As a child, I had never given much thought to time. It passed unnoticed. There was always a bountiful supply. When my father Nanki died, I realized how precious little time the sun god allots to a human life. Ra-ta, the enigmatic creator of all things, never tells us why he regulates our existence in this manner. Why we are born, live for a while, and then die remains a mystery, even though countless eons have passed since the first self-aware mind looked inward to solve this riddle. Between birth and death, the sun god gives us time. Time is a tricky thing. As you get older, it passes more swiftly; at least that is what Semral, the great Sakitan hunter tells me. At sixteen, I don’t see it yet, though I am increasingly aware of its demands and limitations.
I am Sanyel, shaman of the Sakita tribe. Since my ascension to the role of tribal healer and spiritual advisor—a position my late father also held—my time has been everyone’s but my own. I preside over every function requiring my duties, be it a wedding, funeral, or communal ceremony of any size or import. I am a conduit to the spirit world, a doctor, a dentist, and much more, as was my father before me. I did not inherit my father’s position without struggle. Incredible circumstances conspired to make me my tribe’s shaman, a tribe once profoundly opposed to females in positions of authority.
My father once said I was born to lead my people in a time of great trouble. That trouble has passed and now council chief Semral has reclaimed that leadership responsibility. I am in command of nothing and have no seat among the tribal councilors. Still, over one year ago, with the help of an intrepid group of young men and women, I led the fight that brought us freedom from a brutal, arrogant people who had enslaved us. Thanks to the gratitude of my tribe, and especially to the efforts of Semral, our greatest warrior, I assumed the challenging, yet gratifying post of medicine man.
Since that time I have grown into the position, though lately I seem to spend more time away from home than with my tribe. Home is a green, fertile land shaped like a bowl, a land teeming with opulent grasses and lofty forests that lies within a circle of peaks called the Kodor. This mountain range surrounds us, allowing but one outlet to the wider world, the sacred Desert of Bones.
Recently I returned to my homeland after an unusual adventure beyond the straight-line mountains bordering the aforementioned desert. Along with a group from my tribe, I had been endeavoring to find the cause of uncontrolled flooding that threatened to inundate our lands. Alongside me on that expedition were my best friend, the fiery-haired Lillatta; Izzy, the tattooed, one-armed sword master; Javen, my at times insufferable mate; and Semral, the Sakitan tribe’s greatest hunter and warrior. A subsequent detour from our mission into a perilous adventure in the land of the Cruxun I have detailed elsewhere.
Borsar, a Spood priest I once saw as nothing more than a murderous, conceited thug, had come along with us. He proved, to my surprise, to be a changed man from his previous temperament, and was a valuable addition to our party. He had traveled from the Spood fortress Grell over a month ago in hopes I would rescue his son from Danara, the widow of former Spood leader Smerkas. Our distracting Cruxun journey had delayed that mission, but now it was again my priority.
High summer had arrived, and on this early morning the waking sun painted red, yellow, and purple streaks to the underside of billowy clouds drifting above the dark silhouettes of the eastern mountains. I had awakened a short while earlier, and in the darkness outside the tent I share with Javen I built a small fire to cook our breakfast. I loved the morning breeze’s cool breath as it caressed my face and tousled my long, blond hair. I tilted my head upward to breathe in the sweet smell of dewy grass mingling with the delightful floral scents of summer blossoms. Those appealing odors melded deliciously with those of forest mushrooms steaming in a shallow metal pot resting on a grate over the fire. Two generous slices of porse meat sizzled in a metal pan alongside the mushrooms.
Soft footsteps sounded, coming from behind a nearby tent. I smiled as a lean, dark-haired young man strolled into view. He smiled in return and his teeth showed white against his brown skin. The youth walked over to sit beside me.
The young man adjusted his garment as he sat. It was a simple, unadorned blue tunic with sleeves that reached just short of his elbow, with the garment’s lower hem extending to just above his knees. He sported no belt and his only other clothing was a pair of sandals fashioned from porsehide.
I wore similar attire to the young man’s, for these lightweight tunics were the standard wear of the Sakitan tribe. Mine was yellow, sleeveless, embroidered at the edges with a strip of brown trim and cinched at my waist with a red sash. I was currently barefoot.
I would feel undressed if certain other items I cherish didn’t complement my dress. A bracelet made of bone fragments from various animals encircled my right wrist and a bone handled rik-ta (knife) hung snug in a leather sheath at my side, its belt loop secured by my sash. The young man carried no weapon, for he had no familiarity with their proper use.
“Smells delicious,” Gamaal stated as he sniffed the steam rising from the cooking vessels.
“I can make some for you if you like,” I offered. “I have only enough for Javen and me presently, but I can add another portion if you’re hungry.”
Gamaal affirmed he was, so I tossed another cut of porse into the pan and dumped a few handfuls of mushrooms into the pot. I added seasoning to both and then sat back.
“So, today is the big day,” Gamaal said.
It was. It was a day I had not looked forward to, as I had no great desire to return to the land of the Spood, those confounding people who always manage to deliver sharp pains to my lower backside. Still, I had made a promise to the fat priest Borsar to help free his fat son from the madwoman Danara.
We had been in the main Sakitan camp for nearly two weeks and Borsar was increasingly anxious to set out on the trail to Grell, the fortress home of the Spood. I had deliberately delayed our departure as I was attending to a personal concern, but finally the pressure to proceed with the mission reached the point where I had to accede to the priest’s desires.
Yesterday, council chief Semral had taken me aside and reminded me of my duty. It took the words of a man I hold in high regard to persuade me I must end my stalling. It was not that my conscience had not nagged me to get moving; something else held me back, something overriding my normal proclivity to attend promptly to my obligations.
Within five days of our return home from the land of the Cruxun, Javen had almost died. On a hunting foray, while Javen chased a spartok through the tangled brush of a dense kanser forest, the wily beast did something unexpected. It circled around and attacked Javen from the rear. With no warning, the fierce animal bowled into him, driving him to the ground. A spartok tusk stabbed Javen in the side and then tore into his right arm, ripping a deep gash through muscle to the bone. A fellow hunter speared the enraged beast before it could inflict further damage.
For three days my beloved mate hovered between the spirit world and the physical one. He had lost a lot of blood and a fever raged. I had never felt such fear in all my life. The possibility of losing a loved one is always in the back of one’s mind, but you tend to keep those thoughts there, tightly confined so as not to let them overwhelm you. I have related before the stoic acceptance we Sakitans have about death, as it is a common occurrence in our perilous hunter culture. We feel spirit lives on after the body dies so we try to maintain some detachment over death, but not since my father’s passing had that grim specter come so close to taking someone so deeply ingrained in my heart and soul.
After the third day the fever broke, with my medicines finally chasing the demons from Javen’s body. Soon, he eagerly sipped a broth partially made from the juices of a roasted spartok, a fitting irony I thought.
Javen’s damaged arm worried me as it was not healing properly. Visions of the crippled Satu kept flitting through my mind, the young boy, now deceased, whose devastating injury had denied him the pleasures of the hunt. I knew Javen held great pride in his hunting prowess, and I knew how deeply he identified his self-worth with that hunting ability. The permanent loss of one’s greatest talent can destroy even those with the strongest minds and wills.
I believe, in the end, that Ra-ta, the sun god, answered my fervent prayers, as the arm began to respond to treatment. Within days Javen’s elbow showed increased movement, and by week’s end he had regained full motion of his mangled limb. I removed my spartok fragment from my bracelet of bones and gave it to him. I wanted him to own power over the animal that almost took his life and hoped it would serve as a good luck token for any future encounters.
I associated my continued reluctance to organize the rescue mission to Grell with a necessity to attend to Javen’s complete recovery. He was having none of it.
“Go, do what you have to do,” he insisted. “I’m fine, and the more you delay, the more time Danara has to solidify her power. You know you don’t want that.”
Honestly, I didn’t care. I didn’t care about Danara and I didn’t care about Borsar’s chubby son Porlak, either. Borsar, on the other hand, had proven a trustworthy companion over the last month or so and—dare I say—was now a friend. I no longer regretted my promise to him, and with Semral’s recent prompting and Javen’s continuing recovery, I knew I could no longer excuse doing nothing. After breakfast the redheaded priest and I, along with one other, planned to depart on that long-delayed mission.
Gamaal licked his lips in anticipation as I turned the slices of porse over in the pan with a forked stick. I had to laugh at how readily the boy had taken to eating porse meat, a food he had never tasted until about a month ago. We had found him in a cavern inside a mountain, the only one alive among the long-dead remains of his people. What a strange story he had told; of his ancient, advanced culture, of the virus that had wiped them out, and of the desperate measures his people had taken to ensure survival.
It was all true. I saw firsthand what these ancient people had manufactured, a shining cave that held extraordinary rooms with remarkable devices. They had built “pods,” as Gamaal called them, within which a chosen group of healthy survivors lived in suspended animation, intending to remain in the pods for several hundred years before coming out to repopulate a world they expected to be devoid of human life. Unfortunately, that forced sleep lasted several thousand years, due to both natural and human interference. Over time, death found the majority of the dreamers, as unforeseen events deprived them of nutrition and slowly starved them in their pods. Only Gamaal Parsa, son of the doomed project’s leader had survived into our time.
Javen, the dark-skinned, incredibly handsome Raab I had fallen in love with during our adventures in Grell over a year ago, finally awakened and crawled out from our tent. He sniffed the air and grinned when he discovered I was preparing his favorite meal of seasoned mushrooms along with a generous serving of porse.
Javen carried his injured right arm in a cloth sling, but his free left hand found no hindrance to directing food to his hungry mouth. His side wound was still sore, so he gingerly moved his body so as not to aggravate it.
“Mmm,” Javen mumbled, his mouth full of tasty mushrooms. “These are good.”
“Of course they are,” I told him. “I picked them myself.”
“So, why didn’t you pick some janka berries, too? They would be so delicious with this.”
“You hate janka berries.”
“Yes, but I was thinking of you. You love them, and I’m sure Gamaal would like to try them, too. I have more refined tastes.”
“What’s a janka berry?”
“It’s a wonderful tasting, juicy, purple-colored berry that grows in wetlands,” I told Gamaal.
“It’s an awful, disgusting, flavorless berry,” Javen countered, “as useless as a two-headed starfen.”
Gamaal studied the two of us, glancing from one to the other and then said, “I believe I know the berry you refer to, although they called it a ‘cantleberry’ back in my world. Rishar Cantle named it after himself, as he had developed it by cross breeding two other popular berries of the time. As I recall, it had a curious flavor that was extremely pleasing to some and completely abhorrent to others. I don’t believe gender played any role in the extreme opposite reactions to the taste, yet…”
Javen and I grinned at each other as Gamaal continued speaking, absorbed in his own oration. We were used to the young man’s tendency to ramble on endlessly on subjects that captured his interest, especially if they connected in some way to his own time and had a scientific aspect.
Unknown to Gamaal, we were not really listening, as feeding our faces captivated us more than the properties of plants. I find it surprisingly easy to tune out that which bores me or that which I do not understand or care to understand. I’m not rude about it, of course. I do nod occasionally and make eye contact with the speaker, as I just did with Gamaal, but I hadn’t heard a word he said since he started detailing the intricate botanical properties of some exotic fruit or other.
The arrival of Borsar cut short Gamaal’s snore-inducing exposition. The stout, redheaded priest walked over from his tent to stand before our fire. I glanced up at his eager, impatient face, and then continued my leisurely breakfast.
“My things are packed and my droove is ready,” Borsar stated after about a minute of standing with no one speaking to him.
“Good,” I said, and then grabbed another mouthful of boiled mushrooms.
The priest continued standing as we ate.
“Will you be finished soon?” he then asked.
“With what?” asked Javen, and he looked up at Borsar with a face as innocent as a newborn sartel fawn. I almost burst out laughing.
“Why, with eating of course.”
“Yes, we will soon be done,” Javen answered. “Why do you ask?”
At last, the Spood priest caught on and smiled. “All right, I get it. We will leave when the Disrupter is ready.” He turned and headed to where his droove stood inside a nearby corral. The pack animal was loaded down with supplies for the trip to Grell.
Grell was both the name of an extensive fortress and a city within that fortress. The Spood had once lived exclusively within the high walls of that bastion until their expansionist delusions took them outside and brought them into a collision with our people. How wide or strong the Spood influence in the world currently was I had no idea. Borsar had spoken of the death and terror brought by ten can-raks, those massive beasts I can control by simply speaking to them. I had sent them into the city of Grell to destroy all who harbored evil within their souls, and from Borsar’s account the ferocious animals had done the horrific job well.
Disrupter, they called me. It was an appropriate moniker. I brought chaos into their world. The Spood got what was coming to them after trying to enslave my tribe along with countless others. Their central seat of power had been my target, my desire being to weaken their command structure by killing those at the top. Still, from Borsar’s report, at least one of the evil ones had survived the can-rak rampage and started a new reign of misfortune. Danara, the High Priest’s wife, had Borsar’s son and other children under her wicked spell. It was my obligation to rescue the son.
Izzy, the one-armed sword master with the half-tattooed face was coming with us. I was pleased this fearless, spike-haired warrior wanted to accompany us. I knew from our past exploits involving the Spood and later the Cruxun that she could not pass up an opportunity for an adventure. She arrived as Borsar left to check on his droove, ambling over with that agile stride that belies her large physique.
Izzy informed me, as had Borsar, that her gear was packed and her droove ready. She carried her stirka, her ever-present thin-bladed sword, in a leather scabbard belted to her waist. A short knife rested firmly in a holder opposite the sword. I still marvel at how Izzy can snatch sword or rik-ta from either side of her body with as much ease as people with two arms. Having only one arm taught her how to compensate, so now she can accomplish any task with more skill and alacrity than most fully limbed individuals can.
Borsar made his way back to us when he noticed Izzy’s arrival. Only the three of us would make this trip. Semral was busy with his council duties. Javen was still recovering from his injuries. My best friend, Lillatta, wanted to come, but she had taken a romantic interest in our newest tribal guest, Gamaal. As he was still accustoming himself to our tribal lifestyle, Lillatta had become his unofficial tutor in all things Sakitan, and nothing was going to distract her from that important and stimulating role.
Other tribal members had volunteered to accompany us, but I decided a small group would suffice. We were not invading Spood territory to conquer. Our tribe still could not match power with Spood forces even if that were our goal. It wasn’t. This trip required stealth and an ability to move quickly and unhindered by numbers. We planned to snatch one child from a woman Borsar had described as insane. What trouble could there be?
Borsar also insisted that a good part of the Spood population had embraced the sun god, Sester, as I had instructed them to do over a year ago. They all knew I was the Disrupter, their long prophesied tormentor. They understood I was not one to trifle with, so perhaps I could use that fear to my advantage. The Sester followers would assist me in my mission, the fat priest assured, as Danara had also abducted many of their children.
Whether that promise was true or not, I couldn’t guess. What I could almost certainly rely on was that Sester (or Ra-ta as we Sakitans know him) would throw in an obstacle or two just to make things interesting.