The Last Days of Narash
I was on the way back to Narash when he arrived. We were returning from the fields, my sister Mereth and I. In the bags on our backs we had the yields, the wheat, the rye, the barley, for it was summer and the time of harvest. Beneath mine I had a fresh head of lettuce hidden, one that Mereth stole from old Kin-arat – for we knew he was wealthy and alone, and would not miss it. By the entrance to the village we stopped, at the altar of our forefathers. We recited their names and we placed the first ears of grain at its feet. I elbowed Mereth as she giggled, distracted, for Therash, the young son of the huntsman sat nearby and whistled a tune. I would have to speak with his father, I thought, for with our parents gone it was my duty to be my sister’s matchmaker. It was by the smell that we first knew of the man’s arrival. He stank of a long road, of dirt, of dung and urine. Beneath the ripped rags that covered his form, his body seemed broken, shrivelled, wrong. As if shattered bones protruded from his back, as if something slithered across his flesh beneath the cover of his worn-out cloth. And his face, his face. Deep scars disfigured his cheeks, five on each side, stretching beneath the black, empty, clawed out eye-sockets. And as he opened his lips, raising his voice to the skies in song, hoarse words in a tongue we had not known, the scars too seemed to shift, to crawl in rupture along his face. At the sight of him all on the road stopped. Hir-tash, who, bent over by the weight of her age, was sweeping the entrance to her house, quickly spat in her hand and threw it over her head, murmuring a quick prayer under her breath as she gave him the evil-eye. And since she was old and wise in the ways of the unseen, we all repeated her motion. Uncaring, he moved on towards the line of our huts, carrying with him the unknowable song. Mereth was the first one to break out of our stupor; she looked at me and whispered, as if scared the man would hear her, that we would need to go and warn the elder – it was his right and duty to judge and decide on the law of hospitality. She turned and was ready to run before I caught her hand. I called out to Therash and gave him my bag, telling him to lead Mereth back to our house. As she looked at me, I said I would do so, I would go and warn the elder, and she would wait safely until the man was gone. For though I knew not the outsider’s stench, I knew that it did not belong to this world. I was not the first to reach the elder. As I approached his hut in the centre of the village he was already leaving it, surrounded by people. There was the baker and his wife, who provided for us when our parents had passed, and there was the young fisher who brought me fresh trout in courtship, with his brother and sister. There was old Kin-arat, with the trader from the town, and Ni-mar with her husband, who walked slowly behind the rest. As they walked, she was delicately caressing her belly, for the state of her blessing was near completion. And there was Therash’s older brother and father, both hunters who knew the woods, wielding spears in their hands. They marched at the front, beside the hulking form of our elder, who held the staff passed on from elder to elder since the times unremembered. Though he had seen more winters than anyone in our village, he still rose a head over the huntsman and his son. And so I joined them, and we went back to where I saw the strange man. More people joined us as we walked back to the edge of our village. They left their huts on seeing our moving crowd, filled with excitement – Narash was off the usual trails, far away from even the closest town. It was rare for us to see guests, for us to see anything from beyond the trees. Only old Kin-arat dealt with the strangers from beyond our valley, like the weirdly dressed merchant who had visited him to complete a trade. Only old Kin-arat and the youngsters who begged to work for him; for the wild call of adventure rustled the spirit of so many of our boys. So once we reached the last of the huts and the altar to the ancestors, our numbers had grown to encompass almost all of Narash, except for the children who were left inside and forbidden from leaving – for even in the eagerness to see what caused such a commotion, the parents could smell the uneasy stench in the air. The stranger stood there, a distance before us, motionless, waiting. He had stopped his song since I left looking for the elder, though I did not notice its absence. Yet now, with it gone, the silence that enveloped us felt too empty – even though there were whispers among us, people wondering aloud as if ignoring that he could hear us – for maybe he could not, maybe he didn’t even know our tongue? And though he was hunched and cadaverous, I felt glad the hunters were with us, with their spears. And when he spoke, raising his shaking, skeletal hands to his face, his voice was quiet, distant and crackled, yet each word I heard as if it were whispered into my ears. ‘I bring you joy, I bring you salvation.’ Pus spilled beneath his fingers as he dug into the scars that covered his cheeks. Something crawled beneath his cloth, as if slithering worms wriggled their way across his body, their frantic squirming disturbing the rags covering his form. ‘Rejoice, for He is coming. Rejoice, for He will be here, and He will always be, and He will always have been. In His Name, this servant asks you for hospitality.’ ‘Begone,’ the elder spoke, hitting the ground with the staff in his hand. ‘You are not welcome here.’ ‘The Son of the Moon, Father to the Stars,’ the man continued, convulsing under the cover of his tattered robe as he clawed against his own face with ecstasy in his voice. ‘Lord of the Grey Valley Beyond! Khalad-Ur, He comes! Tremble and rejoice! Tremble if you wrong Him, cower if you denounce Him! Rejoice, for you can serve Him through His servant. In His Name, I demand hospitality.’ ‘You are not welcome here.’ The elder repeated ‘You are no guest of ours, begone!’ ‘Begone.’ Voices from our crowd echoed his words. ‘Begone!’ ‘You are no guest!’ ‘Begone!’ ‘He comes to deliver us from the nightmares of this world.’ His voice rose as he rapidly bent backwards towards the ground, the creaking sound of his moving bones reaching us as the euphoria in his tone reached zenith. ‘Denounce your ways, anoint yourself in His name and be delivered to his side! Accept Him through His servant, give Him hospitality!’ ‘Thrice; begone, creature!’ the elder yelled once more. ‘You will not find hospitality in our homes. Leave now, begone!’ And by his side, having moved from the front of her house, old Hir-tash, wise in the ways of the unseen, burned in her hands a figure of tied herbs as is the way. ‘Begone, nameless thing, you are not welcome here.’ And the men and the woman joined her chant, and they yelled against him. And I saw Mereth who, having disobeyed my words, slunk out of the hut and joined the crowd, as she too stood by the elder and cried: ‘Begone!’ And the hunters stepped forwards with their spears and, though the man was small and frail, they seemed to tremble as they did. And he bent back towards us, and hissed, and turned away, breaking again into his alien song. As he started walking a young boy, whom I often saw looking with hunger at Mereth, picked up a stone and threw it at the figure, hitting him loudly in the back of his skull. Yet the man did not fall, nor did he stop, but went on as more and more men mimicked the youth, picking up stones and throwing them at the stranger. ‘Begone!’ they screamed. ‘Begone!’ And they continued until he was gone, until the dark line of trees swallowed him. And then we waited some more, as the eldest huntsman, who knew the forest best, gathered four men to go and see if the stranger had truly left. And as they did, and as others prepared to stand watch, we went back to our homes. There I scolded Mereth, for she disobeyed my words that should be as the words of our parents. Yet in truth I did understand her curiosity. I reached for the bags in which we brought the grain and I emptied them, for the time of supper was approaching. At the bottom of the bag, I found the lettuce to be rotten and filled with maggots. Yet the days that followed were calm, quiet. The man did not appear again. The hunters returned on the following evening, bringing us news that he was truly gone. We all went back to our normal lives. Mereth and I still spent the days in the fields, for the harvest was our duty. We worked, and we laughed, and we prayed by the altar to our ancestors, thanking them for the yields, for the village, for the man being gone. We returned home in the evenings, we ate, and we slept. On the third day I helped Hir-tash with the roof of her hut, as it was leaking, and the summer brought rain. She had always liked me. She sought to teach me the unseen arts, the ways of our ancestors, but I was still too young for that. And so she prepared me, scaring away all possible suitors. For no man can touch what belongs to the spirits, she would say. The days were passing, one after another, as they always do. And only old Kin-arat grew restless, he and the merchant who stayed in his house. For the youngsters were to return with their cart, having sold what they could in the town, to take the amusing man back on their next trip. Yet though their time of return had passed, there were no signs of them. But we paid it no mind. They were young, it was a town. They must have gotten drunk, forgot. They would be back, and old Kin-arat would give them a scolding. We laughed, and we almost forgot the weird outsider’s visit. And so, seven days had passed. On the night after the seventh day, I awoke to the sound of a song. The crackled voice carried over the skies, its words unknowable. I was in Hir-tash’s hut, for she’d invited me for supper as thanks for all my help. As we ate, she burned herbs in the hearth, for my body and spirit to know their smoke, to prepare me for the duty I would one day inherit. The flames whispered to me, their soft voices slipping into my ears, carrying me over to the valley of our ancestors. At first, as I awoke, I thought it was still them. But then I recognised the voice. And so did Hir-tash, who watched over my dream, my journey. I rushed out of the hut to see the road filled with the others, looking nervously around them as they left their own homes. The baker, holding his wife in his arms, yelled out and pointed to the woods behind the fields, where a blue light flickered between the trees. No sooner did we look than it disappeared. And one of the hunters called out, pointing to the stones at the edge of a valley, for there the blue light flickered again. And once more, no sooner did we look than it disappeared. And another of us pointed back to the trees, and another to the hermit’s hut in the distance, and another, and another, and another. The lights flickered and danced, and burst, and disappeared. The song filled the air as they did, unspeakable words reverberating within our ears, notes burning into our minds. Mereth ran at me, for I had left her alone in our hut that eve, and now she was scared, and she looked for me. And we hugged as the lights surrounded the valley, as the song filled the roads of Narash. And they grew brighter, and it grew louder, swallowing all that was, brilliant, radiating, yearning, until all that was, was the light, the light and the howling notes of the song. And then, just as suddenly as they appeared, they were gone. And in my arms Mereth cried, in the darkness, in the silence of the night. As the sun rose in the east, we heard a scream from the outskirts of the village. And I knew I had to go. I had to see. For the smoke of the herbs Hir-tash burned the night before was still alive in my blood, and I could hear it telling me that it was the way. In front of one of the furthest huts, a woman knelt in tears over a body, headless remains lying in a scarlet pool. And while the head was nowhere to be found, I needed no face to know whom it was. The boy. The one who threw the first stone. And though he could not have died but an hour before, his hand was rotten and wriggling with maggots. We gathered by the elder’s hut. What shall we do, we panicked. What can we do? What must we do? The boy’s father was first to speak, his face red from tears and anger. He would gather the men and go hunt the monster who did it. He would have revenge for his son. The hunters advised against it, they spoke of the light, of the song. Of how we knew nothing. Yet the man could not be convinced. He gathered five who would follow, and they took up their spears and bows. And left. As they walked towards the treeline, I knew that they would not return. Then, the elder finally spoke. ‘We will fortify our homes,’ he said. ‘We will survive.’ The men and the boys were sent to cut down more trees, so we could finish the palisade we had begun so many years before, back when the threat of a feud with those of the forest was still burning. We would gather in the innermost huts, sharing them between families. We would set up fires and watches. We would arm ourselves and be prepared, while Hir-tash would pray to the ancestors, asking them to give us guidance and strength. To protect us from what crept beyond the valley. And as he said, so we did. On the second night, only our fires lit the village. For as we looked to the sky, whispering prayers to whichever spirits would listen, we saw that it was empty. No star lit the night, no star looked down upon us from the heavens. Not even the ever-watchful eye of the moon adorned the endless black expanse. Yet no song nor music filled the air, no lights danced in the shadows beyond the corners of our eyes. And as the sun rose on the next day, we were all still together. We gathered what we could from the fields, for it was still the time of harvest and we could not let it go to waste, or we would starve in the winter. We looked up nervously as we did, towards the trees, towards the skies. There were men with us, armed, ready to protect us should the need arise. But it was a calm day. A quiet day. They came on the third night. Their white forms crashed through the palisade, bones breaking and reforming with sickening cracks. Each of them as long as a thousand snakes and with as many maws. Uncountable limbs sprawled from the mountains of their flesh, carrying them as they crawled through the roads. Their claws and teeth tore through the men, who screamed as they naively tried to fight them off with their spears. And in their ever-shifting flesh, as if growing beneath their mucus-covered skin, the faces of those who had left were wailing. I saw it as I sat by the fire, desperately mouthing the words as is the way, as was my duty, for I was helping Hir-tash in her prayers. One charged at us, the deformed mass of its worm-like flesh glistening in the light of the fire. I threw myself away from Hir-tash and ran into the hut, where I clung to my crying sister, and I heard the old, wise woman’s cries as it dug its teeth into her flesh. And I heard the men. The baker, who was soon to be a father, the fisher, who would bring me trout in courtship, and the hunters, and the elder, and Kin-arat, and… And I heard them all. And I cowered by the wall, holding my sister close, and I heard them slither on the road, and I heard the breaking and mending of their bones, the shifting of their meat, the clicking of their voices, as they rose in song to the star-less sky. I could not move, I could not even pray. While the fires died out outside, crushed beneath their monstrous forms, as the husbands and the fathers of Narash were being slaughtered, Mereth and I just cried. As the day broke, they were gone. They did not touch our hut, nor did they touch any of the others. Only those outside, only those beneath the open sky. Those who defended us. Those who fought. The men, with their spears. Hir-tash, with her ways. They took most of the bodies, leaving behind but scraps of flesh and bone, drowned in the rivers of red that the roads of Narash became. We gathered what we could, we the women and the children, all that remained of the people of Narash. We burned it, so that the spirits might join our ancestors in the land beyond. We all wept as we did, trying not to see what we found, trying not to recognise the scar on the hand, the deformed little toe on the left foot, the blemish on the shoulder. The untouched face on Hir-tash’s ripped off head, her empty eyes staring off into the sky. We burned them all, gathered in a circle around the fire, whispering their names. It was Mereth who suggested it. She looked at me, as if searching for strength to borrow from her sister, yet I had none to give. And so, she just said it. It was our punishment. We all knew so, yet we thought we could escape it. We could not. They would come again, under the starless night, and kill us all. Maybe at first they would avoid the huts, but not for long. For we heard them feasting, and we knew that they hungered. We could not stop them. We would be punished, for we had wronged Him. There was but one thing that we could still do. That we could still try. Beg. Beg for forgiveness. And so, as the sun went down and the fire went out, we went to the edge of the village, where we had all those days before wronged Him. We tore down the altar to the ancestors and we trampled the offerings beneath it. And we prayed, we prayed with the words that we had not known before – yet then, it was as if we had always known them. ‘Son of the Moon! Father to the Stars! Immortal Keeper of the Endless Fields!’ ‘Guide of Souls! Lord of the Grey Valley Beyond! KhaladUr, Divine King!’ ‘Forgive us, for we have sinned! Forgive us, for we have wronged Thee!’ ‘Forgive us, as we denounce our ways, as we denounce our fathers’ and their fathers’, and their fathers’ fathers’ spirits!’ ‘Forgive us, as we anoint ourselves in Thy Name, as we beg Thee!’ ‘Deliver us to Thy side, deliver us from the nightmares of this world!’ And we prayed, hand in hand, sons and daughters, sisters and mothers, fatherless, brotherless, sonless. And as we prayed, we cried. We prayed as the sun disappeared beyond the treeline. We prayed as the skies above shone, littered in thousands of thousands of bright stars. We prayed as the moon looked down upon us, opening its maw in a wide smile. We prayed as they slithered from beyond the trees, the faces of the dead adorning their skin, joining us in our laudation. We prayed, as the stars started to sing.