It wasn’t the acrid smell of the smoke drifting into my bed corner which woke me, nor was it the heat of the flames or the cries of the villagers fleeing for their lives. It was Otis, my faithful weasel who saved my life that night. He had snuck into my pocket as usual to share my warmth as I lay curled up on the straw mattress, and it was the sharp nip of his teeth on my finger which alerted me to the danger which I was in. I awoke with a start, disorientated. The small hut was already full of smoke, and ghostly red flames were licking their way over the rough straw roof. If I didn’t get out of there fast, I would be buried under a burning mass when the roof collapsed. I scrambled off the bed and half crawled half stumbled to where I thought the entrance was. I missed it at first, the smoke must have disorientated me more than I thought, and I ran headlong into the wall. I felt my way along until my hands found the opening, and I tumbled onto the ground outside just as the roof came down behind me with a fiery crash.
It was a scene of chaos, and no one paid me any attention as I stared open mouthed at the devastation. The whole village was engulfed in flames. Fire leapt from roof to roof, and thick dark smoke swirled all around. I heard screams from people trying to escape the fire, but there were others here too, strangers, and they were attacking the village. They were huge muscular men, bare chested with painted faces, their bodies adorned with necklaces of beads and medallions. They carried spears, swords and flaming torches, and they were slaughtering anyone who got in their way. I crouched down low and scurried between the burning buildings. Perhaps no one would notice a child in all the mayhem. If I could make it out of the village and into the forest, then I might have a chance of escaping them.
I reached the edge of the village by keeping low and staying close to the buildings, but if I wanted to escape to the forest, I would have to cross the clearing. The smoke would give me cover, but it was risky. I waited till it seemed quiet, and ran when a thick billow of smoke blew over the open space before me. I was halfway across, when one of the warriors loomed up out of the smoke directly in front of me. I stood there paralysed as he strode towards me, with nowhere to hide. What happened next made me realise that these weren’t ordinary men at all, but surely demons or sorcerers. I heard a shout from behind me, and one of the men from the village leapt into view. He brandished a spear, which he now hurled with all his might at the warrior before him. It was a good aim, and the spear was sure to hit the man directly in the chest. Instead of dying though, the man simply vanished into thin air. One second he was there, the next he was gone, and the spear passed harmlessly through the space where he was standing. I heard a scream, and saw the man who had thrown the spear cut down by the warrior who had materialised behind him. I ran. Blindly, through the smoke and the heat, I ran for all I was worth, because I knew my life depended on it. I reached the trees, and zigzagged through the foliage and undergrowth. I thought I had made it, until one of the demons appeared again before me out of the smoke. With one stroke he swung the handle of his spear towards my face. My head exploded in pain, and then there was only blackness.
I woke to a rough kick in the ribs. Sitting up, I saw that I was in a clearing, and that my hands were bound with rope. I was not the only prisoner. There must have been at least twenty others, similarly bound, and we were all connected together in a long line. Our captors were kicking the other prisoners awake, shouting orders to get up, and they staggered to their feet. The demons spoke in the common tongue, although their dialect was thick and hard to understand. When they spoke amongst themselves, I didn’t know what they were saying, but by listening carefully I was able distinguish some of their names. Koncha was the man who had knocked me out, a dour, thick set man who spoke little, but was quick enough to kick somebody to their feet when they stumbled or fell. I thought I recognised the man who vanished before my eyes, and his name was Astol. He was taller than the others, with a keen gaze and piercing blue eyes, and seemed also to be the leader of the group. We marched in silence, single file, our captors walking with us to either side and at the front and the rear. They were obviously taking no chances, although I couldn’t imagine what they could be worried about. They were heavily armed and stronger than us, and of course at least some of them had the seemingly magical ability of shifting through the air. I hadn’t seen Astol repeat that trick, but I was watching him closely.
We trudged for what seemed like hours. Growing up, I had explored the landscape for miles around the village, but the landscape here was new to me. We had left the forest far behind and were now walking across a bleak rocky landscape, the grass dry and tough. There were few trees, and those I saw were short and stunted. The wind was blowing in strong gusts, and the clouds were scudding swiftly across the sky. As we crested a hill, I saw a valley open out below us. Snaking it’s way through valley was a shimmering line of blue, glinting with gold as it caught the sun. We were walking towards the great river, and beyond that lay the wild sea. I suddenly knew with a certainty that I would soon be leaving my homeland far behind.
My fears were realised as we came closer to the river. Moored there was a long galley, with the gang plank lowered to the shore. There was room for twenty oars on either side, and as we entered the boat, I saw the ranks of chained and dejected slaves slumped at the rowing seats, resting or sleeping. Still bound together, we were bundled roughly down into the hold and led into a small cell lined with dirty straw, with metal bars forming the front wall. I heard shouts and groans coming from further back inside the hold, so obviously we weren’t the only prisoners these demons had captured. They left us a jug of water and some stale bread, but that was all. The cell door was locked, and the men left. No one stood guard, but then they didn’t really need to.
At first, no one said a word. I think we were all too exhausted from the long march, and too dazed to say much. I looked around in the weak light of a single lantern, and it was only then that I began to reflect on what had happened to me. I was only thirteen years old, and all my life I had lived at the village. My mother died shortly after I was born, and my father died a few years later in a hunting accident, so I had been brought up by my uncle. With a lurch I realised that I didn’t know what had happened to him – I hadn’t seen him in all the confusion, and he hadn’t been captured. I felt a terrible guilt that I hadn’t thought of him till just then, and for all I knew he could now be dead. Or if he wasn’t, he was probably thinking the same of me. And now I was leaving that all behind, and facing a terrible and uncertain future.
I felt something wriggle, and then Otis, my little weasel, crept shyly out of my pocket and had a look around. I stroked his small silky body, and gave him a little bit of the bread. I smiled then, as I wasn’t totally alone. He’d been with me for three years now. I’d found him one cold winter’s morning curled up inside the hood of my jacket. I’d given him a scrap of food, and he’d repaid my affection by sticking by me ever since.
“That’s a mighty strange pet you’ve got there, lad.” One of the men had turned, and was observing us.
“His name’s Otis,” I replied, letting the little creature snuggle up to me and sit on my shoulder.
“Folks say those creatures possess both wisdom and courage,” he said, still watching me closely, “but I’ve never seen one so attached to a human before. You look after him.”
I was about to reply, when Astol appeared out of thin air before our prison cell, and we were quiet at once. His gaze swept over all of us before he spoke, his thick accent distorting the common tongue so that I had to strain to understand him.
“We sail for two days. If you work, you will be looked after. If you do not work, you will be killed. If you try to escape, you will be killed. There is nothing else.”
He lingered, his gaze sweeping over us again, challenging us. When no one spoke, he disappeared as quickly and as mysteriously as he arrived. A low muttering broke out, and I saw several men make a pushing gesture with their flat hand, to ward off evil spirits. But I had seen something I hadn’t noticed before. All of our captors wore many different necklaces and talismans, and one of these was a chain holding a single roughly hewn white stone. Perhaps it was because of the low lighting that I saw it, but I was certain that the stone glowed briefly just before he vanished. I kept this observation to myself, but I couldn’t help wondering whether I had seen the source of their power.
The voyage only lasted two days, but for me it seemed to last a lifetime. It was smooth at first as we sailed towards the sea. I could feel the regular thrum through the ship as the galley slaves pulled the oars in unison. But once we reached the sea, they must have raised the sails to catch the world’s wind, as the heave of the oars stopped, and was replaced by a churning, rolling, buffeting motion that left me feeling sick and disorientated. For two days and nights our world narrowed to the rolling motion of the ship, the howl of the wind and the dreadful creaking and groaning of the timbers. I thought that the vessel would be torn apart with each huge wave, and we would be pulled down to our deaths without seeing daylight ever again.
I slept fitfully, the noises and motion of the boat constantly ripping me out of wild dreams of fire and water. The ration of bread and water was meagre, and certainly not enough to satisfy the number of prisoners trapped in the hold, so it was in a state of hunger, thirst and sleep deprivation that I finally left ship. The solid ground felt strange after being at sea, and my legs threatened to buckle underneath me as we staggered, still bound together, up the cobbled street and away from the harbour.
The difference to my village couldn’t have been starker. The heat from the blazing sun was intense, and sunlight reflected brilliantly off the whitewashed walls of the myriad shops and houses. We walked past a bustling market full of the strangest sights, sounds and smells. People stopped and stared as we went by, and in their eyes I sometimes caught a look of pity, but no one came to our aid, as it seemed that even people here were scared of our captors. I thought then that we would be sold as slaves at the market to the highest bidder, forced to carry out demeaning duties to our new masters. But I was wrong. Our fate was to be much worse.
We were led out of the town along a wide, dusty road which led slowly upwards. We walked for miles, the path becoming smaller and steeper, the landscape bleaker and more isolated with every twist and turn. The region became mountainous, with sheer walls of rock rising high above us on the left, and a deep drop to our right. We were walking in the shade of the mountain, but when we rounded a corner, the sun blinded us with it’s intensity, so that at first I didn’t see the camp. My heart sank as I recognised it for what it was, and I looked up at the sky, drinking in the sun, the clouds and the fresh air for a last desperate moment before we were marched into the mine, to begin our new life underground.
Days passed into weeks, and weeks into months as I toiled in the mine. The tunnels went far into the mountain, and some of the shafts ran so deep, it was almost as though they ran to the very centre of the earth. I must have spent hours each day climbing down deeper and deeper into the earth. We were mining for what I learned later was called mind stone. I recognised it quickly for what it was, the same white stone that our captors wore in talismans around their necks, and that had glowed briefly when Astol disappeared before our eyes. It was rare, and found only deep underground. I could labour a whole day and only find one small piece of the rock, and often I found nothing at all. Those days were bad, as we were rewarded with extra rations for the amount of stone which we brought back.
Weeks could go by without leaving the mines or seeing the outside world, and I lived mole-like in a perpetual gloom, my world only lit by sparse lantern light. I slept and ate in rough living chambers carved out of the mountain. I never saw the people from my village again; the people who worked at these depths had been there years, wraith-like emaciated figures who had given up all hope. I was there because I was young and strong, and small enough to fit into the narrowest shafts and tunnels.
And then my world, what little was left of it, came crashing down around me. I was investigating a new tunnel, a natural fissure in the rock, when the earth shook violently, and I was thrown to the ground. I lay there, sensing the trembling earth, when a loud crack rent the stillness and the ground heaved with a dreadful rage, as though the sleeping mountain had awoken and was stretching to ease some deep pent-up tension. When stillness returned, the entrance to the fissure was sealed, and I was trapped, alone and entombed in utter darkness.
I lost all hope then, but once again my courageous Otis saved me. He ran ahead, deeper into the fissure, and called to me until I came, crawling like a blind lizard squeezing through the narrowing fissure. I was burying myself alive; every twist and turn reduced my chances of getting back out. Maybe in countless millennia the mountain would wear away, and people would find my bones and wonder how a boy came to live in a mountain. But just when it seemed I could go no further, I sensed open space in front of me. The fissure squeezed me out, and I was born again into the void.
I lay there a long time, wondering at the endless space I felt all around. When I opened my eyes, I saw with astonishment pale points of white light covering the cavern walls like stars in the sky. It was the white rock, the mind stone; it was the largest deposit I had ever seen, and each rock was alive with a faint glow. I crawled to the centre of the cavern and looked in wonder at the beauty of the light. And then something whispered to me to feel the light as well, so I closed my eyes and tried to touch the stone with my thoughts, pushing my mind out to fill the empty space between us.
The feeling of unity came slowly, but it was undeniable. I filled the void with my mind, connecting myself with every point of light. I had only one desire in me, so I screamed this out with my mind to the void. And the void responded. I felt my body become part of the void, translucent and ethereal, and I hurtled upwards with giddying speed through the miles of rock above me till I was blinded by a brilliant light, and I felt the warmth of the sun on my face.
I was found hours later, curled up on the rock, exhausted and spent. The woman sat me up and gave me water, and tended to my wounds. She asked me my name, and I looked at her, uncomprehending. For how could I have a name when I had only just been born? But then realisation came, and I answered.
“My name is Brand.”