The Birth of the Gods
It is writ that before the beginning there was only one Presence in the Void and that Presence was Ataram, the Undivided One.
Ataram was neither male nor female, for two did not yet exist.
Ataram was, and there was nought that was not Ataram.
And Ataram was Aware of Ataram.
And within that Awareness the Great Dream began.
Only Ataram may know how the Great Dream started.
Yet the wise ones say that in a moment of forgetfulness Ataram remembered Itself and the Great Dream burst into Being.
Ataram expanded within the Dream and the frame of Space was forged. And with the forging of Space, the yard of Time, too, was born.
Within the vaults of Space and Time two Gods came into Being:
Iod and Sudra, Sudra and Iod. The Gods of Light.
Together they emerged from the Awareness of Ataram and one did not come before the other.
Iod shone as the light of Ataram’s Remembering.
Sudra shone as the mirror of Ataram’s Remembering.
Iod and Sudra revel in adorning the garden of Ataram’s Dream.
Yet neither was Ataram. Yet both were Ataram.
Simultaneously two other Gods came into Being:
Irrsche and Krodh, Krodh and Irrsche. The Gods of Dark.
Together they emerged from the Awareness of Ataram and one did not come before the other.
Irrsche obscured as the dark of Ataram’s Forgetfulness.
Krodh obscured as the mirror of Ataram’s Forgetfulness.
Irrsche and Krodh revel in desecrating the garden of Ataram’s Dream.
Yet neither was Ataram. Yet both were Ataram.
Iod Light-Bringer took the form of the Sun and shone over the world bestowing contentment and growth.
Sudra the Compassionate took the form of the Moon so that the world should not be left in utter darkness. Her presence brought serenity and peace to the world.
Irrsche the Render took the form of the Illstar and burdened the World with calamity and sorrow.
Krodh the Hateful took on the form of the Black Moon and cursed the World with conflict and war.
Iod and Sudra are content with each other and dance serenely within the Dream, sharing equally the domain of the skies, each secure within their chosen realms and reaping equal homage from the denizens of the world.
Irrsche and Krodh, however, are consumed with hatred for Iod and Sudra and forever plot ways to undermine them and, since the Gods cannot be themselves destroyed, they forever strive to bring destruction to their beloved domain, the Garden of the World.
And so it is that the World is forever within the balance of play between these four.
From the First Fragment of Sudra’s Lore
ON THE ROAD TO ATUND
She awoke with a hammering heart and a scream in her throat. The dead man with the broken leg had come back to life and was calling to her - crazed eyes, blood pouring from his open throat.
All was still, nothing stirred in the house.
Illiom was relieved that she had not actually screamed. She got up to discover that she had bled during the night. Her mood of the previous day or two should have alerted her.
Tarmel’s bedroll lay empty. The Rider was probably out there somewhere, practicing his craft.
Illiom left the house quietly and found the stream Galena had spoken of. She sought a private spot and bathed in a shallow pool, making her blood-offering to Sudra.
Upon returning she found that Tarmel had readied all the horses and was waiting to continue their journey. They broke fast with Galena’s family and left Velimoss even as Iod’s rays danced through the fronds of the trees.
They walked the horses down the hill until they joined the road that led to Atund. At first this road was no better than the one that had brought them to the hamlet. But after meandering through steep hills and narrow vales it settled into a gentle incline and its surface smoothed considerably.
The Rider stopped as they entered a long, straight stretch.
“This might be as good a time as any to learn to ride.”
He smiled kindly at the reluctance in her eyes. Nevertheless, she nodded and with a little assistance managed to climb into the gelding’s saddle.
He was a stunning creature with a lustrous coat, bright-eyed and alert, but Illiom was in awe of his size and his presence. To sit upon him felt wrong, as if she was trying to impose her will upon another.
Tarmel shrugged when she expressed her concern.
“Believe me; he does not have a problem with you riding him. It is part of his life in the Ward. In fact, he dislikes the slow gait that we impose on him by forcing him to walk at our pace.”
As he spoke, Tarmel briskly inspected and adjusted her saddle straps.
“Do not worry, Illiom. We will not travel fast, so riding will not be a challenge. But even so, our overall progress will improve. So, here is the only thing to remember: sit loose and do not tense up. Allow your body to flow with your horse’s movements and you will find him easy to ride.”
“What is his name?”
“That is just as well,” she smiled.
Illiom leaned forward and stroked the flank of his neck.
“Calm ... I do hope you live up to your name.”
The horse’s ears flicked back for a moment, as though he understood.
Tarmel grinned and mounted his own horse in a single, graceful movement.
Calm was tethered to the Rider’s horse so the two set off as one the moment Tarmel spurred his own mount forward. The other two horses, tethered behind Illiom, followed dutifully.
Illiom clutched the saddle horn tightly at first, constantly feeling on the verge of sliding off, until she remembered Tarmel’s advice. Then she focused on loosening her hold, at the same time relaxing her body as much as possible. It was a precarious feeling, being seated so high upon a living creature that moved beneath her and yet, as soon as the tension dissolved from her legs and back, she eased into a sense of oneness with the gelding, as if the tension had actually caused the sense of imbalance.
Tarmel glanced back at her with a nod of approval.
So began their journey together, quietly and slowly, with Tarmel offering the occasional advice whenever they came to tricky descents or unexpected obstacles.
Illiom soon forgot her nervousness about riding and instead became captivated by the connection between human and horse, as well as by the gradual unfolding of the landscape.
Not long after setting off, the road dropped down to run alongside the fast-moving waters of the Weal. Still young and safe within the watchful gaze of the mountains that had birthed it, its waters churned and played noisily among boulders and sudden drops that caused it to plunge, foaming white, into deep turquoise pools. The bank on the far side was steep and lush and wild, while the road on their side negotiated much tamer terrain. The road rose and fell or meandered around formations of rock or dense thickets, yet it constantly sought out the river’s company, as if the roar of its adolescent waters was a comforting, if turbulent, companion.
As the roar of the water made conversation difficult, they travelled in silence, although the incessant accompaniment also had a lulling effect upon Illiom. It soothed her fears and apprehensions with its ever-changing song. Even the memory of the attack gradually receded as she rode behind Tarmel.
She mused on the events that had led her to this point. Here she was, riding with a stranger; journeying towards a place she had never seen before.
For the first time she allowed herself to be swept away by the spirit of this adventure that had sought her out and, even now, was changing the course of her life.
She was startled when Tarmel reined in suddenly and eased himself off his stallion by a grassy knoll that stretched from the road right up to the water’s edge.
“Why are we stopping?”
“Time for a break.”
The Rider walked them to the bank, and helped her dismount.
In what seemed like no time at all Tarmel had tea boiling in a kettle, and a wedge of cheese, some pears and a slab of dark bread spread out on a cloth. Using his dagger, he trimmed the mould off the cheese.
Illiom became aware of a stiffness in her legs and hips, and when she sat down on the grass opposite the Rider, she did so with an involuntary groan.
Tarmel looked up at the sound.
“It will be much worse tonight,” he promised, as he poured the brew into the waiting mugs.
The four horses grazed quietly along the bank’s edge, where the grass was greenest. The river’s voice had quieted to a disgruntled monologue. A little way downstream the river parted before a great rocky island that sat like a giant, cooling off in the middle of the waters.
“We will sleep in Atund tonight.”
The Rider’s words drew Illiom’s attention away from the river.
“Atund...” she mused. “I have not been there in a long time.”
“I do not think you will find it much changed. All the towns I have seen in my travels look much as they always have. Save for Kuon, of course. That place changes moon by moon.”
They ate while listening to the river’s song.
“Why did you join the Black Ward?”
Tarmel shrugged, without looking at her.
“It was fate. I was raised in Kuon’s orphanage.”
He glanced at her, then looked away, but not before she noted a poorly concealed grimace. Seeing that in him reminded Illiom of her first glimpse of the Rider through her owl’s sending.
“That was my first training ground,” he continued. “That was where I learned to survive.”
He jabbed at a slice of pear with his knife.
“Do you know anything about your parents?”
“Oh yes,” he said, and for a moment Illiom thought that was all he was going to say on the matter. He gazed across the river, blinked a few times and then continued.
“There is not much to say, really. I was born in a hamlet in Middle Plains, not far from the town of Mestan, on the south bank of the Mendrond. I do not remember my mother very well because she died when I was small. My father bred and traded horses and I travelled with him to Kuon on occasion. The last time we went there I managed to slip away and I suppose he returned home without me. I stayed in Kuon and eventually joined the Ward.”
Tarmel spoke in a matter-of-fact tone, but Illiom noticed a change in the set of his eyes. They had grown distant. Nevertheless, she pressed on.
“What made you run away?”
The Rider was silent again. He poked at the fire with a stick as if he would find the answer to her question buried amongst the glowing coals.
“My father and I did not get on. After my mother died he became difficult to live with. I had been planning to leave home for six moons but had to wait for the opportunity. When we went to Kuon I knew that I would not get a better chance than that, so I took it.”
“How old were you?”
“Nine years? That is a tender age to be venturing out on your own. How did you fare?”
He looked away, his eyes pools of shadow.
“Not very well, at first; I slept on the streets for the first half moon and scavenged what I could from food stalls and the marketplace. Then one day I was caught stealing a pie and the vendor called the guards. I was terrified. A passing Blade came to investigate, but instead of carting me off to some dungeon, as I had feared, she took me to the orphanage. Not the best place in Albradan but at least I was fed once a day and had a roof over my head. I quickly learned to swing my fists to survive. Luckily, I already practiced Madon before arriving in Kuon, so I had some inkling of how to defend myself. I still needed to learn to stand my ground in other ways though.”
He shrugged and gave her an uncertain smile.
“I suppose my training to become a Rider began then. The Blade who delivered me to the orphanage must have felt sorry for me; she visited from time to time and coached me whenever I complained of troubles with the other boys. She also taught me ways of thinking that precluded fighting, how to forge alliances, and how to use my wits when my strength was not enough. She looked after me like I had never been looked after; like a mother and father both rolled into one.”
“I suppose it is no surprise that I went to the recruiting booth as soon as I looked roughly the right age.”
Silence slid between them for a span until Illiom broke it.
“So how did you come to learn Madon back in Mestan?”
The lines on his forehead smoothed out at her question and his eyes became lost in reverie.
“When I was seven I befriended a young Danee lad. My father was violently opposed to the friendship because he despised the tribals, but I slipped away whenever I knew my friend was around. The Danee do not live in one place, you see, they move all across the plains according to the seasons.
“In any case, my friend was learning Madon and he taught me in turn. One day, when we were practicing, one of his uncles saw us. The man watched for a time and when we were done he asked if I was interested in learning more. Anyway, the result was that by the time I ran away I had been practicing Madon for nearly two years and I had enough of a grasp of the discipline to continue exploring it on my own.”
His story finished, Tarmel looked up to find Illiom staring at him.
“What?” he asked with a smile, but testiness sharpened his gaze.
She hesitated, then shrugged.
“We share more than I imagined,” she said at last. “I know it is not the same because I never ran away from home nor lived in an orphanage, but I am a foundling. I suppose if I had been anywhere near Kuon I might have ended up in the orphanage as well.”
Surprise lightened the Rider’s expression.
“You? A foundling?”
“I was found by one of Iod’s monks on a mountain path in the Sevrocks. Apparently, I was talking to a snake, or so the story went.”
“How did you come to be in the mountains? What happened to your parents?”
“I know nothing about them. I have no idea who they were or why they abandoned me, but apparently I had been left there to die.”
Tarmel looked momentarily lost for words.
“So, what did the monk do?” he continued.
“Grael Munn, the one who found me, was revered as a living saint among the monks of Iod and perhaps it was that reverence that stopped the others from objecting when he announced that the monastery would shelter me until my parents were found. They never were.”
Illiom gazed into the fast-flowing waters, searching their depths as she remembered things long past.
“Grael Munn was like a father to me. He was already aged when he found me, yet he took great delight in my upbringing. He always maintained that I had been sent by the God himself; that Iod had gifted me to him and to the monastery, to enrich all of their barren lives.”
Tarmel frowned for a moment, and then laughed.
“So, you were raised by a saint? Is it not unusual for a girl to grow up in a monastery? I would have thought that the monks ... did no one object?”
“Not at first. But later, yes. There were objections, particularly when I began to grow into a woman.”
Unexpectedly and treacherously, Illiom’s throat tightened around her words, and her eyes began to smart. She dropped her gaze.
“I have not spoken about this in a long time,” she said. She looked up at the Rider, gave him an embarrassed smile and shook her head.
“I did not think it affected me still...”
Tarmel looked at her intensely for a moment, and then placed a hand lightly upon her shoulder.
“We do not have to talk about this,” he reassured her.
He rose, packed his utensils and doused the fire.
In no time, they were back on the road and the subject had been dropped.
They had not gone far when Tarmel turned the conversation to riding. His tone was light and carefree and Illiom was grateful for the distraction.
He showed her how, by working the reins as well as her heels, she could control both the gelding’s direction and his speed. She followed his instructions, but with dubious results.
Tarmel declared the lesson over when Calm gave a loud snort, undoubtedly at her ineptitude. The Rider laughed.
“Nothing to worry about, Illiom; he will not throw you in exasperation! Calm was chosen because he is placid; truly, his temperament would suit a child.”
They rode on at a leisurely pace into the afternoon, as the landscape around them continued to change. The river became subdued as it left the hilly country behind. It broadened, slowed down and mellowed until its voice became no more than a murmur.
Unable to cling to the river’s edge, the road began to veer away and eventually led into thick woodland.
Unaccustomed to the heat of the flatlands, Illiom sweltered. The drone of insects grew louder as the day wore on and the flies, completely absent in the mountains, began to annoy her. Her clothes clung to her body uncomfortably until she could not wait to replace them with something lighter.
She turned to look at the mountains, but found that they were now completely hidden by the trees. She marked the dust of their passage, hanging like a curtain in the still balmy air behind them. When she turned back again, Illiom felt her heart stop.
Two men were riding towards them.
They had encountered no one travelling in either direction since leaving Velimoss, and now the sight of these two was enough to bring back the fears she thought she had left behind. She watched intently as the distance between them narrowed. When the sound of their mounts’ hooves became audible they slowed to a walk. Illiom was immediately relieved that the pair seemed to be a father and son and harmless.
The older of the two hailed them.
“Warm day for travelling,” he said with an agreeable grin.
“Nothing that cannot be set aright with a mug of the town’s best.”
They exchanged a few more pleasantries which the Rider used to extract information. The town was not far and the two were returning home from market day, their saddlebags brimming with purchases.
They waved farewell and went on their separate ways.
“Not far now,” the Rider reassured Illiom.
She was relieved, for the pain of spending long hours in the saddle had become acute.