Book One – First Bell
Chapter One – Solitary Oasis
When the sun first peeked over the edge of the world, it shined a hard light. Over many millennia, this radiance had been both boon and bane to life on the planet. Its brilliance gave birth to the plants, and they sustenance to the docile and peaceful animals, becoming the fodder for predators, in turn the prey of man, all tracing back to the fiery light from the sky. The sun was the source of creation, the starting point for all life on earth. She was the mother and the goddess to all of mankind.
Yet so, too, the sun had destroyed in swaths as large as she had created. She burned and dried and cracked the land in places too near her heat. She loved too intensely, too much.
When the planet was more alive, the people had worshipped the sun for the safety of her light, repose from the deadly night. They had loved and adored her, and she returned their love by flaring ever brighter for them. She brought them heat and light, and the people moved closer and closer to the sun, to better worship her. But those closest with the sun were those who lived hardest. Their land was so drenched in light that the earth grew dry, and no roots could take hold, and the soil turned to salt and pebbles. The people grew weak and thin, their skin blistered and cracked like the dry earth, their eyes turned milky as the radiance of the sun turned to blindness. But still they stayed, and worshipped the sun, and she in turn burned even brighter and hotter to show her children that she loved them, the only way she knew how.
Over many years her people began to disappear. Their numbers faltered, their lives became harder and shorter, and less of the smaller people appeared each Spring. As time continued the people died, and faded into dust, carried on the wind to become one with the sand and with the earth. And in her loneliness and sorrow, the sun became obsessed. She grew hotter and brighter still, reaching out through time to find her children once more, to lead them home with the one thing she knew how to do for them – burn.
Many years had passed since the sun grew lonely. The earth had become barren, the days too hot and the nights too cold to sustain. Only in small pockets did life still hang on, the people clinging and desperate, hopeless for another tomorrow. The sun continued to burn, too hot in its passion, too blind to its harms, thinking only of the love it had once known and madly firing up the sky, scouring the world below of the last vestiges of life.
Or perhaps the world was simply old, its life had run its course, and now it simply sought the right way to pass on.
But perhaps the sun had not yet given up her hope. If the sun burned strongly now for anything, it was certainly for the strange and misplaced garden resting squarely in the middle of this ocean of destruction.
A wall surrounded the cottage and the gardens. No sign of masonry marred its smooth, perfectly straight embankments. It scaled higher than any man, flush with the land, as if, like the flowers and trees it protected, it had been coaxed to grow from the earth itself.
The garden was unbelievably lush, with palm trees and bushes ripe with bursting red berries, giant yellow flowers as tall as the wall and straining to catch their glimpse of the sun. Rows of bulbous red vegetables and shoots and husks, wheat and beans ran from one edge of the yard up to a footpath just outside of the small house. The smell of blooming flowers and sage, rosemary and basil carried on the air, into a cutout window with no glass to stop the outside air from intermingling with the house itself, at one and a part of nature. Despite the chill air and inhabitable conditions outside, the air within the walls was damp and somehow full of life. While outside a storm wind whipped up gusts of sand, here a calm warm breeze gently billowed up the linen curtains in the window of the cottage.
Inside, a man slept, tossing and turning through dreams he would sooner forget.
When the curtains billowed the man shot up, immediately alert. A cold sweat dripped from his forehead. He stopped, collected himself, then turned and placed first one, then the next foot on the floor. He pulled on a knit top and pants, and went to wash the sleep from his face. Dark, piercing brown eyes starred back from the mirror above the wash bin, puffy from lack of sleep. For weeks, now, the man had been sleeping through nightmares – unspeakable horrors and a shadow of the world he remembered, where ghoulish men and women drove the innocent from the face of the earth. Each morning, he seemed to wake just as the violence was about to befall the frightened man or woman; so far he had been spared the grisly moments that he knew had followed.
The man entered a small kitchen area of the cottage, drawing warm water from a faucet. He poured the water over a bowl of dried oats and barley, softening and warming them. Then he sat at a small table with one chair, meticulously eating his meal while staring ahead, seemingly at nothing. After exactly 17 spoonfuls of oats, the man brought his bowl to a basin beneath the faucet. He filled the basin with a small amount of water, cold this time, and used it to wash the residue form the bowl. He stacked the bowl in its proper place, then brought the basin with him as he exited outside to the garden.
Through long linen drapes, the man exited his house and entered his garden.
At first the garden was blinding. The sun’s rays, though still only just peeking over the wall, made the entire garden seem ablaze, with a heat to match. The man covered his eyes and leaned down to place the basin on the ground. Still adjusting to the light, he walked a path between the first and second row of the garden, inspecting each plant for any damage wrought by cold or other harms of the night. As the sun crept lower and lower into the damp air, it melted the chill from the plants, creating a misty fog, humid and warming. At the end of the row, the man stepped down to the next, turned around, and started back. By the time he finished, an even light now fell on the gardens, and the fog had floated upwards, touching the trees and flowers with a film of moisture as it dissipated into the air.
Returning to the front of the cottage, the man lifted the basin and carried it to a pump well on the side of the house. After a few up and down motions, the pump spewed forth crystal clear water, cool to the touch, and the man caught it in the basin, filling it to nearly full. Lifting the basin, the man then carried it back to the first row he had traversed and placed it down. Kneeling, he cupped out a handful of water and fed the first plant in the row. He reached across and did the same with the plant opposite. He shifted the basin further down the line, kneeled, and did the same. Patterns of the body allow for patterns of the mind; just as his exercises sustained life of this garden, so did they sustain the life of his mind.
At one point late in the morning, as the sun stretch almost directly overhead, the man grew very hungry. He picked a heavy melon from a vine, dug through the skin and flesh with his fingers, split the fruit in two. Sitting there in the moist dirt, hands covered in filth, he dug into the flesh hungrily, ate ravenously. His hands and mouth was sticky with juices, and strings of inner flesh hung from the corners of his face. He devoured this thing that he had so lovingly cared for, nurtured from inception, and the fruit was decimated.
When he finished, he took the seeds and rind, the only remnant of his feast, and he carried them to the far corner of the yard. Here the ground was dark and rich, and currently unsettled. He dug small holes in the ground with his fingers, burying each seed a few inches into the ground, cover them over, and saying a short prayer. He touch his held two fingers aloft, kissed the back of the fingers, then touched them to his forehead, and to the sky. He muttered a name under his breath, too quiet for anyone to hear.
He returned to his task of watering, taking extra time to ensure every seed he’d planted was well nourished before he finished. In the early afternoon his task was complete. He brought the basin inside and wiped it clean with a cloth. He took the rind from his pocket and placed it in a heavy clay pot with a sealed lid that reeked of earthen rot when he unsealed the top.
Next, he walked the inner border of the wall, checking the health of the trees and searching for any cracks in the foundation of the wall itself. Finding none, he returned to the very center of the garden. Here he sat.
He crossed his legs, placing his hands on his knees. He straightened his back. He faced west, his dark eyes staring at the wall, his mind seeing everything beyond that wall, for time eternal. He meditated, and contemplated the visions of his dreams.
Something was changing recently. In a lifetime marked by cycles and recycles of life, by beginnings and endings once heart wrenching and now mundane, in a universe of ultimate possibility and continuity, something had changed. Though neither optimistic nor pessimistic by nature, the man now admitted to himself that, for the first time in his life, he did not believe in the future.
Just as the sun had run its daily arch, starting to dip past the opposite wall, the man was startled by a sound he had not heard for years – the sound of another person.
He ran to the gates on the west end of his yard, pulling them open in time to see a monstrous sight. At first he believed the haggard ghouls of his dreams had stalked him, had found his solace and were here to drag him back to their dark lair. The sun was now setting behind the creature, creating an eerie orange glow around a silhouette. The being was hunched limping. Its skin was blistered red and cracked. It appeared genderless, swathed in rags and tatters, its hair a bedraggled mess blowing in the harsh desert winds. It appeared to be dragging a large mass behind it – likely its most recent prey, some poor innocent smashed and battered to a pulp by this monster, being taken somewhere to feed a pack of horrors.
The man felt his muscles tighten, instinct kicking in even after all these years. He found his body forming a defensive stance, eyes surveying his immediate surroundings, probabilities narrowing. He was ready to strike –
“Help. Us.” The voice croaked, parched and wind-whipped and burned with dehydration.
Perhaps his eyes adjusted to the setting sun’s light. Perhaps it was the desperation, the humanity in the voice begging for help. But only then did the man realize what he saw.
The monstrous being was no ghoul, but a woman. Though weather-beaten, she was clearly young and strong. The desert had wracked her body, but her spirit was ablaze, the man could see. Behind her, drug from her weak arms, was the still body of a young man. Like her, he was strong of build but weakened by the wasteland. They appear to have been starving, perhaps for days. The man saw a faint glow about the still body, recognized the signs of life.
Just then, the woman collapsed. The man caught her in his arms.
“Are. You. Him?” she asked.
“My name is Amid,” said the man.
“Not. … supposed to …. name.” She said, a look of fear widening her eyes.
Amid ran for some water, came back and cupped from the basin into the woman’s mouth. He pulled the other man inside the cottage, came back and barricaded the gates just as the sun finally set over the horizon. He carried the young woman to the bed, placing her packs and belongings to the side. It was only then that he noticed the rifle slung over her shoulder. He placed it in the corner by the bed.
As they rested, he cupped more water into their mouths and cooled their burns with wet cloths. Amid kept watch on the two all through the night.
Sometime, just as the sun broke over the east wall and started casting long shadows in the cottage, the woman awoke. She was startled to find the intense brown eyes staring down on her form a seat next to the bed.
“You are awake. How do you feel?”
“Thirsty,” she said. Amid handed her a ladle of water. Though her eyes betrayed the desperation she felt for this water, she maintained enough control to sip it gently. “My friend …?”
“He lives, though his burns are severe. And he is sick with dehydration. How long were you in the desert?” He asked.
“Weeks. We ran out of food 6 days ago. We ran out of water 4 days after that.” She looked about the room, examining, searching. “Our rifles …?”
“I have them here.” He pointed to the corner of the room. Her eyes now looked relieved. “Get some rest now. I have chores to attend to in my garden. I will bring you something to eat when you have recovered more. I will make sure your friend has water as well.”
She smiled by way of thanks. It was the first smile Amid had seen in years. He couldn’t tell if it was the simple act of kindness from another person that touched his heart, or if it was something about the woman who smiled at him. She rolled over onto her side, sighed, and fell into steady breathing patterns.
Amid checked the young man’s burns, and administered a small amount of water. He left the man to rest, and went to grab his basin from the kitchen. Exiting through the long drapes, he stopped. The woman was not sleeping.
“You asked if I was ‘him.’ Why are you here? Why did you come looking for me?”
She rolled over to face him, looking him in the eye. “We’re here to bring you home,” she said, “We were sent to bring you back to the Dall.”