Part 2 – Song of the Earth
Prologue – An Ancient Stone
The Past – c. 308 Hajanri Era
The jangle of a horse’s harness rang through the airy woods, echoing among the tall silver barked trees and up to the broad canopy above. It mingled with the calls of many birds and the sigh of the branches as they swayed in a gentle breeze. A white horse, sleek and powerful, picked its way through the woods, the sound of its hooves mostly muffled by the lush green grass that grew beneath the trees. A tall, black skinned man rode the horse, one with silvered hair that hung long and free, metallic in nature and not the sign of age, for he appeared young despite it. Sharp eyes of iron looked out from a narrow face, taking in all around him with a piercing gaze.
The man wore rather simple riding garb, of woven trousers dyed a deep purple over which were laced high leather boots, black with silvered lacing, and a lightweight black shirt edged with silver thread. Golden earrings were in either ear and he also had a golden stud in his nose. More gold glittered upon his fingers in the form of rings while a heavy chain hung around his neck, one set with a small frosted opal. There was a curved dagger thrust through a heavy belt which had a buckle of gold. The hilt of the dagger was worked with silver in the form of a spread winged eagle, the eyes of which were set with two tiny rubies.
The rider halted his horse in a small opening in the forest, formed where a tree had toppled over from age and opened up the canopy to sunlight. He sat there, head tilted to one side, listening intently. On the breeze carried the distant sound of other horses moving, and the bark of hounds.
The rider changed his course, heading off in the direction of them, pushing his horse from a walk into a trot. He ducked beneath a low hanging branch, festooned with yellow flowers. A small babbling brook appeared before him, one of slow flowing dark waters. He forded it, crossing into a forest glade of thick grass and golden sunlight. A Hajanri soldier stood guard in the glade, in a shirt of black iron scales, bearing a long spear and a broad shield emblazoned with the raven emblem of the Emperor. The soldier turned at the sound of the approaching rider, standing up straighter when he saw the rider.
“Where is the Emperor?” the rider asked of the soldier.
The man pointed off through the woods, following the course of the brook down stream, not in the direction of the horses and hounds as the rider expected. “He is that way, My Lord.”
A frown creased the rider’s brow. “He is not in pursuit?”
The soldier maintained a stony face, guarded as he answered. “He found something of interest.”
The rider nodded. It was a refrain becoming more common from what he had heard, the Emperor becoming distracted by other matters. “Thank you,” he replied, urging his horse forward again, following the stream.
The forest was in the full bloom of spring around the rider. Flowers blossomed in profusion among the thick grass, a riot of colours that clustered in mounds, while yet more bedecked many of the trees. The air was filled with the perfume of their scents. The brook gurgled and splashed across a bed of sand and small stones. Golden beams of sunlight pierced the broad canopy above, bringing brightness to the soft green light of the woods. It set motes of dust to glittering as they drifted through it and played across the waters of the brook. Large golden butterflies whispered through the air, dancing about the golden beams of sunlight, while dragonflies darted above the surface of the brook.
It all seemed most peaceful, a place of serene quiet. The rider knew what lurked in the woods, though, and the reason why the horses and hounds gathered, along with the Emperor. A sense of urgency swept across him and he picked up the pace.
Some few minutes following the brook, he emerged from out of beneath the canopy into a large open glade, bright sunlight suffusing it. In the centre of the glade rose a large standing stone, grey in colour. Tiny sparkles of light reflected from its surface as the sun played across it. It stood three time the height of a man tall, and perhaps the height of a man wide. The flowers in the glade grew thickest around its base, some even climbing up its sides on vines. The largest ones were of a deep red, while smaller purple and yellow ones mixed in among them, while the climbing blossoms were of an orange colour, shaped like tiny bells. Many butterflies swirled around the stone, drawn there by the array of blossoms.
A powerful black horse stood in the glade, one bearing a richly decorated saddle. A long bladed sword was carried upon the saddle, the scabbard glittering with inset lapis lazuli and rich opal. At first there was no sign of the rider until a man emerged from behind the stone.
He was tall, even more so than the rider, his skin a deeper shade of black. Hair like flames was gathered back behind his head while a simple circlet of gold sat upon it. The features of his face were proud without being haughty, immensely focused, but at the same time open and friendly. Eyes like burning coals shaded with the amethyst of curiosity studied the stone closely. They drifted back to their natural colour as he spotted the newly arrived rider.
The rider swung down from his saddle and dropped to one knee before Ajanathad, Emperor of Hajana.
Ajanathad smiled as he saw the rider, motioning him to rise.
“There is no need to stand on ceremony here, Kapraji, my old friend. I had not expected to see you here.” He turned back to the standing stone, his eyes softening. “Tell me, what do you see here?”
“Lord Emperor?” Kapraji looked up, a silvered flash of confusion rippled momentarily across his eyes.
“The stone,” the Emperor explained. “Tell me what you see.”
Kapraji tied the reins of his horse on the branch of a tree at the edge of the glade, leaving it there as he walked over to the stone. As he approached, he could see that at some point in the past it had been carved, taking on the crude likeness of a bird. Given the manner in which it had been done, and the look of it, it had been done a very long time ago he felt.
“It looks old,” he told the Emperor. “And rather primitive in style.”
Ajanathad smiled faintly, one tinged with amusement and secrecy. “Primitive you say? Old at least, that is for certain. Take a closer look at it Kapraji. Walk around it and study it in detail. You may be surprised.”
Another silvered flash passed across Kapraji’s eyes, a ripple of colour. The Emperor had insisted though and so he complied. He began to walk around the statue, a swirl of butterflies passing before him. He looked closely at the standing stone, trying to make out what it was that the Emperor saw in it. As he walked the carving of the bird disappeared from vision, vanishing back into the stone. At first he saw nothing else out of the ordinary but then he saw other animals begin to emerge from out of it, viewable only from certain angles, animals more hinted at than truly seen, the essence of them. There was a bear in mid swipe, a wolf leaping, a stag running and others beside. Whoever had done it, Kapraji came to a new respect for, as it had taken much skill and vision to do what they had done.
“Who carved this?” he asked of Ajanathad after he had completed a circuit of the stone, the image of the bird showing up once more.
“It is unknown. They had much talent though, that much is for certain. Why scrap the stone to within an inch of its life, to torture from it images of animals that stand out stark and lifeless when they could do as here, to merely assist the stone to reveal its true nature? It is a simpler form of art, but better for it, I think. Our artists could learn much from it.”
“You prefer that to the works of our own artists? It may look impressive, but how would any in a thousand years time know who the artist is trying to represent?”
Ajanathad turned to Kapraji and smiled. “Do I need to be in my full imperial regalia for people to know who I am, Kapraji?” He shook his head. “No, a simple crown will do that. So it is with the carvings on the stone.” He laid a hand upon the surface of it, almost reverential in nature. “If only I could have known them,” he added in a softer voice.
Kapraji cleared his throat. “Lord Emperor, the pursuit is under way.”
Ajanathad nodded slowly, removing his hand from the standing stone. “I know, Kapraji. For a moment I could forget. It is a heavy burden we have undertaken,” he added wistfully. Then he face hardened, the fires in his eyes burning brighter. “Let us deal with this creature.” He turned and left the stone behind, heading for his horse.
“Lord Emperor,” Kapraji began to say, almost hesitant, “Where are your guards? These are Briothan lands and they are far from being pacified.”
“The Briothans are not a concern,” Ajanathad assured Kapraji as he swung up into the saddle of his horse. “They and I understand each other.”
Before he had ridden out west to join the Emperor, Kapraji had heard many rumours of what Ajanathad had been up to, spending time among the Briothans, speaking with them and their leaders. Some whispered that he had partaken in their secrets rites, neglecting his own people in favour for a people little better than barbarians. Kapraji had known Ajanathad too long to believe it, but it was true he had been away from the capital for longer than was good for the Empire. Trouble had brewed in his absence.
“Lord Emperor, it is not just the Briothans. There are assassins as well. We have heard that the Rampuri have sent them out.”
“Do not trouble yourself with that, Lord Kapraji,” Ajanathad replied with what Kapraji felt was unnatural confidence, almost apathetic to the situation, as if the concept of assassins were beneath him. “There are no assassins here. They are of no concern.”
That had been another rumour that had reached Kapraji, of the Emperor’s absolute certainty in what he was doing. There had been other Emperors before him that had a sense of confidence as hard and unbendable as iron, but with Ajanathad they spoke of a man who knew with absolute certainty that what he said was true and what he pronounced would come to pass. That he so often proved to be right troubled many. An Emperor with foresight made schemes and stratagems difficult, and even harder to depose of, should then need arise.
Ajanathad urged his horse forward, leaving the glade and heading into the woods, making towards the sounds of pursuit with Kapraji riding behind him. As he did, a sudden loud detonation, like a peal of reverberating thunder, shook the woods, causing birds to rise from the trees complaining loudly. The sky, though, was devoid of clouds or any hint of a storm.
Ajanathad looked up at the sound of it, head tilted to one side. “It has begun,” he announced.
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