Hi, this is the second draft of the first chapter of my story. It is something like 3000 words long. I'd appreciate any comments or tips you guys have.
It was perhaps around mid-noon when two boys found the body on the picturesque beach. Apparently, they had managed to escape from their daily chores and had planned to spend the day, swimming, searching for oysters and doing various other things islanders tend to do on beaches. Finding a body was quite an exciting event for them I’m told. I suppose I can understand why. The sunny Tigzirten islands are probably as far west as one can go without falling off the edge of the world. A dead foreigner, washing up there? Why, the currents hardly ever brought anything other than seaweed, the occasional piece of driftwood and the even rarer pebble or two of sea glass.
They stared at the body for a while, jaws hanging no doubt. I must have made quite the sight; a pungent foreigner, covered in stained rags and dozens of assorted festering wounds. After the initial novelty of the moment, the bigger of the two lads ran to grab a stick at the persistent urging of the younger one. The larger boy came back with a good sturdy stick, perhaps two arms-length long; he was sensible, probably not wanting a sudden burst of crabs, flies or any other nasties to come after him and his younger brother after poking the body.
“Come on, poke it, poke it!” the small boy begged. The older brother feigned disinterest.
“I’m starting to have second thoughts Mahtar.” He pretended to think about it for a bit. “You know, maybe we should just go tell the Tament council about this. Leave those old hags to poke it with their sticks instead.”
“Please, please, please, please, please?” the younger boy pleaded, pulling on his brother’s arm.
The older boy waited a moment for the suspense to reach a climax before answering. “Well, alright then. Step back, I don’t want you to get bitten by a rat or something.” Then, the boy poked the body.
* * *
“Ah!” They both screamed.
“Gogh.” I moaned in response.
Waking up to being poked in the arse isn’t fun on the most pleasant of days. That boy poked hard, the stick was pointy, and the stars aligned so that the stick ended up hitting a particularly inflamed cut on my buttock. Waking up to being poked in the arse after months at sea with a raging fever and dozens of wounds…well, I’m sure you can imagine that it wasn’t pleasurable.
My first instinct was to find out if I’d kept my journal through the storm. I was relieved to feel the waxed leather coverings pressing against my skin under my robe. My second, more intelligent instinct was to reach for the large pouch of earth on my belt. To my horror, the once bulging sack was now perhaps one-quarter full. There goes most of your power. Unless you want to go back to…there. My long-dead teacher, friend, role model whispered in my mind. He was right though. I didn’t want to, no, I couldn’t go back to get more of that dirt. Not now anyway, so soon after…
Praefectus Bao looking to me in utter despair. There was nothing we could do, I assured myself. The Aeravian arrows blotting out the sun. We didn’t even have shields. Gods, we didn’t even have shields!
Do you remember? Ugguram asked me. The blood feeding the red poppies? The fear, the anger, the hopelessness? Being a hair’s breadth away from an arrow, from death, even while riding away in cowardice?
I gently shook my head. It was just Ugguram, in my head, playing his tricks. I had to follow my gut feelings. My third and final instinct before blacking out due to either the fever, dehydration or starvation was to call for help. Or at least I tried to. The result was more of a croak that vaguely resembled the word.
Those boys have already taken off Aksel. It’s much too late to call for help. I doubt they’ll bother telling anyone; I mean, look at you! You’re practically dead already! Ugguram mocked. It then occurred to me that I may have gotten my priorities in the wrong order. Cruel laughter echoed in my head. Yes Aksel, you most certainly have.
* * *
The first surprise upon waking up was waking up at all. I felt better than I had in months, my stomach full for the first time in a while and my thirst quenched. And oh how astonishing it was to feel my heart pumping blood through my veins, cool evening air coursing through my lungs. Extremely cool evening air. My skin was covered with goosebumps. I began to get the inkling of a suggestion that something was wrong.
If you're done with rediscovering life, look around you, you dumb sow. Ugguram practically screamed in my head, making me wince in pain. After many years with my companion, even though he was now reduced to a splinter of my mind that probably shattered in the Aevarian dungeons, I found it best to follow Ugguram's advice as quickly as possible. Examining my surroundings, I noticed two things. One, I was tied to a wooden post on a cliff overlooking the ocean, which explained the chill. Two, I was not alone.
Before me was the meanest, sourest, grumpiest looking bunch of old women I'd ever seen, standing around a fire. A Tament Council. Except here, they overrule the Imen Council. They're a matriarchal society. Ugguram explained. Also, the fact that you're on a cliff on the night of a full moon, meaning that they're probably gonna sacrifice you to Temantafat, their version of Tayyurt. Lovely*.* I did not question how Ugguram knew this, because if I did, he’d go on another rant about how he’s real. The most likely possibility was that I simply heard him mention it while he was alive and had forgotten. I strained against the ropes binding me, causing pain to shoot through every vein of my body.
"Careful, you're going to open your wounds. It took oh so much effort to stitch them up." a voice scolded me in the Diguoren tongue.
"Right. Sorry about that. Wouldn't want to ruin your lovely stitching. On another note, how am I alive?" I responded in Diguoren.
"Lots of effort and a great dollop of luck." The woman said. She was neither old nor young. Beautiful, nor plain. Tall, nor short. She was, in lack of better terms, your perfectly average Tizgirten islander. Dark haired, bronze-skinned and dark-eyed. Extremely dark-eyed. Of all her features, her coal black eyes were the only exceptional ones. They seemed to drink in the firelight. "I am Thaysat, and I shall speak for the council you see before you. Now, do you know why you're tied to a pole?"
"Human sacrifice. Nasty business. I doubt Temantafat would approve. She is the goddess of mercy and diplomacy after all." I said smugly in Tilest, pretending that these lines weren't fed to me word by word by Ugguram. The bizarrely average woman raised an eyebrow.
"You speak a mainland dialect of Tilset. Strange. We-" she gestured at the surrounding women. "are extremely curious as to how. The last outsider we found was when Gara here was a little girl." The old crones cackled at that, like a group of sinister crows.
I tried my best to smirk. It felt very hard to maintain for some reason as if weights were tugging at the corners of my mouth. Making it quiver. "You want to know how? Because I'm a bloody saint. So you better bring me to whatever brethren I have on this island right now."
The sputters of outrage started immediately. Someone spat in the fire, causing sparks to rise into the air. The old women started yelling amongst themselves, the first time I'd heard them talk.
"hij zoud hange!"
"Blasfemie. Blasfemie oi se."
"Stek im Thaysat! Stek im nu!"
"What?" I was astoundingly confused. I mean, I knew that insular Tilest would be hard to understand, but the old womens' babbling was barely sounded coherent to me. Meanwhile, Ugguram was laughing his ass off in my head.
Boy, you just walked up to these islanders who haven’t seen humans from outside their villages in perhaps centuries judging by the appearance of that Gara. She has more wrinkles than a sundried tomato. And you claim to be a saint? Might as well say you're their new king. Now that Ugguram was mentioning it, I did feel rather dumb. What's your plan then? He asked.
It was a rather simple plan. I felt Ugguram sifting through my mind as he examined the details of my thought process. Then he started laughing even harder. To continue with the ass metaphor, at this point his ass would be so far off that it would be zooming over Tayyurt's smiling silver visage in the sky. You plan to just talk your way out of this while doing the trick from the Aeravian gaols? Need I remind you of how we met? You, surrounded by a dozen pissed off shepherds, ready to beat you to death with their sticks?
That was…a surprisingly valid point from Ugguram, who had become increasingly irrational in my mind compared to the rather placid and logical man he was in life. But it had worked before, in the gaols.
Yes, before, after scratching at their walls for months. Not after being washed up on a shore and soaking in water for god knows how long.
Again, valid points from Ugguram. But it didn’t matter. I didn't have a choice. I had to find their Saint. I began to start cleaning the dirt from my nails.
Thaysat had calmed the Tament council down while Ugguram was berating me. She turned towards me.
"You claim much for a foreigner. Perhaps you've heard that being a saint is important to us. But you have stepped too far. This is blasphemy." Thaysat then snapped her fingers. A man stepped out from the shadows, covered with nothing but a loincloth, a sort of half cloak thrown over one shoulder and his bulging muscles.
"Hey. You should put some more clothes on. It's rather cold out if you haven't noticed." I told him.
The man ignored me and handed a box to Thaysat, before walking back into the darkness, throwing me a single glance of contempt. They probably have more men hiding in the darkness, all around you. They may have the facade of being sure of themselves, but they don't know if they are in control or not. Ugguram observed. They fear you because you are new. Foreign. Exotic. You can use this to your advantage Aksel. Unnerve them. Buy yourself the time you need. Build the suspense.
I continued to scratch furiously under my nails. I hadn't cut them in years. Scratch scratch. They were nice and long. Scratch scratch. Yellow and dirty. Scratch scratch. I felt blood seeping from my nail bed as I dug deeper and further to search for precious earth. Scratch scratch. I needed it, more than I needed air. I felt anxiety rising like a sky lantern in my stomach. I fought to push it down. To focus on the tasks on hand. I needed the dirt. Scratch scratch. All of it.
Thaysat pulled a wickedly sharp knife from the box. It seemed to absorb the meagre light from the fire, the flames dancing on its surface as if trapped within it. "This is a blade made from the glass of the mountain that a giant slumbers beneath." Giants. Ugguram growled in my mind. Anything that has been tainted by them brings nothing by suffering. don't like this glass. It feels wrong. I couldn't agree with Ugguram more. It was unnatural, the way it seemed to slice the very air itself whenever Thaysat twirled it. The way it swallowed all light and seemed to just want more and more to sate its never-ending ravenous hunger. It terrified me.
"It's incredibly sharp. Sharper than any steel. Let me show you." Thaysat said gleefully, jumping over to me and placing the blade in front of my eye. I gulped, though my mouth felt like it was filled with sand. I stared at the needle-thin point before my pupil, wondering if this Thaysat was planning to remove my eye with it. If so, I hoped it was as sharp as she said.
"It was made by a craftsman long ago, a time when they had better tools and better work. Look at this," she said, quickly turning the blade for me to see its masterfully serrated edge. "Beautiful, isn't it? It cuts through flesh and barely leaves a drop of blood. In fact, I’ve cut animals with this knife before. They barely notice it at all and if the meat stays in place, the severed flesh fuses back to the animal no problem. Do you know what we use this knife for?" she asked. I shook my head slowly.
"To emasculate. Root and stem." she growled. In the blink of the eye, she moved, placing the blade against my masculinity. I began to shiver, and not from the cold in the air. But the dead, icier cold in Thaysat's eyes.
"P-p-please. I'd much rather keep my root and stem." I blubbered. Thaysat was silent for a moment. She then laughed, taking the blade away from my genitals. I let out a sigh of relief.
"I won't cut you, so don’t worry so much," she assured me, playing with the knife, spinning it across her knuckles. "I understand that your blasphemy was committed out of ignorance. And as such, we shall ignore your crime. But don't repeat it."
"Can you please put the knife away?" I asked. I watched the blade dance across her knuckles. Moonlight, firelight, moonlight, firelight, alternating faster and faster. Days passing, months, years, centuries. I could hear rumbling in the distance and far, far away, an even deeper rumbling laugh. Thaysat stopped, staring at me inquisitively for a moment, before putting the blade in the box once more.
"Will you answer any question I ask?" Thaysat asked, raising an eyebrow questioningly, her finger on the latch of the box.
"Yes, yes. Of course." I said. Thaysat nodded acceptingly, closing the latch. It echoed loudly, floating on the silence of the night. That wasn't taking control of the situation Aksel. But that's ok, I understand the sentimental value you attach to your genitalia. You haven't had any offspring yet, have you? Ugguram said. I ignored him.
I cleared my throat. Everyone was staring at me attentively. My fingers were still dripping drops of blood into my palms. I kept on scratching. I was nearly there. Nearly there.
“What is your question?” I asked.
“How has the world changed since our last visit, oh so many moons ago?” she said, taking a seat on the ground in front of me.
"I can do that. Sure.” I cleared my throat. “Now, how much have you heard about the Aevarian Ukh'raa?" I asked.
Thayat furrowed her brow in frustration. "I believe our last visitor spoke of Aevarians. He was an explorer of sorts. Aevarians…a group of mountain nomads. In the middle of a tribal conflict he said."
I shook my head. "The tribal conflict was just the beginning. Aevarians have always been the barbarians to the north, the dirty nuisance, but never a threat. But then, a mystic rose. A caravan raider with ambitious too large for his mountains. A genius, no doubt. A child killer, kin slayer and oppressor of all conquered peoples according to some. A holy saviour, illuminator and humanist according to others. The details don't matter. What does, is that this man managed to unite the Aevarian tribes and brought them down upon Diguoren garrisons. And won. Again, and again."
Thaysat stared at me, enraptured. "Fascinating. So, there is a new player in the Ring of the Bassin."
"Indeed. This man, this great conqueror, lead his fellow countrymen into battle one too many times and was killed. After a period of internal strife, his companions organized themselves and each one with a purpose in the Ukh'raa. each with their own successor. Their empire is dynamic where ours is lethargic, vibrant where ours is stale. Yet, we both know that if the full might of our empires were brought against each other, we would grind each other to dust, until we split in dozens of ruinous states. So, a settlement was made. We gave them Kemet." I said, feeling the amount of dirt in my palms with my thumbs. I hoped it was enough.
"Kemet? We know of Kemet. We have brethren who once raided those lands before they were subjugated by the Diguo." Thaysat said accusingly. But I felt her anticipation. Her need to know what happens next. I took a moment to roll my shoulders and stretch my neck. Let her anticipation build.
"Kemet. A core piece of Diguoren land. Fertile and bountiful beyond belief. They say that wheat grows without a finger being lifted in Kemet. We gave it freely, taking our people with us, in exchange for peace." I let the word settle over the crowd. Peace. Such a powerful concept. Some hate it. Most desire it. But we all miss it when it leaves for too long. "Yet they broke the agreement. Attacked the lands to the west of Kemet. Do you all know what's west of Kemet?"
Silence. No one answered. Then, "Tamurt n Layefki." an old woman whispered. A powerful whisper, that filled the silence and evoked an unbidden image in my mind. The milk-white mountain tops. The emerald hillsides. The villages, hugging the mountainsides, cascading down into valleys. Snow, falling in winter, crunching underfoot. The air, always clean and pure sharply opposed to the stink of humanity that most cities had. The shepherds lazily herding their sheep as their sheep lazily chewed on grass. Heaven. Ugguram murmured.
"They attacked Tamurt n Layefki. And Diguo did not believe the news. Or perhaps they did not want to. In any case, they did not send help. Not a single Banner. The locals gathered at the insistence of the local Diguoren magistrates. I was one of them. A low ranking one at that. I spent time with the saint there. Lots of time." I stared at all of them. I took a deep breath in. For a moment, I had a horrible sense of clairvoyance, like an Avobri shaman reading the future in the way knuckle bones tumbled. I saw the Elders before me tense up. The silent shadows in the darkness picking up their spears. The smirk forming on the woman’s mouth. The knife, coming out once again, this time taking a part of me with it. But I pushed through. I needed this.
"I felt the saint's hearts-blood splash onto me. I felt it seep into my soul. So, for all intents and purposes you small, vile creature, I am a SAINT." I yelled at Thaysat. I felt my sainthood flowing through me now. It was not the same power that Aaeverian Vicars or Diguoren Blooded had, the useful ability to make fireballs and such. Instead, it affected minds and souls, if you're in contact with the land that you’re a saint of. Ugguram had begun to laugh once again, the crazy laugh of a lunatic who had long ago lost control of his mind. I heard someone let out a moan of despair. Before me, the elders had dropped their canes and fallen to their knees in reverence. The men in the darkness began to shift around, stabbing at the air with their spears, as if looking to impale some malevolent sprite whispering into their ears. Thaysat looked up at me, a duo of emotions in her coal pit eyes. Fear and awe.
"Take off the ropes child," I said softly. She nodded and quickly undid the knots of the ropes holding me to the pole. I gasped as I finally fell free, taking two staggering steps before someone came to support me. A nameless man, who had hidden in the darkness. I leaned against him, as someone else threw a cloak over my shoulders. I looked to Thaysat, again, looking up to me with that duo of emotions in her eyes. "Take me to my brother." I demanded.