They’re coming. I can hear them. They know where we are. I can sense it in my bones. I can feel their hatred driving the life from the earth before them. Run.
Ock gasped as he awoke to silence and darkness. His sleeping skin clung to his damp skin. Two agitated breaths and then calm. It was just a dream.
Ock gradually drifted out of sleep’s final, desperate attempts to subdue his thoughts. It was the same dream. The exact same dream about the dark men. He sighed and tried to think of something else.
Ock noticed, as his eyes adjusted, that he was not surrounded entirely by darkness. The fey moon was in waning gibbous so spared some light that scattered from the entrance. He stared up at the ceiling where the stalactites loomed over him like sky-fire turned to stone. Though it was some distance away, he could hear the echoes of water droplets dripping into a pool at a lazy rate. He was comforted by the warmth to his left and right and the peaceful breathing that indicated he wasn’t alone in the world. For now.
The humidity was also present. It would surely rain within the next few days. It was a warm season and rain would be a blessing. Seeing as he wasn’t going to fall asleep any time soon, Ock got up and walked out of the cave’s entrance to feel the warm summer night embrace him. A short while out of the mouth, he perched himself on a flat, slanted rock. He leaned back on his arms and folded his right leg over his left.
Around him, the vast bushveld resonated with the chirping of crickets, and firebugs gave little, distributed flashes for a little light courting. Ock smiled at his joke. He could amuse himself. It wasn’t a skill to make the clan elders think him any less troublesome, but it saved him from boredom a fair number of times.
Looking at the charred sky, Ock wondered whether the fey moon ever tired of living surrounded by darkness. It’s a pity the martial moon only came out when the fey moon went away because they could have gotten to know each other and maybe become friends. There were a few small pricks of light but they could surely not be much fun.
A sound came from behind him, making Ock briefly glance around.
“I guess I’m not the only one who couldn’t sleep,” said Ock.
A tall, slender female with hair as black as Ock’s, the night sky, and the souls of the men who drove this clan into these cliffs so many centuries ago, sat down beside Ock. She was clothed in the same tanned-skin tunic as him and both of them exposed bare legs as long breeches would smother this time of year.
“I am always restless on offering eve,” said the girl. “You know that.” She gave a lazy smile and looked over the veld as Ock did.
There was silence around the two but it wasn’t an empty silence. The silence was a container and it held the life of the night. Crickets strummed their hearts out and a pair of tiny figures rustled past in the undergrowth, scavenging for grubs or roots.
“Mother and father would have known how to comfort us, Tara,” said Ock. “They were always so good at offering to the ordikai.”
“We’ll do just fine,” said Tara, clearly not supporting the words with the confidence that they required.
“I hope so,” said Ock.
For a long time they both sat on the slanted rock and said nothing outwardly. Then Ock went back into the cave. A few minutes later Tara followed.
The following morning Ock was woken by ritual activity as the clan began their daily tasks. He was usually one of the first up but recently things were different.
The clan of fifty tidied up the sleeping area, with the exception of two who prepared the broth in a pot that flaked as if it had been overcooked when it was forged. Ock walked up to Owna and Ewna who stood by the clan’s pot and greeted them with a clenched fist and an index finger pointing upward above his brow. Owna and Ewna returned the gesture and smiled.
“How’s the broth coming along?” asked Ock.
“Nearly ready to be cooked,” said Ewna casually, dropping in some skinned bulbs. As she mentioned cooking, the three of them absent mindedly looked out of the cave entrance and up the hill.
“I take it you don’t need my help, then,” said Ock.
“We’re handling it perfectly well without an uncoordinated male-ling getting in our way,” said Owna with a haughty, green gaze.
“As you wish,” said Ock, going back to the sleeping area to shake out and roll up his sleeping skin, and place it with the others’.
He then began sweeping the dust from the floor using a bundled stack of thatch. As he worked he looked at the clan members who he had known all his life. They all had complexions that were tanned to various degrees, though ultimately looking the same from afar. Their bodies told of the toil they went through daily in the hot sun that was poured over the earth. However, they had protection in these cliffs and, more importantly — Ock shambled out of his reverie as he was approached by a wrinkled man.
“Greetings, elder Sahu,” said Ock, punctuating the greeting with his index finger above his brow and in line with his nose.
“Morning, Ock,” said Sahu. “I hope you are feeling athletic today.”
Elder Sahu continued after briefly resting his eyes: “Follow me, please. We are nearly ready to leave.”
Ock walked after Sahu while keeping moderate distance between them. They left the wide cave mouth where the day was already heating up despite nearby trees casting shade. A circle of clan-people waited. Owna, Ewna, Tara and, Grek and Kor (the sons of Sahu). Both Grek and Kor had narrow features and nearly-black eyes. Ock imagined them to look like Sahu would have as a young man. Ewna and Owna looked very different. Owna had freckles and both had green eyes and inferno-smitten hair. It was obvious that they weren’t related to the Elder’s sons.
“We’ll carry the pot,” said Ewna.
“I believe it’s our turn,” said Grek gesturing to Kor.
“Someone needs to carry the ore,” said Owna. “We will take the pot.” She pointed at the clan’s huge pot with her delicate finger.
“Enough,” growled Sahu. “There will be no bickering. The ordikai don’t like —” He trailed off. “Set a good example for Ock and Tara, please. “Owna, Ewna, Grek and Kor, you will all need to carry the pot. Tara and Ock, divide the ores between each other”
Ock lifted his eyebrow at Tara knowingly. She smiled back and rolled her eyes. They both knelt down and transfered a three-head-pile worth of rough stones from a tarpaulin into two sacks woven of leather strips.
Owna and Ewna took hold of the handle on the one side of the pot and the Elder’s sons, the other — like two opposite sides of an argument. They carried it at the back, then Ock and Tara with their sacks, and Sahu lead at the front with this staff.
They walked East, on the same grain as the cave. They soon started walking uphill and it was not long before they reached a vantage point that revealed the full bushveld of the valley over acacia trees that spanned to the distant mountain protecting the valley along with this mountain.
The route soon took a turn Southward behind the cave and up a narrow, rocky, zig-zagging path that sharply ascended the mountain. The group was clearly taking strain and even Sahu who carried nothing but his staff, was breathing heavily. Before long, however, the path suddenly flattened out and they were met by a tall, rectangular entrance into a dimly lit staircase carved into the rock.
“What is this place?” asked Tara. “Did the ordikai make this?”
“The ordikai have never made anything,” said Sahu, matter-of-factly not answering the question.
“How much farther?” Asked Ock while rubbing his left shoulder and then, when that didn’t ease the pain, his right.
“Not much farther,” said Sahu. “Now, when we go in, no-one is to speak until I permit it. Follow me.”
Shau stood by the entrance and waited for the others. Tara and Ock reshouldered their sacks, walked to Sahu and were followed closely by the other four. As Ock followed Sahu into the dimness through the gate, he suddenly felt a chill in his head - making it feel all prickly.
They walked up the flight of stairs and, once at the top, they stood side-by-side in the darkness. Ock heard the pot being placed on the ground and then all he could hear was his breathing and his heartbeat. He anxiously waited for Sahu to say something. Listening to his own heavy breathing made him even more anxious. He was breathing loudly… he was really breathing loudly.
Suddenly Ock realised that it wasn’t his breathing. There was something else in the darkness. Something big. He battered away the urge to scream and gave a little jump when Sahu started speaking.
“Peace from the cave.”
There was no reply. Then something shifted in the darkness. Dust shook loose and drizzled over the party.
“Identify yourselves,” rumbled the mountain of a voice from what felt like way too close to Ock.
Sahu cleared his mortal throat. “It is Sahu, great odrakai. And with me, I have —”
“Let them speak their names, elder. I wish to identify their voices.”
Sahu gave Ock two sharp jabs with his elbow from Ock’s left.
“I am —” croaked Ock. He coughed. “I am Ock.”
“I am Tara.”
Hastily, Owna, Ewna, Kor and Grek spoke their names.
“Welcome, people of our sanctuary,” said the voice. For a moment there was a sound of air rushing into a cavity and a then a red glow followed. Fire erupted in a stream away from the party and engulfed a pyre, lighting it instantly. The stone cathedral was illuminated, revealing a massive beast. It was as tall as at least four trees of mature age, had four legs and two wings; a long neck, was a pale (almost transparent) grey and had a long scaly jaw with rows of sharp teeth.
“Especially welcome to the newcomers, Tara and Ock.” The beast reared onto its hind quarters. “I, am Gataki — odraki liaison.”
Ock felt his knees go weak for a moment as the pyre’s light played off the scales of the odraki and the walls of the huge hall making the beast more intimidating.
“We have come seeking the use of your fire,” said Sahu in the most plaintive voice Ock ever heard him use.
“Speak the oath, elder.”
“By the cave in which we dwell, by the stream of which we drink; by the salvation of the odraki centuries ago, we swear to only use the blessed fire of the protectors in their presence.”
The odraki stared into the elder’s eyes and eventually it said, “Use the fire and obey our covenant.”
Tara and Ock bowed shortly after the others and they made their way to the pyre. Gataki lay down on the ground, folded his wings and remained motionless with one of his eyes half open.
The party took burning logs from the pyre and transferred them to a smaller fireplace. The pot was placed over the fireplace. Grek then asked Tara and Ock to follow him where they started a fire in an ancient, bricked kiln.
Grek demonstrated how to heat up the iron. Ock and Tara fed the furnace with wood while Grek placed the ore into the mouth of the kiln. After an hour, Grek said that they needed to wait for the dross to settle at the top and that the two of them could take a break while he kept watch over the furnace.
Tara said that she was going to see how the cooking was going. Ock considered joining her but the thought of being around Owna, Ewna and Kor — who were probably bickering — wasn’t an appealing one so he ambled away into the darkness.
As much as his clanmates irritated him, though, he still felt frustrated about their plight. He suddenly started indulging in forbidden thoughts. The odraki were actually just big lizards after all. The clan’s fate and life were in the claws of some reptiles, Ock thought as he walked along the smooth brick wall of the hall. As his feet dragged him forward, his left foot bumped into a stone half the size of a pear. He stopped and idly tapped the stone around with his foot.
“We’re all just slaves!” With the last word he slammed the stone against the wall causing a dim crack to resound from the stone. It glinted and he got onto his knees to look at it closer. The stone had split in two and the hollow insides were padded with crystals. Ock picked them up and held them up to his face from various angles.
“What’s that, Ock?” asked a voice behind him.
Ock spun around to face Tara. He was without words for a moment. He then dismissively said, “It’s just a hollow rock I found.”
“Oh,” said Tara. She looked back to the kiln a distance away. “We should probably go and help Grek. We’ll never hear the end of it otherwise.”
Ock slipped the two halves of the stone into a fold of his shirt and walked back with Tara. He realised how chilled the rest of the hall was when they got to the kiln’s heat, and Grek realised it as well.
“It’s about time,” he grumbled. “We need to mould the gold ingots. I’ve finished with the iron, I have just to finish with the gold.”
Under Grek’s direction, Ock and Tara ran to put moulding trays under the outlet. They left the metal to cool and after they had hammered the ingots out of the moulds, they met up with Sahu and the others before the odraki.
“What have you used our fire for?” asked the giant reptile.
“We have cooked our food to keep us until the next offering,” said the elder, “smelted our iron pieces we will hammer into tools, and we have crafted golden ingots which we offer to you as thanks for your mercy, oh liaison.”
“As long as you and your people uphold our covenant, we will live in harmony.” Gataki said this and bowed. The human party bowed back and left the hall and went down the stairs.
It was dusk when they left the gateway. They walked back to the cave along the same route they came in the morning, though it felt like an easier path being downhill. The sun and martial moon were setting and, on the opposite horizon, the fey moon indicated it was to rise with a precursory glow in the azure.
The clan was waiting anxiously for the party when they arrived and when they saw Sahu nod they all clapped and cheered welcoming the offerers back.
Two people removed the satchel of ingots from Ock’s back and patted him warmly. The clan began to sing a song at least as old as anyone they knew about.
Go up; go up. Ascend the hill. Go up; go up. From this dark chill. Go up; go up. To the odraki. Go up; go up. To the hall of sky.
Come down; come down. With metals more. Come down; come down. From the stone door. Come down; come down. Broth from the blaze. Come down; come down. Until ten more days.
The clan celebrated, ate and and they all curled up in their sleeping skins with heavy bellies and light hearts. Tara closed her eyes and thought over the day. Her mind was filled with the beauty of fire and the gentle-but-firmness of Gataki. Soon she was asleep and dreamt nothing.
“Tara,” whispered a voice. Tara didn’t stir. “Tara, wake up.”
Tara rolled over and opened her eyes to see Ock crouching beside her. “Ock, what are you doing?”
“Come with me,” whispered Ock excitedly. “I want to show you something.”
“It’s still dark. Can’t this wait until morning?”
Ock shook his head and snuck out of the cave. Tara sat up, shook her head as if to clear away sleep hanging in her head, and followed the way Ock had gone. She met him at the mouth.
“Where are you going?” She asked.
“You’ll see,” he said. He led her into the forest in front of the cave. After a while they came to a clearing.
Tara saw a yellow glow from the darkness ahead of them and she suddenly felt sick. “Ock,” she whispered. “What have you done?”
They stopped in front of a small fire in a dug out pit.
“How did you… What have you done?”
“I hid a piece of burning coal in that rock I found,” he said, holding up the two shells coated in a layer of ash — making the crystals opaque. “Now we can use fire without the odraki.”
“Tara, our clan will be free.”
“No. No.” There was urgency in Tara’s voice. “We have to put it out.”
Tara scooped up a handful of sand and moved to throw it onto the wicked tongues but Ock grabbed her hand and the sand slipped through her fingers.
Tara tried to scoop up sand again but Ock scuffled with her and she fell back.
“Tara,” said Ock moving forward. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean…” he trailed off when he saw that she wasn’t looking at him. He spun around a saw what she was watching.
In the scuffle, a branch had been knocked out of the fire and into the dry summer grass. For a moment they both did nothing. Then Tara jumped to her feet and shouted, “Water! We need to get water.”
Ock kicked sand at the newly started fire but it had a taste for freedom and it jumped at the opportunity to spread. Before Ock could say anything, Tara was running towards the river.
Ock stared after Tara but then stopped and looked in the direction of the cave. “I have to warn the others,” he muttered.
Ock was back at the cave as quickly as lightning but this fire followed like thunder.
“Fire!” shouted Ock running into the cave. “Wake up. There’s a fire!”
The clan awoke and were alert surprisingly quickly for people who had been dreaming moments ago.
“Where is it?” asked Sahu. “How much time do we have?”
Ock didn’t need to answer because from outside there was a crackling roar.
“We can’t stay here or we’ll suffocate,” said Sahu to Ock and then to everyone else: “Everyone, follow me.”
The clan scrambled out of the cave and made their way away from the forest into the Western plane. The fire followed them slower there but only slightly.
Suddenly there was a burst of blue flames in the sky and then another. Was the fire burning even the air?
“The odraki!” said someone as the clan stopped to look. “Someone stole fire from them and now they’re coming for us!”
“Tara went to the river,” shouted Ock over the sound of the approaching inferno. “I have to go back for her.”
Ock had barely turned around and taken a step when Gataki slammed into the ground ahead of him. He reared up and then rammed back into the ground and roared.
Gataki was joined by four other odraki who landed in a circle around the clan.
“Filthy humans! We were gracious to you but you have betrayed our trust. You have defiled our covenant and for that you will burn.”
“Wait!” shouted Ock with a wavery voice. “They had nothing to do with it. It was me. I stole the fire.”
Gataki went quiet for a moment and narrowed his eyes.
“Ock, how could you?” said Sahu. “We’ve lived in harmony for centuries. You’ve dammed us.” Sahu clenched his fist and gritted his teeth. “You’ve dammed us!”
Gataki considered the humans before them and said, “For your honesty and for the sake of your clan, I will spare you but you are all banished from this valley and shall never receive protection here again. Go!”
The humans cowered as the leathery wings beat at the the ground. As Gataki and the other odraki began to lift up, the clan stampeded across the plane in a panicked mob. As tragic as this event was, it was not to be the last of the trials. It was not to be the last of the sadness. It was not to be the last of the suffering.
They ran until dawn where they reached a place with hard rocks and grassless terrain under their feet. They collapsed against a cluster of boulders.
Ock knew that before them they had a rough path, an unknown future and, whoever they were, the dark men.