Okay, the major pay markets have passed on this thing, so now it’s time to share it with you all. There are plenty of sub-pro-rates magazines, both physical and online, that I could submit to, but I’m with Scalzi on this: I know what this is worth, and if they’re not going to pay that, then they don’t get it.
It should shed some light on why the first book of the trilogy will be called Purified: Fire…this story takes place in the same universe, some 20 years before the events of the book. There are some definite echoes in Chapter 7. I may post later on how this particular story came about in the course of working on the book, but that’s not for tonight.
It’s long, but this is not a fragment or excerpt: it’s the whole thing, so settle in and enjoy.
Oh, and some new music before I step aside: Jets Overhead. Like Radiohead if they’d decided to keep writing actual songs instead of trying to redefine what a song should be.
The salt crust, hard and brittle under his feet. When he started off, he could feel every grain with his soles, breaking apart as he passed, but now, after so many miles, they are numb. He at least has it easier than the men—their weight breaks through the crust, to the sucking mud underneath, while he is slight enough to walk upon the surface, as long as he does not follow in their footsteps.
His name is Samal, which means both Eagle and The Hunter in the holy language of his people, which only the tribal chieftains are allowed to use now, and this is the first time he’s been this far from home without his father and his father’s guard. The men before him were selected by lottery, chosen by chance, to bear witness to this rite. In the front is Aga-Narim, his father’s horse-lord and closest advisor, and they follow him, through the salt plains, to the steppes beyond.
The sun is a weight overhead, but there is a bitter wind sweeping down from the steppes that brings chills instead of cooling relief. There are no oasis here, none this far east from his father’s camp. There will likely be some water to be found once they leave the plains behind, but they plan and rely upon only what they can carry. Samal’s skin is heavy, slung diagonal across his chest, the water inside resettled so the leather bites at his shoulder and presses at his hip. There is pain, and the faint wet salt of blood in his mouth from broken lips, dried from the dry salt air blowing around him. And this is good. This he can do, this he can survive. He affixes each moment, before it comes, in his mind, accepting it, defining it. And every step is proof, a victory over the barrier between this moment and the next. He wishes his path was even harder, like the men he follows, the better to define each moment of pain, but he will not walk in their footsteps, will not fabricate a challenge that would not otherwise be there. He did not ask to accompany Aga-Narim on this journey, would not have insisted on it; his father drew his own lots, to see which of his family would bear witness, and pulled Samal’s name out. Which is as it should be.
As the day moves on, they near the end of the plain. The men do not speed their pace, but it’s clear from their gait that their path is easier, as the salt crust becomes a dusty layer, thinning by the miles, and the ground beneath drier. The stitched leather sandals on his feet did not protect him from the harsh grain of the salt, and do not now prevent the growing heat from burning through to his skin. By the time the sun is nearly set behind them, and the sky before them the dark purple of old blood, he is fighting to keep his legs moving, the challenge of pain forgotten. The moments have blurred, one into the other, until all he is sure of, all he can define, is his own passage through.
Aga-Narim reaches the first actual hill of the steppes, the thinnest layer of grass sparse across the crown, and stops. A few of the men, heads bowed and numb by the day’s march, don’t notice this, and continue on down the far side until their companions call them back. Others reach the first hint of an incline and fall to their knees, too tired to weep at the relief the halt brings. Samal does neither, choosing instead to walk until he is beside Aga-Narim, standing tall (enjoying the burning spreading up and down his legs and back as he straightens to his full height), and looks off into the distance, trying to mimic the genuine and profound searching he sees on the older man’s face. Aga-Narim does not notice him, not at first, and does not acknowledge him as he turns his back on the steppes and sets to making camp for the night.
There are nine of them, total: seven witnesses from the tribe, all men, all fathers of at least 3 children (at least one male), owners of their own horses but not yet elders, bearing the Aba honorific to their names but not yet Aga; there is Samal, the witness of the Kigan’s own blood (whose own honorific awaits with his father’s death, hopefully many years hence); and Aga-Narim himself, who will likely die tomorrow, his success judged not in the details of the outcome but in the purity of the path he takes to get there. He must make his own preparations tonight, but first there is food, and warmth, and helping those who have worn themselves too thin today to care for themselves tonight. Samal follows him to help set up the camp.
While Aga-Narim begins laying out bedrolls and sorting through the food they have brought, Samal sets to lighting a fire. Aga-Narim would normally handle this, but until the rite is completed the following day, he can touch neither fire nor water; he has brought a thin nectar in his water skin, and will sleep far from the rest of them and the fire they’ll use to keep warm. Fire and water are agents of purity, though which both order and chaos reach their full measure, and Aga-Narim cannot allow himself to be nourished by either until his fate is decided.
Samal says the proper prayers as he mixes the dried horse dung they’ve brought with some of the picked green grass from the hill, to sweeten the scent, and concludes his prayers as he strikes the flint, waiting for a spark to catch. The wind is still high, though, and no sparks fall close enough to light the fuel. He crouches lower, creating a small indent on the side, trying to cast a spark into its slightly wind-guarded center, and then the cramps hit. Both legs give out, bringing him crashing to the ground, then spasm straight, kicking the pile of fuel apart, scattering most of it to the wind.
The pain has been patient, attacked when he thought himself safe, and finally won.
He feels hands, holding him down, and others going to work on the muscles in his legs. The pain is even worse now, almost beyond measuring, as strong fingers dig into the burning knots that, for now, have become the definition of the beginning and end of his world. The knots fight back, the spasms worsening, and he’s finally overwhelmed for a moment, or three, passing out from the intensity of the pain.
When his consciousness returns, dust slowly falling away from his mind, allowing him to parse the world around him again, the pain is still there, rippling through his thighs and calves, but has mellowed to a steady background, allowing room in the foreground for him to think. He stirs, raising his head weakly and opening his eyes. There is the chaotic flicker of flames off to the side, far enough away that his eyes don’t have to adapt to the small, pulsing light it gives.
He tries to speak, but his lips, mouth and throat are too dry, and won’t work properly. There is suddenly a hand at the back of his neck, helping to support his slightly-raised head, and then the nozzle of a water skin at his lips. He opens, heart racing a bit at the expectation of cool, crisp water about to come, beginning the process of restoring him…and nearly gags as a liquid thicker than water, sweet and clinging, pours out over his lips instead.
He is allowed only a mouthful before the skin is pulled away, and after recovering from the initial shock, finds that the nectar helps almost as much as the expected water would have. After a moment, he is able to raise himself up further, supporting his weight on his folded elbows, and whispers a question as he looks around to see where he is now.
He can see the small fire in the distance, maybe fifty yards away, the shapes of men highlighted around it. They are not speaking–it’s quiet enough to hear the dull crackle of burning manure even at this distance. He can see the stars overhead, clear and brilliant, filling the sky, except for a small dark area to his side, a shape, answering him.
“Your legs cramped. Too much, too far in the heat. How do you feel?”
He can hear genuine concern in Aga-Narim’s voice, which is a new thing. Before now, Aga-Narim has rarely spoken to him, and then only in formal occasions as the chief’s son, or to tell him to move out of the way, as a child.
“Can you stand?”
Samal pushes himself to a sitting position, stretching his legs out before him, making sure that they will respond to his intentions, then slowly bending them, bringing them under him, and rising to his feet. There is pain, and a surprising amount of weakness; his left leg nearly buckles, and he totters on the edge of balance, but is able to hold himself firm, and finally is standing, happier than he would like to admit at being able to accomplish what should be such a simple task.
“Good. Stay up, and walk a bit, or your legs will grow cold and stiff, and you’ll be in even worse shape tomorrow.”
Samal begins to tentatively move about, focusing on the basic act of placing one foot in front of the other. He stays near to Aga-Narim, not yet venturing over to the other men and the fire, not until he’s sure of his own mobility…and until he can find out why Aga-Narim has brought him over here, to his camp, away from the group.
“Why am I here?”
To Aga-Narim’s credit, he makes no joke, and answers Samal directly.
“When the cramps hit, the fuel for the fire was scattered. Aba-Binet decided it was a ‘sign’.” Samal can hear the disgust in Aga-Narim’s voice. Binet is not much liked in his father’s tribe. He has earned the Aba honorific, but only barely: he owns what is technically a horse, but only children can ride it, and only then if they’re gentle. There’s certainly no risk that it will ever help Binet achieve the Aga honorific, which requires a full stable, born of a strong bloodline of at least three generations. Were he a better man, this wouldn’t be cause for the tone in Aga-Narim’s voice (one that Samal has heard often when Binet’s name has been mentioned, even from his father). Each man is entrusted to do what he can with what he is given, and good men have done great things with less. But Binet is a gentle fanatic, finding “signs” in every inconsequential event in the course of a day, placing more faith in how a random shadow or a spilled cup reveals the true will of Fire and Water than he does in the other members of his tribe, and even–on a few memorable occasions–his Kigan’s will. He would not have been any man’s choice to accompany Aga-Narim as a witness to this rite, but no man chose him. It was chance, or the purpose of purity (depending on the devoutness of the observer) that chose him, and now he is here, fulfilling his role.
“He believes that the Fire has abandoned you, and thus you are to join me in tomorrow’s rite. The other Abas were too weak to argue, and my voice is no longer heard by them.”
It takes a moment for the meaning of this to sink in. Samal is the Kigan’s heir, and his role in this journey was supposed to be ceremonial, serving as a witness to the events but nothing more. If he is to join Aga-Narim tomorrow, as a participant…he will die. There is no debating this: Aga-Narim will die, is expected by all (including himself) to die, and he is a full-grown man, a bound warrior and master of the Kigan’s stables. Samal is barely thirteen, skinny and still somewhat awkward in his movements as his body grows, sometimes seemingly overnight.
He holds his tongue before stammering any more; he knows the answers to the questions he’s trying to ask, even before they make it from his mind to his lips. Yes, Binet has the authority to do this…the seven Abas chosen as witnesses are the final word, what they see and what they say they see is what happens, their observations defining the moment. That is why the lottery is used, selecting them at random, and only from the Aba ranks–worthy of respect, but without a formal vote in the tribal council, and so hopefully without hidden agendas to pursue. Once they, as a group, decided that he was outcast and a participant in the rite, there is no argument to be made.
He is going to die. The words mean nothing to him, echoing off the sudden vast emptiness and shadow within him. He reaches for the ground below him to steady himself, and finds he is still standing, somehow. His head feels as though it is starting to drift off and away…though maybe it’s all a matter of perception, maybe he is still and everything else is falling away.
“I…what do I do?”
He has never spoken so openly, not since he was very young, and asking his mother this or that. He is unable to help himself, though; embarrassment and weakness have ceased to be concerns. While he cannot yet bring himself to believe that he will die tomorrow–rather, he is beginning to believe that those words are true, he is just unable to understand what they mean anymore, he might as well open his mouth and howl at the moon, for all the sense it makes to him now–he finds a quick and dramatic shift in priorities happening…embarrassment, weakness, pride…these are silly notions, when offered in alternative to truth, and life.
“You can eat this,” Aga-Narim tosses him a small object, an oat-cake, uncooked, mixed with honey, “and get to sleep.”
“No. If you cannot do something as simple as sleep, even in the face of what comes in the morning, then nothing I could say tonight would make any difference.”
Samal begins to gnaw on the oat-cake, noting that Aga-Narim is eating one himself, and realizes that this is one of the first stages of the rite. Nectar to drink, instead of water, and a meal to eat that’s been untouched by both fire and water. In spite of himself, and the steadfast refusal of his mind to accept that this is happening, to even place value or meaning on the words, he feels a deeper unthinking part of him beginning to accept what’s to come…or, at least, what has already come to pass. The small details of the night before—no fire, no water, physically separate from everyone else–are steps forward, small but inarguable. He may try to deny what lies at the end of the path, but cannot deny the steps his feet have already made.
A certain boldness begins to rise in him. He has always been deferential to Aga-Narim, and with good reason. Beyond the simple protocol of child (regardless of his blood) to one with Aga before his name, and the obvious and constant respect that his own father holds Aga-Narim in…Aga-Narim is an imposing man. Tall, broad shoulders, but possessing a surprising agility, even the most mundane efforts combined of movements far more quick and subtle than you could expect. Since first earning his vote on the tribal council (nearly 20 years ago, at a very young age, the youngest in many generations), he has been the Kigan’s most important supporter, providing Samal’s father with consistent advice, unfailing loyalty, and an honor none would dare challenge. Samal has never been scared of him, not specifically that, but he had realized a long time ago that Aga-Narim was worthy of great respect, had earned every bit of it, and was not to be taken lightly. Not by the Kigan, not by any of the other elders, and certainly not by an awkward boy.
And now…now, Samal is just hours away from joining Aga-Narim in certain death, shortly after the next sunrise. He is no less worthy of respect—if anything, his choice, this rite, has increased what he is due–but they share something now, and Samal thinks–is not completely sure, but thinks–that he has heard some respect back from Aga-Narim since waking, in the words he’s used and the way he’s used them.
And he is emboldened to ask a question he–and many others–have wanted to ask.
“Why? Are you doing this?”
Only Samal’s father knows the answer–the Kigan must approve and bless any request of purification, especially one so dire, and rare–this is the first time the rite has been attempted since the time of Samal’s father’s grandfather–and in more mundane requests, like a burning or aid with new irrigation lines, there’s no need for secrecy, no point to it. On this occasion, though–as those who came before him did–the Kigan has kept Aga-Narim’s reasons for seeking the rite to himself, allowing him to pursue his fate without public discussion or debate. And no one has been able to bring themselves to ask Aga-Narim the question, until tonight. Samal is hoping that Aga-Narim will decide that the two of them are now joined, together on the far side of the veil, already in the process of passing through.
He cannot see Aga-Narim’s face in the starlight, despite their multitudes, and so does not know the reason he hesitates before speaking…but after some time, he does speak, a full speech, one he has clearly given to himself, in his own mind, many times before.
“Ashadi. I know, it should be more dramatic. A rift between your father and me, and this is his way to get rid of me. Or some secret, horrible flaw, making me hideous if anyone should find out, so best to die alone, quickly, far from the tribe. But a wife dy–…dying? That’s cause to drink, or take up new mistresses, unless I’d been the one to kill her, and wrongly so.
“Until today I had prayed that you would someday grow to find someone like her for yourself. You’d have to marry outside the tribe…all the girls around you are vapid and mindless.
“She was the best part of me. Every bit of strength I’ve given your father through the years came first from her. She took every good part of me with her when she died. Life is still–is always worth living. But I’m not. All that’s left in me is impure, incomplete. My sons are their own, my daughters are married. If I can’t find some way to purify what’s left of me, then the impurity that remains should not be.”
Samal pauses only a moment before asking the real question, the one lying at the heart of everything Aga-Narim has just said.
“Do you want to die?”
“…I don’t know.
“I don’t think so.
“I don’t think it matters.
“Good. Drink of this once more, and then sleep. I’ll wake you before the sun.”
Aga-Narim takes a short pull of the nectar from the skin, then passes it to Samal, who does likewise. Then they lay, close together, preserving a small amount of shared heat, trying to rest as much as they can in the time they have left. He thinks that sleep will be a long time coming, but the exertions of the day’s march were great, the needs of his body overwhelming the growing fear in his head and his heart, and soon he is breathing slowly, deeply.
Samal feels a shaking, light at first, then harder. He stirs, opening his eyes and sitting up. The sun is still down, but he can see a thin band of gold rimming the outline of the steppes to the east. It is cold, and he is immediately shivering.
“Get up and move. See how your legs are.”
Aga-Narim is already up and moving around, and Samal rises to join him, wrapping his arms tightly around his chest. His legs ache deeply, but they work, responding to his commands, and he knows that with a bit more work they’ll be fine, he’ll be fine, for whatever is to come.
“Where is the fire?” he asks, and then remembers, all of it, sweeping in upon him in a sudden gust, and he freezes in place. Aga-Narim sees this, and doesn’t bother to answer, instead walking over and handing him the nectar-filled skin and another oat-cake.
“Here. Break your fast. I’ll tell you what I know.”
Samal accepts the food and drink and tries to keep moving. He feels a very strong urge to stop, to lay back down and close his eyes, denying what’s happened and what is to come with the child-like simplicity of pulling the blanket over his head, pretending it doesn’t exist. But he’s old enough to realize that it’s too late for that. His stomach contracts, and it’s an effort to choke down the mixture of oats and honey, but he does so, one small piece at a time. His throat threatens to reject the sweet nectar, but he drinks anyway.
“All I know of this is what I’ve read. Even that is second-hand, the record of the witnesses. There has been no living Mashir in nearly five hundred years. All I could find of him is his name, Mashir-Natal. If he wrote anything of how he survived and tamed the Konjamal, it’s been lost.”
“But it has happened before?”
“Yes, twice. Mashir-Natal, and another, well before him. That first Mashir…even his name is gone now.”
“And everyone else who has tried…”
“Killed by the beast. All of them.”
“…Well. What do we do?”
“I’ve been thinking on that since last night. I hadn’t planned for anything for myself. Surviving this wasn’t the point. You’ve made this a…challenge.”
“I could ask Binet to take my place, if that would help.”
Aga-Narim chuckles, shaking his head. He is smiling, too, perhaps glad that, even now, Samal is able to make a joke. He has not frozen yet, not completely, and should the worst happen today–as it likely will–perhaps the boy will at least acquit himself well.
“I’ve read of everything they tried. And I don’t think any of it matters. The point is not what we do. It’s how we do it. It is in our intent that we will be judged, not our actions.” Samal notices that he doesn’t bother adding that none of what those who’ve come before them tried matters anyway: they were all killed by the Konjamal. And while Aga-Narim had come here for his own reasons, and surviving in purified glory was not among them, Samal is less interested in the purity of the rite than he is in finding himself still alive when it is done.
“Where will the Konjamal come from?”
“I don’t know. No one has tracked them, or even tried to. This land is no good for grazing, and no tribe has ever tried to expand this far east. We don’t know where they live, if they have a den or just roam the steppes. Nor do I know what will draw it here, to us, nor even what will focus it on us, instead of them.” Aga-Narim nods his head towards the hill in the distance where the witnesses are only just starting to rise.
“So what do we do?”
“We walk.” Aga-Narim points east, further into the steppes. “They will follow us at a distance, close enough to see and hear.
“And…if the accounts are true, it will come for us. Sooner rather than later.”
“So what do we do then?”
“You will stay behind me. You cannot run. If you do, that is what they will tell, and not even your own father will be able to welcome you home. Not to mention, if the Konjamal is like any other beast that hunts, it will immediately give chase.
“No, you will stay behind me. And when I fall, you will fall beside me. There is no history to tell what happens if two attempt this…it has likely never happened before. I am hoping that it will focus on me, and when I fall, it will go, leaving you behind with me, Aba-Binet’s ‘signs’ that you are an equal participant be damned.”
“…That’s it? That’s the plan?”
“Save you have something better.”‘ Aga-Narim walks to Samal until they are face to face, placing his hands on the boy’s arms, looking him directly in the eyes.
“Understand this, if nothing else: there is no ‘winning’ today. A small band of warriors, fully bound, might be able to kill a Konjamal, if the stories of its prowess are to be believed. And you know that would be a worse thing than running and living the rest of our days in exile. Besides, we are neither enough to challenge it, nor bound in arms.
“My best hope now is to die clean, and find a way for that death to free you to return home, and live, and become Kigan when your father passes the veil.
“Do you understand? There is no purity in trying to fight and dying with me. You would undo my last good act.”
It is not hard for Samal to agree. He is a fighter, a good one; despite the awkwardness that has accompanied the growth of his body, he can best most of the boys his age, and many older and bigger than him. His own first sword hangs now in his family’s tent, alongside those of his uncles and cousins. But despite this, he is also still a boy, and wants more than anything else–more than the pride of winning in battle, more even than purity–to live until he’s no longer a boy. There is a small twinge of shame at the thought of feigning death in order to survive, and a slightly greater one at the idea of using the death of his father’s friend to hide his escape…but he will do as Aga-Narim asks.
“Good.” He releases the boy’s arms, and kneels to begin to gather the few items he’s brought with him, then pauses and looks back at Samal.
“There is one more thing I would have you promise me. If you live, do not hold what happens today against Aba-Binet.” The disgust Samal has heard before when Aga-Narim has said the man’s name and honorific is not there now. “He is weak, and clings to signs and his beliefs like an old woman. But he is not bad. He is not evil. What he has done, he believes to be right. That can be misguided, and even dangerous, without strong hands to guide those who hear him. But it is not a bad thing, of itself.”
This is harder for Samal to take. He has given little thought to the Aba whose verdict the night before has trapped him in this, beyond the first flare of anger when Aga-Narim told him. Since, he has been focused on accepting what has happened, and wondering if there will be an after during which he can afford to reflect on things. But as he considers this request, he finds a surprisingly deep well of anger. It appears to be for the Aba, a man who has no vote in the council, whose fanaticism would have gone unheeded under any other circumstances. But what has happened, and whatever will, is not his fault. Samal may as well blame the salt plains, for the moisture they robbed of him in his passing yesterday, leading to the cramps which lesser men read as a sign. Or himself, for falling in such a way that his spasming legs struck the fuel for the fire, and not just slightly to either side. Or even his father, for having picked Samal’s token from the box, instead of one belonging to one of his uncles, or cousins.
Samal does not believe for a second that the Fire rejected him, that there is any greater fate playing out today…but neither can he find a home for blame. His anger is at the unfolding world, and its potential for cruel outcomes. He has known this, in his mind, in his lessons, since he was very little, but only now, standing here on this hill, is he beginning to feel its impact. Mysticism aside, there is truth in the battle between order and chaos, and neither is good and neither is bad. The world is defined as each sees it, and acts upon it. Aba-Binet has defined what is to come today; it is up to Samal to determine how he will face it, nothing more.
“Okay. Good. The sun is nearly up; let’s make ready.”
Aga-Narim finishes gathering his skin of nectar and the small pouch of un-fired oatcakes, and then Samal allows him to check him over, as though he were a much younger boy, understanding the man’s need to assure himself that he has done all he can to prepare Samal to survive today, no matter how small the detail. Then he stands and waves one arm at the other camp; someone there–not Aba-Binet, though all Samal can make out at this distance, in the glare of the freshly-risen sun, is long brown hair, tied back in a queue, which could be any of them–waves back.
“Come. Let’s go.”
Samal allows Aga-Narim to take the lead, pacing him from behind. They head directly east, towards the sun, squinting against its early light, focusing on the ground and only occasionally glancing up in the bright distance. The steppes rise slowly, rolling hills of similar height for miles before they begin to rise into the mountains further on. The sun is warming overhead, sweat starting to flow, coating him, oiling his movements, and his legs no longer hurt. The ground is firm but not hard, making for easy travel on foot, and after a short while he falls into a steady rhythm, his eyes focused on Aga-Narim’s feet, placing his own one after the other, until an almost hypnotic trance falls over him. He finds his mind is loose, disconnected, unable to focus on any one thing, like when he is trying to fall asleep at night, one thought leading into the next with no possible connection between them beyond their source.
His mind follows this winding trail, unsure of where it will land next and uncaring, until a new thought occurs to him, one unexpected. It is not unusual, does not send shivers down his spine, or sound as though a voice from outside has spoken it to him. It is his own thought, as natural as if someone had asked him where his boots were, and while he had not been thinking of them prior to the question, at the moment of asking, he knows where had left them.
As he knows, now, that the Konjamal is just ahead of them and to the right, in the hollow between two hills, laying in wait for them.
The thought is so natural that, for a few moments, he continues to walk, following Aga-Narim, unaware of how much things have changed. His mind moves on from the thought, meandering as it had before the thought, thinking that these hills with their dips and rises remind him of the blankets on his bed when he is laying there, just after waking, the sun from the window casting shadows across the surface much like those he can see now, just larger, and the hills here are green with new grass, while his blankets at home are brown and red, which is similar, and probably how this place looks in the fall, when the nights are too cold and the days too hot to support their delicate growth…
And then he stops, and looks up, and calls out to Aga-Narim, the words incidental, as all he wants to do is stop, and trace down the thought that is now returning to his mind.
“What is it, Samal?”
“The Konjamal…it is ahead of us, maybe two hundred yards, slightly to the south.”
Aga-Narim’s head whips around, looking to the south-east, falling automatically into a fighting crouch, despite his admonishments to the boy earlier that there is no point in combat, in doing anything other than submitting.
“Where? I don’t see anything.”
“It’s there,” and the boy points out in the direction of the beast, knowing that it’s not visible to the eye, just to his mind. And as he thinks longer on it, like his shoes in another room, he can see more and more details, as though they were already in his mind, to be recalled easily at a later moment.
“It’s a male. It is tired. It–he–hunted all night, and found nothing, and can smell us, and is still hungry, but would be glad to let us pass by if he can continue to sleep. But if we come too close, he will rise and seek us out.”
Aga-Narim continues to look in the direction Samal is pointing for a few moments longer, and then the full import of what the boy is saying occurs to him, and he turns slowly back to Samal, eyes wide.
“How do you know this?”
“I don’t know.” It is a simple answer, but the most honest. “I just do. The same way I would be able to answer you if you asked me how many rooms are in my father’s tent. It’s already here, in my head.”
Aga-Narim is a great man, given to both inspiring speeches in the council, and much briefer words of wisdom to his father and others when alone with them. Words fail him now. He had entered this rite, weeks ago petitioning the Kigan for the right to attempt this or die trying, finally purified. He is not a particularly devout man, but this entire venture has been an act of faith, personal if not in something beyond himself. For the last twelve hours, since Aba-Binet’s pronouncement, he has attempted to bring his mind back to full wakefulness, unwilling to accept that his friend’s son would accompany him to his own death, trying vainly to find a strategy that will allow the boy to live. He has been disgusted by himself, and the feeble plan he finally settled upon, and is determined that his final act will be to make sure the boy falls unhurt beside him, and then to crawl over him, shielding the boy with his own dying body, making sure that the Konjamal will only get to the boy after it has torn his own flesh to pieces, and hoping that whatever mystic truth may exist in this rite will find his act pure enough to content the beast with his death, and spare the boy.
He does not know what to think now. There is no way to explain what the boy is telling him, nor to accept it. He hears no delusion in the boy’s voice…and makes a quick, surprising (at least to himself) decision.
“Take me to it.” He turns to the side, allowing Samal to take the lead.
Samal begins to walk again, towards where he knows the Konjamal to be waiting, with Aga-Narim following closely behind. As they get closer, he knows that the beast is realizing their approach, that they will not pass it by, and it gets to its feet, stretching in the early-morning sun. Its stomach is empty, and rumbles, but though it has not fed in the last week starvation is still a long way off. Its kind are accustomed to going great lengths of time without food, conserving themselves until prey happens close, and then feasting. There are no other predators to threaten whatever food may enter its domain…his kind roam far and wide, clearly knowing where their own lands end and their neighbors’ begin. Above all, they are patient, accepting what comes to them with no fear that it will ever not…and should it not, there is no fear in what may come after.
Samal rises the last hill before where the beast awaits, and there, in the small drop between this hill and the next, it stands, waiting for them. Samal’s heart catches, as does his breath: the beast is bigger than he could have imagined, far larger in presence than it is in his mind. Taller and broader than any of his father’s horses, with a shorter head, longer tail, and legs curled and primed for leaping, rather than walking and pulling. Its color is a deep, dark red, turned to a blood-bruise in parts where the shadows fall upon it.
It stares at them, fully aware of them, the muscles in its legs and neck primed, shifting slightly, its claws seeking greater purchase in the turf.
Aga-Narim stands beside Samal, and is undone by the sight of the beast. All that he has lost, that drove him here, and the uneven juggling of his mind the last day and night between empty faith and determined thought, and then this new oddness that he has still not been able to parse…it all comes undone, and he reacts from a deep place, of loss and anger and the need to protect those near to him that he once failed to protect in the past.
He begins to run towards the Konjamal, teeth bared, arms raised, as though he would grapple with it, tear it from its place in this world and deny it the chance to upset his own. A battle cry grows from his lips as he charges, rising in volume. The beast begins to respond in kind, head tilting down, preparing for its own charge, which will easily win out over Aga-Narim’s most desperate wishes.
Samal watches this begin to unfold, unable to act initially, then seeing what will happen, and all his promises of staying quiet, staying behind, playing dead, vanish from his own mind, and he races after Aga-Narim, trying to catch up to him. And he yells too, at the top of his voice, a deep undercurrent resonating more forcefully than his young lungs have ever been able to produce before.
He sees he is too late. He sees Aga-Narim nearly past the point of recall, almost fully consumed with battle lust, and the Konjamal, just the breadth of one moment to the next away from its own attack, and he closes his eyes, driving from his mind thoughts of what will happen next, replacing it with thoughts of what he wishes would happen, Aga-Narim back by his side, the beast before them still, and still waiting. He sees this in his mind with a purity of a child, defining it, pressing with all of his will to make the world he wants the world that will be.
He hears a loud thud, the crunching of bones, and Aga-Narim’s cry is cut off suddenly. Samal braces himself for the attack that will surely now focus on him, and in the next breath is felled to the ground by a large shape.
His eyes open as he hits the ground, and in the same moment that he realizes the shape that hit him was too large to have been a clawed hoof, too small to have been the beast itself, he sees the back of Aga-Narim’s shirt, lying across his chest, and realizes that the man has been driven back, rebounded from his charge, and his flying body is what has knocked him down.
There is the warmth and wetness of blood, and Samal, again forgetting his promise, struggles to move out from underneath Aga-Narim’s body in the hopes of gaining his feet before the beast continues its attack. He is too scared, to single-minded to pursue any more of the odd knowledge about the beast he had earlier, and as he uses his arms to push off from Aga-Narim’s body, digging into the ground with his heels to pry himself free, he almost misses two very important things.
The first is that Aga-Narim is still clearly alive. There is blood, but not a lot, certainly not as much as if he had been seriously wounded–indeed, as Samal’s attention turns to this detail, he can see the broad but shallow grooves that have been cut into the man’s side–and he is groaning, semi-conscious but no worse than that.
The second is that the beast has not continued its attack. It stands where Samal last saw it, posture changed, but otherwise unmoved. As he considers this, he knows that the beast is–for lack of a better word–embarrassed. It had meant to only deflect the charging man aside, but its claws are too big and sharp to have completely avoided the damage they caused.
Samal gets to his feet, and turns the man over, kneeling near his head.
“Aga-Narim. Are you okay?”
The man’s eyes start to focus, then close in pain. He reaches one hand to his side, pulls it away when he feels the blood on it, and then lets it fall to the ground.
“How bad is it?”
“They are shallow. You’ve received worse on the practice grounds.”
“Some of my ribs are broken, too.” As if to emphasize the point, he coughs, wincing in pain as he does. “Is it gone? Does it believe us dead?” It is clear Aga-Narim has lost track of time, and how long he has been lying here. There is hope in his voice, but it is cautious, not yet prepared to fully believe.
“No.” Samal gets back to his feet, turning towards the beast, which still stands, waiting.
“How…how are you still alive, then?”
Samal does not answer him, and begins to walk towards the beast, until he has reached the bottom of the hill, and stands just a few feet away from the Konjamal. He hears Aga-Narim call out to him from behind, desperation in his voice, but no longer listens to the words. His entire attention is on the beast before him, and the strange knowledge he has of it.
“Come,” he says, motioning for it to move towards him. The animal does not move. Samal half closes his eyes, and pictures in his mind the animal approaching him, bowing its head so Samal might put his hand on the top of it.
He opens his eyes to see the animal approach him, lowering its head, waiting for Samal to place his hand on the top of it. There is perfect acceptance in its mind, as in all things, that whatever this boy should picture in his own mind is what should be, and will be.
Samal reaches out his hand and places it on the top of the Kanjamal’s head. The fur is soft, much softer than a horse, and short. He feels the animal shift slightly at his touch, but not from nerves, more in preparing itself to be able to respond to whatever might come next from the boy. Samal closes his eyes again, bows his own head, and stands there, focusing on his breathing, picturing this moment exactly as it is, trying to preserve it, affix its truth within him, and fully accept it instead of anticipating what may come next.
Overhead, though there is no cloud in the hot, blue sky, he hears a small rumbling, and then feels rain, light, clear and pure water, falling on to him and his Konjamal, cleansing them, the absolute chaos of each drop, the absolute order of its clarity, the purification of both washing over them. He tilts his head up, feeling the water falling on his face, trickling down to cover him, knowing that the Konjamal feels the same, a sweet enveloping of the perfect purity of the falling water.
From the distance, he hears the voices of the witnesses, stuttering in strength and volume, as though escaping their mouths without any intentional will.
“Mashir. Mashir. Mashir-Samal.”
He opens his eyes to find Aga-Narim approaching him, but not too closely. The man’s eyes remain on the Konjamal before him, hand at his side, wincing with every step. He finally appears content that the animal will not attack him again, at least not right now, and then turns to Samal, and slowly falls to his knees, bowing his head.
Samal also notices that, as close as he is, Aga-Narim is still dry; the rain falling from the clear blue sky is falling only on him and his Konjamal.
Samal laughs, lightly and easily.
“Get up, my friend. There’s no need to be formal.”
Aga-Narim looks up, and then slowly regains his feet, but the awe in his eyes will not go away, and it’s clear that he is standing not because he agrees with Samal, but because Samal ordered him to.
“You must tell my father what happened here. I will not be coming back with you. Not yet.” The words come from him in the same way as his understanding of his new friend, unbidden and perfect truth as he gives them voice.
“I have things to do with him. This…changes things. We must ready ourselves.” Samal turns to look back at his Konjamal, meeting its eyes with his own.
Aga-Narim looks at him, perhaps thinking to argue against this, but he cannot argue. Things have changed, more than he can possibly comprehend.
He watches the boy walk to the side of the beast, sees the beast kneel so the boy can easily slide a leg over its back, mounting it, and then straighten up to its full height.
“Tell my father I love him, and will see him soon.”
He watches the boy turn and ride off, the beast exploding across the hills with leaps and bounds that seem impossible, even more so when they pass beyond sight and all that is left is the memory of their departure, and the gentle, pure water still soaking into the ground where they had stood.