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Ash & Dust Saga Book One: A Monument to Slow Death

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Two: Then

I was born in the western hills of Amerryn province, to a farmer and his wife. I never knew my mother; she died giving birth to me, leaving only my father to raise Raglan and I. He did a wonderful job, as far as I can attest. We were happy. From as soon as my brother could write his name, our father put him to work in the fields. I was a few years behind, and my father always handled me with a little more care, like I was made of glass. He didn’t once blame me for the loss of my mother, as one might expect, but instead feared for his motherless daughter. He dedicated so much more time to playing games with me, taking me on walks around the nearby hills and grasslands, though he didn’t ever teach me to read. Perhaps he believed it too much a task for his fragile daughter; he wished not to burden me with such trivial things. Or perhaps he believed it Raglan’s job to teach me, which, after our father’s death, he did.

Our home was humble, built by our grandfather’s own hand. It perched on a rise and surveyed our family’s acres of farmland. We had some hundred sheep, three dozen cows, several hutches of hens and a half dozen vegetable patches. Every month Raglan and I would help our father pick and gather the freshest fruits and vegetables, and we would haul them onto our cart and take them to market in the neighbouring towns and hamlets. Those are the days I remember most. I still smell the dirt caked on the potatoes even now, when I close my eyes. I can recall the creak of the cartwheels and the crack of the reins as my father spurred the horse on.

One particular day, my father and I left for Jho – the closest large town – to take a cartful of tomatoes, cabbages and onions to the morning market. We had set off at dawn, leaving Raglan, at only ten years of age, to tend to the crops. He spent that morning raking fresh soil until his back burned. My father knew how I liked the town, with its cobbled streets and pleasant chatter and the smell of green tea and fresh bread filling the air; and so he brought me along. The sun was rising high and bright, and the sky was a crisp and cloudless blue.

Jho is a wonderful small town, unassuming but filled with honest, pleasant folk. The people of Jho work for their bread, forging steel and shaping furniture from wood, or carving meat and fermenting grapes to make wine. They’re a joy to be amongst, and as a girl I felt the high spirits of the morning markets wash over me. I would greet strangers and curtsy to their bows. At least, this is how I remember it. I will see the town again, before I’m finished.

On this visit to the market town, under the crisp blue sky and high noon sun, my childhood came to an abrupt end. The Short War had reached Amerryn’s surrounding towns, and Jho was raided.

Until that day, only whispers had made it to the ears of the farmers and traders; whispers of attacks upon the capital city of Amerryn by bands of barbarians wearing animal hides and faces painted with blood, and brandishing crass wooden clubs and rusted axes. The farmfolk did not fear, and simply shrugged these whispers off as a dog would a wasp. What were barbarians to the city’s watch, after all? What were small bands of brutes to King Thest’s knights? But these were not bands; they were hordes. This was not one wasp, but a hornet’s nest.

Jho had a clock tower, once. It burned down on that day. That was the first thing I saw: the flames climbing the clock tower like scorched red fingers stretching up from Diyu below. My father saw it before I did, but did not manage to shield me from the sight, or from the panic which swept the streets. Laughter turned to wailing, and dancing children were hefted up under arm by their fleeing mothers. My father did the same. ‘Come on, Evie,’ he said calmly, ‘let’s get you up and we’ll be off.’ He hoisted me onto his shoulders, where I loved to sit, and he walked. He didn’t run, I think, so as not to frighten me. But I wish he had.

They started showing their faces, then: snow-pale skin and heavy-set, wielding torches and axes. And where each one of them was spotted, a fire was burning. The people of Jho were peaceful; their smiths forged tools for farming, not for war. It did not take many of the brutes to overrun the streets and frighten the people into fleeing.

My father took me down the main street, sticking close to the crowds, hoping to find safety in the mass of locals. But soon the crowds betrayed themselves, fighting to get away, or falling and tripping over each other. Some died that day by trampling by stampedes of terrified butchers and cobblers, not by the fall of an axe or a cloak of flames. What a pathetic way to die. Many were slaughtered or burned, of course, and the sudden sight of a man’s head cut from his body in the open street – another image my father was unable to shield me from – was what turned us away and down a small alley. It was quiet and shadowed by the crooked wooden walls and sloping rooves above. My father walked cautiously, gripping my ankles as I clutched tightly the locks of his sweat-soaked hair.

‘How you doing, Evie? Don’t you worry, baby, we’ll be out of here before you know it.’ I said not a word. ‘You trust your ol’ man, right?’ I managed to place a hand on his cheek, wanting to feel the warmth of his skin. He took my hand and squeezed it. ‘S’my girl,’ he said in a breath. I smiled, despite myself.

We turned another corner, down an identical side street. It, too, was empty. ‘See, baby? Yer ol’ man ain’t so daft.’ The sun was blocked out then, so quickly and terribly, and I recall the choking stench of smoke and burning bodies. The home beside us was on fire. I could feel the heat escaping it, almost scorching my face. My father moved faster, gripping my legs tighter. ‘Almost there, Evie. Almost there.’

From the back door of the burning building came one of them. He wore dark leather, stitched in all the wrong places; his lank hair, red like rust, draped in thin strands over his face. He dropped his torch, which still burned, and brandished his axe with both hands. He didn’t smile. I always picture him smiling, like he enjoyed what he was doing, but in truth he didn’t, and he wasn’t. He was angry, more so than any person I’d ever seen. A pained anger, like that of a man burdened with an exhausting limp. My father turn and ran, but was hit by a flying something; it sent him tumbling down, and we both hit the dirt with a thud. Before I had time to recover, my father had me and held me close. He looked at me then, and his eyes, blue like a robin’s egg, glistened. I saw so much fear in them. But joy, too, when he looked at me. I like to think he saw my mother in me, but I don’t really know. I felt his fear, but I could not hear his thoughts. In moments like these, you want to know what the person you are with is thinking; you want to know what they want from you, what they wish you to do. But you don’t; you can’t. In these, the worst of moments, you really don’t know anything. There is no time to think, to understand, to share a word or even a breath. I know nothing of my father’s thoughts in his last moments. He smiled, though.

The brute stood at my father’s feet, and his chest heaved with ragged and rattled breathing. He looked my father in the eye, and glanced at me. My father saw that, and he told me to run. ‘And don’t you dare look back. Run home to your brother, Evie.’ He managed another smile, in spite of everything that was happening. I found my feet, staggering and pausing to drink in the face of the thing that would kill my father.

Before I found the energy to flee, I saw the brute raise his axe. His teeth were grinding and his eyes were piercing pearls of black. He spoke slowly. Between rasping breaths, he managed to say: ‘We are not monsters. There are no monsters.’

And I ran. I ran as fast and as far as I could. I emerged into the sunlit streets, to the bodies and the blood, to the howling and wailing of innocent people. I stumbled over debris, fell into the strewn innards of an overturned cart, fought against myself to stand again, and ran. I fled past a blaze which once was a bakery, and past the carcass of a horse with its throat opened and its blood a flowing river. I reached the end of the town, and I ran still. I stumbled down the dirt road, and then had thought enough to get away from it, and I lost myself in a nearby thicket of trees.

That was the day I lost my father. I was seven years old.

From the trees, I could see Jho burning. I could not hear the screams, though, which was enough to be thankful for. I watched the town for hours, from my sanctuary between the shrubs. I hid like a frightened mouse and watched as the town where my father lay dead was sacked. The sky remained blue until the night drew in, and no rains came to put out the fires.

Even after the sun had set, I remained in my sanctuary. It was safe, and I didn’t have the strength or the will to leave it. The barbarians didn’t know about it, but maybe they knew my home. Maybe they would find me there. How could I leave where I knew was safe? But my father’s words rang, and my brother was alone and ignorant to all that had happened. And so I picked myself up and scurried home to Raglan, to bring him the news.

It took me hours on foot, but I knew the way, even in dark. I didn’t set foot on the road, but kept close enough to it so that I didn’t lose my way. The world was silent, and the black of night shrouded me like a cold blanket. I watched the stars. Though I knew not their names, I did my best to draw pictures by joining them together, to make my own constellations. The best I could do, as I recall, was ‘the sheep’, which was merely a thick cluster of dim stars to the south. It made me laugh. Little miracles.

I returned home before the sun had risen, though not by much. They say the night is darkest before the dawn, and I crossed into my home an orphan in blackest night. Raglan was still awake, sitting at the table by candlelight. He looked at me, and he searched for father in the shadows behind me. He had wisdom enough to not ask, ‘where’s father?’ but rather, ‘what happened?’

‘You remember the whispers in the village about the attacks on the city?’ He nodded. ‘They came to Jho, and they killed people. So many people. They burned the clock tower, and the shops and houses. And…’ a flash of my father’s smiling face filled my mind, ‘…and they…’

‘I know what they did. You don’t have to say it.’ He sounded like father, then; trying to protect me from sorrow, to help me keep strong the dam and not let the tears flood me.

But of course the dam broke. Every night it burst, and every morning I would build it again.

In the months following the sack of Jho, my brother and I remained on the farm. We tilled the soil, milked the cows, tended the crops, and weeded the gardens. We did all we could to keep the farm alive, and we ate all that we grew. We dared not venture into the nearby towns. We lived in ignorance of what might have been happening outside our little world. We could sustain ourselves with what we had: we collected water from the streams, and used it to boil vegetables and eggs; we crushed tea leaves; we killed one of the cows when it grew sick, and my brother carved the meat from it, and salted it, and it kept us fed for a fortnight.

We had neighbours just a half hour away by foot, and we traded our tea with them for cuts of pork and lamb. They told us that Jho was being rebuilt, that the people would not succumb to terror nor let the town fall to ruin. It was not totally destroyed, and it would stand again. The news brought me relief, but for the first time I wondered what had been done with father’s body. Did he lie beneath the earth in an unmarked grave, or was he burned on a pyre with a hundred other murdered souls? I never did find an answer to that, and I simply told myself that dead is dead all the same. But that’s not really enough, is it? Not for we who mourn, who feel our losses weighing heavier on us each passing day. We want to care for our dead, to put them to rest, to feel satisfied that we did a duty to them which they deserved. And to close the door to the past but leave the window open, just to gaze through on occasion and smile at what we see. But my door had been left wide open, and the wintery chill that my father’s death had brought in shook my bones each morning and night.

When more than a year had passed – a year in which two children fended for themselves using the rich land and healthy crops their father had left them – further whispers began reaching the farmlands. Our neighbours told us that the markets in Jho had already reopened. The city was still shaken, and still only half the size it had once been, but the markets would draw in people once again.

‘We should go,’ I said.

‘Why? We have all we need.’ Raglan was tearing weeds from the tomato patch, and he refused to look at me.

‘We can sell our crops. And a few cows. You know we have too many to handle. Two have died and another has fallen ill. We cannot care for them; we should sell them while they can be sold.’

He paused. He knew what I said was true. ‘You don’t know what’s coming,’ he said at last. ‘What if more raiders come, and we need all our food for ourselves? What if they attack the farm? We could bargain with them to leave us in peace, provided we have something to bargain with. If we sell our cattle, we will have nothing.’

‘That’s foolish talk, brother,’ I said sharply. ‘They won’t come again. And if they do, how would a cow save us?’ It sounded absurd to say aloud. ‘When father died, the streets were littered with as many bloodied carcasses of horses and cattle as they were the bodies of people. Whatever those… beasts wanted, it was not food.’

‘Then what were they after?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Of course you don’t,’ he said, getting to his feet. He towered over me; he’d grown so much in that year. ‘Because you’re just a little girl who doesn’t understand anything.’

He marched himself off to the house, wiping the dirt from his hands into his trousers.

We didn’t speak of leaving again for months. We continued with our chores, and we traded our tea with the neighbouring farms, and another cow died in the autumn.

Then the bad weather came. The winter brought a frost, then snowfall. We had already managed one winter without our father, but it had been light and brief. This was a winter like none I had lived through before. The frost iced the earth as early as the Month of Gales, and persisted for two more. During this time, the earth was hard and cracked, and nothing would grow. The snow fell daily, and by the middle of the Month of Hush, it had reached our knees. That was the worst of it. Our fruits died and our vegetables remained locked away beneath the cold, hard ground. We had harvested enough crops to survive the winter, and we had salted meats, too. We boiled red and green tea to keep us warm, and we had blankets plenty for ourselves. But a handful of hens lost their lives to the cold, and whatever sickness had begun in the cattle was spreading still, despite the dead chill air.

Raglan and I had had no choice but to wait out the winter, and we did. Our days had been as dark as our nights, and it was a terrible lonely time without father. By the spring we had all but nought left to us.

‘We must leave,’ Raglan said one spring morning, as we sat out on our porch and watched the bluebells wash over the fields like a warm flood. ‘Jho has been near enough rebuilt. We can go there.’ There was no tone to his words. He spoke flatly, and simply as a matter of fact. The winter had carved and shaped him more and more into our father.

‘But what will we do there?’

‘We can sell what healthy animals we have left, and that should buy us board and time enough to find work. It’s been whispered that parts of the town have come into a great wealth.’

I sat up and turned my eye from the ocean of flowers. ‘How’s that?’

He shrugged. ‘Some landowners from the city.’

‘But Amerryn was sacked as badly as Jho, wasn’t it?’

‘…Worse. So it’s said.’ He shrugged again. ‘Point is, Jho is stronger than ever, if the whispers are true, thanks to the funding of these city men. They’ve bought estates and rehoused people. They’ve completely restored the main street and now all the shops and businesses are flourishing like before. We have to go.’

I didn’t disagree with him, but since we’d lost father I had given not a single thought to what lay ahead. We had done well for ourselves, living day to day. I was proud of what we had done. But if the gods of Jiah had chosen to snatch away what had belonged to us, then we had little choice but to move on.

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