Chapter 1: Sudden Flight
It was the time after time, when seemed to be the end of all the world, and a fearful thing to walk upon the face of the earth. Following the fires, following the floods, following the earthquakes that had rent the foundations of the earth, darkness closed upon the world and enveloped the souls of men. An immeasurable cloud engulfed the sky beyond all known horizons, shrouding the very air we breathed in gloom and gray. Learning ceased. Survival: that was knowledge. Much fighting ensued as every man did that which seemed right in his own eyes. And man was revealed for what he was.
The world had been violently shaken. Mountains crumbled; new mountains arose. Every structure built by the hands of men had fallen into heaps of rubble or been swallowed up by gaping holes in the earth’s crust. Endless crevices released horrid dragons and like creatures that preyed upon unlucky souls. Few survived; and they were scattered. For long years, the existence of other survivors was
much doubted and unknown. But slowly and with great trepidation, groups began to band together. Generations died, taking with them their knowledge of civilization and comfort. The former world passed away along with its means and ways. The new man lived merely to survive. Survival was secured by power. As more and more souls found their way to each other, tribes formed; allegiances were forged and broken. The desire of every man’s heart was to secure comfort and safety for his own skin. Through strength and violence alone, security was obtained. Man is a dangerous, calculating breed.
Legends spoke of seasons, of light filled days turning into night. Rumors in hushed whispers speculated that on the other side of darkness the clouds were flooded in glorious light. Secret myths spoke of light-filled skies, that such a place could be found; but such bliss was far removed from any living memory. No Terra Dombrian knew anything more than murky gloom. Some dared to hint of a land bright and beautiful beyond imagination, but it was only a secret hope. The numans, as they like to call themselves, would not abide such speculation. Numans adopted this name for themselves, believing that they were a new and more highly evolved race. They became the self-appointed peacekeepers, swift to condemn anyone suspected of entertaining unsanctioned ideas. Law— a relic of the ancient past— now the only law was the whim of the powerful. Power was found in sheer numbers, capriciously wielded by the one who could shout down everyone else, often at the tip of a sword. Food supplies were scarce, and freedom from oppression and violence was found only in the hearts and minds of those who dared to dream.
Freedom . . . now there was a dream indeed.
On rare occasions, a member of the human race revealed a glimpse of nobility, a whisper of the spark of divinity. Though more often, the race of men was exposed as an unpleasant lot, full of the darkness that now ensnared them. Indeed, the numans had become so full of darkness that, at times, they nearly lost all appearance of their humanity. Seekers dreamed of light and freedom, but numans were affronted by such offensive notions. Unencumbered by the rule of law or such archaic ideas as morality, goodness, or loyalty, they lived for each moment, seeking only their own pleasure. They took pleasure in the grotesque. Being past feeling, they were incapable of any emotion remotely resembling pity or compassion. This is where our story begins.
For Ava, the decision to flee was both necessary and sudden. She had no other choice. The madness of the age swept into her world like a tsunami wave cutting a path of chaos and destruction across any hope she held in her heart. A widow now, she was once married to a man of weak spirit, wholly yielded to the perverseness of Terra Dombren. The warning signs were all there: his propensity for darkness and emotional detachment. Those were the days when shadows crept around men. Those were the days when men played with the shadows as if they were a filtered light, rather than a living spirit that consumed man’s soul. Ava’s husband Lester was no different. In his willful ignorance, he remained unalarmed, unaware, unafraid, and unwilling to resist the lie. So it was that they lost their way. Or did he lead them down the path to certain death and destruction? What did it matter now? The damage was done. Yet, within Ava’s heart, a spark of hope kindled like a flame from the Great Wall of Fire, which stretched like a curtain as far as north runs north and as far as south runs south. Ava hoped to find it just over the horizon, for a glimpse of its corona was briefly visible in the darkest hours before each dawn.
Long ago, their last parting followed a terrible argument, though not unusual. Les had been moving his family to ever more dark and dangerous ground. He wanted to bring his family to Dem, a walled village to the west in a low valley steeped in shadows, ruled by a vicious and ambitious warlord known as Cam.
“. . . for convenience. Instruction in the ways of man— the new man.” These were the noble attributes he cited, wooing him closer.
“The ways of the new man, you say?” Ava swallowed, “— more like monsters, I’d say.”
“Why do you always insist on robbing me of all my pleasure?” he exploded. “You analyze my every whim and forever find only fault! Why can’t you just enjoy the ease that should come from not having to lead this family? For once, just believe that I know what I’m doing!”
“Do you know what you’re doing? Death is all that awaits us in Dem. How can you even consider dragging your children there? You know what happens to the young—”
“You believe every rumor you hear!” he laughed incredulously. “I’m the head of this family. It’s my decision.”
“You’re being drawn into the delusion that love is unnatural, cruelty is honorable, and blood is meant for spilling, even the blood of your own children!”
“It’s through the spilling of blood we evolve,” he chanted. “Death is a part of life.”
“Life’s a gift—” Ava began.
“A gift? From who?” he sneered. “Next you’ll be tellin’ me ‘bout some silly city with a king that beckons light-loving cowards!” he scornfully laughed. “You can’t possibly be buying into that heresy! And I won’t have you fillin’ my boys’ heads with that gutless garbage. They’re old enough to fight for what they want in life. Left to your charge,” he added, “they’d grow up soft!”
“No, not soft! But, good, yes!” she cried. “Goodness is not weakness,” she began, stopping short when she caught a glimpse of his tattoo.
Homemade candles staggered in the corner of a tiny sitting area dimly lit the sparsely furnished little hovel. A fire pit in the center of the room added scarcely more light. She saw only the very tip of a scorpion’s tail, but it was visible long enough for it to register in her consciousness and jolt her into alarm! It was inside the collar of his tunic on the left side of his neck: the unmistakable mark of Cam.
When had he gotten that?
How could she have missed it before now? The sight of it hit her like a bolt of lightning. Yes, they had been disagreeing with regularity in recent months, perhaps even years. She had long been feeling a wave of loneliness in his presence, a distance. He had developed a brooding spirit. She assumed that it was fear of the future and self-doubts about his ability to protect his family— doubts she certainly and admittedly shared. Suddenly, she became aware of a palpable coldness lingering in their midst. Ava now recognized his betrayal. Did he mean to sacrifice his family on the altar of Cam? It was rumored that Cam demanded immediate family sacrifices from his minions to prove their loyalty and move up within his ranks. Quickly, she averted her eyes as if the mark had escaped her notice. She was in real danger now. And so were her boys, Stranth and Onar. There was only one thing left to do.
“Goodness invites hostility,” he continued. “They’re coming of age. It’s time to introduce them to society. They must learn to cope with this world if they’re to survive.”
“It’s an ugly world we live in,” she said, trying desperately to keep her voice from quivering. “What’d be the harm in changing it, or better still, seeking a new world?”
“You may find it ugly, even repulsive,” he said with a dismissive tone. “I find it intriguing and alluring. You’re too sensitive,” he spat at her. “And I’ll not have you raisin’ my boys to be so sensitive. They are to be men of this world,” he snarled with an air of finality.
“I’ll die before I give them over to darkness,” she quietly stated.
“Suit yourself,” he affirmed with a flat coldness that sent a chill up her spine as he turned to go.
He seemed quite satisfied, and puffed up, as if he had made some irrefutable observation— as if he knew something she did not. That’s when she caught sight of the shadow lingering momentarily behind him. A sinister expression emerged on a face and stayed behind long enough to look through her with hallow eyes; then just as quickly as she thought she had imagined seeing it, it disappeared in Les’ direction.
He has a shadow…
She stood motionless. Suspended. Time seemed to halt and hang on the air. The shadow didn’t move with him. The world— along with her heart— came to a screeching stop.
Then suddenly, she sprang into action. She gathered changes of clothing for herself and the boys. She stuffed light sticks, a pot and pan, bread, nuts, and cheese into a satchel with canteens. She rolled up three blankets. A hatchet caught her eye in the firelight glowing from the pit in the center of the room.
We’ll need weapons… We’ll have to defend ourselves…
All the while, as she made haste to prepare for their sudden flight, a sensation burned strongly in her heart. It wasn’t just gossip or heresy. Somehow, in the depth of her soul, she knew that there had to be a place of light where darkness had been dispelled. No knowledge guided her. Nevertheless, she would seek such a place. Her sons would be servants of light rather than darkness, or she would die trying to deliver them to a better life.
The cave— Of course!
It would be the best place to go until she could be certain. Many months before this sudden flight, she had spied Stranth and Onar returning from an errand of hunting for tea roots and berries. Not knowing she was watching them, their posturing suggested that they were forming some sort of secret pact. They were excellent companions, and highly protective of each other, for which she was very proud. Blood was all that mattered, all that could be trusted in this age of wickedness and betrayal. She hid herself from their view to see if she could startle them by suddenly springing at them. They would probably anticipate her actions as they drew near, for it was a frequent ritual they played out. Yet they were too engrossed and excited about the discovery of their new secret hideout to notice Ava crouching down along the wall of the well. Startled indeed and ready to defend each other with lightning reflexes, the boys instantly raised daggers and spears at Ava when she pounced upon them with,
“What cave? Where? . . . Show me!”
“Mother— we might have gashed you!” Onar spurted.
Relaxing his stance, Stranth slowly returned his dagger to its sheath tied about his waist by a hemp belt. With feigned caution, he asked his younger brother, “Shall we trust her with our discovery, Onar?”
Eyes twinkling, “But she’s a female,” Onar replied in playful disdain.
“Oh, now, that’s going a bit too far!” their mother mischievously bellowed.
In mock vexation, Ava leaped upon her sons and wrestled them to the ground in a heap; much in the way one might expect a father to engage his sons. However, with the frequent absences of their father, Ava often fulfilled this necessary role. Her sons were large for their ages, seventeen and fifteen full harvests they had, Stranth being the older of the two. They were old enough to comprehend that although their mother was a strong woman, she was still a lady, and they were careful not to unleash all their strength and skill upon her. They always let her win so that they could enjoy the punishment of her affectionate kisses, though neither of them would have ever admitted that to the other, or even to himself. It was simply understood.
Lowering her voice as she sat up with them, she asked again, “What’s this about a cave?”
The two exchanged glances and a nod; then Stranth shared with restrained excitement, “We found a cave at the bottom of a ravine in the woods. It’s a good way off, a couple of hours deep into the wood.”
“Aye, and we covered it up so only we can find its opening,” affirmed Onar.
“Did you go inside it?”
“Yes!” they replied in unison; Stranth continued with, “I had a light stick with me. We were very careful, Mother, I promise. It has a pretty small opening, but it’s huge inside!”
“That was still a very dangerous thing to do, Stranth! What would’ve happened if it had been the lair of a dragon or a fowl? You could have been devoured, and I would have never known what became of you!”
“We shot rocks into it with our slings before we went in to see if there was anything in there to disturb,” Onar proudly reported. “Besides,” he added when he saw her alarm, “it’s too deep into the woods, and the opening is too small for a fowl to fit through.”
Ava stared at him incredulously for a moment, picturing the scene in her mind. “Boys—” she began.
“We know, Mother,” Stranth calmly continued, and Onar chimed in, “’the world is an extremely dangerous place.’”
“Yes, it is!” she scolded.
“We had to see inside it,” Stranth said apologetically.
Before he could say anymore, Onar excitedly offered, “Would you like for us to show it to you?”
How could she resist the sparkle in those eyes and that boyish, carefree grin on her younger son’s face? How she yearned for a world wherein he could truly be carefree and safe.
“Do you think you could find it again? Is it easy to get to?”
“We can find it,” Stranth confidently affirmed.
“It’s not easy to get to,” Onar laughed.
“We marked our way back.”
Biting down on her lower lip, Ava looked around and pondered the adventure. The darkest hours were hastening the day to an end. “Perhaps tomorrow,” she offered. “What about those tea roots and berries?”
The two boys exchanged blank stares.