Chapter 1: Shadows of Absolution


The wolves were always hungry. Lynxes and bears were also famished in the cold dark of the northern winter, but it was only the wolves which frightened me. My fear began with the gnashing teeth, coated with a fine sheen of old blood, and the skeletal gauntness of their sinewy bodies, hidden by thick and ragged fur. Wolves haunted my nights and stalked my days. I was never afraid of anything before the wolves came. After, I finally realize how dangerous my world was. The wolves took Torin away from me. I was never alone, and as long as I stay in Jata I will never be alone, but for the first time in my life I found out what loneliness meant.
The wolves came during the day. They never came in daylight before so I knew they were desperate. We were often hungry too, but we had learned to store food and the wolves never could do such a thing. They were beautiful, graceful, powerful animals, but they were still animals and could not plan for the future like we could. There was little food in the wastelands beyond the mountains, so the animals came into our borders. We became food, we became prey. The rangers patrolled the edges and shooed away any predators which came too close, but the borders were large and complex, and sometimes the fiercest of the animals would find their ways through the twisting maze.
Torin was tending to his winter garden with my cousin Reni when the wolves struck. Their screams echoed through the vale. We all immediately knew someone's world had ended. My mother ran to their aid and beat the wolves away with the only tools she could find – a rake and an ax and her own sinewy strength. Reni survived. My Torin did not.
When I learned of his death, all I felt for quite some time was overwhelming regret. I should have claimed him as my own sooner. I was planning on asking him to be my mate that very night, but the wolves had different plans for us. There would be no gardens or marriage or children for Torin, only cold and dark death, only the faint hope that the stories our grandparents told about Webs and afterlives were true, and we would one day meet again in another life.
The starved wolves took Torin away and I did not think he ever knew how much I loved him. I loved his pale eyes and rich dark skin, but more than that, I loved his gentleness. He would have been a wonderful father and a kind husband, but he never was allowed to be either of those things in the end. Torin was gone forever. I could never allow anyone else to fill the void in my soul left by emaciated wolves and desolate lands.
I retreated into my work after Torin died. Running off the predators who tried to enter our borders was of little comfort. Even my dimuai could not warm the ice frosting my heart. Zade was a black fox, too close to a wolf for me to be truly at ease with her anymore. I retreated from her and she let me alone for nearly a year. I eventually decided that mourning was no excuse for pushing away the other loves in my life. Dimuai are special, and only attach themselves to the best of our rangers, so when I realized I had nearly forsaken Zade's companionship, I was again overcome with remorse.
My grandmother said my mourning was normal. She had long ago watched her father react nearly the same way when her mother died, but I knew my situation was different. My great-grandparents had each other for twelve years and had two daughters together. I did not even have Torin for long enough to bring him home with me. I saw in Torin the potential for a wonderful future even on this ravaged world, but that future was never to be. It was the lost future I mourned more than anything else. The dead are never truly gone. They linger in our minds and hearts and torture us with a malice they were not capable of in life.
It is time to start living again and stop dwelling upon your own vapidness,” my mother insisted upon waking me one late-winter morning a year after Torin died.
“I want to sleep,” I replied. I rolled away from her and drew the rough blankets around my shoulders. My mother’s pants rustled as she moved to the other side of the mattress so I was again facing her. She must have let herself into my house again, and I wished she would not have.
Isen, I know you loved him, but he was not the only man here for you. There are six-hundred people in Jata. I am certain you will find someone else if you only look. What about Audan?”
“Audan is an idiot,” I replied, my eyes still closed. “What would you have done if Dad died the day you were going to propose to him?”
“I would have cried, then moved on. Isen, all you've done this year is sleep and go on your patrols. I don't want you to waste your life pursuing loneliness and despair. No one can force you to forget him, but you need to move on.”
I sat up and stared at my mother. Zade jumped on my bed and preened her white-tipped tail. I stroked Zade's fur and watched my mother's serious brown eyes with annoyed interest. Her name was Lusa and she was the leader of the Jata rangers. She was a beautiful, strong woman with silky dark skin the same shade as the roasted chicory she liked to drink. I always wished I looked more like her, but instead I took after my pale and quiet father, Zoli. My skin was the in-between color of hazelnuts, and I inherited my father's amber eyes and slight stature.
“I will come around when I am ready to,” I said, rubbing the sand from my eyes. My mother's dimuai, a magnificent osprey named Rakaria, flew in through the open door and perched on my bureau. She preened her feathers and grunted lightly.
And if you are never ready?” Lusa asked.
“Then I have to be content with spending my life alone. The trees and the mountains will be my companions.”
“I would really like to believe that you are not hopeless. Get dressed. You are on watch this morning.”
Zade growled and nipped at Lusa's fingertips. I watched my mother leave with Rakaria on her shoulder. I stared at the door for several minutes before deciding to leave the warmth of my bed.
The floor was glacial granite under my bare feet. The old cast-iron cauldron hanging in the hearth was as empty as I felt, and I wished I had time to stir up something warm for breakfast. I quickly pulled my slippers from under the bureau, where Zade had shuffled them during the night.
My house was stone, as all of the houses in Jata were. My grandparents had grown the structures into the rock faces of the mountains they had created over fifty years ago. Jata was built vertically into the cliffside at the center of the Gana mountain range. As a granddaughter of the city chieftain, I was accorded a home on the second-highest level. The stone structures were as cold as my heart, but I knew there was a small fire kindling the warmth of my own walls. Maybe I only needed a little more time, and they all needed to understand that.
I dressed and slipped on my bear-leather boots and gloves before walking out my front door. Only rangers were allowed to wear leather or fur, and it was only taken from the animals we killed to protect our people. We killed the animals only when absolutely necessary, so there was never enough leather for the entire city.
The remainder of the citizens wore hemp, cotton, or flax grown on the terrace fields. The men gathered stray feathers and cattail fibers for extra insulation. We kept sheep and alpacas so we could knit sweaters and hats from their coats. The herd animals were more useful to us alive than as food. We used their milk and wool, and only ate them in stews after they died either naturally or as the result of an animal attack. Too many people and animals died during the fall of Ganebra. Those who were alive during the fall tried to make sure our new civilization was more gentle than the one they came from.
My grandmother told me traditional rangers were hunters, but that was not the function of our rangers. We were scouts and guards, protecting our borders from predator animals and roving tribes. There were other humans who survived the fall in other parts of Malora. Many of them were nomadic and did not wish to live as peacefully as we did. We allowed some nomadic groups within our borders because they meant us no harm, but others we had to scare off using loud noises and our dimuais.
I met my cousin Sevka and my friend Haraba on the ramp below the fifth level of Jata. Rangers only rarely worked alone, so the pair were my usual companions for patrols. Haraba had no dimuai, and Sevka's was a little black mink called Nusatal. Nusatal was afraid of Zade and scurried onto Sevka's shoulder when he saw us approach.
“You're not late this morning. I'm surprised,” Sevka said with a chirping laugh. She hastily tied her curly black hair into a bun and leaned against her staff.
Sevka looked a lot like our grandmother with her creamy pale skin and violet eyes, and that made her quite lovely. I was average and always would be. I did not have my mother's rich dark skin or Sevka's striking face. I had to carry myself with strength in order to be noticed as a leader at all. In the old world, a woman's beauty might have been her success, but in the harsh and barren new world, the only world left which was not buried in a story, it was cunning and courage which mattered above anything superficial, even among the men. I still couldn't help but occasionally be jealous of the lovelier women.
“I am always on time,” I replied sarcastically. Haraba handed me an apple. I bit into its crisp flesh as we walked toward the southern entrance to the Gana maze.
The Gana range was the last great task my grandfather Onyx undertook before he relinquished full control of the territory to his wife, Thora. She named us Baku, guardians in the tongue of both the lost Tenjeri and the Elements. The people belonged to Thora, but Gana would always be Onyx's masterpiece. He reshaped the rolling hills of Lusifal into a twisted labyrinth of jagged spires and sharp valleys. Young pines filled the vales and spiral-horned goats climbed the narrow ridges overhead. Gana was a wild land of stone teeth and claws, but it was safer than the world outside the mountain borders, and it was the only home most of us ever knew. It would never truly be safe, and we all knew it.
The twin sentinel peaks of Dawn and Dusk jutted from the rocky ground to our left and right as we left Jata and crossed into the South Pass. Our boots crunched on the frosted pine needles carpeting the vale floor. Zade yipped softly as she chased after a solitary chipmunk. She caught it and greedily scarfed down her breakfast. Other than our feet and the occasional vocalization from one of the dimuais, the South Pass was nearly silent. A pair of chickadees sang in the distance. The sound was barely audible since the ragged and spiraling peaks of Dusk and Dawn swallowed sound instead of echoing it.
The muffled silence was undeniably eerie but we were used to it. Our continent, our niche of the world, was called Malora, but Malora was ruin and the earth was in pain. Her wounds, caused by the three Destroyers, Chaos, Wildfire, and Bane, sixty-one years ago, would heal with time, and already were healing, but I knew the scars would last forever.
Gana was ours to tend. We left the rest of the continent alone. Malora's scars would define our future as much as the Destroyers defined our past. The elders claimed there was once great beauty in the world. I had doubts there would ever be again. My world was harsh and marred, but it was the only world I knew.
We walked for some time along the young pines and cedars of the South Pass. The three of us barely spoke. Our voices would make us vulnerable and we would not be able to hear the faint cracking of pine needles which might signal an approaching predator. Haraba knew to move quietly, but Sevka was young and inexperienced and I often had to caution her when she hummed. I could hear her above the drone of the Succor River not far to the southeast, so I knew any passing predators would take notice of her, as well.
“Why do we have to be so quiet all the time?” Sevka asked. We sat on the boulders overlooking the rapids of the Succor. Haraba passed around a container of roasted chicory, pine nuts, and asparagus.
“You need to pay attention more if you ever want to be a decent ranger,” Haraba replied. “We all know you're supposed to be a ranger because of your dimuai, but you still have to prove yourself.”
“Wolves and bears hunt what they can smell and hear,” I muttered. The bitterness of the chicory bothered me, but we ate what we could find or grow, and if it didn't make us sick, it was good.
“I'm not even being that loud,” Sevka said.
“Yes you are. If I can hear you, so can they, because their hearing is much better than mine. And, if I am listening to you, I cannot hear them coming over your racket,” I said with irritation. My cousin was foolish. I hoped she would outgrow her ignorance before she got anyone killed.
“She'll learn,” Haraba said softly. She tapped on her knee and opened her ledger. “I think the deer are finally coming back. I've seen eight of them so far today. Three rabbits as well, and a badger. There is a newt by Sevka's foot. Maybe now that the prey animals are returning to Gana, the predators will leave us alone.”
“I think so,” Sevka said eagerly. She pulled her bony knees to her chest and watched the newt skitter away and dive under the rocks.
Rocks clanged together and I reached for my bow. I dropped the weapon as I realized the sound was coming from across the Succor. On the opposite bank, walled from us by a rampart of raging water, was a young wolverine. It grumbled at a moth and then eagerly drank from the icy waters.
“No, there will always be predators,” I stated. “Nature is a balance. Sometimes there are more prey and sometimes more predators, but in the end one of them has to starve, and then so will the other.”
I chewed on a twig of sassafras and I watched the hulking animal drink. I had never seen a wolverine south of Jata and was very grateful he was on the other side of the river. They were usually carrion feeders, but they were quite vicious if they felt threatened. They were solitary, roaming creatures and I knew this one would be gone as soon as he finished quenching his thirst. The wolverine saw so much of the world and yet cared little for it except to wonder where his next meal would come from. He was powerful, fearless, cunning. I could only wish I was as unshakable as him.
The sun was beginning to set behind the spires of Dusk as we circled back through the South Pass. The days in Gana were short because only a small bit of sky could wedge itself between the thousands of rocky peaks. Rima, my grandfather called the personification of the sky, one of the points of the great Elemental Web to which my ancestors devoted themselves. Rima was neither male nor female, but both, a child of the stars and time, and one of the always-present guardians of the world. The sky was always above us and the earth always underneath, and though the earth had many names and many forms, the sky had only one. Rima crowned our mountains, and her fickle mood determined whether the crown was azure or ringed with lightning and rain.
Rima's night creatures dove and tumbled through the gloaming sky above our heads. Many of the old cultures feared bats, but we did not. They were considered lucky, as they ate the multitude of insects which would otherwise ravage our crops and infect us with disease. The bats never caused anyone harm, and we were grateful for their proximity. My father once told me to look into the patterns of the swarming bats to see the symbols Rima wanted me to see, but I was never able to make any sense of that piece of advice. When I looked at the bats, all I saw were bats. My father's words usually made sense, but sometimes searching for his true meaning only left me puzzled and anxious.
“We're back late. Again,” Sevka said with a drawn-out sigh. “My father hates it when I'm late for dinner.”
“He will get over it,” I replied. Sevka's father was my father's youngest brother, Vedan. He tended to be very impatient. Vedan was not at all like my quiet father or their middle brother Orien, whose patience was unrivaled by anyone I had ever met. Sevka had inherited some of Vedan's short temper, but she was much more tolerant to tardiness than he was.
Sevka scampered away with Nusatal peering over her shoulder with beady black eyes. She briefly greeted my mother and then disappeared behind a low stone wall.
“Good evening, Haraba,” Lusa said lightly. Rakaria flew high against the stars. The starlight subtly enriched the dark tones of Lusa's skin. “Isen, I am going on my patrol now. Your grandmother would like to see you before she retires for the night.”
“Very well,” I replied.
Lusa continued her unwavering path toward the South Pass and Haraba taciturnly dissolved into the long shadows of Jata. I was left alone, but that was nothing unusual for me. I looked toward the emerging stars, toward where my grandparents lived on the highest level of the stone city, and wondered if I would ever feel comfortable in my own world.

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