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Allan Cole: Wizard of The Winds

Allan Cole: Wizard Of The WindsAllan ColeCHAPTER ONE


It was a time when the world was large and dreams were small. Few ships strayed from the four great turtles who bore the mountains and plains across the seas. Humankind and demonkind alike brooded under the faded banners of kings who'd ruled too long. Borders were no more distant than a fast march could secure. All who dwelt beyond huddled in armed settlements to keep thieves and beasts at bay.

It was an uneasy time, a time crying out for change. Royal wizards studied the stars for signs to reassure their masters. Subjects gathered in secret to implore the gods to rid them of those same masters.

But the gods gave no clue of their intentions. The starry wheel where the gods slept in their ten holy realms churned onward year after year, heedless to all pleas.

Then the portent came. It was not from the slumbering gods but from the molten depths of the world itself. And it was a boy, not a master wizard, who first marked the sign.

That boy was Safar Timura.

He lived in the land known as Esmir, the Turtle of The Middle Seas. It was a land where demons faced humans across the Forbidden Desert. Only an ancient curse and constant internal warfare kept those ancestral enemies from overrunning and slaughtering the other.

In the demon city of Zanzair, however, King Manacia and his sorcerers plotted and waited for the right moment. Although humans were greater in number, Manacia knew their magic was weak and their leaders cowardly. And he yearned for the day when he'd make their corpses a staircase to a grander throne.

To achieve his dreams he pored over ancient maps and tomes and consulted many oracles. Then he created the greatest oracle of all, sacrificing five thousand human slaves in the process.

* * *

The human head was mounted on a metal post in the center of Manacia's courtroom. The eyes were closed. The mouth slack. The skin ghastly.

Manacia cast his most powerful spell and then commanded: "Speak, O Brother of the Shades. What is the key to my heart's desire? What road do I take, what passage do I seek, to win the throne of the King Of Kings?"

The head's eyes came open, blazing in hate and agony. Stiff lips formed a word:

"Kyrania," the head croaked, sounding like an old raven with its mouth full of gore.

"What place is that?" the king demanded.

"Kyrania," the head croaked again.

The whole court looked on, demon jaws parting in anticipation, as the king jabbed a long sharp talon at an ancient wall map of the human lands.

"Where do I find this... Kyrania?" he asked.

"The Valley Of The Clouds," the head answered. And then its eyes dulled and its mouth sagged back into death.

"Speak!" the king ordered, casting another mighty spell. But was no use. The oracle was emptied of its power.

The Demon King turned to his assembled wizards and advisors. "Find me this place," he thundered. "Find me this Kyrania!...

"...This Valley Of The Clouds!"

* * *

A thousand miles distant Safar Timura and his people toiled the land and tended their flocks in relative peace. They lived high above the troubles of the world and had grown to think they were of small concern.

Their valley was so remote it appeared on few maps. And those were jealously held by the merchant princes who transported their goods across the Gods' Divide, which separated the ancient human kingdoms of Walaria and Caspan.

The valley was known as Kyrania - meaning, in the language of Safar's people, "Valley Of The Clouds."

It was a bountiful place and each spring and summer the valley became a bowl of blossoms and fruit cradled high in the craggy range they called The Bride And Six Maids. The name came from seven graceful peaks shaped like slender young women. From the south they appeared to march in an eternal procession. The tallest and most graceful promontory was in the lead and to all Kyranians this peak was The Bride because she was always covered with snow and veiled in lacy clouds. Although the valley was so high strangers sometimes found it difficult to draw enough breath, it was sheltered by the maidenly peaks and the weather was nearly always mild.

Filling half the valley was the holy lake of Our Lady Felakia and sometimes pilgrims traveled with the caravans to pay homage to that goddess of purity and health and to drink from the curative waters. They gathered to be blessed at the ancient temple, set on the eastern shore and so small and unimportant it was attended by only one old priest. Twice a year flocks of birds stopped at the lake to rest on their seasonal journeys. No one knew where they came from or where they went but they were always welcome visitors - filling the air with their song and the cooking hearths with their roasted flesh.

The people of Kyrania grew barley and corn and beans, irrigating the fields with water from the lake. Olive and fruit orchards also abounded, but the growing season was short so the Kyranians placed great value on their goat herds. In the spring and summer Safar and the boys would lead them into the mountains to graze on tender shoots. When winter came the goats huddled in stables beneath the people's homes, eating stored grain and keeping the families warm with the heat of their bodies.

All those things, which might seem trivial and even dull to city dwellers, were of prime importance to Safar and his people. They made up their talk, their dreams and all the rhythms of life.

In his own way - the way of Kyrania - Safar was royally born. He was the son of a potter and in Kyrania such men as his father were second only to the village priest in importance. His father's father had been a potter as well, and his father before him. It had always been so for the Timura clan and many generations of Kyranian women had balanced Timura water jugs on their heads as they made the hip-swaying journey to the lake and back. All food in the village was cooked in Timura pots or stored in Timura jars, which were sealed with clay and buried in the ground for winter. Spirits were fermented in Timura jugs, bottled in Timura vessels and it was said all drink tasted best when sipped from Timura cups and bowls. When the caravans arrived Timura pottery was more sought after than even the few fresh camels and llamas the villagers kept to resupply the merchant masters.

When the troubles came Safar was being trained to succeed his father as a practitioner of that once most sacred of all the arts. To accomplish this was Safar's sole ambition. But as a wise one once said - "If you want the make the gods laugh... tell them your plans."

The day that marked the end of those youthful ambitions began well before first light, as did all days in Kyrania. It was early spring and the mornings were still cold and one of his sisters had to bang on his sleeping platform with a broom handle to rouse him from his warm feather mattress.

He grumbled as he broke away from a dream of swimming in warm lake waters with nubile maidens. He was just seventeen summers - an age when such dreams are remarkably vivid and nearly as frequent as the grumblings at the unfairness of life.

Then he heard Naya, the family's best milking goat, complaining in the stable below. She was the sweetest of animals and he hated to think of her suffering. Safar leaped from the platform onto the polished planks that made the floor of the main living area. He dragged out the trunk where he kept his belongings and hastily pulled on clothes - baggy leather trousers, pullover shirt and heavy work boots. His mother was already at the hearth stirring handfuls of dried apple into the savory barley porridge that would make his breakfast.

She clucked her tongue to chide him for being tardy, but then smiled and gave him a hunk of bread spread with pear jam to tide him over until the milking was done. Safar was the middle child but the only boy of his parents' six children, so he was lovingly and deliberately spoiled by his mother and sisters.

"You'd better hurry, Safar," his mother warned. "Your father will be back for his breakfast soon."

Safar knew his father would be in the adjoining shop inspecting the results of the previous day's firing. The elder Timura, whose name was Khadji, preferred to have the family together at mealtimes. It would be especially important to him this morning. There had been a late-night meeting of the Council Of Elders and Khadji would be anxious to report the news.

Mind buzzing with curiosity, mouth full of bread and jam, Safar thundered down the ladder and lit the fat lamps. He got out several pots made of his father's purest clay and glazed a dazzling white. As usual he tended Naya first. Her milk was delicious and his mother frequently accused him of squirting more into his mouth than in the pot.

"Why am I always to blame when something goes wrong around here?" he'd protest.

"Because you've got some on your chin, my little thief," she'd say.

Safar was always taken in, giving his chin a reflexive wipe and making the whole family howl at his embarrassment.

"Don't ever decide to become a bandit, Safar," his father would joke. "The master of the first caravan you rob is certain to catch you. Then the only thing we'd have left of our son would be his head on a post."

Naya seemed more anxious that morning than an overly full udder should warrant. When Safar removed the canvas bag kept tied about her teats for cleanliness' sake he saw several angry sores. He checked the bag and saw it was frayed on one side. The rough area had rubbed against her udder all night. The sores would fester quickly in the damp spring.

"Don't fret, little mother," he murmured. "Safar will fix you up."

He looked about to make certain there were no witnesses. His sisters had gone to fetch water from the lake so besides the goats and other animals the stable area was empty. Safar scratched his head, thinking.

His eyes fell on the lamp beside the stool. He dipped up thick, warm fat with his fingers and rubbed it gently on Naya's udder. Then he made up a little spell and whispered it as he dipped up more oil and coaxed it gently over the sores.

Rest easy,

Little mother;

Safar is here.

There is no pain,

No wound to trouble you.

Rest easy

Little mother;

Safar is here.

He looked down and the sores were gone. There was only a little pink area on her udder and that was quickly fading.

Then he heard his mother say, "Who are you talking to, Safar?"

He flushed, then answered: "I wasn't talking to anyone, mother. I was just... singing a song." In those days Safar felt compelled to hide his magical talents from others.

Satisfied, his mother said nothing more. Safar quickly finished the milking and his other chores and by the time he was done his father and sisters were sitting down to breakfast. There was one absent place at the table - the spot where Safar's oldest sister, Quetera had held forth all his life. Safar saw his mother give the seat a sad glance. His sister lived with her husband now and was pregnant with their first child. It had been a difficult pregnancy and the family was worried.

His mother swiped at her eye, forced a smile, and began to pass the food around. There was porridge and bread toasted over the fire, with big slabs of cheese from the crusted round Safar's mother always kept sitting near the embers. They washed their breakfast down with milk still warm from the goats.

"You were late coming home last night, Khadji," his mother said as she gave his father another slice of buttered toast. "There must've been much business for the council to discuss. Not bad news, I hope."

Khadji frowned. "It wasn't exactly bad news, Myrna," he said. "But it certainly was troublesome."

Myrna was alarmed. "Nothing to do with the caravan, I hope?" she said.

Caravan season was just beginning and the village had received word the first group of traders was making its way to Kyrania. It had been a long winter and the money and goods the caravan would bring were sorely needed.

"No, nothing to do with the caravan," Safar's father said. "It's not expected for a few weeks, yet."

Myrna snorted, impatient. "If you don't want a second bowl of porridge served on your head, Khadji Timura," she said, "you'll tell us right now what this is all about!"

Usually, Khadji would have laughed, but instead Safar saw his frown deepen.

"We agreed to accept a boy into the village," Khadji said. "He was presented to us by an elder of the Babor clan, who begged us to give him sanctuary."

The Babors were the leading family of a large and fierce clan of people who lived on the distant plains.

Myrna dropped a serving spoon, shocked. "I don't like that!" she said. "Why, they're practically barbarians. I'm not sure I like having one of their young ruffians among us."

Khadji shrugged. "What could we do? Barbarians or not, the Babors have kinship claims on us. It wouldn't be right to say no to our cousins."

Myrna sniffed. "Pretty distant cousins, for all that."

"He seems a likely enough lad," Khadji said in the stranger's defense. "His family is related to the Babor headman's wife. They live somewhere in the south. People of influence, from the cut of the boy. He's a handsome fellow about your age, Safar. And tall - about your size, as well. Very mannered. Good clothing. And well spoken. Seems the sort who's used to having servants to order about."

"He'll soon learn there are no servants in Kyrania," Myrna said sharply. Then, "Why is he being sent to us?"

"He's an orphan," Safar's father said.

Myrna was scandalized. "An orphan? What kind of orphan is he? No, I take that back. The Gods make orphans. It's no fault of a child's. It's the boy's kin I wonder about. What manner of people are they to push an orphan on strangers? Have they no feelings?"

Safar saw his father shift, uneasy. "It seems there's some sort of difficulty in his clan," Khadji said. "A quarrel of some kind."

Myrna's eyebrows rose. "With those sort of people," she said, "quarrel usually means violence and bloodshed. It's the only way they know how to settle an argument."

Khadji nodded, unhappy. "I suspect you're right, Myrna," he said. "The boy's uncle said as much. I think he fears for the boy's life. He's asked us to let the lad stay at the temple until the danger has passed."

Safar could have told his father he'd used the wrong words.

"Danger?" his mother exclaimed. "What danger, Khadji?"

"Only to the boy, Myrna," his father soothed. "Only to the boy."

"But what if they come here? What if they cause trouble?"

"Only his uncle will come," his father said. "And only when it is safe for the lad to return to his family. Be reasonable, Myrna. We have to explain this to the others and if you're opposed to it, why, we'll have to go back on our agreement.

"Besides, who would travel so far to Kyrania just to cause us grief? We have nothing they want. At least nothing that's worth so much trouble.

"And, as I said, how could we refuse?"

"Next time ask me!" Myrna said. "I'll show you all you need to know about refusal."

Then she relented as her natural Kyranian hospitality came to the fore. "We'll make the best of it," she declared. "Can't blame a boy for the troubles caused by his family."

"What's his name?" Safar asked.

"Iraj Protarus," his father said.

The name struck Safar like a thunderbolt.

He heard his mother say, "Protarus? Protarus? I don't know that family name.

But Safar knew the name quite well - much to his sudden discomfort.

He'd experienced a vision some days before while working in his father's shop. Whether it meant good or ill, he couldn't say. Still, it had disturbed him deeply.

The vision had seized him while he was cleaning pebbles and roots from a new batch of clay his father had dug up from the lake.

Besides the lake, there were many fine clay beds in Kyrania. The lake clay was pure and therefore gray. But as any potter knows pure clay needs to be mixed with other kinds or it will not fire properly. Within a week's stroll in any direction the Timuras could find clay of every color imaginable - red, black, white, a yellow ochre, and even a deep emerald green. Clay was long considered a holy substance and the clay from Kyrania was considered the holiest of all because it was said that Rybian, the god who made people, once spent much time in the Valley Of The Clouds wooing the beautiful goddess, Felakia. The tale was that she spurned the god's advances and during the long lovers' siege Rybian became bored and pinched out all the races that make up humankind and demonkind. He used the green clay, it was claimed, to make the demons.

As Safar worked his thoughts were far from heavenly speculation. Instead, his imagination was fixed on the hiding spot he'd discovered overlooking the pool where the village maids liked to bathe.

Then he found an unusual stone in the clay debris. It was a broad pebble - smooth and blood red. Examining it, he turned the pebble this way and that. There was a clear, thumbnail-size blemish on one side. The blemish was like a minuscule window and he was oddly drawn to look into it.

Safar jumped back, thinking he'd seen something move... as if trapped in the stone. He looked again, blinking. The image blinked back and he realized he was looking at a reflection of his own eye. He peered closer, wondering the idle things people contemplate when they are alone and staring at a mirrored surface.

Suddenly Safar found himself falling. But it was unlike any sensation of falling he'd experienced before. His body seemed to remain kneeling by the clay bucket while his spirit plunged through the window.

His spirit self plummeted through thick clouds, then broke through. Safar felt oddly calm, looking about with his spirit eyes. Then it came to him he was floating rather than falling. Above was a bright sky, with clouds that were quickly retreating. Floating up at him was a wide vista of fertile lands with a broad highway cutting through.

At the end of that highway was a grand city with golden spires.

The last of the clouds whisked away, revealing a mighty army marching along the highway to the city, banners fluttering in a gentle wind. It was a dazzling array of troops and mailed cavalry - both horse and camel. Two graceful wings of chariots spread out on either side. In the lead was a phalanx of elephants Safar recognized only because of the illustrated books at school. The elephant heading the column was the largest by far. It was white and carried an armored howdah on its back. A large silk banner flew over the howdah, displaying a comet moving across a full moon.

The comet was silver, the moon harvest red.

Then he saw the city gates thrown wide and a crowd poured out to greet the army. Safar spread his spirit arms and flew toward the crowd. No one saw him as he sailed over a forest of spears and lances and he took a boy's immense pleasure in doing what he liked amongst so many adults and yet remaining unobserved. Then he overshot his mark and nearly flew through the city gates. Correcting his course, he hovered over the crowd and looked down.

Milling beneath him were hundreds of screeching monsters. He knew instantly they were demons. He should have been frightened. Demons were humankind's most ancient and deadly enemies. But there was an opiate blur to his trance that allowed him to feel nothing more than amazement.

The demons had yellow eyes and were fiercely taloned; horns jutted from their snouted faces. Sharp fangs gleamed when they opened their mouths and their skin was scaly green. All were costumed in the finest of cloth and jewelry, especially the tall slender demons in front, whom Safar took to be the city's leaders.

The tallest of them held a pike. And stuck to the top of that pike was a head. Safar had never seen such a grisly sight and it disturbed him far more than monsters boiling about beneath him. Still, he couldn't help but move closer. It was a demon's head on that pike. Huge - twice that of a human's. Its snout was fixed into a wide grimace, exposing two pairs of opposing fangs the size of a desert lion's. It had a jutting armored brow and long bloody hair. Perched on the brow, as if in mockery, was a golden crown.

The demon king's dead eyes were open and staring. But Safar imagined he saw a small spark of life in their yellow depths. This unsettled him even more than the gory display of death. He stretched his arms and flew away.

Seeing the great white elephant approaching, he flew toward it to investigate. Sitting in the howdah was a large man with long gold hair, flowing mustaches and a thick military beard. His features were so fair he appeared strange to Safar, although not as strange as the demons.

Below dark, moody eyes was a strong beaked nose, which added to his fierce looks. His armor was rich and burnished; the hilt of his sheathed sword was finely worked ivory bound with silver wire. Encircling his head was a thin band of gold embedded with rare stones.

Safar knew he was looking at the new king - come to replace the one who had his head mounted on a pike. The demon crowd was shouting to their new king and he waved his mailed hand in return.

They grew wilder still, chanting: "Protarus! Protarus! Protarus!"

The king looked up and saw Safar. Why this man alone could see him, Safar didn't know. Protarus smiled. He stretched out a hand, beckoning the hovering spirit closer.

"Safar," he said. "I owe all this to you. Come sit with me. Let them praise your name as well."

Safar was confused. Who was this great king? How did he know him? What service could Safar have possibly performed to win his favor? Again Protarus beckoned. Safar floated forward and the king reached out to take his hand.

Just before their fingers touched Safar again felt the sensation of falling. But this time he was falling up! The movement was so swift he started to feel sick. Then city, army and finally even the green fields vanished and he was enveloped by thick clouds.

The next he knew he was crouched over the bucket, turning away as quickly as he could to avoid fouling the clay with the contents of his belly.

Luckily his father was absent. Safar hastily cleaned up the mess, finished his other chores and crept up to his bed. The experience had exhausted him, unnerved him, so he pleaded ill when the dinner hour arrived and spent a troubled night contemplating the mysterious vision.

That uneasiness returned as Safar sat listening to his family chat about the young stranger who had come to stay in Kyrania - a stranger whose name was also Protarus. He fretted until it was time for school. Then he dismissed it as a coincidence.

In his youth Safar Timura believed in such things.

* * *

It was a clear spring day when he set out for the temple school with his sisters. Men and women were in the fields readying the muddy land for planting. The boys whose turn it was to tend the goats were driving their herds into the hills. They would stay there for several weeks while Safar and the others studied with the priest. Then it would be his turn to enjoy the lazy freedom of the high ranges.

The small village marketplace was already closing for the day, with a few late risers arguing with the stall keepers to stay open a little longer so they could make necessary purchases.

The Timura children walked along the lake's curve, passing the ruins of the stone barracks which legend claimed were built by Alisarrian The Conqueror who crossed the Gods' Divide in his campaign to win a kingdom. That kingdom, the Kyranian children were taught, had once included all Esmir and demons as well as humans bowed to Alisarrian's will. But the empire had broken up after his death, disintegrating into warring tribes and fiefdoms. It was during that chaos humans and demons had sworn to the agreement making the Forbidden Desert the dividing point between their species - a "Nodemon's" as well as a "Noman's" land.

Outsiders claimed it would've been impossible for the Conqueror to have driven his great army over the Gods' Divide. But Kyranian tradition had it that Alisarrian settled some of his troops in the valley and they married local women. Kyranians were mostly a short, dark skinned people while Alisarrian and his soldiers were tall and fair. Occasionally a fair skinned child was born in Kyrania, bolstering the claims.

Safar saw his own appearance as evidence that the local tales were true. Although he was dark, his eyes were quite blue and like the ancient Alisarrians he was taller than most. Also, his people tended to be slender, but even at seventeen Safar's chest and shoulders were broadening beyond the size of others and his arms were becoming heavily muscled. Any difference, however, is an embarrassment at that age and so Safar saw his size and blue eyes as a humiliating reminder that he was different from others.

As the Timuras passed the stony inlet where the women did the wash one fat old crone happened to glance up. Her eyes chanced to meet Safar's and she suddenly gobbled in fear and made a sign to ward off evil. Then she cursed and spat on the ground three times. "It's the devil," she shrieked to the other women. "The blue-eyed devil from the Hells."

"Hush, grandmother," one of the women said. "It's only Safar with his sisters going to school at the temple."

The old woman paid no heed. "Get thee gone!" she shrieked at Safar. "Get thee gone, devil!"

He hurried away, barely listening to the comforting words of his sisters who said she was just a crazy old woman and to pay her no mind. But there was no solace in their words. In his heart he believed the woman spoke true. He didn't know if he actually was a devil. But he feared he'd become one if he didn't abandon the practice of sorcery. Each time he performed a magical feat or had a vision he swore to the gods he'd never do it again.

The older he became, however, the harder it was to resist.

Safar had possessed the talent even when he was a toddler. If a glittering object caught his eye he could summon it at will. He'd pop it into his mouth and start chewing to soothe his tender gums. His mother and aunts would squawk in alarm and drag the object out, fearing he'd swallow it and choke. Safar drove them to distraction with such antics, for no matter how well they hid the things he'd sniff them out and summon them again.

When he grew older he turned that talent into finding things others had lost. If a tool went missing, or an animal went astray, he could always hunt them down. He was so successful that if anything was lost the family would instantly call him to retrieve it. Safar didn't know how he was able to do such things but it all seemed so natural his only surprise was that others lacked the facility.

That innocence ended in his tenth year.

He was in his father's workshop one day, pinching out little pots he'd been taught to make as part of his apprenticeship. Safar's father was engaged in an errand, so the boy quickly became bored. One of the pots had a malformed spout which he suddenly thought looked like the village priest's knobby nose. The boy giggled and mashed the pot between his hands, rolling it into a ball. Then his hands seemed to take on an intelligence of their own and in a few minutes he'd formed the ball into a tiny man.

He was delighted at first, then thought something was missing. In a moment it came to him that the clay man lacked a penis, so he pinched one out where the legs met. He put the man down, wondering what he could do with him. The man needs a friend, Safar thought. No, a wife. So he rolled up another ball and made a woman with pert breasts like his oldest sister's and a little crease where such things should go. Once again he wondered what he could do with his new toys. Then it came to him that if they were man and wife they should have children. The sexual act is no secret to children who live close to nature, much less in homes such as Kyrania's where there is little privacy. So Safar put the two figures together in the proper position.

"Make babies," Safar said to them. But nothing happened.

A childish spell popped into his head, although at the time he didn't know that was what it was. He picked up the figures and held them close together while he chanted:

Skin and bone

was all clay once

until Rybian made people.

Now Safar makes people,

so clay be skin,

clay be bone.

The clay dolls grew warm, then they began to move and the child laughed in glee as they twined together the young lovers he'd once spied in the meadow.

Then Khadji came in and Safar cried, "Look what I made, father!"

When Khadji saw the figures he thought his son was making the sexual motions and he stormed over and cuffed the boy.

"What filth is this?" he shouted.

He snatched the dolls from Safar's hands and they became lifeless again. He shook them at the boy.

"How could you do something so disrespectful?" he snarled. "The gods blessed us with these pleasures. They are not to be mocked."

"But I wasn't mocking anything, father," Safar protested.

His father cuffed him again just as his mother came in to see what was happening.

"What is it, Khadji?" she asked. "What has our Safar done?"

Angrily he showed her the dolls. "This dirty little boy has been making these obscene things," he snarled. "Behaving like one of those depraved potters in the city instead of a gods-fearing Timura."

Safar's mother eyed the dolls, her expression mild. His father became embarrassed, threw them into a bucket and reared back to give the boy another cuff.

"That's enough, Khadji," Safar's mother warned. "You've made your point. He won't do it again... will you, Safar?"

The boy was crying, more in humiliation than pain. His father hadn't hit him that hard. It was the act of being struck by someone Safar thought a hero that hurt worse.

"No, mother," he blubbered. "I won't do it again." He turned to his father. "I'm sorry, father," he said. "I promise I won't be a dirty little boy anymore."

The elder Timura grumbled, but Safar saw him nod. The boy prayed to all that was holy his father was satisfied. He swore to himself he'd never again give him cause to be scornful of his son. Then Myrna led Safar away. She took him up to the kitchen where she put him to work scrubbing the hearth.

Safar bent to the task with a will, sobbing as he scoured the stone with all his little boy's strength. Eventually the sobbing stopped. He chanced a look at his mother and saw she was eyeing him. But she didn't look angry, or ashamed.

"They were very pretty, Safar," she murmured.

The boy said nothing.

"So pretty, I doubt you meant anything wrong. Is that true?"

Safar nodded. Another great sob threatened, but he fought and won control.

"Well, then," she said, "if you meant nothing wrong, don't let it bother you. Just be careful from now on. Would you do that for me?"

She held out her arms and Safar ran into that warm harbor, escaping the emotional storm. But from that day on he associated magic with something shameful - an act performed by dirty little boys. And that shame grew along with his powers and his inability to stop committing such sins. He felt apart from others, the good people of Kyrania who had almond eyes and were properly small.

So when the crone cursed Safar as a blue-eyed devil, she'd unwittingly found a gaping wound for a target.

When Safar and his sisters reached the temple their priest, Gubadan, was already lining the children up for their exercises. He was a cheery little man - with that great knobby nose which had inspired Safar's earlier shame. The priest's ample belly stretched the material of his yellow robes and he had a habit of gripping the sides when he was talking and thumping it with his thumbs. He also had a shaven head and a long white beard he kept in immaculate condition.

As Safar joined the others in the slow, sacred motions and deep breathing Gubadan had taught them to rid their minds of trifles that hinder learning, he looked about for the new boy. He was disappointed when he didn't see him.

Gubadan noted his inattention and snarled: "Put your spirit into it, Safar, or I'll take a switch to you."

The others laughed, which drew more threats of switchings. But that only made them giggle more for Gubadan was a gentle soul who'd no more beat them than he'd defile the altar of Felakia with an unclean offering. Although the exercises were the motions of warriors taught from the time of Alisarrian, Gubadan meant them to be soul cleansers - a means to examine the inner self. Once a week all the boys would use those same exercises on the drilling field. There they were overseen by a fierce old soldier whose duty it was to train them to defend Kyrania in case of attack.

The laughter soon stopped and they all fell into the dreamy motions of the exercise.

When Gubadan was satisfied, he led them through the ancient portals, graced by etchings of Felakia in all her forms - from graceful swan to gentle mother to the beautiful armored maid who protected Kyrania. The temple was a crumbling place that kept the village busy repairing it when the stormy season passed. The classroom was a small room next to the chamber where the incense was stored so it was always filled with godly odors that made even the most unruly child feel serious about his work.

Although Kyrania was remote and the people made their living by hard toil, they were not ignorant. They held learning to be a sacred duty and took pride in their ability to read weighty texts, figure complex sums and write a hand as fair as any taught at the best schools in Walaria. Kyranians were particularly proud of their ability with languages and all could speak half-a-dozen or more. The tradition of scholarship dated back to the legends of Alisarrian, who was reputed to be a learned man as well as a mighty warrior king. Legend had it that the first Kyranian school was founded by the Conqueror for the men he left behind. True or not, all those skills learned in at the temple school were not put to idle use. Kyranians required agile minds and an understanding of foreign tongues to deal with all the caravans that came through. Otherwise the shrewd traders would have skinned them of all their goods long before. Instead, the Kyranians were the ones who profited most from the hard bargaining sessions that always followed the llama trains into the valley.

That day, however, Safar couldn't keep his mind on scholarship. He earned several stern warnings from Gubadan and stumbled when he was called on to name the brightest constellation in the spring heavens. He knew it was the Tiger but when asked the answer fled his mind.

"Is this a game you are playing with old Gubadan, boy?" the priest scolded. "You are my best student. All know this. Your family pays me dearly to spend extra hours with you so you can learn even more. And yet you mock me, boy. And by mocking me, you mock the gods who gifted you. Do you think you are better than others, Safar Timura?"

"No, master," Safar said, ducking his head in embarrassment.

"Then why do you pretend ignorance of the obvious?" the priest roared. "Tell me that!"

"I honestly couldn't think of the answer, master," Safar said.

"Then you are lazy!" the priest shouted. "Which is a worse sin than mocking. Mocking I could excuse to high spirits. But laziness! Inattention! Unforgivable, boy. You should be setting an example to the others."

Safar wanted to say he couldn't help it, that his mind was fixed on the absent boy whose name was Protarus - the name of the king in his vision.

Instead he said, "I'm sorry, master. I'll try to do better."

He did try, but the day progressed slowly and not well. Finally he was free and he dashed out, trying to ignore Gubadan's fierce looks in his direction.

Safar was relieved he had a task to perform for his father and didn't have to walk with his sisters and listen to them tease him about his performance in school. He headed immediately for the clay beds where his father had left buckets for him to fetch home a fresh load. His path took him beyond the temple through a fragrant wood, where he dawdled in the clean air and sighing breezes.

He was just emerging from the wood and turning toward the clay beds on the lake's edge when he heard angry voices. The voices had a familiar ring to them and he wasn't surprised when the angry words became shouts and then sounds of fighting erupted. He hurried up the hill to investigate.

When he reached the summit he looked down and saw a tangle of flailing and arms and legs.

Four brawny youths had another pinned to the ground and they were pummeling him unmercifully.

The attackers were the Ubekian brothers, considered the greatest bullies in Kyrania. They came from a rough, unclean family that'd wandered starving and half-frozen into the valley one winter and begged charity. The Ubekians had claims of kinship, which although distant were strong enough to make their appeal undeniable under Kyranian tradition and law. To everyone's dismay the family settled into a cave near the main village and set up permanent housekeeping. They also got busy making general nuisances of themselves.

Safar had more reason than most to dislike the Ubekian brothers. They'd fixed instantly on his odd, blue-eyed appearance and had mocked him unmercifully. In fact, until the arrival of the family no one had commented on his looks at all. But now others, such as the old woman at the lake, had become bold enough to torment him.

One by one, Safar had caught the brothers alone and thrashed them. Now they no longer mocked him - at least not in his hearing.

Safar had no doubt the brothers were to blame in the fight he saw below. His dislike of the brothers plus the unpleasant events of the day made his blood sing in furious joy as he ran down the hill and threw himself into the fray.

Cries of pain and surprise greeted his attack. But the brothers quickly recovered and turned on him. Safar was hard-pressed for a moment, catching a blow to his nose that made stars brighter than those that formed the Tiger.

Then the brothers' victim jumped up and barreled in. Everything became a fury of fists, knees, elbows and butting heads.

Suddenly the fight ended and the brothers scampered away, pausing at the top of the hill to hurl empty threats to salve their pride. But when Safar and his companion moved forward the brothers dashed off, shouting obscenities over their shoulders.

Safar turned to see who he'd rescued. The youth was about his height and weight. But then shock hit when he saw that the boy was fair skinned with blonde hair, moody eyes and a strong beaked nose.

The features were disturbingly familiar.

The strange boy grinned through bruised lips, showing bloody teeth. "You arrived just in time," he said. "In a moment I would have lost my temper and risen up to break their heads."

Safar recovered his wits. "From where I stood," he said, dryly, "you didn't look like you'd be getting up soon."

The strange boy laughed. "That's because I have such a peaceful nature," he said.

The comment broke the ice and Safar laughed with him. "Next time you meet the Ubekian brothers," he said, "lose your temper as quick as you can. Or it'll be your head that's broken."

The strange boy stuck out his hand. "I'm Iraj Protarus," he said.

Safar hesitated, remembering his vision. But the young man's face was so friendly he couldn't see any harm.

He clasped the offered hand. "I'm Safar Timura."

Iraj looked at him oddly. "Safar, eh? I had a dream about a fellow named Safar."

Safar didn't reply. The coincidence froze his tongue.

Iraj noticed, thinking, perhaps, that Safar was only being shy. He shifted his grip into the handshake favored by brothers.

"I think we're going to be very good friends, Safar," he said. "Very good friends, indeed."

Copyright © 1997. Allan Cole.


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Translated texts:

Interview with Mihaela Velina - read what editor of Futura, only Croatian SF semiprozine, have to say about our SF scene
NOSF (3) - a regular column from issue nr. 7
A glimpse of Croatian SF fandom - another article, made for one Czech SF e-zine
The Highway Quarrel - short SF story