First Interlude

Excerpt from The Rooftops of Lakortia

 

Arden was done with the last grave, the smallest grave, but he had no more tears to shed.  The heat from the village temple was as intense that afternoon as it had been in the morning when his work began.  The god of that temple, the god of his ancestral village, had not intervened, nor was it giving him any comfort, and once again he cursed it.  He took the little bundle in his arms and placed it in the hole, and collapsed in grief for his infant, his daughter Lilly.  She always had dirt on her bottom because she never crawled, he remembered.  Born in the autumn, during the first snow of their high mountain village, a snow that would melt away as it hit the thatched rooftops, his daughter had been born with sky blue eyes.  Unlike many of the infants of the village she was lucky enough to keep them.  They were bright, and true, like the sun in spring time, and her skin was as soft as any infant ever was.  She had a propensity for growling, and barking with such ferocity the village dogs kept their distance.  And when she wasn’t hungry, she smiled, or grinned, and when she growled she had a gleam in her beautiful blue eyes like the world was nothing more than a source of amusement for her.

His village, too small even for a name, was in the foothills of the crescent mountains and had been for a thousand years.  It was nestled in a valley between three hills, and had neither wealth nor plenty.  The people were tough and simple like the hills; they farmed the tiers on the hillside in the spring, and hunted in the fall, just as their father’s and father’s fathers had done.  They had a small flock of sheep, whose wool was too coarse to sell, but good enough to wear.  There might have been only 250 villagers, some of the young people would leave during the good times, and some of the babies and old folk would die during the bad, but most often, most years, life had a modest rhythm.  They might get hit by a roving band of outlaws once in a generation, but there were riper fruits for outlaws in the hills south of them, villages with ambition and more fertile land.  In this small modest way, Arden’s village had managed to survive for more than two millennia until three days ago.

Arden was a little odd for his village.  He was something of a loner, and liked to wander the hills for days at a time hunting by himself.  He wasn’t the best hunter, nor the worst, but he brought in the most kills because he wandered a lot.  He also had one of the few horses in the village, which he had saved up for for three seasons.  His wife was a quiet woman who was strong and beautiful in her simple way, beautiful to him anyway when they were young.  She had brown hair, thick and shiny, hands rough from good work, and a little gap between her front teeth that he adored.  Her cheeks were ruddy and full, her body slight but muscular, and her eyes were a deep brown like her hair.  The two of them still were only in their twenty-eighth year.  He couldn’t find her body when he got back from the hills two days ago.  She was gone, carried off, he guessed, by the same men who murdered his baby girl, his Lilly.  He couldn’t find his boy Aiden, a dark eyed boy of seven years who was strong like his mother, named for Arden’s uncle but quiet like himself.  His little house was burned and collapsed, and Arden just didn’t have the strength to dig through the ruin of his life and bury another child.

An army had passed some miles away to the northwest on their way to the obscure Khelaro Pass, but never got within half a days ride of Arden’s little village.  They had sent a man to see if they might buy anything, they offered good coin, took some hides and some sheep for mutton, and had cordially walked out of their village and their lives.  That was some ten days ago, and Arden thought it safe to hunt northwest a days ride to the pass and check the armies progress.  The signs had been clear, they had gone straight to the pass, and he turned back to give the village with the good news.

He found the buildings of his village burning, and everyone massacred.  His mother had been crushed by her falling house, his uncles Aiden and Crofe were cut down where they stood in the middle of the village with spades in their hands.  His cousin Jill was gone, her husband Bran was hung from the old oak tree in the center of town.  His other cousins, all young boys and girls under ten were piled in the center of the village hacked to pieces.  His Lilly was with them, in his cousin Jen’s arms, smothered, not a mark on her.  His baby.  All his friends were there, all his family, his grandfather was tied to a post and burned, Arden could tell it was him from the half-melted iron necklace he always wore.  Some of the young women were taken, he guessed, he couldn’t account for their bodies if they hadn’t been.  They were gone with his wife, and his boy.

Arden lay beside his Lilly’s grave and again almost wept.  When he had found his baby, he had held her limp body and cried and wept, and pounded the earth around him with his fists till they bled.  When he thought he was done, her little arm fell against his arm, and he thought of all the times he held her on his lap, how he would hold his arms out, and she would grin, and hug him, burying her face in his chest.  He cried himself to sleep holding Lilly, and woke with the crows.  Then he went to work, and there he was at the end of his work, burying his entire life.  He cursed his god, himself, and all the world, then cursed them all again, then filled in the graves.

Sometime later Arden sat in the dark by the smoldering temple, and wondered what he would do next.  He held a blade in his hand, a machete, not good for much more than field work, but it might go through his chest if he fell upon it properly.  He was always strong, and he could have–he might have been able to fight them.  And then what, he asked himself, die with your uncles?  He was fast, and knew the hills better than anyone; he could have grabbed Lilly and ran.  And then what, he asked himself, abandoned the rest of your family only to be run down by soldiers riding trained war horses?  It seemed like everyone was dead except the women who were taken, everyone.  Everyone from his Lilly to the elders, all dead.  No one had escaped, and he wouldn’t have either.  The little valley that made his village difficult to notice, also made it difficult to escape.  He tested the blade on the machete.

He heard shuffling behind him, and turned and saw a thin figure in the smoke, small and delicate.  He might have been afraid it was a ghost before what happened to his village.  Once or twice he knew he saw something wispy in the woods he couldn’t account for, and built a large fire in response both times. How absurd it was that he could ever have felt fear of such a creature, how strange that anyone could, when true despair was so easily proffered by the hands of evil men. Let it come, be it demon or spirit sprung from the trauma of his village to take him away, he cared not.  They could torture him as they pleased, for he would feel no pain; they could have his life, for it was already buried, and they could have his soul, for it was already dead.  He let the machete drop, and waited.  The figure drew nearer; the tears he thought were run out began to pour down his face again.

Aiden, his boy, his strong boy, was alive.

“My boy,” Arden said.  “My boy.”  He heaved a sob, and stumbled to him in disbelief.

“Da,” was all the boy whimpered at him, and just fell to crying as Arden embraced him.

“My boy, come here my boy, it’s okay my boy,” he said over and over, “it’s okay, it’s okay,” sometimes even meaning it.

“Why did you let it happen,” his boy said through tears, his mouth was open and heaving sobs followed.

“I’m sorry my boy, I am sorry,” was all he could say for a while.

And he was.  Sorry for being weak, and small, and not having died.  Sorry for being poor, and tired all the time, and being a loner, and only really feeling happy in the woods alone or when his children hugged him, or when his wife loved him.  He was sorrier than he had ever been, and so happy, he could have wept till the hills of his ancestors crumbled into dust.

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