Druan Episode 1: Dawn
By Mark Robson
Copyright 2016 Mark Robson
Cover Art by Alan Mence
Cover Text by James Eden
The Age of the Sun, Year One.
Dawn broke their hearts. After all they endured, all they sacrificed, it seemed a betrayal of hope. The rewards of their survival lay before them, clear and stark in the light of the first day in centuries.
Few remained in the village. Their tiny population had dwindled over the long sunless years. Too few births, and too many lost to the harvesters. Deserted hovels stood silent and dark across the dusty ground, empty monuments to the stolen dead.
Those final dark hours lasted an eternity. The villagers huddled together in their crude shelters, shivering in the hot, clammy night air. They prayed to the spirits for deliverance, for an end and for a beginning. The long night dragged on.
And then they heard the cry, a boy’s voice, shouting at the sky, rising up and falling flat against the heavy clouds. Panic rippled through the village, instinctive and familiar. The harvesters would take him, they thought. More than any other time, the darkness of the deep night was their realm. Any noise or movement could bring them. The older, wiser villagers mourned him. It was already too late.
But the voice continued its high-pitched yell. It called for far too long. They should have come by now, thought the villagers. They should have taken him. And with this, the first few dared hope. What if?
With hope came doubt. They might be wrong. They might go outside and find the harvesters swarming overhead, liquid and deadly. Fear won and they stayed still and quiet in the darkness.
Finally, an old man stepped from his hut. Somehow he had survived down the years, helpless as his family were taken one by one. He had little fear, as there was nothing more the darkness could do to hurt him. Others eventually followed. On trembling legs, he led them toward the voice.
The boy stood at the centre of the rough circle of huts, by the great fire pit. It had been smothered when the twilit day ended and was now dead and dark. The boy hopped from one foot to the other, stepping forward and back in a feverish display of energy. His head was tilted so far back that he appeared on the brink of toppling over.
That they could see him at all was the first shock. There should have been no light at all, not even enough for dim shapes. The black clouds that blanketed the world left daylight as nothing more than the faintest grey, while at night there was nothing. The wandering shaman had told them of the sun, the ball of fire in the heavens that he saw on his spirit journeys, but they had not believed. How could they, when all they had known was night?
The boy kicked up dust with his bare feet and broke into a wordless song, simple vowel sounds in time with his clumsy dance. When the villagers asked him – in hushed whispers – why he was singing, his reply was to fling both arms skywards, fingers pointing. The villagers raised their eyes to the clouds, tipping their heads back as the boy had done.
There were gasps from those who could see, whispered questions from those whose eyesight had faded too far. Could it be true? What did it mean?
Directly above them, a single point of light blazed with majestic clarity. Impossibly distant and cold, it made the smothering clouds almost petty. In a world where the only light came from burning pitch, this stark, clean point was unbearably beautiful.
Words gathered around the boy’s song. Excited murmurs, boldly rising in volume, explaining, wondering, and finally beginning to hope. Others heard the voices and left their huts to stand by the fire pit. Soon the entire village was gathered beneath the clouds, their eyes fixed skywards.
Another light blinked faintly, but no less clear. Arms pointed. The boy’s song was drowned in voices. People hugged each other. They fell to their knees. They sat in the dust and wept. Everyone understood what it had to mean. The clouds were breaking up. Finally, after hundreds of years, the reign of the harvesters was at an end.
No one moved for the rest of the night. They sat and watched the clouds fade away, to be replaced by dazzling points of distant light. A cool breeze tickled their faces, the first wind they had ever known. It washed over them and drained their fear and tension away, leaving nothing but exhausted relief.
And then dawn came. The sky brightened and began to glow, and the sun rose gloriously into a cloudless blue sky. Eyes burned in the fierce light. Hands were held above faces to provide shade. Pale skin tingled as the warmth of the sun purged the darkness from their bodies. Those that could still see cried out in wonder.
When the glare became too much they lowered their heads and, for the first time, saw their world in the bright light of day.
Their village stood on the edge of a great expanse, in the foothills of looming grey mountains. Jagged, branching cracks splintered the dry ground. The land was nothing but dust. The view turned their newfound joy into deep despair.
Their entire world was laid out before them, so much larger than anyone ever suspected. As far as they could see across the vast rocky plain, nothing lived. The blind, clumsy creatures that shambled through the dark had fled from the sun to hide in whatever caves they could find. Mould and fungus withered in the new light.
The world was desolate.
Wind whistled through the dust, swirling across the plain in a chaotic mockery of life. Soil scratched across the ground, only emphasising the quiet emptiness.
The boy’s voice rose again. He pointed over the lip of the hill to where six figures slowly approached. As they emerged from the dust, one stumbled. The others picked him up and they staggered forward, leaning on each other for support.
Some of the villagers ran to help the strangers and within minutes they were seated around the fire pit. Water was provided from the meagre well, and blood and dirt were wiped away. The villagers gathered around to hear the news.
The oldest of them had a hard, lined face and dark hair that was turning grey at the temples. He stared into the cold bowl of yesterday’s fire for a long, long time before raising his head to look at the villagers. They saw nothing in his face, no triumph or despair, no relief, no pain. The older villagers recognised his expression and sympathised. This man had nothing to live for. He was empty inside.
His eyes flicked blankly over the crowd, before turning to look across his companions, to the far end where the youngest of them sat.
Only the faintest signs of a beard were beginning to show beneath the dirt on his face. Still too young for his third sil, he was barely old enough to be called a man, but he had a presence beyond his years. Something smouldered in his eyes, invisible and yet obvious, that reflected the hardships he had endured.
Those with the power within them were highly prized by the harvesters. A shaman burned so much more brightly, and in the darkness there were few places to hide. Shamans survived only by moving, or by keeping so far away from other people that the isolation damaged their sanity.
The young shaman was holding a cloth pouch tightly to his chest, his muscles tensed as though it might wriggle free of his grasp. He looked up and met the older man’s gaze. Something passed between them, a common understanding, recognition of horrors witnessed and survived. The shaman let out a long, slow breath, finally realising that he was safe.
“Tell us,” said a voice from the crowd, repeated by others.
The older man returned his gaze to the fire pit. “It worked,” he said, his voice dry and cracked. Flat. “The plan worked. It took all of them to do it, but they closed the gate. We won.”
“All of them?” asked someone.
The young shaman spoke slowly. “There were one hundred spirit walkers in the chant. One lived.”
The silence was leaden. Even the wind faded.
“One hundred,” he continued. “And as many warriors to fight against the cult. Those brave souls are with the spirits now. Only we six live.
“But yes, we won. The gate is closed. The shadows’ rule is at an end, at least for now.” The shaman glanced at his cloth pouch. “But-”
“We won,” interrupted the older man, meeting the shaman’s gaze. “That is enough. It is over.”
The shaman sighed. “It is over.”
“Never look directly into the face of the Sun.”
They were not the first words Jayenne remembered, but they were the first important words. Every morning when she woke she murmured those words aloud. Then she scrambled out of her bed to run with her sister to the prayer field.
Jayenne adapted quickly to the daylight, as the old shaman said she would. The darkness lived in her nightmares, but the new dawn always turned her dreams to smoke and mist. So much had changed when the Sun had chased away the darkness. She thought back to that final night of clouds and fear, five long days ago but still vivid in her mind.
The shouts had woken her early. She lay in her flea-infested bed for an age, eyes wide and staring blindly at the darkness. Their threadbare blanket rustled; Taya was also awake.
“What’s happening?” whispered Taya in a scared voice.
“Quiet,” said Jayenne. “Or the things will get you.”
Nobody had ever explained to her what the things were, the black shadows that came in the darkest night and swallowed people up, but Jayenne learned quickly. She overheard other people in their small village whispering about the harvesters and soon understood. If they came, all you could do was stay quiet and small and hope you weren’t chosen.
“But they aren’t being quiet,” said Taya. She was two years younger than her sister and did not understand. According to the wandering shaman, Jayenne was eight. Jayenne knew all about the shadows.
“Shh,” whispered Jayenne.
The rotted cloth door was dragged aside and Taya screamed. Jayenne froze, but the figure that bustled inside was human.
“Come,” said a wheezing voice. “Up, up; both of you. It’s nearly dawn.”
Scrawny, old and wearing a strip of fur knotted around his waist, Tanivednor the shaman threw the coarse blanket aside. He reached out a wiry arm and hauled Jayenne to her feet.
“This is a very special day,” he said as Taya scrambled up beside her sister. “Indeed, it is the first day. The first true day. Come along.”
He led the way outside and they followed, hand in hand, peering around his thin frame. The other villagers gathered at the edge of the valley and stared up at the sky. Men and women spoke in tones of fear and hope, hugging each other and crying.
Jayenne looked up to see hundreds upon hundreds of bright lights shining down from the sky. The roof of the world had gone, leaving a vast giddy emptiness. She looked up to Tanivednor.
“What has happened?” she asked.
“Something wonderful.” He raised his hand and pointed to the horizon, where the black night was slowly giving way to a deep orange glow. “Amuranaten comes. Remember this: Never look directly into the face of the Sun, for he will become angry at your crime and burn your eyes away.”
Jayenne still remembered those words, and each dawn she would rise with her sister and join the rest of the village in prayer. They faced the sun as it broached the horizon, taking care to keep their eyes to the ground so the Sun God would not take offence. Tanivednor led them as they knelt and placed their foreheads to the dusty earth, all the while murmuring a chant she could not quite hear. Then they would rise again and continue their day.
Only when the sun was burning high above them would Jayenne raise her eyes from the ground.
For five days there were no clouds, no shadows, and no missing people. Night, when it came, was cool and peaceful, and the day was glorious. Jayenne and Taya would run down into the valley below the village, thrilled at how far from home they could go, and then run all the way back, legs burning, kicking up dust with each step.
This time they returned to find everyone gathered around the central fire pit, voices raised in anger. Jayenne wanted to move closer, to hear what the argument was about, but Taya pulled her back. Jayenne looked around and saw fear on her sister’s face.
“It’s alright,” she whispered. “We will stay at the back. We won’t be seen.”
Taya shook her head and kept pulling.
“They’re not angry at us,” said Jayenne. “I just want to hear.”
Finally, Taya relented and allowed her sister to lead her forward. They found a place in the shade of one of the huts and sat in the dust. Jayenne brushed the soil from her bare feet as she listened.
“What are we to eat?” demanded Dorana, the oldest woman in the village. She was mean and cruel, and Jayenne didn’t like her.
“The wells are dry,” said Martolin the gatherer, almost at the same time as Dorana. The old woman gave him a cold look, but he continued anyway. “This heat is burning us up.”
Other voices added their concerns, speaking over each other, all directed at the old shaman, who sat on a smooth rock beside the fire pit. In daylight he looked older and scrawnier than Jayenne could imagine. She wondered how he hadn’t shrivelled up into nothing by now.
Tanivednor held up his hands. “You must have patience. Amuranaten will reveal his plan when he is ready, not before. You have been delivered from the harvesters, have you not? Trust Amuranaten. Trust the Sun God.”
“That is not an answer,” spat Dorana. “We cannot live like this. We have no food, no water, nothing for clothes but the rags we have on, nothing to repair our homes. How do you expect us to survive?”
Voices clamoured. Taya shrank back into the shadows behind her sister. Jayenne put on a brave face but secretly she was afraid. Never in her life had she seen people argue and fight like this. She could barely make out the shaman’s voice, calling desperately for calm.
Suddenly Taya screamed, loud in Jayenne’s ear. Fear jolted through her. She turned and saw her sister staring out across the valley to the horizon. Following her gaze, Jayenne heard another scream. It was a moment before she realised it was her own.
Standing low on the horizon were dark grey clouds. They looked out of place, like a wound, a blemish on the perfect blue of the sky. The clouds hung heavily over the land, casting long shadows that crept slowly closer. Taya scrambled to her feet and ran into the group of arguing adults.
“The clouds are back!” she screamed. “They’re coming back!”
The village was jolted to silence. Every single person in the village turned to the little girl. As one, they looked out across the valley. Angry words were bitten back. Fear filled their faces. Suddenly the argument was a petty thing, not worth fighting over.
Tanivednor turned toward the clouds and his face lost all colour. He slumped from the rock to sit in the dust. The old shaman’s reaction scared Jayenne. He was the wisest of them all. He always knew what to do.
“What do we do?” asked one of the villagers.
“Are they really coming back?” asked another.
Jayenne waited for an answer with the others, but the shaman did not reply. He just sat and stared out across the valley. The clouds crept closer. Slowly the sandy soil darkened as the shadow spread across the ground, until the far wall of the valley was in shade.
With a grunt, the shaman heaved himself to his feet. None of the villagers moved. Their eyes were fixed on him, desperation on their faces. He turned away from the clouds and straightened his back.
“You all caused this,” he said. His arm flashed up to point accusingly at the crowd before him. “Amuranaten, the Sun God himself, brought salvation to the land, to all of you! And how do you repay him? By forgetting the evils of the harvesters? In just five days?
“Is that all it takes? Are your memories so short? Five days! Five days ago, you were cowering in the night, praying that your neighbour died so that you could live. Five days ago, you were grubbing in the darkness for worms, searching the dark, damp places for fungus. The Sun God took you and raised you up, banished the clouds and gave you his light.”
“But we prayed!” called Dorana. “Every day! Dawn and dusk, we prayed to him!”
“You prayed, but you did not believe. Amuranaten requires your worship and your devotion. When you bow with empty hearts you lie to the Sun God, and you lie to yourselves. How would you expect him to react?”
The shaman half-turned to point behind him. “What the Sun God can do, he can also undo.”
Jayenne shivered as the old man spoke. Most of the words meant little to her, but she understood one thing. They caused this themselves by not believing. All those times she had bowed obediently, thinking it was somehow part of the new daily routine. But she had not believed, not really.
Amuranaten was directly overhead, blazing down as brightly as he had for the past five days. The clouds drifted across his face, so slowly, and darkened the village. In near perfect unison, the villagers dropped to their knees and began to pray, to beg for the Sun God to return. Tanivednor turned away from them and faced the darkening clouds.
Jayenne felt a chill as the sun was blocked and knew the God was leaving them. She knew what to do. When the shadows came, there was only one thing you could do. Jayenne ran through the kneeling group and grabbed her sister by the wrist. Together they rushed to their hut and bustled inside. Jayenne pushed Taya under the bed and then followed, crawling through the soil, coughing as the dirt filled her mouth.
They waited, pressed together side by side, their noses almost touching the rotting frame above, listening for the tell-tale whispers. Jayenne could feel her sister trembling against her and squeezed her hand tight. There was nothing to say. All they could do was stay quiet and still and hope the shadows took someone else.
The door pushed open and the sisters stopped breathing. Footsteps thumped around the bed, but Jayenne dared not turn her head to see, in case she made any sound, in case it was a shadow. The footsteps stopped, and there was a groan as someone bent down to look under the bed.
“It’s alright,” said Tanivednor, his old voice trying to be soft. “It’s not what you think.”
They looked at him fearfully. Taya was shaking hard, with her free hand clamped over her mouth. Jayenne finally admitted to herself that she did not understand what was happening.
Then it began to rain.
The rain was a joy, another source of wonder in this new age. People turned their faces to the sky to feel the cool water, cupped their hands to catch the precious liquid, and opened their mouths to soothe dry throats. Some of the younger villagers started dancing in the gathering mud. They laughed, convinced that their prayers had changed the Sun God’s mind and averted the return of the harvesters.
Thunder cracked across the sky, echoing deep in the clouds, and the downpour increased its intensity. Rain lashed down in silvery lines. The muddy soil exploded and the entire world seemed to ripple and vibrate.
Jayenne stood beside the old shaman, soaked to the skin, feeling a giddy delight at the water falling from the sky. Her sister stood behind her, laughing aloud. She looked up at Tanivednor and was surprised to see a frown on his face. He was studying the clouds intently. She copied his look and tried to understand why he was not laughing with everyone else.
Water flowed across the ground, gouging deep tracks in the soil, streaming down into the valley below. A white flash in the sky lit up the world for the shortest instant, closely followed by another booming crack. The wind picked up and the rain began to fall at a slant. Jayenne held up her hand to stop the water stinging her eyes.
One of the dancers slipped. He sprawled onto his back and sent a huge splash of mud and water into the air, swamping those next to him. A woman laughed and bent to help him up, but he gave a sharp tug and pulled her down with him. They collapsed in a soggy heap and rolled in the mud.
“Too much,” said the old shaman. Jayenne barely heard his voice over the rain and wind. “We need to go.”
He looked down at the two sisters. “Keep tight hold of each other. Don’t get separated.”
Jayenne clutched Taya and watched as Tanivednor carefully stepped over to the happy adults. She could not hear what he was saying but he pointed up the hill, away from the valley. The villagers stopped dancing and stared at him, shocked by his tone. Jayenne saw some of them shake their heads and wave at the sky.
There was a crash from behind and both sisters jumped. They looked back to see their hut disintegrating before their eyes. Streaming water surged around the foundations, eating away the dry clay walls. Other huts crumbled as the torrent increased in strength.
Taya slipped as a wave washed into her legs. Jayenne’s arm wrenched as her sister was pushed over, but she kept hold. She dropped to her knees to keep her balance and tried to ignore Taya’s screams. The water was ankle deep, with waves twice as high washing through the village. The girls knelt and hugged as the torrent surrounded them.
And then Tanivednor was beside them. The old shaman helped them to their feet and leaned in close.
“Keep hold of your sister!” he shouted to Jayenne. “Do not let go, no matter how much it hurts, no matter what happens. Do you understand?”
Jayenne was too afraid to find her voice, but she nodded and gripped Taya’s wrist as hard as she could. Tanivednor held her by her free arm and slowly led them out of the village, towards the hills where the water was coming from. Villagers surrounded them, stepping carefully in the shallow flow. Jayenne saw that around twenty people had followed, but at least as many had stayed.
As they made their way up the treacherous slope, Jayenne could hear the shaman shouting, but made out few words. She heard something about ‘solid rock’ and ‘flash flood’, but did not understand. It soon became so hard just to hold on and keep walking that she gave up trying to make sense of anything.
Jayenne pulled on her sister’s wrist as the storm raged around them. With her other hand, the older girl clung to the shaman as he led them up the incline. Thunder boomed, masking their screams, and fierce winds whipped the rain into their faces. Her legs felt thick and heavy, and her bare feet sank into the mud so that every step was a battle.
Suddenly there was solid ground beneath her. Jayenne looked around. They stood on a small rocky outcropping, upon which the water was just a thin rapidly flowing layer. Before them, the rain had gouged a channel in the soil and a deep stream raced past, blocking their path. The villagers crowded onto the outcrop and the sisters were crushed in the press. They were out of the storm, sheltered by the adults, but it soon became suffocating. Jayenne wanted to know what was happening.
“We need to cross!” she heard Tanivednor shout.
“We can stay here!” replied Martolin the gatherer. “It’s firm. We are safe now.”
“No! We are not safe! That stream will eat away the soil beneath us and this whole rock will be swept away.”
“Where do we go then?”
The shaman turned away. “Higher. Those hills, farther in, are solid rock. They will not be washed away. There are caves for shelter, but we must pick the right one.”
“How can we cross?”
A gust of wind swept around the rock and battered them. For a sickening moment Jayenne thought they were all going to topple from the ledge, but somehow the group held on to each other until the danger was over. She peered out from behind the shaman and looked at the stream.
It was too wide, she realised. She could not jump it, and she did not think any of the others could either. She watched the waves on the surface race by. If she stepped into the stream, she would be swept down to the bottom of the valley in minutes.
“We have to walk through it,” said Tanivednor. “Carry the children.”
Martolin bent to pick up Jayenne. Taya screamed when they were separated, and Jayenne looked anxiously over the man’s shoulder for her sister.
“It’s alright,” said the gatherer. “Once we get across you will be back together.”
Jayenne wrapped her arms tight around the man’s neck. Ahead of her, the shaman had already stepped into the water. She tried to twist around so she could see him, but the gatherer held her tightly.
The rain eased. Something felt wrong to Jayenne. She looked out across the valley. The storm raged and the sky still echoed with thunder, but above her there was almost no rain. She heard a loud gasp from Martolin, and the other villagers had their mouths open in shock. This time, when she tried to turn he did not resist her.
The shaman stood in the stream, his face fixed in deep concentration. The words he chanted were lost in the storm. Behind him, building all the while, was a wall of water. It splashed against an invisible barrier and rose until it towered over them all. The rest of the stream had reduced to a slow ankle-deep flow, trickling past Tanivednor’s feet.
Martolin took a deep breath and led the way across. As he passed, the shaman paused in his chanting to speak softly. “Lead them up the next hill,” he said. “Straight towards the cliff.”
As soon as they were across, Jayenne was let down. Her feet touched the ground and she turned, looking for the cliff. Martolin walked a short distance through the mud, but Jayenne had to wait for her sister. Once everyone was across, they formed a closely packed group with the girls in the centre and set off. They headed up the slope, leaving the shaman to hold back the rising flood.
The cliff was a jumble of rock and stone that formed a ridge behind the first line of hills. Dark openings beckoned to them with the promise of shelter. They pressed forward eagerly, holding each other up, supporting each other when someone slipped.
Suddenly the rain returned in full force. They had passed the limit of the shaman’s power and were subject to the storm’s fury once again. The rain stung their skin with sharp cold bites and the blasting gale threatened to sweep them away.
Martolin pointed and shouted something incoherent. Jayenne could not see beyond the circle of people, so she just held on to Taya and followed. Each time she stumbled a hand would steady her, but her legs felt so tired. Every step seemed one more than she thought she could take.
Then they were in a hollow echoing place where the rain could not reach. The soaked villagers spread out, some falling to their backs, others sitting. Several paced back and forth, looking back out into the storm.
Jayenne stood on trembling legs, too tired to move. They were in a cave, she realised. The wind howled outside, mixing with the rolling thunder, and the rain continued to drum the land, but beneath her feet the ground was dry and sandy.
Tanivednor stomped into the cave. “May as well make yourselves comfortable,” he said as he looked out at the sky. “This will last for some time.”
The shaman sat just inside the entrance and crossed his legs. Jayenne watched him until it was clear he was not going to move again soon. She sat down, meaning to copy his position, but sleep came so quickly that she did not remember her head touching the ground.
They stayed there for three days, while the sky poured down on the world. With no means to make a fire, they huddled together to keep warm. Night brought overcast darkness that reminded them of the days before the Sun, and they lay awake whispering reassurances to each other until dawn. Martolin led some of them deep into the cave system. Long hours later they returned with mushrooms and one of the furry grunters that lurked in the darkness, but they had to eat them raw.
When they awoke on the fourth day, the air was fresh and clear. Scattered clouds dotted the blue sky and the rain had stopped. The old shaman had not moved for the whole time they had been inside the cave, but that morning he was missing. Jayenne stumbled out into the light, rubbing her eyes. The survivors surrounded her.
They stood on the lip of the incline and looked out across the world. Where there used to be a deep valley, a vast lake covered the land. Wide streams still flowed slowly into its rolling mass. Sunlight glittered across its surface like a thousand tiny lights. The village was gone, submerged, washed away by the storm.
It was a short walk to the shore. Tanivednor stood with his feet under the surface, letting the shallow waves lap around his ankles.
“We build it here,” he stated, raising his arms wide. “This is where it starts.”
“I don’t understand,” said Martolin.
“The dreams showed me,” replied the shaman. “I can see the way forward now.”
“What do we have to do?”
“We wait,” said Tanivednor, turning to stare out across the waves. “They are coming.”
Flames danced on small pools of pitch and painted the walls of the low cavern with a flickering glow. Six figures – four men and two women – sat in a rough circle between the burning pools, their naked skin bronze in the firelight. Tattoos ranged across their bodies, patterns and marks to proudly declare their allegiance and history. Each skin was different, unique, but they all had one mark in common. Not a tattoo but a brand, burned into the skin; a solid semicircle on the right shoulder to represent the dark sky.
The figures waited silently. Between them, on the dusty soil of the cave floor, laid chunks of crisp, black meat impaled on skewers of bronze. More than one stomach rumbled as the enticing smell filled the cave. In the dark recesses beyond the firelight, several spears and a small bent shield were gathered. They had the worn look of regular use, but for this meeting were put aside.
“Perhaps he won’t come,” said one man, his face a tattooed mask of triangles that pointed down to his thin mouth. He stared hungrily at the meat.
“He will come, Nagon,” replied another. As with the others, he was shaven headed. Dark painted daggers stabbed downwards from a black band that crowned his temples.
Ast Nagon raised his head. “What if he does not? A shaman could have found him. Their foul arts have grown stronger with the sun.”
“Nagon, Rakal, quiet.” The woman’s voice was sharp and both men turned to face her. A black swirling pattern trailed from the side of her neck down across her breasts to wrap around her waist, giving the impression that she was in the embrace of a God. She nodded towards the darkness. “He’s here.”
A man stepped into the light, tall and thin. He wore a meagre cloth robe that covered him from neck to shin, though his feet were bare. His head bore several days of growth, and his face was clean of tattoos.
Without ceremony he pulled the robe over his head, leaving him as naked as the others. His chest carried a black eight-pointed star, the vertical and horizontal points stretching to his throat, groin and sides, and his thighs were coiled with snaking lines. He moved to a space in the circle and sat heavily. The others watched him, waiting.
“Now that we are all here,” said Nagon. “I suggest we eat. The meat is cooling. It will lose flavour.”
They reached for the skewers and began to eat, tearing into the meat with their teeth. Juice ran down their chins and grease smeared their hands. Once the initial hunger pangs had eased, they settled into a more relaxed meal. The newcomer spoke first.
“The rumours appear to be true,” said the man. “The Gods are gone from the world.”
Worried silence answered him. His gaze wandered across each of the others before he continued.
“I have been to three villages and they each told me a story. There were differences in the details, but they all said the same thing. The Sun God has driven our Gods from the world and brought his burning fire to destroy the darkness.”
“Is it true?” asked the woman with the swirling body tattoo. “Or is it just a fable, constructed by their shaman to explain events?”
“I don’t know, Ishlae,” replied the newcomer. “I did not see a shaman, so I cannot be certain of anything. But if it was not this Sun God, what made the true Gods leave? I will not believe they simply deserted us.”
“I would not put it past them to invent the story,” said Nagon, the triangles on his face flexing as he talked. “But I have a question, Pogram. What is this new Sun God? Is it dangerous? Can we fight it?”
Ast Pogram looked at him. “Have you not been outside since the Gods departed?”
“None of us have. We waited until your return before we risked it.”
“This Sun God is a huge blinding light that travels across the sky. It can be endured, but if you remain under its gaze for too long, it will blister your skin. Even the villagers that worship it know that they will lose their sight if they look directly at its face. It is clear now that the dark roof of clouds the Gods created was to protect us from this light.”
“The clouds have not returned then?” said Mar Ishlae. “The Gods truly have been defeated.”
“It seems so,” replied Pogram. “But there is hope. The Sun God does not rule forever. Each day is split between the light and dark. The Gods fight, somewhere.”
“That is where they have gone!” blurted Ast Rakal. “Into the sky to fight the Sun God. We must keep fighting too.”
“We will,” said Pogram. “But we cannot fight the way we used to, when the Gods ruled without question. The Sun God gives power to the shamans and we are few in number. I do not know if any of the Daku Thun survive beyond the seven of us, but we must assume the worst.”
“How can we fight them if we are so few?” asked Nagon.
“We must go out amongst them, but stay hidden. We must wear these rags to hide our holy markings. They have no bronze, so our weapons must stay here, concealed. Recruits will be needed. The best time for this will be when the Gods are in ascendancy, during the hours of darkness.”
“Their villages are small,” pointed out Ishlae. “Each person will know the others.”
“Yes, but I have discovered something else. In the last few days, water fell from the sky in a great flood. It killed many of the villagers, but many more survived. Another sign that the Sun God cannot be allowed to rule.”
“How does this help us?”
“All the nearby villages are being told to spread the word. A great lake has formed where a valley once was. Everyone is to journey there, and the shamans will provide food and shelter, and a new beginning.”
“So we can slip in amongst them,” said Ast Nagon. “Be there from the start.”
“Exactly. Two or three of us must travel to this lake, separately, to avoid suspicion. Once there, we help these people as if we are their brothers and sisters. As this gathering grows, we will watch and we will learn, and eventually we will strike.”
Ast Pogram looked around at the others. “Revenge will be a long time coming, but keep faith in the Gods. They will return, and when they do there will be a reckoning.”
The Age of the Sun, Year One.
Tanivednor stood at the cave mouth and stretched his back. His stiff muscles protested against the movement, sharply reminding him of his age. Too many years walking the darkness, sleeping on hard stone, eating mushrooms or the scraps of food the villagers could spare, and all the while hiding from the shadows.
Shielding his eyes from the blinding sunlight, he stepped out amongst the forest of clay huts that had sprung up around the lakeshore. Most of the huts were simply one room with three walls, lacking even a basic roof. Nevertheless, people built them and people lived in them.
Over the past weeks, more and more people had arrived from distant villages. Encouraged by their elders, they abandoned their homes and trekked across the barren land to the lake, filled with the promise of a new beginning.
There were too many, thought the old shaman as he walked. He passed an adult teaching a small group of children how to catch grunters, and wondered if they would ever have the chance to use those skills. The gatherers had to travel further each day to find anything edible and often came back with empty hands. Most of the nocturnal animals had been hunted out or had fled into deep caves.
Near the lake, the old shaman spotted Jayenne. She was sitting beside a young man, listening raptly to his words. Something about the boy prompted him to change direction. As Tanivednor approached, he saw Jayenne jump up and run along the shore. She dodged past several adults and joined her sister, who was playing in the shallows with several other children.
“She is an intelligent child,” said the boy without turning. “And powerful.”
Tanivednor groaned as he eased himself to the ground. “As is her sister.”
The boy nodded.
The old shaman looked out across the waves. “I feel I should know you.”
The boy almost smiled. “Too many people already know me.” He dug a stone from the ground and tossed it into the lake. “They say I’m a hero, that I saved the world. No. Those that died were the heroes. All I did was survive.”
Tanivednor nodded. “Ah. Morvadannon. I had assumed someone with four sils would be older.”
“I feel older.”
“I can understand that.” The old shaman paused. “What happened?”
Morvadannon took a deep breath, but his words were only whispered. “We marched on the gateway in the darkest hour of the night. We hoped the shadows would be out, feeding, and so not sense us until it was too late. One hundred shamans were chosen for this task, almost all of us, with one hundred warriors to guard us.
“I can still see it when I close my eyes. The gateway. It stood tall, as tall as three men atop each other, and almost as wide. Black smoke rose from it to mix with the clouds. It glowed with a deep red light, like smouldering fire, that lit the surrounding plain. The heat and stench were unbearable.
“There were ruins on that plain. Wide walls of pale stone, pillars and towers. All broken. There used to be a city there, a city of men.”
“The spirit guides say as much,” said Tanivednor. Water lapped at his feet.
“Yes, but even they don’t remember how it all began,” said the younger shaman. “Perhaps the Lost Ones know, but they keep their secrets.”
“Were you right? About the shadows?”
Morvadannon nodded. “For whatever reason, they were gone. But the gateway was still guarded. A line of Daku Thun heretics stood in our way. We outnumbered them perhaps three to one, but they had their bronze weapons. It was all our warriors could do to hold them off while we completed the chant. So many died. The Daku Thun almost broke through. They were so close to killing us all.
“Once the chant gathered strength, we had to ignore them. The shadows must have sensed us, because they arrived as soon as we began. Half the shamans were tasked with fighting them back, but we had so few defences. All they could do was delay the shadows with their own deaths.
“But we did it. The gateway finally closed, but it took everyone. All of the shamans died.”
“Except me. I was chosen. Someone had to stay behind. I was pushed from the chanting circle by the others.”
“The last shadow. Once the gateway closed, the shadows turned on each other. I can only suppose that the gateway gave them some sustenance that they could not find elsewhere. When it closed, the only source was the shadows themselves. They consumed each other in a frenzy until only one remained.
“This last shadow was huge. Even with the gateway closed, it would have lasted for years, maybe centuries. I had to think fast.”
Tanivednor frowned. “So what did you do?”
Morvadannon held up his pouch. “It’s imperfect. The jewel was the focus for the great chant, but it is also a workable prison. At least, until I find something more secure.”
The old shaman sighed. “I should have been there. When the call came for the gathering I was ready. My spirit guide convinced me not to go. I should not have listened to her.”
“Don’t blame yourself. What if every last shaman had answered the call? What if we had all died that day? Who would have led the people then? We went into battle knowing that if we lost, there were others who would fight on. It gave us strength.
“Besides, without you, all this would not have come to pass.”
The younger shaman waved at the mass of huts surrounding them. Tanivednor nodded.
“So put aside any guilt. We all did what was necessary. Now there are other problems.”
The old shaman sighed. “What problems?”
“I see as you do. This village of yours is growing too large, too fast. Food is scarce. Added to that, the people do not seem concerned. This new religion binds them together, but it does not give them self-reliance. They expect Amuranaten to protect them and, through the shamans, to provide for them.”
Tanivednor nodded. “The problem has become more obvious these past few days, more so since the latest group arrived from the south. What can we do?”
Morvadannon finally smiled. “You, with all your age and experience, are asking me?”
“I am asking you.”
“We do what shamans have always done. Seek guidance.”
A trail was beginning to form in the ground by the lake, leading east and following the shore as it turned north. Enough people had travelled the route that the tracks were becoming a little more permanent, although a strong wind could still destroy the emerging pathway.
A snaking column of travellers made their way steadily along the trail, barefoot and dressed in leathery rags. Their hair was long and matted, their skin burnt. Children ran in the shallow water by the shore and pointed in wonder at the mass of huts, still some distance around the lake. Encouraged, their parents quickened their pace and walked with lighter steps.
At the back of the group, walking in the dust kicked up by their footfalls, a lone woman followed. Her hair was short, barely reaching her jaw. Her rags were no less beaten and battered, but covered her from neck to knee.
Mar Ishlae kept a careful distance behind the villagers and hoped that her disgust was well hidden. The very idea of wearing lice-ridden rags offended her. Her body and its paintings were far more appealing. She was also unhappy about the lengthening growth of hair on her head, where she had known pure smooth skin for most of her life.
She shook her head and stared out across the lake. Light sparkled upon the waves as the sun set across the water. It was far too bright, but the dusk gave her hope. She was arriving at the gathering as the sun god gave way to the true Gods of Shadow. Perhaps things were not as bad as she believed.
Ahead of her, Mar Saedil had already entered the ugly mass of huts and disappeared into the throng. The other woman probably felt even dirtier than Ishlae. Saedil was beautiful by any standard and took great pride in her tattoos. Having to conceal them must have been torture.
They had the same mission. Ast Pogram had drummed it into the women over and over. “You must arrive separately. You must act as if you do not know each other. If the other is discovered, you must not reveal yourself, even to save the other’s life. Above all, you must listen and learn. Find those who may be useful to us.”
Ishlae’s stomach rumbled as she walked among the huts. Around her, starving people squabbled over scraps without quite coming to blows. She had been warned about this as well. There would be no food for her. The great feasts the Daku Thun enjoyed would be denied her so long as she remained in this warren of filth. It was a sacrifice she made willingly for the Gods, but that did not mean she liked it.
She passed more hovels and wondered how anyone could survive such a pathetic existence. Ishlae glanced at the caves sunk into the face of the cliff. They seemed empty. Would it seem out of place if she claimed one for her own?
People were gathering in a small clearing up ahead. It began with a small group, but curiosity brought others and before long a milling crowd filled the clearing. Voices were raised and Ishlae slowed, uncertain. There was too much hostility. She kept her eyes on the path ahead. The petty arguments of the vermin were not her concern.
Someone was pushed from the group to sprawl at her feet. Ishlae stopped as she recognised Saedil. Their eyes met.
“Grab her!” cried a voice in the crowd. “She’s a cultist!”
Ishlae forced a look of disgust onto her face and stepped back. Her heart wrenched as she saw the hope die in her friend’s eyes. Rough hands seized Saedil and hauled her to her feet. Ishlae backed into the crowd but could not look away.
Saedil twisted and kicked. Others came forward to help hold her still. A small space opened up around the woman and her captors, and silence fell on the crowd. A bearded man stepped forward and grabbed her ragged leathery tunic by the collar. With a jerk he ripped it away, leaving her naked.
Gasps rose at the sight of the dark tattoos painted across her body. Mar Saedil raised her chin and stood proudly.
The bearded man turned to the crowd. “Do you see? She is a servant of the Harvesters, not a follower of the Sun God!”
“Your sun god is false,” spat Saedil. “The Shadow Lords are the only true Gods, and they will return! You will all die for this heresy!”
“From her own mouth!”
Voices came from the crowd. Wordless, vicious cries condemned her. After everything they had suffered, here was something physical they could direct their anger at. Something they could punish.
Ishlae held herself still. Her friend stood so tall, so full of contempt for these filthy animals. She could not help but be filled with pride. Ishlae hoped that when her own end came, she would meet it with as much courage.
“How dare you judge me?” demanded Mar Saedil. “Do you think you are better? Grubbing in the dirt for worms to eat? Hiding in the darkness, alone and afraid? Cowards, all of you!”
The spokesman slapped her. She spat blood.
“One woman, held, and only now you dare strike me? Well-”
Between words she moved. Somehow the tattooed woman twisted and slipped an arm free. Long fingernails raked down the face of her captor, who screamed and fell back. Blood streamed through his fingers as he covered his face.
With a snarl, Saedil leapt at the spokesman. Punching, scratching, biting, she was a whirlwind. Blood splattered across the dust.
The shock passed and the crowd reacted. Several men dragged the naked woman from the spokesman. Her hands were dripping red. Blood flowed from her mouth over her chin and down her body. Saedil spat a mouthful of flesh into the dirt. The crowd swarmed in and forced her to her back. Fists were raised and dropped.
Mar Ishlae heard the slap of skin striking skin, and slowly began to ease her way through the mob. Gods of Shadow protect me, she thought. Keep me safe in this nest of vermin, so that I can do my part to return you to power. Give me the strength to bring your vengeance down on these heretics. Make them suffer for what they have done to your servant.
Mar Saedil’s angry cries turned to screams.
Tanivednor sat at the mouth of his cave and waited for the world to quieten. The sun had fully set and stars dominated the sky. Light wisps of cloud drifted lazily overhead, visible only when they masked the brightest stars. Starlight twinkled upon the rippling water of the lake.
The villagers were settling down for the night. Word of the cultist had spread rapidly and there was a general outcry, but most people were too weak from hunger for their fury to last. While Tanivednor was not happy with the manner of the woman’s death, he could understand the reasons behind it. Part of him, a part he did not want to face, took a savage delight in that small measure of revenge.
He took a deep breath and calmed himself. Emotions did not help during a spirit walk. He needed focus. There had never been a more important journey than this. The shaman moved back into the cave and lay down in the darkness to prepare. Others needed powders, liquids or certain types of fungus to help them walk, but he had talent. Tanivednor never required anything but his own mind.
He closed his eyes and let his muscles relax. The stone floor pressed cold into his back. His heartbeat slowed to match his breathing.
There was a moment of pressure at his temples.
Looking down at his body, he realised how old and frail it appeared. Only the faintest movement of his chest hinted at life. A bright translucent line hung in the air, anchored behind the neck of his sleeping form. Spirit and body were linked by the umbilical but if the cord were severed, only the body would fade and die. Tanivednor was glad to see it, for without it he would have difficulty finding his way home. With that thought, he flew out of the cave and into the sky.
Immediately, the night sky lit up. Distant points flitted and danced in the distance, stars that moved of their own accord instead of following the sun god across the sky. Spirits. Tanivednor put them from his mind. He had no time for games.
The world had changed greatly since the flood. The lake was a massive oval, a deeper black than the surrounding land. Dark ribbons stretched out across the ground like fingers, reaching for the western mountains. To the north, low rolling hills ranged across a vast expanse all the way to the horizon. Barely visible huts hugged the southern shore, bordered by low cliffs that broke into rough, cracked terrain. The horizon to the east was flat and dark, and the shaman thought he could just make out the edge of the ocean.
Tanivednor took it all in, fixing the map in his mind. On his last spirit walk there had been villages dotted across the landscape. The tiny collections of huts and their dogged inhabitants used to encourage him, but now they were empty. As far as he could see, everyone within several weeks’ travel had gathered on the lakeshore. Others may have survived, perhaps near the ocean where there might be fish to eat, but away from the coast the land was empty.
As he watched and waited, he sensed someone approach. The spirit had a very familiar feel to it, and Tanivednor knew immediately who it was. Somehow, she always found him when he walked, always knew where he would be. As she drew close he felt her circle and spiral around him, leaving a dancing trail of energy in her wake.
“Tani!” she cried, the voice arriving in his mind without speech. “Where have you been?”
The old shaman spun in place to follow her light. “The world is troubled, Keili. I have duties.”
“More important than coming to see me?”
“Important enough to come and see you now.”
“Oh.” She giggled. “Then I must be special.”
“There are things we need to speak of. A lot of people need help.”
“Can’t we fly and play first?”
“I don’t have the time.”
“Not even a little?”
“Please, Keili. This really is the most important thing I have ever asked from you.”
Keili sighed. “All right, then. Let’s go to the garden.” Her mood brightened. “I’ve made some changes.”
Before Tanivednor could object, Keili pulled him into her dream. There was no sense of movement, no sense of transition. One moment he was flying high over the lake, the next he was somewhere else.
Everything was tinged blue. Grass grew beneath his feet, and leafy plants lined a narrow passage leading away. Gentle sunlight filtered through the branches of tall trees that towered overhead, and birds twittered in the distance. When he first entered Keili’s dream – her mind, in a sense – he had been shocked at the strange surroundings, but after several visits he gradually became comfortable. Now he found it pleasant and relaxing.
He looked down and realised Keili’s dream had changed him. The years had fallen away and his ragged sheet was wrapped around the unwrinkled body of a young teenager. He was not Tanivednor. He was Tani again.
Tani heard giggling somewhere along the lane. He walked slowly, savouring the feel of short, springy grass under his feet. His hand trailed over broad leaves. Easing a branch aside, he stepped into a small glade.
A golden beam of sunlight perfectly illuminated a slender young woman drifting gently in the centre of the glade. A sleeveless white gown covered her from shoulder to ankle, so thin it was almost translucent. Her fiery red hair floated around her head. She appeared weightless; her arms were away from her body and her knees were bent. Her toes barely touched the grass.
Tani could not help but stare. Keili’s dream was always a delight, but she had outdone herself this time. She gazed back at him with serenity far greater than her apparent fifteen years, but he knew she chose her appearance just as she chose his.
Her laughter was musical. “What do you think?” she asked, gently kicking her feet through the grass.
“Beautiful,” whispered Tani. Keili beamed.
Then her eyes narrowed. “You could stay,” she suggested. She drifted toward him, carried on the gentle breeze. “Just you and me, young forever.”
Tani was tempted, oh so tempted. This was as close to paradise as he would ever see, and Keili had never looked so perfect. Each time she changed her dream, it was that little bit more seductive and he was that little bit more entranced.
The flame-haired spirit delicately leaned forward and brushed her lips against his, just for a moment. His skin tingled. She pulled back ever so slightly.
“Forever,” she whispered.
He wanted this. He knew he wanted this. Tani thought of his life outside the dream. Why would anyone want to go back? Pain, suffering, fear, hunger; that was all he had to return to. Or he could stay with Keili and, for once in his life, be happy. Did he not deserve that?
I will guide the people.
The vow grated through his mind. Tani blinked and took a step back.
I will help the people.
He looked across at Keili, and realised immediately that she knew what he was thinking.
I will protect the people.
Memories filled his mind of a time long before the Dawn. Hidden in a cave in the mountains, in the middle of the black night, he returned from his Awakening to face the shaman elders. Six of the oldest, wisest shamans sat cross-legged around him, lit by the encircling quest fire. There and then they made him take the vow. “I will guide the people. I will help the people. I will protect the people.” Over and over he chanted, as the power swirled around him and the vow impressed itself upon his mind.
“No,” said Tani. “I… I can’t.” He took a step back and looked away.
Keili pouted. “Pity. I thought I had you this time. Are you sure you don’t want to stay?”
“You have no idea.” Tanivednor took a deep breath. “I can’t do this. There are too many people relying on me. I swore to protect them.”
“Next time,” she said. “Next time the dream will be perfect. You won’t be able to say no.”
“Maybe. Maybe next time you won’t need to persuade me.”
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I’m old, Keili. Living conditions are no better since the Dawn. I have lived far longer than I ever expected, and I don’t know how much longer my body will carry me. The next time you see my spirit, I may not have a body to return to.”
Keili did not reply, so Tani pressed on. “But until then, I need your help.”
“People are starving. We have water, we have shelter, but we don’t have food. I need your help.”
Keili turned away, waving lazily in the breeze. “Are you saying that if I help you, then the next time that you come here, you will stay?”
“I will. When I feel my body begin to fail, I will leave it behind and I will find you.” And he meant it.
Keili turned back, a smile on her face. “Then I will help you.”
Jayenne runs along the shore, bare feet slapping in the shallow water. Gentle waves slide up the dirty beach ahead of her. They leave a dark shadow on the soil when they recede. Light sparkles across the lake surface, dancing on the waves.
Jayenne runs along the shore. Far ahead in the village, people are gathering for the midday meal. Grey smoke rises and billows out across the lake. The villagers slowly walk amongst the huts, heading for the fire pit. One by one they vanish from view.
Jayenne runs along the shore. A man and woman follow the crowd, holding the hands of a small child who dances between them. The child skips in the dust while the man and woman smile down. The child looks over her shoulder. Jayenne recognises her sister. Taya smiles and disappears into the village.
Jayenne runs along the shore. She can’t see anyone in the village ahead. A powerful urgency grips her and she runs faster, knowing she is late. The smoke from the fire darkens and its shadow grows across the water.
Jayenne stands by the great fire pit. The blackened bowl is dormant. Wisps of smoke swirl upwards. The only footprints in the dust are hers. The noon sky is clear and bright, yet the village is darkened by a looming shadow. She turns full circle and sees no one. The village is empty.
Jayenne stands frozen. There is a thing behind her. It creeps closer but her head won’t turn. Her spine tingles and sends a cold shiver up into her skull. Tears run down her face. She wants to run but her legs are numb. The thing rears up and opens out, filling the space behind her.
Jayenne sprints through the dark village. Her hands slap against cold clay walls. Heavy black clouds block the starlight. She weaves madly between the empty huts, barely more than shadows in the night. She turns a corner at every opportunity, with no thought in her mind except to run.
Jayenne sprints through the dark village. The thing silently pursues her, drawing closer with every step. It brushes her heels. It tugs on her hair. Panic feeds her, pushing her to run faster and faster.
Jayenne hurtles around a corner and stops. Before her is a shape darker than the night. Its black sides ripple. The thing flows outward, blotting out even the vague shadows around her.
Jayenne opens her mouth to scream.
She was sitting up before her eyes opened. Her heart pounded loud and fast in her ears. Sweat soaked her body. The night air brought chills to her skin, but she dared not move. She held her breath and listened.
Water lapped at the lakeshore. Blown dust scratched through the village. Someone coughed.
Darkness swirled in the corners of the hut. Her fear grew when the shadows appeared to move. Imagination convinced her that something terrible lurked there and no matter how hard she stared, the icy helpless feeling would not go away.
The bed rustled as her sister moved. Taya rolled in her sleep and nudged Jayenne with a stray elbow. The spell was broken. Suddenly the shadow was just a wall. The darkness was just the night.
Free to move again, Jayenne took a deep breath and looked around the hut. Taya was still asleep, hopefully without the nightmares that plagued her sister. Jayenne’s heart returned to its normal, quiet beat. She shivered as sweat evaporated from her skin. Above her, through the gaps in the roof, the stars glittered across the sky.
She did not want to go back to sleep in case the nightmare was still there. Taking care not to wake Taya, she slipped her legs from under the blanket and stood. The ragged tunic she wore felt sticky and itched more than usual. Made from the skin of a grunter, one of the few large creatures that could survive in the darkness, it was never comfortable. Jayenne decided to soak it in the lake.
With one backward glance at her sister, she crept out of the hut and padded through the dust toward the shore. Around her the village slept, some no doubt suffering similar bad dreams. To the east, the sky was beginning to lighten. Jayenne hurried, for she knew the Sun God was coming. She had to be ready to take part in the dawn ritual.
She reached the shore and realised she was not the only one awake. A shadowy figure sat on the gently sloping bank, staring out over the water. Jayenne slowly approached him.
“You’re up early,” said Tanivednor.
“So are you,” she replied defensively.
The old shaman chuckled. “True. True.”
“Did you have bad dreams too?”
“In a way. But not like yours.”
“What do you mean?”
“My dreams show me things,” he said. “They talk to me and I learn how to help people.”
“But you just said that you had bad dreams.”
“It’s hard to explain, Jayenne. Sometimes, helping people can hurt others. Do you understand?”
Jayenne didn’t, but she nodded anyway. She usually liked talking to the shaman because she always learned something new. Today, though, he was in a strange, quiet mood.
Tanivednor looked to the sky. “It will be dawn soon. There is something I need to do before the morning ritual. Would you help me?”
To help a shaman! Jayenne flushed with excitement and nodded quickly.
“We also need your sister. Do you think she will help too?”
“Of course she will.”
“Then run and get her. Quickly now.”
Jayenne dashed back between the huts. Her grubby tunic was forgotten. Her nightmare was forgotten. She was going to help the shaman! Maybe she would find out how his power worked, and then learn to do it herself. Possibilities raced through her mind.
She dragged her sister out of bed and was halfway back to the lake before Taya was fully awake. Taya stumbled and fell in the dust. Jayenne turned, angry at the delay, but bit back her words when she saw her sister’s face. Taya was staring hard at the shadows, her eyes wide and frightened.
Jayenne was suddenly guilty. “It’s all right. Come and see!”
“Where are we going?” squeaked Taya.
Hand in hand, they ran to the shore. The old shaman was stood waiting for them. The sisters skidded to a stop at his feet. He crouched, knees popping, to look them both in the eyes.
“Hello Taya,” he said. “I’m sorry we woke you, but I have something very important to do and I want you both to help. Will you do that?”
Jayenne nodded. Beside her, Taya looked confused.
“Do what?” asked Taya.
Tanivednor put a heavy hand on each of the girls’ shoulders. “Listen to me carefully, both of you, because I’m far too old to repeat myself. You might have noticed that the village is running out of food, and without food we will all starve. What I am going to do – and what you are going to help me with – is make some food for everyone.”
“How do we do that?” asked Jayenne.
“You have power, Jayenne, as does your sister. Inherited from your father, I would expect. You may both become strong shamans in time.”
Jayenne realised she was gaping and shut her mouth tightly. She looked at Taya, but her younger sister did not appear to understand. Jayenne was going be a shaman! Imagine all the things she would learn. Imagine how important she would be.
“But that is for later,” continued Tanivednor. “Now we have to make this chant work. I really need your help.”
“Is it – Will it hurt?” asked Taya.
The old shaman frowned. “I will protect you both.”
“What do we have to do?” asked Jayenne.
“It’s very easy. When I say to begin, you have to say ‘water is life’ over and over. Don’t stop until I tell you to.”
“Is that all?” asked Taya.
“That’s all. Just don’t stop. Can you do that?”
Taya looked relieved and nodded.
Tanivednor stood and held out his hands. Jayenne took his hand as Taya did the same on the other side. Her fingers were crushed in the shaman’s tight grip. Without pause he led them into the dark waters of the lake. The cold water made the sisters gasp.
Jayenne waded deeper, pulled forward by Tanivednor. Although the water was clear and clean in daylight, at night it looked solid and threatening. Jayenne couldn’t see past the surface and had no way of knowing how deep it was.
The water came to her waist but the shaman kept wading forward. A rolling swell lifted her and her feet lost contact with the floor. If not for the shaman’s grip, she would have been swept away. The swell passed and Jayenne again tried to touch the bottom. Her toes barely scraped the mud.
Tanivednor stopped. Waves washed against his chest but he stood firm. Jayenne floated with her chin up, fighting to keep her mouth above the surface. Her legs kicked as she tried to touch the bottom. Across from her, Taya coughed water.
“We need to start. ‘Water is life.’ Begin now.”
“Water is life,” began Jayenne. She heard Taya repeat it.
She didn’t know why she said it, except that it was the sort of thing shamans said. She would be a shaman, claimed Tanivednor, so she kept chanting.
Tanivednor was chanting something else, under his breath, but Jayenne could not quite make it out. She concentrated on her own words, saying them over and over.
Sounds faded. The rolling wash of the waves became distant. She withdrew inside herself, as though she moved backward inside her skull, away from her eyes until the old shaman was at the end of a long, dark tunnel. The grip on her hand was gone. She no longer felt wet.
Deep in the back of her mind, she felt something move. Like a wind inside her head, it blew from the dark place her mind had withdrawn to. It flowed along the tunnel of her vision and out towards Tanivednor.
In her surprise, she forgot to keep chanting. Her mouth seemed such a long way away so she concentrated hard. It was an even greater shock for her to realise that she had not stopped. Her mouth was still moving, though she could barely feel it. Panicked now, she tried to stop. The words kept coming. She was trapped, she realised, unable to break away from the chant. The wind was going to flow from her into the shaman whether she liked it or not.
Dawn broke over the lake. A bright glare filled the end of the tunnel in her mind. She tried to claw her way forward but the flow held her in place. The tunnel narrowed. The bright glare became a point of light, like a distant star. She was tiring fast. Briefly, she wondered if Taya was alright.
The tunnel collapsed and left her in darkness.
Dawn brought the villagers slouching from their meagre homes. Hungry and disillusioned, they threaded their way between the huts toward the dusty ritual square. The Sun God was clearing the horizon and his rays warmed the land. They were already late for the dawn prayer, but nobody seemed to care. Starvation had taken the will from them, and with it their devotion to a God who refused to help.
A woman noticed the shaman in the lake and called to those nearby. They pointed and asked questions. Were those children with him? What were they doing? Two girls bobbed in the water beside the shaman, up to their necks. All three were holding hands.
Without the shaman to lead the ritual, the villagers were at a loss as to what to do. People gathered on the shore. Water lapped at their feet. The Sun God climbed into the sky as they waited.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the rolling waves began to settle. Swells became ripples and then disappeared completely. Water no longer washed upon the shore. The lake stopped. Flat and smooth as a great crystal, it reflected the blinding disc of the sun perfectly. It looked solid enough to walk upon.
A hush descended on the watching crowd. No one moved.
The shaman stood chest deep in the water, gripping the two children by their hands. He was motionless. The power that held the water seemed to have frozen the shaman too. Some of the better-sighted villagers claimed they could see his lips moving.
A ring of tiny bubbles appeared around the three figures, breaking the perfect calm of the surface. As the bubbles increased in strength, they spread across the lake until they reached the shore. The frothing increased and soon the water boiled with violent activity. The shaman was lost within the furious churning.
Something dark and slender washed upon the shore. It was a dark green ribbon that branched into smaller fronds, and then branched again. The thin strips were folded haphazardly. It moved, startling the villagers, but it was only the washing of the waves.
More of the weed was spotted in the shallows. Drifting in the water, it bore vague similarities to the shadows of the past. Some villagers recoiled in instinctive fear, but voices in the crowd reassured them.
Beneath the water, the mud floor burst open. Thin green shoots sprang up, spearing through the surface and into the air. All along the shore, long thin blades sprouted until the entire lake was ringed with vivid green. Many of the stalks held dark pods near the tips, which swayed in the breeze.
Tiny creatures flitted between the stalks, passing from pod to pod. Too small for the older villagers to see, they buzzed harshly amongst the new vegetation. Some of the little creatures skipped across the water’s surface, magically dodging the frothing bubbles.
Silvery, legless animals swam together, barely visible under the turbulent surface. They flicked their wide tails and disappeared from view. Far out across the lake, something massive reared up. A broad fin swept through the air before the beast crashed into the depths.
Life spread onward. Short blades of bright green flooded across the dusty ground. Leaves of all shapes and sizes burst from a variety of stalks. Petals of blue, red and yellow opened themselves to the sun. Several stalks turned into massive brown trunks that branched and split, sprouting hundreds of green leaves as they reached high above the village.
The water settled. Slow waves beat at the shore. Plants rustled in the breeze. Insects hummed. Strange noises echoed over the water.
No one moved. The morning ritual was forgotten. People stared in wonder at the new world before their eyes.
A figure rose from the lake. He staggered forward, coughing, with two children held in his arms. Men and women rushed to help him. They prised the children from his insistent grip. Both girls were unconscious but breathing strongly.
The shaman was helped out of the water and onto the new grass. He fell to his knees and retched. The villagers stepped back as he raised his head. The shaman looked to where the children lay, sleeping safely, surrounded by protective adults. He smiled and all tension drained from his body.
His eyes rolled up and he collapsed to the ground.
Fires crackled and spat, creating circles of warmth in the darkness. Wood smoke and the smell of cooking fish hung in the night air. Smiling faces glowed in the firelight and the babble of hundreds of happy voices echoed across the calm lake. Shadows twisted and danced across seated watchers as women circled the fires, swaying in time to a clapped beat.
Jayenne sat in the soft grass, her toes warmed by the small fire before her. A thick wide leaf rested on her lap, bearing several small chunks of fish and a few vegetables. She popped a piece of fish into her mouth. It came apart on her tongue and she swallowed. She tried one of the vegetables and found it just as tasty.
There were not enough clay mugs to go around, but one had been found for her. She gripped it with both hands and took a careful sip. The water was clean and refreshing.
Beside her, Taya was shovelling food into her mouth with both hands. Her eyes were wide and watched everything. She looked up warily as a man approached. Jayenne saw it was Martolin, the gatherer from her old village.
“How are you both feeling?” he asked around a mouthful of potato.
Jayenne shrugged. Taya wrapped her arms around her food and watched him closely.
“Don’t worry,” said Martolin. “There’s plenty to go around, thanks to you both.”
Jayenne frowned at that, but Martolin just gave a happy wave and wandered to the next fire. As soon as he was gone, Taya resumed eating.
“You saved a lot of people, you know.”
Jayenne turned to see a woman sitting on the other side of Taya. She wore a long tunic that covered her to her calves. The woman placed a leaf laden with food onto the grass by her feet. The firelight flickered on her smiling face. Jayenne had never seen her before.
“Don’t you remember?” asked the woman. Jayenne shook her head.
“Five days ago you walked into the lake with the shaman, and all this is the result. Everyone would have died if not for you. You should be proud.”
Jayenne’s mouth dropped open. “But… But it was only yesterday.”
“No. You have been asleep for five days. We were all very worried. The young shaman visited you every day, and many of us helped him.”
She didn’t know what to say. Jayenne tried to think back. She remembered standing on the shore, talking to Tanivednor. She remembered walking into the lake. But after that, the next thing she could remember was waking up on a bright afternoon. Had it really been five days?
Taya kept eating.
“In fact,” continued the woman. “This feast is as much in honour of you as anything else.”
Jayenne’s heart swelled. She looked at the people around the other fires. The celebration was in full flow. There was food and drink everywhere, and nobody was going hungry. Neighbours who had argued over scraps sat together sharing bowls full of cooked fish. Now and then someone would turn to look at her, or whisper to a companion and point. She was important. Everyone knew her.
“Of course, it is such a pity about the old man,” said the woman.
Jayenne’s head snapped around. “What did you say?”
“The old shaman, Tanivednor. He wasn’t as lucky as you. He’s over there somewhere, near the biggest fire.”
“What happened? Is he all right?”
“The other shaman, the young one, said that Tanivednor shielded you from the worst of it, but that it was too much for him. I didn’t really understand, but he’s not himself anymore. The older shaman, I mean. He woke up before you did, but some parts didn’t come back.”
Jayenne felt cold. “I have to see him.”
“Go ahead. I’m sure your sister is quite happy here.”
Taya managed half of a nod between bites. The woman topped up the young girl’s plate from her own. Taya barely acknowledged her.
The woman’s smile convinced her. Jayenne stood and threaded her way through the mass towards the largest fire.
People sat in groups by the fires, talking happily amongst themselves as they ate. Some of them recognised Jayenne and called out to her as she passed. Her face warmed but she smiled back at them, even waved sometimes. The larger fires were too packed, so she ducked into the shadows behind the crowd.
Up ahead, Tanivednor sat against the wall of a hut. A fire burned close by and he looked relaxed and at ease. The younger shaman, Morvadannon, sat beside him, along with several others.
As she drew close, however, she could tell something was wrong. Tanivednor’s arms rested awkwardly in his lap, and his head lolled to the side. A woman was feeding small pieces of fish into his slack mouth, but his jaw worked loosely and the food dribbled onto his chest. The woman patiently wiped away the mess and resumed feeding him.
Jayenne drew close enough to hear Morvadannon.
“Look at them all,” he said. “Dancing and laughing. With enough food to eat and much more growing for the future. This is all because of you. You brought life from the ashes and dust. We all owe you more than we can ever put into words.
“Damn it, you should have waited!” Morvadannon thumped the ground. “Why didn’t you tell me what you were doing? I could have helped. I could have taken some of the pressure.”
That brought a reaction. Tanivednor’s eyes rolled to the side and down. The younger shaman followed his gaze to the pouch that he constantly carried. Morvadannon sighed.
“You’re right. The risk was too great. One of us had to stay out of it, just in case. But you should have said something. At the very least you should have warned me.”
Jayenne stopped and stared, tears welling in her eyes. The young shaman glanced up and their eyes met.
“You should know,” said Morvadannon quietly. “The girls are fine.”
There was a flicker in Tanivednor’s expression, the barest glimpse of a smile. Morvadannon looked at him for a long moment, then stood and beckoned to Jayenne. She stayed quiet as he led her through the throng towards the shore.
He stood as Tanivednor liked to, with his feet submerged in the shallows. Jayenne looked up at him but his expression was hidden in shadow.
“He may never recover,” said the shaman.
“What happened to him?”
“He went too far. Experienced shamans can channel great power, but everyone has a limit. Tanivednor went beyond his, as simple as that.”
“To protect you.” Morvadannon turned his head and light played across his face. He looked sad. “You and your sister both. He could not complete the chant alone, but he could not risk either of you. After so many centuries of darkness, true power is rare. Tanivednor did what he had to do to protect the future of the shamans.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will, in time.” Morvadannon smiled. “That is, if you still wish to become a shaman?”
“I…” She paused. “I have to. For Tanivednor.”
The young shaman nodded. “Sometimes you see so clearly. But you will need more than that obligation to succeed. As the last shaman, I must take it upon myself to teach. There are others in the village with power. Perhaps we can survive.”
“As good as,” he said. “There may be others by the coast, or beyond the mountains to the west, but they are so far away that they cannot help us. No, I am alone in this.”
Jayenne did not know how to respond. Morvadannon seemed so sad. She felt it but did not understand it. She turned away and looked back towards the fires.
Her sister sat beyond the dancing adults, still eating. The woman was talking beside her, her words lost in the noise. Taya’s mouth cracked into a grin and she looked up at the woman. A twinge of jealousy tugged at Jayenne, but she pushed it away. Her sister was safe and happy, that was what mattered.
She blinked, amazed at a sudden insight, and looked around at the celebration that ranged along the lakeshore. That really was all that mattered. The people were safe. Her people were safe.
She sat in the grass beside Morvadannon and relaxed, just watching. For the first time, Jayenne felt that she was beginning to understand what it meant to be a shaman.
Be sure to read all episodes in the Druan saga.
Episode 1: Dawn
Episode 2: Dark Water
In a world starved of light and life by clouds that completely block the sun, comes the first dawn they have ever seen. When the darkness ends and the skies clear, humanity is at its lowest ebb, clinging to survival in a barren wasteland. Only the magic of the shamans can guide the people through the coming troubles and, in Jayenna and Taya, that power burns strong. Druan is an epic fantasy charting the rise of a civilisation. Told in a series of weekly episodes released every Friday, it follows the fortunes of the last living settlement as they struggle to survive in a harsh world.