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  • Andrew M. Trauger

Ch. 1: Disparate Beginnings

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

Performing her senior recital...

Along the southwestern shore of The Deepening, halfway between the free cities of Cer Vedrys and Cer Halcyon, the evening stars barely flickered above the fishing town of Lorenvale. Clouds rolled in on a chill breeze from the north, internally pulsing with orange-yellow bursts of lightning and signaling yet another approaching storm. A young woman stood alone against the railing of a red cedar deck perched over a rocky cliff. Thick, fiery hair cascaded gently against her soft, white shoulders, the wispy ends playing tag across her freckled nose. Her brilliant green eyes cast a distant gaze across the choppy white-capped waters of The Deepening as it expanded to the north and east, continually widening until it filled the whole horizon.

Her hands trembled, partly from the wind and partly from nerves. She grasped the cedar railing with one hand to steady herself, and with the other she clutched a silken cloak to her breast. It did little to ward off the chill, and she shuddered. But she was not yet ready to turn back inside.

Her life lay before her, her dreams and aspirations, all her hopes for the future rested on this moment. This was her moment to prove or to ruin. In the building behind her awaited a capacity crowd, anticipating her arrival. Their eyes would beglued to her every movement, their ears straining to find a quaver in her voice. They would not be forgiving. The Cradle of Storms would be gentler than the throng inside.

Facing the wind, she closed her eyes to gather her scattered thoughts and calm her nerves. Then, she exhaled sharply and turned on her heels to go inside.

A graying woman met her at the door, wearing a wrinkled scowl that seemed a permanent part of her face. “Cora O’Ban—would you look at—where have you been! Let’s get thi—Mariss, take her and fix her hair. Two minutes, Cora, just two min—don’t look at me like tha—you better be glad your father’s here, or I’d give you a piece of my mind!” She stormed down a side hall barking orders at a pair of stagehands.

Cora rolled her eyes at the woman and turned to Mariss, the dressing room attendant. “Is it really that bad?”

“I can fix it,” Mariss said, guiding Cora to a chair before the large mirror of a dressing table. Lamps burned on either side of the mirror, providing ample lighting but little warmth to stave off the growing chill. As Mariss quickly remade her hair, Cora briskly rubbed her bare arms, trying to stimulate some warmth.

The auditorium rumbled with voices, broken occasionally by a burst of laughter. Cora knew all the important people of Lorenvale were present, including Mayor Cantrell, Constable Barkley, and Rector Harridan of the local Solarium of Light. She knew her own father and mother were in that crowd, and maybe her brother, Richard, if he had gained leave of military school in Cer Vedrys. Scores of people she’d never met mingled out there, some of whom knew her and some of whom just wanted a good performance. And she’d have to give them one.

Cora sighed.

Mariss patted her shoulders. “You’ll do fine, Miss Cora. You always have.”

Cora smiled at her in the mirror and touched the girl’s hand on her shoulder. A small comfort, but right now she needed every scrap she could muster. Mariss had done surprisingly well with her hair in such a short time, pulling the scarlet waves into a pleasant cascade to Cora’s mid-back. Cora thanked her sincerely. She breathed deeply once more, gathering those flitting thoughts, and rose to stand by the entrance to stage right.

Across the raised dais, the stagehands—two young boys—wheeled in a hand-carved and gold-filigreed harp, a unique instrument fashioned from a single yew tree with a lion’s head crowning the pillar. Careful with that! Cora wanted to rush out there and handle the delicate harp herself, but she forced herself to remain calm and focused.

Tonight, she could not afford a misstep. She did not have the luxury of a retake. It was not a rehearsal or a drill, and with so many watching, she had to be flawless. Tonight, as thunder rolled over The Deepening and the first drops of a cold winter’s rain pelted the roof above, Cora O’Banion prepared to perform The Ballad of Tanasha’s Keep on the harp at the O’Banion School of Performing Arts. It was the culmination of three years of work, her senior recital at the school her grandmother had founded. It had her name on it, for crying out loud! She had to be perfect!

The stagehands exited; all was arranged. It was time. Dean Hawke Mallory passed by Cora where she stood. “Ready?” he asked without pausing for a reply. It wouldn’t have mattered how she answered, for he was already stepping between the heavy curtains that hung in front of the harp. The curtains fluttered slightly, and a sudden hush fell over the audience. Save for one or two coughs and a distant thunderclap, there was nothing but ominous silence.

Mallory began a short opening speech about the importance of this performance as it marked the full circle of Cora O’Banion, the Elder, who had founded the school over forty years ago.

Behind him, Cora the Younger now felt the full weight of her legacy. She sighed heavily. This is for you, Gramma Cora. She forced the dean’s voice to the back of her head as she focused and walked up to the harp. She fussed over the position of the stool for a brief moment, taking care not to scrape it across the floor. Then she settled into a comfortable pose, her hands frozen in the exact position for the opening chord.

Dean Mallory stepped back through the curtains and the torches in the main hall were extinguished. An acolyte from the Solarium of Light breathed a prayer of illumination over a mirrored cone near the back of the hall, and a stagehand directed the beam of light down onto the curtains.

With a moment’s pause for dramatic effect, the curtains parted to the right and left, leaving the focused light shining down on the glittering harp and a red-headed young woman in a frilly jade-green dress. The crowd respectfully applauded then sat in awed silence as Cora O’Banion, the Younger, gave them the most anticipated performance of her life.

Atop a small rise south of the seaside town of Lorenvale sat a stately mansion, majestically situated amongst large oaks, elms, and willows. It projected strength and pride but also honest simplicity. Rare woods accented the floorboards, and deeply hued furniture filled its many rooms, which smelled of leather, incense, and old books. Suits of armor flanked the front entry—two massive doors hand-carved and darkly stained. Despite all this, those who entered felt welcome and at home.

Cora sat at the oaken dining table, staring intently at her certificate of graduation, a smile slowly forming as she delighted in her accomplishment. By the Maker, I did it! I proved myself worthy of my grandmother’s name.

After her recital, Cora had not expected the sheer exhilaration that came from a cheering crowd, from the entire town of Lorenvale commending her flawless performance of The Ballad of Tanasha’s Keep. As the applause roared, Cora had felt her heart would nearly burst within her, and immediately when the curtains had closed, she ran back onto the balcony that faced The Deepening—despite the cold rain—and released a purging scream, one that expunged all her fears, pride, and giddy excitement. By the Giver of Music, it had felt good!

Now, in her hands, she held the document that proved she was good. And, near the middle of the table sat a small trophy, a miniature harp fashioned of ash and overlaid with pure gold. A plaque at the bottom read:

Cora O’Banion, the Younger. Virtuoso.

Cora gazed at it and beamed.

All the studying, the practicing, and the grueling hours of hammering out mistakes and listening to frustrated instructors had finally paid off. Her life as an accomplished musician could now begin. Now she could entertain in the courts of nobility or even royalty.

There was also the possibility of traveling the world as a songsage, a wandering songbird who gathered stories and stanzas from every land to share with all who would listen. Cora had seen a few songsages over the years, and she had always been somewhat interested in their craft. They were drifters mostly, musicians of various talent, hawkers of odd trinkets, and talespinners that stretched the truth to its breaking point. And some hardly tried to disguise the fact.

“I’d love to meet one of these famous people,” Cora half-mumbled to her golden harp. “Or better, be there when they become famous…or even better, make them famous! How amazing it would be to follow a fledgling group and record their triumphs and be the very first person to write down their story and sing about them before kings!”

But becoming a songsage was not her lot in life; her father had made that perfectly clear. Cora had been professionally trained and would, in time, perform before nobles at courtly balls. There was no future, her father said, in wandering the world the way her Gramma Cora had done, sword in hand, battling dragons. That path only brought pain and death. Still, it would be such fun to be a part of fame in the making.

Cora looked once more with adoration at her trophy. But I do have this! She heaved a great, exhausted sigh, laid her head across her arms and plunged into a deep sleep on the table.

Cora awoke with a start to the sound of the front door opening. Most of the candles were burned nearly to nubs, and several had long ago flickered their last. She stretched awkwardly and strained to see the door. What time is it? Who could that be? Sudden panic gripped her as two figures emerged from the shadows, and Cora quickly scanned the room for a makeshift weapon, nervously grabbing up a nearby brass candlestick.

“Cora?” one of the shadowy figures said, and Cora heaved a great sigh of relief when she recognized her mother’s voice.

Lord Bain O’Banion, son of Cora the Elder, and his wife, Lady Kathryn, shuffled in from a weary night of mingling with the townsfolk and faculty of the School, which had involved several bottles of costly Vashanti wine and a handsome donation.

“Cora, what are you doing up!” her mother hissed with obvious disapproval. “The whole town has enough sense to sleep, but you’re still lounging about the dining room? You have an interview in the morning.”

“Now Katy,” Lord Bain said, “Do you think perhaps Cora’s earned the right to stay up late tonight, just this once?”

Cora set the candlestick aside. “Mother, Father, I’m glad it’s you. I was too excited to sleep…and then I guess I did, right here on the table.” She stifled a yawn, then grinned tiredly. “Well, I suppose I probably should go to bed,” she said as she pushed up from the table and shuffled to the stairs.

Halfway up the stairs, her mother’s words finally registered. “Wait…an interview? With whom?” Quickly she bounded back down.

Lord Bain smiled. “Do ye remember your Gramma Cora a-speakin’ of the famous songsage what nearly stopped her travels afore they began?” he asked in the Carolene accent he had never quite shaken.

Cora nodded; she had heard that story about her grandmother—and many others—countless times. Surely not him!

Bain’s eyes twinkled in the fading candlelight. “The great Devin Rhynn arrived just in time for your performance, and we spoke at length afterwards. That’s why we were so long in a-comin’ home. He traveled all this way across Arelatha to see ye, and he would like an audience with ye in the mornin’…after breakfast.”

Cora couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Devin Rhynn was known the world over, and had even published several books, one of which her class had used for study. Any respectable musician had heard of him, and more than a few played his tunes. Most of the young songsages wished they had been born thirty years earlier so that they might have had the chance to meet him.

Because everyone knew he was dead.

“Father…?” Cora paused, staggering under the weight of this announcement. Her face contorted with confusion. “How…how can this be? He died before I was born.”

Bain picked up Cora’s trophy harp and admired its craftsmanship. “So we were all a-thinkin’. It seems the greatest songsage of the century has pulled off the greatest hoax of the century, but for what reason he weren’t a-sayin’. Anyway, I took him for an imposter immediately, and questioned him heavily on facts about me mother that only Devin Rhynn would know. He got them right every one, and even added in a few details I had forgotten. Nay, Cora, he’s certainly not dead.”

“He’s not…” Cora screwed up her face with dread, “un-dead…is he?” Even thinking it was difficult, never mind actually saying it. Nightmares were filled with tales of the dead walking, of ghostly visages passing through walls and killing men with but a touch. Cassocks said that the taint of unlife was the work of Malfastadon, one of the Ancient Five, the son of the Great Dragon responsible for apathy, neglect, and loathing. A more horrid thing could hardly be imagined; rather, perish the thought and destroy the abomination!

Bain chuckled, “Nay, I donna think so. He’s quite normal, I assure ye. Well, as normal as an old songsage can be.”

“Then he must be well over a hundred years old! He was middle-aged when Gramma Cora met him, and…” Cora stared up at the ceiling, trying to work the math in her head.

“He’s definitely an old man,” Katy quipped.

“It may be that he’s blessed of the Maker,” Bain suggested. “Maybe he’s got a trace of Vashanti blood in his veins, or perhaps the Trithemius has chosen to lengthen his days for some reason. I’ve heard that the highest of magicks can do even that.” He shrugged. “Aye, he’s old.”

“So, you had best be getting in bed, young lady, or you’ll not impress him one bit!” Katy urged with a light slap to Cora’s bottom.

“And you had best be a-getting in bed, milady, or ye’ll not be impressin’ me.” Bain mimicked with a light slap to his wife’s bottom. And a wink.

Cora rolled her eyes at her parents and went to bed. With thoughts of Devin Rhynn now fresh on her mind, she hardly slept.

* * * * * * * * * *

From behind the concealment of a giant fern, Térroc tugged at the glistening black fur draped over his sun-darkened muscular shoulders. Only two cycles of the moon had passed since the young warrior had single-handedly slain the panther, eaten its raw heart, and bathed in its blood. He had proven his manhood and joined the ranks of the panther warriors, the fiercest sect of his tribe. And now, he was named Cuauhtérroc, panther warrior, and he had been called upon to prove his bravado again today.

A dozen panther warriors had died in the past three days. The village that was his home—his and three hundred of his kin—was under attack. More than that, it seemed this terrible enemy was attacking the very land, setting fire to anything that would burn. Such a thing was appalling, an affront to the spirits of the jungle. The Great Father of the Fire Mountains would be their shield; surely he would judge these tribes for their brutality.

The panther warriors had heard rumors of the enemy’s advances only a single day before they arrived. A lone jaguar warrior from a neighboring tribe, shaking with fear and despair, had staggered half-dead and at spear-point into their village. He was naked and unarmed, and wounds covered his body. Before the village council, he had dropped to his knees, spreading his hands wide to either side. Several murmurs and a few gasps rustled through the small crowd that had gathered. He was calling for aid.

“Speak, jaguar warrior,” the Elder commanded, “Speak well or we kill you.”

In a weakened voice, he described the desolation of his village, five days’ walk as the sun rises. With no warning a huge band of marauding warrior women had swept through, killing everyone and burning everything. “You cannot catch them; they run like panthers,” he had finished, the hint of a smirk playing at his bloodied lips for getting a jab in against the rival tribe.

An older panther warrior struck him across the back with the haft of a spear. “You lie!” he shouted.

The Elder held up his hand. “No more bloodshed, Cuauhtoolah.”

“But he tells lies to the Elder,” Cuauhtoolah objected. “There are no warrior women; women make homes and nurse children. He is a lying jaguar warrior. He only wants to lure us into a trap.”

The Elder held up both hands. “There will be no more bloodshed. Give him food and water. Panther warriors will run the trees to see if these things are true.”

As it turned out, the jaguar warrior’s report proved all too true. Before the day was done, several scouts had reported an advancing horde of women with skin black as the night running the trees just as he had said. They had been wantonly killing animals and laying waste to the forest. Amurraks, the scouts called them, from the southernmost lands, brutal, fearless, and clad in hard leather armor that can only be obtained through trade with the fair-skinned peoples of the mainland.

And they were headed this way.

The panther warriors had but a few hours to prepare, not nearly enough time. Skirmishes had broken out in several places as the Amurraks approached, destroying the surrounding forest along their path.

“Best to strike them far from the village,” the Elder had said. “Do not let them find the women and children. Do not let them trod upon our sacred grounds.”

Those skirmishes had quickly become full-scale battles, and they were now precariously close to the village. It seemed nothing the panther warriors had done deterred the steady advance of these Amurraks.

From his place of hiding, the young panther warrior’s mind reeled. Why were they here, so far from their homelands? What did they want? Why destroy jaguar warrior and panther warrior alike? Why burn everything?

“Cuauhtérroc!” another nearby panther warrior whispered as loudly as he dared. “What is it?”

Cuauhtérroc snapped to the present and focused. He shot an angry look at Cuauhmegmoh, whose face was covered in war paint and barely visible behind dense foliage. Too much noise would give away their position.

From behind the wide glossy leaves of a giant fern, Cuauhtérroc peered into the thick jungle. As he watched and waited, a pungent odor caught his attention. He sniffed the air and glowered. Smoke. Somewhere not too distant, the Amurraks were burning the jungle again. Cuauhtérroc shook his head forlornly; fire would make things very difficult.

The sun drifted lazily over a pair of towering ebony trees toward the far distant mountains in the west, and still Cuauhtérroc sat and watched. The air contained a faint haze from the smoke that drifted in on the breeze. Soon the jungle would be thick with the acrid cloud, easily obscuring the Amurraks’ attack. Cuauhtérroc’s mind raced for a solution. Leaving his post would expose their position, but waiting until the smoke masked their vision and smell would end the battle before it began. Waiting for the fire would be disastrous.

A soft footfall nearby focused his senses. He quickly glanced at Cuauhmegmoh, who nodded that he too had heard it. Carefully, Cuauhtérroc peered through the leaves, creeping slowly forward. The slightest sound would spoil their advantage. He gingerly parted a pair of fern leaves. There, with her back to the giant fern, stood an Amurrak, completely unsuspecting. She was covered in hard leather armor, but the backs of her dark legs were exposed.

He looked back at Cuauhmegmoh, who was eagerly watching him. He readied his spear, crept one step closer, and pounced upon her. His spear point drove cleanly into the back of her leg, and as she fell forward screaming, Cuauhtérroc continued his forward momentum, ripping a deep gouge up her hamstring and under her leather armor. In another quick motion, he grabbed his macana, the obsidian-studded club of a warrior, and caved in her head.

Cuauhmegmoh jumped from hiding to his side, ready to engage, but the woman was dead. Dead…but not alone. He gripped Cuauhtérroc’s arm and pointed. “Look…more.” Then with the roar of a panther, Cuauhmegmoh released a war cry and charged into a group of a dozen Amurraks. Cuauhtérroc tore his spear from the fallen woman’s backside and rushed in, noting from the corner of his eye that several more panther warriors were leaping out from their places of hiding to join in the battle.

Stone-tipped shafts glanced off the Amurraks’ armor and bucklers. They were fierce. And quick. Fighting one of them was not like fighting a jaguar warrior; the Amurraks’ efforts were more organized, and Cuauhtérroc quickly discovered that if you fought one you were soon fighting four or more.

Cuauhtérroc lost his sense of direction in the chaos. Twice he averted death by beating down a spear thrust with his macana. He clubbed one Amurrak in the knee, breaking her leg, and finished her with another blow to the face. A second one caught his spear in her belly, piercing clean through her armor. The point protruded out her back, and he pulled the whole thing through as she fell to the ground.

The panther warriors fought valiantly, but many had fallen already. Several Amurraks lay still or writhing on the ground as well, though not as many. During a brief respite, Cuauhtérroc discovered he had received a serrated wound along his side, which was sorely aching and bleeding down his leg. He quickly surveyed the scene, and his heart sank. Their numbers were diminishing; the battle would be over soon, and the village lost.

Some distance to his right, Cuauhtérroc saw his friend Cuauhmegmoh pierced through the chest. The Amurrak pulled her spear and laughed as Cuauhmegmoh doubled over gurgling blood, then licked his blood from the spear tip. Cuauhtérroc filled with rage, his eyes darkening. He released a primal war cry and rushed after his friend’s killer. She turned to see him just in time and raised her buckler to block his macana. But with fury burning in him, Cuauhtérroc broke through the shield and shattered the bones in her forearm.

The Amurrak raised the spear to strike, but before she could turn it on Cuauhtérroc, he ripped the spear from her hand, spun it overhead and plunged it into her chest. Cuauhtérroc released the spear, and the Amurrak fell straight back, eyes wide open and the spear standing upright out of her chest.

At that moment, the small clearing was filled by the guttural roar of a feral creature. The battle paused as a sapling was laid over and a giant toothy maw emerged from the thicket. An Amurrak sat in a crude saddle atop a giant lizard that walked on its hind legs and lashed out with its forelimbs and razor-sharp teeth. The rider’s dark skin was covered in brightly colored paints. A gold collar fashioned as a crescent moon hung from gold chains around her neck, and her black hair was crowned with the skull of a giant eagle.

Fury welled within Cuauhtérroc, and he did the only thing he could think of. He pulled his spear from the Amurrak slain at his feet, took two leaping steps toward the rider and flung the spear as hard as his enraged strength would allow. The rider tried in vain to shunt the spear aside, but the giant lizard’s lurching movements threw her into its path. Cuauhtérroc knew the Great Father had smiled upon him as the spear found its mark in her belly. With eyes wide open, she instinctively grasped the spear, leaving the reins to fall limp.

The lizard quickly realized it was free and turned on its master, gripping the Amurrak’s leg and pulling her wounded body from the saddle. It whipped its head to the side, snapping the woman’s leg off at the knee and sending her body careening through the jungle. Her scream ended with a thud as her body flopped along the ground. In one gulp, the lizard swallowed her leg.

For a few chaotic moments, the riderless creature tore through the area with abandon, mauling panther warrior and Amurrak alike, roaring a deafening blast any time it wasn’t ripping through bodies. It quickly disrupted the whole battle, sending people scattering in every direction, as they momentarily forgot the enmity they shared for each other and concentrated only on escaping with their lives. Cuauhtérroc looked back as he ran and saw the creature’s nose buried in the ribcage of a corpse. The giant lizard would feast well today.

A small group of seven panther warriors gathered at the base of a gum tree, dejected, frightened, and weary from the fight and the flight, yet resolved to carry on. Cuauhtérroc’s father, Cuauhtoolah, and Cuauhéntax, son of the Elder, were among this group. They were beleaguered on all sides. Their dark eyes darted to and fro, as if expecting another Amurrak at any moment.

“We must get help,” the Elder’s son announced suddenly and surprisingly. “Cuauhtérroc, you must go.”

Cuauhtérroc startled. He looked over at his father, his dark eyes fearful of what would become of those he left behind.

Cuauhtoolah put a bloodied hand on his son’s shoulder. “You run, Térroc. Gather an army from the city to help us defend our people.”

“Hurry!” Cuauhéntax urged, “Run to Mazachtitlán and bring back many warriors.”

At the mention of the pelt, Cuauhtérroc instinctively adjusted his. Each panther warrior wore one draped across his shoulders, always, forever, and with intense pride. His was covered with blood and grime, as was his entire body. His right side hurt, his left arm throbbed, and both legs burned from multiple wounds. But the Elder’s son had just issued a war command; his wounds would have to wait.

Cuauhtérroc clasped arms with each of his fellow warriors and dashed into the jungle, heading northward for the coastline and Mazachtitlán. If he hurried, and if there were no Amurraks along the way, he would reach the coastal city by nightfall.

A downpour in the early evening gave him a much-needed cleansing and drink, but it also slowed his progress. By the time he arrived at Mazachtitlán, Cuauhtérroc was completely exhausted and covered in mud and bits of dried blood—mostly from his own throbbing, open wounds. He stumbled to the gates in the palisade that surrounded the city and cried out with what little energy he had remaining. Someone had to open those gates. His village was dying. He needed more warriors. Many more.

But no answer came, and the young panther warrior collapsed in a heap on the ground.

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