The latest from my online epic, Lore of the Underlings.
Chapter 3 continues:
The chamber’s air went heavy and damp, beading into summer sweat on what warm flesh it found. Fyryx wiped his face and noticed the feeling returned to his fingertips. He turned onto his hands and knees, then crawled like a child through the golden straw to the face of the angel-made beast. And there he sat.
“Do you remember the day, Arrowboy? The day we came to make this Keep, so, so long ago?”
The vell kept quiet and stiff as stone, its lidless eyes icy, disturbingly blank.
“We knew it was coming. For months of moons we knew, all since the Guard of the ull returned with word of a far new home, the promised land at last and hope. The Treasured talked of nothing else.
“We watched our parents ready and plan, and helped our families pack. The trip would be long and hard they said. And it was. But our lives had been hard already, ever lost in this Wilderness, so it was that many survived.
“Those of us left made a grand caravan nonetheless, winding our way from the northern wastes, climbing slowly the slopes of the Hail of Shales to the shadeless sweep of the high, flat plain. Scores of tired traveler’s carts. Teams of the strongest chevox, yoked or free, but all bearing our burdens. A small herd of boven bulls and cows. And the teeming folk, thick afoot.
“I remember Ayrie and me, riding in a creaky cart that tilted to one side. We lay in a bed of bush hay to cushion the bumps. You trotted alongside, with a smile that only a vell can smile. The warm morning sun washed our faces. So pure and bright. I’d never felt the likes of it. Even the dust in our mouths tasted good. If I close my eyes I can taste it still and see that sweet light, shining on the boys we were…
“It was on the faces of others too. The peace of a people being reborn, free to tell folklore anew. And who could deny us childish dreams? We were not prophets or ages-old sages, but nomads who’d never planted a seed. Who could foretaste the fruit of this day?
“No… I was all of seven, my brother just turned ten that spring. You, Arrowboy, you were already ancient yet acted a pup. So we played. As our columns crossed the empty plain to a distant dot, a speck in the hazy far where prey birds flew to flock, we played without a care. A game of names or ‘mock the folk’. Racing carts. A gumpod ball you chased and caught. We played as the white sun of noon sailed the sky blue, a prow of hot to plow the cool… A duel of spit. A wrestling match that always followed it (which Ayrie won each time). A round of your favorite hop-a-vell to entertain the Guard.
“Midday passed yet we ate as we rode, unwrapping cold flyrat from leaves of swamp palm, breaking off chunks of dark brickbread, downing gulps of knownot juice. Between bites, Ayrie leaned over the side of the cart and pulled up clumps of tough, musky scrubgrass, all but falling out each time. He fed them to me, then I to you from the palm of my outstretched hand.
“With the end of lunch we were sleepy and bored, so Ayrie and I both napped. Not you of course. And you had a joke — to poke our backs and bellies with the cold of your nose just as our eyes closed, nodding off.
“When we woke the crossing was well past half and the distant dot had blossomed to a misty wood, which rose on the horizon with a halo of prey birds circling high overhead. Still long away, hours thought Ayrie. With all else exhausted, but one game remained. It was Ayrie’s idea. Though we’d have to be quiet…”
Fyryx leaned forward, his lips near to Arrowborne’s ear. “Keep it secret…” he whispered. Then back he sat again, noting not a flinch on the vell’s frozen face.
“So we came to counting the folk. No one knew the number then. No one ever asked. They dared not find it different from the Semperor’s Rule of Threes, set when he chose the first Treasured ones, fathers and fathers before Ayrie and me. But you were there boy, you knew them all. And when the young Semperess herself, the beautiful Amyly, gave them the gift of a farewell song, you heard each note from her fabled lips. I know but the words:
Three thousand, three hundred, thirty-three
Heroes every one
Cast to dwell in this hellish place
To keep the blood of their people safe
Left alone to wander lost
In wastes no foe would know or brave
Hidden for some fearsome day
Three thousand, three hundred, thirty-three
Jewels in the Semperor’s vault of souls
Treasured in our hearts to hold
“It is said she sang as an angel… from childhood raised a Voyce of the Court, but enchanted the Semperor so… he fell in desperate love… and banished his first to take her as bride… What does an angel sound like, boy?…”
Fyryx snapped back with a start, having nearly slipped into dreamy sleep. “Oh, I’m sorry Ary… Arrowboy… I must have… So, the counting…
“First, the Guard. That was easy. For thirty-three there were and thirty-three there would always be. Fiercest fighters of all the known. Bravest of brave, true to the bone. One for each sector of Syland. Twenty-two bore the bounty of our oceanlands’ twin tides, sibling shores of brothers in arms never breached, whence rivers rose as blood aflow from the rim of the rugged east, running red by the stormy Syar Sea and westward down to drown in the thirsty Sea of Mer’n, deep blue but bedeviled — these gave us the outer Guard, proud soldiers of the ‘syr’. Eleven more were nobler still, warriors all of the inner ‘ull’, the sectors of secret, landlocked and walled, which held the Semperors’ city strong and ringed this wild heart, our home. Where you were born, Arrowboy.
More to come. To read this chapter from the start, click here.
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