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
"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?"
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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.
Safar is here.
There is no pain,
No wound to trouble you.
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
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
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
"No, nothing to do with the caravan,"
Safar's father said. "It's not expected for a few weeks,
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
The Babors were the leading family of a
large and fierce clan of people who lived on the distant
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
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
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
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
The comet was silver, the moon harvest
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
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!
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
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
* * *
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
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"
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
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,
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
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,"
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
"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,
"They were very pretty, Safar,"
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
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
Gubadan noted his inattention and snarled:
"Put your spirit into it, Safar, or I'll take a switch
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,
"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
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
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
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
He clasped the offered hand. "I'm
Iraj looked at him oddly. "Safar,
eh? I had a dream about a fellow named Safar."
Safar didn't reply. The coincidence froze
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,
Copyright © 1997. Allan Cole.