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Chapter 1: The Oraunt’s Fall

The Valley lay across Naithan’s center. From it, the King ruled, and the people went about their business. Seven cities dotted the Valley’s great sweep. Of them, Becopton sat farthest to the southwest. Its walls were twice a man’s height and opened only at two points: a southern and northern gate. The streets inside the city were eclectic. Stones paved some, and others were compact earth. A number were narrow alleys. Others opened into broad walkways along which horses and carts could pass each other. A few widened enough to become marketplaces where merchants and farmers parked their wagons and competed for sales. According to the last census, more than three thousand Becoptonites inhabited the city. The noises and smells of their lives were ever drifting through the city’s air.

Beyond the walls, farms lay in all directions. Fields of various crops grew interspersed among dead lands too rocky for human use. A farm hut sat as sentinel near each field, and its inhabitants were either landowners or caretakers for a wealthier city dweller. Small villages lay even further out.

From the city’s southern wall, one could see beyond the farmlands and mark out a large stream that flowed down to the great Liantin River. The stream’s path was evident from the trees that grew up alongside it, for wild greenery was rare now that spring was turning to summer. A few farmers kept trees to shade their homes or identify their lands’ border, but not until the stream’s bank did they grow densely.

Anyone seeking shade could retreat to the water’s edge, which was invisible until one stepped through the trees to the embankment. Women living beyond the walls would wash clothes there (leaving city dwellers to compete for use of another rivulet near Becopton proper). On warm days, children ran along the embankments or splashed in the water. However, this afternoon, traffic was light. Today was a holiday.

Nevertheless, Renent sought solitude here. The nine-year old boy enjoyed the stream and lingered there whenever he could. He would quietly exit the southern gate and make his way between the farmlands to disappear within the trees. He knew his station and the awkwardness of attracting attention, so he tried not to walk too slowly or quickly down the road. The boy reminded himself that he was not like the other children. His father sat on the Council as treasurer and was more important than any man in Becopton except Lord Crailis himself.

When Renent became old enough to leave the house unattended—a memorable event three years prior—Farant, his mother, sat him down.

“You mustn’t become close to all children,” she said, “for when their father or mother hears of it, they’ll use you to take advantage of your father. We’ll find companions suitable for you.”

Renent’s siblings had all been stillborn, but his mother’s plan brought him a few playmates. Those children who shared his aristocratic predicament joined him occasionally. When they gathered, they avoided other children and often went either north of the city to the woods or south to the stream.

Often, though, Renent had to keep his own company, as he did today. He took off his sandals and stepped down the embankment. The water ran low without recent rain, so a few stones protruded above the surface. He stepped onto one. Small fish scurried around him above the underlying silt and sand. Losing interest, he hopped back to shore, proceeded until he came to a narrow point, jumped across, and leapt back again. He attempted—but ultimately failed—to climb a tree. The weather harkened back to spring rather than forward to summer, so Renent broke no sweat.

The day’s upcoming events raced through his mind. He envisioned the food, gathering, and ceremony. This was the Feast of the Oraunt’s Fall, the holiday memorializing that great day 1,137 years ago (as the priests computed and reminded everyone). Qualiae, God of all, had saved the people and destroyed their enemies who marched into Naithan. In so doing, Qualiae put down and slew the Oraunt, an enormous bird lined with scales and fur—a creature spawned of great malice. Qualiae thus reaffirmed to all Naithanites that he was their protector, their God.

“From him have you come, and in him is your guidance.”

This was what—as Renent heard many a time—the scriptures said. Today, more than any other day, the people were to reflect on that wisdom.

For as long as he could remember, such teachings were before him. This year, he resolved to show his gratitude as the adults did. He remembered back to when he was little and could not even sit through the ceremonies.

“This year will be different,” he thought as he jumped for an overhanging branch.

He caught it and swung suspended in the air.

His conscience seemed to call out at that moment: “Why not begin now?”

Renent dropped to the ground. The notion’s obviousness resonated within him. He wanted privacy and peered around the outermost tree. No one was coming. He found a dry and level patch of dirt, dropped to his knees, and raised his arms. The boy pressed his fingers together—palms open, facing forward but with forearms bent back slightly. Renent had assumed this posture many times in worship hall. Now he must say something.

“Qualiae, God,” he began, looking up through the trees into the sky, “hear me. I thank you.”

He repeated this line a few times because it seemed like the perfect thing to say.

“I thank you. I thank you. I thank you.”

The rhythm bolstered his confidence, and he began to speak freely.

“I wish I’d been alive when you killed the Oraunt. I’d have given anything for that. The people alive then: can they hear me now? I wish I could see as they did. I wish….”

A stick snapped somewhere behind him. Renent jumped up, embarrassed. Turning, he saw nothing but was too self-conscious to resume. He sat against a tree. His gaze began up at the branches and then dropped to the stream.

“It was here,” thought Renent, as he often had before. “Here that the battle happened.”

The priests said the Moramarg, the lords who had sought to usurp God’s world, moved armies over the Great Mountains westward. They crossed the Liantin River and seized land all the way through the Passage of Tabitef out to the Coast. From there they turned to the South. Some surely passed through this very spot, Renent thought. At Tilial, the godly made their final stand, and Qualiae passed his judgment and destroyed the Oraunt. Renent’s eyes gleamed with excitement.

He reflected that sometimes someone outside the city would dig up bits of metal, and people would clamor to see them. Often, the conclusion was that the scraps were pieces of armor or spearheads. Given their odd shapes, they must be residue of that great battle. One of these days, Renent told himself, he should dig into this very embankment. He might find something he could dedicate to Qualiae at next year’s holiday.

He walked back out from the trees, stretched his palm out to cover the sun, and realized from its angle that the time had come to return home. He noticed that slivers of both the major and minor moons were visible in the daylight. Other than the sun itself, these two spheres were among Qualiae’s finest gifts. Although only a full major moon could provide sufficient light at night, its smaller sister still hung like a jewel in the sky. It reminded Naithanites of both the simplicity and elegance that was Qualiae’s sense of beauty.

Renent moved as nonchalantly as possible back along the road through the crop fields. Drawing no attention to himself, he reached Becopton’s southern gate and walked past the guards, who permitted pedestrian traffic to enter without comment.

 

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Sir Tormeten’s house was in Becopton’s southeastern corner. It was large enough to have its own courtyard, where grew a few trees and bushes. A servant watered them using either a nearby well or the rivulet near the walls.

Renent’s father employed four servants. Chief among them was Xzax, who kept the treasury’s records. His job was to know things, and he seemed ever ready to provide Tormeten with whatever information he required. He spent much time in the house but lived a couple of streets to the west with his own wife and three children. Another servant, Lahall, worked the kitchen, while the others tended the house and ran errands.

A gated archway separated the courtyard from the street, and Renent saw his mother as he passed underneath.

“There you are,” Farant said. “We’re leaving for Council Hall a bit early. We should be there well before sunset. Do you know what to wear?”

He did and said so. His mother was orderly. She took her role as a councilman’s wife seriously but not obsessively. Farant expressed her opinion when necessary and was rarely flustered.

In short order, Renent put on a set of nice clothes (he owned three). He and his mother proceeded to Lord Crailis’s house. Xzax and his family met them in the street and accompanied them.

Foot travel did not take long between even the remotest points within the city walls. The group said little lest casual onlookers eavesdrop into a councilman’s household in conversation. Upon arrival, they entered through a great front door. The servants knew that they enjoyed unrestrained access.

Becoptonites called the house’s largest room Council Hall. It was a long, sprawling place with a ceiling over two men tall. The walls were an elegant sanded stone. At one end of the hall was a large hearth, and along the opposite wall, the councilmen’s chairs lined up like a row of gold-gilded teeth. There Renent’s father and the others conducted the city’s public meetings. Tonight, however, those seats of power—which could determine the fate of the guilty and innocent—were merely a backdrop to long banquet tables set up specially for tonight’s dinner.

Renent quietly stood by his mother as the evening began, and soon at least one hundred people filled the room in a din of conversation. The servants brought out food.

Lord Crailis seated himself at the head table. He was a poised man in public, never showing too much emotion and typically prepared with the right balance of words. His beard and still-full head of hair were turning gray, but he maintained a healthy figure. The public observed whenever he went out for his frequent horseback rides across the Valley. Next to him tonight sat his two sons. Both were young men who had not paid much attention to Renent since—he vaguely recalled—they played with him when they were his present age and he was quite small.

Renent’s father sat on Crailis’s other side. Tormeten was among the youngest councilmen, but his prominence exceeded his age. Six years prior, the old lord and Tormeten’s father both died within several months of each other, and Crailis and Tormeten inherited their positions. That experience cemented a bond of friendship between them that grew ever since. Tormeten was now the Lord’s closest confidant.

As treasurer, Tormeten monitored taxes and the Lord’s public wealth. He had taken over other duties too. He was master of the city walls and set the rotating schedule of city dwellers conscripted to man the gates and lookout posts. He was likewise chief of the fire patrol. As such, he ensured that large barrels of water and refined dirt stood stationed throughout the city to quench sprouting fires, and he ordered the water replaced periodically lest insects colonize it. Tormeten took these last duties most seriously of all and feared fire as others fear snakes, for too much—as Renent often heard him say—of the city was wood.

The other six councilmen also sat at the head table: the lead priest, who organized the city’s worship; the ambassador, who maintained rapport with the surrounding cities; and the four judges, each of whom managed a quadrant of the city and settled minor disputes—the major ones reserved for the whole Council or just the Lord himself. The rest of the head table consisted of the Lord’s guests, in each case wealthy Becoptonite merchants. The merchants often vied with the Council for authority over the city’s affairs. They questioned the Council’s usefulness and argued that they contributed more directly to the city’s prosperity. Thus, the merchants were constantly the objects of the Lord’s generosity and appeasement lest their loyalty and tax payments become shaky. Such generosity was on full display this evening.

At two other tables were the wives and children of those at the head table. Renent sat quietly next to his mother, who spent most of meal conversing across the table with two merchants’ wives. For Farant, this was not merely a holiday banquet. Her role—as it was for all councilmen and their wives—was to be a good host to the merchant families, and she performed enthusiastically. As the dinner progressed, she matched compliment for compliment, returning praise of her attire, child, or wit with a more glowing assessment of the other’s. Renent, vaguely aware of these dynamics, tried to be as invisible as possible and let his mother do her work.

Servants presented new dishes and cleared empty platters from both these tables and the rest, at which sat other fortunate Becoptonites, including Xzax’s family. The sun set, and the fireplace and wall-mounted torches replaced its light. The smell of a special herb gravy, prepared only for this holiday, permeated the room.

To Renent, the smell brought back to Renent fond memories of past Feasts of the Oraunt’s Fall. He remembered his first time in Council Hall for this banquet. He had squirmed a lot, so his mother whispered instructions to go entertain himself by the fire. Ultimately, he had fallen asleep on the hearth amidst the celebration. He thought now about when his father woke him up at the end to carry him home with the smell of those herbs still in the air. Tonight, however, was different. He was growing up now.

 

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With dinner over, Lord Crailis arose, and the room fell silent.

“We gather here again to commemorate our liberation, our freedom from death itself. This is a special occasion for each of us from every generation. Qualiae is the object of our praise. We thank God.”

The Lord spoke a few more words and signaled the servants to come forward. They moved the tables aside and set up rows of benches facing the Council chairs. The guests stepped out of the way to the hall’s edges and then took their seats with the fireplace behind them. The councilmen occupied the first row, and Renent sat next to his mother in the second.

The lead priest stood before them and—as Renent had tried to mimic earlier—raised his hands with palms facing forward and forearms slightly bent back, the flickering firelight thrusting his arms’ enlarged shadow back and forth over the Council chairs. Everyone else did likewise. He spoke a ritual prayer that Renent knew well.

“To Qualiae, God, be our devotion, be our hope, be our tranquility. We are yours, for thus you made us. Our today is yours, as was our yesterday; so too our tomorrow.”

The priest struck an informal tone. He lowered his elbows but kept his palms up in their original posture—blocking the view of his shoulders—as if ready to spring into prayer again. The audience’s hands returned to their laps.

“Today is my favorite day. I think on this day, more than any other, we look back and we look forward at the same time.”

Renent did not immediately understand this, and an odd image flashed in his mind of a man looking to one side and then swinging his head so quickly that one eye detached and remained where it originally was while the other looked in the new direction.

“Today is a point for us,” the priest continued, “when our past and future meet. We remember all that Qualiae did for us. We focus on him and his acts.”

The priest paused and slowly looked across the crowd, trying to make eye contact with as many as possible.

“But we do this fully knowing that our memories are a promise of the future—a reminder that what Qualiae once did, he will do again and continues to do even now. He made us for his purpose, and he keeps us for his purpose. The past”—he tilted his still-positioned hands to one side—“and the future”—he pulled them in the other direction—“are combined in the wholeness of God’s will and intention.”

Renent understood this, and the point struck him. That which caused the Oraunt to fall long ago was still at work today. Today and tomorrow were as much on Qualiae’s mind as that great day. Renent closed his eyes, thinking he could meditate on this more deeply with them shut. He clenched his eyelids tighter and tighter, presuming an association between the pressure he applied and his ability to concentrate.

The priest elaborated more and then introduced what everyone knew to be the center of this evening’s gathering: the performance of the youth. A select group of Becoptonite boys and girls practiced this for an entire thirty-five day cycle of the major moon. The preparations seemed to be a source of much discussion around Becopton—especially in the performing children’s households. Renent was a few years too young to perform but aspired to do so. He only feared he might lack surefootedness and render the experience more an embarrassment than a blessing.

 

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About fifty youths waiting in an adjacent room now entered. Some wore robes or streamers that floated behind them. Others hid behind masks. They assumed different positions in the room—some going immediately to the front and others waiting behind the audience for a later cue. Still others carried flutes, drums, and harps and arrayed themselves on both sides to surround the guests with sound.

A boy, dressed in a simple black robe with a fur on his shoulders and head, went to the front center between the first bench and the Council chairs. He stood, staring at the ceiling. The room was silent except for the sparking in the fireplace behind. The drums suddenly began in a burst of sound that sent tingles racing through Renent’s body.

The boy on stage, as everyone knew, portrayed Excor, a child of the first generation that Qualiae willed to life. Excor was born eastward, beyond the Great Mountains, but Qualiae taught him to cross over and settle here in the sprawling lands surrounding the Bay of Actra, which marked Naithan’s southern border. Flutes and harps sounded, representing Qualiae’s voice. (Renent knew that casting a particular youth as Qualiae’s voice would be unseemly, and the audience already knew well the story and Qualiae’s words.) Excor walked back and forth, motioning at different times as if he was swimming or climbing. These were his journey’s hardships. At one point, a girl—Excor’s wife, whom Qualiae found for him part way through his travels—joined him.

Soon, the couple halted in the stage’s center, and six boys—three from each side—surrounded him. These were Excor’s sons. Everyone knew their historical and geographic significance, for they sired the six original nations surrounding the Bay of Actra. Kelm, the eldest, was the forefather of Kelmar, a vast country that now lay well to the south. He ignored Qualiae’s will—as the youth depicting him now played out—so Qualiae turned his back on Kelm. The second, Lyth, also abandoned his calling, as did his descendents, the Lythanites, who now lived to the north. Three more brothers strayed, and their nations scattered and died off. Each son played out his story in turn and exited.

Only Naith remained on stage. He was loyal to Qualiae, and Qualiae stood with him. His progeny included this very audience, for Naithanites were heirs of the work Naith began with Qualiae’s guidance long ago. The boy playing Naith acted out the various struggles he faced as he laid the foundation for this country while Qualiae—still speaking through harps and flutes—instructed him.

The pace picked up, and the audience moved through several hundred years as Naithanites fought against their adversaries, comprised mostly of the other brothers’ descendents or invaders from beyond the Great Mountains.

Then came a day when Qualiae appeared in a great light—or, for purposes of performance, a row of children dashing across stage alternately carrying torches and silver plates to reflect the light. The instruments reached a crescendo. Qualiae caused to appear a magnificent golden temple in which the Naithanites could worship him and remember his dedication. The temple in the hall was a series of painted and decorated boards that other youths whisked onto the stage behind the row of light bearers.

The performance moved forward a few generations to when Naithan’s enemies, more powerful than ever, marched into the land from the east. During the ensuing battle—which the boys vigorously portrayed using sticks and wooden shields—the invaders brought with them fire powered with great evil. They fought their way to the temple and melted it. However, Qualiae did not abandon the Naithanites. When the brutality ended—and when another row of torches and silver plating dashed across stage—Qualiae preserved the temple’s foundation along with the steps leading to it. Though the temple was gone, the Golden Steps remained as a shining monument.

Centuries rolled on. The youths portrayed key people who served or challenged Qualiae and, in the interest of time, skipped others. They came to this evening’s epicenter: the greatest of all attacks upon Naithan. Some of the youth retreated behind the audience to don robes of brown and red along with masks of contorted and hateful faces. They burst onto the stage in fury.

These were the Moramarg, the council of men imbued with power from an evil force on an island deep in the Great Sea. With enormous armies, they conquered lands beyond the Great Mountains and invaded Naithan. Renent looked behind him. As he suspected, all of the youths, except the musicians and the Moramarg themselves, were now soldiers, marching across stage only to dash behind the audience to do so again, forming an endless line. This army marched westward. Some crossed all the way through the pass of Tabitef to the Coast. The rest encamped throughout the Valley. Becopton did not yet exist, so enemy tents must have covered the land. This, Renent remembered, was when the enemy must have left the metal relics in the earth.

Having occupied the Valley, the Moramarg prepared their final assault on Tilial, which lay north of what was then Naithan’s capital. There, Railif, the soldier whom Qualiae appointed to deflect the initial waves of enemy forces, gathered with the king and Qualiae’s prophets to make a final stand. On this day—1,137 years ago, as the priest reminded everyone again that evening—the Naithanites summoned their courage and faced the threat encamped across the Valley.

The situation grew still worse, for on the mountain next to Tilial, Railif and the Naithanite leaders saw a shape over the horizon, rising from the mountains along the Velian Planes’ southeast corner. There, the Moramarg had secretly brought an Oraunt, the bird of scale-like feathers. It sprayed fiery venom and had talons that could cut a horse to pieces.

A group of youths proceeded double-file onto stage carrying sticks that supported a long canopy with wings extending from both ends. This was the Oraunt’s torso. Renent thought he noticed improvements from last year. The paint on the canopy seemed brighter and more imposing. New bits of metal were sown onto it, texturing the skin. The canopy depicted the Oraunt as a greenish brown although (as Renent recalled from a priest’s teachings) the real color was unknown. Leading this procession, one youth held a pole bearing the Oraunt’s head comprised of stuffed sheets with colored glass embedded as eyes and teeth.

The monster filled the stage even though—as Renent’s mother noted to him years before—it was not proportional to the actors. In reality, the Oraunt was almost as long as this hall. Regardless, the display was impressive, and the drums beat intensely.

As the Oraunt rose over the Valley and flew south, Railif, the prophets, and the king prayed for Qualiae’s aid one final time. Qualiae listened. He lifted his prophets up into the air and propelled them onto the Oraunt’s back as it flew midway over the Valley. There, they faced the chief lord among the Moramarg, who rode on the monster’s neck and called instructions to it. Qualiae spoke to his leading prophet and told him that as his final and greatest show of devotion, he must expend his life to end that of the Moramarg chieftain. The prophet did so, and drawing his sword, he struck at the Moramarg. They met each other with superhuman strength—one empowered by good, and the other by evil. They killed each other and fell from the Oraunt to the Valley below. The performing youths dueled with passion. They could not perform on the canopy’s back but fought ferociously in the foreground with the Oraunt behind.

Renent realized that a tear ran down his cheek as this indelible scene played out. He brushed it aside, and another replaced it.

The Oraunt, now unguided, went berserk over the Valley. It rained fire down on the Moramarg’s armies and dove to slash them with its claws. So powerful was the Oraunt that soon the whole Valley was ablaze, and the enemy scattered and died in chaos. Even the mountain from which the monster arose was aflame. The remaining prophets thrust their swords into the Oraunt’s back, and it crashed to the ground and perished amidst its own fire, killing most of the prophets in the process. The youth dropped their sticks, and the canopy deflated and fell lifeless in their midst as other performers held torches around it. The music reached another crescendo and then stopped completely as the performers cleared the stage. The guests began rapidly drumming their hands on their knees—a standard signal of approval and enthusiasm. The Oraunt had fallen.

That, however, was only the penultimate scene. The audience grew quiet again, and a boy dressed in white with a long gray beard of sheep’s fleece stepped into center stage. He stood alone and held a large scroll, which he opened and read silently. The flutes and harps sounded, denoting Qualiae’s voice one last time.

No one required an explanation. The lone character was Uman, the greatest of Qualiae’s prophets. He lived four hundred years after the Oraunt’s fall—a fact Renent mentally recited proudly. By that time, Naithan had recovered from the Moramarg’s invasion, and Qualiae appointed Uman to record his deeds throughout Naithan’s history. That volume—part of which the boy held now—was the Umanon, the great text that bore the history displayed tonight. In it lay Qualiae’s instruction to all who would listen.

In respect, the audience stood before Uman’s actor. Of everyone on stage that evening, Uman was most worthy of honor. Qualiae appointed other leaders and prophets to manifest his will—Excor, Naith, and Railif eminent among them. However, only to Uman did Qualiae give the responsibility not just to perform his will but also to record it for all future peoples. Many a great man had served Qualiae, but they were remembered only through Uman. This was why, as Renent knew, the people of Becopton called themselves not just Qualiaites to observe their devotion to God but more specifically Umanites. Uman and the Umanon were central to worship of Qualiae.

 

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Renent walked with his parents back home late that night. After the performance, he remained quiet while the adults discussed and admired it. The execution was largely flawless. A missed cue here and there received mention, and, unbeknownst to Renent, one youth may or may not have nearly dropped a torch onto the Oraunt’s canopy.

The smells, sounds, and sights still lingered across Renent’s senses and contrasted with the faint but omnipresent odor of city life around him. The cool air occasionally burst into wind. Renent had been awake far longer than usual and was ready for sleep.

His parents whispered to each other as Renent half listened. They listed the merchants who attended and determined whether one of the two had spoken to each merchant or his wife. All in all, apparently, they had fulfilled their obligations. Rapport survived intact.

As they approached their complex, the conversation turned to tomorrow when the public celebration would occur. As many Becoptonites as could fit would gather at the commons, an open area in the northwest quadrant. There, from a balcony reserved for public speeches, Lord Crailis and the lead priest would address the people. That would require much standing and waiting, a prospect Renent found less compelling than this evening’s proceedings. Nonetheless, the crowd would cheer and chant, which was a thrilling sound audible across the city. As the family entered through the front gate, Renent’s eyes began to close as if they knew bed was nearby. The day had been long but good.
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