Nemiah a Hesirion fragment.
Two gliding shadows, hot to the touch as they caressed the salt-glass sand, mingled and fused with the cooler unmoving shade of a tall Levaan Palm. The trees twisting stems marked the edges of the spreading fingers of the great Inship Desert; sun burned fingers that had long ago begun to stretch and claw their way into the cooler, ocean quenched lands of the Dol-Haalat, and here, at the north-western edge of the land of Hirad.
Dadengo, the sun, not quite halfway through his journey across the cloudless lapis lazuli ocean that served as the Haradi-Inship sky, shone as only a god could; and the heat of his love for this land would only increase as noon approached. Below, a pair of tattooed lizards danced a foot-cooling dance while keeping at least one of their rotating eyes on the interlopers.
Of the two owners of the now motionless shadows, the most immediately striking was the tall graceful woman. Poised like an ancient bronze statue, gripping in her left hand a slender yet formidable looking hunting spear tipped with a recently bloodied khenn-stone blade; unmoving, she watched the quivering desert horizon.
Her hair, the colour of rusted iron, was cropped short in the tradition of the Tingaket, and criss-crossed with finely shaven lines leaving just two long braids in front of her ears. The braids had been weighted and adorned with silver wire and salt-glass beads, some of which were fashioned into the snarling shapes of totemic animals.
She was clothed in the, again traditional Gerbohn of the Tingaket woman. A simple garment made from a long strip of intricately patterned silk wound around the waist and drawn across the breasts then wrapped about the throat. Her outfit was completed with a sheathed, bone handled knife, and a thick water-skin hanging from her hunting girdle.
Her obvious, practiced power as a warrior adding to the chance beauty of her person, she cut a stunning silhouette against the bleached desert sky.
Her companion, a young girl, so plainly her daughter that a blind man would have known it, carried nothing but the garment she wore and the overwhelming weight of her fears of what the next hours might bring.
Beside them on the glistening, burning ground was the trussed carcass of a young Kifrit, a short but stocky breed of antelope that haunted the great deserts borders, the bloody spear wound in its flank already dried in the heat. Resting against the calfs corpse and looking like its stunted sibling was a small Kifrit-skin bag, from the open top of which there gleamed the silver rim of a small bowl.
Nemiah and her mother had spent the previous two nights at the Holari-kel-Abi, a small but verdant oasis, a quarter-days walk from their village. A century before the oasis had been a regular way-station for the nomadic peoples of the southern Inship and an important stop on the now abandoned Togai Spice Road that ran from the ports at Old Bhutan on the Eastern seaboard to Al-Khetir in the West. Then, following the Corsair Wars when the great ships had been brought from Gol-Simion, the long and arduous journey overland was rejected in favour of the faster, and more profitable routes of the trade fleets. In just a few years Holari-kel-Abi, untended and forgotten, had become a shrinking puddle beneath the ruin of a stone watchtower, half-hidden beneath a tangled mass of kaup grass, rhishi vines and spindly Levaan.
Then the women had returned.
Slowly the little patch of straggly vegetation and water had been transformed into a garden. Even the stone skeleton of the watchtower had taken on an air of ancient beauty.
It was as the first sliver of light had showed on the eastern horizon that Nemiah and her mother had emerged from the tower, roused from their simple but comfortable beds of thick moss and palm fronds to a breakfast of nothing but moon-chilled water. From there they had continued their journey westward through the increasing heat of the day to arrive here at this beautiful, burning, dread, sacred place.
Nemiahs feet were sore, her legs ached from the long mornings walk, her mouth was dry and she had become breathless trying to keep up with the long but easy strides of her mother. Her mother? The last two nights had revealed more about this tall proud woman than had the thirteen years in which they had shared each others home. Her head was reeling. Just three days ago this warrior huntress standing just a hands span from her had been nothing of the sort, just a simple, quiet, loving wife to her husband, and tender patient nursemaid to Nemiah and her siblings. Then suddenly in the blink of an eye, a new creature had emerged from the soft warm comfort of her mothers frame. A creature that could find its way in the pitch dark, track and spear a nimble Kifrit - at a distance even her brothers would have been impressed by - and she could read.
Nemiahs mother could read!
Holari-kel-Abis watchtower had been built long ago. The craftsmen who had shaped the stones that so neatly interlocked to form the strong bastion of the tower itself had also shaped the monoliths and steles that where scattered amongst the ruins that surrounded the oasis. Nemiah had been led on that first day to the largest of the stones, and her mother, wiping away the wind blown sand from its face, had traced her fingertips over the rows of arrow head markings and glyphs carved by a forgotten people over half a millennia before. Then lifting her hand back to the top of the stele she had retraced the lines, this time reading aloud the words hidden within the carefully made marks.
Through her mother the stones then began to give up their accounts of a great sea borne empire. An Empire that had at one time had stretched from the edges of the frozen North to the now uncharted South, and held dominion from sunrise to sunset no matter where on the great continent of Hesirion you stood.
Nemiah heard the tales of the hero-kings of the Glass-Lion Empire and the slaying of their enemies, the defeat of whole nations, and the great lists of tribute and slaves that were taken. On the second day Nemiahs mother had led her from stone to stone, each new carving shedding light on the rise and fall of a long dead people.
One stone, inset within the wall at the base of the tower itself, told of its construction. How the stones had been brought by great oared ships from beyond The Howling Lands, then dragged overland on great sleds pulled by golden horned oxen to this place, then honed and shaped and set upon each other. And how long ago, from the very top of the tower, a great fire had blazed. A fire tended night and day, year in year out, so that it never dimmed.
The mornings journey and even the hunting of the Kifrit had been made in silence. The last hour, with her mother doing nothing but staring into the heart of the desert had also passed without a word being spoken. There had been no instruction not to speak, but Nemiah had simply known that it was expected of her. The events of the previous days had become ritualised, something sacred was taking place, and she had tried to behave accordingly.
Nemiahs stomach growled and whined like a neglected puppy and she felt ashamed.
Then the increasing heat of the morning had brought with it another surprise.
For there, at the edge of her vision, where the desert sand turned to shimmering glass and met the white hot edge of the desert sky, a group of shadowy figures moved, and slowly they came closer.
Can you hear them? her mother said suddenly.
Nemiah eyes widened.
It means She is coming, her mother said turning to Nemiah and smiling. They are her heralds, the girl-children of the Tingaket who never passed into womanhood.
Nemiah did not know who the She spoken of was, and at this precise moment did not care, she simply stared open mouthed, watching the mirage children dance and play in the rippling heat haze.
I can hear them, she said at last, her voice barely above a whisper.
And what do they say?
Her mother had crouched down, and sat on her heels, her free hand resting on her daughters arm.
they are calling my name.
She sounded astonished.
They want me to go to them
to play with them.
And do you want to?
Her mother stared down at the ground between her feet.
Nemiah paused and looked down at her mother who suddenly resembled her old soft self. Brushing her hand across her mothers hair and returning her gaze to the rippling shadows of the children, she thought for a moment.
No. I thought I did, but there is something else I must do isnt there? I can feel it pulling at me like the changing of the tide in the Bengshai River.
Her mother smiled and stood. Then leaning forward kissed her daughter gently upon her brow.
Come, we have one last thing to do before we return.
Nemiahs heart sank.
They both sat cross-legged beneath the welcome shade of the wide Levaan leaves. About them, drawn in the sand by her mother using her spears blood stained blade, was a wide crude circle. Placed carefully on the ground between them were the spear and the silver bowl along with the final contents of the skin bag. Namely, an elaborately carved long bladed knife, the like of which Nemiah had never seen before, and a heavy golden coin that she had found and presented to her mother on their last night at Holari-kel-Abi.
Once her mother was happy with the arrangement of the objects, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Then just as Nemiah thought she might have fallen into a meditative sleep, she spoke.
You will learn as you get older that truth is like a great country with disputed borders, ever changing, and wholly dependant on the person who bears witness to it, who is on the throne, and on which side of the drifting border they are standing. Some things are true. Some things become true. Others yet have always been true, and will be until the death of the world.
Her eyes opened and she fixed her daughter with a stare.
One of these last truths was told to me here in this very place by your grandmother. Your grandmother had in her turn sat here and learnt it from her mother, and her mother from her mother and so on for over a thousand generations.
Looking down at the objects she spoke with such a serious conviction that it made Nemiah tremble.
It is the great secret truth of the Tingaket women, for just as the men folk have their stories and secrets, we have ours, then with a smile, It is just that our stories are true.
With that she closed her eyes and began.
And so it was, that long ago, before the world was wrought as it is, before the rise of the Glass-Lion Kings, before even the gods of the Tingaket were born and risen to greatness, the earth beneath our feet was home to other creatures, the first born of the Gods. Some were just little gods, some not so little, and others great indeed, and there in the turmoil at the beginning of the world they fought and loved, created, destroyed and died. Others still were creatures of such might and power that they were unafraid and untouched by Death. These, my daughter, were the Parcchaizi. The great and immortal dragons that shaped the world with fire before their throats grew cold
Nemiah sighed, and her mothers voice stopped. Embarrassed, Nemiah felt the heat rise to her chest and face and she looked down. She had expected to be chided for the interruption and was surprised when her mother asked her softly.
What is it Nemiah?
I have heard this story she said without looking up.
I believe so ma Eveh Nemiah replied.
Hmm? And where do you believe you heard it?
From Hebbe. She said slowly, then looking at her mothers almost amused face, blurted.
He told me the story when he came back from his cutting last summer. He said how Tingak was born into the dark world and subdued the dragon kings and used their fire to defeat his enemies, and to shape the world to his will and
Her mother held up a hand stopping Nemiahs abridgement of Hebbes tale, and causing her daughter to blush and drop her eyes once more.
It would seem to me, she said after a moments silence. ...that the secret stories of men, as foolish as they might be, would remain more of a secret if they were told to someone other than men.
Nemiah would normally have laughed at he mothers joke, but the fear that had been with her since they had set out on this journey, a fear that had become swollen as the silent morning had passed, had transformed into a choking lump in her throat. Instead she just raised her face to look at her mother, tears welling in her bright eyes but not yet spilling, and asked quietly.
Am I to take the cutting?
Her mother, so prepared to ease her daughter into womanhood through the rituals that had been passed down from each generation of Tingaket woman to the next, had been shocked by the question.
Tears were now loose on Nemiahs cheeks and she reached over to grasp her mothers hands imploringly.
Its just that Hebbe and Mischa said
Nemiah, said her mother, shaking off her daughters grip and leaning over to stroke her distraught face.
So that is what this has been about. You have been listening to your brothers teasing again
Sighing with relief, and letting out a little laugh, she took Nemiahs trembling fingers into her hands.
I had wondered why you had been so quiet at the oasis, so distracted.
Then looking long into her daughters eyes she spoke.
there will be no cutting for you. We are fortunate that the men of the Tingaket like their women whole
But the Farouk
The Farouk are a godless, foul, and barbaric people and as such have been hounded and chased to huddle by the Togai Sea by our people. It is true they treat their women worse than they treat their animals, and it is also true that our men once prayed in their temples and did as they did, but we have been sundered from the Farouk for over five hundred years. We and our men are not the Farouk. She shook her daughters hands in encouragement.
She had interrupted her daughter more sternly than she had wished and the shock showed on Nemiahs face.
No ma Eveh
That is right, and so there will be no cutting, not today nor any other day, not for you or any other daughter of the Tingaket. And as to your brothers story of Tingaks making of the world, you can forget that also. For the story I will tell you today will be the truth, a truth about who you are, and one you will tell your own daughters one day.
Then letting go of Nemiahs hand and closing her eyes once more she asked.
May I continue?
Yes ma Eveh.
Nemiahs sense of relief was so great she didnt know whether to laugh or cry all the more, she had been in fear of her brothers story of the mutilation of the Farouk women for weeks now, ever since she had become aware that this ritual journey approached. But he had lied.
He had become a man last summer having been taken to the mountain hunting grounds to the south of Hirad and there been circumcised.
Still sore from his ordeal he had then sat around the campfires of the hunting party and heard the various stories that the men told each other on such occasions. Some had been tales of the old heroes of the tribe, others about the ancient wisdom of the Tingaket hunters. Some had been the secret tales of the men, and here he had heard the tale of Tingak and the Birth of the World as the men tell it. He had heard the stories of Belthusa and the Dream Wine, The Monkey and the Crocodile King, and The City of the Jadebird.
Then as the night wore on, and the honey beer brought to the hunt by the older men began to take effect, he had begun to hear the more vulgar tales and jokes of the Tingaket men. Tokemesh the Fool and his New Bride, What Hitanni Saw and the frightening Ngagi and the woman with Teeth Below.
He had returned home, uncomfortable but proud to be considered a man, to torment his sister with yet other tales he had heard, tales of the Farouk and the suffering of their women. He would pay for that twice no doubt, once at the hands of his mother and again when his sister had the tranquility of mind to pursue her own appropriate and delicious revenge.
Yet as the day wore on Nemiah forgot all about her brother, and became enraptured by the tale her mother told. The story of a goddess named Litteveh, The Great Mother. A goddess who was born from the heat at the heart of the world, her beauty forged like a blade that cut a swathe through the ranks of the gods and dragon-kings alike, until they could not help but fight for, and over her.
Now some say that the dragons did not die, that some still sleep beneath the world, and it is their writhing dreams of the goddess that cause the sliding lands and the shaking of the earth. Others, many sailors from the southern seas among them, still maintain that they continue to walk the earth far to the south beyond the haunted isles and the Howling Lands. Yet these are not the true dragons of the beginning of the world, merely the blind and unthinking whelps of dragons and other beasts of the great dark, and bear little likeness to their sires of old, for the Dragon-Kings were great creatures indeed.
And as her mothers voice swept around her and over her, Nemiah sat wide eyed, and she heard how the goddess one day saw a high king of the great Dragons kill one of the little gods over the cooling sea, and how he ate its heart, revealing the secret of their immortality. She heard how the goddess set her snares, turning Dragon-King against Dragon-King one by one, luring them to their deaths with her beauty and at last feeding on their hearts herself until just one remained, the most powerful lord of the skies, the great and terrible Bessat.
And so, as immortal king and queen they ruled over the burning earth and were worshipped by beasts and gods alike.
But even Immortals grow weary of the world, and Bessat, kinless, the last of the great Dragon-Kings, one day slipped away and left Litteveh to herself.
Her grief was great, too great; a wracking endless pain growing inside her. And she too wanted to leave the world behind; seeking death. But leave it she could not, for she had fed upon the hearts of the last immortals, and though she succeeded in destroying her body, her soul lived on, and she would find herself reborn, again and again and again.
Nemiahs mother opened her eyes and looked at her daughter.
A wise old woman of our people once said that some things leave their life and enter into death, some things simply stop living
and yet there are others that will choose to become something else still. Litteveh it would seem was just such a thing.
Yet each time she was reborn she would appear in a different form, always remembering the time before. Sometimes she would live for many years before remembering, other times she would recall everything from the start; but always she would be reborn.
And so one day, to help her remember, she walked into the drying desert and came to the shade of a Levaan Palm, and here,
right here, on this very spot, so it is told, she created the Daneshi. Women in her likeness, who are here to remind her, preserve and serve her, serving no other. And even though they have mingled with the men of the earth and sit beneath their mens idols and their many temples raised up to honour the younger gods, the Daneshi remain true to Litteveh.
A look of dawning realisation passed over Nemiahs face and her mother nodded.
That is our secret truth my daughter. For the women of the Tingaket are the daughters of the Daneshi. And though other men and women in the lands of the world know the Goddess, some of them in the south as Nett-hamesh; some to the north as Allder, and Shorae, she is and always will be Litteveh, The Great Mother, and we were made by her to serve her.
you have dragons blood in your veins and your soul has walked this earth many times before. For just as Littevehs soul is reborn and reborn again, so are the souls of the Daneshi passed from one woman to another. It is why we later feel the weight of the years so greatly. For our immortal souls are burdened with the suffering and pains of a thousand lives, and the heart rending grief of a Goddess.
Nemiah thought about it for a moment and she knew in her heart it was true, and yet she had a question.
But what of our men? Do not they have a soul?
Her mother nodded, smiling sadly.
Yes, they have souls, just as all creatures do, but a mans soul does not pass from one to another, but is taken into true death and sees not the earth again, and each newborn man-child is granted his soul afresh.
Some say that this is why they act like children throughout their lives; because their souls are so young.
Again Nemiah saw the sense in this and, suddenly felt a wellspring of feeling within her as she realised the enormity of the secret, that and the burden that it brought with it. For each woman who heard the story would then never tell it again, not until the day she passed it on to her own daughters.
Come now, her mother said and reached behind her for the water-skin slung at her back."
Dadengo has neared his journeys end for today and we still have to make it back to the watchtower; but first I must show you something.
Unstopping the water-skin, she poured some into the silver bowl. Then offering it to her daughter she urged.
Take another look
Her mother had done this before. That had been on their first night at Holari-ken-Abi, and she had shown Nemiah her reflection in the moon-lit water held by the beautiful silver bowl. When asked what she saw she had complained to her mother that her hair was patchy where the Henna had not taken and that she didnt like her nose. It had been the reflections of a young girl caught up in the worries of her friends about their hair and their fears that the village boys would not find them attractive enough at the high summer festival. Her mother had laughed and drained the bowl and dried it before placing it back in the Kifrit-skin bag.
This time as Nemiah looked into the rippling water she saw only the strong features of her mother showing through her thinning face and the eyes of a huntress, and behind the eyes. With a start she gasped a name
Night had fallen and Peluma, the moon, bathed the desert in her gentle half-light as Nemiah and her mother approached the ancient stones that guarded the oasis. For more than half a candle mark they had heard the sounds of music and laughter curling over the desert air towards them. Then suddenly, passing over the gentle ridge of a low dune they could see the flickering shadows of dancing figures in the night, for someone had lit a great fire in the top of the watchtower.
That night Nemiah joined in the dancing of the Tingaket women as they celebrated the latest addition to their covenant with the goddess. And there among the fires of the Daneshi, and through the haze brought on by the flowing Herap wine, Nemiah swore she caught a glimpse of a woman she has never seen at the village. Nor the river-market near the Port Roads. A woman built like her warrior-poised mother, and with a face of a goddess, a goddess who killed the last great dragons
and she smiled.