Rashali trudged barefoot across the dusty road to the river, her back bent beneath the wooden yoke, the sun beating down on her shoulders though it was still early in the day. Yet another rainy season had passed with barely a smattering of raindrops. Today there wasn’t even the faintest wisp of a cloud in the sky. The bed of the Uz was nearly empty, and, after years of shortages, this year’s barley crop would be the worst in living memory. The shrines at the riverbank were nearly bare of offerings, and soon there would be nothing left to give. Then what would persuade the god and goddess to finally mate and make the rains come again?
More likely, plague and famine would take them all first. Rashali’s husband and small daughter had died five months before, and Rashali had nearly died too, and still the sickness lingered, killing off the people of Moon Bend and the other nearby villages one and two at a time. Some days it seemed that the funeral pyres burned without ceasing. Why under Heaven had she been spared? Rashali wondered yet again. The ones who had died were the fortunate ones. In the House of Araskagan, the dead no longer suffered from pain, hunger, thirst, and sorrow.
At the river, under the watchful eye of the Sazar guards assigned to the watering place, she unhooked her buckets from the yoke and waded into the muddy water, joining the handful of villagers who were already there. Most of the riverbed was exposed to the air, rotted fish corpses and water-plants embedded in the drying mud. Closer to the shallow stream of water, the dead fish were still rotting. The stink was overwhelming. The disease-spirits the dead fish released into the river were so powerful that the water had to be boiled to drive them out. It was a shame to lose precious water to steam, but that had proved to be the only way to bring the plague under control.
Squatting in the river, Rashali filled her hardened clay scoop with muddy water, then poured the water into the sieve made of woven grass which she held over the bucket. Patiently, she watched the water trickle, then drip, into the bucket. She dumped out the spent mud, poured another scoop of water into the sieve, and let it drip into the other bucket. She did this over and over, more times than she could count, careful to alternate buckets so that they would balance on the yoke.
It took her until the sun had gone a quarter of the way across the sky to fill each bucket nearly half full. Enough water to last her, her widowed sister Kinna, and Kinna’s three surviving children for the next two days, if they used it carefully. The guards wouldn’t let you fetch water more often than that, and if they thought you were taking more than your share they made you pour out half of what you had onto the dusty ground.
Rashali picked up her buckets, wincing at the pressure of the handles on her still-tender palms. In her frenzied grief, she had tried to beat out the flames of Tigun and Lalana’s funeral pyre with her bare hands, and the burns had taken all these months to heal. She cursed the Sazars silently and fervently as she waded out of the river, the muddy hem of her dress clinging to her shins, then hooked her buckets back on the yoke, put the yoke on her shoulders, and stood up slowly, her back protesting. It had been the Urdai who had built the system of canals and dikes and pumps that had turned this desert into a rich green oasis. The Urdai had been a wealthy and noble people, the greatest civilization in the world, until three generations ago, when the bloodthirsty, barbaric Sazars had come screaming down from the northern mountains. The Sazars had taken for themselves the narrowest, richest place between the two rivers, where the great city Zir and the fertile farmlands north of the city lay, and kept the dams there closed, allowing barely enough water to flow south for the Urdai living in the dry, rocky Gourd to scratch out a living.
She paused to let one of the Sazar guards, stern and invulnerable in his hardened leather breastplate and helmet, look into her buckets. She stood stiffly, hating him. If it weren’t for the Sazars, the water would be flowing in the river instead of trapped behind the dams. If the Sazars hadn’t defeated the Urdai, the gods would not have turned their backs on the Land of the Two Rivers. If it weren’t for the Sazars, Tigun and Lalana would still be alive.
“Go on, then,” the guard grunted in poorly-pronounced Urdai.
As Rashali started back across the dusty trade road that lay between the river and Moon Bend, she bit back the anguish that still, after all these months, threatened to overcome her at the thought of her husband and daughter. They were gone, Araskagan had sung them into the House of the Dead. Her grief would not bring them back. Even if she knew the Name of the Mother of the Gods, she couldn’t bring them back. All she could do was go on living, and somehow, someday, see them avenged.
Without warning, there was a rush of pounding hooves from her right, and a voice shouted, “You, Urdaina! Watch out!” A wall of black struck hard against her right side. She tumbled to the ground, the yoke sliding from her shoulders, the buckets spilling their water onto the thirsty ground.
Rashali got to her feet, stumbling on a twisted ankle. Three Sazar warhorses stood in front of her, a huge black beast flanked by two slightly smaller dark brown horses. From their mounts, three Sazar warriors clad in silver-trimmed black stared down at her.
Hate and rage clouded her senses. These sallow-skinned, narrow-eyed barbarians had degraded and destroyed her people. They were responsible for the deaths of her husband and daughter and countless others. And they had spilled her water. She drew up precious moisture into her mouth and spat at the man in the middle, the man whose black horse had knocked her down.
The three horses danced and snorted like demons. Two long, curved, gleaming-sharp swords suddenly loomed above her head. The man on the right jumped down from his horse and grabbed Rashali in a choke hold. The point of a knife pricked the skin beneath her chin.
Tears of terror filled Rashali’s eyes and her heart raced painfully, but she refused to look away from the warrior in the middle, whose richer silver trimmings marked him as superior to the other two. She would not bow down, she would not give way, she would not grovel before a Sazar, even if it cost her her life.
The moment seemed to hang suspended as the warrior gave her a long, hard, searching look, as though he were trying to peer into her mind and discover how she dared to defy him. Then he sheathed his sword.
Rashali stared at him in disbelief, as did the other two men. Surely, she thought, he couldn’t have decided to show mercy. The Sazars had no mercy in them. He spoke a few sharp words in the Sazar language, his tone that of a man accustomed to unquestioning obedience. The other man on horseback returned his sword to its sheath, but the man holding Rashali tightened his grip around her neck. He pressed the knife harder against her throat, and said a few words that sounded like a protest. The leader repeated his orders in an even harsher voice. After hesitating for several heartbeats, the third man let go of Rashali, sheathed his knife, and climbed back up on his horse. The commander gave Rashali another long, searching look, then flicked his horse’s reins to go on his way, leaving Rashali standing in the dirt where her spilled water was rapidly drying.
“Lord Sazar!” Rashali’s heart pounded at her daring, but desperation drove her to speak. He looked at her again. “My water spilled when your horse ran into me, and the guards at the river won’t let me have any more.”
“It was you who ran into my horse, Urdaina,” he said in accented Urdai.
“The water isn’t just for me. It’s also for my widowed sister and her children. She’s too weak to come to the river herself.” She waited for his response, hardly daring to breathe.
He looked at the damp patch where her buckets had fallen on the ground, then reached into one of his saddlebags and flipped something small and round into the dust at her feet. “Give that to the guard, and he’ll let you have more water.”
So she was forced to abase herself before him, after all. Her face burning, Rashali stooped over and picked up the object he had tossed to her. It was a copper medallion half the size of her palm, stamped with two mountains, a wolf overlaid with silver, and some Urdai writing. She could read the writing but couldn’t understand the words; they must be in the Sazar language. Was this the man’s personal seal, or simply a coin to bribe the guard with? Rashali had seen few coins in her life, and none this big. Clutching the medallion and keeping a wary eye on the warrior, she limped over to her yoke and eased it onto her shoulders, then started back to the river.
“Wait,” the Sazar lord called to her. Rashali looked back, certain that he had changed his mind. “What is your name?” he asked.
Surely she had already used up all her luck today; she couldn’t afford to test the gods’ patience, or the warrior’s, by refusing to answer him. “Rashali, Lord Sazar.”
He seemed to consider her name for a moment, then nodded once. “Go on.” He and his companions rode off, heading south along the road.
Gripping the medallion in her shaking hand, trembling from the aftermath of fear and humiliation, Rashali watched them ride away. If it took all of her life and everything she had, she vowed as she had so many times before, she would see the Sazars crushed down into the dust.
~ Heaven ~
“We have a duty, brother-husband.” Hanisar, the goddess of air, glared at the god of water across their cloudsilk-draped chamber in the Palace of Heaven. “The mortal world depends on us for rain!”
“I’m sick of duty, sister-wife,” aqua-faced Anki replied. “I’ve got more interesting things to do. Things that aren’t entirely pointless.”
“Perhaps this time it will be different.” Hanisar softened her voice as she switched from nagging wife to pleading lover. “Perhaps this time we will have the son Mother promised we would have.”
“Thanks to that prophecy, Mother got herself banished to the Nether, and Father cursed us to be childless. And so we will be.”
“Father thinks he can control what happens, but Mother always saw true. If she said we will have a child, then someday, somehow, we will. But we can’t if you won’t cooperate.” The nagging note crept back into Hanisar’s voice. It rankled at her that Usu and Ninharsa, god of fire and goddess of earth, had been blessed with many sons, thousands upon thousands of fire and earth spirits that lived in the mortal world below. Hanisar and Anki had no one, only the promise from their mother—which had resulted in her being cast out of Heaven by Ar—that one day they would have a grandson, born of their son and Usu and Ninharsa’s daughter, who would rise above Father Ar himself.
“Can’t we talk about this later?” Anki asked petulantly. “I’m busy now. My new civilization is reaching a critical stage.” He returned his attention to the viewing-crystal in his hand.
“The people are becoming desperate down there. They need rain!” Hanisar grabbed the fist-sized crystal sphere from him, and turned it to show the Land of the Two Rivers. “See how bad it is?”
They watched a thin woman, her dark skin smeared with dust and mud, labor to collect water from the dying river, watched her trudge on weak and weary legs back towards her village, saw her near-disastrous run-in with the enemy prince…
The sullen boredom on Anki’s face gave way to a thoughtful look. Hanisar waited, holding her breath. Usually, when Anki thought, little good came of it. Like that ridiculous new civilization of his. The last thing she needed was for him to think of something else to distract him from his duties and her desires.
“Let’s make a wager,” Anki said. “If the woman we saw marries that prince, I will be at your command, whenever you want. If she doesn’t, you’ll leave me alone.”
Hanisar’s mouth dropped open. It was impossible. Ridiculous. There was nothing under Heaven that could bring those two, peasant and prince, sworn enemies, together… Which was exactly what Anki wanted her to think. She closed her mouth as she reconsidered the wager. She had spent enough time with Innina, the goddess of love, to know that where the hearts of mortals were concerned, nothing was impossible. “Agreed,” she said.
Anki smirked; of course he would think he had already won. Hanisar returned the smirk with a smug inward smile of her own. Far from being settled, the contest was only beginning.
* * *
In the Hall of Heaven, a vast space of pure white stone and flawlessly clear crystal, the debate that had been going in circles for three generations of mortals raged on. “They are weak!” Martuk, the god of war, thundered yet again. “They cling to the ways of the past without ever trying to become stronger; they thought that, because they were favored of us, they didn’t have to do anything but pray and we would do their fighting for them. They let themselves be conquered!”
“We failed in our duties,” Shaz, the god of wisdom, said. “How could they have known that these barbarians would be so strong, or so desperate, or pay so little heed to the established rules of warfare?”
“War is war,” Martuk replied, “and only fools expect their enemies to hold to the rules.”
“But the Urdai are the only ones who still remember all of us,” the goddess Niuz said. “If they are destroyed, most of us will be forgotten.”
“There will always be madmen and dreamers,” Uzoma reassured her. “Just as there will always be beer and wine and men who love to drink them.” He patted his expansive stomach happily. “And these so-called ‘barbarians’ are extraordinary brewers. We won’t be forgotten.”
“There will always be madmen and dreamers, drunkards and wine-bibbers,” Niuz retorted, “but the mortals will forget that madness and dreams and drink are gifts from us, and they will no longer offer their thanks.”
“But can their lack of gratitude truly cause us to no longer be gods?” Shaz asked. “Does it matter what or who the mortals worship, as long as we remain here in the Heavens?”
“It would be so boring, with no one asking us for help,” Birku, the patron of thieves and tricksters, said.
“They could do quite well enough without your help,” Shaz muttered.
“The Urdai already have little enough use for me,” Kuz, the god of wizards, put in. “Unlike the ‘barbarians.’”
“I’m never bored,” Innina said. She cast a sultry glance at Uzoma, Shaz, and Birku. Martuk, for whatever reason, always seemed immune to her charms. “And the mortals will always be praying for success in love. Sometimes it’s all I can do to keep up with their desires. I shall be worn down to nothing by all the work.” She heaved her generous bosom in an exaggerated sigh. Uzoma and Birku watched her, transfixed, seeming to have forgotten that they were in the middle of an argument.
“Idiots,” Martuk said. “I still say it would be best to let the mortals fight these conflicts on their own, and let the strongest nation win. I am sick of complacent weaklings expecting me to aid them against warriors who are more worthy of my help.”
“The Urdai kings were anointed by us to hold that land forever!” Damuz, god of kings, said. “Are you saying we should go back on our word?”
“The Urdai murdered their divinely anointed king!” Kuz retorted. “By that action alone, have they not forfeited the right to our protection?”
“We can raise another king—” Damuz said.
“Who proves himself worthy in battle!” Martuk interrupted.
“Enough!” Ar, the Father of the Gods, bellowed from his crystal throne. “I am sick to death of all this arguing!”
“You can’t die,” Birku said. “You’re the Father of the Gods.”
“I can wish, can’t I? You two!” he snapped at Anki and Hanisar. The pair looked guiltily at their father. “What is this wager I hear of? Explain why you have failed to carry out your duty!”
Hanisar’s beautiful face turned as dark and dangerous as a typhoon. “I’ve tried, Father, but he—” she pointed at Anki “—spends all his time puttering about with some new civilization he’s raising up.”
“Water-priestesses, Father,” Anki said. “Naked swimming water-priestesses.” He held out his viewing-crystal for his father to see.
Ar dropped his craggy, bearded face into one hand. “Ah, Seer,” he muttered, “why did I banish you? I should have banished myself, and let you deal with our children.” He raised his head again. “When we, meaning the Four Firstborn and I, agreed to create a world, we made a covenant that we would each carry out our individual responsibilities in order that the whole would function properly. In failing to abide by this covenant, Anki and Hanisar, you have failed us all. I command that your wager be made void immediately.”
“We can’t, Father,” Anki said. “It’s already written. See?”
The God of Heaven rose from his throne and stalked across the hall to a clear crystal window. Indeed, a number of stars had been rearranged into a new, intricate constellation, spelling out the agreement between the god of water and the goddess of air. “So I see. What is done is done, then.” Of course, Ar thought, the wager wasn’t entirely a disaster, if it meant that the prophesied conception of Anki and Hanisar’s son was indefinitely delayed. Not that they could possibly conceive, anyway, not after he had cursed them to be without issue, but still, just to be safe… “Since it is written in the stars, I will have to let the wager stand.”
As he finished speaking, a light appeared in the center of the vast hall. The light brightened to an intensity that would have blinded mortal eyes, then a white-robed woman crowned with a wreath of green leaves stepped through the light into the Hall of Heaven. Behind her, the doorway of light faded.
“Ajiha,” Ar said, surprised. The goddess of peace had voluntarily followed the Seer into exile in the Nether and had returned to Heaven only rarely in the ages since then. The absence of her balancing influence against Martuk partly explained why wars and contentions raged among the mortals. Of course, Ar reflected, the mortals were perfectly capable of getting into trouble without any help from the gods.
“Father.” Ajiha bowed her head. “I bring word from the Seer.”
The hall grew silent. The Seer had seldom spoken in the eons since her banishment; those few times, her counsel and warnings had proved to be uncomfortably, devastatingly accurate. The gods didn’t dare ignore a message from her, though they might want to.
“The words of the Seer.” Ajiha’s face and voice became expressionless as she related the Seer’s message as though the Seer herself spoke through her. “The wager stands. The gods are to cease their disputations concerning the fate of our first mortal children and the favored land that was given to them.” She held out her hand to Anki. Though Ajiha was a younger, lesser god, Anki handed over his viewing crystal without protest. Ajiha passed her hand over it to show the woman Anki and Hanisar had seen. “The Seer foresees that because of this woman’s nature and the vows she has made, she will be in a position of influence with many men who seek power over the land, who will desire her. Through the heart of this woman, the land itself will choose its ruler: the man she chooses as a worthy husband will also be the man most worthy to be king. Her choice is not to be forced or interfered with; according to the covenant of the gods, should the gods interfere with the sacred right of mortal free will, they will cease to be gods.”
Expression and personality came back into the goddess’s face, and she handed the viewing-crystal back to Anki. The woman remained visible in it. “These are the words of the Seer.” Ajiha nodded to Ar. “Until we meet again, Father.” The passageway of light reappeared behind Ajiha, and she departed through it.
“That woman?” Birku demanded, peering into the crystal as conversation and activity slowly returned to the hall. “She’s going to choose who should rule? She isn’t even very pretty!”
“A woman doesn’t have to be beautiful to be desired by kings,” Innina said. “This could be interesting.”
“Hear me!” Ar bellowed. The gods fell silent again. “It shall be as the Seer said. There will be no interference in the woman’s choice. Would you have us lose our godhood? Any who interfere in this matter will be banished to the Nether. Is that understood?”
In the cowed silence, rainbow-haired Zashtag, the goddess of birds, stepped forward, the long, feathery spikes of her hair bobbing and fluttering with her movement. “Father, this woman was born under my sign, to my protection. Deciding the fate of nations is a dangerous business. I request the right to give her such assistance as may be necessary to preserve her life.”
Ar studied his bright-haired, bright-spirited daughter for a moment. “Very well. You may aid the woman, but only if her life is in danger.”
Zashtag bowed her head. “Thank you, Father.”
The gods gradually returned to their business. A small group gathered around Anki and his viewing-crystal to observe the woman who had been chosen to determine the fate of a land. Ar sat back down on his throne and sought to calm his mind. Surely there was no chance that the woman would choose the prince, the descendent of the hated conquerors, the man named in Anki and Hanisar’s wager. Anki and Hanisar would have no son; no grandson would be born to the Four Firstborn to rise over all the other gods. He, Ar, the God of Heaven, the Father of the Gods, was safe in his throne in the Heavens.
Copyright 2013 Kyra Halland. All Rights Reserved.
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