1. The Morning of the Hunt
The Morning of the Hunt
"With whom will you hunt?" asked the taller of the two Men.
The shorter and younger looked over his shoulder at his half brother and steward of his house. "With Lord Maruset." He was going through the collection of throwing sticks, looking for the best with which to hunt the ducks that populated the marshes that were so common a feature of the delta region of the River. At the noise made by the other he paused, turned more fully. "And why do you make that sound?"
The other simply shrugged, and continued to stand at a disapproving attention, fixing his gaze on the brilliantly painted far wall, refusing to meet his lord brother's eyes.
"You do not approve of me hunting with Lord Maruset, Amonrabi?"
"I can hold no opinion one way or another," Amonrabi said evasively. "Lord Maruset is a powerful Man, and is in favor with our lord father. And who am I, Sohrabi, as the son of the concubine and not of a proper wife, to pass judgment on your choosing?"
"You have more sense in your little finger than all of the rest of our brothers among them," Sohrabi sighed, "which is why I chose you as the steward of my house. If you do not have a good feeling, then I would do well to listen to your advice."
"He is a devotee of the Dark Ones and their dread Lord is all, Sohrabi," his brother finally responded. "I have never had a good feeling about the Dark Ones."
Sohrabi turned back to his collection of throwing sticks. "The Eastern Lord holds sway over us and our lands, and Maruset is in his favor. I cannot ignore the Man, particularly when he has singled me out for attention."
"And why is it that he does so now, Sohrabi?"
Sohrabi set aside the eight sticks he'd chosen and slipped the remainder back into the wide mouthed, pot-shaped stand in which he kept such things as he gave an elaborate shrug. Picking up his throwing sticks and turning to the small table where he'd set his short hunting bow and quiver of darts, he placed the sticks with them. Finally he turned to his brother. "Our father is Farozi, not I or any of our brothers. There is no reason I can see for Maruset favoring me over the rest, particularly as Ma'osiri is principle heir. But I cannot afford to offend him--as I said, the Eastern Lord favors him. I wish to live, Amonrabi, so that I can provide a home for you and those of our brothers and sisters who deserve to be comfortable. Our lord father has taken so many concubines that the lower river valley crawls with our brethren, and he ignores the most of them. Am I to allow them all to sink into degradation? I do not wish them to come to the attention of the followers of the Dark Ones and find their ways to the Eastern Lord's altars."
"So you will accept the invitation of the leader of them all to hunt with him--alone?"
"He will do me no harm--I am, after all, proper son to the Farozi."
"And when has he offered our father the respect due to the Farozi, Sohrabi? He acts as though he were ruler of our land, giving our father orders from the Nameless One, ordering altars to That One built and the slaughtering of life upon them with no thought to Amon or Ra, Osiri or Isiri or any of the rest of the pantheon. No, only the Death Eater has he ever worshipped."
"To appreciate the Light, we must have the Dark as well, Amonrabi."
Amonrabi snorted. "And if the Eastern Lord once again holds full sway, will he realize that the opposite is true, that to appreciate the Dark properly we must also have Light? I doubt it. Ever the Death Eater demands more horrible deaths on his altars, and grows in power as they are offered him. He would cover the entire world with his darkness, and would make it terrible again, obliterating even the stars if he could."
"I cannot oppose him alone, Amonrabi. And if I offend his agent, I will draw attention here and to the Valley of the Sun, and I would not have such happen."
Amonrabi gave a deep sigh. Finally he asked, "Will you not take at least Bherevrid with you?"
"Am I to draw Maruset's attention further to him?"
"He is one of the few who keeps Maruset's followers in check, and who has not fallen to offering sacrifice on the Death Eater's altars."
"I have not offered sacrifices on the Eastern Lord's altars."
"Do you think that Maruset will not seek to set that aright if you hunt alone with him this day?"
"I offer proper worship to Annubi----"
"And do you truly believe the Death Eater to be a form of Annubi, brother?"
Sohrabi almost snapped, "Of course not, Amonrabi. Annubi is the guide of the dead, not the one who devours them." He calmed his anger and fear, then sighed. "I would see our land freed of the power of the Nameless One and his servants. But those who read the omens say that it is not the people of our land who will accomplish this."
Amonrabi gave his brother a closer look. "And how do you know this, brother? The Dark Ones have forbidden the reading of omens."
Sohrabi did not respond, merely looked at his brother with a carefully schooled blank look. Amonrabi finally nodded. "No, you do well not to confide further in me. What I do not know I cannot betray." The steward walked to the doorway and looked out it at the teeming street beyond. "I would dearly desire to see the downfall of the Death Eater. I hate what he does to our land, our people--our father." He turned back to Sohrabi. "But you must be careful. Do not turn your back upon Maruset. Do not trust him. Give him no chance to slay you. You are the best of us all, brother. On you and Bherevrid lie the hopes of our people for proper leadership if the Nameless One is ever cast down. The one good thing about this day is that none of the Dark Ones are here now." Both of them shuddered at the thought.
Sohrabi took up his quiver and put it over his shoulder, carefully fixed his chosen throwing sticks in his belt. "I will watch my back," he said. He reached out to clasp his brother's forearm, gave him what was intended to be an encouraging nod, and after making certain his knife was properly seated in his belt, he picked up his bow and left the house, headed for the outskirts of the city and the day's hunting.
His land and Far Harad and the lands surrounding them had long lain under the shadow of the Nameless One and his dark servants. It had been so for so long most didn't even care. He cared, however. He would see it otherwise, see the peoples of the lands again freed to worship the old gods, Amon and Ra, Osiri and Isiri, Neryet of the Stars, Annubi and Baht and the others. They were supposed to primarily worship the Lord of the Sun in his might and his many forms, not this one who had long claimed to be a form of kindly Annubi and Osiri the Judge, but who was worse than Seti himself. Seti had been put back into his place, it was said, long ago after he attacked the other gods, when together they had banded together to stand against him and bested him, thrust him back into the darkness he was said to have once set over all the world. No, Sohrabi did not think the Death Eater was indeed a form of Osiri or Annubis. The others did not come near the mortal lands any more, save for Ulmë of the Waters who saw to the annual rising of the River itself; but it did not mean that they were in any way less beloved than when they freely visited the mortal lands.
As he reached the farmland at the edge of the river, he saw Maruset awaiting him. He noted with dismay that Maruset had not come alone, that he was attended by Virubat, Virubat of the Smile. Virubat had fought before among the forces of the Death Eater, and a cut to the side of his face had left that side looking since as if he were caught in a perpetual smile, one which delighted in evil and destruction. His father, Sohrabi knew, was terrified of Virubat. Sohrabi merely detested him, detested him with all his heart and soul. But he would not show this to him now....
"You have come a full quarter mark early," Maruset said. "That is good--the ducks will be calmer and easier to be killed."
Sohrabi kept his gaze on Virubat. "It was not known to me, Lord Virubat, that you hunted duck."
"I do not," agreed the scarred one. "I was merely keeping Lord Maruset here company until your arrival. I will go on my way now, and trust him to see to it that you hunt well." He straightened and stretched, then turned back into the city.
Maruset looked after him with mingled distaste and concern, then turned back to Sohrabi. "So, it shall be but you and me. Shall we go, then?" And he led the way into the tangle of channels that characterized the delta.
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