On the banks of the Big Bolt River, a salamander crawled in the mud. He was an ancient thing, was the salamander, thriving in his present form even when the first folk of Yaalk were crawling out of their holes and starting to dream of fire. The salamander opened its mouth, and a rasp escaped its jaws.
Behind a nearby knoll, a girl peered over the grass. Her eyes were as blue as the clear springtime sky, and her long straight hair as black as the beginning of time. The hair was tied in a long braided tail, and the eyes were narrowed in concentration. Slowly, so slowly, she rose up over the knoll, her fingers waggling.
“One…” she whispered.
The salamander waddled forward a few inches, plucking at the grass casually.
“Two…” she breathed.
The salamander looked away from her, and rasped again. The air seemed to shimmer between its little jaws, ever so slightly.
She leapt over the grass, landed splat into the mud, rolling over herself and ending in the shallows of the river, covered in stains.
The salamander had not even moved.
“Three!” she cried, leaping up at once, her braid flipping through the air as she flew at the beast.
She missed again.
“Four!” and again.
“Five!” and again.
Before she knew it, she was rolling around in the mud, kicking and flipping, punching, and biting. A minute later, she was lying still panting. The salamander had vanished. “All right,” she conceded, gasping, “we’ll call it a draw.”
“You scared it away!”
Her eyes snapped to the other side of the river, and at once she hopped up into a crouch. The Big Bolt was narrow here, and only twenty feet away there stood a boy on the opposite bank.
Compared to him, she made a thoroughly shabby sight. Her puffy short sleeves and pants, which cut off before her elbows and knees, were normally white, but just now were far more green and brown. By contrast, his long, straight sleeves and pants were a light, straw-colored yellow cambric. His vest was a deep, electric blue with bright yellow lining. The only thing soiled about him was the hempen handkerchief wrapped around his neck, which looked grey and sweaty. His eyes were brown, and his head was completely bare.
“Well,” she shrugged, “at least I tried.”
“You call that trying,” he scoffed. “It looked like you were beating yourself up.”
She rubbed her left eye, where a bruise was already starting to rise, and decided he had a point, even if he had no hair. “Hey, wait a second!” she shouted pointing at him accusingly. “Where’s your hair? Are you an Orck? Stay away from my village! I’ve killed fifty Orcks, and I’ll kill fifty more!”
“Do I look like an Orck?”
Orcks were a race of evil men from far north of the Cradle of Yaalk. They were white as fish meat, shaved their heads, and ate the flesh of other men. “Well,” she hedged, “you’re not very big. And not very pale. And I guess you’re not eating any human flesh right at this moment. But how come your head is bare?”
“It’s a sign of humility to the Mothers,” he answered sagely, eyes lidded.
“Ohhhhhhhh, yeah, I knew that. Hey. Wait a second. No it isn’t. I don’t remember anyone ever shaving their head for the Mothers before.”
“Oh.” The boy’s head ducked down. “Wellll, it’s also a sign of lice.”
She fell over backwards into the mud, guffawing and clutching her stomach. “Lice! Hah!”
“Well look at you,” he shouted back, “you’re covered in mud!”
Instantly, she was in a crouch again. “Lots of things are covered in mud. Like that salamander.”
“Salamanders are supposed to be covered in mud.”
“Well maybe I am too.”
“No you’re not.”
“Only I get to say what I’m supposed to be covered in!”
The boy did not have an answer for that, so he just nodded. “But my point is, salamanders have to cover themselves in mud, or else they’ll catch on fire.”
“What? Is this more head-shaving talk?”
“No, no,” he insisted, waving his hands. “I’m serious. Salamanders are from the Undersea. They’re made out of fire, but the Sea keeps them from burning up. They can’t get too dry when they visit the overworld, or they’ll catch fire and everyone will know they’re spirit creatures. Then everyone will try and catch them, cause they grant you wishes if you catch them.”
She rolled her eyes. “Who’s gonna try and catch a lizard that’s on fire?”
“Someone who wants wishes.”
And again, she had to admit that made a lot of sense. “Is that why you’re out here? Looking for wishes?”
“Sorta. I was looking for an entrance to the Undersea. Any time there’s a split in the Great Bariad, there’s supposed to a gateway to the Undersea somewhere near where the two rivers meet.”
“My name’s Orvi.”
“Listen Orvi, I been fishing this river since I was four years old, and I’ve never seen a gate or a doorway or anything leading to another world. I don’t know where you’re getting your facts, buddy, but they owe you an apology.”
“I got it from the monks,” he said, obviously expecting this to impress her.
“Oh! Yeah!” she cried, leaping to her feet. “I know you. You’re one of those kids always following the monks around. I didn’t recognize you without any hair.”
“Well, I didn’t recognize you covered in mud.”
“Then buddy, you don’t know me at all.”
They decided it was getting late and started walking home together, staying on opposite sides of the river. At times they had to shout to be heard, but they kept talking regardless.
“So why were you looking for the Undersea,” she hollered across. “Were you looking for a mermaid to kiss?” She made kissing noises at him.
“They’re called undine, and they’ll eat you if they catch you.”
“So no kissing then.”
“I was trying to have a spiritual experience.”
He stopped for a moment, kicking a small rock into the Bariad. “It’s my confirmation day tomorrow. We’re supposed to tell the monks what we’ve learned about the Mothers and the spirit world and how it’s affected our lives and stuff. All the other kids have had spiritual experiences, even some of the ones that aren’t confirmed yet. Just not me. I was hoping to get one in at the last minute.”
“Well you met me, right?” she said. “That’s a pretty spiritual experience, right?”
He watched as she wiped some mud off her forehead, and did not answer. They kept walking.
“So what happens if you don’t have a spiritual experience?”
“I might not get confirmed, then I won’t get to become a monk someday.”
“It is a big deal! I’ve been training for it all my life!”
“All your life? You’re twelve.”
“Well so are you!”
“Um, I’m eleven. I’m very mature for my age.”
The river quieted down some after that, and the sun started to sink lower in the sky.
“What were you doing up there anyway?” Orvi asked. “You don’t seem to know much of anything about salamanders. No offense.”
“I am very offended, but I forgive you,” she answered nobly. “I was fishing.”
“Without a net? Without a pole?”
“The river’s really shallow back there,” she explained. “You can just dive in and grab them. Sometimes pike swim all the way up and get stuck in that bend, and you can wrestle them out of the water. I caught a pike ten feet long just yesterday!” she boasted, holding her hands as far apart as she could. “Most of the time, though, it’s tiger bass or just minnows. You have to be really good to catch them.”
“Are you really good?”
“I’m the best!” she shouted, striking a heroic pose.
“Not good enough to catch a salamander, though.”
“Yeah, well,” she trailed off before saying “With fish, you have to jump where they’re going to be, not where they are. But the salamander wasn’t really moving much. He was kinda already where he was gonna be. So that was my mistake.”
“It’s big of you to admit that.”
“It is, isn’t it.”
It was nearly sunset by the time they reached the town. The girl was on the wrong side, but she dove into the river without hesitation and started swimming across. The current was not especially strong, but she did nearly get swept downriver twice, until she become stuck on a rock and Orvi had to find a large branch so she could pull herself out. Much of the mud had washed off of her, but the grass stains remained.
Shafinah was a town of a few thousand people, stretching for miles up and down the east side of the Big Bolt River. The two children were walking to the village square, where people congregated to buy roast fowl and carrots, celebrate holy days with a feast, or even perform in mythical dances. Once, a wizard from Gharqah had come to sell the magic he had mined out of Windy Mountains, but very few people had enough money to buy his wares.
“So can I come to the Mother’s House with you?” the girl asked, still squeezing water out of her long braid.
“Anyone can come to the Mother’s House, any time they want. That’s what Mother’s Houses are for.”
“Great! Oh, we should go to my house first. We’ll have dinner, and I can tell my mother I got mud on me cause I was helping you out.”
“How were you helping me?”
“You said salamanders come from the Undersea, right?”
“And you were looking for the Undersea. So if only I had caught it—”
“Hold on!” he interrupted. “Something’s wrong.
They found no markets or ceremonies in the square. Instead, seven strangers in foreign armor were standing before one of the senators and her wife.
Shafinah had four senators. On any particular month, one of them was serving at the capitol of East Gate, advocating for the town’s interests. Another was also in East Gate, having just finished their month, advising the newly-arrived senator. A third senator would be traveling home and relaxing after two month’s work. The fourth would actually be living in Shafinah, absorbing and distributing news, learning what cases to bring to the capitol, and traveling back to East Gate to begin the whole process again. Israida Potem, the senator in the square just then, was due to leave for East Gate the following week.
The soldiers were dressed in chainmail hauberks covered in leather jacks and steel lamellar plates. They wore conical helms of shining steel, steel greaves over black boots, and peach-colored badges fastened near their breasts. All seven of them bore hand-and-a-half swords at their waists, which suggested each one was a person of importance, and six of them bore a large circular shield, painted peach, bearing a tall black triangle upon it, bisected down the middle.
“Zaljans,” Orvi said. “That’s their national sigil.”
“Isn’t that just the All-Mother’s sigil?” the girl asked. “You can’t just make that your own sigil, can you?”
“The Khans of Zalja started doing it two-hundred years ago,” he said, a noticeable edge entering his voice. “They wanted it to look like Satar agreed with whatever they were doing.”
“Oh. Isn’t that called usurpation, or something like that?”
“It’s called blasphemy,” Orvi answered, and he walked straight down into the square.
Senator Potem was nearing forty, though she did not look it, and had her thick black hair flowing out over her shoulders. She was dressed simply, compared to the elaborate clothing senators wore to East Gate in order to impress the governing body. Now, she wore loose linen violet pants with a black sash and blouse, topped with a violet shawl to ward off the coming chill of evening. Her wife, whom Orvi thought was named Nasida, wore a white woolen shift that had the look of bed clothes, a burgundy robe thrown over it. Her hair was wrapped up in a burgundy scarf, despite her otherwise looking ready for bed.
The seventh soldier, the one who did not bare a shield, was short and slim. She had her helmet in her right hand, but a peach-colored scarf kept her hair up around her head. She was on the pale side, and even as he approached he could see her eyes were grey as a tombstone. Her thin lips pressed together in an attempted smile. There was a small black wart beneath her left eye that almost looked like a teardrop in the gathering dark. Her left hand, gauntleted in black leather, rested casually on the handle of her sword.
The senator was not smiling, and the captain’s grim attempt at a smirk failed to reach her eyes. They were murmuring false pleasantries to one another, but as they approached the captain’s grey eyes suddenly flashed to Orvi. “That’s one of them, isn’t it?” she asked.
Senator Potem started speaking before she even looked. “No. That is no one.”
“Hey!” the girl shouted. “I’m Qara Fishmonger, and I have never been no one.”
The captain’s eyes stayed on Orvi. “That vest. You’re a monk, aren’t you boy?”
The girl, who was evidently named Qara, stepped in front of him. “You can’t call him ‘boy.’ How old are you, eighteen?”
Her thin smirk stretched wider, but she ignored the sally. “We’re looking for the Mother’s House, to pray after our arrival. We didn’t realize this town was so spread out, and there are only seven of us. Can you lead us there?”
“He’s just a boy,” the senator insisted. “He’s going home. To his parents.”
“His parents?” the captain wondered. “I thought pupils were all orphans. Isn’t that how you do things in Yena? Stealing orphans for your primitive gods?”
“We worship the same god as you, Captain,” the senator said evenly, “and that is not a pupil. He’s just a boy in a blue vest.”
“Is that so?” She looked to Orvi again. “Boy, what are your parents’ names? Tell me. Now.”
Qara Fishmonger threw her fists on her hips and shouted, “Lady, I don’t even know my parents’ names, and I’m way smarter than this kid.”
The captain sauntered toward them. Senator Potem moved to stop her, but one of the soldiers intercepted and put a hand on her chest. The senator’s wife drew her back away from the troops.
“Oh I don’t know,” she drawled. “He looks like a smart boy to me. Tell me, boy, who is the Mother here? Which of the many, many gods you worship is in charge here?”
“Liliq,” he answered at once, ignoring the wide eyes the Senator threw at him.
The captain’s thin smile intensified. “Liliq. Forgive me, it’s been years since my apocrypha class. Which one is Liliq?”
Orvi spared a glance at the senator, but it was too late for her to do anything now. “The Mother of Fish,” he said. Two of the soldiers chortled at that.
The captain put her fists on her hips, unconsciously echoing Qara Fishmonger. “The Mother of Fish. Truly an imposing figure. It must be quite an honor to dedicate your life to the Mother of Fish.” Five of the six soldiers were laughing now. One soldier, older and a little doughy, looked more concerned than amused. Orvi’s bald head was lowered, staring at his dark blue slippers in the dying light.
“It is,” he said faintly. “It is an honor. Without the bounty of the river, we couldn’t live. We owe our lives to Liliq, just like we owe our lives to Satar, to all the Mothers. That’s why we worship them all.”
“That’s very moving,” she said smoothly. “We Zaljans are simple folk. We can’t wrap our heads around more than just the one god. All the same, we’d like to pray and give thanks before we bed down for the evening. Won’t you take us to the Mother’s House?”
“I don’t think I should do that.”
His answer hung in the air like a humid summer night. The captain’s smile grew so brittle it looked like it might shatter at any moment. The moment sat there, and sat, ready.
Then the captain relaxed her shoulders. “As you wish,” she said, and reached up to rub Orvi’s head. He instinctively backed away, but her smile never faded. “Come on, troops. Looks like it’s a poor, sleepless night for the soldiers of the All-Mother.”
“Captain,” the older soldier broke in, “this town is far bigger than our intel suggested. It’s so spread out. We might not find the temple for a day or two. Maybe longer.”
“There are no temples here,” she countered with delicate sharpness. “Only Mother’s Houses. Come.”
The soldier looked at his mates and shrugged. They followed the captain north, away from the fork and along the latter half of the Big Bolt. Away from the Mother’s House.
When the soldiers were out of earshot, the senator approached Orvi and put a hand on his shoulder. “That was very brave of you, son. The monks must be proud.”
He shuffled his feet. “Not yet. I hope so.”
She looked up at the receding soldiers. “They’re headed the wrong way, but even so. If you go home now, you may end up leading them to the Mother’s House. I will go ahead and warn the monks. What is your name, son?”
The senator turned to her wife. “Nasida, take Orvi home and serve him dinner. Once the monks have been warned, he can go home and join them, if he wishes.”
“Aw, come on,” Qara Fishmonger interrupted, “you can’t bring him to your place, or the Zaljans will just follow him there. You can stay at my place tonight. We still have some of that pike I caught left over from yesterday; you’ll love it.
They all stared at her. “Pike?” Nasida asked.
The conversation became confused after that, but it ended with Orvi and Qara Fishmonger following the soldiers north to her parents’ house. Like many of the houses in Shafinah, it was constructed of red brick traded from Mu May to the north, sealed together with hardened clay from south of the Big Bolt’s fork. It had a slanted clay roof, built to funnel rainfall to the back-right corner of the house, where large barrels were kept. It was a common feature of tinier villages in Yena that were not built near the rivers, but a peculiar addition for Shafinah, where water was plentiful.
The house was squat and wide, shaped like the red bricks from which it was built, with a crooked wooden door in the middle and a window on either side. As they approached, Qara shouted, “Welp, here we are! I suppose me and Orvi the orphan will just bed down here for the night. Yes we will!” The shouting drew several stares, and an old man poked his head out of the window and shouted at Qara to get inside.
Inside was crowded. The house was deeper than it had appeared facing the river. Even so, there were three generations living inside. An old couple were sitting on a pair of stools by a doorway that Orvi assumed led to their bedroom. Another doorway led to what was probably the bedroom of Qara’s parents. A smattering of cushioned rugs near the older couple’s door was probably where the children slept. Right now, the children were gathering around a large, circular rug of deep purple, setting wooden plates before them. The plates held cuttings of small fish, minnow from the look of it, along with bean curd and fried bread. The smell hit Orvi in a wave, and his stomach rasped like the salamander he had all but forgotten.
A man in his thirties, with a bushy moustache over his mouth and a clean apron over his brown trousers, spread his hands wide when they entered and shouted “Qara! Home at last. How was your day. Did you catch the salamander?”
“No, but I put up a pretty good fight.”
“Ah. Next time, next time. And this is one of the monks, yes? A pupil, I’m thinking.”
Orvi nodded to the man. “My name’s Orvi, Sir.”
“Good, good, very polite. I am Messid, and this is Harrin, Isha, and Toma.” He pointed to a baby boy, a little girl, and a son who was clearly the oldest. “My parents Fared and Ginell are in the corner there. This is their house, still. And my wife—”
A tall, gaunt woman with giant blue eyes emerged from what Orvi assumed was her bedroom. Her hair was in a long braided tail like Qara’s, and she wore a light blue shift of linen with a shawl over it. The shawl was bright red, patterned with yellow whirls and sunbursts and Satari triangles, and a few curved arrows meant to represent the pike. She was smiling when she entered, but upon spying Orvi her face went stiff in shock. She pulled the shawl off and drew it before herself, then looked down at it, balled it up, and threw it back into the room she had just exited. She looked down at herself again, then ran back into the darkened room. “Sweetie,” she called lightly, the slightest edge in her voice, “who is that monk that’s visiting us?”
“He’s just a pupil I think, dearest,” Messid called back. “Orvi is a new friend of Qara’s.”
“Oh good,” the woman called back in a voice that suggested entirely otherwise. “What would we do without Qara and all her friends?”
The woman, Qara’s mother Orvi assumed, returned a moment later with a burgundy robe wrapped around her shift, belted with an undyed hempen rope. “Good evening, Orvi. My name is Reysill.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Madam,” said Orvi. Qara stared at him as though he were speaking another language. Qara’s mother smiled at him, though she still seemed a bit stiff.
“Can he stay for dinner?” she asked.
“Of course!” Messid beamed. “The more, the more, as they say.” He grinned. Toma groaned.
They all sat down around the rug. “Orvi, will you bless us before eating?” asked Messid?
Orvi nodded, and they all bowed their heads. “All-Mother Satar bless this food, and through it us, that we may better work your will upon this your world. Liliq, we thank you always for your bounty and your mercy upon us, your children, and upon our kindred the fish of the river. We thank you.”
“We thank you,” they all murmured in assent, and started eating.
Despite Qara’s boast, no pike was forthcoming, but the dinner was delicious all the same. The children spoke of their friends. Fared and Ginell asked Orvi about the Mother’s House and how Brother Hesiud, the head of the order, was doing. Things grew slightly more somber when Toma mentioned the Mine at Mu May. The Mine was Yena’s source of iron ore and a valuable political tool in bartering with Zalja to the east and Khabar to the southeast. Because of its importance, Yenai citizens were selected to serve two-year terms working the mines, and Toma had been selected to serve starting next year. There were rumors that goblins lived in the deeper parts of the Mine, looking to drag people off into the fiery depths. Messid laughed off such ideas, but it was clear that even he was worried, more about cave-ins than goblins, but worried all the same.
Things lightened up after that. Remarkably, it was over half an hour before anyone asked Orvi why he was there, and the subject of the Zaljan soldiers was finally brought up.
“What would they want with the Mother’s House?” Ginell wondered.
“To burn it,” Reysill shuddered. “It’s the Crusade all over again.”
“No one is burning any Mother’s Houses,” Messid insisted placatingly.
“What’s the Crusade?” Qara asked? Orvi was about to groan in exasperation, but he was more than a little fuzzy on the details, so he settled for rolling his eyes and hoping no one would ask him to explain.
“It was a Zaljan invasion,” Toma said. “The last Khan was trying to convert us all.”
“Trying to take the rivers and the mines, more likely” Reysill said darkly.
“But regardless,” Messid broke in, “East Gate set up fortresses all along the Great Bariad, and the Zaljan forces never made it past them. The poor people of Musmahwa took quite a hit; they’re right on the Bariad themselves. But East Gate stood firm, and the whole enterprise fell apart after a few years. Most of us were never touched. The Khans learned their lesson.”
“This new Khan’s from a farther branch of the family tree,” Toma said suggestively. “I hear he’s a warmonger, looking to stand out from his predecessors. A new Crusade would be the perfect way to make himself look strong.”
“Ohhh, is that so?” Messid asked wryly. “And how did you acquire this remarkable political insight? I didn’t realize you were such an intimate of the senators’ counsels.” He smiled at Reysill.
“We saw a senator,” said Qara. “At least, I think she was one of the senators.”
“The captain of the soldiers was talking to her,” Orvi added, “trying to find out where the Mother’s House was.”
“She wasn’t a captain,” Qara objected. “She was barely older than Toma. She was just a loud girl with a wart under her eye. They should call her Captain Wart.”
The adults at the table grew very still. They looked at each other.
Fared opened his mouth slowly. “A wart, you say? Under her eye?” Qara and Orvi nodded. The adults all looked at each other.
“Was it his daughter who had the wart,” Ginell asked, “or his mother?”
“Daughter,” Reysill said firmly.
“Who?” Toma asked. “Whose daughter?”
“This is not a good subject for dinner,” said Messid, but Reysill felt differently.
“Divine Commander Ybril Ro Kheer,” she said.
A tense silence followed.
“Is that someone we’re supposed to know?” Qara asked. Loudly.
“I think it’s time for bed,” said Messid.
“In the Crusade,” said Ginell, slowly, “he burned the Mother’s House at Musmahwa.”
“And now his daughter is here?” Orvi asked. “Looking for the Mother’s House?” In an instant, he was on his feet. “Thank you for everything!” he stuttered before running out.
“Wait!” Qara shouted, half standing and half rolling toward the door. “Where are you going?”
“I have to warn them!” he cried, vanishing into the newborn night.
“The senator already went!” Qara yelled.
“They’re my family!”
With that, he was gone.