Never before had the Great Hall been the center of such a commotion. No battle had ever created this much argument and confusion. It was almost daybreak and The Elders were still finding the energy to jump to their feet in anger at every statement. This was an unprecedented situation. Outsiders - not just from other villages, not just from other tribes, but real outsiders, strange-looking people from faraway lands, had camped just the other side of the river. They had beautiful horses, incredible wagons, and the most amazing clothes. They were like nothing anyone had ever seen before - and King Lomen’s men were scared.
Times had been changing for a while. Fishing boats were coming back with wreckage they had found floating, the likes of which they’d not seen anywhere. Strange boats had been seen in the distance. Unusual items had washed up on the beach. There was a feeling of being watched.
The warriors were ready of course. They grew bored easily and had been keen to march or sail out to meet the strangers for weeks now, but the King had told them to wait. With the food shortages of late, the last thing he needed was a war, and he hoped these were peaceful visitors. He’d consulted the wise man of course, but he wasn’t sure old Drayhus really knew what he was saying anymore. And who was going to take his place? None of his surviving sons had pleased him enough to be taught the old ways of the sorcerer, and his chosen successor, a grandson by Nuthal, the beloved son he had lost in battle, was blind. “Supposed to be a seer, ha!” - the King thought this ironic, and made his own counsel.
All this talk was behind them now, and the strangers were here. Quite a few of them too, by the looks of things. A watch was put on the river, but they couldn’t play this game forever, a decision had to be made.
“My Lord, we must have the upper hand, we must protect our lands and our people. To wait for them to just walk into our villages is insanity!”
“Sit down......... sit DOWN Ruter, no-one is suggesting we go like lambs to the kill. But they have shown NO SIGN of wishing violence. We have seen no weapons, no armor.”
This was true, but it made no sense to Ruter. As the King’s loyal and trusted military leader he had no experience of any outsider who came in peace in such large numbers. Yes, traders sometimes arrived in small groups, maybe ten at a time. They posed no threat by their small numbers, and although carefully watched, were generally allowed to enter Lomen’s lands. Here though, were over a hundred men, and who knows how many more in the strange boats on the horizon. What could they possibly want other than harm, to bring such a quantity of men?
“If I may speak?”
The King was happy for this calm request, as he had been shouted at all night.
“Please Stiha” and he gestured to the center of the Great Hall. He had been waiting for the gentle wisdom of his cousin, the widow of the slain Nuthal. Stiha bowed courteously.
“If we assume these people are here to harm us, perhaps they will. Perhaps we’ll get our wish.”
She was still grieving the loss of her husband 15 years before, when a large army was raised from not just warriors but village tradesfolk and farmers too, to counteract a threat perceived by the movement of a whole tribe towards the lands governed by Lomen. In fear the new arrivals fought them, and hundreds of lives were lost - over a misunderstanding. The survivors, under torture, all told the same story of being driven north by famine and were heading for an island their ancestors had known. They were just passing through the great valley.
The King nodded sagely. The same memory was haunting him. He’d lost his elder son in that battle, and his only male heir was a tiny child. If anything happened now.......
His people had known peace since then, and although times had been hard, with failed crops and several waves of disease, fishing was good, the population was steady, and the future seemed bright. The last thing he needed was this. He put his head in his hands. This rare display of emotion caused murmurs in the Hall, and the King’s chief advisor raised his hand.
“The King is exhausted, we all need sleep. Go to your homes. Those of you on watch, keep your eyes open. The King will speak when he is rested.”
It was a fitful sleep. The Queen had not attended the council, was fully rested herself, and now made every effort to keep light and noise from disturbing him, but eventually he called her over.
“Ah, my most trusted of all trusted advisors, what am I to do my dear?”
I know you’ll do the right thing my darling.”
“Your faith in me exceeds my skills, I fear. I wish I knew what the future held.”
The Queen smiled. She knew her uncle, Drayhus the sorcerer was past his prime. Being of the same family as him, the King always looked to see if there was perhaps a little of the witch in her, to go along with her natural female intuition. His tired, lined face was asking for that now. Begging even.
“Ah, my husband, the future is not written in stone. Even the prophecies of the wisest ones can be altered. There would be no point in living if it were all decided in advance. Fate is like a river. You know it flows towards the sea but you can never be CERTAIN of its course.”
And she kissed him gently on the forehead like a child needing comfort. At times like this, that was exactly how he felt.
“I have a responsibility my dear, I must act. People are waiting to hear what we will do. And.....I’m afraid. I feel.........lost. I was born a warrior, like my forefathers. I know all about war, but this isn’t war. This is.....different.”
The door burst open and a young warrior had been sent with a message. He looked excited.
“Sire! One of the strangers is coming across the river in a small boat. He’s alone!”
Gathering his wits and his clothes, the King found his way to the door and looked out across the valley. Sure enough a single figure in a tiny boat was slowly rowing his way towards them. He was being watched eagerly by at least a hundred of the King’s warriors at the rock wall halfway-down the hill. The sheer courage of this gesture in the face of the obvious danger to him was all that was holding some of the men back. The decision had been made for him, there was only one thing the King could do under the circumstances, to show the right intent. He walked down the hill to greet him. Alone.
Half expecting the stranger to pull out a knife from his cloak and kill their King, the warriors stood edgy and with weapons ready, and Ruter watched intently. But the handful of strangers on the far bank watching their compatriot stood unarmed and humble, and to Ruter's utter disbelief the stranger prostrated himself at the King’s feet. On rising, he showed his empty hands palms upwards in an obvious gesture of peace. After a short time the King patted the man on the shoulder and gestured for him to follow back up the hill.
“Ruter,” called the King, “Our greatest problem here is one of language. Bring me everyone you can find who speaks a foreign tongue.”
Several tradesmen who had carried their wares abroad were brought to the Great Hall, but none could find any similarity in the stranger’s speech to anything they had come across. Surely, this man had traveled a great distance. The communication difficulty became more awkward, until the stranger took off a band around his wrist and handed to the King. It was gold. His eyes said “Keep it, it’s a gift”, and something in his manner suggested such a deep sincerity that even Ruter began to relax.
“These aren’t refugees from a land stricken by want. Nor do they appear to be traders. He brings no bag of wares. If they truly have come in peace, what DO they want?”
“I don’t know Ruter, and if we can find no common tongue we may never find out.”
The door opened and the King’s daughter Visha appeared. He looked pleased to see her. Like her mother she was wise beyond her years, and also like her mother, her radiant beauty filled a room and brought an unspoken joy to all who saw her.
“Father, I’ve heard that the stranger speaks a strange tongue. I know who may be able to help!”
“My daughter, thank you, but we have called in everyone who has traveled away from our lands, none of them recognize this language.”
“But what about Gohna? He knows many tongues. He even speaks the language of animals!”
Ah, thought the King, yes, the blind boy, spends all his time talking to anyone who’ll listen, copies their voices. If ever a trader passed through the valley Gohna would have made every effort to find him, to listen to him. To memorize his speech. But everyone knew the boy was quite eccentric, the shock, when very young, of seeing his father brought home in pieces had robbed him not only of his sight, but of his reason. And his grandfather’s mentorship had addled his brain further. But what else could they do?
“Bring the boy.”
Of course, Visha was ready, and Gohna was with her. She brought him to the King. He sat down without being asked, and seemed to be perfectly at ease. Ruter despised him.
“Gohna, I want you to listen to this man’s speech and tell me if it resembles, even slightly, anything you’ve heard before.”
“My Lord, I have been listening from behind the door.....”
“.....and his tongue is familiar to me.”
Glances were exchanged all round. Ruter looked like he was going to burst.
“Please boy, tell him that King Lomen welcomes him in peace.”
Gohna paused for a while then found the words he needed. The stranger gave an enormous smile, raised his hands above his head and cheered. Knowing his place he directed his reply to the King, and waited patiently for Gohna to translate.
“I thank you from my heart for this welcome. It is with much fear that we travel to new lands.”
“And why are you here friend, what can we do for you?”
The word friend, which Gohna translated with extra emphasis, being a confirmed pacifist, was the clincher. The stranger opened his heart to the King.
“My name is Yenahu. I come from a land so far that two summers have passed since I left my home. The journey has not been easy. We have lost many on the way.”
“Are the boats we see in the distance part of your people?”
“Yes, we came by boat, we followed the coast west until there was nothing more, then we turned and came north. We have stopped at many ports, but most were not friendly. We have been turned away and attacked many times. But we must keep going on. We have to tell you.”
Yenahu explained, two or three sentences at a time, so that Gohna could translate, that his people followed a religion of peace and the study of nature. How they watched the stars and the animals carefully, and could predict the success of crops, although they were not farmers themselves. Among them were many with great riches but they owned no land, and belonged nowhere. They lived on their boats.
Gohna, for his own part, was obviously pleased with what he was hearing. He had similar opinions to these men and was considered mad for his dislike of the proud warriors and the tribal spirit that kept his kinsmen safe. Hardly anyone listened to him at all, customarily, except for Visha. To the King’s discomfort she spent far too much time with the blind boy, listening to his ramblings.
Yenahu’s tales became harder for Gohna to relay as he described creations using strange skills and techniques, metalwork that was quite unfamiliar, and powders that caused fire. But hardest of all for the King and his advisors to grasp was the suggestion of foretelling the future with great accuracy. Lomen was used to wild ravings from Drayhus of coming doom, but he was increasingly uncertain of the value of sorcery and definitely convinced it was never a precise art. Here he was faced with an intelligent, articulate man, who did not have any outward signs of the touch of sorcery, who seemed to be warning him of danger yet to come.
“Three waves, I tell you”, said Yenahu “the first a darkness during the day, the second famine, and the third a plague”. Worst of all, he assured the King, there was precious little time to prepare for it. The signs had been seen. They talked at length of ways to deal with this coming disaster, but it sounded almost hopeless.
They had tried to keep their talk to themselves, to avoid spreading panic around the villagers, but somehow Drayhus had heard and was arguing with the guards at the door.
“Oh let him in” said the King wearily “Maybe he can plead our case to the Gods.”
The usually inscrutable Drayhus was excited and angry.
“I have been trying to tell you of this!”
The King rolled his eyes. He was never really sure what Drayhus was trying to tell him. The old man spoke in riddles.
“Drayhus, I think if you had told me of this I would remember.”
“My Lord! Not a Moon has passed since I warned you of darkness, terrible darkness.”
Somewhere in the back of his mind the King DID remember that conversation. Not that he took any notice of it at all at the time. No wonder, it had consisted of arguing with the old fool about what he was teaching the children in the village, and telling him that the time of his Old Ways was over, that something new and forward-looking was called for instead.
“Are you so sure of that my King?” Drayhus had asked.
“As sure as I am that the Sun will rise on the morrow,” said Lomen.
“Then I tell you My Lord, the day will come when the Sun does not rise, not for one morrow or many, and then you shall see why we need the Old Ways!”
Lomen felt distinctly uncomfortable now. His world of reality was coming apart at the seams. He looked across at Gohna, and tried a joke. The situation was absurd anyway.
“Darkness! Then the boy shall be our guide! He lives in perpetual darkness!”
But Gohna wasn’t amused.
“No my Lord, I live in light. It is a confused light, but my eyes open to it just as yours do. I fear this darkness spoken of is far worse than I know of, it is forever night.”
Not understanding the boy’s riddles the King had had enough of this and stormed out of the door for some fresh air. How could it be? Only the superstitious believed in the loss of the Sun. He had no time for such nonsense. It was reliable. It was always there, every dawn. He knew this in his heart. He just wished his heart would stop trying to fight its way right out of his chest.
It was late afternoon. Yenahu asked if his men could join him. They had gifts and more information. There seemed no point in doing otherwise, so the King agreed to their arrival. The village filled with people eager to see these strange visitors, and a feast was quickly put together. The evening was warm, and the bright colors of the strangers clothing and jewelry was more interesting to the ordinary people than any talk of doom. After ale was shared by all, dancing and singing commenced, and the depression that had hung over the Great Hall earlier in the day was temporarily lifted. Only the King sat quietly brooding, hadn’t eaten at all, and finally lost his temper completely when he saw his daughter dancing with Gohna. He called her to him.
“Visha, you are too fond of that boy. I know he is your distant kin, and a good match for you in that, but otherwise - I can NEVER countenance such a match!”
“Father, we were only dancing............”
“But people talk Visha. They see you two together all the time. You are even beginning to talk like him.”
“But Father, he is a good man......”
“A MAN! A man you say? He is a boy! A man proves himself. He can never pass the trials of manhood!”
“Only because he can’t see. He is strong, and fit. I have watched him swing an axe Father, he is as strong as any warrior. But he is a man of peace. I thought you were too?”
She looked at him sadly.
“Would that I could be my dear, but war comes upon us from time to time. And worse than war perhaps. Still maybe you are right. Our warriors will serve us no purpose if the Sun disappears. Alas, I fear for our people Visha. Forgive my mood.
Finding Gohna nowhere Visha danced with a series of villagers, each entranced by her grace and beauty, each wishing to win her heart. But it belonged to only one.”
In the hut offered to the visitors for their stay, Gohna was in deep discussion with an old man named Ilhan. What he spoke of was beyond comprehension, but for a young man with ambition it was an irresistible idea. Ilhan told of a crystal-like substance made in a faraway land that when polished like the inside of a seashell could be seen through like still clear water. And yet more, when cut like a gemstone, it could be made to enlarge images magically. Several of these pieces, placed in a hollow bronze tube at angles enabled the sailors to see stars too small to see otherwise. On a cloudy night this made navigation possible. Even distant shores appeared to come closer, what was just a dark shape turned into a building, or even a man! Gohna listened fascinated as Ilhan went on to say that during experiments with these large lentil-shaped pieces of the translucent material, some old men, previously unable to see well, had found they could see as well as in their youth. They were able to work at their crafts once again.
“On your boats. Do they have these implements?” Gohna asked.
“Yes, we have several.”
“Then I yearn to be taken there. I would give my life for just a few seconds to clear my eyes.”
“Tomorrow,” said Ilhan “We have signaled to them already. Tomorrow they will come ashore.”
The next morning brought rain and made the gathering of stores difficult. King Lomen had ordered for a year's supply of food to be gathered and prepared as necessary. Animals were to be slaughtered, and the meat dried, brined or preserved in vinegar. Herbs were to be collected from the fields and dried to make medicines. The same methods that were used to supply armies on long campaigns would now sustain the people if crops should fail. Everything would be strictly rationed. It was vital that dry stores stay dry, and for this reason firewood was also being piled high so that storehouses could be heated and aired. The most unpopular edict was for all barley to be stored for food instead of being brewed into ale.
"That alone could begin an uprising!" said Drayhus laughing as he greeted the King.
"And you are preparing how?" asked the King dourly
"Me? I'm......leaving, actually. Setting off this afternoon. Just came to say goodbye"
The King's eyes rolled upwards and he shook his head.
"Well, I appreciate your faith and solidarity." he muttered sarcastically.
Drayhus laughed out loud.
"After my council was.......set aside.........." said Drayhus almost to himself, but then he directed his parting gift to the King.
"I'm leaving you in good hands. Gohna has been initiated by my hand, he is your Priest now, of course he is busy on other projects......"
The King had seen Gohna leaving with Ilhan early in the day, and they had yet to return.
"Yes," said the King dismissively "He does seem favored by our friends from the East."
At the shore small boats were landing in the driving rain and sacks and boxes were being offloaded. but Gohna wasn't there to carry cargo. Ilhan took him back to the largest of the ships and led him below. In a large crate appeared to be great treasures, trays of sparkling stones. With the assistance of the ship's healer each of these was held up to Gohna's eyes in turn. After some time weeping was heard, but the men who stepped outside were not sad.
In the village Visha, the King's daughter, was helping a group of older women repair cloaks and blankets. This was why she was so loved by the people. She was one of them, not a typical aloof, haughty, useless Princess. She fetched and carried, and sewed, and when food and drink was prepared to refresh them, she sat on the floor and ate from a simple wooden bowl along with her co-workers.
"Oh my Lady, I hope our efforts are enough. I'm so afraid!" said a small plump woman with red hair.
"If any people can survive such a trial we can," said Visha "Look at how wonderful you are! What bothers me is loss of morale. If we believe we can weather this, we can. We must support our man Felgi, we must be there for them."
"Aye Lady, I know what you are saying. My Attu hardly slept last night. They're so used to providing for us, protecting us. They'll face any enemy but this one is not to be seen. How can they face an unseen enemy?"
How indeed, thought Visha. Her thoughts strayed to her dear friend Gohna, for whom all enemies were unseen, and who seemed the least afraid of anyone. As if summoned by her thoughts he came into the hut and called for her.
"Gohna! Where have you been......and why are you smiling on such a troubled day?"
"Well, because you are here" he ran his hands over her hair "But also because I saw the mountain!"
Assuming this was a dream of vision of good fortune Visha hardly reacted. She was used to his mystic language, it was part of his magnetic appeal.
"Come with me Visha, I need you to take me to the armory."
This was an even stranger request, but as it was a place in the village she knew he rarely visited and would not be able to find his way to alone, she readily agreed.
Repairs to weapons were underway, everything was to be in perfect condition. Gohna asked to speak to the smiths. Visha was totally confused.
"You work in bronze Leff?"
"Yes, simple things, buckles and hinges"
"And the helmet is based on a band round the head?"
"Do you ever adorn these bands with decorative items?"
"Yes," said the smith looking more and more perplexed at the interest in his ceremonial work by a blind man who should have more important things on his mind. But Gohna handed him two flat, roughly triangular stones that sparkled in the firelight.
"Can you fasten these to a headband so that they will cover my eyes?"
The smiths exchanged looks at each other. They examined the pieces, picked up a bronze strip that would fit around his head, and began hammering. Visha told Gohna she had much to do and would return later, but he asked her to stay.
"It shouldn't take them long."
But it took the rest of the day.
Gohna and Visha left to eat with the King while they worked. Gohna was unusually quiet at his meal, and finally Visha could stand it no more.
"It is nothing to do with me, surely, but what are you having them make? A mask? Is it ceremonial? Are we to appeal to the Gods for mercy?"
"No, no, it is a.......tool. I cannot explain, you will have to see.."
So they returned to the armory, where the smiths were finished and ready. Ilhan too, was waiting.
"The moment of truth Gohna!"
With some trepidation he placed the band upon Gohna's head like a crown. The expression on the young man's face was like none anyone had ever seen before. He turned to Visha and smiled. Even though she no idea what was going on, Visha was accutely aware that something was different. Gohna could see her. He held his hands out to her and she rushed to him.
Alone together by the fire Gohna was transfixed by the beautiful face of the King's daughter and was unable to think of anything else. Visha however had a head full of ideas, not least that perhaps now her father would allow Gohna to escort her officially, with his blessing.
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