Golden flickers danced on the pale faces of the circle, hushed whispers wafting out from the gathering by the glowing coals. It was the third night of the coming-of-age, the no-longer-little ones from each of the surrounding tribes taken out together in the openness of the untamed world. There were a few in the group that stood out, discernible even in the thick coverings of the night. There was Jiu-yeil, son of the carpenters, impressive form already bulging with strength and muscle more fitting of a man twice his size. The brothers, Senniare and Elieten of cloth-maker, sat donned in simple but the finest of all their travelling robes. And very slightly apart from the throng of a dozen others was the quiet Meiella, orphaned as an infant, niece of medicine woman.
The air was cool, but the wind only light. As the flames burned low, a tall figure stepped out of the shadowsOch'jiana, the leader of the rite. She was neither old nor young, hair pulled back in the habit of the female smiths, fingers callused and scarred from metal and fire in the unmistakable pattern of the forge-work of her fathers. She was not beautiful, but her face held that radiant allure of the exotic, and of the far-off hills of her homelands. The children hushed, and she began to speak.
Cast your gaze above us, here, and see how clear the sky is. Yonder is the moon, at its fullest, that grand silver disk. The clouds are few, pulled back from that inky black veil. And therelook there! That streak of white fire, a star from the fields above. Have you seen such before? No? Well, I have, just once, when I was very young. There is a story, in the North, one that my mother used to tell me as a child.
Ah, now it is that the breeze begins to pick up. Feel it, in your heart, in your bones. It is always as so, the night a star falls.
But alas, I get ahead of myself. First I should begin this evening by thanking the brown earth that we walk on, the lush leaves that feed up, the gushing rivers that give up life. This world of ours is old, even if our people are young, for things have not always been as they are today. Once, there was a vast race that thrived on this land, but not one with it as we are. Instead, they were a people of war, living off blood and battle. A brutal people, but also a glorious people. And their centre lay in the all-powerful Priesthood, holy men and women dedicated to knowledge and might, who ruled in their wisdom from their temple up in the Ulfarre Mountains.
Among the many names that can be rememberedthe gold-maker Gevaki, Yosimet who slew the beasts, Mayarey the wild mother, and many othersthere are two which have earned themselves a special place in utterance. Those, were of the Twins, the greatest warriors that had ever been seen to fight, who in battle fit together as much as they seemed to repel in appearance. There was Efaluac, dark and large, a frightening bulk of a man. And forever at his side was his sister Engeliq, fair hair cropped short from her pale cheeks and bright green eyes, form so thin and spindly that those who had the fortune of laying eyes upon her could scarcely believe she could bear a sword much less wield one. United, they flowed like the river through the silt, the wind through the trees, melding together in a single unbreakable entity. Under their dual command, the forces that they lead pushed out the boundaries of these peoples even further then previous generations had dreamed, and within these ever-expanding edges there lived in boundless wealth and culture.
The day that the Twins turned their gaze out to the wide ocean of Soaulrei, many hearts were heavy, for none who had ever tried to cross those waters had ever been seen again. But when brother and sister set out in their heaving wooden ship, they returned from more wonders than just the rolling waves.
They had found a land, so they told, so far out west that it touched the evening sky. A land where women wore golden rings in their flesh, men carved pictures down their bodies, and cities were built in crystal. From that day on, Efaluac and Engeliq became the bridge to those far shores, those marvellous tales and treasures.
But so it is, that the storytellers never speak of long-thriving peoples, or of prosperous times. No, the words that we remember are only those that tell of beginnings, or ends.
And so it was, that one day they brought back what would pave the next way. It was something the likes of which had never been seen before, sort of a gem, that glowed not quite white but not quite anything else, shining with the clearness of the night.
"It is sky's fire," Engeliq said as she stood before the Priesthood, the wondrous jewels studded in a cold iron chain around her neck, "plucked out, set as a gift."
"And a gift only," added Efaluac from beside her. "They don't give it for trade."
But it was not to be, for the Priests had grown used to the wealth that had flowed so steadily from the Twins' campaigns, and in this brief respite they would not accept mere trickles. For a little time things continued as they were, all except for that brilliant band at Engeliq's throat, but finally the order came.
"We want more," they said simply.
"But there is no more that they give."
"Then we shall take them."
The two refused, for those of the Evening Land were their friends, their allies in peace and honour, but the greed of the Priests was not to be swayed. They pushed, they threatened, but the men had grown to follow their commanders alone through the long toils and victories. And it was then, that the Priesthood made their first mistake.
The next time the Twins were called forward, it was into a trap. Engeliq was seized, and the two lieutenants that had accompanied them as guards were killed as they stood. Efaluac was arrested for treasonbut in name only for there was no trial or official dealings, no time for anyone to begin to think.
By the end of the night, three corpses were hurled from the Priests' hold. And the sister without a brother found herself walking down the long steps under the early rays of dawn, head held high and the splatters of her comrades' blood worn on her robes like a badge of honour. She was allowed to go free, the decision made that the woman would be harmless alone, that the effort of removing another so beloved could be spared. That, was their second mistake.
It took Engeliq seven suns and moons to find the bodies of her companions, thrown so crassly into the tangled forests at the base of the mountain. The men who had served her she took back to the capital where they were given the warrior's death they deserved, ashes scattered out over the same fields of battle where their sweat and bile had pooled through the endless summers and winters of bloodshed. But her brother, she left. Around him she built a great silver coffin, above the soft earth, and vowed that he would not be buried until the world had paid for what they'd done.
Engeliq walked until her feet were torn and her eyes were shot with red, not letting herself rest until she'd stepped back into the soil of her own camp. And there she called every man and woman to order, and they followed. For whatever loyalties they had to the state, none could ever be as strong as the ones to their fellows in iron and dust.
They needed no rank or edict, held together by the fierceness of their battle-crafted hearts as they marched down to the beaches where the legions of the Priesthood were preparing to sail. And on the morning that they planned to advance they woke to see a jungle of masts stretching out over the water, the people of the Evening Land who'd heard the tidings on the wind and had come to fight for their honour and that of their betrayed comrades.
What came next could not quite be called a war, but a wild storm of devastation. Even with the loss of their foremost generals, the forces of this race had a thousand years behind their strength, but the far peoples fought like none that they had ever met before. It was a clash of steel against moon-tipped spear, man against being, silhouetted against the blood-coloured western sky.
And when it was done, the once-great order had been ripped to shadows. The rich cities were reduced to pebbles, scattered survivors left scrabbling in the dust, and the victor stood in the ruins of the Temple, breast shining with the beautiful and terrible stones that had driven the priests to their destruction. Among the spilt blood of both friend and betrayer who had met their end on the no-longer-holy ground, she declared "The priesthood is dead!" and the far people who had fought beside her bowed and turned to the sunset, sailing way on their fleet never to be seen again.
Engeliq bore her brother up the mountainside, to the place where he had first fallen. There, she laid him to rest in the ashes of the last age, so that his body could be the root of the new one. An age where people didn't live for the thrill of the kill, where no band of devotees could command the lives and blades of all. An age where people lived for each other, and the land.
And here, our tale is almost at a close. Engeliq stayed on the peak for three cycles of the moon in mourning for her lost sibling, then disappeared from the eyes of history. Some say that she took her ship and set out once more across the sea, becoming the last person who would ever find the land that touched the sky, that the lights she wore around her neck rose her up to become the stars of night. And every now and then you can see one fall, down to this realm birthed from Efaluac's blood. Brother and sister, if only for a moment, united once more.
But that is only one ending, for there are some among the further tribes that whispered of a wild woman who lived in the foothills of Ulfarre. She was fair, and so frail that it looked as if she might blow away in the wind, with a strangely clear gaze that always seemed to see through you, watching, judging. And it wasn't until many years later that a young metalworker, a blacksmith's apprentice, stumbled across a cave in the mountainside. Within he found nothing except for some basic tools, a few shreds of clothing, and an old twisted necklace so covered in grime that the colours of the jewels were no longer discernible, laid out like an altarpiece on a wide silver frame.
And that is the story that they tell in the North.
Come now, the hour is late. It is time for rest, the journey continues in the morning.
So Och'jiana turned away, leaving the weight of the words relayed that night sitting heavy in the air as the young ones settled down to sleep. And as the woman bent down to scoop up a handful of dirt to douse the flames, a small gust fluttered the robes around her neck. In the last flash of firelight, every eye swore that they saw a glimpse of a brilliant band pressed against the soft skin of her throat, studded with gems that glowed not quite white but not quite anything else, shining with the depth of the sky, the land, and the future.