We were the warriors of the plain, safekeepers of the voice
Now we are the quiet peoples, adrift on the obscure side of time
… … … …
Edzie had been in bed for a long time… forever, it seemed to her… but she was still wide awake when the conversation in the gathering room got loud enough for her to hear it.
The first voice was her mother, Elkansa, a distinguished pillar of the Denoria tribe, who had trouble controlling her volume. “Tamlis, now is not the time for this decision. Go to sleep, and things will be clearer in the morning.”
The second voice belonged to Tamlis, Elkansa’s lover for the past three years. Edzie could hear the hesitation in his voice, the tremble of anxiety, even as he mustered a level of seriousness that wasn’t characteristic of him. “No, Elkansa. I’ve already made the decision. I need to go now. Please don’t make it harder on me.”
As she listened, Edzie rolled to the edge of her cot, shifting slowly enough to prevent the wood frame from creaking. When she was close enough to swing her legs over the edge, she pushed herself off to the ground, landing softly and in perfect silence. She started moving toward the entrance to her room, and then paused to gather up her nightshirt in her right hand, to keep it from tripping her up. Suddenly conscious of the whispers of the fabric, she waited to hear more conversation.
“Why? Why are you suddenly so restless?” Edzie was only six, but she knew her mother’s voice, and she could tell Elkansa was keeping a reservoir of frustration concealed under a layer of grave sobriety.
“Kansa, it’s not sudden. Or, it shouldn’t be. I’ve spoken to you before: I love you, but I am not happy out here in the Pastures. But every time I try to talk about it, you just demand reassurance, instead of listening to me. You never wanted to hear me out, so I’ve been forced to make my choice on my own.”
As this exchange proceeded, Edzie crept to the entrance to her room and leaned out into the corridor. Light spilled in from the hallway, emanating from a single thresh lamp on the center table. She could see the shadows of her mother and Tamlis… the latter was shifting uncomfortably in his seat, half-standing and then sitting down again, not sure how to conclude the conversation.
Elkansa was not finished with him, though she already knew she was losing her way on this. “I just don’t know how you could do this to Stray.” She paused, her silence soaking in contempt. “You may be suited to a life of travel and… who knows what else… but your son is not.”
“A life of travel? Of course not.” Tamlis sounded confused for a moment. “Kansa… you didn’t think… you thought I was going to take Stray with me?”
“WHAT?” Elkansa struggled to control her volume as outrage slipped into her whispered voice. “You are leaving your son behind?”
“Of course Stray is staying,” Tamlis said, apparently more confident in this than in any other aspect of his decision. “Your tribe is strong, and it’ll make him respectable.” Elkansa scoffed slightly at this, but let Tamlis continue. “And you’re a better parent than I will ever be. You and Edzie and the tribal elders have already accepted the boy, and I couldn’t think of a better place for him.”
Edzie had glanced down the corridor to ensure that both adults were wrapped up in the conversation. As they talked, she stole down the hallway toward the bedroom at the end, where Tamlis occupied a cot, and Stray slept on a platform in the corner. By the time she reached the bedroom, the voices were far enough away that she was no longer processing their words.
As Edzie crossed the threshold into Tamlis and Stray’s room, quiet as a gust of wind, her memory danced over a few recent memories. Tamlis had been taking longer walks, later in the evening, and Elkansa had suspended their habitual lunches and dinners together. Edzie hadn’t understood the significance of these events, but now it was beginning to dawn on her. Tamlis had always been a warm, ebullient presence in the household, which was sometimes grim and serious without him, but in the last few months, his demeanor had darkened, like some bright light inside him was beginning to falter. A shadow had passed over him, just as Edzie’s was preceding her now, slipping silently into his bedroom
Tamlis’s room was sparse, like all Denorian dwellings. His cot was in the center of the room, its head against the far wall and its foot facing Edzie. In the far left corner, there was a small accumulation of belongings, gathered in a disorganized pile: clothes, personal items, and documents, barely contained on a wooden palette. In the near corner, to Edzie’s right, was Stray’s platform, hidden under a shapeless pile of blankets. On the left wall, there was an unused exterior door, covered up by a plank of wood wedged into the opening. On the right wall, about five feet up, there was a window, also covered by a plank of wood. The wooden shutter was slightly dislodged, but wedged in firmly enough to keep out bad weather and over-curious animals.
Edzie approached Stray’s platform, hoping he was still asleep. Stray was a year younger than Edzie, and she knew how naively attached he was to his father. For a moment, she was afraid his bed was empty… she was horrified at the thought that he might overhear his father’s departure… but then she saw the woolen covers rise and fall with glacial slowness, and she knew that, at least for this moment, he was protected. With this relief, Edzie felt a wave of sympathetic helplessness, an abysmal vulnerability in the eye of an empty universe.
Suddenly, Edzie was aware of footsteps coming down the hall. She realized immediately that she had to hide, lest her mother discover her eavesdropping… Elkansa was infamous for her creative disciplinary measures, and Edzie did not want to get caught in the conflagration of her current mood.
“If you are going to go…” Elkansa’s voice was still a ways down the hall. “Then hurry up and go, before I decide on a more severe sanction for your… … failures of character.”
The footsteps… clearly Tamlis’s leather sandals… were still a few meters away. In a panic, Edzie scanned the room. She would have hidden beside Stray under the covers, but she didn’t think she could keep him quiet. Her only chance was the window, which was along the nearest wall. She reached it in a few bounds and jumped up, wrenching the board aside with one hand and pulling herself up with the other. She settled into the square crevice and hooked her fingers around the plank to pull it back over herself. In her haste, she felt her fingers lose their purchase, and the board dislodged and fell.
Edzie winced, hearing the clatter as the board bounced off the ground.
At the same time, she was conscious of something in her fingers. She blinked, her muscles and nerves petrified, wondering what happened to the sound, and then realized her hand had followed the board and barely caught it before it fell. A wave of relief passed through her, and she lifted the board and wedged it into the window frame in front of her. It wasn’t completely secure, but it was enough to keep her concealed, and keep the window’s moonlight from attracting Tamlis’s attention.
Tamlis arrived at the entrance to his bedroom. He worked silently, pulling a tangle of leather straps from under his bed. He turned to his cache of belongings and arranged his outfits, a wardrobe of two pairs of linen trousers, a canvas tunic, three shirts, and a few miscellaneous undergarments. He bound these into a bundle and strapped them to his back, and finally retrieved his katsun, the traditional Denorian weapon, which, in his three years with the tribe, he had only just started learning to handle. He tucked a few more odds and ends into the pockets in his clothing, and he selected a light brivsa, made of soft linen for warm weather. He slipped its hood over his head and wrapped its wings around his neck and shoulders, forming a scarf that hung loosely above his chest. Fully prepared, he stood up, leaving only a few papers and scraps of fabric on the palette.
Tamlis turned toward Stray, still asleep on his palette. With somber steps, he moved out of Edzie’s view, but she could still hear him, barely above the threshold of audibility. He was saying farewell to his young son, consigning him to the care of a tribe of strangers.
“I’m sorry, Stray. First your mother, and now me. I’m sorry I couldn’t make a life for you where I could be happy too.” Silence flooded the room, and then Tamlis’s voice returned. “But you can grow up to be a good man out here. … Better than your father, I hope.”
There was another fissure of silence, and then Tamlis’s footsteps crossed the room and receded down the hallway. Edzie heard her mother’s bitter voice, pronouncing some curse as Tamlis passed, and then the house was still and quiet for about ninety seconds. Eventually, Edzie became aware of a new set of footsteps, quieter than the first, stopping in the entranceway.
“Come on out, Edzie.”
Edzie remained frozen, hoping, by some strange miracle, to keep her presence secret.
“I see that you are not in your room. There’s nowhere else you could be. It’s time to come back to bed.”
Edzie pushed the plank aside with her foot and dropped to the floor. She glanced up at her mother, and then turned her eyes down in chastened disgrace. Her mother didn’t move, so Edzie shuffled to her side, preparing for some kind of reprimand. They turned back down the hallway and returned to Edzie’s room in silence. By the time she was climbing back into her cot, Edzie realized no scolding was imminent… Elkansa’s eyes were far away, gazing over some troubling, endless inner horizon. Edzie pulled her covers back over herself and looked expectantly at her mother.
Finally, Elkansa returned to the present. In a low speaking voice, serious and insistent, she spoke in Old Concordage, the fading language of the eight tribes: “Amadja lesonor avre sewombris.” (“It is time to listen to your mother.”)
Edzie nodded, and Elkansa knelt before the bed to speak directly to her daughter. Having confirmed Edzie’s attention, she returned to the common tongue. “Now that Tamlis is gone, Stray is going to become a true Denorian, not merely a stranger’s child living in our village. I have no fears for your future, Edzie… you are my daughter, and you will make me proud. However, Stray has become our responsibility, as well, and we must make sure he grows up to be a wise and respected tribesman. I will become his mother, and I can do a great deal for him in that role, but not everything. You must be something to him that I can’t be… you must be his first friend, and his best. Can you do that for me, Edzie?”
Edzie nodded, mirroring her mother’s seriousness. She was too young to fully understand her mother’s expectations, but she could tell she was being called upon to help with a great burden. Also, she knew she would miss Tamlis, and she pitied Stray, but she was glad he was staying, because he had already become a welcome member of their family.
Elkansa stood up, and her voice leveled out, recovering the casual authority for which it was so well known among the Denorians. “Now get whatever sleep you can, because you will be getting up at dawn tomorrow to help me prepare supplies for this week.” She turned and left the room, and after a few minutes, the lamp in the gathering room was extinguished, leaving only traces of moonlight from the west-facing window to light the ceiling of Edzie’s room.
… … … …
We were a warrior culture in a peaceful era, swinging our blades at each other idly while the rest of Pantempus traded, danced, dressed, and fucked. From our first words, we were taught to feel a connection to something deeper and older… something in the earth, in the loins, in the thick fur of the Huskin herds that we followed… but if we had stepped out from under our elders’ shadows, we might have realized that these were just so many more pretensions, games we played to placate ourselves. We were stronger and quieter than the children of the cities, but we were children nonetheless, and our traditions were just as frivolous.
We were a culture of survival, strong and womanly, with a mother’s fearlessness and a sisterhood’s fierce durability. The girls my age were always engaged in their games of status, vying for the validation of our mothers and the affection of our fathers. They trained, they politicked, they tutored the boys and each other in war and romance, and the tribe lived on their energy, as it always had. I should probably have been like them, especially given my parentage: Elkansa, one of the pillars of our community, and no father as far as I could tell, since I was the product of an impulsive tryst at an inter-tribal ceremony. Nobody was more suited than I to a proud, accomplished Denorian tribal life.
That isn’t how things worked out, though. Instead, there were the three boys, our lost causes: Boyle, perceptive and troubled, Ghada our beautiful prince of blades, and Stray, my adopted brother, who was at once nothing, and everything, and finally, only himself. If I have any story to tell, it is the story of me and Stray… I’ll leave the others for more worthy voices to recount.
… … … …
Tamlis often woke early and wandered the Denoria settlement (perhaps to calm his restless nerves), so when Stray awoke the next morning, he thought nothing of his father’s absence. Edzie and Elkansa were already at the table in the gathering room, slicing and stringing fleurberries for drying in the late summer sun… Edzie might have been in a terrible mood, having been dragged out of bed at dawn, but she was too preoccupied with her concerns for Stray to indulge her own stormy disposition. When Stray appeared from the hallway, Edzie just glanced at him impassively.
Elkansa invited Stray to share a morning meal, and while they ate, she did her best to break the news of his father’s absence. She spoke gently, and avoided referencing emotional triggers like abandonment and loneliness. She simply told him that “your father has left us,” and to Edzie’s relief, Stray – being too young to fully appreciate the implications of the statement – didn’t even ask why, or how long. He simply accepted Elkansa’s reassurances and listened to her talk for a while.
Elkansa delivered one of those soliloquies that had become her trademark within the tribe. She talked about finding happiness, and discovering the power of family, even among people you were still getting to know. She repeated relentlessly that she and Edzie would take good care of him, and asked him to work hard – this was always a central theme in Elkansa’s speeches – to find happiness with the tribe, who would support him in all his future endeavors. Edzie simply nodded along with her mother, wondering whether Stray was really understanding what she was trying to tell him.
For her part, Edzie allowed her role in Stray’s life to shift over the next several months, as he slowly came to realize the truth of his father’s absence. Before Tamlis’s departure, she had treated Stray as a playmate and occasional annoyance, like a childhood classmate who happened to live with her. Afterwards, she began to integrate him into her budding tribal communities… bringing him along when she played with her friends, teaching him practical skills as she learned them from her mother, and generally acting as his chaperone and mentor. She would not have taken to this older-sister role, except that she sensed Stray’s need for it, and for him, she was willing to bear the responsibility.
That same summer – which ended with Tamlis’s departure – had seen the final thinning of the grasses around the Denorian settlement, and the increasing skittishness and truancy of the Huskin herds that they depended upon for meat, milk, fur, and leather. The tribal elders knew what this portended, and so, that autumn, they sent out a mobile band of scouts, rugged hunters and proven warriors from respected Denorian families, to find the tribe a stage for a new settlement, somewhere in the Pastures. The tribe then went about their business, storing meat and harvesting produce for the winter ahead. It was more difficult, with the Huskin herds so avoidant, but the Denorians were no strangers to an occasional scarcity, and they had survived much worse in the past.
In the middle of winter, as Edzie and Stray explored the frostbitten headwaters of the Bristle River, a few of the scouts returned with an account of their search. They had discovered an empty expanse of level grassland, lightly wooden around the edges, just north of the Prospect River, perhaps eighty leagues to the southeast of their current settlement. The Prospect River was an eastern branch of the Range River, and it led through the Pastures into the Crag Mountains, where it passed near the Envoclajiz temple, the stronghold of the Order of the Caesura. This would be an auspicious location for the Denorian settlement… the constant stream of pilgrims to the temple would ensure that they saw more traffic than most of the eight tribes, and they might take on an unusual number of transients as a result.
This new settlement was also further east than most of the other Concordance tribal lands, and unusually close to the mountains, so it would be the first line of defense if an aggressive contingent of the Fisher peoples ever attacked from the east. The eight tribes of the Concordance saw this as a sacred duty accorded to their culture, and the role of easternmost tribe was held in especially grave regard.
After two days of vigorous discussion (mostly inter-familial arguments and vain squabbling), the Denoria elders unanimously agreed to accept this responsibility. The site along the Prospect River would be their new home, and so it would remain, until the Huskins were driven away again, anywhere from five to ten years hence.
At last, as Spring began, the Denorians started striking their dromos. It began with the boldest and most trustworthy women and their families, yanking the wooden roofs from their clay houses and stripping away the calcified outside layer of the walls, so that the wind and rain could reclaim the earth. They gathered their belongings and the wooden frameworks of their structures, and those few who kept domestic Huskins lashed them up, and they gathered their lives into old wooden carts and saddlebags and began the long journey to the southeast. When these enterprising families arrived in the area surveyed by the scouts, they made some necessary decisions: the main body of the settlement would be on a flat plain just north of the Prospect River, overlooking the plains to the west and Cragstep Road to the south. They began building the watchtowers and the Huskin pens and storehouses, assembling the skeleton of a fully-functional tribal homestead.
As the Spring and Summer progressed, the rest of the tribe followed in waves, assembling caravans of a few score families every few weeks. They followed markers left by the scouts and the first settlers, but it was still a hard journey… they had to cross the hushed and hurried waters of the North Range River, and though the Pastures were mostly flat and level, there were areas of exposed stone, rocky folds in the landscape that gave the carts a great deal of trouble. The days went from temperate to sweltering hot, and in the late evenings, armies of mosquitoes harassed them, and their only defense was an exhaustion that brought an impenetrable blanket of sleep. The tribe tried to have healers ready at both ends of the journey, but there weren’t enough to send one with every caravan, and several dozen tribespeople died of exertion, injuries of travel, and minor diseases while they were in transit.
As the Denorians arrived safely in their new homeland, they all agreed that it was worth the unusually long trek. The land was fertile, many herds of Huskin wandered the larger grasslands, and three rivers met near the settlement: the wide, noisy Prospect River, flowing from east to west; its tributary, the Glancing River, a jagged interjection from a ridge of foothills to the southeast; and the modest Tenebre River, meandering through the open plains to the north and making a gentle contribution to the Prospect as it thundered off toward the greater Range River.
As the summer drew on, dromos began springing up like wildflowers in an untended garden. A large central court was established toward the north side of the village, and a path radiated outward from its massive fire pit, heading east and west. Most of the villagers built their dromos in the vicinity of the central court, with the craftspeople and handworkers congregating along the western branch of the main path. A small stream ran through the center of town, dividing raggedly as it reached the Prospect River, and the tribespeople began referring to it as the Splitmouth. There, near the two rivers’ rendezvous point, some of the tribesmen who had come from the Delta Cities built a row of piers, and they established an unconventional Denorian fishing neighborhood.
Not all of the Denorians settled in the main village along the Prospect River. A smaller satellite community appeared along the Rush Creek, some sixty kilometers northwest of the main settlement. This satellite village became a haven for hunters and scouts and restless men, and the road that led to the main settlement, along the Tenebre River, became well-trafficked with Denorians in search of game, or in need of peace and quiet. A third community also lingered on the outskirts of the land, to the northwest… this tiny village, a mere fifty families, was mostly composed of the original scouts who had discovered the land and staked their claim to its riches.
As the winter approached, pilgrims along the Cragstep Road gazed curiously upon the new Denorian settlement, and though the tribespeople attempted to ignore them, they eventually acquiesced to building a bridge, so that trade might be facilitated and a few of the travelers could be accommodated. Once the bridge was finished, the travelers named it the Twilit Bridge, honoring the soft glow of the landscape when the sun caressed the horizon opposite the Crag Mountains. Though the Denorians weren’t thrilled about the attention this brought to the settlement, they were also proud of their new home, and came to identify with the bridge as an important touchstone of their village.
So, in their seventh and sixth years, Edzie and Stray joined the Denorian tribe, warriors of the greater Concordance, in starting a new life on the banks of the Prospect River.