I – Beltamar’s War

Finally, a book you’ll want and need to read again – Beltamar’s War

If you prefer to listen more than to read, I may have have something for you

So some real people enjoyed Beltamar’s War, but what is Malmaxa really about? In a nutshell, it is my philosophic vision of a world stripped bare of many of the trivialities that make humanity act so poorly.
In Malmaxa character is the sole measure by which all are judged.
Now, without further ado, welcome to my literal world – a place utterly unlike any you’ve ever experienced.  Please bear in mind that the start of any journey is often its most arduous part.  Read slowly, for time already travels too fast…

Beltamar's War

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Prologue

Utterly obedient to Six Divine Laws, the Seizen are an ancient culture whose history covers almost four millennia.

On their second entry into Malmaxa all Seizen undergo the final rite of passage to adulthood, in which they are bound to a Chukrah in the Eternal Match. The Chukrah bond is fateful, permanent, personal, and is deemed to be so sacred it is held as an inviolate personal secret. Indeed, beyond the clearly visible color of every Chukrah, societal tenets prohibit disclosing the unique nature of one’s Chukrah.

Unbeknownst to the Seizen, they hover on the brink of extinction.  An Eternal Conflict with a mysterious enemy as ancient as the Seizen has seen their numbers dwindle from millions to less than fifty thousand at the time in which Beltamar’s War is set.

The Scribes, a rare subset of the Artisan class, are the only ones aware of these dire circumstances. However, Scribes understand their role as lore-keepers to the Seizen is Chukrah-granted. This knowledge ensures they obey the tenet of secrecy.

Thus the Seizen remain oblivious to their impending demise…
oblivious, until an un-matched child named Liaju has a series of prophetic dreams.
oblivious, until now…

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Chapter 1.  Symbologists, Memories, and Dreams

I.  Adelmar’s Recollection

Timeline: Late Morning, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna, 3600.

Assigned as sentry when Ripkira called the noon halt, Adelmar was in a foul mood.  With winter’s imminent arrival, and their Ancient Enemy suddenly departing the field of battle, his dreams were dashed, and doubly so.

Dreams of glory, gone, for there could be no heroes without conflict.

Dreams of vengeance, vanished. Along with the groth, and the elusive chance for revenge that every battle brought.

The only other survivors from his town were Lucinda and Beltamar.  Many times had they dodged death together, seen comrades slain, and gathered the Chukrah of the fallen for the Rite of Return.

Adelmar smiled ruefully.  Lucinda, Beltamar, and he were staunch brothers in arms now, seldom parted for long.

How I long to bear Beltamar’s Chukrah to the hoard…

Battle after battle he had fought with all the tenacity he possessed, struggling to survive, and succeeding, albeit barely.  After each conflict he dared hope, yet his searching eyes always found Beltamar.

Alive.

By petitioning against him at the Convocation, Beltamar had earned his hatred.  Petitioning, and prevailing.  Jalgar, that stone-faced bastard, had ignored the scribes, all of whom had termed his petition exemplary, obviously favoring it over Beltamar’s.  Lip curling in scorn, he recalled their lackluster approval of Beltamar’s petition, damned with the faint praise of being merely qualified.

His petition had surpassed those of all others in every way, and there had been many.  In the reserved manner of their class, the scribes had exalted him.  Jalgar had appeared to listen.  Yet after hearing the scribes quietly whispered advice, the deceitful old hunter had completely disregarded their wisdom.  Rather than do the just thing, dismissing Beltamar’s inferior petition outright, Jalgar had come up with a bizarre plan of his own.

A ploy, clearly designed for no purpose other than denying me!

Adelmar almost spat at the memory.  Long habit granted him control, his near lapse bringing him back from rage’s abyss.  He smoothed his face.  Within an instant it revealed nothing.

He shook his head at the oft-replayed memory’s strength.

I should have seen it coming.

Jalgar, that indecisive piece of groth dung, had resorted to the same tactic to decide Ryntam’s match earlier the same day.  The cowardly old bastard had called for a Chukrah match.  With Chukrah matches assumed blessed by the Gods, the scribes had readily agreed.  He too had willingly assented, confident in his unassailable petition.  Seemingly puzzled to be in the final two, Beltamar had merely nodded and said nothing.

Then, having secured the agreement of all involved, Jalgar had proved himself the devious trickster he truly was.

The old hunter’s stony face had showed nothing!

Adelmar’s face contorted in fury, self-control’s last remnants failing at the echo of Jalgar’s words in his memory.  Hurriedly, he recomposed his visage, clenching his spear haft as though squeezing life from Jalgar’s throat.  The old bastard’s deceit will remain etched in my mind forever, as surely as the Gods’ Immutable Laws are carved in the Pinnacle of Malmaxa.

Silently Adelmar mouthed the words Jalgar had said almost six cycles past, “All are agreed, the Chukrah match is called.  Daniskira, of the final two petitioners, approach either.  Let us see which is true.”  Jalgar’s treacherous words flowed smoothly through his memory, their path cut deep from constant repetition.

Thus had Jalgar sprung his trap.

In Chukrah matches it is customary to approach the best petitioner first, and in all ways I was.  Taller, broader of shoulder, and impeccably attired compared to Beltamar’s plain features and mismatched garb.  Yet appearance had served for naught!  Clearly unsure of such arcane decorum, beautiful young Daniskira had fallen into the shameful snare set by her father.

Daniskira had looked first to him.

Oh, how his heart again soared at the embrace within her eyes.  Then, to his eternal dismay, Daniskira had turned to Beltamar.  His heart pounded in his chest anew.  Just as it had done then.

Time cannot diminish this memory.

In recollection’s reflection, Adelmar watched again, disbelieving as Daniskira took several hesitant steps to halt before Beltamar.

Thus had Jalgar’s treachery borne its terrible fruit, for Beltamar stood two paces closer to Daniskira than he.

In the mirror of his mind, for the ten thousandth time, Adelmar watched their Chukrah touch and felt his heart burst, again.  An unmistakable glow, the red of Beltamar’s mixing with Daniskira’s purple.  That swirling pulse of light had sealed their match.

Compositus concluded… for them.

My petition… failed, and long since forgotten.

To have been so close, a mere two paces and all would have been different in my world.

Though relegated to second string, he had made a match, conceived a healthy son, and feigned joy.

What fool can believe I am content?  Were those denied justice ever satisfied with their lot?

Yet Beltamar had accepted his pretense of happiness as truth, never spoke of it, even dared treat him as friend.

The trusting fool has no knowledge of the just hatred I bear him!

Adelmar spat abruptly, tensed his body, then relaxed completely as he rolled his head about his shoulders to lessen his tension.  With a final shake of his head, he cast out his troubling memories and turned his full attention to the watch.

The Gods reward the diligent, and the patient.

I, am both.

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II.  Liaju’s Dream

Timeline: Late Morning, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna, 3600.

Liaju was troubled, something her twin and father felt, for the familial bond between them held strong.  Troubled by omens within her dreams.  Twice troubled that disclosing her dreams brought distress.

Though Liaju needed the council of her father and brother, she lacked the assurance to raise the matter, and so she remained silent.  She hoped they would inquire into her woes, and soon.

When Jalgar glanced at his daughter he noticed the sweat beading her young, unlined face.  Though late in fall, the weather remained unseasonably warm.  Liaju’s hijath was damp with perspiration.  Seeing a small copse of shade trees that promised escape from the midday sun, he headed beneath them and called a halt.  He quickly found a small clearing within the thicket, selected a comfortable looking bough, and said, “Liaju, Rethga… sit close.  We have matters to discuss.”

Obediently, the twins followed their father.  They removed their packs and brushed aside the debris of twigs and pebbles before sitting, backs against the trees to which their father had gestured.  Liaju signaled her hounds with a click her tongue.  Gestures told the beasts to keep watch, and where.  Knowing they would remain within the shade till the sun passed its zenith, people and hounds sprawled out.  There would be adequate time for talk and for rest.

Jalgar looked at Liaju and raised a quizzical eyebrow, “Something troubles you, daughter?”

Still gathering her courage, Liaju shook her head, “I am well, Father.”

Jalgar weighed Liaju’s words and deemed them less than truthful.  He frowned.  Voice rough-edged, he exclaimed, “Don’t play your games with me, Child!  Your words are not complete.  We know you are well in body.  Do you think us fools?”  He paused, but held his countenance stony to ensure she understood this was no time to defy him.  After a moment he continued, his tone softer, “I ask of that which troubles your spirit.  Speak of it now, that your twin and I might bear part of your burden.”

Untroubled by her father’s proclivity for harsh words, Liaju nodded gentle acceptance of his admonishment.

More sensitive to such outbursts, Rethga silently cast his eyes downward.

Liaju drew on her resolve as her absentminded fingers peeled the bark from a fallen twig.  She had rehearsed this very speech many times.  Now, with her father’s demand finally presenting the needed opportunity to speak, she murmured, “I have slept poorly for many sixdays.  Yet when I finally succumb to my body’s exhaustion ominous dreams trouble me sorely.  They are complex and ever changing, yet constant, and somehow similar.  Though I have spoken of these dreams to the Circle of the Learned, we still lack full insight into their meaning.  I do not wish to bring dire thoughts to the minds of any, yet with disclosure of my dreams I know that I do.”

Jalgar scowled, then grumbled, “Liaju, you lend too much weight to the thoughts of others.  It is hot.  We are weary.  We would hear what troubles you, not that you fear your troubles might burden us.  So speak.”

Liaju suppressed a smile at her father’s impatience, but she refused to be hurried or diverted from her prepared speech, “My esteem of you both is high.  To me, the easiest of the Immutable Laws has always been, ‘Honor your family and wear their marks, always.’  My family is honorable and just.  The marks of you which I bear are an inspiration to me always.”  So saying, Liaju uncovered her right shoulder and kissed the tattoo upon it.

At his daughter’s gesture, Jalgar’s feigned anger dissolved, along with his impatience.  Liaju had just kissed his symbol.  He responded by clenching his right fist, kissing his knuckles and placing his hand on his chest to cover the place reserved for Liaju’s mark.  He then looked to his son, kissed his fingers again, and placed them over the spot Rethga’s mark would soon be.  Though the familiar, comforting ritual took only a heartbeat to complete it renewed the bond between father and children.

Liaju sighed, “Now… I must burden you alongside all the others with knowledge of these troubling dreams.  Forgive me.”

Liaju’s young, unlined face revealed her distress.

Jalgar realized the depth of his daughter’s emotion.  He further softened his face and his tone, “Fear not.  Though perhaps only in spirit, your family are with you always.  We will gladly share your burdens.  Speak on.”

Relieved his father’s bad humor had passed, Rethga encouraged his older twin with a smile, “Your burdens are mine, as mine are oftentimes yours.  Tell us your thoughts, grant us your dreams.”

Liaju drew a deep breath, “My dreams are long and fitful.  They disturb my rest and trouble my soul.”  Her voice gained surety as she spoke, “Each night they seem fresh and new, yet within every dream these same elements always unfold…

We wage a war we cannot win, yet our enemy does not prevail…

Prime beasts are in the rut, yet their herds ever dwindle…

Unfulfilled Chukrah grow in number, yet they gather only dust, not fresh souls…

A magnificent, unassailable herd bull is matched and vanquished, by one ancient and infertile…

Three beasts are cleanly slain, four times…

And always, from a dream within the dream, I watch as a Seizen Elder struggles to match his progeny…  Somehow I know the matches he favors least might succeed, while those deemed most favorable lead to terrible ends.”

Jalgar and Rethga looked at one another.  The dream’s elements struck a chord within them, as though once heard and long since forgotten.  Together they turned back to Liaju, their attentive expressions bidding her continue.

Liaju did not speak.  Instead, she focused her burdened eyes on her feet.  After a time she let her eyes droop shut, leant back against the bough, and murmured, “Think on these things.  I would hear your thoughts and see if they align with those of the Circle.  Many sixdays have these dreams plagued me, a few days more is of no matter.  We will speak further when you are prepared.  I will patiently await your council.”

Jalgar glanced at his son to see Rethga opening his mouth to speak.  A quick shake of his head stilled the lad.

Rethga met his father’s eyes, then nodded slow agreement.  Liaju had done as requested and shared her burden.  In return it seemed fitting they should do as she asked and consider her dream before blurting out thoughtless, partly formed ideas.  Besides, waiting till later would grant him time to phrase his question with due care.

Father and son lay back.  The three would remain within the shade till the sun passed its peak and began its decline.

This was fitting since Wodansday, being midway through the sixday, was a day for ease.

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III.  The Symbologist’s Arrival

Timeline: Late Morning, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna, 3600.

Zunesan was kneading dough when she heard a faint rumble in the distance.  She dusted her hands together, making small puffs of flour in the air as she walked outdoors.  Normally she shared the home with her match, Jalgar, and their youngest twins.  Today she was alone.  Jalgar, Liaju, and Rethga had left on a hunt the previous day.  She lifted her hand to shade her eyes from the sun’s glare.  Doing this left a streak of floury white in her dusky black hair.

Of short stature, Zunesan bore a deep tan from many hours spent outdoors.  Gray today, green tomorrow, her compassionate eyes perceptibly changed color with her mood.  Ever ready to soothe, her gentle hands were popular with the young.  Children came to her willingly, swallowed her remedies, and wore the poultices she made with few complaints.  Zunesan had worn a Herbalist’s Chukrah for well over twenty cycles and could make the most unpalatable potion tolerable.

Peering through the midday glare, Zunesan made out a flock of rowdy children drawing ever nearer.  Yet, shade her eyes as she might, the heat shimmer and the distance prevented her from making out any individuals.  Eventually, the chorus the close packed children sang became audible, “Dah nee skee raa.  Dah nee skee raa.”  Their chant heralded the arrival of her third child!  Thrilled, she exclaimed, “Daniskira!” as she held her skirt high and ran toward the sound.

When Zunesan drew close, she caught sight of her daughter and sped to her.  As always, excited children encircled Daniskira.  The youngsters reluctantly parted to allow mother and daughter an embrace.  After releasing Daniskira, Zunesan waved to Kareena and Seinath who followed sedately, far behind the crowd.  Turning about, she continued toward the village, arm-in-arm with her child at last.

They had not traveled ten paces before Selene squeezed through the closely packed children.  After giving her grandmother a quick hug, Selene asked the question most urgent to her fifth-marked mind, “Is Eden here yet, nana?”

Laughing, while feeling slightly guilty at not immediately seeking out Selene, Zunesan answered, “Yes, they are staying in a dwelling on the village’s far side.  I’m sure they’ll come once they hear the children’s chant.”

A delighted smile lit Selene’s face.  With Eden already here, she would not have to wile away the days awaiting the arrival of her cousin and best friend.

Sight of Selene prompted a further guilty thought.  Zunesan turned to glance back as she sought sign of Daniskira’s match.  Beltamar was nowhere in sight.  Saddened by what this must mean, she turned and embraced her daughter again.

Daniskira smiled gently, returned her mother’s hug and cocked her eyebrow in question.

So reminiscent of Daniskira’s childhood, the expression flooded Zunesan’s mind with memories thought long forgotten.  In an instant they returned, full force, fresh and piquant, almost overcoming her with their strength.  After composing herself she voiced the question troubling her, “What of your man, child?”

Daniskira smiled in realization she would be forever youthful in her mother’s eyes, “Beltamar has been called to war, mama.  He is in the Gods’ hands.”

Zunesan maintained her daughter’s gaze for a few moments as she accepted the fullness of Daniskira’s words.  With a sigh, she murmured, “The stars we see are the stars he sees.  Beltamar resides in our hearts till his safe return.”

Daniskira nodded somberly, “Fear not, for the Pilgrimage to Malmaxa begins forthwith.  With the onset of winter, our Ancient Enemy must depart the field of battle as they do each cycle.  Our Warriors will be returning to us with all haste, lest they offend the Gods.”

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IV.  Beltamar’s Remembrances

Timeline: Late Morning, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna, 3600.

For this late in the fall, it felt uncomfortably warm.  At noon’s approach, Ripkira had called a halt.  Only fools marched through the midday heat.  With the cohesion born of long familiarity, the remnants of her force fanned out beneath the sparse trees.  Those assigned as sentry moved to the wood’s edge to take up watch.  The remaining Warriors mingled with the Artisans, together they ushered the jumenta-drawn wagons into the deepest shade.

After shucking his shield and spear, Beltamar unhitched a pair of the massive, shaggy haired beasts and set them to graze.  He removed his pack, untied his bedroll from its base, and spread it beneath the cart with a flick of his wrists.  Within a few moments he had undone his belt and taken a quick pull from one of the water skins attached to it.  After propping his sword and spear against his shield, close to hand, he sprawled out on the bedroll.  His pack served as headrest.

Others had done the same.  Though Beltamar shared the wagon’s shade with three others, adequate space to stretch out remained.  Since they would stay here at least two, perhaps three hours, there would be adequate time for rest.

Beltamar let his mind drift as he thought back on the cycle’s events.  He counted this cycle as his worst, ever.

Eight lunas since he last saw his beloved mate Daniskira and their progeny, Selene.  Eight times had he seen the moon rise to fill the heavens with her light, and eight times he had watched her wane to nothingness.  He took some comfort knowing his family gazed on Luna’s glory.  By Luna’s next rise to full he would be with Daniskira and Selene once more.

Too long apart, but near over now…

Vividly, Beltamar remembered his call to war.  Daniskira’s beloved Segattoo had dropped their flowers, which signaled the start of a new cycle.  Arm in arm they had said their farewells to her family, where they had spent each winter this long cycle.  Selene’s anguished cries at being parted from Eden rang again in his ears.

Diminutive Eden had held him, her arms encircling his leg and her tiny hands refusing release while she pled for him to stay.  That bittersweet memory always brought a lump to his throat.

Their return home had taken nearly two sixdays.  To be once more with Daniskira and Selene in their own dwelling had been blissful, and too short.  The warmth of spring soon vanquished winter’s chill and heralded the summons to arms.

Selene had wept bitterly when he left.  Barely fifth-marked, she had been unable to accept that this was his duty as a Warrior.  She had perceived his willing, nay, his eager departure as a bitter betrayal.  Though Daniskira had shed no tears, her limpid brown eyes told the tale of her heart.  Their parting kiss had been the endpoint to five cycles of joy.  Then had this cycle begun in earnest.

It is by far my worst.

The scout who brought them news of the war, the Elder Mithial, had granted them but an hour to gather their equipment and say their farewells.  On the march to the battle lines, Mithial had asserted, …drawn out farewells serve no one…

To this old lie they all had readily agreed.

What little we knew…

Too many of the fallen needlessly denied true farewells, cruelly snatched from their families.

And for what?  Nothing, save a few hours on war’s path.

Twenty-four strong at cycle’s start, their troop of Warriors had set out, burning with youth’s fire, each certain of their invulnerability.  Two battle-hardened veterans had led the once-matched, who numbered twenty-two.  Fourteen men, and eight women.

Lucinda, Adelmar, and I are all who remain… 

Slashed in number from twenty-four to but three!

The fall of each had brought the survivors closer, for grief and shared hardships forge strong bonds.  To them fell the Rite of Return at the upcoming Convocation.  Should they fall now, all this would be for naught.  That would be a bitter failure, for with winter’s approach this cycle’s war should soon cease.

The Gods’ workings are indeed strange.

Having left their town, they had traveled for three full sixdays before joining this unit, their assigned battle group, the South-Western Force.  Over three hundred Warriors had they been at first assembly.  Past a hundred Artisans accompanied them.  Cooks, Herbalists, Smiths, Scribes, and more.  Wisdom held that an army marched on its stomach, yet this was only a small part of the truth.  Now he likened an army unto a village, and with similar needs.  Food and drink, Healers, repairs to equipment, grindstones to sharpen blades.  Yes, Warriors marched in the fore.  But behind Warriors came Artisans, the suppliers of many things taken for granted till faced with their lack.

Of all a Warrior’s needs, perhaps the greatest was laughter.  Without humor, Warriors were soon mired in pits of blackest despair.

In the early days of their march to the battle lines, Beltamar had felt a true Warrior should be stern of face and hard of flesh.  He and the once-matched Warriors from many villages had witnessed the veterans’ raucous behavior with consternation.  Yet when he had inquired why his commander tolerated this, her response had been.

In war you have many choices.  You can choose to attack, or to defend.  To fight, or to flee.  To laugh, or to cry.  If you don’t laugh, you will surely cry… so why not laugh?

The matter of laughter had changed after their first battle.  Bloodied sword in hand he had stood, shield arm shaking from exhaustion, body parched by thirst, gut wrenched by insatiable hunger.  Fighting an implacable enemy bent on your death forced you to go far beyond the possible.  For a Chukrah matched Warrior, the debt of this effort came due the moment of victory’s realization.

Around him had lain the bodies of his comrades.  At his feet, a Warrior from his village.  Gothar, pale from blood’s loss but alive, Chukrah pulsing softly as it sealed his lesser wounds.  Disbelieving, Gothar had looked up at him and exclaimed, “We live!”  They had burst into shared laughter at their amazing good fortune.

Hysteria had filled that sound.

How easily does laughter turn to deepest sorrow?

He had knelt beside Gothar to help him into a sitting position while they awaited the Herbalists.  Moments later they were in a brotherly embrace, tears of anguish washing their faces free of gore, but not of guilt.

Warriors from our town lay among the slain!

Gothar had fallen two sixdays later, not yet fully recovered from his wounds.

Though I could not find laughter after that battle, I eluded tears.

Tender remembrances must wait till I return Gothar’s Chukrah to the hoard.

Gothar, the first of the slain for whom I claimed the Rite of Return.

And now… five additional Chukrah lie in my pack.

Six Warrior souls secured for Eternity, their journey to the hoard imminent.

Indeed, there are things worth crying for.  Life, death, and love, with love truly being the greatest of the three.

As to the trivial things over which people grow frantic, most were matters more deserving of laughter than anguish.  Beltamar could laugh at them now.

A harsh laugh, true, but it seems better than tears.

Beltamar rolled onto his side.  Pleasing thoughts of Faroene flowed into his mind as he passed from doze into sleep.

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V.  Deception’s Cloak

Timeline: Late Morning, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna, 3600.

Mithial froze mid-stride, hackles raised by his Hunter sense.  Motionless, he called to his Chukrah and invoked the Vanish Rite.  With a surge of power, the pendant cleaved to him.

Deception’s cloak fell, hiding Mithial completely.

Slowly, Mithial finished his step, soft-soled moccasin making no discernible sound as it touched the ground.  He stretched to his full height and scanned left, searching for the seeker but finding nothing.  Rotating only his upper body, he traversed the terrain to the right with his eyes.

There!

Directly behind him on the craggy hillside, several hundred paces distant, he saw a lone groth tracking him.

Her large size, well over four hands, showed the beast to be female.  She moved carefully down the path he had so laboriously traversed to attain his hillside vantage.  Mithial sighed in resignation, continued his search for additional enemies, and carefully turned toward her.  On facing her square, he planted both feet in the loose shale, secure in both his invisibility and the knowledge the groth was alone.

There is adequate time to recover from this ill turn of fortune.  A single arrow from my longbow will fell her.  Wait till she is less than fifty paces and I cannot miss.

Mithial shook his head slowly.  Though his rite hid any scent within a pace of him, he deemed the risk too great.  Even in still air the reek of her blood would spread and alert any nearby groth.

Mithial’s hijath loosely covered his head.  It hid the frown creasing his wrinkled brow.  Since the Gods delighted in playing havoc with risky plans, he put aside all thoughts of slaying the beast and considered matters with care.

After lunas spent pursuing a routed enemy, all sign of their foes had simply vanished some three days past.  One day the groth had been there, then a late fall rainstorm struck and they were gone, with all trace of their passing obliterated.  His memory of an ancient map had revealed a plateau with a large meadow and a small stream that promised excellent grazing for the jumenta.  Memory’s map had also unveiled a tiny valley hidden in the foothills, reachable only by a narrow path.

For bivouac, Ripkira chose the cramped valley over the plentiful grazing.

Even as he considered this, the remnants of the South-Western Force headed there to wait out the final days before the journey to Malmaxa began.  By nightfall they should be secured within the valley’s close confines.

Then, just this very morning, Ripkira had sent him to scout for their Ancient Enemy.  Not ahead into the hidden valley, as he had anticipated.  No, she had sent him west.

West, across the plain to these distant foothills.

For a moment Mithial wondered at Ripkira’s intuition.  Everyone, himself included, had assumed no groth remained within leagues of the unit.

Yet here a groth was, tracking him with all the cunning of her kind.

Where one groth is, more are sure to be.

Mithial’s constantly searching eyes flicked back to the lone bitch.  She was now forty paces closer, time grew short.  Flicking spit-soaked scales downhill, he quickly laid a false trail.  Deceiving the mindless beast would be a simple matter.

However, her presence here is anything but.

Once he had diverted the groth, he would find a better vantage from which to watch till night fell.  The sun’s demise would herald night’s chill, which would force the cold-blooded beasts underground.

The need of groth for warmth would reveal them to his patient eyes.

Although it would be a long, hot, and uncomfortable day, he might uncover their lair.  Then, under cover of darkness’s cold, he would head to the hidden valley and report to Ripkira.

Thought of seeing her brought a smile.

۷۸۷۸۞۷۸۷۸

Chapter 2.   Vision Shifts, and Dream Elements

I.  Cousins’ Reunion

Timeline: Late Morning, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna, 3600.

From the noise raised by the mob of excited children, Zunesan knew any attempt at speech would be fruitless.  For now, simply walking near her daughter must suffice.

Zunesan looked ahead expectantly.  Accompanied by Yitara and Eden, Ryntam should soon appear.  They had arrived yesterday, mere hours after Jalgar set off on his hunt, and were staying in an unoccupied dwelling on the village’s far side.  With far more homes empty than occupied, the dwelling was the same one they had used each visit this long cycle.  Zunesan cast that troubling thought aside and waited patiently for Daniskira’s older twin.

This is a day for happiness, not for contemplation of ill matters none can change.

Thought of having all her surviving progeny close assuaged Zunesan.  A full cycle had passed since Daniskira, a Symbologist of growing renown, last attended the village.  Though numbering near two hundred, the village had no Symbologist of their own.  Thus was Daniskira always greeted with joy, by both parent and progeny.  During the last Convocation, with Daniskira newly Chukrah matched, Zunesan had arranged for Daniskira to attend to the village’s marking needs each winter.  Requiring time for recuperation from her studies, Ryntam had arranged to come as well, thereby turning winter into a family reunion.

For the last five cycles, each winter had seen their entire family, grandchildren included, together.  Normally dreaded for its bitter cold, all of Zunesan and Jalgar’s family had come to anticipate winter with longing.

The cousins, Eden and Selene, conceived at the same Convocation, having strong familial ties, and complementary feminine natures had developed a powerful friendship.  This had surprised no one.  With each passing cycle their bond had grown till they felt more twin than cousin.  They looked forward to their time together with delight, their inevitable separation at winter’s end with woe.

As Daniskira’s renown increased, the length of her stays grew longer to accommodate the demands of the region’s people.  Seizen, who seldom dared to travel in winter’s weather, came from afar to be attended by Daniskira.  All those to whom Daniskira granted a mark counted themselves blessed, for her symbols were precise and filled with elegant artistry.

Ryntam finally appeared, accompanied by her match Yitara, who held their progeny’s hand.  Her arrival interrupted Zunesan’s reflections.

Eden skipped gaily alongside her father.  The tiny child affected an air of calm, a pleasing mix of her mother’s composure and her aunt’s serenity.  Anticipation of seeing her cousin gave Eden away.  Catching her first glimpse of the clamoring children, Eden abandoned all pretenses, relinquished her father’s hand, and raced forward yelling, “Selene!  Selene!” at the top of her lungs.

Selene immediately emerged from the crowd.  She responded with similar excitement, “Eden!”, as she raced forward.  When they met the cousins clutched one another in a tight embrace before dancing a jig of joy while still enmeshed.

When Daniskira reached the girls, she scooped her tiny niece high into the air and continued toward the village without breaking stride.  In mock amazement, she pretended to stagger beneath diminutive Eden’s weight, and exclaimed, “My, how much bigger you are!  Does your mother plant your feet in dung to cause this growth?”  She glanced at Eden’s bare feet, twitched her nose briskly, feigned horror, and added, “Why from their color, and from their stench, she does indeed!”

Eden laughed uproariously at her Aunt’s jest.

Using the vantage granted by the elevation of Daniskira’s arms, Eden peered about.  Her joyous smile reduced somewhat.  After another searching look over the trailing crowd, she tilted her head down and murmured into her Aunt’s ear, “Where is Uncle Beltamar?”

Eden’s voice quavered.

Daniskira lowered Eden into a brief embrace, kissed her tenderly, and whispered, “Called to war, Eden.  Comfort your cousin in this, Selene did not take it well.”

Eden buried her face in Daniskira’s neck as she gave her Aunt a tight squeeze.  Her strength belied her small size and her youth.  After blinking away her tears, she placed comfort in her murmured assurance, “I am sure he is well, Aunt.”  A catch in her throat stayed her tongue for an instant, “Poor Selene, I will soothe her fears.”

Eden’s words brought a tear to Daniskira’s eye, and last parting’s memory to her mind.  After a few heartbeats of closeness, she relinquished the tiny child and returned her to the ground beside Selene.

Selene had been skipping alongside them, waiting impatiently to hold her cousin’s hand, which she now grasped eagerly.  Without a backward glance, the pair vanished into the crowd.

Daniskira turned from the children and spread her arms wide in invitation to her twin.  Ryntam released Yitara in momentary favor of her sister as she reached out to hug Daniskira.

After granting her daughters a moment, Zunesan encircled both with her arms.  Murmured endearments ensued as the womenfolk meshed, striving to regain a cycle of absence in a single embrace.  Still clasping hands, Eden and Selene emerged from the crowd.  They grasped their mothers’ legs with their free arms, beaming happy smiles at one another all the while.

Strong emotions of remembrance, the shared joy of togetherness, the bittersweet tang of partings, past and future, filled all in their familial hug.

Inexplicably all burst into joyful tears.

Excluded from this feminine exchange, Yitara frowned and shook his head, forever bewildered by womanly ways.

The crowd of eager children surrounding the family sensed the renewing of bonds and fell silent, if only for a few moments.

۷۸۷۸۞۷۸۷۸

II.  Elements, in Dreams

Timeline: Late Afternoon, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna, 3600.

With the sun well past its midday heat, Jalgar roused himself and stood.  He gazed down on his progeny for a few moments, before grunting to awaken Liaju and Rethga.  Within moments the twins sat awake and alert.  After stretching, they continued their steady march toward the place picked for their next hunt.

Jalgar walked ahead of Liaju and her twin.  In his right hand, he carried a long spear, its massive bronze head blacked with soot to dull its gleam.  The spear’s shaft was as thick as Jalgar’s wrist, clearly this was no throwing weapon.  A tall, slender man, Jalgar dressed in loose fitting tanned leathers the colors of the waist high dry grass and vegetation through which they walked.  Jalgar’s sharp hazel eyes were clear, ever alert for danger.  The gleam in those eyes belied his age, evidenced by a wrinkled brow.  Jalgar’s prominent nose, underscored by a bold, full mustache, offset the rest of his normally clean-shaven face, which now bore a day’s stubble.  Around his waist, he wore a wide leather belt from which hung several water skins, a sheathed knife, and some larger pouches.  On his back he carried a simple woven pack filled with items deemed necessary for a sixday hunt.  Draped over his head, slung so as to cover his head and throat, he wore a loose fitting hijath.  The densely woven cloth provided shelter from the sun.  Jalgar took one end of the hijath, which hung down his chest, and used it to mop the sweat beading his brow.

The weather remains far too warm for so late in the season.  It is already the second sixday into fall’s last luna.

Behind Jalgar trailed Liaju and Rethga, fine young adults now eligible for their twelfth marking.  He had already made the necessary arrangements with Daniskira, a Symbologist of growing renown, and coincidentally his fourth child.  Daniskira should be at the village on their return from this hunt, ready to grant her siblings their twelfth marks.  Thoughts of Daniskira brought to mind her elder twin, Ryntam, also due to arrive shortly.  With near a full cycle having passed since their last visit, he longed to see them.

Positioned some ten paces behind and on Jalgar’s left walked Liaju.  Slender, Liaju stood average height for a girl of twelve cycles.  On completing the Final Rite, that of matching her Chukrah at the Convocation, Liaju would become a woman.  Until then Liaju remained a child, as she would forever within Jalgar’s heart.  Tied with several brightly colored leather thongs, Liaju’s deep chestnut hair hung well below her shoulders.  In the way favored by women, Liaju’s hijath was decorative as well as functional, and much more colorful than her father’s.  The long, wide cloth draped loosely about her neck.  Its ends covered her bosom.

The nostrils of Liaju’s small, upturned nose twitched as she sniffed the air for the odor of herbs.  Her deep brown eyes constantly roamed on the same search.  Like her mother Zunesan, Liaju hoped to become a herbalist.  She wore a gray dress made of tightly woven cloth that extended just below her knees, secured by a belt dyed green.  Her shoes were of soft-soled leather.  Sheathed on her belt hung a small knife, but no visible weapon.  Liaju had no need for such, for to either side trailed her hounds, a bitch and its mate.  Guard enough this close to the village.

About ten paces to Liaju’s right walked her twin, Rethga, the same distance behind Jalgar as his sister.  The three formed a loose triangle, a pattern that offered some protection from surprise, but even more importantly allowed them to cover additional ground in their search.

Rethga was a handsome lad with a thick mop of dark brown hair, not as lustrous as his twin’s, nor as carefully tended, or clean.  His eyes were a shade of brown between his father’s hazel and Liaju’s dark.  Though not yet endowed with the facial hair common to mature men, a mustache’s shadow lay upon Rethga’s upper lip.  Rethga’s attire closely matched that of his father, except for the quiver of heavy shafted arrows slung alongside his burlap pack.  In his right hand, he carried a longbow, bowstring downward.  Though strung, he held no arrow nocked.

Having already traveled four leagues from their failed morning hunt, the family now approached the next hunting site.  Jalgar had selected it some sixdays past during another unsuccessful hunt.  To improve chances of bagging increasingly sparse game it had become necessary to scout potential spots sixdays ahead of hunting them.

These were indeed strange times.

Clearly, man was not the only creature disturbed.

۷۸۷۸۞۷۸۷۸

They arrived at the campsite shortly before dusk.  Jalgar turned to Liaju gave her a tight hug, and said, “I am pleased you shared your thoughts with us, Daughter.  Burdens such as these are heavy when borne alone, yet they ease with the aid of others.  Know that we love you greatly.”

Face serious, Liaju looked up at her father and answered, “I love you too, Papa.  Even when you shout.”

The three cast talk aside and busied themselves with the routine of preparing camp.  In this tight knit group, all knew their function.  Each lowered their pack.  The two men put down their weapons, Jalgar placing the spear tip toward the direction they travelled.  Liaju selected places for the hounds to take up guard, and directed them there with small flicks of her fingers.  Rethga gathered three rocks of sufficient size to house a small cooking fire, which he set and deftly struck to flame.

From her pack, Liaju removed some ground corn for the mush base, along with heavily spiced charqui prepared from livestock meat, and some dried vegetables.  A copper bowl appeared from Jalgar’s larger pack.  Liaju placed the dry ingredients within it and deftly mixed them with her fingers.

After adding the contents of two water skins to the bowl, Jalgar carefully balanced it on the three rocks over the small blaze Rethga had made.  From some small containers Liaju sprinkled additional herbs and salt into the pot.

Well over an hour would pass as the dried foodstuffs simmered into stew.  A precious hour that granted time for unhurried conversation.  With the surety of the hounds on guard, they relaxed.  They spoke idly for a while, lounging close enough to hear one another speaking quietly, but far enough away from the flames to avoid becoming fire mulled or blind.

Dusk’s deepening dark, the smells of spicy food simmering, low voiced conversation, laughter shared while sprawled about a small fire, each treasured these moments.

After some time Rethga turned to his twin and phrased the question that had concerned him since her earlier disclosure, “Liaju, I have thought on your dream.  It troubles me that there are six elements therein.  You have discussed this with the Circle of the Learned?  What thoughts have they shared on the nature of your dreams?”

Startled both by her brother’s words and by the insight within them, Liaju immediately sat straighter.  She had expected days to pass before her father or brother had fully considered her dream and wished to speak further about it.

When Liaju saw her father was wide-awake and attentive, she murmured, “Only after many visits did the Circle discern what you have discovered in a single telling, Brother.  Only after many dreams related, and many hours discussion of each, did they uncover this knowledge.  There are indeed six elements within each dream.  This is an unsettling matter of itself, for six…”  She drew an unsteady breath, “…six is the Number of the Gods.  Thus the number is itself a powerful portend.”

Both Jalgar and Rethga grunted disquieted agreement.

Face serious, Liaju continued, “Other consensuses reached are these.  Of the element of war, at every Convocation many are matched to the Warrior class.  Though we field more Warriors than is prudent, we gain no ground.  While our Warriors slay many, our enemy remain forever steadfast, and ultimately it is we who fall.  We fight a war that fares terribly for all.  Yet neither side relents, and thus we are unable to break the cycle of birth and death by conflict.”

Father and son nodded gravely.  Though neither was a Warrior, both knew this to be true.

Liaju’s voice remained earnest, “Of the element of dwindling herds.  None know better than you the straits in which all unbound beasts dwell.  The herds of all species decline in number, both domestic and wild.  Though even the most expert herdsmen complain of the infertility of their nullipar, there are no portends as to the true cause.”

Again, the men nodded troubled assent.

All three leant forward urgently, anticipation of the simmering meal forgotten.  Fully aware her next words would trouble her father, Liaju paused, “Of the element of unfulfilled Chukrah.  In my dreams, the Convocation fares large.  The numbers of the Seizen, our people, decline precipitously.  The Chukrah hoard grows, while the number of twelve cycle souls to bind in the Eternal Match dwindles.  This means many Chukrah bear terrible loneliness.  They perpetually await the next Convocation in hope of a soul to bond them.  And since the Eternal Match is not one of choice but one of fate, there are now Chukrah that have remained un-matched for scores of Convocations.”

Jalgar, the only one of them already Chukrah bound, sagged visibly.  The bond was mutual, fateful, and permanent.  Once formed, not even death could break it.  The thought of lying companionless, in unbearable solitude for hundreds of cycles gravely troubled Jalgar’s Chukrah.  With this knowledge weighing heavily on him, Jalgar pressed one hand to the earth for support.  With the other, he touched the gleaming six-sided disc in a tender, reassuring caress.  He knew the nature of his Chukrah as no other could.  With its distress, a stirring glimmer of life flickered deep within the normally opaque pendant.  It assumed a greenish inner glow as its wordless vision of what Liaju had described filled Jalgar’s mind.

Terrible, unrelenting loneliness.

Longing, unrelieved.

Perceiving the unhappiness unleashed within her father, Liaju soothed him with a tender touch.  Though not yet matched, she had some insight into the bond’s nature, a bond that approached fast for her and her twin.  They would begin the Pilgrimage to Malmaxa on the Thorsday following this hunt.  There, as twelfth-marked Seizen, they would enter the hoard’s labyrinth to seek out and bond their soulmate.

Our Eternal Match, our Chukrah.

Liaju pressed on in hope of distracting Jalgar from his distress, “The Circle of the Learned say that in troubled times the people are oft blessed with twinned progeny.  Yet twins, the boon of the Gods, remain rare.  Father, from your loins alone has sprung the only sixth child of a sixth child in spoken memory.”

Liaju smiled at her twin as she said this, for Rethga was this rarest of gifts and therefore considered by all to be most favored, a Gift from the Gods to all the Seizen.  Her smile faded, “The Gods granted towns, villages, and structures to the Seizen.  These would suffice for many, many times our current number.  The straits within which we travel… they are more dire than those besetting the unbound beasts.”

In order to emphasize her last point, Liaju paused to drink from one of her water skins.  After swallowing, she continued “Thus, we find three elements of the dream self-evident.  Three elements remain.  The vanquished herd bull, the three beasts slain four times, and the match choices of the Seizen Elder.  Though much discussion has occurred, no insight has been attained.”

After another brief pause, Liaju concluded, “The Convocation arrives with the coming full moon.  Though torn, the Circle of the Learned have reached a troubling consensus.  Some felt that the portends in their entirety of six must be shared.  Others, that knowledge of the quandary of the Seizen Elder would sway many matches and bring grave disquiet to all the Seizen.  Should this disquiet spread to the Chukrah it would certainly bode ill for the Seizen.  Whether to share knowledge, or deny knowledge troubled all.  The final accord reached has been to withhold the sixth element.  Of the Seizen Elder’s struggle, none save the Councils will gain knowledge.”

A long silence ensued, eventually broken by Liaju’s murmur, “None Shall Speak for the Gods.”  She raised her eyes to the heavens and added, “That is the Principle Law.  The Gods gift me with portends embedded within troubling dreams.  Yet they hide understanding of their desires.  Why do they make gaining knowledge of their wishes so arduous?”

Rethga wished to comfort his twin and opened his mouth to speak.  After a few moments, he reconsidered, shook his head, and belatedly said, “Difficult matches.  In my heart, I am a Hunter.  Yet should the Chukrah I match hold the souls of Herbalists, I will accept it gladly.”  He chuckled, pleased with his comment.  It served double-duty as a jibe at Liaju, as clearly set on a Herbalist’s path as he was on a Hunter’s.

When his father frowned and Liaju looked at him quizzically, Rethga realized his attempt to lighten the somber mood had failed.  Feeling compelled to speak, but knowing he could offer little for fear of breaking the Principle Law, he said, “The Gods’ workings are mysterious, known to themselves alone.  When walking dangerous ground, a wise person treads silently, in hope of remaining unnoticed.  I shall remain silent, in hope of gaining wisdom.”

Jalgar replayed Rethga’s words silently within his mind, bit his lip, and wondered if someone had inadvertently disclosed details of the Chukrah match to the boy.  Unable to think who might have done so, or why they would, he decided Rethga merely showed insight.  He concentrated instead on what he could say to help Liaju.

Only after long consideration did Jalgar speak, “I do not attempt to speak for the Gods.  Yet at risk of offending them, I offer you what little I have gleaned on this matter.  Could it be that they desire each to discern for themselves the nature of mortality, and the unvoiced wishes of the immortal?  If someone offered words purporting to come from the Gods, there are many who would pay them heed.  Would the listeners fulfill the Gods’ will?  Or would they merely be the unwitting lackeys of whoever claimed to speak for the Divine?”

Liaju nodded as she looked at her father, understanding evident within her eyes.

Jalgar returned Liaju’s forthright gaze for several moments before shaking his head, “You are wise beyond your cycles, Liaju.  Yet even you might succumb to this insidious temptation.”

Liaju shook her head as she opened her mouth to speak.

Before Liaju could voice her denial, Jalgar raised his hand to silence her.  When she reluctantly closed her mouth, he asked, “You avidly seek knowledge in all things, do you not?”

Liaju nodded ready agreement.

Jalgar nodded before cocking his head to the side, “And if I, your father, were to grant you this knowledge, would you not accept it?”

When Liaju nodded again, Jalgar shook his head vigorously.  “Though you honor me, you must always question knowledge.  Only after it passes the tests of your own mind and heart dare you accept it as truth.”

Both Liaju and Rethga frowned as they considered this.  Eventually they nodded in unison as understanding dawned.

Jalgar nodded satisfaction that his progeny perceived his meaning.  As was his wont, he repeated the lesson, “Question always.  Listen to your heart and to your mind.  Refute all which flies against either.  Trust yourself above any other.  Perhaps these are lessons of the Gods?”  He chuckled, “Or more likely the ramblings of an old fool.  Think on this, for I fear I can offer nothing further.”

After a moment Liaju murmured, “I shall.  My heart is lightened.  Would that I had shared my burden with you both long past.”

Though Rethga absorbed his father’s words, he remained silent.

۷۸۷۸۞۷۸۷۸

III.  Shifts, in Vision

Timeline: Midafternoon, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna, 3600.

Midday’s heat lessened as the sun passed its zenith.

In the shade of his hijath, Mithial awoke from his doze.  As his eyes opened, he instinctively checked his Vanish Rite then carefully scanned the hillside.  When he found nothing he slaked his considerable thirst.  After hours of exposure to the sun, the water was tepid, yet satisfying.

He corked the drained skin, reattached it to his belt, and took a moment to glance at his Chukrah.  His soulmate pulsed the pale green of spring leaves newly unfurled as it echoed wordless contentment.

Sighing, Mithial caressed the flat hexagonal pendant.  It was smooth, grooved, and inanimate to any touch but his.  To him, an intimate echo of his own life force filled his Chukrah.  With its aid, maintaining the Vanish Rite required no significant effort.  However, after hours spent beneath deception’s cloak, disorientation invariably struck.

Mithial shook off the vague confusion and reconsidered his purpose for being here.

Ripkira sent me scouting for sign of our Ancient Enemy?

He blinked away the last of his lethargy, slowly rose, and looked down into the valley.  Denser scrub than the rocky hillside filled it.  With their excellent camouflage, Groth would be difficult to see unaided.  He called to his Chukrah, feeling his vision slowly change as it responded to his appeal.  All detail faded, gradually replaced by an indistinct gray blur.  Within this featureless haze pricks of brighter color coalesced, slowly forming easily distinguished blobs.  Most were moving, each leaving in its wake a vague slash of diminishing color.

Mithial drew a sharp breath in surprise.

Every one of those mustard colored blobs of light reveals a groth!

He concentrated hard, held his head and eyes motionless, and strove to ignore the multiple wavering trails.  Any movement, however slight, blurred the entire image, washed out all color, and returned everything to hazy gray.  Quick as possible, he counted the blobs of brightness.  This proved to be a difficult task while holding his eyes motionless.  Reaching thirty, becoming more nauseous and dizzy with each moment, he gave up and guessed.

Experience told him they exceeded forty.

That number, in this unremarkable little valley, could mean only one thing.  A lair, and a large one.  There might be a hundred more groth basking in the warmth of some underground cave.

I must determine its exact location and an accurate estimate of its size.

Still startled at the high count, Mithial shook his head to deliberately disrupt his altered vision.  As he did so he actively wished his eyes back to normal.  He felt the change in his Chukrah and waited for his eyesight to return.  After a heart’s count to three hundred, the shape of the valley became discernible.  By five hundred, shrubs and boulders appeared.  Finally, at seven hundred heartbeats his vision had completely cleared.  Though most of the nausea and light-headedness faded as his count progressed, bone deep weariness replaced it.

Mithial slowly lifted one end of his hijath to mop his brow with the soft cloth.  It came away damp with the sweat beading his forehead.  Far damper than the day’s uncharacteristic warmth warranted.  Legs trembling from exhaustion, he shambled to a different boulder, one that offered some shade from the sun’s new position.  Absently, he verified his Vanish Rite still held as he slumped into shadow’s relative cool.  He let the sweat soaked end of the hijath fall to his chest as he pulled its middle forward over his eyes.

Drained by his efforts, Mithial lounged against the boulder, sipped from another water skin, and chewed on charqui as he thought.  As soon as I recover some strength, I will circle north.  By sunset, I should be on the northern side of this valley, looking south.

Thanks to the cloudless sky, come nightfall the day’s heat would rapidly dissipate.  Deprived of warming sunlight, the cold-blooded groth would make a beeline for their lair.  They need its warmth.  Their movement toward it should allow him to determine the lair’s precise location.  Thought of this brought a shiver of dread.  Where his Vanish Rite was near effortless, invoking a Vision Shift exhausted him.  Vision Shifts left him weak, shaky, and befuddled.  Doing it twice in a single day would leave him severely debilitated.

There can be no help for it.  Ripkira needs solid information, not vague guesses and suppositions.

A short rest should leave him sufficiently recovered to move.  Later, under the cover of full night, he would stumble back across the plain to the unit and Ripkira.

Mithial let his weary eyelids droop and dozed.

Seeing Ripkira would be adequate reward for his exertions.

۷۸۷۸۞۷۸۷۸

Chapter 3.  Of Chukrah, and Segattoo

I.  Promises, Fulfilled

Timeline: Late Afternoon, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna, 3600.

With evening’s onset approaching, Daniskira took leave of her mother and sister in order to fulfill her promise of a tale to the children.  As soon as she stepped outside a crowd of eager fifth-marked, who had returned from their afternoon chores, surrounded her.  With the children’s excitement building, Daniskira turned her wagon toward the square and led her jumenta to the fountain.  The children parted before her, then closed in behind the wagon and followed, as obedient as a flock of lambs.

On reaching the fountain, Daniskira took a moment to caress the village Chundrah.  Though the obelisk’s barely perceptible pulse revealed it to be depleted of energy, she drew strength from its radiant warmth.  She could always relax within its protective aura.

Daniskira drew a deep breath before releasing the Chundrah and turning back to her wagon.  After positioning her cart to show off her Segattoo to best advantage, she straightened her skirts and turned to face the crowd.  Voice soft, she asked, “Who would like to hear a tale?”

In one voice the throng of children yelled, “Me!”

Oblivious to decorum, the fifth-marked rushed to gain places as near Daniskira as possible.  Within moments, all sat gazing up at her in near silence as they awaited the story.

Word of Daniskira’s arrival had spread.  People converged on the square from all sides.  Adults and their eleventh-marked progeny trailed in, their labors of the day completed, or postponed.  Daniskira noticed their arrival and made a show of dusting off her blouse before turning to slowly wash her hands and face in the fountain’s runoff.  This delay allowed the newcomers time to find places to sit.  Daniskira’s tales somehow returned the older listeners to the worry free times of their youth.  Few willingly missed them.

In the pleasant, warm haze of early evening Daniskira prepared to tell them the tale of how she had acquired her magnificent Segattoo.  Only when silence fell, indicating all were seated and comfortable, did she turn from the fountain to face the crowd once more.

Arrayed behind Daniskira, cradled in specially made holders in the back of her wagon, stood her matched Segattoo.  Her careful placement ensured the sun’s last, spectacular rays would illuminate them.  After standing silent for a few moments she gestured toward the plants, timing her hand’s motion as the sun’s lower edge touched the horizon.  A collective gasp of awe rose as the Segattoo’s multicolored spines caught dusk’s display and reflected it in multiple colored beams.

Daniskira gasped along with the villagers.  The beauty of her Segattoo never failed to touch her heart.

Segattoo held a crucial role for the Seizen.  From the Segattoo’s many hued spines came the colored resins used to form the ritual marks of family worn by all.  Since custom required that the person attended provide their own Segattoo, every Seizen household maintained at least one of the plants.  Symbologists used the resin-laden spines, plucked fresh from the plant, to fashion the unique ancestral symbols within the flesh of their patrons.

A Symbologist of growing renown, Daniskira knew Segattoo better than anyone.  The two beautiful plants on display before the villagers were Daniskira’s.  She maintained them with devotion and took great pride in the particularly vibrant hue of their spines.  Daniskira had tended her Segattoo lovingly since finding them on one of her unsanctioned adventures.  Though those youthful adventures had oftentimes left her parents worried, thankfully they had never resulted in permanent harm.

With the stage set and every person in the square awestruck by the brilliant play of light upon her Segattoo’s iridescent spines, Daniskira began her tale.  As always, her timing proved impeccable.  The sun vanished as she spoke, taking with it the day’s last gleam and the voices of all gathered.

Low pitched and urgent, Daniskira’s voice filled the sudden quiet, grasping the attention of the receptive crowd.

“This evening I will tell how I discovered my Segattoo.”

The children were hers, completely, as were the adults.

۷۸۷۸۞۷۸۷۸

 

 

II.  Meals, Shared

Timeline: Early Evening, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna, 3600.

When the stew had cooked sufficiently Jalgar gave the pot a brief stir, this released the rich odors of a fine meal ready for consumption.  Before eating, Liaju rose to stretch her legs and return circulation to her body.  They had been sitting too long.  Her father and brother also stood and stretched.  Though they trusted the hounds for first warning, this served little if your limbs refused to respond.  Once limber, they seated themselves for the meal.

Each took out a wooden bowl from their pack.  Into these Jalgar divided the stew, the portions based on the needs of those sharing the meal.  Jalgar received the largest, with Rethga’s portion slightly smaller.  Nearly a hand shorter than her twin, Liaju received an appropriately smaller amount.  Next, Jalgar then took a sheaf of journey bread from his pack, which he broke into three before giving pieces to Liaju and Rethga.

Together they began eating, dipping the unleavened bread in the stew and savoring the delicious melding of vegetable, grain, and meat.  Only the lack of venison’s tang detracted from the meal’s flavor.

After leisurely consuming their food, each took time to drink from their water skins and wash down their last mouthfuls.  They then poured a small amount of water into their bowls and swished it about to loosen the last particles of food.  With the crust of bread each had left uneaten, they carefully wiped about their bowls to clean them and mop up the moisture.

Liaju called her hounds with a click of her tongue.  They appeared silently alongside, sat, and waited patiently.  After a few moments, Liaju broke her crust in two and gave a piece to each.  The hounds devoured the crusts, then moved to Rethga, who repeated what Liaju had done.  Finally, they circled to Jalgar.  Smiling, he did the same.

All deserved their share, dogs included.

With the meal over, Jalgar, Liaju, and Rethga rose and moved down to the nearby stream to refill their water skins.  Ever alert, the hounds trailed them.  At the stream Jalgar and Rethga kept watch while Liaju performed the task.  First, each partly filled their water skins, then rinsed them thoroughly before emptying them some distance from the stream so as not to disturb the clean flowing water.  After shaking out the last drops of stale water, they refilled all skins.  They took special care to gather only the clear running surface flow.  Once filled with clean, fresh water every skin received a pinch of cleansing herbs.  Only after the three had finished did the hounds come forward to drink.  Singly, the three took their ablutions in the woods and then washed in the stream while the others stood guard.

On returning to their campsite, the fire had reduced to a bed of coals.  They immediately began preparations for the night’s slumber.  With warm feet making for a warm body, each lay with their feet toward one of the three heated rocks surrounding the fire.  They placed their heads outward, using their own packs as pillows.  Of the three only Liaju covered herself with a thin blanket, which she had taken from her pack.  With the weather so warm, the men felt no need of coverings.  They preferred to lie beneath the clouded sky.

Trusting the hounds to give them fair warning, they gradually settled down.

Having shared the burden of her dreams with her father and twin, Liaju found her woes no longer as distressing, or as weighty.  More confident she would glean the Gods’ will than she had been since her troubling dreams began, she gladly succumbed to sleep’s allure moments after lying down.

For the first time in many lunas, Liaju slept well.

۷۸۷۸۞۷۸۷۸

III.  Tales, of Segattoo

Timeline: Late Morning, Cronusday, 6th sixday, 3rd Luna, 3588
Flashback: Daniskira’s Segattoo.

Both Segattoo already stood eight segments high when Daniskira discovered them.  Rare finds indeed, only possible thanks to the remoteness of the dwelling the family occupied that long cycle.  Their home was in the southernmost village, still inhabited, from Malmaxa.  The forest in which these Segattoo thrived lay even further south.

Daniskira had spent the entire morning travelling to the wood, moving as quickly as her sixth cycle legs could carry her.  She had first spotted it while standing atop a hill the previous sixday.  A hill a full two hours walk closer to the village.  What had aroused her inquisitive nature were the particularly tall, straight-bodied trees forming this forest.  Since it had already been too late to reach the wood on the day she first saw it, she had crafted a plan for a special outing to reach it.

Thus she arrived here now.

Accompanied by her hounds, Daniskira entered a clearing within the woods as the sun neared its zenith.  The plants were positioned on the far side of a small pond, one to her right, one to her left.  First sight of the Segattoo stripped her breath away.  Their spines shone so bright that for an instant she thought them the bases of a miniature rainbow.

Gradually daring to breathe once more, Daniskira realized there was no rain, and that the rainbow’s arc was absent.  The brilliant display emanated not from a trick of misted sunlight, but from two magnificent Segattoo so glorious they could only be gifts from the Gods.

Oblivious to the plants’ glory, Daniskira’s hounds tasted the pond’s clear water then proceeded to satisfy themselves there was no imminent danger to their young mistress.  As they moved the dog, Whasin, marked the area as his.  Finally, with their sniffling investigation completed, both hounds lay near Daniskira.  Their relaxed posture granted her ample surety of safety.  Though apparently asleep and content, the pair remained as alert as only dozing dogs can be.

Daniskira looked at the Segattoo in awe as she contemplated their beauty.  Midday came and went, all thought of the straight-bodied trees she had come to investigate forgotten.

She gazed on the plants, from one to the other, marking forever in her memory the wonder of their construction and the beauty of their brightly tinted protective spines.  Reflected from these very spines, the sun’s light seemed more splendorous than any rainbow.

Daniskira considered the plants with an intensity far beyond her cycles.  First she looked on them at length from across the clearing.  Later she moved near to examine them from intimately close.  While still drinking her fill of their beauty, she realized this was a defining moment in her life.

Random thoughts flitted through Daniskira’s young mind.  She sat so close to the plants that she could easily reach out and touch their spines.  As she often did when alone with only her hounds for audience, she voiced her thoughts aloud, “My brothers will be so jealous when they see them.

I’ll use their spines for my sixth marking.

Ryntam will be so envious.

No, of course I’ll share with her.

Well, perhaps the spines, if not the plants themselves.”

After a pleasant interlude filled with idyllic dreams, Daniskira saw the Segattoo through new eyes.  Eyes opened to their true wonder.

Segattoo looked like nothing else she knew or had heard described.  Were the sad truth told, the Seizen seldom described Segattoo at all.  They were just, well, they were just Segattoo, an accepted part of Seizen culture so mundane as to not require consideration.  That anyone could take such splendid plants for granted gravely troubled Daniskira.  She determined that henceforth she would award all Segattoo their due.

In this frame of mind, Daniskira threw out the widely accepted logic which held that Segattoo were nothing more than peculiar cacti.  Filled with a powerful need to understand them, she delved deep into the Segattoo’s true nature as she sought valid comparisons.

A tower of individual segments comprised a single Segattoo.  Surely they must be like something?  “A stack of clay bowls?” she murmured aloud before discarding the idea.

Where clay bowls were inanimate, life’s essence filled Segattoo.

She narrowed her eyes in concentration, “Besides clay bowls don’t have identical segments, each with their own perfectly matched branches.”  Dissatisfied with the comparison of living plant to inert clay, she dismissed it.  However, she liked the idea of a stack of bowls of decreasing size and retained that part of her thought.

While walking around the plants, she realized each individual bowl bore a vague resemblance to a pumpkin.  Well, Segattoo are green, while pumpkins are orange.  Conjuring a pumpkin in her mind’s eye, she compared it to the plant’s bottom bowl.  Where a pumpkin had ten vertically aligned segments, the Segattoo had only six.  Still, it does seem much more like a pumpkin than a clay pot.

Dissatisfied with this comparison as well, even though it seemed closer, Daniskira shook her head, “Well, at least pumpkins are alive, but they’re just… well, they’re just common!  Besides, who would stack pumpkins one atop another?  That’s just silly!  The Segattoo is the Gift from the Gods.  It is special, very special, while pumpkins are just plain and ordinary.  So perhaps it is alright to compare Segattoo with nothing else.  After all, they are unique.  But I do like the idea of bowls, so that’s what I’ll call them.”

With this determination made, she examined the plant’s lowermost bowl.  Evenly spaced around it, about halfway up each of its six vertical segments, were six upward sweeping branches.  The branches were short, not quite reaching the top of the bowl as they swept up and out in a gentle, pleasing curve.

Without realizing she did, Daniskira held out her own arms, hands open, palms toward her face, copying as best she could the branches’ arcs.  She looked at her arms and described what she saw, “Limbs held toward the Heavens, in supplication to the Gods.”

A thrill of pleasure swept through Daniskira.  It raised gooseflesh with its passage.

So eloquent.  So simple.  So true.

Voice filled with certainty, Daniskira exclaimed, “Why they aren’t branches at all, they’re the Segattoo’s limbs!  Besides, they’re covered in hairs, just like my arms.  What mere branch has hair?”

With the thought of hair grasping her imagination, Daniskira turned back to the Segattoo to examine the bottom bowl again.  Perhaps for the first time she peered closely at the spines covering it.  Though transparent, each spine bore a distended middle.  They matched her small finger in length.  “These look more like a porcupine’s quills than hairs!  No wonder they’re called quills!” she murmured.  She looked closer still, eager to find any further differences between the large quills and the tiny hair-like spines on the limbs.

Transparent sap filled the swollen middle of each quill.  This discovery provoked a memory, “Vhials… a name reserved for only the bottommost spines of the Segattoo.”  Since she had no idea what vhial meant, or why it was reserved exclusively for the spines on the Segattoo’s lowest bowl, she determined to ask her mother at first opportunity.

An admiring glance from several paces back showed the wonderful proportions of the plant.  She cocked her head to the side as she noted its overall symmetry.  Six vertically aligned segments to a bowl, six limbs evenly spaced, one limb to each segment.  The bowls gradually reduced in size, with each bowl a virtual replica of the bowl beneath, upon which it sat.  Besides size, the only perceptible difference between the bowls was the rainbow of hues within their spines.  Each bowls’ quills bore an entirely different color.

Daniskira’s eyes roamed upward as she considered the second bowl.  Slightly smaller, it sat mounted neatly on top of the first.  The spines on this bowl were a vivid, startling white at its base.  By its middle, where its limbs protruded, white gave way to rich cream.  Cream transitioned to translucent yellow, which gradually solidified into lustrous shades of polished bronze and gleaming gold by its top.

The third bowl housed spines of red.  Its lowest spines were the pink of puckered lips, awaiting a kiss.  Creeping higher, their color turned bright and deep, becoming ever darker, to end in hues of dried blood so bold they were barely distinguishable as red.

The fourth bowl held purples.  Strangely, on this bowl the color intensity reversed.  Its quills gradually grew lighter as her eyes crept ever upward.  It started with deepest plum, faded through mauve, until at its top stood pale lilac.

Above the purples, on the fifth bowl, were blues.  Its lowest spines were of an intensity seldom seen in nature.  Perhaps the center of a lake of melted snow, cold and crisp, brilliant and blue.  As had the purple bowl, these spines lightened as the eye climbed.  Midway up the spines sported spectacular midsummer lightning.  By the fifth bowl’s top the quills dulled, with most of their brilliance washed away to look as sky on a faded blue day.

On the sixth bowl came a range of aqua.  Palest winter sky, gradually darkening as her eyes climbed, though the transition of color was not bold.  By the sixth bowl’s top, hints of morning sun’s glimmer reflected from a frozen sky.

Upon the final colored bowl, the seventh, the spines were green.  These began with the pale of new leaves unfurled in spring, they ended in forest’s dark.

The spines guarding the Segattoo’s topmost bowl held no hint of color.  They showed no transition from dark to light, nor from faded to vibrant.  Only pitch spines of a single shade.

Deepest, deadly, impenetrable black.

Daniskira stood to her full height of almost five feet, slightly shorter than most fifth-marked, and found she could look down on the topmost bowl.  “Nine hands tall!  Who knew Segattoo could grow so huge?  Papa will never believe my luck, for nobody has Segattoo as glorious as these.”

The topmost bowl, on which Daniskira now looked, was about the size of her cupped hands.  Dead center on its top sat a small, gray object.  Thinking it some vile parasite that dared suck the life blood from her Segattoo, Daniskira examined it reproachfully, eager fingers ready to pinch and destroy.

Instead, she squealed in delight.

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Since Malmaxa is complex, here is it’s full Glossary.
Should you like to listen more than read, here is a snippet of audio.
Resources and additional links.
The original cover art.

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Malmaxa I - Beltamar's War
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