A GENTLE ROAR OF WHISPERS
One with the shadows, the assassin stalked his prey beneath Zendar’s two moons. The reed trees cast tumbling shadows on the green mist floating above the forest floor as the Suru, clad in green, slipped between two tree trunks. Humid night air muffled the sound of a scaled watralermis that scurried from his path. Now close to the young woman, the Suru could see the pale red sheen of moonlight on her hair. He assessed the lichen and rock ahead. Careful to keep his aura close so that she would not sense his presence, he lowered his taut frame and crept through the roiling mist, skirting the gnarled roots of the aged trees as he tightened the distance between them.
Ahead, the light evening cloak chased Dreanna as she walked in nervous haste towards the shop. All around her the throbbing drone of bark bugs filled the air. From the windows of the building, an amber glow pushed back the night. She hesitated at the door, gathered her nerve and eased the latch free. The sound of thudding blows greeted her as she slipped inside. Round reed log walls and heavy ceiling beams made the smith shop appear smaller than it actually was. A raised hearth, one side completed by the striking plate, sat in the center of the hardened dirt floor. The light from hanging crystal torches danced and flickered, coaxing shadows into a gentle dance across the storage racks and shelves that filled the walls.
Dreanna pursed her lips and twisted the plait of brown hair that hung over her shoulder. Her young face was strong, but the hazel eyes were marred with doubt. She took a deep breath and closed them when she saw the polished stone pendant around her father’s neck. Her mother had always worn it. Sadness weakened the control of her aura and it seeped outwards. She was still learning how to control it. She strengthened her defence, drawing it in closer to hide it from her father. She wanted to watch him, gauge his mood, before making her request. Dreanna opened her eyes and stared across the dimly lit room.
Her father, clad in knee-length breeches, his worn smith’s apron and gauntlets, worked at the hearth, the red glow from it lighting his tall frame. Self-consciously she studied his muscled shoulders, her eyes sliding down the brown chest to the sweat-stained apron. Around his neck the azure pendant swayed gently with the jump and roll of his lean muscles as he worked the reed. The hammer swept down smoothly, bounced once then leapt up over his shoulder again. It hurtled down, time after time, creating the rhythm that Dreanna knew so well from childhood. She saw the motion of his legs, felt the pulsing beat in the air, and knew it was good. She drew a deep breath and stood straight and tall.
“Father, it’s time that someone teaches me how to make love.”
Andar winced in surprise, the burnished hammer awkwardly striking the reed he had been flattening for a sword blade. He grunted, annoyance streaking his face. He had sensed her presence; it was the demand that caught him off guard. Andar looked to his daughter standing in the shadows.
“Father, I’m old enough now.”
“It wouldn’t be hard for you to find a young man from the village.” She moved towards him, drawing strength from her frustration, fierce in her commitment to win this battle. “It’s not far, and I’m sure there is someone in the village that would do this for you, for me. It’s been many days now since the change, and I’ve tried to tell you, tried to let you know that, that I’m ready, that it happened, and, and…” In the hearth’s glow, Dreanna’s tanned face was uncertain, yet her shining eyes implored him. Then they hardened in challenge and refused to falter.
Andar scowled his annoyance again, trying to bully her, but he knew he must acknowledge the woman in her, not the girl. He had noticed the tell-tale signs: her fuller, womanly body, the musky scent when the sun warmed her as she worked in the yard, the greening of her eyes; the obvious strengthening of her aura. He had known of her coming of age and ignored it, and that he knew was wrong. Andar shook his head in self-reproach. She took his action for resistance.
“Father, I need a real lover, not an imaginary one!”
He stared at her, taking in the wide stance, hands balled into fists jammed firmly on her hips. The jut of her jaw spoke of her defiance and her desire. Andar gazed at her and saw the vision of his wife, and she was beautiful. Stepping forward, he cupped her cheeks in his callused hands.
“By the Landsite, you are your mother’s daughter.” His laughter, the first in many rains, sounded strange, even to his ears. “Yes, Dreanna, yes. You need not worry. There are many young men in Bonstag, thousands throughout Pentenarr, who would be honoured. I know you’re ready, and soon we’ll release this passion of yours upon those in the village.” He smiled and pinched her nose. “Forgive me, I’ve been foolish.” He hugged her. “But it’s late. Tomorrow we’ll talk and make decisions. No, no more. Tomorrow.”
Dreanna heard the finality in his tone, saw the stern cast of his face. Her frown turned to a mischievous grin. “Thank you, Father. Thank you!” She reached up and kissed him, a long, full kiss upon the mouth, and it caught him unawares. He stuttered, cursing her half heartedly, but hugged her tightly again before letting go. Dreanna laughed and skipped to the door, whirling in pleasure to watch him.
Neither saw nor sensed the Suru climb silently through a window to crouch in the darkness.
Andar was embarrassed; by her kiss, by his avoidance of Dreanna’s needs, by his sudden show of affection after so long. She had surprised him, and in doing so had driven a wedge into the cold sadness that gripped him so tenuously. His mood was lighter than it had been since the accident. Suddenly he felt that perhaps the worst was over. He raised the hammer and began again, the muffled cadence filling the temperate air of the shop. The torches above him flickered as he hardened the mottled green and yellow reed, hammering the fibers closer together, drying it slowly over the hearth. He encouraged the rhythmic motion, feeling the warmth of the pulsing coal shards nestled in the ashes. The turning of the blade, the rocking back and forth as the hammer rose and fell set his mind at ease.
As he worked his brow relaxed, easing the lines of age. Green eyes set in a bed of sun creased wrinkles focused on each blow of the hammer. Taller than most and lean muscled, Andar didn’t fit the image of the barrel-chested smiths of Zendar. Although gray streaked the brown hair, except for a gradually thickening waist, years of smithing had kept the former council guard fit. With marriage and children, he had abandoned the turmoil of the early years, retreating to the solitude of the country and becoming content with a life of hard work and simple pleasures near the village.
Dreanna’s eyes widened when a shadow detached itself from the darkness and glided silently towards her father. The eyes of the Suru were demanding, preventing her from warning of the danger. Terror stricken, she reached for the door. Finally she screamed when the Suru hurled the dagger accurately towards her and drew a short-bladed sword.
Dreanna’s shrill scream startled Andar, draining the blood from his face. Turning, his eyes met those of the shadow. Instinctively, he brought the hammer down, deflected the slash aimed at his throat, then let the hammer rotate in an arc and hurled it at the chest of the Suru. Without pausing he sprang to his left and seized a tall reed from a stack leaning against the wall. He risked a glance and took in the dagger imbedded in the door, Dreanna frozen in terror.
“Run to the house Dreanna!”
Andar’s heart thudded wildly, his mouth dry as he sought his attacker’s eyes again. The assassin had nimbly dodged the hammer, but Andar saw the subtle change of confidence as the eyes became wary. Andar lunged forward, jabbing with the reed at the man’s cowled face. The assassin’s blade flicked effortlessly, cutting off the end, a grim, thread-like smile of satisfaction tracing his lips. Andar launched the now crudely sharpened spear then hurled himself low at the Suru’s waist. The assassin avoided the staff with a fluid twist of his body, but Andar’s shoulder jarred him, his arms closing around sinewy thighs. He reached upwards, searching for the sword arm and the descending pommel, but the blow thudded at the base of his neck. Pain surged, blurred his vision and rocked his head back as his grip on the Suru weakened. Again the pommel fell, showering pain and darkness. As in years gone by, Andar felt the fear. Felt the rush of panic as death closed on him.
Desperately he grasped at the dark tunic. With a surge of strength and scrambling legs he pulled and pushed himself upwards. His hands found the corded neck and his legs locked around the wriggling torso. Now with his remaining strength, he dug his thumbs into the assassin’s throat. The Suru abandoned his sword and tore at the hands of the smith. Andar exerted pressure, was rolled beneath his foe, then lifted from the floor and smashed into the hearth. His grip loosened and fell free when hot coals burned into his back. Numbed and reeling from the shock he watched the assassin stagger back, violent gasps racking the Suru’s body.
“Andar!” His father’s voice came from outside.
Through blurry eyes he saw Dreanna on the path, his father and son behind her.
“Grandfather! Doros! Hurry!” she yelled.
Andar lurched upright, his bruised ribs and the coal burns bringing a curtain of darkness. He fought it, shaking his head. Air still rasping in his throat, the assassin’s eyes flicked to the doorway and the approaching figures. He grabbed a firing clamp from a post and hurled it at the smith. Andar blocked it, bearing the blow on his forearm, but he breathed a sigh of relief as he watched the Suru spring head first into the black void of the open window and disappear. Pain was everywhere as he slumped, sitting in a daze against the warm hearth.
Then they were at his side. Swords in hand, his father Lanos, and son Doros stood shocked and breathless. Crying, Dreanna clutched at him, adding to his pain. His arms enfolded her with a fierceness that belied his exhausted state.
“I’m all right, I’m fine,” he whispered.
“Who was…” but for the second time that night he cut Dreanna off. It was as if he was in a dream, his speech thick and halting.
“No, not now. Doros, take the lead. Father, take Dreanna to the house. I’ll follow and see you safely there.”
“Come, Dreanna,” urged Lanos. “Do as your father says.” His wrinkled hand took her arm. In the seamed face she saw his eyes were moist. “Yes, Grandfather,” she finally acknowledged, but her eyes returned to her father.
They eased through the beamed doorway and moved along the path under the amber sliver of Capci. To the east, distant Kunic, hung red and swollen among countless stars. In single file they crept forward, the leaves of the soaring reed trees motionless in the night air. A gila weasel, orange and blue scales glinting, darted across their path, its sweet, pungent odour clinging to them. Eyes searching everywhere, probing with his sense, Andar followed them to the house. Met at the door by their atogg, Lanos pushed the animal aside and entered. He calmed Dreanna and her younger brother, while Andar and Doros ensured the fortress-like safety of the barkin, checking each room, barring each window. The atogg, sensing the tension, trotted after Andar, sharp claws clicking on the floorboards. Despite arguments from his family, Andar took the pet and opened the front door.
“Bar it, Doros. I’ll see to the shop.” When the door closed, he looked at the atogg who sat at his feet, large eyes intent on him. With his fist he gave the signal to seek. The atogg’s hairless body tensed, it’s long, lean form still as it searched the night. Although deaf, its sense of smell and eyesight were acute. Andar followed the animal, searching in vain with his sense for the aura of the attacker. He didn’t care about the shop, but wouldn’t rest until he was sure the attacker was gone. The two circled the house following the path until it brought them to the shop once more. He signed for the atogg to guard the door and entered.
Andar went through the motions of closing the shop, still focused on his sense, reaching out into the night, searching. Nothing. With a sigh of resignation, he moved about the shop, trying to calm his thoughts and emotions. The flickering torches threw fearsome shadows into his path, only to dance harmlessly away the next moment. He shuffled to another timbered window, probing out into the night before closing the shutter and dropping the thick crossbar into place. Wincing in pain, he stooped and picked up the assassin’s sword. Unconsciously he ran a hand down the side of the blade, the artisan in him evaluating the maker. It was straight and true to the tapered needle point without the undulating curves that were often a mark of lesser smiths. He grasped the end and tested the temper, anger for the craftsman flaring within him, as if he too had been a part of the attack on his life.
Andar wiped the sweat from his forehead. He had sent the others to the house in case the assassin was still close, but as the moments passed it appeared he was not. But that meant nothing. Even with his strong sense, he hadn’t been aware of the assassin’s presence until the moment of the attack. Why should I be able to sense him now?
“Father?” The call from the house had a worried lilt to it.
Pulling the dagger from the door, Andar eased it closed and acknowledged his daughter with a wave of his arm. Pain raced along his shoulder and he drew his breath sharply. He sighed again, and with the atogg in the lead, trudged down the sloping path to face questions he could not answer.
Light flickered on the vaulted ceiling in the common room. The flames in the fireplace curled lazily around the wood. Only the faint chirp and crackle from the stone hearth disturbed the silence of the room. Like the smith shop, the formidable log reeds, notched and stacked, gave the room a sense of security. A feeling Andar didn’t share tonight.
He sat contemplating his golden, flickering companions, melancholy after two tankards of reed ale, sipping a third, as his mind wandered aimlessly over the events of the evening. The ale had helped to numb the pain from his wounds, but like the Suru, had undermined his confidence. As he slouched in his chair, the fire revealed what he felt he had become; a small and insignificant man, just like the little fires he built. No longer did he heap the wood on high, goad the flames to leap and twist with unbridled energy. Andar poked it irritably, creating a shower of sparks, winking red, fading black. Pain in his shoulder rewarded his effort. He brought the tankard back to his lips, eyes closed.
Dreanna had clung to him, crying at first as the two other children listened, wide-eyed and fearful, unable to believe that someone would come to their home and attack Father. After many hugs, reassuring words, and making light of a bungling attempt at stealing some half-finished swords, they had been ordered to bed, accompanied by Lanos. Andar had remained in the common room and had just finished his first ale when Lanos, moving slowly on bowed legs, had returned.
“Are you all right?” his father had inquired, speaking for the first time to his son, worry lines freshly etched around gray eyes.
“I’m going to be a little sore tomorrow.” Andar looked down at the floor boards. “But it’s better than being a little dead,” he added with a forced grin.
“You were almost killed,” Lanos hissed, his graveled voice rising. “Save your humour for your drinking mates.” Their eyes locked and the old man’s anger waned as he read the pain and worry in his son’s face. “Fetch us both an ale.” He averted his eyes and turned to leave. “I’ll see to some salve for your burn.”
Andar shuffled to the eating area beneath the loft at the other end of the common room, ducked under some hanging herbs, and slid two tankards from an open shelf. He filled them from the keg that squatted on the end of the table. When Lanos re-joined him, Andar they stood in silence, drinking and staring at the murky brown liquid in the tankards. The doughy fragrance and brackish taste went unnoticed as Andar emptied the contents. Finally, grim smiles lessened the tension between them and Andar lowered himself onto one of the benches, setting his tankard upon the table’s worn surface.
Lanos examined the wound. The burn wasn’t deep, but covered a large area of flesh, the raw, red tissue blotched with black soot. It had oozed tears of blood and fluid in long spider fingers down Andar’s back to the waist. As Lanos worked they talked.
“You sensed no one,” Lanos began, more a statement of fact than question.
“No, nothing. It was as if he wasn’t there. Even after when I reached out, nothing.”
“He must be well trained in closure. Very well if you could not detect his aura. But why would anyone…want to kill you?” Lanos’ voice was thick, his lips barely able to form the question.
Andar had thought of denying the suggestion, but knew it would be useless. “It was…it was Suru.”
“What?” The old man froze, his face a mask of disbelief. “No, tell me you jest.” But he knew his son, and there was no humour in his voice.
“It was Suru,” Andar said softly. “But who? Who would do this?”
“Yes, yes. Who would do this?” Lanos asked. Despite his forced calm, his hand trembled as he scratched his thinning gray hair. “A displeased customer?”
“No. Why would anyone go to the trouble and expense to hire Suru if they were displeased with the work of a local reedsmith?”
“True.” Lanos dabbed at the burns some more. “Andar, you don’t think the Ancient Order has anything to do with this? Surely it couldn’t be.”
“I had thought of that, but I don’t think so. I can’t believe they feel threatened by me.”
“Then who? Who could possibly-”
“I don’t know,” Andar growled, frustration boiling over.
“Enough. Enough for now,” the old man soothed. Tenderly he spread the salve on the cleansed wound, wincing when Andar did. “You handled yourself very well, son.”
“I was lucky.” Andar rose and Lanos followed him back to the far end of the common room.
“No one survives a Suru attack because they are lucky,” Lanos said. Despite himself, his eyes shone. “Blessed be our Ancestors but you make me proud. Farsnor told me that once, on a Northern Campaign against the Stomuants, he saw a Suru in action. It was before Damour took the throne. When being Granleeder meant more than fancy clothes and words.” He mimed his displeasure. “Old Sordon, bless his soul, at least tried to prevent the deformed ones from raiding us.” Lanos finished the last of his reed ale, his eyes distant on past events. “Farsnor was with them. The cold and the mountains drove them back. Never did see any Stomuants. But Farnsnor said they encountered a Suru who wounded two of the guards and killed a third before he escaped. Said he had never seen such deadly speed.” Lanos stared proudly at Andar. “Wait until I tell Farnsnor how you chased a Suru away!”
“Please, it was only because you and Doros came to my aid that he left.” Andar turned to Lanos. “Make no mention of this to anyone. No harm was done. Perhaps it was a mistake.”
“No harm done?” Lanos stared incredulously at his son. “Are you serious? It was only through good fortune, your skill, that you weren’t killed, and perhaps Dreanna too.”
“I know, I know!” Andar’s voice was angry. “But what can be done now? The town council will be sympathetic, but can do nothing. The Ancient Order won’t care. Will even be pleased. It will only draw unneeded attention to us by others curious for a tale. No, let’s keep this to ourselves.”
“Fair enough, son,” Lanos agreed quietly, his weathered face tightening. “But what if he comes back?” It was the question that had already begun to torment Andar.
“It must have been a mistake. A terrible mistake that is over now.”
That had been the end of it. Lanos had grudgingly retired while Andar remained on the pretense of numbing his shoulder with another ale. He had poured it and sat in front of the fire, staring upwards into the darkness, the beams and trusses above hidden in shadows. When his mind had become exhausted, after a final check of the house, he entered the side hall and entered the first of his children’s rooms.
On the left side of the small room, Colonar, his youngest, lay sprawled on his back, the sleep of youth heavy upon him. He had his mother’s nose and delicate chin, and many of her practical ways. Andar checked the barred shutters yet again and with a grim smile noticed the small sword lying next to his son. He eased himself onto the edge of the bed, pain momentarily pulling his breath away. Bending, he brushed the bangs back and kissed him lightly on the forehead. He levered himself upright and turned to the other bed.
Doros was a year younger than Dreanna. The thin angular face was partially hidden by the mane of black shoulder length hair, the lanky body, in sleep’s repose, still young and unmarked. His son’s breathing was deep as Andar bent above him resting his hand on the pommel of the sword Doros had driven into the floor near the head of his bed. Anguish over their stormy relationship assailed Andar. He chanced a touch and reached out to gently lay his hand on Doros’ shoulder.
In the hall, he stopped out of habit to look at one of the many wall ornaments that adorned the length of the corridor. All had been made either for, or by one of his children. Each held a memory. His fingers glided over the crudely carved figure of a head that was supposed to be him. Doros had cut himself twice in the process of making it. Both times he had come running to Andar. Although he hadn’t cried, neither had he shied away from the comforting hugs of his father. But Doros had been young then. He entered the second room.
Dreanna lay still in her bed but opened her eyes as he entered. They studied him pensively as he folded slowly onto the bed beside her. She had remained the closest to him. She seemed to understand his pain, his moods. His loss.
“I was so frightened, Father, so afraid. I didn’t sense him. I couldn’t warn you. I tried but…” Her voice cracked and her eyes filled with tears.
Andar took her head on his shoulder, stroking her hair gently. “It’s all right, Dreanna. It’s all right now. It can happen. It’s all right.”
She shuddered, her head bobbing up, and although her eyes were still wet, she no longer cried. She ran a thin forearm under her nose. “You were wonderful, Father, so completely wonderful! I never knew you could do anything like that. I will never forget it. Never.” With that, she put her arms around him and they held each other. Andar stared woodenly over her shoulder, embarrassed by the pride she felt for his actions, and by the fear he had felt while doing them. She lay back, retrieving the dagger from the bed and held its thin stiletto blade fiercely in front of her. “The next time I will not freeze like a child,” she said. Her voice was firm, and he saw the hardness in her eyes. He reassured her there wouldn’t be a next time, but understood that she knew better.
In the common room, Andar climbed the hewn stairs to the loft above the eating area. He sank onto the bed, the borders of sleep encroaching upon his battered body. The pain from his shoulder forced him to roll inwards. One half the width of the bed lay silent and empty before him, as it had done for many rains. He still slept on his side, unable to move towards the center, as if to do so would acknowledge Katrena’s absence. Tonight the emptiness was a hollow ache. His arm reached out to lie across the smooth expanse as his other hand reached up to hold the pendant that had been hers. Finally his eyes closed and exhaustion overwhelmed him.
* * *
It loomed large in front of him, intangible but overwhelming and oppressive. Every way he turned it was there, blocking his attempts to move, but never touching him. Smooth like highly polished reed wood, large and spherical, it was a terrifying barrier that closed in on him. It weighed him down with an enormous burden that slowed his arms and legs until he couldn’t move. And now the fear started to build with the feeling of helplessness that grew as his efforts to fight proved more and more futile.
The shape elongated and towered over him, the brown mass changing to blue-black hues punctuated with slashes of white, pin-points of yellow. It moved against him and the fetid odour assaulted him. He gagged and tried to turn away, but could not. He was helpless, bound by some invisible force that held him as those terrifying white slashes moved closer to his face.
With a startled lurch Andar awoke, his heart pounding, his body soaked in sweat. As his breathing stilled, he sank back and stared at the roof, oblivious to the ache of his shoulder and ribs.
It had been his nightmare as a boy. It had faded as he had reached manhood but started again when Katrena had died. For many rains his grief and sense of loss had triggered the old nightmare, until finally, with his acceptance of her death, it had become infrequent. And now it was back, more threatening and terrifying than ever. And different. It had never been able to hold him before. Never pulled him close. So close that he could smell its stench. With a shiver, Andar realized that before it had always been an intangible force confining him. Now it had become something alive, something powerful and more frightening than that of his youth. More real than a simple dream.
Andar rolled from the bed, the pain of his shoulder already less intense as the salve did its work. Awake now, he knew sleep would not come easily. He moved to the window, unbarred it and pushed the shutters outwards.
The night was silent except for the bark bugs. Capci’s amber crescent had all but disappeared, chased through the night sky by full bodied Kunic, the larger red orb colouring the languid clouds. Green mist from the lichen swirled upwards falling again as it cooled. From the top of trees, the call of a drenn broke the silence, the long note eerily human. Staring into the darkness, Andar fought to suppress the fear that gripped him. The close encounter with death stirred long forgotten memories when death was always at the forefront of his life.
As a young man he had been caught up by the colour and adventure of those who lived by the sword. Enthralled by their stories in the taverns and captured by their commanding presence, he was fascinated by their weapons and how effortlessly they used them. And thus it was that he pursued such a life. However, all too soon he found that earning a living by the sword was not the same as the training and the games that he mastered so easily. The carnage he witnessed, in the alleyways of the city and the desolate trails of the caravans, took its toll. The cruelty and bloodshed, the callous self-serving acts of so many destroyed his respect for his fellow man. The continual violence was an awakening, each and every confrontation life-threatening. He wrestled with his own mortality, until he felt he would burst from the conflict of introspection and duty commitment.
Andar shook his head willing the thoughts away. His breathing was deep, his face flushed as he relived that painful time in his life. Pulling the shutters tight, he returned to his bed. He stared at the ceiling, sleep a fleeing captive beyond his reach. For so many nights he had studied those few square feet above his head when Katrena died.
At first it had been a means of holding on to her, for together they had studied the planks before or after making love. Katrena would point out the old man with the big nose, or the baby pippula that Andar never thought looked like a baby pippula, but said it did anyways. He would lie there and try to remember exactly how she had discovered each particular marking, how she had sounded, or pointed, or nudged him. He would remember the excitement in her voice with each of her discoveries, and how he praised her for her clear eyesight and clever imagination. And then she would turn on him, knowing he was humouring her, and she would punch and pinch him, tickling him until he begged her to stop, or he stopped her, as the mood suited them. Although not always, they would then make love. But now they were just markings, smudges of color on color without Katrena to breathe life into them.
It had been an exuberant, wide-eyed zest for life, tempered with gentleness that had attracted Andar to her. With her competing for his attention, the adventure of the guard, already in a state of disillusionment, soon became a burden. It wasn’t a long courtship, and in even less time the two of them had planned Andar’s retirement from the Council Guard.
Disappointed by the self serving motives of many, wary of the violence, they built a homestead far from the village. By choosing smithing he could still be in contact, in a remote way, with the life that had fascinated him. Together they had raised children, his business had grown, and life had been good.
Andar tightened his hand around the sword that lay beside him, drawing little comfort from the familiar feel of the smooth, worn grip. He closed his eyes, aware that the night would be long. There was no fooling himself. Life had been good, but Katrena was gone, and now someone wanted him dead. The Suru would return.
Bonara, First Merchant of Deprossa, paused in anticipation at the entrance to the chamber and savoured that first thrill of excitement. He inhaled the familiar musty scent, thousands of years old. It was the magic elixir that strengthened his will, that stoked the fires of his ambition. The knowledge that the cavern promised still filled his mind with awe. And he alone knew of its existence.
Fingers combed his graying beard as he held the torch aloft and marched inside. The dark tunnel behind him was an ever present reminder of the past. It was twenty long years since that first frightening passage down the tunnel to the unknown. He had been a young man then. Images of that day flickered before him; images that recorded the shed water of his life.
That day, like all the others, had been long and empty, but had ended worse than most. In the tiny shop, a customer, swathed in the gaudy finery of distant Krowden held him captive behind a low counter. He leaned on the counter pointing a heavily ringed finger. His large jowls jumped as he berated Bonara.
“You promised the delivery, you little erront.”
Bonara squirmed beneath the patron’s glare and tried to explain. “Most honourable, Buitris. The matter is beyond my control. Within the next day, two at the most, the caravan-”
“Silence, you miserable shakir! I wish what was promised today, not tomorrow or the next. I do not care to hear excuses. You, Bonara will never be other than what you are, a petty merchant selling cheap wares. I should have known better. I don’t want them now. You can keep them.”
Bonara lowered his eyes, his face turning white beneath the close-cropped black beard.
The man withdrew his bulk from the counter and waved a beefy hand to a waiting servant. “Come, Partris. This bores me.”
Alone in the shop, the intimidation gone, Bonara’s fear had turned to anger as he beat upon the counter. “It’s not my fault. The caravan is late. It’s not my fault!”
At closing time, Bonara locked the door to his shop and trod homeward through a small ravine, belittled and defeated by fate once again. A thousand times he had walked the ravine bottom seeking quiet at the day’s end, escape from a life that frustrated him. Some evenings he would walk furiously to purge himself, cursing customers and village life alike. Other evenings, he would sit by the stream bed, unsatisfied with life, but melancholy and accepting.
Chance, fate, destiny: all words that Bonara applied to the event on that one, extraordinary evening. Even today, after all these years, he marveled that if the course chosen had been slightly different his life might never have changed. The rock had given way under foot, and he had sprawled face down peering into a small black opening. He struggled to his feet, the mishap another irritant to his tiresome existence. He tried to ignore the head-sized opening, but the air that seeped out, stale and pungent, caught in his throat. Bonara bent, and peered cautiously within, but nothing was visible. The rocks on either side fell away under his hands and soon, to his consternation, he knew that he had found something strange. Something that he could not explain.
I don’t need this to disturb my life. However, the mystery of the hole, the scent of age, and its promise of the Ancient Ones kept him near.
At the lip of his find, Bonara’s shadow, broken and twisted by the rocks, darkened the opening. He reached down and felt the sloping interior of a rock pile. What if there is something in there? Fearfully he eased one leg over the edge of the opening. It’s too late. There’s not enough light. He moved the other leg inside, arms in a vise-like grip upon the entrance. Tomorrow. I can come back tomorrow with a torch. But Bonara lowered his head until he stared into the black abyss. It was too dark, for his head and shoulders screened the dying light. He moved his right arm inside and hooked the crook of his left one carefully over a rock at the entrance. For a moment the light streamed in over his head as he leaned forward. Then the entrance boulder fell inwards, his teeth flashed in a grimace of white and he tumbled headlong into the black void below.
His hands clutched his head as he tried to protect himself. After the first sickening lurch his tumble ended. He had fallen only a short distance and lay sprawled among small rocks and boulders. From the opening above, pale light flooded the cave. He fought to keep the fear from his heart as he struggled to his feet. Somehow he had known it wasn’t just a cave. In front of him a man-made tunnel disappeared into the darkness. There was no mistake. The walls were parallel, the ceiling evenly rounded, and the floor flat and smooth. It must have been fashioned by the Ancient Ones! There could be no other answer. He climbed towards the beacon of light at the top of the mound of rubble. Then he was out. Out and free, and still frightened and hurrying home.
Bonar stepped into the cavernous chamber, smiling ruefully as he recalled his moment of discovery. He remembered the scared little man who had scurried back to his home. He marvelled at what he had been like. How sad and desperate I had become. Yet to be so frightened and still return.
The next day, armed with torches, unable to put the discovery from his mind, he had returned. Early from his shop he had set out. At the black mouth of the hole, the sun warm on his back, he looked down weak in his resolve for there would be no excuses today. He knew it was not far to the bottom. He had the torches to chase away the fears of the dark. Yet still he was afraid. Always afraid. Afraid of this discovery. Afraid to stand up to the customers. Afraid to demand fair payment.
“May the Ancient Ones forgive me. Is there not anything that doesn’t frighten me? I must do this!”
Anger flared and consumed his fear. It was a chance to change, to break free of the cursed mould that life had fashioned for him. It was, perhaps, a chance to discover some remnant of his first forefathers, The Ancient Ones. At last, with shaking hands, he lit the torch and slid feet first into the opening.
The heavy musk of long disuse assailed his nostrils as, with the torch held aloft, he inched forward. Bonara entered the tunnel that soon rose gently. He turned to look back towards the entrance, seeking reassurance from the opening. The dust of thousands of years puffed beneath his feet, rising to tickle his nose. A deep breath, several more steps, and he reached the crest of the gentle incline. Continuing would take him down. Down and out of sight of the opening. Bonara started to retrace his steps but stopped.
He shook, the urge to break into an uncontrolled run for the surface held in check by some new and powerful force. His stomach churned, threatening to empty as he staggered against the tunnel wall. Bonara closed his eyes, gripping the rock as he felt the battle sway within him. Though frightened and unable to understand what was happening, he viewed the raging conflict with awe.
His lips twisted into a grim smile as he stared down the dimly lit tunnel. Bonara pushed away from the wall, his body stiff, movement awkward. He walked further along the tunnel again, paused at the top of the incline, and continued, out of sight of the entrance. Now he trembled, but with an excitement he had never known. Something had happened within him. He was disoriented in his thinking, but revelled in the new sense of power and strength that coursed through him.
The excitement of that distant event rekindled itself in him again today. Bonara strode through the dimly lit chamber, towards the center, and seated himself in the huge chair which sat upon the raised platform. His hands caressed the smooth, silver surface of the arms as he studied the multitude of coloured lights that glowed and pulsed from above. His eyes burned with a fierce pleasure. Yes! That had been the exact moment! Before I had even discovered all of this, I had changed. He threw his head back and his laughter echoed quietly through the chamber. It faded away, all sounds absorbed by the thick rock walls and the quiet whir of machinery.
On that day, in the feeble light of the torch, through the monotony of the unchanging tunnel, it had seemed like time had stood still. It was evident that it led downwards and Bonara sensed that he was constantly moving left. After a time it came to him that the tunnel must form a giant corkscrew that spiralled downwards. The air was stale and musty, but breathable, the temperature dropping slowly. His confidence grew.
Without warning, the wall to his right vanished in the torch light. He froze, willing himself to calm, calling upon his strange newfound strength. The walls and ceiling of the tunnel had disappeared, but on lowering the torch, he saw that the floor was still intact ahead. Bonara eased forward, to the very edge of the disappearing wall. He held the torch out, moving it to the right and left and saw that it was just a corner. The rock wall continued unchanged to his right.
He realized it must be a room. To enter a tunnel with only one course to follow had been easy. The prospect of becoming lost in the room caused a new trickle of fear to slide down his throat. But it was not the fear he had lived with for so long. The fear that had immobilized him. I must be cautious, and at the first sign of confusion, stop and turn back. Holding the torch high, and drawing a deep breath, he began again, his one hand tracing a track in the dusty wall to the right as he entered the room.
A structure loomed out of the darkness on his left, the light from the torch dancing weakly over its surface. Bonara froze again, the sweat breaking out over his body despite the coolness of the room. He stood staring, rooted to the spot, the torch in his hand beginning to shake. Light and shadow jumped over the surface of his find, distorting it, and adding to its unearthly nature. Bonara closed his eyes tightly and fought to control his breathing. He fought the fear that clawed at his insides. Time passed and nothing happened. It gave Bonara the strength he needed and slowly he opened his eyes. The tall smooth object stood silently, gray-brown dust covering its undulating curves. It offered no threat, other than its ancient nature. He ventured a hand forward, cautiously touching the dusty surface, finding it cool to the touch.
Bonara plucked nervously at his beard as he shuffled past the structure to find another identical object, and another after that. Beyond in the dark he could discern more hulking shapes. The light danced faintly off their surfaces. He dared not leave the safety of the wall, but lit another torch and threw it to his left. It struck one, ringing off the hard surface, echoing in the darkness. He drew in his breath, and gazed, awestruck at the myriad of objects standing silently, row upon row in the shadows. He crept along the wall, lighting torch after torch. The light steadily grew creating a tomb like setting.
Mid-breath Bonara’s breathing ceased and his body grew still. His ears strained to hear. Nerves frayed to the point of breaking, his feet refused to move as he held his breath. From ahead came the sound of… something. On the verge of flight, he listened. The sound did not grow louder or appear to be approaching him. He began to breathe again, controlling it with great effort as he shuffled forward. The noise grew until it filled his senses. The wall he followed ended at another black void that was the source of the sound. He came abreast of the entrance, directly exposed to the constant, humming throb. An intangible cloak of sound, it no longer grew in volume, but wrapped around him. Then in the center of the room he saw the green light shining softly.
Bonara smiled at the memory and looked down at the green orb glowing in front of him. He reached out and caressed its convex surface with a finger. My light. My guiding light. Whenever he wanted to think, to recharge his energy and sense of purpose, he would sit here, and stare hypnotically at it as his mind worked.
He had been irresistibly drawn towards the light, eyes wide in terror as the noise enveloped him further. He inched past the throne-like chair to stand mute in front of it and, with a shaking hand, reached out to rub the dust of thousands of years from the bubble glowing in the center of the sloped table. Freed from time’s dusty veil, he watched it grow brighter with each cleansing stroke. Then he sat. Sat on the impossibly large chair and remained still. For hours, he listened to the whirl of sound coming from the many objects around and above him. The sound seemed to gradually subside as his fear did, until it became a soothing companion. Then he had retraced his steps homeward. He knew that his life’s work lay before him.
A life’s work like no other. When he discovered that first cavern, his life had changed. He had changed, grown confident and strong with each new visit. And wealthy with his new found abilities. It had nurtured him. He had toiled at it for many years, exploring the mystery of his planet’s earlier inhabitants, of a race that had arrived on Zendar before his own Ancient Ones. The first years had been so painfully slow, but with each disappointment, with each simple success, he had moved closer to his ultimate goal. Here beneath the surface, a stone’s throw from his village of Deprossa, he had spent twenty years of investigation. Twenty years of looking for them.
Once again Bonara said a silent prayer to the Ancients, thanking them and requesting their help and blessing, for the location of the final cavern had been discovered.