As his eyes adjusted to the darkness inside the shaman’s hut, Circun struggled to catch his breath. “Father,” he gasped, “we have a problem.”
“What’s wrong?” Torak asked.
Torak’s young apprentice, Reva, put down the pestle she’d been using to grind herbs. She saw the perspiration as it glistened on the shaman’s son.
“Riders are approaching from the north,” Circun said.
“I’m not sure — at least thirty. And they’re armed.”
“Armed?” A frown crossed Torak’s brow. Riders were always uncertain. Any group feeling the need to move with speed and in large numbers had an agenda. But armed? That was highly unusual. He looked at the sky, judging another hour before sunset. “Perhaps they’re tired and hungry and merely seeking shelter for the night,” he said, although it was more hope than conviction.
“They’re gathering on the far side of the north field.”
Torak knew their small farming community could not resist armed men. They had no choice but to welcome them and hope they were not hostile. The crops had been good that year, and they had plenty to spare. Weary travelers were always well-received in Torak’s village.
“Tell the people to prepare a welcome. I’ll go to meet them.”
Torak delayed only long enough to don his ceremonial headdress marking him as the village shaman. Reva, his young apprentice, wanted to join him, but Torak refused, telling her, “No, not this time, Reva.”
Since completing his apprenticeship twenty-seven years ago, Torak had been responsible for the village of Sestinon and its people. He’d been young then, barely a man. But, like all shamans, he trained for seven years with seven masters, and, at the end of his seventh year, the Council had deemed him worthy.
Each year, villages in need of a shaman made the long journey to the Enclave for the Gathering. No village would willingly be without a shaman. They were critical to a village’s survival in the harsh conditions of their arid world. Most villages, knowing the young shamans would soon be thinking of marriage, brought their most eligible young men and women to the Enclave, hoping to influence the shamans’ decision. For the shaman, the Choosing was no less important; he or she would spend the rest of their lives with that village.
Torak was one of three shamans sought by five villages that year. In the end, it was Twilla who caused Torak to choose as he did.
Twilla was a year younger than Torak. Possessing a sturdy build from life in a farming village, she wore her long black hair up during the day, but let it fall past her shoulders in the evening. Her flashing eyes were quick to take in everything, and, some said, she was even quicker to voice her opinion. Torak knew from the moment they met that she was the one, although an observer might not have judged their first meeting much of a success.
“Do not stare at me as if I were a beast, young shaman,” she had said.
Overwhelmed by the Choosing and the importance of making the right decision, Torak had been lost in his own thoughts. Shocked by the young woman’s words, he responded, “I’m sorry. I meant no disrespect. My manners were elsewhere, I’m afraid.”
“You should bring them with you, if you hope to impress us. You should know the Choosing works both ways. I have a vote as well.”
“May I know your name?” he asked.
“Twilla. I am granddaughter to our last shaman, who, I might add, had excellent manners.”
And so it had gone.
Twilla was even stronger than she was beautiful. His third master had told Torak to seek such a wife. ‘The life of a shaman is easier if you have someone with the strength to share your burden,’ she had said. Torak was convinced Twilla was such a woman. And so she was.
Married before the end of the first year, the couple was blessed with two sons. The firstborn, as was his duty, completed his apprenticeship and now served as shaman in a southern village. Their younger son, whom they’d named Circun, served the village in other ways. Torak and Twilla couldn’t have been more proud of them both.
Three years after sending his firstborn to begin his apprenticeship, Torak was called to the Enclave to meet with the Council of Masters. After testing him in the seven skills, Torak was named a Master of the healing arts, fit and ready to train others. That very year, Torak returned home with his first apprentice. Each year since, he made the long trek to the Enclave, and each year he returned with a new apprentice. Torak took his duties seriously, and only once had he been forced to tell the Council his charge had failed to learn as he had hoped.
Reva was Torak’s eighth apprentice, and he was well-pleased with her. Since her arrival, she proved a hard and conscientious student. Her quick mind and deep respect for others made Torak’s job easier. Although everyone knew Reva would only be with them for a year, many already called her a friend. Torak would be sad in four months when he would have to return the young shaman to the Enclave for her next assignment. He was confident Reva would complete her remaining four years with equal success, just as he knew she would be a fine shaman someday.
With Circun and Reva trailing behind, Torak hurried to the north field where Circun had seen the riders. Word of the strangers had spread, and villagers had begun to gather, watching the outsiders as they milled about on the far side. The leader was easy to recognize with his black leather armor. Shiny metal plates sewn on the outside his armor gave him extra protection. His helm was decorated with long white hair like the mane of the beast that bore him, and the leader’s own black hair extended down his back in a single braid. Strapped to his side was a long sword.
The animals that bore the riders were gondars, great lumbering beasts with long manes and even longer tails that trailed on the ground behind them. Every village had them, and they earned their keep plowing fields, pulling wagons, and more. Their white coats and hardy disposition made them popular with traders and others who made long treks across the hot desert.
Reva’s hand moved to the green stone that hung from her neck. A parting gift from her mother, Reva had never been without it from the day she left to begin her apprenticeship. Staring at the men across the field, Reva sensed only hostility from the dark and silent riders.
“Torak, they reek of evil,” she said.
“Yes, I see that,” said the shaman. Reva knew her master’s powers were great, but what could he do against so many?
“Then we must flee, Father,” urged Circun. “There’s nothing you can do.”
“We can’t defend ourselves from them. Our only hope is to change their minds. I want both of you to stay back.”
“But, Father…” Circun said as Torak walked onto the field.
Reva watched as her master walked alone across the field. Torak’s every move was scrutinized by the mounted men and women from the other side. Torak stopped thirty paces from the strangers. The leader, flanked by two of his riders, rode toward the shaman.
In the gesture of peace and friendship, Torak held his hands open before him and called, “Our greetings to you, travelers. I offer you the hospitality of our village.”
Young Reva studied her master. Someday it would be her responsibility to lead a village, and there would be times she would be required to show such courage. She watched the riders for signs of hostility, but, except for the leader and the two riders advancing with him, the others remained at the edge of the field.
Their speed increased as the three riders approached Torak. The hoof beats pounded louder and faster as they advanced. With a shout and a kick, the leader urged his gondar into a full gallop. Then, in a single swift motion, he drew his sword, brandished it high, and lowered himself in the saddle.
Torak saw the danger, but there was no place to run. The two riders on either side kept him from dashing sideways. Torak’s hands rose to block the oncoming strike. From across the field, Reva saw Torak’s outline sharpen as he called on his protective powers. She heard the leader’s shout as he swung the heavy blade and struck Torak on the shoulder. Miraculously, it glanced off, although the shaman stumbled back from the vicious blow.
Regaining his balance, Torak turned to face the leader as the mounted man wheeled his beast for another charge. Reva heard Torak call out, “Why are you doing this? We’re no threat to you.”
Reva yelled, “Leave him alone!” Before she could dash to her master’s side, Circun’s strong grip was on her shoulder holding her back.
“Stay back, Reva. You can’t help me,” Torak shouted.
The three riders circled Torak, who tried desperately to stay facing the leader. The other two guided their beasts around Torak in a large circle, but made no aggressive moves. Torak had no weapons to defend himself, nor was there anything in the empty field he could use.
Suddenly, the leader kicked his mount and galloped straight at Torak, this time swinging his sword in an upward slash. Torak heard the thundering hoofs of the great gondar as it charged getting louder with every stride. The shaman stood still, but jumped aside at the last moment, barely evading the sharp edge.
Torak had only a moment to recover before the beast turned and charged again. This time, the sword was held like a spear, straight at him as if to impale him on its deadly point. Again, at the last moment, Torak jumped aside. The gondar brushed him as it thundered past.
Three more times, the black-armored man swung his sword. Each time, Torak narrowly avoided its deadly touch. Reva dared to hope that her master’s powers would prove great enough to avoid the fate that threatened him.
But then Reva heard the leader call out, “I tire of this. Finish him.”
From behind Torak, one of the riders threw his spear. Reva’s master never saw it coming. It struck him in the back with such force that the spear went through his body, leaving the bronze tip protruding from his chest. Torak stumbled forward from the force of the blow, but remained upright.
The shaman master turned his hands inward, grasping the tip of the spear, but it was too much. Even if it had happened to another, Torak’s powers would not have helped. The spear had torn through his heart in the most mortal of wounds. He balanced for a moment longer before finally falling forward, leaving the spear standing straight up from his back, a silent marker to the fallen master.
Frozen by the horror of what she’d witnessed, Reva was jerked back to reality by the strong grip still on her shoulder. “We must run,” shouted Circun, as he pulled Reva toward the village. “Everyone must run!”
If there was any doubt of the wisdom of Circun’s words, it vanished when the leader raised his sword and thrust it in the direction of the villagers. This time, all the riders kicked their mounts and shouted as they began a wild gallop across the field.
Their leader waved his blade and led the charge.