A cowled figure rode quietly across a wooded landscape. The first rays of dawn lit the sky with a soft white glow. After a few miles, the man came to a fork in the road. Without slowing, he guided his horse along the left branch. The man knew these roads very well, having travelled them for many years. Although the road was dim and many trees formed dark shadows along both sides, neither the man nor the horse showed any sign of fear.
Several miles later he came in sight of a small village to one side of the road. Even at this early hour, the villagers were at work, rising with the sun to tend fields and livestock. Although every person he passed looked toward him, none spoke, none returned his warm smile. Halfway down the main street, he turned into a narrow alley, heading for a small house that formed the end of it. On the doorstep stood a portly man, tall, with a rosy-cheeked glow to his tanned face.
“Good morning, Brother,” said the man mechanically, “she’s this way.” He stepped into the house to lead the way.
Brother Irator replied cheerily, “Good morning, sir. All is well, I trust?”
The man stopped, turned round and said slowly, “Yes Brother,” then carried on up the stairs and into a small room. A bed took up most of the space. In the bed lay a woman of similar appearance to the man, nursing a newborn baby.
“If you could just lay her down here at the end of the bed, then I can work better.” Brother Irator smiled at the woman, who merely did as she was ordered.
The baby began to cry as Irator opened out the rough blanket to leave her naked and shivering in the cold of the early spring day. The parents watched motionless as Irator removed a clay jar, some herbs, a vial of yellow liquid, a thick oiled cloth, and a small iron bowl from his pack. He placed the clay jar at the head of the squalling infant and removed the top. Next, he poured the liquid into the bowl and added the herbs which began to smoulder. Irator placed the bowl between the feet of the baby who cried even louder at the cold touch. The Brother knelt down at the foot of the bed with his feet out of the door. A prayer of archaic origin began to issue from his mouth. The prayer grew faster, more complex, as his hands wove a net of symbols in the air above the baby girl.
The atmosphere in the tiny room seemed suffocating. A strange thickness, almost a taste, filled every space, every corner until the thin walls threatened to burst outward. The
air around the little child began to shimmer, as though great heat welled up from her skin. The shimmering gathered into a child-shaped cloud, it pulsed and rolled toward the clay jar.
Then suddenly, with a thunderous clap, the prayer stopped. The cloud rolled up and shot into the jar. The baby screamed once then fell silent. With lightning speed, Brother Irator grabbed the clay lid and slammed it shut. He took the cloth and bound it tightly around the lid, forming a seal. The child lay quiet for a few moments, then fell into a deep sleep. She would never cry again.
Brother Irator sat back on his heels. He was seemingly unaffected by the ritual, not a bead of sweat, no signs of breathlessness. The parents listened carefully as the Brother advised them on caring for the infant for the next few days. Although they themselves were sweating and a little agitated, their eyes showed nothing but dull obedience.
After the customary breakfast, Irator bid the family farewell, mounted his horse and rode out of the village. He whistled a merry tune as he rode along in the morning sunshine.
He was happy with his day’s work: another Essence safely captured, another child who would grow up healthy, well-fed, in a balanced, orderly society free from poverty, violence, and crime. No one taking too much, leaving the weak with leftovers and scraps.
Of course, there had to be some, such as himself, to bear the burden, carrying his Essence within him. But that was a small price to pay for being able to bestow the Gift on others.
Irator turned his horse toward the east and trotted off. Another child to rescue, he thought to himself and smiled.
From a deep, earthy cave several miles from the nearest village came a sound not often heard. A girl of about six was rubbing her knee through patched trousers and crying. Large tears ran down her face, matting long dark hair to grubby cheeks.
“Shush dear, you must be quiet, someone will hear.” The woman was about forty but looked much older. She was painfully thin, with a pale, almost yellow complexion. The shapeless dress she wore over patched leggings had seen better days, barely keeping her covered, much less warm.
“But ma, it hurts, I fell over that root over there, why can’t I cry when it hurts?” sobbed the girl. The woman coughed against her sleeve, trying to stifle the sound. “I’ve explained all this before: the Brothers don’t like crying, they will take you away from me. You must be brave.”
The girl sobbed a few more times, then quieted.
“I don’t like the Brothers, and the next one I see, I’m going to tell him!”
The woman grabbed at the child and slapped her face, “Kymar, you must never say that again! Promise me you will never say that, if you see a Brother, you must hide, do you hear me, hide! Run away! Never let them near you.” She shook the girls’ shoulders, “Promise me!”
Kymar sobbed quietly, but new tears rolled down her face, leaving slightly cleaner streaks. “I promise ma, I promise.” The woman hugged the girl tightly to her, hiding her own tears.
She couldn’t stand the thought of her daughter’s bright eyes being dulled by the witchcraft of those brutes. For six years she had kept the secret of Kymar’s birth. Moving from place to place: caves, tree houses, holes in the ground. Living hand-to-mouth, running in the dead of night. Never enough food, never enough anything. But all this she had gladly suffered to hear her daughter laughing, playing, learning. Kymar was such a bright girl, keen, a fast learner, always eager to know. And always questions, day and night. Sometimes the answers didn’t, or couldn’t, come. Some things were better not said, not yet.
She coughed again. Being forced to live in this damp hole in the ground wasn’t doing her any good. Her coughing was eased by certain herbs, but these weren’t always available. The forest provided much of what they had, but some things were only available in villages. The villages were dangerous places for those with bright eyes.
A rumbling noise startled her out of her reverie. She knew immediately what it was.
“Kymar, come here, sit with mother, and keep very quiet,” she whispered.
The girl started to protest, then—noticing the look of fear on her mother’s face—she obeyed. They sat huddled together in the dark cave, waiting for the soldiers to pass.
But this time the soldiers stopped. The girl clung against the woman as a deep voice sounded in the cave entrance. The soldier clumped around for a while, then went silent. A few minutes later, the unmistakeable odour of urine wafted down. There was a loud exchange of banter as the soldier pulled his clothes back on and mounted his horse. The sound of hooves
died away. Although the child squirmed impatiently, the woman kept tight hold until she was satisfied, they had really gone. It was time to move on. This was no place for a child.
She vowed that one day her child would walk in the sun, to feel its warmth and marvel at it, to take the time to wonder at its brilliance. Not to see it and not notice, not to feel it and ignore its power, like the others. The dead eyes. The human cattle, slaves to the Warlocks.