“Some places don’t belong to thee,
And any person better flee
The tower, sacred and morose,
Before he learns the wrath of Those.”
The Book of Alekram
Year 200 of the Ashkaratti Dynasty
It was the same man who saved Zoffra’s life twelve years ago. It seemed since then he hadn’t aged a day. The same vulpine face with plump lips and sharp cheekbones. The same eyes made of quicksand. The same pampered skin, in stark contrast to the rugged expression on his face. He looked only a few years older than Zoffra, who was twenty, but commanded the place as if he were eternal.
“Hello, Zoffra. I see you recognize me.” The man ran a hand through his thick dark hair. “We do not have much time, and I need you to listen very carefully.”
Zoffra sat on his bed, throwing the blanket to the floor. Heavy drops of sweat were dancing across his chiseled chest. It was surprisingly bright in his tent for such a cloudy night. Bright and quiet.
“I recognize you. You saved me from the gators a long time ago. But I haven’t seen you since. Why are you here?”
“You have to leave. Before the dawn, this place will drown in tears.”
“Because of the Keeper?”
“Yes. Your people transgressed, and there will be a price.” Zoffra moaned, and his fists clenched. “The Moonreader… Mad quim… Mother told me that it would end badly. Many didn’t want it but were too scared to stand up to her.”
“It is of little consequence now, Zoffra. What’s done cannot be undone, only repaid. I know you are innocent, and I’ve come to show you the way out.”
“But I’m telling you, many are innocent!”
“There’s only so much I can do and so many I can help.”
The man approached the bed, squatted before Zoffra so that their eyes were on the same level, and put his hands on Zoffra’s knees. A sudden bolt of warmth exploded in Zoffra’s legs and spread all over his body. It felt as if all pain that Zoffra had ever carried subsided, giving way to rapture. The silence was absolute. The man turned a bit pale. Then he caught Zoffra’s concerned look and smiled, showing that he was alright.
The interior of Zoffra’s tent bore little personal touch. The shaky bed with a bunch of rags which served both as pillows and sheets was the centerpiece. The makeshift wooden rack to the right carried another bundle of rags Zoffra considered his clothes. The two piles were probably interchangeable and differed mainly in the intensity of stench they produced. Then there was a low table made of a large piece of limestone attached to a dilapidated wooden crate. A dented clay mug on the table completed the dismal ensemble. Only two things in that place seemed to have been taken care of by their owner. One was a thick piece of stale bread, scrupulously wrapped up in yellow, velvety leaves. The other was a book that sat firmly on the table next to the mug. Its leather cover was so clean that it shone. The Covenant, also known as the Book of Alekram.
“Take this.” The man fished out of a pocket of his grey costume a little something and placed it in Zoffra’s hand. “This is a compass. When you put it down, the arrow always points to the north.”
The man stood up and stretched his legs. He was built more elegantly than Zoffra: taller, with a more gracile physique. Still, an experienced hunter himself, Zoffra could appreciate the ease and force with which the man moved his body. Zoffra looked down at the device in his hand. The arrow was shaking timidly, trying to divine the right direction. After a few heartbeats, it made up its mind and pointed somewhere behind Zoffra’s back. The young man flipped the compass. Its bottom was engraved with a runic inscription. The Old Language.
“Is it Iskorian?”
“Yes, it is. Quite old but works very well.”
“What do the runes say?” Zoffra brought the compass closer to his eyes as if physical proximity could make the unknown tongue more comprehensible.
“It says ‘There’s no greater virtue than curiosity as there’s no greater reward than knowledge.’”
“How does it work?”
“I see that you agree with the motto,” the man observed dryly but not without sympathy. “Earth exerts an invisible force called—”
“This body of land upon which we all walk that you call Ta’aiala produces a special aura which can be detected by the hand of the compass because it is made of a material susceptible to that aura. The aura has a certain shape which forces the hand to always turn to the north.”
“And because the aura is produced by the whole of Ta’aiala, the compass will turn its hand in the same direction wherever it is used?”
“Correct. I’m afraid we do not have time to talk more about how the compass works because I still need to tell you what to make of it…”
“I will not leave without my mother and my sister.”
“You may take Sulcra with you, even though the journey won’t be easy. But your mother won’t make it.” “Then I won’t go.”
“She wants you to go.”
Zoffra stood up and made a few steps towards the man until they were close enough that both could hear each other’s breath. Then Zoffra pressed his hand against the man’s chest and looked him in the eye. The man calmly looked back.
“Yes, Zoffra, I do have a heart.”
“Then you are not a spirit. You’re only human, no matter how much you know or can do.”
“You could say that I guess. But I believe that it’s only how much you know and can do that defines who or what you are. We’re almost out of time, and I suspect you will want to say goodbye to your mother.”
Zoffra withdrew his hand and walked out of the tent, the compass clenched in his fist.
They were standing next to each other, watching Zoffra’s figure being absorbed by the bleak fog. It had been almost a minute since the smaller silhouette of Sulcra became indistinguishable. The way the brother and sister were leaving their tribe was both solemn and somber. Knowing that they were observed, Zoffra took on a brisk pace. Nobody promised them a bright future. They were just given a chance not to die the day thirty-four hundred of their Ubutszu brethren were going to.
The old woman broke the silence, “Will they both make it?”
“That I do not know.”
“But do they stand a chance?”
Sounds of fighting were growing more and more distinct.
Screams of people, clunking of metal, thumping of horses’ hooves; it all blended with the ashy smell of incendiary arrows. Some women were running around, trying to find a safe place for their children. Others were scurrying with baskets full of water, dangling from rockers. The fire had already started its repast, chewing on the village piece by piece, house by house.
The man in grey made a quick gesture, and suddenly all the noises were gone. He turned his delicate face towards the old woman and asked, “Why didn’t you leave with your children?”
“Old. I’m way too old.”
“They could have helped you. Zoffra is strong and capable. With each day now, he’ll become even more so.”
“With the journey, maybe. But what about the destination?”
“And what about it?” There was a glimpse of curiosity in the man’s eyes as he looked closer at his interlocutor. The woman’s face was of many stories and little regret. It had the color and texture of terracotta, with lines all over.
“I wouldn’t dare to come to where they’re bound. The place will change them. I’ve lived a long life. Fifty-one years and three moons. Too late for me to change, isn’t it? And I wouldn’t want to anyway. I was Marian Ru’ufus when I married my husband. I was her when I gave birth to Zoffra, Sulcra, and the other four babies who didn’t make it. I was the same woman when I buried my husband. I don’t want to change now. What for?”
“My son, he always says that it’s important to know the truth even if it hurts, even if it makes you suffer. He’s right of course. But there has been enough pain in my life. What I need now is a bit of hope, not the truth. So, I’m asking you again, do they stand a chance?”
“At least one of them does.”
People were fighting all around them now, but the man and woman were standing in an impenetrable bubble that protected them from the rampage. No sound from the outside could sift through, no arrow could enter. More than that, judging by the reaction of the combatants, or by the lack of such, the two were as invisible as they were invincible.
“This power of yours, what cost did you pay for it?”
“It has always been mine.”
“That’s not what I’m asking.”
“Fair enough. The cost is that I can do anything that I don’t care to. But I can do very little of what I’d like.”
“Then it’s even greater than I thought.”
“I have to leave. You may ask me one more thing. That’s all I can offer you now.”
The woman looked over her companion’s shoulder. Behind him, out of the perimeter of the protective sphere, hundreds of people were tearing each other apart. The finest particles of blood permeated the air and formed a scarlet haze. Bodies of humans, horses, and dogs were falling on the ground, torn and desecrated. Deprived of all sound, the scene felt sublime, almost cathartic. In the thick of battle, the woman noticed the mercurial outline of Laurene the Moonreader. Insane she was indeed. But one couldn’t deny her audacity. The Moonreader wielded a double-bladed scythe, an intimidating but awkward weapon, more suitable for ritual oblations than a fight. An apple-sized medallion, hanging on a piece of horse tendon, swayed erratically from side to side as she cut her way through the carnage. The orb. The man followed his companion’s gaze. His eyes narrowed when he noticed the artifact. He started raising his hand, and the air around him glowed in colors Marian Ru’ufus never knew existed. Suddenly, he changed his mind and let his hand drop. He turned to the woman and nodded as if to say that then and there he was all hers, as she was entitled to that last question he had promised.
The old woman fixed her eyes on the man’s face. “Was there really the Great Apostasy?”
A certain perplexity showed through the inscrutable composure of the man.
“I know nothing about it. Is it something from the Ubutszu history?”
“Oh no, not at all. Our wretched people ain’t capable of anything great. Much less, apostasy. It’s about your… kind.”
“As I said it is beyond my knowledge. It could be that I’ve learned about this event under a less dramatic name. If you tell me the story, I may—”
“No!” The woman’s voice sounded grave as a thousand sins. It was the first time in their conversation when one interrupted the other. “If you are lying, there’s no point. If you’re telling the truth, I don’t want to be the one who puts that burden on you. Not after all you’ve done for my family.”
“So be it.”
“I know you are much older than I am. Much wiser, too. And smarter beyond my imagining. But there are things which one only understands through being hit by life, through falling down, kneeling and crawling with a mouth full of sludge. You see these lines running deep all over my face? Some of them are the marks of years lived. But most are the marks of lessons learned. I wish dearly that you never have to learn any of them.”
The man flinched. He wasn’t used to being talked down to. Especially not by a tribal person whose understanding of the workings of the world was elementary at best. He closed his eyes and rubbed his eyelids. The macabre spectacle raging all around didn’t feel real. He could escape it at any moment, unscathed, unnoticed, unbound. It was in his power to take any person’s life or save it, at least for the time being. Death was optional. What he couldn’t do was stop the bloodshed itself. Even the bloodshed he might have helped instigate. The man put his hands on the woman’s shoulders and answered, “Thank you.”
She smiled at him maternally. It appeared inappropriate and natural at the same time. The woman kissed the hand on her left shoulder and said, “Even though you couldn’t answer my question, I will answer yours.”
“I do not have any.”
“I think you do. The one about Zoffra’s father. The answer is ‘yes.’ He remembers you. He won’t stop until all of you fall. Until the gates of the Stronghold are torn down.”
The woman turned around and stepped out of the protective field, prepared to face the inevitable.
A journalist and PR executive by trade, Kesha Bakunin started his career in one of the former Soviet states. As his country slid towards authoritarianism, social conformity, and religious orthodoxy, he emigrated to preserve personal integrity and professional independence. Having watched his homeland fall prey to a most bizarre mix of secular autocracy and religious extremism, Kesha felt compelled to document and share his observations in the form of a cautionary tale.
Since no local publisher was willing to represent Stronghold without excisions and adjustments, Kesha had to rewrite the book in English. You can get in touch with Kesha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Categories: book excerpt