he nor anyone he had ever known had ever actually seen them. He had only the stories of his childhood to go by and the warnings of his own father not to stray too close to the high hills, “lest the Watchers take their vengeance.” Children’s stories, he believed. As the years wore on, Skara found less and less patience to entertain the tales and warnings of monsters and beasts unseen, finding drama enough in the day-to-day struggle of the hunt, of a wife and the raising of two small children.
Suddenly however, about an hour into his watch, the winds stilled completely and Skara became aware of a presence, one that was extremely close-by. He started up, pulling his spear from the earth and turned a slow and complete 360 degrees, scouring the darkness for shadows that did not belong, his ears straining for the faintest scratch of movement in the undergrowth. The hairs on the back of his neck at full attention, he called weakly into the night so as not yet to awake the others, “Is anyone there..?” he started and waited a full minute, still straining for any sort of an answer. He called again, this time only ever so slightly louder, and walked softly out in the direction of the plateau, finally beyond reaches of the firelight..
.. it was then that he revealed himself, the Watcher in the dark.