The Shield – Part 1

This is a chapter that was moved to book II. I’m still figuring out where it will go, but it takes place about a year after the events of The Patience of Darkfall. The Omruk are reclusive folk who have adapted to life near, and often in, water. The precise nature of their “new lords” is not clear, even to the Omruk, but their power and the fear they inspire, are unmistakeable.


The Great Shield, Land of Terrors,

Domain of the Njaphara,

Days of the Warm Lake,

Fifth Year of the Tenth Age of Watching

Yeyakam ari’aling — the white berry. A thing which grows where nothing should grow, she thought. Haawe bent down to clear the snow away from the small bush, careful not to touch the thorns. This is a plant that knows how to defend itself.

She drew a pair of small bone sheers and cut carefully at its base.

“We are close,” she said, loudly, so that her acolytes could hear her over the whipping wind.

Before leaving her home, she had taken the sheers to Wak’wakaikaka, whose name means Cutting Mouse, and asked him to sharpen the bone and replace the leather tension straps. It had seemed an extravagant bit of preparation at the time, a way, perhaps to delay the journey, but now she was glad. With dull sheers, and her bony, aching fingers, she would almost certainly slip, and earn herself a prick from the long nettles surrounding the white berry. Death would be slow, but paralysis would be instant. She would hardly have to time to instruct her acolytes to leave her body in the snow and carry on.

When the nettles and berries were trimmed, safely tucked away in their tightly sewn pouches, she turned to Ilwanil, whose name means Handsome Cat. Of all her acolytes, he was the most seasoned — both in worship and battle. For his victories against the Yakakeati, Ilwanil had earned the right to carry a themiki blade staff and to learn its deadly use.

But even Ilwanil, this redoubtable warrior who had fought and killed enemy Omruk beneath ice cold waters, hundreds of feet deep — even he now shuddered in the blowing snow and icy winds of the Great Shield.

“This is the highest point of the pass,” Haawe told him. “Now we descend, into the valley of the bear and the land of terrors.”

“Terrors, I don’t mind, holy mother,” he answered. “I can fight terrors. But this icy wind has no skull to smash, and the cold has no blood for me to spill.”

Like the white berry, Ilwanil was nearly invisible against the snowy peaks of the Great Shield, clad in bone and bleached hide. Invisible, but not silent; his relentless shivering set the bones of his mail to a steady rattle.

“I fear we will soon pine for the hours when a bitter wind was our only foe,” she said. “But let us go down.”

“Have you ever been beyond the Great Shield, Holy Mother?” asked Tikti, whose name means fire, but who, like the others, now seemed more like ice.

“Only my sight has been beyond the Shield,” Haawe answered, holding onto his shoulder as her feet found the rocky ledge beneath the snows.

“Honor us, Holy Mother” said Tikti. “Tell us what you saw.”

“I saw trees taller than three score of Omruk men,” she said. “I saw an eagle fly with an aurochs in her talons. I saw some sort of men — neither Omruk nor la’ake, who played sport with a boulder the size of a lodge.”

“Did you see him?” asked another acolyte — Mbalba’ak whose name means ‘flying foot’.

“Who?” she asked. She knew whom he meant — what he meant — but it was good to keep them talking, to distract their minds from the prospect of freezing to death.

Uwalialiake,” said Mbalba’ak, “the God Bear.”

“Sadly, I did not,” she told him. “It was in the years of their long slumber. But I glimpsed his cave, whose mouth was strewn with the bones of giant men and their weapons. Even in the long slumber, Uwalialiake is deadly if roused.”

Flying Foot asked no more questions about the God Bear. Instead, as they walked, the acolytes spoke of home, of the meals they would enjoy when they returned. They sang anawewe and other hymns to the Njaphara, and debated whether their gods could hear them so high in the mountains.

The ledge soon grew narrower, and even though they had been descending for hours, the plunge beside them still dove beyond the reach of sight. By late afternoon, their path brought them to the southern face of a cliff, shielding them from the worst of the icy wind. But now, with no wind to blow it away, the snow had gathered, kissed by just enough sun to turn to deadly ice.

The men took turns carefully chopping the frozen snow away with their axes, and where the ledge was too narrow, Haawe climbed on Ilwanil’s back. The old warrior seemed barely to notice her weight as he scurried along the cliff face, his frozen fingers digging hard into the cracks and crevices.

Twice he slipped, but caught himself on the ledge with a single hand, and pulled them back from peril without so much as a sigh.

Ethdukharia calls us down to the earth, Holy Mother,” he laughed. “Shall we answer her.”

“Yes,” Haawe shouted in his ear. “But tell the land spirit we will join her when our work is done!”

Tikti and Mbalba’ak, being younger, and perhaps more foolish, danced along the icy cliffs with rather more ease than their older companion, even racing one another at certain points.

Quhanuma, Giver of Knowledge, Haawe prayed in her thoughts, let not the hard lessons before them be the last they learn in this life.

By nightfall, they rejoined the pass to which the ama’anaatari, the new lords, had directed her. They walked through darkness, the dim light of the crescent moon above granting them sight enough to keep their course straight.

When dawn came, the trail led them further down and around the western face of the same great mountain whose cliffs had nearly claimed her life the day before. The air grew warmer, the snows were all but gone, and they were now surrounded by low trees and brush. Light rose over the Great Shield behind them, and now only the western foothills lay ahead. It was late morning, on one of the peaks of those hills, when they found a clearing in the trees where they could see, at last, the full splendor of Kuwenye, the Land of Terrors, which the people of the king call, ‘Terremaude’.

But Haawe turned her eyes to her men, for she wanted to see Kuwenye reflected in their faces as they beheld it for the first time.

And in their faces, she saw… disappointment, and realized that as these warriors looked out over hills, valleys, rivers and lakes, all seemed little more to them than a reflection of the world they’d known on the other side of the Great Shield. Perhaps, for all the legends, the tales, the songs, the nightmares they’d woken from as children, her men expected to see a land on fire, purple trees, rivers of gold, and dragons bathing in the sun.

“Where are the double tall men?” Mbalba’ak was the first to voice his dismay, “the mile high trees? The flying aurochs?”

Haawe shook her head. “Look there,” she said. “See where that river disappears around those mountains? Look carefully.”

They squinted as she pointed. “That row of hills?” said Tikti.

“Those are not hills,” said Haawe. “The earth is flat there. It is the giant trees which give the illusion of a hill.”

“Ah,” Tikti nodded, unimpressed.

“Be patient, young ones,” said Haawe. “You need not squint to find the terrors here. They will find us.”

They camped on the hilltop, taking turns sleeping and watching. During her watch, a flash of light erupted in the grassy plain many miles away, with a rumble of thunder following close on its heels. Then another flash, and a gout of flame, and all was silent again. Haawe decided not to wake Tikti, when his turn came to watch, preferring to let him rest a few more hours. She also decided not  to mention the lightning and fire, for she was certain the men would deem it a tale.

They spent the next day and the one after it traversing more foothills, singing hymns and thanking their gods, the Njaphara, for delivering them safely through the Great Shield.

By the next nightfall, the hills gave way to grasslands as far as they could see. “We turn north now,” she told them. “Uwalialiake makes her den in the western face of the Great Shield, upon a forested spur where these grasses end.”

“Holy Mother,” said Ilwanil, “I trust your memory like I trust the gods, but would it not be prudent to share the map given you by the ama’anaatari? If calamity should befall us, and you should pass into the eternal waters, who will guide us?”

Hatajira gave me no map, child,” she answered. “He has traveled the path before, and allowed me to live his memory of it.”

The men stopped walking. Tikti gasped.

Ngkukut Mi’ambama, the memory walk, was a sacred rite, one which marks both the walker and the mind through which they journey as forever linked — a bond more intimate, in some ways, than marriage. Her acolytes, perhaps more than other Omruk, understood the significance of her words, and the disgust on their faces could not have been worse, even if she were eating her own child in front of them. Let them have their disgust, their judgment, she thought. They cannot know the sacrifices I have made for our people.

“I was not given a choice,” was all she said. “Hatajira insisted I perform the memory walk, despite my pleas. If it were not me, he would have made one of you do it, and you are not ready, nor could I wish, even upon my enemies, the torment of seeing the world through the eyes of such devils. Even this small journey… you cannot imagine how wicked they are…”

“Shhhh… “ chided Ilwanil. “Holy Mother, you must not speak of them in this way. You do not know when they are listening.”

“If Hatajira wishes to step from the shadows and strike me dead, that is up to him,” Haawe sighed. “He will have find another to take up his errand, and I doubt many are suited to it.”

She waited till the men stopped studying the bushes and shadows in fear that their new lords might step out and smite them.

“If I die on the journey,” she said, “do not try to continue on your own. You are not ready. Go home to your families. Take them far away, and live out your days in peace if you can.”

“But our new lords will demand…” Tikti began.

“In the words of the people who serve kings,” she said, “our new lords can go to hell.”

The men stepped backwards as if a mountain were about to fall on her head, but she continued walking, and they spoke no more until, by afternoon, the plains rose up and they found themselves looking down a gentle slope at a river, dotted with trees.


More to follow…

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