Tales From a Thousand Worlds

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Echo of the Ages – The Crown of Fire – Song of the Earth – Chapter 4

Chapter 4 – A Singing of the Blood

Amaran opened the flap of the tent and stepped inside, holding it open for Kathri. For a moment Kathri hesitated before following, uncertain as to what to expect but with no other choice but to do so.

A wall of heat hit her as she entered, the whole tent filled with it, making the conditions outside feel barely mild. In the centre of the tent, set on sandy ground, a fire blazed away, flames leaping and dancing. Cushions were piled up around the walls of the tent but the space around the fire remained cleared. The flames burnt with an intense heat, though without smoke. At their heart they were almost white. Small logs of wood crackled and snapped and the coals blazed beneath them, shifting as the fire devoured them. Barely had she entered than the sweat began to roll down her face.

Another old woman was in the tent, standing near the fire. Her skin was a shade lighter than the other Digari, an indication that she had a touch of ancestry other than just Digari in her past. Long hair, now mostly white, was braided and gathered up behind her neck, falling down her back. There were still hints in it of other colours in it, enough to indicate a fireblood heritage, even if the molten glow of her eyes had not announced it. While she wore a shawl, hers was draped around her shoulders. Of dark green, it had paler green flowers stitched throughout its body and with tassels around the edges that ended with tiny silver bells. They rang as she moved, filling the tent with their sound. A small iron tripod stood over the fire, a pot hanging from it.

The woman looked up from the pot as they entered, staring at Kathri. “The child is awake at last,” she said, speaking in an accent much thicker than Amaran’s. “You may have the vigour of the bones of the earth within you yet you had an ordeal to challenge even the toughest.”

From the way the pair had talked, Kathri gathered she had been out for longer than she first though. “How long was I asleep for?”

“You were not simply asleep. It has been two days since you arrived here, and another day previous that we found you. Many would not have survived but that was not likely with you.” A wrinkled hand pointed in the direction of the cushions. “Sit, child. We can not have you standing around and wearying yourself while you are still recovering. That would not do.”

Kathri collected up one of the cushions, a dark blue one with tassels of blue and silver around the edges and sat on it before the fire. Amaran stayed standing, behind Kathri, back at the entrance to the tent, almost as if he was guarding the way out. The old women turned from Kathri, concentrating on the small pot that hung over the fire. She picked up a wooden bowl from the ground, one of many, and took a pinch of a red powder from it, sprinkling it into the pot. Kathri waited quietly until the woman was finished.

“I am Sudha,” the woman said at last, “The mother of Vhara who is the mother of Amaran. It was my grandson who found you and brought you back here to me to tend, a ride of a day. You were far gone, child, hovering on the verge of the great journey. It took all my skills to bring you back.” Setting down the bowl, Sudha came around the fire and took a hold of Kathri’s chin with bony fingers. The grasp was stronger than Kathi expected. Sudha touched the spot on Kathri’s head were the rock had struck, nodding with satisfaction. The she tilted Kathri’s head this way and than before raising it so that she could stare into Kathri’s eyes. Kathri stared back into the molten eyes, noting the lines about the face that showed both worry and satisfaction. “You were depleted far beyond that which mere thirst and hunger could explain.” With her free hand, she touched the centre of Kathri’s chest. “You were depleted here, your spirit, your energy. I know that the blood of the earth flows through your veins just as the fires do through mine. You do not know how to use it properly, I can see. You attempted something far beyond your skills and it almost killed you.” Sudha released the grip on Kathri’s chin and returned to the fire.

“I have had none to teach me,” Kathri replied, “And nor deemed it wise to seek out any that could.”

Sudha picked up another bowl. “You fear the Mages?” she asked, looking across to Kathri.

“Amongst others, and who would not?”

Sudha laughed and shook her head. She sprinkled some dark green powder from out of the bowl into the pot. “Child, out here beyond the grasp of the Mages they hold little sway and the blooded are both welcomed and encouraged.”

“The kingdoms that together form the Conclave are where I spend most of my time and do most of my business. There the Mages do hold sway and attitudes towards the blooded are less welcoming. If I am to survive there then I can not draw attention to myself. Simply being blooded makes that hard enough as it is.”

“If you ever change your mind, child, then come to us,” Sudha told Kathri. “I can not teach you the ways of the earth but I know of some who may. It is best that you do so soon if you do not wish for a repeat of this. You may not have as much luck in who finds you next time.”

“When one is already near to death and not in a right frame of mind, then one is willing to attempt near anything, no matter how dangerous it may seem.”

“That is true,” Sudha said, favouring Kathri with a smile. She sprinkled another dusting of powder into the pot, this one yellow in nature. A sharp fragrance suffused the air as it fell in, one of heady spices. “As I tended you,” Sudha went on conversationally, looking down into the pot, “I felt a singing in my blood, coming from your possessions, a song of ancient origins yet familiar.” She looked up at Kathri, her gaze piercing. “You had in your possession an artefact of my ancestors. It is an unusual item to be carrying at the best of times, but to have it out here leaves us with only one conclusion, that you found it in a tomb or ruin of our ancestors and took it from there.”

Kathri heard a shifting of movement from Amaran behind her. Sudha’s expression never changed, locked onto Kathri’s face with a gaze that pierced right through her, a gaze fiercer than any she had met, the molten eyes deepening into bronzed tones. Kathri found herself unable to break the gaze, locked into place by it.

I cannot lie, Kathri told herself. Their laws of hospitality protect me as long as I am honest with them. If they catch me out playing them false however….

It is so,” Kathri admitted. “It is what I do. I recover relics of the fallen past, Hajana or otherwise, and acquire them.”

“And who is it you acquire them for?”

“Who ever will pay the most for them,” Kathri replied, still locked in the gaze.

Sudha nodded and looked away, releasing Kathri from the gaze. She took out a wooden spoon from her pocket and began to stir the concoction brewing above the fire. The smoke that rose from it had a coppery hue and the scent shifted to one metallic in nature. “And do you care about those that you take from, to bother even to learn who they were?”

“I am not some simple robber,” Kathri replied, a touch more brusque than she had intended to. The Digari had shown her nothing but kindness but the accusation had touched on a nerve. “I respect the dead, but to leave their belongings to moulder away forgotten in the ground is wasteful, given how much we could learn from them.”

A flicker of a smile touched Sudha for a moment and then was gone. “And yet you sell what you find for money.”

“We all need to make a living. This is my way. There were precious few other options available for me.”

Sudha lifted the spoon up to her nose and sniffed at the liquid it contained. After a moment of consideration, she poured it back in. She sprinkled a touch more of the yellow dust in and stirred again. “We all of us have choices, ones that we have to live with. Who was it that you obtained the item from.”

“His name was Ajanathad.”

A low laugh came from Amaran behind her, starting as a chuckle but building up strength. He fell silent when Sudha looked his way, a touch of a frown upon her brow.

“Many have sought out the tomb of that emperor over the years, child, and yet none have found it. What proof do you have that I was him?”

“I saw him entombed within. I read the markings on the wall. I saw the ravens.”

The last had been a stab in the dark but from Sudha’s reactions, Kathri could tell that it had struck home. The old Digaran woman smiled, one that seemed infused with secret understanding. “We may have fallen far from the time when our ancestors ruled these lands and yet much knowledge we retain. However, few there are that know of Emperor Ajanathad and the ravens. He was an unusual man.” Sudha’s words seemed to Kathri to be tinged with a hint of admiration as she spoke of Ajanathad, even respect. She got the distinct impression as well that Sudha knew more than she was revealing. Kathri was little surprised if it was true. Not all secrets were to be spilled to strangers.

“I had done much research on him, as much as is known within the Conclave Kingdoms, in an effort to find his tomb. Not once did I come across a reference to the ravens. I do not think even the Mages know of it.”

“For all the pride they have of their learning and the lore they have collected, the Mages do not know as much as they think, and less that they understand.”

Kathri found herself smiling. “They do give themselves airs, it is true, but they are tenacious in their pursuit of relics of the past and an understanding of it. I am surprised that they have not found out about the ravens from the Digari before.”

“A few, a very few, have come to us over the years to learn, but most look down upon us, considering us little worth the time. After all what could nomads with few who can read or write know of the past. If they think that way of us, why should we gift what we know to them? No, if they do not wish to learn then we will not teach them.” Sudha sniffed at the liquid again, this time nodding in satisfaction. She removed the pot from over the fire and poured the contents into three small cups.

“What was it with Ajanathad and the ravens?” Kathri asked. It was one of those mysteries, like the Spires of Malcadar or the Lost Sword of Kehi, that forever plagued her thoughts, an itch of curiosity, of wanting to know that she had to live with, knowing she might never find out the truth.

“No one knows that, child. Perhaps none but Ajanathad ever did. It may have been that he took a fancy to them. Perhaps their was a deeper meaning. We have not heard it mentioned. It may be that there are clues still buried in his tomb.” She looked at Kathri with another penetrating gaze. “Was it undisturbed?”

“There had been another who had been there previous to us but they had fallen victim to a trap. Beyond that it all seemed untouched. He lay entombed within, his treasure all hidden away safe.”

“And the Crown?” The question came from Amaran. He had meant it to sound casual but too much eagerness bled through into the question, almost a yearning.

Kathri turned about to face him, noting an intent look upon his face. “It remained,” she replied, “But it is guarded.”

“Do you mean to return?” he asked quietly, expression shifting to one of consideration, a tightening around his eyes.

“Some day, if I can.” she replied. “The treasure contained within is unlike any recovered before from a tomb of an Emperor of Hajana. I do not merely refer to wealth, even if it would make any who possess it wealthy beyond even the richest of the Conclave Kings. There were many scrolls as well that may still hold valuable knowledge to be unlocked.”

“It is well that you know the value of knowledge as well as treasure, child,” Sudha told her. “But Ajanathad’s Crown of Fire…” She cut short her sentence and looked across to Amaran. The tall man gave a nod in reply, face setting with determination. “The Mages would give anything for it, which we can not allow. It must be preserved.”

“They already have some in their keeping,” Kathri pointed out.

“Yes we know,” Sudha replied, a touch of sadness in her voice. “The Crowns were not meant for the likes of those. Some day we will recover those as well, just as we shall recover the one from Ajanathad’s tomb, to keep them safe and hidden until they are needed again.”

Kathri frowned, disturbed by Sudna’s words. “Needed? Why would they be needed? They are just crowns aren’t they?”

Sudha smiled enigmatically, a faint uplifting of the corner of her lips. “It would seem to be that the are, and yet for generation to generation the story has been passed down that the Crowns of Fire yet have a purpose to fulfil. We do not know what that is, though many a seer has seen them in their dreams, a light standing resolute against the darkness. Ajanathad was one of the greatest of the Hajanri, so to recover his Crown is of great importance to us.”

“You have others?” Kathri asked. The way Sudha had spoken implied they had.

“A few. More than the Mages. Most still remain lost, perhaps never to be found. If you are wondering where they are and contemplating recovering them, then I would suggest you put it out of your head. They are secure enough, I think, that even you would struggle to get them.”

“I would not dream of it.”

Sudha raised a brow before laughing. That is good. Amaran,” she went on, turning to her grandson, “You will recover the Crown and take it to the chief.”

“It will be done, grandmother.”

“It is dangerous in the tomb,” Kathri pointed out. “The traps are still active and the ground unstable. There is also a Guardian on the loose.”

Amaran laughed as one greatly amused. “I have more than a little understanding of these places, and how to explore them. I have trod ruins and tombs that none but the Digari have seen. I have been in the Vaults of Charama, the Libraries of fallen Vishari and the tomb of Emperess Bajijana.”

Kathri sat up a little straighter. “You have been to Charama? Two years back I found the place, thinking it untouched, only to discover others had been there before I and cleared the place out. It appeared only to have been recent as well.”

“That would have been me,” Amaran replied. He spoke modestly, with no overwhelming pride at his actions. It was an action to have been proud of though, as far as Kathri was concerned. Charama had proven a difficult place to crack, and to find it empty had been a big let down. It spoke much of Amaran’s skill.

“You loot the tombs of your ancestors?” she asked, turning back on them an accusation they had implied of her.

“We recover items that need preserving and safe-keeping, child, from the likes of you and others who would take them,” Sudha told her gently. She came across to Kathri carrying one of the small cups, pressing it into Kathri’s hands. “Drink, child.”

Kathri sniffed at the liquid within the cup as Sudha passed another to Amaran. It was a potent, heady brew that cleared the senses just from the aroma, yet proved not unappealing. There were hints of apple in it, though she had not seen any going in, and spices that she could not name but evoked memories from when she was young, of mulled wine shared with her uncle on cold nights. Sudha and Amaran both drank from their cups, draining them in a single go. Kathri tilted hers back and began to drink.

The liquid burned at the back of her throat as it slid down. It came less from the heat of the liquid than from the fiery nature of it, leaving the lips and tongue tingling. At the same time it was as smooth as any drink she had tasted. Almost as soon as she had drunk it, she felt her head began to spin, a light headed feeling descending upon it. Her vision wavered and swam before her, unable to focus clearly on anything. Sudha rested one hand on her forehead and cupped the back of her head with the other, helping her to lie back, resting on the cushions.

“Sleep, child,” she heard Sudha say, as if from a great distance away, just before the darkness descended upon her.

~~~~

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