Author Topic: Jack 1  (Read 1892 times)

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Offline Daen

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Jack 1
« on: October 10, 2022, 05:05:15 AM »
Part 1: Jack

I heard the screams first.

I was still a good distance out from Tennant, having been sent to fill up a small basket with whichetty, which was now forgotten. From the number of people I could hear, this wasn’t anything like a wild dog attack or any kind of prank gone wrong. This was serious.

Dropping my basket, I hefted my cane and hurried back as best I could. Before long I ran into the hard-packed road, and things got easier. From there all I had to do was lift my cane until it touched the guidelines, and follow them home. As I approached, I could taste the metallic tang of blood on the air. Someone had been hurt.

I heard barking as well, from one of the larger dogs on a leash near the home. I thought I recognized Brute, and turned towards him. “Dale? Are you there?” I asked quietly.

Brute immediately quieted, whimpering slightly, and I lowered my hands towards him. His master was nowhere nearby. “Is anyone there?”

“Jack! Serpent’s Praise; you’re safe!” I heard the snapping of fingers to my right, and then a hand gripped mine.

It was Runia, another youth in the village about a year older than me. Her grip was painfully tight. “What happened here? Where’s Dale?”

“I don’t know. Soldiers came- at least a score of them! They broke down doors and… killed people. They were looking for the mulkurr. They were gone as quickly as they came.”

I froze in place. Mama! In another instant I was off, heedless of obstacles, my cane bouncing off of anything and everything in the way. If they were after mama, I had to know if they’d found her. Runia called after me, but I didn’t respond. All that mattered was getting home.

The front door was broken, just as she’d said. Gingerly, I felt around for the broken wood and then stepped over the fragments. At least I couldn’t hear any screams from in here, though there was a muffled noise in the back. We had no pets, and our animals were over with everyone else’s, on the other side of town. It was a person making the noise.

It was sobbing, but the breaths were too shallow to be mama’s. As I passed through the back door, I could hear it coming from over by the well. When I snapped my fingers to announce myself, it stopped right away. “Who’s there?”

Dale’s voice. He was all right, and I nearly wilted with relief. “It’s Jack,” I responded reassuringly, and reached out to find his hands. They were wet with tears. “Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine,” the younger boy said tremulously. “I hid in here, like I was told.”

That grabbed my attention right away. “Told? Did mama tell you?”

“Yeah. She said to hide, and that she would find others and bring them here too.”

That was all I needed to hear from him. She was alive, or had been when the attack had started, but Dale had no idea where she was now. Giving his hands a reassuring squeeze, I straightened up again and went back outside. She had to be somewhere.

The noise was dying down a little now, but I could still hear moans of pain from some places. I heard Runia comforting her injured uncle, a good man who had thrilled the whole village with tunes from his pipe. Finally, I heard people saying ‘mulkurr’, and focused on that.

Mama was outside the shrine it seemed, on the ground with half a dozen people gathering around her. From the scent, her chief student Machin was there too. He always liked to smell of lemon. I pushed my way through the group slowly because I was so small, and finally reached her side. She wasn’t moving!

“Stay back,” Machin ordered curtly, but he relented once he realized it was me. “Fine, just stay put for now. I need to check her injuries.”

In addition to being the mulkurr, mama was also Tennant’s healer. She taught four or five students her craft, but Machin was the oldest and most skilled so far. I gripped mama’s hand, as I heard him check her breathing and pulse. I could feel her heartbeat too, through her wrist. At least it was strong.

Finally Machin sat back up and grunted. “She’s been beaten, and I can feel bruises on her face and neck. She’s legbroke too, but I can set that. What worries me is the wound to her side. I don’t think she’s rib-broke, but the cut is deep. The soldiers must have thought they’d killed her, and moved on. Don’t you all have somewhere else to be??” He snapped at the others who had gathered around.

They seemed to collectively hold their breaths at that, and he sighed. “Sorry. I know you’re all worried about the mulkurr, but you can’t help her right now. If you want to be useful, gather all the wounded together in the mugincoble. It’s the only building big enough for everyone to be housed safely. Make sure they’re not moved too fast, and people aren’t putting weight on injured legs, that kind of thing. Then… move the dead out to the stables. We can arrange,” his voice trembled a little at that. “We’ll mourn for them in a ceremony later. Right now we need to focus on the living. Now go!”

At his sharp words, the crowd dispersed, most of them going back to their homes, and tending to their family and neighbors. I ignored him, as my only remaining family was right here. “Machin? Is mama going to be all right?”

His hesitation was only for a split-second, but it was enough. “Your mother is strong, like any mulkurr. She’ll recover in time. Now go, and let me tend to her.” He didn’t know that for sure. I could tell. I stood and stepped away, but I felt for sure I was about to be orphaned in the next few minutes.

Papa had died two years ago, from a fall outside the village. I remembered him teaching me so many things, from how to tie a good knot, to building and lighting a firepit, to scenting predators and possible food on the wind. When I had broken my leg at ten, he had carried me home, and sang a battle song from the ancestors, while mama set it and put it in a splint. He had always been my rock, and then he was suddenly, terribly, just gone.

I couldn’t lose mama, too. Quietly, so as not to disturb Machin as he worked, I made my way around him and into the shrine.

Whoever had attacked mama had apparently been in here, too. All of the icons that I touched had been smashed, and the knots hanging from the walls had been torn down. If whoever had done this had stayed, they probably would have burned the whole shrine to the ground. They’d even tried to move the altar itself, but it was solid stone, so the best they’d been able to do was clear off all of the adornments. It was now a stone mound in front of the placemat.

Wollunka would hear my prayers even without the symbols and trappings of the normal shrine. He was the great spirit, after all. In reverence, I knelt in front of the altar and began reciting the prayer. We all learned it as children, though some of us kept to the faith more closely than others. Shamefully, I realized I had not been as diligent as I could have been with prayers.

My voice froze in my throat, as I heard a noise. A strange hissing noise, so faint it could barely be heard, had just come from the altar itself! I pressed trembling hands against the stone, and could feel a faint crack in it. The noise had come from inside.

I was alone in here- I’d been sure of it! I would have heard any other breaths as surely as I could hear my own, which meant I was actually hearing from the beyond! Not just a sense, as some of my people had said, of getting a message from Wollunka, but actually hearing a physical noise! The hissing couldn’t be an ordinary snake, either. It had to be Wollunka’s Great Serpent, speaking to me!

A great terror gripped me for a moment, but then it was gone just as fast. If Wollunka himself was willing to speak to me, I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity. “Great spirit?” I asked, bowing as I remembered that bowing was what my ancestors had done. “Is that you?”

The voice came again, this time much louder and clearer than before. A woman’s voice. “Who’s there?”

I quickly rummaged through everything I could remember about Wollunka. Sure, he’d always been referred to as a ‘he’, but in the lore, he had always been a great serpent. Not a man, or a woman. “Great spirit?” I echoed my earlier question. “It’s just me. Jack, of the Tennants. Please, can you help me? My mother is gravely hurt. I fear she may die!”

There was a long silence. “I’m not the great spirit, Jack,” the woman’s voice finally responded. “My name is Sarah. I’m- I guess you could say a servant of Wollunka.”

Well, it wasn’t what I’d hoped for, but it wasn’t nothing either. “I can’t hear your breath or feel your warmth. That means you’re a spirit, too. Can you help me?”

“Perhaps. Are you the mulkurr’s son? Is she the woman injured?”

“Yes!” I hesitated. I supposed it made sense that a lesser spirit, a servant of Wollunka, would know exactly who I was and who my mother was. “Her face and neck are bruised, and they stabbed her in the side as well. Machin is tending to her.”

“Yes, I’ve heard of Machin,” the voice said contemplatively, from the crack in the stone. “He’s been studying with your mother for a year or so now, yes?”

“That’s right. He says she’ll recover, but… I fear he’s lying.”

Sarah, in whatever spirit realm she called home, was silent for another span. “Was the shrine despoiled as well?”

I felt around for some of the debris. “Yes. They were looking for something, I think. Either way they’re gone now.”

“Torgan soldiers, probably,” Sarah responded, and there was no mistaking the grimness in her voice, even through the strange hissing that continued every time she spoke. “Jack, I need you to go out to the well. Feel around for anything that isn’t usually there, and then come back and kneel in front of the altar again.”

“Yes, spirit,” I said obediently.

As I felt my way out to the well, my mind spun. The Torgan Republic was a nation to our east- a very harsh one from what I remembered. Papa had taken me on several trades over the years, and sometimes we’d gone into Torgan villages. Their Governors had once been peaceful, he’d said, but the most recent one was a man named Sterling. He was rumored to be sadistic and brutal, with both his subjects and his enemies.

The Torgans didn’t share our faith in Wollunka, and they didn’t much care about us, either. If anything, they thought of us dismissively, as primitives. The one thing that kept us mostly safe from Torgan power was that we… really didn’t have anything worth taking. The Munga people had always been poor, because we lived on harsh lands on the edge of the wastes. We had a few sturdy villages, but not many crops to plant or animals to farm for wool or meat. They simply had no reason to turn their wrath against us.

The well was Tennant’s greatest asset. Dug long before the Great Fall, it was the reason our town could exist here, so far from the Springs or the river to the east. It was a remnant of the ancestors, left behind by them for us to use. I had heard tales of people digging wells in other towns to the east and beyond, but it was very difficult and time-consuming. We were fortunate to have inherited one. My cane tapped against something new, and solid, next to the water source. I tentatively reached out, and my hands brushed against… another altar. This one made of metal, and apparently bolted into the ground. Atop it, from what I could feel, was a human skull, or at least the shape of one made out of iron.

It was a shape I’d felt only once before, during one of my trips into Torgan territory with my father. A similar altar had been in the center of that town. The skull was a copy, it was said, of the very first Torgan Governor, who had carved the Republic out of the ashes of the Great Fall. His skull had probably turned to dust by now, but replicas of it had no doubt been placed everywhere.

As soon as I knelt again inside our own shrine, the hissing voice spoke again. “Well?”

I described the skull altar, and Sarah gave an audible sigh. “Tennant has been marked; it seems. The Torgans have claimed your territory as their own. Don’t try to remove the skull symbol. If they come back and find that it’s gone, they’ll punish you even more severely.”

I wanted to ask why the Torgans had attacked us, after having ignored us for so very long, but my mother’s situation was still at the front of my mind. Before I could ask about her again, Sarah seemed to sense my question. “I’ve talked about it with the, uh, Wollunka, and we’ve decided to help. Do you know about your mother’s herb garden? About where she keeps her potions and tonics?”

“Yes. I even help her brew them from time to time.”

“Good. Machin can handle her bruises and other injuries, but she needs a special powder to protect her side while it heals. He wouldn’t know about it yet. You need to go and get it from her stores, and then apply it to her injury. Our generosity is not without price, however. As soon as your mother is treated, you are to return to the shrine and we’ll tell you what we need you to do in return.”

I’d been ready to give up my own life in exchange, and if that’s what they required, I was willing. Something told me they had something else in mind, though. “Which powder do I use?” I asked, thinking of the huge number of clay pots, containing dried leaves, powders, and liquids in nearly equal measure.

“You won’t recognize the word, but I’ll spell it out for you.” She gave the word, which I did not know, and I thanked her and left again. Mama had labeled all of her jars with carvings in the clay, and I knew what to feel for now.

Convincing Machin to let me help would be a pointless exercise, but thankfully he’d done all he could for the moment. Mama had been moved into the mugincoble along with all the other wounded. I tiptoed my way between them until I came across her. She was alone for the moment, and I acted quickly. As Sarah had instructed, I carefully removed the poultice that was already in place, and sprinkled the powder into the wound. I winced, despite the fact that mama had made no noise, at how painful this would have been had she been awake. After making sure it was spread evenly, I put the poultice back where it had been, and made sure the straps would keep it in place, even if mama were to suddenly move.

There; it was done. I could smell lemons again, meaning Machin was coming back. He asked me what I was doing here, but I just said I’d come to sit with my mother. Fortunately the powder, whatever it was, seemed to be odorless.

As soon as I could extricate myself from the building, I wandered the streets for a bit. Mama was alive, for the time being, and Machin seemed to think she was doing better. Now, it was my turn to pay whatever price the spirits had in mind for me.