By F. C. Stanley
A thousand stains had his gift inflicted itself on him. And then a thousand more. Each time the line of events was the same: an argument, borne of some desire or deception, the decision to go to war, followed by a sharpening of swords, a buffering of shields, a whisper of plea to the heavens. They all did that, his masters. None could ever draw weapons without first imploring the gods for the means to keep their own blood and shed that of their foes. Nomakawe had called the sounds of victory in his years as many times as he had wailed the misery of defeat. They had enslaved him, honoured him, berated him, thrown him into fighting pits, made him general, declared him traitor, showered him as a god, thrown him upon pyre for heresy. His was the circle of death, birth, war, and death.
His first war, as best he remembered, broke out because one prince had decided that the other prince had too much land for his station. Despite their father trying as best he could to remedy the enmity between his sons, war had washed over the land. Nomakawe fought for the second prince, and helped him stay the avarice of his brother. Their enemies were brigands whose lack of loyalty matched their severe dearth of organised fighting skill. Wave after wave of them had crashed against the shields of the prince’s battalions. They secured the lands within the passing of a few months. When Nomakawe’s leader had captured his brother, the entire land had breathed easier at the thought of the bloodshed ending. Exile of the belligerent prince would end all the hostilities and elevate the wronged prince in the eyes of the people. Even the widows and orphans of the slain would one day recount his victories as being for the betterment of the kingdom. But Nomakawe’s prince had been afflicted by the same greed that had begun his brother’s war against him. He declared that the lands of the defeated would be put to the torch, and the remainder of the citizens yoked with a contrition tax. When his father had cautioned him that mercy bred loyalty better than fear ever could, the prince called the monarch insane and declared himself king. And so the nation fought itself again, and bled until one man stood as ruler. Nomakawe had died in that war, and not for the last time.
The dying was bearable compared to the waking. Whenever breath returned to him, he had to wake each one of his limbs from slumber. The stiffness could last for hours, entirely dependent on how long he had been in the darkness. That was another thing—that enveloping black that swallowed him in between the dying and awakening. In it, Nomakawe was aware of nothing but the shroud of that infinite shadow. A small stream of light, cutting through the veil, would be the first sign that he was returning to the world. There was never any knowing as to how long it would be between the darkness closing in and the light filtering through. Once, when he had lost both arms and the better part of his head before dying, he had not woken until the harvest festival was almost over—a full month in the blackness. He had almost forgotten what anything other than shadow looked like.
Death first came in the form of a rusted iron battle-axe firmly lodged in his neck, in the first war. When he awoke and prised it from his flesh, the gaping wound had not healed for seven days. In that time, he had been unable to eat or speak, and hid himself in a damp cave until the disfigurement had righted itself. The knotting muscle had felt like the prodding of hot needles in his flesh; each time a fibre healed or a re-attached itself, the needles had been woven a little deeper
“There can only ever be one of us walking the world at any time,” the old man had said. That withered little man held little of the image of his father that Nomakawe had grown up with. Robakame, always with a solution, had offered the truth to Nomakawe when he returned from the cave and explained, as best as words would; how death had seemed to spit his son back out.
“What are we?” Nomakawe had asked
“That is to be said only by the gods. My father before me was it, as was his father before him. We live as long as only one of us exists. The gift is passed on when a son is born, and after that time begins to wear on the father as it does all else. For me, it took one hundred rains before I was just a man.”
Robakame passed a few days after, telling his son that he could choose to walk the world for all the ages of man or, he could find peace in the years granted to all others, and pass the weight of living onto another.
Nomakawe had fathered no sons in all his years. In his first two hundred rains in the world, he had married six times. All six of his wives had died in childbirth, taking Nomakawe’s seed with them. Resolving that the gods simply did not wish that he pass on his blood, Nomakawe had returned himself to the business of war. It was only in the Third War of Sons, when the Central Kingdom had been rendered apart and he had been captured, whipped to shreds, and had his tongue cut out for heresy before being burned at the pyre, that Nomakawe decided to again try to pass his gift on.
He returned to his mother’s province and found a woman from her clan; a dainty, comely girl from one of the small villages that dotted the fringes of the Central Kingdom. Her father, the spirit-man of the village, had heartily blessed their union, declaring that she would give to Nomakawe the greatest gift a man could ask for. The girl had seemed to love Nomakawe with all her being, and he himself had felt affection for her akin to contentment. She had birthed four children—four radiant girls, as infectiously loving as their mother. Nomakawe had moved the family to a farm on the edges of the Central Kingdom, and there, as he grew the wheat, corn and barley of the yearly harvests–he had watched them grow up, become women, become mothers, and wilt away with time. Three generations of his family had lived with him on that land and the adjacent farms. None ever asked him why he did not age.
It was only on her deathbed, his wife said, “All those years ago that you first came to me. What was it, seventy rains ago? You are as youthful as the day I first laid eyes upon you, your back straighter than any spear. My father had the right of it about you.”
“He knew of me?”
“Yes. But it was my brother who told me of what you were. My father thought it best that I not know, lest my fear cause me to reject you. He said that, whereas the rest of us are swept away by the sands of time, you swim with them, like a lord of the sea. He told me tales of men like you,” she said, “Men spoken of in legend, and seen only in those rarest of times, when the gods smile.”
“And our children?”
“I told them when the time for them to know came. And they told their children, and they told theirs. They all believed I was telling old wives’ tales, but the time bore it out. You must return to my father’s village, and find my brother there. He is another that seems to escape time. He will tell you the truth of what you are.”
She passed not much after that, and for the first time in centuries, Nomakawe felt urgency in his being. He would go to his wife’s people. He would learn who he was. And if he could, he would learn how to die.
To Be Concluded…
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