Posted by: lordkyler | February 6, 2016

Short Story – Two Nations (Part One)

Since I’m currently in the thick of Lithra IV, content has been a touch sparse around here lately. With that in mind, I thought I would post something I’ve written previously to fill in the dead space while this book is in the works.

Two Nations is a short story – possibly a novella – set in the world of Lithra, written for release with the third book in the series. This is a story that took me a long time to write, and required multiple attempts. In the modern parlance, it was a b**** to write.

Clocking in at over 17k words, it’s longer than I’d planned on, but for some reason I felt it was important to do this story justice. I’m not sure I succeeded, but I ended up with something at least partially worthwhile, and I thought it would be nice to release it early here on Tales in Progress and give some commentary along with it. I’ll release a new segment each week until the conclusion. Let me know what you think, yeah?


Overview

As you may know, each Lithra book is accompanied by a collection of short stories set within the same “universe,” usually showcasing side characters or world-building events. This novella falls into the second category, detailing the first explorers to the lands where the main stories eventually take place.

Sometimes these stories have no real connection to the main book, but this one serves a very important and deliberate function, serving as a bridge between Book III, a prequel set in the southern deserts, and Book IV, which – spoilers! – deals with the Karod, the indigenous people of northern kingdoms. This gives it a link to Book III, gives some vital context to Book IV, and provides and interesting point of conflict between the two groups.

I don’t want to give away too much of the story before you experience it, so I’ll save the commentary about my further intentions until the relevant section has been posted.

And so, without further fanfare… Two Nations.


Sennius crouched low in the saddle and spurred his horse desperately, coaxing every dram of speed from the stallion. His pursuer rode close behind, a younger woman with long black hair streaming behind her, laughing manically as she closed in. She rode a pale courser with expert skill, and Sennius knew that she would not stop until she overcame him.

They rode along a game trail that snaked its way up the side of a hill broken by outcroppings. Mossy boulders poked through the shrubs like the knuckles of an earth spirit, forcing them to cut back and forth constantly as they climbed. Thinking quickly, Sennius suddenly wheeled to one side, sending his horse toward a rocky shelf that broke the slope of the hill.

“Nightwind, hie!” Sennius called, and the stallion leapt, clearing the obstacle easily. The woman tried to follow, but her horse balked at the jump. The woman swore and wheeled around, forced to follow the rambling path.

Sennius felt a rush of relief, and quickly made the most of his advantage. He found other places to repeat the trick, soon building a solid lead. He was grateful for it. He remembered all too well what had happened the last time the woman had bested him. He wasn’t sure if he could endure that again.

Before long, he was nearing the crest of the hill, nearly to safety. The slope began to slacken, and the boulders gave way to thick brush and wild hedges. Nightwind could force his way through some of it, but they had to weave around the larger bushes. Still, despite the steep climb and rapid turns, the stallion held up well. It was of royal stock, after all, and in these colder climes, there was little danger of overheating. Sennius smiled, sensing a sure victory. Only a little further yet…

He glanced over his shoulder to make sure of his lead. He saw nothing. Satisfied, he looked toward-

Wait  He had seen nothing. There was no sign of his pursuer. Had she suffered an accident? Had she given up? Or…

With a yell, she burst out of the brush ahead of him, causing Nightwind to shy away and lose speed. Cursing, Sennius wrenched his mount back into line, but it was too late. She had already reached the tall pine that marked the finishing point. Nemia had won yet another race.

“Venom and bile,” Sennius cursed. Scowling, he reined Nightwind in and trotted up to meet his sister. She watched him approach with a victorious smile. “How did you do it?” he demanded.

“Nightwind may leap better, but my Sandstorm is faster,” Nemia gloated. “We found a place where a landslide had cleared the undergrowth, and that gave us a straight pass to the summit. I thought about waiting for you there, but I found the idea of an ambush far more amusing.”

“Of course you did,” Sennius said. He ran his fingers through his long dark hair and shook his head. “Eitra curse me for a fool.”

“I think Eitra cursed you enough with your face,” Nemia said, smirking. “I think I shall be the one to curse you for your foolishness. Do you remember our bet?”

“All too well.” Sennius spun Nightwind around, riding back to check on the caravan, though he was certain it would not help him escape her merciless teasing. At the bottom of the hill behind them, an orderly train of wagons, horses, and people were making their way up the gentler slopes to the east, following their two rambunctious rulers.

Sennius and Nemia were the heirs of house Mitherias, a young but rising power that seemed bound to become one of the great houses of Nevinia. They were bold, ambitious, and had strong claim to the royal bloodline. And so when both Oracle and Emperor had called for settlers to expand the empire, it came as a surprise to many that House Mitherias was the first to volunteer.

It was a gamble, for certain. To establish a colony could bring great power if successful, but it was a costly maneuver, both financially and politically. Making this bid required them to split their forces and supply a caravan traveling to unknown lands for an indeterminate amount of time, with no guarantee of safety or reward. But Mitherias was known for boldness, and they took the leap whole-heartedly, sending their primary heirs to lead the expedition.

The other volunteers had mostly been minor houses in poor straits, pulling up their roots in hope of finding a more hospitable home to the north. There had been only two other great houses that volunteered any effort, the ancient and devout House Chiar, and the free-spirited roaming house of Saaren. Both wanted a stake in any developing colonies, but neither had committed so fully as Mitherias, and so the Emperor had decreed Mitherias to be the leaders of the expedition.

And they had led well. The journey had been long and toilsome, and many had died, but they persevered. They spent a year blazing a trail through the treacherous badlands that had stopped their ancestors from venturing northward in the past. When they came to an archipelago, the desert-dwellers became makeshift seafarers, building rafts and barges to jump from isle to isle, and traveling when they could between the land bridges that appeared at low tide. After that they had wandered through endless grasslands, fending off wolves and hunting grazing beasts.

It had been three long years since they left their homelands, but Sennius and Nemia were still hopeful. There was no place that had met the criteria promised by the Oracle, but Sennius was convinced that they were growing close to their predestined destination. Such promising vistas as these had lifted his weariness and raised his spirits, which is what had led to him making foolish bets with his sister.

“Imagine, a whole sonnet dedicated to me,” Nemia said, nudging Sandstorm into a gentle trot. “I will confess, I have often thought that I should be a fine subject for poetry. And to be read before the whole assembly! I grow giddy at the thought!” She mimed a swoon.

“I think I have the first lines already planned,” Sennius said. “Oh Nemia, that blossom of the desert, bedecked with thorns and withered with the-” He stopped midverse as the shrubs suddenly fell away, revealing the landscape on the far side of the hill. Nemia punched him in the arm with good humor, but when he failed to respond, she turned to see what he was looking at, and her jaw dropped.

Before them, a narrow valley lay between two small, snow-peaked mountains, a corridor of green in all the splendor of spring. Fir and aspen hugged the hillsides, and spreading oak and elm provided a green canopy below, cut through by the twisting silver ribbon of a river. Here and there, vibrant splashes of color were visible among the trees, clearings filled with wildflowers.

They had reached their land of promise.

All other thoughts were instantly driven from Sennius’s mind. This was the day he had been waiting for, the day when he first laid eyes on their new home. Already he could see the perfect place for a village, against the shores of a shimmering lake. There were fields that could be planted, there stood a perfect hill for a watchtower, there a river would water cattle…

Movement caught his eye. While he had been daydreaming, Nemia was already descending into the valley. Sennius cried out in playful anger and hurried to join her. She allowed him to catch up, and together they descnded into the valley like conquering heroes, rulers of a new kingdom.

They meandered downward at a leisurely pace, letting the horses rest and basking in the beauty of the land. They spoke very little. There was no fortress that could match the strength of the mountains, no royal palace in more lovely.  After about an hour, they reached the forest at the base of the valley. Here the trees were tall and majestic, spreading vaulted branches far overhead like an emerald ceiling. Their trunks were thick with moss and creepers, and on the sun-dappled floor, grass and ferns formed a carpet soft enough to sleep on. Even the insects were glorious; bees buzzed like specks of living gold among the flowers, and moths wafted by on wings of scarlet and sapphire.

Sennius felt a weight about this place, a sense of awe and majesty that descended on him like a mantle. This land was so rich, so full of potential. He had always harbored doubts about the Almighty, but right now he felt as if he were in a cathedral, some hallowed place where all dark thoughts were banished. Those in the church sometimes called Eitra the great Artisan. Seeing this place, he could almost believe it.

They came across a clearing, so bedecked with wildflowers that it looked like a treasury’s worth of jewels had been strewn across the grass. Nemia could no longer contain her glee, and she quickly dismounted, announcing her intentions to try and pick one of each type of flower. Almost as soon as she had begun, she found her hands too full to continue.

“Well, are you going to help or not?” she demanded. Sennius smiled and dismounted, then brushed aside a string of bell-shaped flowers in vivid scarlet. Hidden behind them was a single white blossom, delicate and pure. He plucked it and proffered it her. She stared at it for a moment, and then laughed. She dropped the garden she had gathered and put his offering in her hair.

“What are you thinking?” she asked, grinning.

“I am overwhelmed,” he answered, gesturing to the skies. “This place is beginning to make a believer of me.”

“If you converted, that would be enough to make anyone a believer.” When Sennius did not rise to the remark, she sighed and said, “I feel as though I could stay here forever, but we had best return to the caravan and make sure all is well.”

“Just a moment. There is something I need to tell you.”

“Pray tell.”

“As the one who discovered this valley,” Sennius said grandly, “I am entitled to name it.”

You discovered it? I was the first one to set foot here.”

“Yes, but I was the first to lay eyes upon it,” Sennius said, grinning. “That counts first.”

“Oh, please. If two warlords come upon an oasis, they will not concede to whichever spied it first.”

“Neither would you say a man discovered an oasis because he had tripped into it,”  Sennius said, rolling his eyes.

“If he were the first one to find it-”

Sennius cut her off. “That isn’t my point. Here, just look.” He took a few steps into the forest, throwing his arms wide as if to encompass the whole region. Nemia followed, scowling slightly.

“I discovered this valley,” Sennius said again, and held a finger up to hush her counter-argument. “And I’m naming it after you.”

Nemia’s jaw dropped for the second time that day. To name a place like this after her was practically to call her a goddess. Sennius smiled at her surprise. Despite their sibling rivalry, he could think of no one who deserved this honor more.

She threw herself at Sennius, catching him in a hug that nearly sent him sprawling. He stiffened awkwardly, but managed to pat her on the back a couple of times. She held on just long enough that he suspected she was teasing him for his discomfort, but then she stepped back, and he could see tears shining in the corners of her eyes. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“I was hoping this display of gallantry might free me of my… obligation?” he asked hopefully.

Nemia grinned impishly and headed back to mount her horse. “No, of course not! In fact, it must all the more epic.” Sennius sighed, and Nemia seemed to relent just a shade. She swung into the saddle and pondered for a moment. “If I am the valley, you must be the mountains.”

“Majestic and strong?”

“Cold and hard,” she laughed. “Come, we must get back before it is fully dark. Now then,” she continued as Sennius mounted and joined her, “I’ll expect many beautiful comparisons to the flowers, of course, but I think you could work in some lovely things about the river…”

They hurried back to the caravan as the sun sank into the bosom of the mountains. They made good speed returning, and by the time they rejoined the group, Nemia had practically written the entire sonnet for him. “‘…and like the stars that span the sky, so Nemia is more than I,’ and then perhaps you could shed a few tears.”

“I am certain that by the time I finished all of that, I would be so parched that I would have no tears to give.”

“There is water aplenty here,” Nemia pointed out. “Look, see?”

The caravan had made camp around a small copse of birch trees. Everything seemed in good order, with horses secured and campfires glowing cheerily in the reddening light. At the edge of the grove, a natural spring formed a bubbling pool, and several younger members of the group were playing with abandon in the water. Nemia hurried over to join them, dragging Sennius with her, but they stopped when they found the Patris Dhomian, head of House Chiar, standing on the bank, watching with a slight expression of disapproval.

“What is the matter, good Patris?” Nemia asked, struggling to adopt a serious attitude. Sennius found it somewhat easier. The Patris was holy and wise, to be sure, but he had a way of withering levity with his serious expressions.

“You are well?” he asked. Sennius nodded, and the Patris sighed. “I would not be one to deny these people of a celebration, especially after so much hardship.”

“I have certainly never known the church to get in the way of a good time,” Sennius said with a straight face. Dhomian ignored his sarcasm, as always.

“And yet,” he continued, “I cannot help but feel that perhaps we are a bit premature. We still have not fully explored this paradise. If it is sacred, as I suspect, we may find ourselves unwelcome. Perhaps even cursed for defiling it.”

Sennius frowned as he considered this. Dhomian might have a point. The land might be sacred. It might also be dangerous. Things that seemed too good to be true often were. It would be well to exercise caution.

Nemia, however, seemed less concerned. “Surely even the strictest of gods could not fault us for one day of revelry,” she said. “Tomorrow we will begin work in earnest, but for today let them be merry. You might even have some fun yourself,” she added, though the look on Dhomian’s face made it clear that this was unlikely. She ran to join the crowd in the water, calling for Sennius to follow her.

Sennius hesitated before joining her. “Guards have been posted?” he asked Dhomian seriously. The Patris nodded. “Good. Have Versian take his riders and do a quick patrol.” Dhomian gave acknowledgement and went to go speak to Versian, the leader of House Saaren.

Sennius was about to join his sister in the pool when one of the guards suddenly sounded the alarm, extinguishing his exuberance like a sudden splash of cold water. He whirled around, reaching for his sword, and Nemia burst from the water, snatching up a nearby spear, heedless of her wet clothing.

They ran toward the place of the alarm, soon joined by a stream of other armed men. Sennius, driven by worry, reached the place first. He saw no attackers, but found a guard slumped over on his knees clutching his horn. There was no sign of blood or struggle. In fact, he wasn’t dead, but seemed oblivious to the commotion around him. Was this some form of witchcraft or domination?

The rest of the group arrived seconds later, weapons at the ready. “What happened?” Nemia demanded of the guard, prodding him with the butt of her spear. The man arose, trembling and ashen faced, and pointed toward the forest. They followed his finger, and saw a shape emerging from the trees.

This time, Sennius’s jaw dropped along with his sister’s. Without hesitation, she set down her spear and knelt to the ground, murmuring a prayer of sanctification. There was a clatter of fallen weapons as the rest of the guards followed her example. Last of all, Sennius knelt down slowly beside her, driving his sword into the grass and hurriedly making a holy sign.

They were in the presence of angels.

•••

In the heavens above, a pregnant moon hung in the star-dusted sky, looking down on the dark earth, where a bonfire – the sole bastion of light – exhaled a stream of sparks that rose to join their celestial companions. A subdued symphony of crickets and birdsong made the summer air seem alive, and the shifting flames of the fire made the shadows dance at the edges of the camp, a parade of phantom forms that circled the camp. Whether those specters watched to protect the camp or waited to attack it, Nemia could not tell, and she was not sure whether it truly made a difference. Who was she to question the gods?

She had asked herself that question many times since they had seen the angels. The heavenly beings had vanished as quickly as they had appeared, but there was no doubt about the matter. They matched every detail from the old stories. They were tall and heavily muscled, their form perfectly sculpted by the gods, and they wore the many furs emblematic of their role as shepherds of the natural world. Even if these signs were coincidence, the color of their skin – a rich, dark brown, like good soil wetted by rain – was a sure sign of their divine origin, created by Eitra from the earth itself to guard her most holy creations. Even the most skeptical among them, even Sennius, could not deny it.

So what choice did she have? Their years of toil meant nothing if almighty Eitra decreed it otherwise. And yet, despite her attempts at piety, she could not help but wonder why the Oracle had sent them here if Eitra’s guardians protected the place. Was it a test of some sort? Mayhaps they were meant to be humbled and surrender their unworthy ambitions. She was not sure if she could do it, but when Patris Dhomian had proposed a ritual of purification, she had quickly agreed. If she could not cleanse herself of pride, perhaps she could at least be forgiven for it.

At a nod from Dhomian, the settlers gathered around the bonfire began to chant softly, repeating the simple litany of purification. The voices were not in unison, as the Anthem or other religious chants might be, for the process of purification was personal, shared only between god and oneself.

The Patris stepped forward from the crowd, the blaze of the fires making his spotless robes seem to glow. “Eitra,” he called, “God above all gods, creator of all things, who sits upon the throne of the world, your chosen children make this offering to you, We give of our most treasured possessions, to prove that you are above all things to us.”

So saying, the Patris pulled back his sleeve and bared his arm. Without flinching, he produced a knife from the folds of his robes and cut a careful line along his arm, weaving through the three long scars that already resided there. Carefully, he pressed a white cloth to the wound, staining it a vivid red, then tossed the cloth into the flames. The fabric blackened and curled instantly, sending up a spray of embers that drifted off into the night sky.

To offer one’s blood was a sacrifice reserved for holy folk, who had dedicated their lives to the gods and had no other possessions of their own, but it was still a potent gift, given only in the most solemn of circumstances. Dhomian stepped back into the ring of worshippers, letting his arm bleed freely. The loss of blood would leave him woozy, but she knew that Dhomian would not let that prevent his worship. Nemia did not always agree with the way Dhomian led his house, but she had to respect his devotion.

As a leader of the expedition, she or Sennius was expected to go next. Sennius had always been more than happy to allow her the honors, but as she prepared to step forward, she was surprised to find that Sennius had beaten her to it.

Typically her brother wore only an expression of boredom during religious ceremonies, sometimes adopting a carefully cultivated neutral look during the more prestigious rituals, but she had never seen him like this.

He seemed genuinely shaken. His eyes were closed, his breath carefully measured. He seemed as though he stood at the edge of a great cliff, preparing to step over the edge. He was clutching a small bowl between white-knuckled hands, and as he stepped closer to the fire, he raised it trembling to the heavens.

“Eitra above, and all gods who may be watching,” he said, stammering slightly, as if the words were somehow new to him. “I have been unworthy before you. In search of your approval, I offer my most prized possession, the life’s blood of Nightwind, my loyal steed.” He tossed the bowl into the fire. The blood sizzled as it was consumed by the flames.

Nemia gasped. Sennius had personally chosen and tamed Nightwind as a colt. They had been practically inseparable for ten years. The stallion had practically saved his life on more than one occasion. To kill it for an offering… it must have been like ripping out his own heart. Nemia felt a pang of sorrow strike deep into her soul. Seeing Eitra’s servants had been a miracle to her, but Sennius must have been consumed by guilt, coming face to face with the servants of the god he had so often ignored.

Nemia stepped forward to offer him comfort, but before she could speak, there was a commotion at the fringes of the camp. Nemia turned to see three tall figures making their way through the crowd. Where they passed, people fell. Were they being struck down in punishment? No, they were bowing, throwing themselves prostrate to the earth. Nemia quickly joined them, kneeling and bowing her head. Dhomian stepped right into their path and stretched full length on the grass, ready to welcome the holy beings.

But one person did not kneel. Sennius stood frozen, eyes wide and mouth agape. Nemia snuck a glance upward at the angels, or Amavoi, as the stories sometimes called them.

They were solemn, but thankfully did not seem angry. They were armed, however, with beautifully-crafted axes at their back or on their belts. They moved with the grace of hunters, making no noise as they passed, and their eyes, shining like stars against their dark skin, were keen and commanding. They seemed noble, and yet there was an edge of wildness about them, in their unkempt, wiry beards and their patchwork cloaks of fur.

The Amavoi paused at the edge of the bonfire circle, paying no heed to the Patris laying prone before them. They looked slowly over the camp, saying nothing, and their gaze settled on Sennius, who still remained rooted in place, breathing quickly.

Kneel, you fool, Nemia thought. Do not bring their wrath upon us. She tried not to think of the tales they told about Amavoi. About roots quickening and strangling men like serpents, or grass ensnaring the fallen, great beasts and terrible storms summoned from the air itself. A single Amavoi could prove troublesome to a god, and now three stood in the middle of their camp. If Sennius did not bow…

She had to do something, but she did not dare rise. The silence was smothering, but she plucked up her courage and gave a single cough. It was a small sound, but in this context It felt as daring as insulting the Emperor’s mother in court.

The angels paid the sound no heed, but it seemed to snap Sennius out of his stupor, and he slowly sank to both knees. Still he kept both his eyes fixed on the divine messengers, unable to look away.

Suddenly one of the Amavoi spoke. It was in no tongue Nemia had ever heard, and judging by the reaction of the crowd, they did not understand the angel’s speech either. The Amavoi had a voice that was deep but soothing, and the language he spoke was guttural and sharp, but it had a certain rhythm to it that almost made it seem poetic.

Another angel spoke, repeating the same phrase. It seemed to be a question, but nobody could answer it. The Amavoi in the lead grunted with frustration, then stepped up to Sennius.

Nemia’s breath caught in her throat. Would they kill him? Turn him into a beast? Strike him blind?

Instead, the angel reached out with large, careful hands, and placed his fingers at specific points on either side of Sennius’s head. It looked much like a dominator’s grip, when they wished to speak mind-to-mind, but of course an angel would have that power. Still, it did not lessen her anxiety to think of it. She had seen men driven mad by dominators, their wits stripped from them like the hide from a skinned animal.

The Amavoi closed his eyes, and Sennius gasped, eyes rolling back into his head. His back arched, and his fingers twitched frantically, like the legs of a dying spider. His whole body swayed, but the angel swayed with it, humming tunelessly as if rocking a child to sleep.

This display continued for a seeming eternity, and every second that passed made Nemia feel sicker, her stomach twisting in knots and her mouth filling with bile. What were they doing to him? Surely an angel would not be so harsh when they meant no harm.She itched to move, to stand, to say something, but how could she? It would help no one to get them both killed, and who knew what punishments she might suffer in the next life for attacking an Amavoi?

And yet, the longer she watched her brother in the grip of the angel, the harder it was to sit still. She slowly reached down to her sword handle. Amavoi be damned. Whatever happens in the next life, we’ll face it together.

But just then the angel released his hold, flinging his arms away dramatically. Without another word, he turned and left, followed by his companions. The crowd bowed even lower as they departed, Patris Dhomian practically burrowing into the grass. Nemia waited until they were nearly out of sight, but the instant they had left, she shot to her feet and ran to Sennius.

He had keeled over backward, legs at an awkward angle, but he was still breathing, although it was slow and labored, as if he were sleeping heavily. She could see his eyes moving beneath his closed eyelids, flicking back and forth as frantically as a bird caught in a snare. The eyes did not move in concert, but each seemed to follow its own track. His lips moved faintly as if tracing unfamiliar words, and his face twitched periodically, smiling one moment, frowning the next, as if watching a play only he could see.

“Patris!” Nemia cried. She grabbed Sennius’s hands, trying to steady them as they twitched and spasmed. Nobody seemed to be coming. “Patris!”

She tried to still him, to speak to him, but he was locked in his own world, heedless of her pleading. She had never felt so helpless. She knew of no medicine that could help, nothing she could do. Was this what the gods wanted her to feel? Like she was a mere insect before their power, her brother a plaything to be broken and cast aside? Panic rose within her, and before she knew what she was doing, she was screaming at Sennius, pounding on his chest, anything to wake him, to at least free him of whatever spirit had possessed him. But it was to no avail.

A hand reached over and stopped her fist before she could hit him again. The Patris was kneeling next to her, his robes stained green and brown. He had tears in his eyes, but Nemia could not tell whether they were tears of joy or sorrow.

“Peace, child,” he said softly. “There is nothing you can do.”

That was precisely why she had to do something. “What have they done to him?” she demanded. “Why him?”

The Patris sighed. “Who can discern the mind of the gods? They are as deep water, and we may see only the surface. Perhaps this is a warning. We both know your brother has not always displayed such reverence before the gods. Eitra will not be mocked.”

“Are you saying he killed Nightwind for a display of false piety?” Nemia growled. “It doesn’t take a god to know he would never do that unless he was truly-”

“I do not know, Nemia. I can only guess. Just look at your brother. Eitra is just above all, he must have done something to deserve such a fate.”

Nemia nearly tackled the Patris right then, but then Sennius stirred. He jerked from side to side as if taking blows, and then suddenly sat upright, gasping. His dark hair glistened with sweat, and the whites of his eyes shone gold in the firelight. He looked from side to side quickly, as if he had forgotten where he was, and then said, “Dar scham aht gardan?”

Nemia’s brow furrowed in worry. She was glad to see Sennius awake again, but his speech, while unintelligible, sounded as though it meant something. It sounded like the angel’s tongue.

She took his face in her hands gently, forcing him to look at her. “Sennius, are you alright?” she asked gently. “Can you hear me? What did they do to you? Senya, it’s me, Nemia.”

Sennius blinked several times, confusion evident on his face. “Wun dera… wun… what…” He was fighting against his own mouth, trying to say something past whatever barriers had come between the two. “Aht- I… I saw!”

He could still talk. He was still there somewhere. Nemia let go of the breath she had been holding, and found it slightly easier to breath again. She hugged Sennius close, though he did not reciprocate. She didn’t know whether that was a sign of normalcy or shock for him.

She pulled back after a moment. “What did you see, Senya?”

His eyes, still darting back and forth from the fire to the concerned crowd huddled around them, suddenly locked on her, with a gaze as serious as the Oracle’s and as transfixing as a khobra’s.

“I saw,” he said, speech perfectly clear. His wits had returned. “I saw everything.”

Nemia felt a chill run down her spine like ice water, despite the burning of the bonfire at her back. “What did they show you?”

“Are they angry with us?” the Patris interrupted. “What do the gods desire of us?”

“No, they are not angry,” Sennius said. “They were… curious. Marachtag.” Sennius looked surprised that he knew the word. “These are their lands, their homelands. I suppose it is where they dwell unless Eitra calls them.”

Patris Dhomian had a curious, hungry expression on his face. “What else did they show you?”

“I saw memories, and pictures. Melting snow dripping from pine needles. Trees standing black against the setting sun. Strange, beautiful buildings carved from wood, and men hunting from the rivers to the peaks. And words. So many words. I think- I think they taught me their language.”

Nemia stared. It was a miracle. But why had they chosen Sennius? Why hadn’t they just spoken to the whole crowd?

“They have chosen you as their Oracle,” the Patris answered for her. “A liaison between the mortal and the divine.”

“Yes,” Sennius said, as if remembering something long ago. “They wanted me to be a spokesman. They asked why we were here, and I told them. They said they must discuss it, and that we should remain in the valley. They were pleased by our worship.”

The crowd let out an audible sigh, and some of the tension seemed to evaporate. Patris Dhomian seemed almost to wilt, bowing himself low. “I beg your forgiveness, angel-blessed. I thought you had been stricken for unworthiness, but I see now that you have been chosen for a great purpose. I- I submit my role as Patris of this congregation to you, and pray you will allow me to serve however Eitra sees fit.”

Sennius looked a little taken aback by this gesture, but bowed and accepted it. Nemia could scarcely believe her eyes. Something didn’t seem right here, but was something truly wrong, or was some sort of jealousy warping her thoughts?

Sennius slowly rose, and as he did, the crowd lowered, until they were bowing to him. Nemia did not lower her head like the rest, and she saw that Versian of House Saaren did not either. They shared a brief look, and Nemia knew that she was not alone in her feeling of unease.

“I do not know why the Amavoi have chosen me,” Sennius announced. “But they have. I have led you safely this far, and I will do my best to fulfill Eitra’s wishes regarding our future in this land. Please, let us complete the ritual of purification, that we may rest easy and be ready for tomorrow, when the Amavoi will return.”

The crowd rose, and reformed the circle. By now, the bonfire had lost some of its intensity, but it still put out plenty of light. Sennius’s face looked like one of the statues of the founders, serene and noble. But that wasn’t the Sennius she knew. Within the course of hours, he had become a different person. The angels had taught him their language. What else might they have done to him?

She tried to quell the thought, but every time she looked at Sennius, it rose again. The fact that he did not come and speak to her only made it worse. As the night wore on, and more offerings were made to the flames, more and more doubts piled up in her mind. Why did the angels not speak to all of them? Why did Eitra’s chosen have to ask why the travelers were here, when the Oracle himself had sent them? Why would divine beings need axes, or indeed, homes in the mortal realm at all?

The crowd dwindled as families made their way back to their tents, and eventually only Nemia, Dhomian, and Sennius remained. The bonfire had died down, the flames hiding beneath the charred skeletons of the logs on the surface, but there was wood enough that the fire would burn through the night and possibly the next day. Then all that would be left was a heap of ashes.

Sennius shared a whispered conversation with Dhomian, and the Patris bowed to him before retiring to his tent. Sennius looked around and seemed surprised when he saw Nemia. Smiling serenely, he stepped toward her, coming to a halt about three feet away. Nothing could have confirmed his change more. He should have had a wry, teasing grin. He should have stepped beside her to look at the flames and tousled her hair, or given her a playful punch on the arm. They should have shared a familiar joke and talked about the day.

But instead he stood there, smiling as the Oracle might smile at a young child struggling to repeat the Anthem, and the short distance between them felt like a great rift with no sign of the other side. What creature had stolen her brother and taken his skin?

“There is no cause to worry, Nemia,” he said. “We’ll get through this.”

For half a second, she almost believed it was still the brother she knew. But then he turned and walked away without another word, and she knew – whatever was responsible for his change – that things would never be the same.

Fighting tears and anger, she looked up and silently petitioned the heavens for strength and guidance. When they did not answer, she plucked the flower Sennius had given her from her hair and threw it on the flames.

•••

Sennius looked over the field, shading his eyes against the brilliant summer sun. Stacks of stones were arranged at various places among the mowed grass, and men worked busily at the edges of the clearing, felling trees and pulling up stumps.

Bretan, the chief architect of the expedition, gestured to the piles, tracing imaginary lines in the air. “That will be the main entrance. There is fine marble not too far from here that we can use for the tiles. The main hall will be just beyond that, and on either side are the wings…”

Sennius listened idly, nodding absentmindedly as Bretan spoke of columns and arches and bases. Everywhere around, men and women were engaged in work of all sorts. Young men herded livestock into temporary corrals, men cut timber and built houses, while women prepared gardens and organized supplies. Even children were busy, fetching water and chasing chickens as they laughed and teased each other. Everything was perfect.

They had met with the Amavoi – or the Karod, as they called themselves – and worked out an arrangement. The Nevinians would be allowed to stay and settle the valley, but they would pay tribute for this privilege, a quarter of all they produced. It was a bargain in Sennius’s estimate. His people were industrious, and the lands rich. Three quarters of their labor here was easily twice what the arid soil of the dry lands would produce. In the future, further treaties might allow them to spread even further. And to live as neighbor to angels… Eitra had truly blessed them.

“Bigger,” Sennius said suddenly, interrupting Breton’s points on tower placement.

“My lord?”

Sennius spread his arms wide. “It needs to be bigger. All of it. Twice as big.”

Bretan was taken aback. “My lord, even as it stands, this is an ambitious project. It will take years to complete. Perhaps decades.”

“No, Bretan. Don’t you see? We are not building this place for a settlement. We are building for a nation. An empire. One day thousands shall follow the trails we blazed, tens of thousands will flow through this valley in search of new lands and brighter futures. Eitra has led us here, and angels surround us. No force of earth can impede our destiny now.”

Bretan looked awed, her eyes wide, as if seeing a new world for the first time. “The capital of an empire.”

“Perhaps to the whole world,” Sennius said. “A monument for a millennia. And you will build it.”

“I must… make some adjustments, my lord,” the architect said, suddenly looking embarrassed. “I apologize for my foolishness.”

“You were not foolish,” Sennius said with a reassuring smile. “Just a little short-sighted. Take as long as you need to plan. We have a lifetime to build.”

Bretan bowed hastily and hurried off, calling for her assistants as she went. Suddenly a young lady came running up, short of breath and wild-haired. “Lady Nemia sent me to remind you that the council will convene shortly.”

Sennius nodded his acknowledgement, and the girl ran off again, presumably to return the confirmation to his sister. There was a time when she would have trusted him to come without a messenger’s confirmation, but in the weeks since they had arrived in the valley, something had changed between them. They still shared the same goals, but lately their efforts felt more like working with a colleague than with a sibling. He wished he knew what had happened to her. Perhaps it was merely that he had grown and she had not.

There was a wagon heading toward the center of the rapidly-growing village, and Sennius flagged it down.Not so long ago, he would have jumped onto the back of the wagon among the freshly-sawed planks, laughing and joking with the workers there, but since the Amavoi had chosen him, it seemed childish. Undignified. Honestly, when he thought about how freely he had once displayed his youthfulness, he was surprised that anyone had ever followed him.

Instead, when the wagon rolled to a halt, he carefully climbed up and sat next to the driver, giving a courteous nod. The man knuckled his forehead in salute, and snapped the reins. From time to time the driver would look at Sennius out the corner of his eye, but he would look away quickly every time Sennius caught him at it. The men in the back were suddenly silent as well, heads bowed in respect, fingers tapping nervously.

Sennius felt a twinge of sorrow. His call had not come without sacrifice. The dignity of his station demanded new heights of decorum, and with it, he had lost some of the mirth and camaraderie he had once shared with his people. These days his closest and most constant companion was Dhomian. The former patris had been a faithful and devoted ally, but ever since Sennius had been called, he acted more like an advisor than he did a peer. Certainly he did not joke or tease as Nemia used to.

Before long, they passed by the large octagonal cabin that served as the temporary meeting hall. Like the rest of the buildings in the village, it was rough but sturdy, with thick windowless walls and high, peaked ceilings to shed the frequent rains. Sennius stepped off and nodded his thanks again to the driver. The man returned the gesture and drove off a bit more quickly then necessary. The men in the back were laughing again before the wagon had even turned the corner. Sennius sighed and entered the hall.

Dhomian was already present and seated at the round table in the center of the room. Acolytes crowded around him in rapt attention, but when Sennius entered, they stood immediately and filed out reverently. Dhomian stood and bowed.

Sennius waved him down and took a seat of his own. Dhomian frowned. “Are you well, Amavori?”

“Yes, merely overwhelmed. There is much to do.”

Dhomian murmured his agreement. “Have you made a decision about my proposal?”

“Yes.” Sennius templed his fingers and looked up at the dark-stained timbers on the ceiling. The decision had been clear, but it was no less daunting. “If the council agrees, we will return to Nevinia.”

Dhomian’s eyes brightened, and a slight grin touched the corners of his mouth. He looked like a boy being given his first weapon, excited beyond measure but trying to remain solemn. “I am certain the council will agree,” he said, more calmly than his expression would suggest. “Now that the colony is established, it is only sensible to return and report on the marvels we have seen.”

“Yes, I think they will be quite impressed,” Sennius said, in perhaps the greatest understatement of his life. “The journey should be much quicker, now that we know the way.”

Dhomian was about to reply when Nemia and Versian arrived. They walked in together, whispering to one another, and took seats at the opposite ends of the table. Sennius cocked his head at Nemia, questioning, but she did not acknowledge him. Were she and Versian courting? He would not have expected her to fancy Versian that way, but he was a good man, and an alliance between their houses would give them a considerable amount of power. Perhaps enough to override the church.

No, he couldn’t think like that. It was simple paranoia. They may have grown apart, but Nemia would not be petty enough to marry simply so that she could match his new authority. Perhaps there was nothing there between them at all.

“Shall we call this meeting to order?” he asked, not wasting time on chit-chat. He wasn’t sure he was up to it anymore. The others nodded their agreement, and they briefly discussed the progress being made in the village. Nemia was overseeing the preparation of outlying farms, Versian was in charge of labor and security, and Dhomian quelled arguments and disputes. As both a member of the ruling house and the new patris of the colony, Sennius oversaw it all, though his primary duty was seeing to the construction of the village. He told of his plans to increase the size of the great hall, and while the others were hesitant, when he repeated the speech he had given Bretan, they came to agree with him.

Then came a lull. Nemia and Versian had to have some idea what was coming, but they said nothing. Sennius cleared his throat. “I believe Dhomian has a proposal that should be discussed before the council.”

Dhomian nodded and stood. “In light of our success in finding our promised land, and considering our marvelous interaction with Amavoi – I am sorry, the Karod – I believe the time has come to return to our native lands, both to bring news and to gather further supplies that will be of great use here. If the Karod are willing to send an ambassador with us, we may even be able to form a full treaty with the angels, and expand beyond this valley, into lands perhaps even more glorious. If we leave within a fortnight, we can avoid the worst of the winter weather.”

Sennius studied Versian and Nemia closely. They seemed deep in thought. At last, Versian spoke. “Who would lead this company?”

“Well, Sennius would have to go,” Nemia said unexpectedly. “He knows the angels better than any of us, and if a Karodan ambassador goes with them, he will be needed translate for him.”

“I can go as well,” Dhomian said quickly. “I know the system in Nevinia well, and I will make certain everything goes smoothly. Besides, there should be a priest to accompany an angel. No disrespect, Amavori.”

Sennius motioned that none was taken. “But if we leave, who will communicate with the Karod here?” he asked.

“We have not even seen the Karod since our first treaty, and even then they hardly spoke,” Nemia said. “I think if we obey their terms, we will have little trouble with them. And if they need to communicate, I’m sure they will find a way. They are, after all, divine beings.”

It seemed to Sennius as if there was a hint of a question in her words. A challenge, almost. He saw that she was staring at him. But he could not doubt the Karod were genuine, not now, and so he had no choice but to agree with her. Paranoia whispered to him that this might be a trick to secure power in the colony while he and Dhomian were away, but he quickly dismissed the thought. Even if that were true, it would mean nothing when he returned. The Emperor would surely agree to a treaty, and the Oracle would likely give Sennius his blessing as well. Nemia would have to accept that they were no longer equals.

He felt a pang of guilt as he thought that, but it hadn’t been his choice. The Amavoi had chosen him. Eitra had chosen him. That didn’t make Nemia any less, it simply meant she would have to linger while others moved on.

“Yes, of course they would. Very well. If we are agreed, Dhomian and I will speak with the Karod and arrange a company within the fortnight.”

One by one, each of the council voiced their consent. Each member of the council shared a moment looking at each other, a silent conversation passing between each of them as if to acknowledge certainty or gauge intent. Then, apparently reaching some accord, they all arose.

Versian left first, murmuring about plans to pulls some particularly stubborn stumps by the river, and Dhomian placed a hand on Sennius’s back to guide him out, eager to discuss plans for the return trip.

Nemia stayed standing as they left, staring at the table as if the grains of the wood held some answer to life’s questions. Sennius looked back over his shoulder just before he left the room, and could have sworn he saw a tear glittering as it fell.

If he had been able, he would have shed one himself.


Section One Notes: I thought this opening would be a good way to bring a little action to the beginning of the book, especially since I was going to have to put in a couple of paragraphs of exposition afterward. While it’s a minor bit of misdirection, I think it works fairly well, helping to introduce the characters as well as perhaps hinting at the intrigue and deception that will come into play later on.

Regarding that exposition, I know it’s common advice to ‘show, not tell,’ and I agree that is preferable in most cases, but it wouldn’t make much sense here. The exposition is needed for context, but if I’d shown that by setting a scene there, I’d just be filling space, as the story doesn’t start there.

I spent a good deal of time establishing the relationship between them, as I wanted to show that they had a deep, strong connection, to make sure that its deterioration felt meaningful. It makes this opening drag a little, but I think it does a decent job at conveying character, and by blending it with the exploration of the valley, things keep moving. In original drafts, this scene lasted much longer, but with no real effect. It could still probably be tightened up some more, but I feel it’s adequate as-is.

Sennius’ thoughts about religion feel kind of shoehorned in here, but I needed to introduce his stance, as it obviously goes through some significant changes, and the reader needs to know that. If I was willing to work on this any longer, I’d smooth it out a little more.

Section Two Notes: Is this opening poetic, pretentious, or both? I really like writing like this, with such fancy language, but I do worry that it will come across as the dreaded purple prose. It’s only one paragraph, so I guess it can’t hurt too much. I have some other fanciful and descriptive phrases throughout the rest of the section as well, but it’s more subtle there.

So. I wanted to take the common trope of a primitive tribal society worshipping explorers as gods and do it in reverse, where the explorers take the natives as divine beings. I think it definitely puts an interesting angle on matters, although not everyone is convinced.

Sennius is, though, and this marks the start of his drastic character changes. I am a religious person, and I think that great good can come from spirituality, but I also recognize that blind fervor and unquestioning devotion can lead to dark paths, and that’s something I wanted to show with Sennius, a skeptic shown “proof,” who embraces his role to the point where it is unhealthy. This is contrasted by Nemia’s slow decline from faith, even as she grows more distant from her brother.

If you hadn’t guessed, however, the Karod are not Amavoi, angels, or any sort of divine being, merely people that happen to have similar features to figures from Nevinian mythology. They are, however, dominators, which is what allows them to choose Sennius as their “prophet” and teach him their language.

I do like the symbolism involved in the flower burning at the end, which may be a touch blatant, but still effective. Your mileage may vary.

Section Three Notes: This section is pretty straightforward, but highlights the growing tension and early fallout from the dramatic events of late.

You may have noticed I’ve been switching viewpoint between Sennius and Nemia with each section. There’s a reason I’m doing that (besides simply to give both of them equal time,) and a reason I’m doing it in this particular order, but I won’t reveal why just now.

The second part will be here next week. Feel free to comment and let me know your thoughts. Maybe even your prediction? See you then.

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