The Second Instalment

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Thank you to all who sent me feedback, both on the draft cover for my book and on the prologue.  Here is the final version of the cover, and, for those of you who asked to read more of the book, here is a link to the beginning of chapter one.

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[toggle title=”View”]Chapter 1 – Thirteenth Cycle, Day the First, evening
Sharn whistled as he strode out of the village in the direction of the old mill, where he was harvesting the reeds to dry for thatching. He carried his scythe balanced on his shoulder, hoping to convince anyone who might see him that he was on his way back to work. Although it was nearly dusk, this was entirely plausible: he was a hardworking man, and the other villagers would expect him to take advantage of the last precious hours of daylight.
Moreover, he had a pretty but discontented wife, and many of the other young men sympathised in silence with his desire to provide an ever better lifestyle for her, even though she never seemed to appreciate his efforts. They had, however, long since learned not to commiserate openly with him, for Sharn would not allow any criticism of his beloved Vetia.
Luckily, the village’s more curious souls were all indoors at this hour, and those that saw Sharn pass were busy with their own affairs. So there was no-one to notice the change in his demeanour, once he had walked towards the old mill for a further few hundred paces after crossing the ditch that marked the boundary of the settlement. As he branched off into the woods, his whistling ceased, and the jaunty, carefree air was replaced by a furtive manner that seemed out of character.
Creeping stealthily deeper into the undergrowth, he soon reached the clearing where the old oak had fallen during the early storm a cycle ago. He approached the hole where the roots, now chopped for next year’s fires, had lain, and placed the scythe next to the two large bundles of reeds that he had hidden there earlier that day. As he continued on his way, the absence of this tool of his trade seemed to have removed the last vestiges of his confidence, for now he tiptoed with great caution from the shelter of one tree to the next. In this tortuous way, he gradually approached the woodland hut that was his goal.
* * * * *
Dhoban was starting to get a trifle exasperated with his sister. “This is supposed to be a calm communion with the spirits that I’m preparing! It’ll be easier for me to relax if you don’t hurry me away,” he gently chided her. “It really doesn’t matter if I take a bit longer to get ready.”
“You said you needed to leave straight after supper,” Serin reminded him anxiously, “And you know you prefer to set up your hide while you can still see what you’re doing!”
“But we’ve only just finished clearing up after our dinner, and you wouldn’t have liked me to go without tidying away the things that I used in the Followers’ ceremony this afternoon. Besides, this is a full-moon meditation, after all, and as long as the clouds stay away, I’ll be able to see all night.” Although his voice was mild, his sister could hear the edge in his words, and knew better than to continue harrying him.
“I just want it all to go well tonight,” she explained. “It’s vital that we choose our apprentices wisely, and we do so need the spirits’ help.”
“Well, I’m sure they’re aware of that. And they’re not likely to refuse to advise us on such an important matter. Are you sure you won’t come with me, if you’re so concerned that the session should go well? The two of us might receive more guidance than I can get alone.”
“No, I’ll meditate at home, as usual,” replied his sister, “But I thank you for being willing to share your vigil with me.” Knowing how much he preferred solitude for his all-night sessions, she was touched by his offer and regretted her earlier shrewishness. She stroked his cheek tentatively with her finger, in her customary way of asking forgiveness, and he, recognising that Serin found it hard to apologise in words, accepted the gesture by covering her hand with his own. They resumed their preparations in silent harmony, and Dhoban was nearly ready to leave when a firm knock on the doorpost took them both by surprise. Serin brushed past her brother in her haste to draw aside the curtain and reveal their visitor. “Master Farren! Master Ronil!” she exclaimed. “Do come in.”
Dhoban respectfully ushered their guests to the only two chairs. “This is a great honour,” he said. “May I prepare a drink for you?”
“Nay, lad, we’ve come on business, and the sooner we get down to it, the sooner we’ll leave you in peace.” Farren pushed his chair a little further from the table; he felt that his prosperous figure gave him a dignified air that matched his position as chief elder in the village, but it demanded plenty of room to be comfortable.
“If you’d prefer to speak to Dhoban alone,” said Serin, “There’s plenty I could be doing outside.”
“Nay, sit down, both of you.” When the two young people were perched on the edge of Serin’s altar, Farren continued, “Ronil and I have come, as the two most senior elders in the village, to ask you both to reconsider your decision to take on apprentices.” He held up a hand to forestall their objections, and explained firmly, “When Pero and Passenda left for the Priests’ Gathering, of course they said you could hold services during their absence – you were their apprentices, after all! And then when we heard, a cycle or so later, that foreign sunservers had murdered all the moon-priests when they were supposed to be under Mikon’s protection … well, that was a bad time for our community. We needed time to grieve. The Followers needed comfort – we couldn’t have taken away their spiritual support. But times change. From what Master Ronil hears on his travels, these new fanatics have established a firm base in our country, and we’ve got to think about how we can best protect our village.”
“But that was such a long way away!” exclaimed Serin, but her brother interrupted with a more reasoned argument.
“The deaths of Pero and Passenda were a terrible tragedy, I agree; even more so for my sister and myself than for anyone else. Like you, we lost our spiritual leaders, companions on our paths, and most esteemed friends. But we also lost those who brought us up. Pero and Passenda had been like parents to us, ever since our mother and father abandoned us so long ago.
“So we too grieved their passing,” he continued. “We wondered how the spirits could have allowed them to accept Sunserver Mikon’s invitation, how so many of their most faithful servants could have been killed without omens to guide them to safer choices. But, after much thought, meditation, and communion with the spirits, our position is this.
“Sunserver Mikon sent messengers to invite the noblest and most devout Moonfollowers to attend a double ceremony, for his solstice and our full moon. The two don’t often coincide; it would have been an especially powerful time in both our religions. He wanted to take advantage of this conjunction to forge links that would enable the two main religions of this land to stand united against the threat posed by the Tarkan fanatics.”
“They are no threat to Mikon!” interjected Farren, “For they also follow the sun.”
“And perhaps that makes them even more dangerous to Mikon than to us,” countered Dhoban smoothly. “As Pero explained to me, the sunservers run the risk of their beliefs and practices being gradually corrupted, precisely because at first glance they resemble the newcomers.
“Anyway,” Dhoban picked up his thread, as if the interruption had not occurred, “Pero believed that Mikon was sincere. When you, Master Ronil, first brought us news of the tragedy, I did wonder if perhaps the sunservers had invited so many moonfollowers just to make it easier for the fanatics to murder them all at the same time. But having thought it over carefully, I have to say that I believe that it was a devastating blow, that so many of our fellow priests were in Jentok when the fanatics arrived, but that it was a tragic coincidence, rather than a plot conceived or assisted by Mikon.”
“Nevertheless,” Ronil Merchant pointed out, “You moonfollowers lost your most experienced leaders. And the fact that the newcomers were able to take everybody unawares, even their fellow sunservers, shows that they are a dangerous and unpredictable force.”
“That’s true,” acknowledged Dhoban, “And Serin and I weren’t sure, at first, what we should do. That’s why no services were held for a full cycle after we heard of our mentors’ deaths, except for their mourning ceremony. But then we held a conference, to which our Followers and the elders were all invited. You, Master Farren, were present at that meeting in both capacities.” In spite of Farren’s seniority, Dhoban held up his hand in a deliberately imitative gesture to forestall interruption, and went on, “It was decided that the way should still be followed, and that Serin and I should lead it. This was in spite of the fear that the Tarkan fanatics might gain an ever more secure foothold in our country. Indeed, in my opinion, the greater the threat, the more essential it is that we continue seeking the cooperation of the spirits. At the meeting, you and the other elders present all agreed that they have treated us well. Our harvests are always good, and our soil and growing conditions suit a wide variety of crops. We’re close enough to Levrik to be able to get city prices, and yet far enough away that they don’t really interfere with us. We may not be as wealthy as Carshak, but our river never lets us down, neither by flooding nor by drying up, and what use is gold if villagers be drowned or dying of thirst? We all agreed that we had many reasons to thank the spirits, and that we shouldn’t risk angering them by refusing to acknowledge them. If the times are dangerous, then we need their goodwill more than ever.”
“We have only your word that the spirits want us to continue following the moon,” grumbled Farren.
“You may be a greybearded chief elder, and I merely a youth of seventeen years,” retorted Dhoban, “But I am Master in my profession, and deserve respect!”
“You’re right, lad: I was over-hasty. We did, it’s true, agree that you and Serin should lead the way, provided that you took certain necessary precautions. But taking on apprentices is a step too far.”
“It’s an essential part of leading the way; priests must have started training their successors by the end of the year in which they become Masters.”
“But one of the reasons that you were allowed to continue as priests was that only those who lead forfeit their lives if the fanatics catch them!” shouted Farren. “They don’t kill believers, only priests.”
“And that hasn’t changed. We’ve known since the summer, Serin and I, that the fanatics may kill us, if ever they sweep this far east.”
“But now you want to take on apprentices, and risk their lives, too!” Like Dhoban, Farren had risen from his seat, and both were glaring at each other, unmindful of their respective positions as lords spiritual and temporal within their community.
Serin touched Dhoban lightly on the shoulder, and he obeyed her unspoken command to sit down. She then walked slowly over to Farren, and stroked his upper arm consolingly. “I think that you no longer speak here as chief elder,” she said gently. “Else why didn’t you object when we first appealed for applicants to work with us, over a cycle ago? If I may say so, you’re allowing your personal feelings to cloud your professional judgement.” Farren slumped back onto his chair, and lowered his gaze, defeated. Serin continued, sure that she had his attention, although he was not looking at her, “We recognise, Dhoban and I, that leading the way has become a dangerous profession. Nevertheless, it must be done. And if the spirits are to rid us of these Tarkan usurpers, it must be done well. We must therefore honour the moon in all her phases; we must keep vigil for her; and we must start to train our apprentices. We will, of course, continue to take all possible care: Pero himself taught us to vary the time and place of the moon ceremonies, and, like Passenda, I keep our sacred herbs in my dispensing stores, amongst the remedies and medicines that the community relies on me to produce. My altar is a plain shelf, except when I’m actually using it for sacred purposes, and Dhoban’s vigil hides are plain shelters, such as any itinerant might build in the woods.”
“And how will you minimise the risk to your apprentices?” demanded Farren hopelessly.
“We will do all that we can,” interjected Dhoban. “Our best weapon in fighting off the newcomers is the support of the spirits, and to get that we need to preserve the traditional ways. We must, therefore, have apprentices, and we must present them to the Followers. I suggest, however, that we don’t register the apprenticeships with the council of elders. In that way, all that is necessary for the spirits will be done, but their secular training will be the only one on record, should strangers meddle in our affairs.”
Farren still had a dejected air, as if the young priests had not offered enough, but he made no reply. After a concerned glance at his friend and colleague, Ronil therefore brought the meeting to a close. “It is something, at least, that you both acknowledge the dangers,” he said. “But in my travels as master merchant, I shall test the mood of other villages and towns, and report back to the elders and to you. If circumstances change, we may need to confine your activities further.”
“I do hope not,” retorted Dhoban, as Serin brushed past him to hold back the door-curtain for their guests, “For I am sure that the village would be more likely to suffer in the future, if it were less well protected by the spirits.”
“Then let us hope that your spirits drive back these Tarkans before such a decision becomes necessary.” Ronil nodded his farewells, and followed Farren from the hut.
“That was unexpected,” mused Dhoban quietly, as he watched their guests walking back towards the village. “It was clever of you to make it clear that you had understood why Farren was really concerned, without betraying moonfollowers’ business to Ronil.”
“It needed doing.” Serin was facing her altar, as if preparing herself to commune with the spirits, so that Dhoban could not see her face. “You know, even though we’ll have to talk about what the elders were saying at some point, it shouldn’t be now. It’s late, and we’ve both got important work to do tonight.”
“You’re right. I should go to my vigil hide, and you should start your meditations. Are you still happy to stay and work here alone?”
“If we’re likely to get opposition from the elders, it’s even more important for us to be sure that we know the spirits’ will. So we’d better each try to contact them in the way that suits us best.”
“Then I shall be on my way. I’ll be back in the morning.” Dhoban was puzzled when Serin lowered her face to his cloak and stroked his cheek as he hugged her. He would have asked her why she was asking his understanding or forgiveness, but she turned quickly from him and lit the sacred flame on her altar. He dismissed his surprise and hurried away through the dusk.