Under the Stars

[Author’s Note: This is the prologue to another work I will be writing someday: The Fall of Jiharel. It’s probably my favorite story idea rattling around upstairs. I’ve also got material which is a bad first chapter of the narrative proper, but none of that is really ready for reading. I do like my prologue to the piece, though, and hope you all find enjoyment from it!]

The world was still, and the stars looked down. Smooth as a still lake, glassy and calm on a windless evening, the starry sky above seemed to be a clear and distant reflection. Overhead those distant lights shone upon a broad plain, grey and calm in the twilight after dusk. Come daybreak the light would reveal the browns and tans of autumn grass as the land began to fall asleep for the winter. In that quiet night, the land felt hollow. Some thing – some vital essence or being – was missing; and the stars knew it.

Very few lights could be seen scattered about the lonely savannah. To the distant stars above, the plains were a poor homage to the countless stars of night. Northward was the brighter lights of Norbanor along the muddy banks of the Khian river. Beyond that – past the river’s northern bank – there were no lights at all in the dry, blasted land of the Desolation. Nothing but a gloomy, hazy darkness which even the stars avoided. Beneath this glassy sky the land slumbered softly, with slow dreams of growing things. It paid no heed to the everlasting watchfulness of the stars above. The land was tired, resting. A year’s passage was but another day’s labor to the land, and now it had at last set down its burdens of growth and nurture, to rest.

One of the shimmering campfires drew the stars’ attention from afar. They twinkled to one another, fascinated by the lifelike heartbeat of the fire’s embers. It was typical of such fire lit by travelers, wanderers; a simple flame from a few wrist-thick branches. They burned weakly, with the smoky smell of green growth; the firewood had been cut from a nearby grove of young elm saplings which grew along the banks of some nameless brooklet flowing lazily northward to meet the broad Khian. The tongues of the cookfire flickered up and around the sides of the heavy iron cookpot, granting it a dull and sullen glow. The air of the camp had grown thick with the stew’s hearty scent as the thick brown broth bubbled in its eagerness to feed the weary travelers. Ever and always, this portion of the land has been plagued with wanderers the last twoscore years. A few decades more, and these nomads shall become a people once more. For the present, they are little more than vagabonds. Neither trespassing nor welcome in the land of Nothen. Unsurprising, after centuries of conflict across the broad Khian.

Full night approaches; and the stars watch closely, drawn by the light of the road-weary Jihari. There is warmth here, and occasional laughter rises from families and children. For this one lonely night, there is peace. No guards snoop about with suspicious looks and beady eyes, no townsfolk are seeking to force their departure with fire and steel. No bandits in the firelight’s shadows, stalking the camp. True, fragile, peace.

Some of the travelers gathered about the fire, waiting impatiently. A motherly woman stood beside the campfire. Her heavy ladle glinted and winked at the watching stars while she guarded the night’s meal from little hands. The scrumptious smell wafted like a slow fog over the camp, seeping through the narrow crack between the lid and the pot. Potatoes and tubers, wild onion and parsley found during the caravan’s destinationless journey simmered together as stiff dried venison slowly became loosened in the broth.

“Awh, c’mon Auntie Lune!” a child whined as he tugged on the coarse brown fabric of her dress. “Surely it’s done now?”

Lune stood a bit hunched, just a touch shorter than the other women she worked and traveled alongside. She was slightly heavyset, and lines of age and burden creased her face. Lune’s piercing grey eyes nonetheless shone out from beneath her thick brown, bearing the brightness of youth.

She swatted lazily in the boy’s direction with her ladle. “Not until Ella an’ I say so, y’hear?” Lune frowned down at the boy. He seemed about eight or nine, but stood shorter than his age. Even so, the child’s dusty red hair always made him easy to spot. While the dust of travel clung eternally to the caravan, in his case it simply wouldn’t wash out. The children’s clothing was a curious menagerie of colors and fabrics – which had obviously been salvaged from a mixture of tents, wagon covers, and the clothing of adults, and then resewn for their smaller size.

“But we’re hungry!” the chorus of children complained.

“Bah!” Lune grunted. “Can’t rush a good stew. Go pester someone else.”

As Lune brandished her spoon once more, their complaints withered away. The children began to wander off toward the wagons, reluctantly drifting away from the fire and its tempting smells.

“I know!” the boy’s high voice piped up. “We should go ask the Elder for a story!”

“Ugh. His stories are always long and boring,” a younger girl cries out from the crowd of children. “Rafe, that’s a dumb idea.”

Naturally, the mob immediately unraveled into debates of utmost seriousness, as only children truly can. However, their bickering remained undisturbed since they managed to remain out of the way of the adults cooking and laboring by the wagons.

One of the men watched from his seat on an oaken chest worn smooth with age. He is old – but not yet infirm – and often forcibly excused from work by the other men out of respect for age and status, despite his protests. His body aches occasionally from a long and weary life.

“Time is but a shifting sand, where the tracks of men are swept away,” the Elder mutters to himself, as he permits his mind to meander down the path of memory. Few in the caravan know the life he has walked – and to his mind, that’s for the best.

A faint, sour breeze sweeps down from the north, gliding on a foul breath out of the Desolation. As it oozes through the camp the torches flicker. A few of the men working mutter Hopes, without expecting the Light to answer such calls. In the olden days, the days of their fathers and grandfathers, perhaps, but no longer.

That foul wind brushed the Elder’s face with tentative fingers, and his brown-and-grey-streaked beard swayed. His face wrinkled with disgust at the smell, and an apprehensive shudder ran through him at the moment he identified the nauseating scent. Closing his one good eye, the Elder let out a slow breath, seeking stillness and peace.

“Elder, Elder!” Rafe called out while tugging on the old man’s coat. The Elder’s eye opens; three angry lines hold the other shut.

There’s no stillness around children, he thinks. His cheeks wrinkle ever so slightly.

“Yes, child?” he asked. The Elder’s voice is soft, solemn. It holds a soft and crackling heat, the soft burn of dying coals. It holds the memory of conflict, and of violence.

“Can we have a story? Please?” Rafe said. The rambunctious parliament of children has given up on accord by this point. Some have remained, eager for one of the Elder’s rare and queer stories, while others have gone off to annoy other adults.

His eyes glittered in the starlight, and the Elder patted Rafe’s cheek with his good hand.“Gladly, child. Which tale shall I tell?” A simple look out to his audience, and the little ones started shouting out the names of their favorite stories.

“The King and his Fool!”

“How the Thrun Earned its Wings!”

“Prydin and the Fiery Mountain!”

As their voices died down, another called out.

“Jiharel.”

A youth stepped forward. He was tall and lanky, with raven-black hair. His voice spoke more strongly and more firmly than the children’s. It rang out through the night. A hush settled over the camp, and the little ones looked up to the elder, eyes filled with wondrous hunger – an unknown story! Far, far above, the stars twinkle to one another, flickering and buzzing, telling their neighbors to listen to here, listen to now.

“That’s a long and somber tale,” the Elder replied, slowly lifting his head.

The young man stepped close. “It’s said you know the truth of what happened.” he said. “Why we wander. How the Desolation came to be. I was told,” here he hesitated, a short breath’s moment. “I was told you were there.” One of the grown-ups laboring stepped forward to hush him, but the man froze at a gesture from the Elder.

“He means no harm,” the Elder said. “Jezen is merely expressing curiosity.” Turning to the young man, he asked, “You are sure you wish to hear this story?”

Jezen’s grey eyes clouded over with misgivings, and there was silence. He nodded.

The Elder’s chest slowly expanded as he breathed in, to steady himself. “After dinner, then. The story of Jiharel must be told properly, in the old way.”

His decision is met with distraught sounds from Rafe and the other children, all young enough to be sent to bed after supper. His chuckle rumbled through the night as the elder consoled the little ones. “Peace, peace. You may listen as well. This story concerns all of us.”

* * *

Dinner was a quiet affair, for the silence of waiting loomed above the camp. Even among the old, the balding grandfathers and plump, doting grandmothers, none knew the whole tale. Rumors flew about the camp, whispers that it had been nearly a decade since any survivor had told it; that there had been no true survivors – even, in fearful, trembling murmurs, that only monsters had slipped out form the Lost City. Every Voidfearing man and woman of the camp kept an eye on the Elder, wary. Even those who had escaped the fires and the tearful slaughter which was the Desolation’s bloody afterbirth only knew what had happened – not why.

Those not responsible for cleaning sat around the fire, waiting. By the time the last few stragglers gathered together the fire had begun to fade. The night air grew heavy and still, stale, as the last torches were put out. Only the stars above – hanging in a moonless sky – and the flickering embers struggled against the empty darkness. The amber coals were reflected in a half a hundred eyes circling the charred firepit, and the Elder felt the weight of countless thousands of eyes watching from above.

The elder closed his eyes, and began.

“There are three Rules by which we must abide. Such is our tradition. So it was with my father, and my grandfather, and his grandfather, back into the Age of Mist now lost to memory. So have I sworn and so you shall swear, if this tale I shall tell.”

First, the little ones gather by the Elder’s feet nodded, impulsive and eager to listen. Their enthusiasm spread like a slow wave, washing over their more cautious elders, until this small remnant of the Jihari had all bound themselves by tradition. Far above and beyond, the stars twinkled their consent, and swore to remember.

“Our first Rule for stories is that they must be freely given and gladly received.” As the Elder began to recite the dusty words, he slowly stretched one hand forward. Starlight began to flow and puddle in his palm. “No story with true merit can be taken under coercion, or given as payment, or sold for payment. So swore my father, and my grandfather, and his grandfather before him. These stories are our memory, our lifeblood, our soul. Would you deny your mother water out on the shifting sands, in the dry and death-like, bone-white wastes? Your father? No. Your sister, your brother? We are still the Jihari because of these stories. Without our past, we cannot be.”

His fingers twitched, and the gathered light pulled itself up from the Elder’s palm. A hushed silene filled the world as that small light shone, mirrored in the eyes of the little ones as they impulsively drew closer.

“Likewise,” he continued, “a story must be heard with an eager heart. Not all stories are pleasant. Not all stories end in triumph – nor should they. The distracted listener does not hear the story. If the story is not heard, it cannot be understood. The first rule of stories demands that we share them and receive them with a joyful heart. Else, we shall lose our way.”

Moving with a careful, precise slowness, the Elder lifted a finger and touched the light. A low note rang out, like a giant humming. Gasps filled the crowd. Dragging his finger, the Elder began to paint light in the air. Distant memories filled the old, of brighter days, of childhood, and of each time they, too, had heard or spoken the Rules.

“Our second Rule is that our stories must be True. Perhaps invented,” he said, “but all True.” The Elder drew a circle before him with the light, while that otherworldly orb continued to illumine the campsite. “This Truth may be different to each teller, to each one of you. A story without Truth is a hollow, lifeless thing. Surely, some of our stories have happened, but as the years pass and the sands drift it is their Truth we need. Mere having-happened is insubstantial in comparison to being True. The second rule of stories demands that our stories be True. Else, we shall lose our way.”

Light flowed like the muddy Khian out from the circle. The Elder gently blew through the ring, even while continuing to draw. Thin tendrils floated on his gusting breath, one narrow line of light stretching out to each person watching.

“Our final Rule is that a story shared must be retold.” His voice rose, becoming thunder, and the light drove back the darkness. “If we do not tell our stories, who will? These stories tell us who we are, who our grandparents were, and who our grandchildren will be. Every generation changes us, and every generation incurs this responsibility. If I am to tell this story, the third rule demands that you all promise to retell it.”

He looked over the crowd, and sighed, drooping as breath left him. “Else, we shall lose our way.”

With that, the Elder finished speaking. Light and breath, words and Rules hung in the air. Those watching felt a resonance, an echo deep within; in their blood, in their bones and their marrow. Even the stars grew still as they waited on his audience’s reply.

Rafe’s hand lifted, and poked the thin tendril hanging before him. The warm light looped around his finger, and the bright bell of a child’s laugh rang out through the camp. One by one, the Jihari each gave a little of themselves to the light. It few with each touch, and the strands retracted.

The light grew stronger with each acceptance, more bright, more pure. Clenching his fingers, the elder drew the light into a small, brilliant orb once more. It began to rise.

“I was there,” he said, the Elder’s voice barely a murmur. His eyes rose, watching the light.

“I was there when Jiharel burned. I was there when the unconquered Citadel of Glass was brought crashing down.” His voice grew harsh with relentless memory. “I was there as the Void opened, and the hills burned, and the sands died, and the sky wept for us with tears of blood.

“I was there.”

The light expanded into a radiant pool, flowing over the camp. Wetness glistened on one side of the Elder’s craggy face.

“Tonight you shall hear our story. Tonight you shall hear our sorrow.”

Above, two faces began to emerge. A man, and a woman. They had raven-black hair, and frosty blue eyes. A thin circlet of silver rested on the woman’s brow. Their aquiline features reflected one another – the same sharp nose, straight jawline, confident expression.

The Elder looked down, unable to bear the lifelike images. Shining brightly, fed by the power of loss, they lit the whole countryside, begging the land to remember.

“Tonight, you shall hear the Fall of Jiharel.”

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