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Ch. 2: Council of war

 

I came to Haven in my early teens, at an age when hair had begun to grow upon my body and girls of my age had had their first flowering. The age at which most parents cast their newly adult children into the world, gone to distant villages to marry there and build ties of blood and kinship. This practice had such long roots in our history that none questioned it, yet in no way did that make it easier; a dozen years spent in one place sets down roots that are painful to uproot. But my parents were farmers, hardworking and earnest even for that trade, and it was no life I sought for myself. I’d shown talent at the Temple school, and though I had no desire to become the servant of a priestess, the notion of learning fascinated me, as it still does, and I spent as much time reading in the Temple library as my parents would permit. Thus it was that when my friend and fellow student, Talmin, took up the priesthood and chose to move west to Haven, it was predictable that I would choose to accompany her and the older priestess who had come to obtain an apprentice for her Temple.

Though the prospect of travel and freedom from the soil excited me, the journey was remarkable mostly for its length and difficulty, as the land much resembled the lands where we'd been born. The roads scarcely deserved the name, and much of our early travel was uphill into a range of low mountains. Life in a midsized city had not prepared us for such hard work, and our feet hurt near as much as our hearts, but healed sooner. I’d hoped to see something of the Shadow I’d read so much about, but the Light the priestess carried kept it too far away for sight, even after we’d left the most densely inhabited areas and entered the wilderness.

Haven proved to be a farming community much like those surrounding my first home, but uncommonly wealthy—so much so that it supported a population of several thousand souls. But it was far enough out towards the fringes of our kingdom to receive few visitors. Distance and the mountains ensured that. When they could be bothered to make the difficult journey across the mountains accompanied by wagons, the king’s soldiers came to collect the harvest taxes, and this was the only time of year Haven received any tangible confirmation that it belonged to a kingdom. On the other side of the mountains, where I'd been born, we'd never resisted paying the tax; these hardened warriors had the look of men who would as soon kill us as collect our tithes. And perhaps we got our money’s worth, for there were no brigands to disturb us. Of course, in Haven, that situation may have been more the result of our distance from the capitol than any benefit of paying our taxes, for beyond our fields there were old and untrafficked lands seemingly rich enough to support a wide variety of life yet untenanted by any humans. Those of us who were better-read, including Talmin, wondered whether a previously unsuspected proximity to the legendary Shadow might be responsible for the richness of the land, as if in some way the Light grew more vigorous in proximity to its opposite.

I have said that Haven was remote, and so it was. Apart from the annual taxation in the fall, which did not come every year, and the occasional arrival of more young adults to our village and the departure of some natives for other villages, we had only two visitors I can recall. The first was a minstrel, come to see the limits of the kingdom; he stayed only long enough to confirm that there was nothing here to sing about. The other, a quiet young woman, passed through on her way to what she hoped might be Shadow, staying only long enough to explain her desire to learn more of our eternal foe from intimate study. She never returned. Talmin, better educated and more charitable than most Havenites, applauded her courage; the rest simply assumed her a madwoman with a death wish.

When the king’s men failed to arrive to steal their share of our hard-won crops, Havenites thought little of this; perhaps they had failed to essay the mountains when winter looked to be coming sooner than in other years, which had happened before, so we felt no sense of alarm. Our first true sense that something had changed for the worse came nearly 2 years later, when the newly adult youth sent back towards the heartland of our kingdom returned, accompanied by scores of villagers from a town I'd never heard of. Those capable of explaining told of something terrible that had befallen their town: the Light had been suddenly extinguished, and only a few lucky souls had escaped the encroaching Shadow with their lives and such possessions as they could bear on their backs.

Alarming though this was, I was too young to worry long, nothing much happened in the wake of their arrival, and it was some time yet before Graemor would arrive. In any event, there were compensations. My labors in the fields were interrupted by the need to build shelter for the newcomers before winter, a task for which every able-bodied person who could be spared from the harvest was recruited. Among the newcomers, I met Mareth for the first time. She was short, and unusually attractive, with almond-colored skin far lighter than my own and short, curly hair. But she was also attractive in the way of a woman just come into young adulthood, and I was newly enough adult myself that I felt an unfamiliar attraction that went beyond the companionship of youth.

I tripped on a furrow, nearly falling beneath my burden, and that brought me back to the present. Now, several years later, I entered Haven with an easier stride and feet that didn't hurt, for years of exertion on behalf of Graemor had toughened me. The weight of my physical burden—the farmer had been a strong woman—slowed my steps, but no more than the deer and other dead creatures I'd carried home from the forest. The weight of new knowledge was a heavier burden, and made me long for time to think things through and determine the best course to follow. I was by no means the wisest man in the village, and that course was by no means obvious. I would certainly tell Graemor—there was no question of that—but what I would tell him was far less clear.

Many eyes were upon me as I passed through the fields surrounding the village, but the farmer’s family lived on the far side of town, and the other farmers were too busy in their fields to approach and confirm what they already suspected. But as I entered town, sweating beneath the summer sun and stepping from dirt road onto cobblestones, more eyes turned upon me and as I walked towards the Temple, a small crowd gathered in my wake. Yet they were silent, scared by the sight of death or the knowledge that Shadow had claimed yet another of our small number.

As always upon returning from Shadow, I made my way towards the Temple. I would return the woman to our maker, then cleanse myself of the taint of Shadow and re-establish my humanity. It was a curious feeling, made of equal parts reverence for the task I performed, joy at feeling the warmth and comfort of the Light, and—far more sinister—regret at losing the euphoria that came with complete mastery over myself and my world in Shadow. Graemor had warned us against that euphoria countless times, and against the danger of giving in to its constant temptation and abandoning oneself to Shadow forever. Although our master never said this explicitly, there were strong hints he'd lost companions to Shadow in the past, and had no intention of losing more.

Our village Light was housed in an unremarkable stone building at the center of town, surrounded by a low wall of undressed stone and bordering on the mortuary. Behind the wall, a small kitchen garden grew in lush abundance, herbs perfuming the air and a profusion of flowers blooming year-round, no matter how harsh the winter. The building itself was unornamented in any way, save for its concealing shroud of ivy, for the Light's philosophy had always been that what lay within was more important than any external ornamentation. The only obvious sign the building differed from the buildings surrounding it was the warm effulgence that escaped its broad windows, visible even in the bright sunlight. The Temple was bigger than most of the surrounding buildings, but had never been expanded since its original construction. Thus, there was room enough for a large family to gather for rites such as births, marriages, and deaths. But there was room for perhaps one in four of the villagers to stand those few times a mass gathering was called for; fewer still if tables and chairs were set up.

Taking care to avoid knocking the farmer from my shoulder, I eased through the narrow opening in the stone wall that separated the yard from the street, grateful for the opportunity to relieve myself of at least one burden. With my free hand, I rang the bell hanging by the door, and without awaiting a response, walked past the Temple and into the mortuary. There, I laid the farmer on a slab and settled myself to await Talmin. While I waited, I composed myself and focused my attention on the Light’s warmth, which I could feel washing over me even through the thick stone walls. It was soothing, and in its presence, I felt Shadow’s distant tug receding from my thoughts.

“Amodai? You found her?”

I focused back on the room. “Yes, Talmin. Too late, unfortunately.”

My priestess friend crossed the room and stood beside me, eyeing the corpse with obvious sorrow, but also with a faint trace of revulsion at what Shadow had wrought. “May the Light have mercy on her soul.”

I rose and hugged her. “If it helps any, she died from shock at what she was experiencing, not from anything more horrific.”

“That’s some comfort. It’s bad enough knowing what Shadow can do without adding the horror of a mauling.”

There was revulsion in her voice, and the inevitable fear of one who, despite all her learning, had no direct experience with Shadow and thus, didn’t truly understand. I fought down the feeling of superiority that inevitably rose in me when villagers demonstrated their incomprehension. Talmin was a good friend and I had no cause to feel contempt. That so few of us had the courage to face raw Shadow did not, in itself, make us virtuous.

“You’ll tell her kin?”

She nodded here head, nose wrinkling at the stench of death I'd been unable to fully clean away. “I’ll clean her up first, though. No sense making this any harder on her family than necessary. You’ll be here to help me bring her into the Light?”

“Yes. I have my own return to make while you prepare her. Come get me when you’re ready?”

"Of course."

I made my way to the room that housed the Light, feeling its welcoming pull intensify. The Light itself lay in a small sunken area at the center of the room, its wavering flame reaching to the high ceiling and disappearing, quietly bathing the room in its soothing glow. If one concentrated, that glow rapidly became one’s whole world. There were rituals the religious observed, but having faith rather than religion, I chose my own, simpler path. I knelt beside the light and concentrated. When there was nothing else in my world, I relaxed my mind in a certain way and felt the last residual traces of Shadow draining from me; as always, it took some effort, like stretching a cramping muscle in just the right way to make the cramp subside. There was always resistance, but this close to the Light, the resistance was easy to overcome. So I relaxed, letting myself be soothed and restored.

After a time, I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Amodai? I’m ready.”

I exerted my will once more and the room gradually came back into focus. Talmin stood beside me, her face composed, and I rose, my knees twingeing from kneeling on the hard floor. Briefly, I regretted not being in Shadow, for there I could have changed myself into a form that would make kneeling more comfortable, or could have made the ache in my knees vanish with little more than a careful thought. I said nothing of this to Talmin, certain she’d consider it blasphemy. Instead, I ignored the ache and followed our priestess into the mortuary.

The farmer had been washed clean of the residues of death, and now lay calmly on the slab, clad in the traditional simple white robe. Her face and body were subtly distorted by Shadow, but not as badly as some I’d brought back; she hadn’t been exposed long. Stooping, I lifted her onto my shoulder and brought her back into the Temple proper. There, I laid her beside the Light and stepped back to observe as Talmin began the rites for the dead, singing in a strong, clear voice. As I watched, the Light expanded and gently enveloped the body, gradually returning its outlines into their original shape. It was strange watching something inanimate change shape outside of Shadow, as living beings could only do inside Shadow. Strange, because although it was comforting to know the Light cared for us in this manner, it was disconcerting to one who’d lived in Shadow to see how powerful the force of stability and resistance to chaos could be.

By the time Talmin had completed her prayers, the farmer was indistinguishable from the rest of us save only for the indefinable lack that separated a corpse from an inhabited body. I returned the body to the mortuary, where her family would come at the end of their day. I met Talmin’s eyes wordlessly, then we parted, she to seek the farmer’s family and inform them of their loss, me to relinquish my second burden.

***

I sat before Graemor, in a comfortable chair in his nearly empty room above the tavern, and watched the play of emotions upon his face as I sipped from the unglazed clay goblet of wine he’d poured. Graemor was old, perhaps as old as 50 winters, though most of us didn’t believe it. He was far too strong and vigorous to be carrying such a burden of years; surely it was only the effects of wind and sun. The leader of the Rangers—and in some ways, the true leader of our village these days—had the worn face of one who’d spent his whole life outdoors, patiently enduring the lash of harsh weather, and his hair had gone the grey of slightly tarnished silver. The horrible scar that puckered the left side of his face, running from his mouth up under the leather eye patch that hid his missing eye, pulled that side of his face into a wry grin. The undamaged side of his face showed worry, and his right hand rubbed fiercely at the short stump of his missing left arm.

“Master?”

“Forgive me, Amodai. Your news has brought back very old memories, and not pleasant ones.”

“Your wounds bother you?”

Graemor shook his head like a dog shedding water after a swim, and the worried look was replaced by the familiar calm competence. “No more than usual, and less than they sometimes do. No,” he went on hurriedly, “it’s the memory of that name that bothers me most of all.”

“You know him?”

The curiosity must have been plain on my face, for he smiled. “Yes.” He paused, watching the impatience grow on my face, then continued when I could bear the suspense no more. “Yes, I know him. He was there when I lost my eye, my arm, and my home.”

“He was a friend?” I blurted out.

Graemor laughed. “No, but neither was he an enemy. What he truly was I cannot say. This was early on, you understand, when Shadow first encroached on my homeland, and as you are now, I was a Ranger and a protector of my people. But then, as now, the shadowbeasts had only begun to approach the Light and take our people from us, many never to be seen again and others that it would have been better had we never seen them again.” His eyes filled with a peculiar pain we Rangers had seen often before; it was as if some terrible loss had struck him in his youth, and the pain of that loss had only strengthened as the years passed. None of us had dared question him on that subject, both from compassion for his loss and from fear at how agitated he grew and how he might lash out if pushed beyond what he was willing to reveal. Though he never lost his temper with us, the simmering temper we sometimes evoked was ample warning for us to back off.

“So I did what you do now, haunting the darkness closing around our town and seeking to guard my folk from its denizens. And one day, as I’ve warned you to fear, some great monster from Shadow caught me with my guard down and savaged me. I lost my eye, and my arm, and would have lost my life had I not been fortunate.”

“Mohri saved you?”

“Perhaps. I know that I wounded my attacker badly enough to drive it off, though perhaps I fool myself and it was only that my arm satisfied its hunger. I know that somehow I managed to shift my shape enough to stop myself from bleeding to death, as I’ve taught you to do. And I know that I lost consciousness from the horror of what had been done to me, and from the pain and loss of blood. When I awoke, Mohri was there, guarding me, with a fire going to keep me warm... and keep me in human form.”

“I thought you warned us never to light a fire in Shadow?” Graemor had been more than clear about the risks posed by one’s own shadow, cast by the light of a fire. In the world of Shadow, such seemingly innocent things could become sinister indeed.

“I did, but there are times when even that risk is necessary.”

“So Mohri was there to guard you.”

“So it seemed, though he spoke as evasively as he did to you, and left me with a vague sense that not all was as he portrayed it. I distrusted his excuse about coming from somewhere far away, for who among us has traveled so far within the lifetimes of our oldest seniors? Well, the King’s men, perhaps, but he was not one of them. So at first, I thought him no more than some unusually clever shadowbeast, playing games with me to learn more about our people.”

“But you no longer believe that.”

He sighed, and the worry crept back onto his face. “I’m no longer sure what I believe. Though it’s hard to credit his story, I can’t imagine that he’s a true child of Shadow, for later, on my invitation, he joined me in my village and came into the Light. What little we know of Shadow tells us this would be impossible for one born of Shadow.”

“Yet you still sound uncertain.”

“Yes. For shortly after Mohri came among us, he left again, and one day after I returned from patrol, I found my village gone.”

Gone?” I sat up straighter, alarmed at the naked pain on his face.

“Gone. Oh, the buildings were still there, for that which lacks consciousness is always proof against Shadow, but our Light had been extinguished, and not one of the townsfolk remained; all others save those of us who had learned to live in Shadow had been changed, and either died of the shock, like our farmer today, or went over wholly to Shadow and fled who knows where.”

“And you survived somehow.”

“I did. I built a fire, knowing only some of the risks that my action entailed, and slept that night beside it with such of my companions as dared risk it. In the morning, those of us who remained made a supply of torches and set off into Shadow, heading for a village we knew of a few days’ march away. Few of us survived that journey, and fewer still survived when that village too was engulfed. Some fled, and for all I know may still live in some oasis of Light far away in Shadow, but others simply gave up and let Shadow take them.” He shuddered visibly, and I suddenly felt less confident. Thus far we'd been taught that the Light would protect us, but apparently that teaching was incomplete.

“And now you are here with us, helping us to ensure that this never happens to us.”

He caught my eyes, and for a moment despair peeked through his control. “No. Though that is indeed my hope, my past suggests otherwise. There are times when I feel that we can hold out forever. Today is not one of those times.”

I fought down the fear his words awoke in me, and steered the conversation back to safer ground. “But at least Mohri saved you.”

Graemor looked away, shaking his head wearily. “Or perhaps he was the one who took my eye and arm, and has only returned now to take something far more precious from me. Amodai, I simply don’t know. I never felt any evil in the man, if such he is, but neither did I feel the sanctity of a child of the Light. Now, all I can think is that if his return gives me no reason to fear, neither does it provide cause to be optimistic.”

He rose from his chair and paced abruptly over to the door. “Leave me now. I need time to think before I bring this news to the Council, if indeed I choose to do so. Speak nothing of this to anyone until I give you permission.”

Neither instruction was a request, so without another word, I fled his home and went seeking comfort elsewhere.

Continue reading: Chapter 3

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