Selli and I were playing in the village square outside the temple when the rider came. He was a messenger. Galloping through the deserted square, he made his way straight to the Lord’s manor where he dismounted and rapped sharply on the door. Darro came out from the temple, waving his hand.
“The lord is away with the army,” he said. “I am the only triarch still here. I can take your message.”
“You have no sash or crown,” said the messenger.
“Oh, damn, let me go and get it.” Darro picked up his robes and dashed back inside, returning after a moment with his black priest’s crown. “There,” he said. “I will have your message now.”
“My apologies, Triarch,” said the messenger. He opened a leather satchel over his shoulder and withdrew a sealed note, which he handed to Darro. “Is there a place where I can water my horse? I’ve been riding since dawn and still have to reach Dawwash and Tepino by sundown.”
“There’s a stable just around the other side of the manor,” said Darro. “There should be a trough there.”
“Thank you, Triarch.” The rider bowed his head slightly and dismounted, leading his horse to where Darro had directed him.
Selli had stopped playing and was watching the exchange. When the rider left, she walked up to Darro. I followed her.
“What does it say?” she asked.
“I don’t know yet,” replied Darro. He opened the letter and read it, his eyes flitting from side to side.
“What does it say?” Selli asked again.
“Something for the adults,” Darro said. “But we need to get all the adults together. I’m going to ring the bell.”
“Is it about the war?” I asked.
Darro hesitated. “Yes,” he said. “But I think it’s best if your mothers tell you the news.”
Darro rang the bell and within ten minutes, everyone in the village was at the temple. Selli and I were sent away, so we waited by the stables, watching the messenger as he allowed his horse to drink from the trough there. It occurred to me that I could ask him what his message was about but I was too timid.
Maybe there had been a battle. I pictured the Berrumin, dark figures like those we had seen on the plains. I imagined them fleeing for their lives before Lord Torru and my father and all the others. But then maybe someone from the village had died. My father had told me about how his dear friend had died before I was born during the last war against the Taksashi. Maybe Darro didn’t want to upset me or Selli if it was someone we knew.
Back across the square, the sound of many raised voices came from inside the temple. I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Shortly afterwards, people started leaving. My mother was among them. She saw me and came to me. Darro was with her. Selli’s mother, Lady Fyimi, was presumably still inside.
“Jorj,” my mother said. “We need to go home and talk.”
“You’ll be alright?” asked Darro to my mother. She nodded and attempted a weak smile. “Okay. Selli, can you come with me? Your mother’s inside waiting to speak to you.” He took Selli by the hand and led her back to the temple.
My mother and I walked back to our house. I had so many questions, but I held my tongue until we got there. We got in and my mother sat me down at the dinner table. She sat opposite me.
“Has there been a battle?” I asked.
“There has,” she said.
“They lost,” replied my mother.
“What, the Berrumin?”
“No,” she said. “We did.”
Somehow, that possibility hadn’t even occurred to me. My head had been so full of images of glory and victory and now that came crashing down.
“Is Dad… dead?” I asked.
“No one knows.” Her lip wobbled slightly and she sniffed, but she held together, composed herself.
“Did anyone else die?” I asked. She nodded.
“Lord Torru,” she said. “That’s why Selli went with Darro.”
“So when’s Dad coming home?” I asked. I had a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Torru was dead. Loud Torru, my father had called him in our own home. He was dead. The words filled my entire mind and my fear for my father grew until it was almost like panic.
My mother’s face crumpled.
“I don’t know,” she said, and her voice broke.
If the village had been quiet before, it was now like a ghost town. I didn’t see Selli at all the next day or the day after that. I didn’t even see Darro, although I knew where I could find him if I wanted to. But I didn’t. Instead, I wandered out past the boundary markers of the village and walked amongst the ruins, clambering over the twisted metal beams and crumbling walls. It gave me something to occupy my mind so I didn’t have to think about poor Torru or worry about my father.
Walking down what was once either a narrow side street or an indoor corridor, I found a long tube draped over the knee-high remnant of a wall. I picked it up and found it was bendy like rope, but strangely light. I tried to pull it apart with my hands, but couldn’t. The tube snaked along the ground for quite some distance. I resolved to follow it and see where it led.
Further, it turned out, than I had anticipated. Over more walls, through archways, across a road and through a small patch of grass where a gnarled olive tree grew. A garden, perhaps. The tube skirted the edge of the grass, then crossed over another wall before disappearing down a wide hole. I tiptoed gingerly to the edge and peered down. Moss covered steps leading down into a basement a few metres deep. Most of the basement was covered by a ceiling which, miraculously, seemed to still be in good condition.
I stamped on the stairs with one foot as I descended, testing each one in case there was a hollow space beneath them that might have given way. At the bottom, I peered into the gloom. Near the stairs, moss and ferns grew in abundance, but further back, out of the sun’s reach, the chamber was almost barren. The tube was attached to a large metal box. I picked it up again and gave it a pull. The tube came detached with a clang and I suddenly felt guilty for breaking it, old as it was.
I climbed back up the stairs and made a mental note of the place. It would make a great den. The olive tree nearby was a good landmark. I started to make my way back to the village, thinking to myself that I would show Selli at some point if she felt like it. Maybe it would be a good distraction for her too.