The blond-haired little boy with the big blue eyes and pale skin died on his sixth naming-day in his village of Desa. Desa was located in the middle of the Kedara Plains fifty leagues west of the Parbata Mountains, in a straight line with the capital city of Torkeln as the raven flies. The boy had been sitting at the head of the communal table in the dining hall, a crown of woven prairie grass around his head, laughing with his friends, eating the luscious feast his mother and sisters had prepared for everyone, and listening to his father talk of the Anmah. He was still young enough that he believed the stories of beautiful, kind, immortal beings to be true, but his older brother, Alabart, who was fifteen and much wiser, scoffed when he said so.
“Everyone knows the Anmah are just a tale,” Alabart said with a sneer. “Only babies and old women believe the stories. No one can live forever.”
“Do not say that, Alabart.” His father interrupted his tale to frown at his oldest son. The two looked almost exactly alike, with similar coloring to the boy, and it was easy to see what the chief’s youngest son would look like when he grew up. “The Anmah are real. I met one myself when I was a boy, not much younger than you.”
“Yes, Father,” Alabart said contritely, and then his eyebrows came together. “How do you know it was an Anmah and not just some stranger?”
“It is their eyes. They have piercing violet eyes, and when an Anmah is affected by a strong enough emotion, they are bright enough to shine without the light of the sun or moon.”
The little boy was about to speak when the dogs outside the hall started to bark, and someone screamed. He stood up quickly along with the others at the table, and they all looked toward the open door of the hall. The dogs’ barking ceased abruptly with several yelps, and the boy looked toward his father. The chief of the village was slowly moving toward the door, his hand on the hilt of the long knife at his waist. The boy thought it was his sister, Ema, who had screamed, but he had no time to think further than that, for at that instant, three Asabya, the fearsome, murderous barbarians of the plains, rushed into the room with a loud battle cry. The boy looked on in horror as the tall men, their long, dark hair tied back with leather thongs around their foreheads and their faces painted black with white around their mouths and dark eyes, swung their swords and cut down everyone around him. The first one inside the room severed his father’s head from his body before the chief could draw his knife, and they did not stop there. They killed everyone, from the littlest infants in their mothers’ arms to the gray-headed elders who had given the boy their blessing just hours before. Then one was standing in front of him, and all he knew was the blood and the pain as a sword was buried to the hilt in his chest.
The incessant buzzing of a fly in his ear brought him to consciousness, and he sat up, sucking in a harsh breath against the agony he expected. It took a moment for him to realize there was nothing—no pain at all. He ran his small hands over his chest where the sword had entered, and although his tunic was sliced cleanly and covered in blood, there was no wound to be found. His eyes widened, and he looked around the dining hall.
The room was a shambles. The heavy table made from gacha wood, a cherished item in the village since the forest was more than fifty leagues to the east, was lying on its side, and every reed chair had been broken into several pieces. The dirt floor was soaked a dark red, almost black, with blood, and as he slowly got to his feet, he realized that, other than the fly that had awakened him, he was the only living creature in the hall. Alabart lay not far from him, his eyes open and staring lifeless at the ceiling, his belly sliced open and his insides spilled out onto the ground. His four-year-old sister, Emili, lay crushed under the table, her laughter forever silenced and her blonde hair stained red. His father lay near the door, his head a pace and a half away from his body. Panic started to overwhelm the boy, and he rushed out of the room into the first light of day. He only took one step out of the door before stopping and staring at the devastation around him.
Huts were smoldering everywhere he could see, and the stone wall around the well in the center of the village had been destroyed. He walked to it and carefully peered down the deep hole. He could see the faint glimmer of the rising sun on the water far below, and for some reason, that gave him a small measure of comfort. It fled as quickly as it had appeared, however, when he realized that the forms he saw strewn around him were his people and his family, slaughtered and left where they had fallen like discarded toys. He staggered around the village, searching frantically for anyone still alive, calling out the names of his friends and family until he had no voice left, but there was no one. He sat down in the middle of the carnage and cried.
The boy died for the first time on his sixth naming-day.
The ravens came only hours later, and the wolves appeared that same night. The boy had found a hut with no bodies in it that was still intact for the most part, and he barricaded himself inside away from the harsh calls and frightening howls outside. He tried not to imagine what the animals were doing, but he was unsuccessful. He had once seen the carcass of a fox that had been picked clean by the scavengers, and he wept as he thought of his family being treated the same way.
The second time he died was three days after the wolves came. Although there was water in the well, there was no way for the boy to get through the vicious animals to reach it, and he slowly succumbed to thirst. The tears he shed only sped up the process. The lack of water caused his body to shut down, and one night he lay down on the makeshift pallet he had made. He could feel his heart slowing, and he remembered the last beat as it finally stopped.
The next morning, he was only slightly surprised to open his eyes. Just as he had felt no pain after he had awakened from the sword’s death, he was no longer thirsty. At least, not so much so that he felt like he was going to die of thirst again. He quickly realized that he had another problem, though.
It only took two more days for the wolves to feast and leave the village, but between the Asabya and the animals, there was no food left. The boy was just a small child, and the tradition of his people was that children were allowed to be children until they reached their tenth naming-day, and he had not yet learned how to find food. That had always been the responsibility of his father and mother and older brother and sister. He had watched them occasionally, but he had not paid attention, being more interested in playing with his friends.
He forced himself out of the hut the day after he heard no more noises outside, and more tears came as his gaze fell on the white bones, shreds of red tissue still clinging to many, that surrounded him. He slowly walked through the skeletons until he reached the dining hall. He entered it and went to where he knew his brother had fallen. Near the bones was the weapon he was looking for: Alabart’s slingshot. The boy had no idea how to properly use it, but he took it anyway, along with the pouch of stones his brother always had with him. He spent the day attempting to use the weapon, but he had no luck, and he put it aside.
He carefully leaned on the broken stones of the well and looked down into it. He shuddered when he saw several white bones sticking up out of the water. He was hungry, and he knew he needed to eat soon or he would die again.
He spent a considerable amount of time digging graves and burying his people. It was their tradition to burn bodies, but he did not know how to make fire, so he buried the bones. He was not sure that bones by themselves would burn anyway. He could not get the bones out of the well, though, and that bothered him. He felt as if he should have been able to put them to rest.
As the days turned into a sennight and the sennight into two and then into three, he could feel himself wasting away. After three sennights of eating grass and failing to catch small animals with his bare hands, he once again lay down on his pallet in the hut and waited to die.
He had started to comprehend what was happening to him, so he was not confused when he woke up the next day, his hunger pains dulled to a distant ache within him, just like his thirst. He may have only been six, but he had always been told that he had a quick mind, and he decided to test the idea that had come to him.
He made his way back to the dining hall and rummaged through the debris until he found a dented metal plate underneath a pile of reeds that used to be chairs. He took it outside and wiped off the dust before holding it up in front of him. As he had suspected, a pair of dark violet eyes shone back at him. He dropped the plate and wandered around the village thinking of every story the elders had ever told of the Anmah.
All the stories said that they were a unique race of people, not human. No one knew their true origins, they were good and helped people, and that they—he was immortal and could not die. Not permanently, anyway, and never in the same way twice. There were others of his kind, he knew, but he had no idea where. He did not understand how he could be Anmah and not the rest of his family, but he pushed that thought aside for later.
He sat down on the broken well and put his head in his hands. Tears burned behind his eyes, but he refused to cry, and he brought his head up, a fierce expression on his young face. Standing up, he brushed his hands off on his tunic and looked around him. There was not much left in the village, but he saw a few things that he could use. He walked around, picked up items he thought would be helpful, and piled them in front of the dining hall. Going into the hut he had been using, he took a sack from the wall and the thin blanket from his pallet. Putting the blanket in the sack, he went to the pile of items.
It included the metal plate, his father’s knife, his brother’s slingshot and stones, a flint stone, a cloak he had pulled off one skeleton, and a pair of sandals he had taken from another. All of this went into the sack except for the sandals, which went on his feet. They were too big, but he knew he had a long way to walk, and he had no desire to do so barefoot. He looked into the morning sun that was about a third of the way to its zenith. He knew that the city of Torkeln lay in that direction, but he did not know how far it was. He did know that he could not stay in his village. Anmah or not, he needed to be with other people, and he was determined to make the trip to the city.
Just before taking the first steps that would carry him from everything he had ever known, he fingered the leather thong around his neck. Threaded on the thong was his family’s token—a shining silver replica of an eagle about to grab its prey. It had been Alabart’s to wear since he was the eldest son, but now that honor was the boy’s as the last surviving member of his family. Before he had buried his brother, he had carefully placed the token over his head and let it rest on his stomach. His brother had been much bigger than he was, and the thong had only hung to Alabart’s chest, but the boy was little. He had taken it off again and had tied a knot in the thong. When he put it on a second time, it had settled on his breastbone. Now, he pulled the token out of his tunic and kissed it once before replacing it. He picked up the sack, took a deep breath, and turned in a slow circle, his eyes traveling one last time over his home.
“Goodbye, Mama,” he whispered, tears trickling from the corners of his eyes despite his effort to hold them back. “Goodbye, Baba, Alabart, Emili, Pala, Ema. I promise to make you all proud.” He then squared his thin shoulders and left Desa, heading toward the rising sun.