by Carmen Welsh
©2007 Carmen Welsh

Home -=- #12 -=- ANTHRO #12 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-

   As Theri stepped over the entrance’s high threshold, she removed her shoes; the tiled walkway of mosaic bubbles stretched ahead, into a rectangular corridor of the ineffable and almighty. It was called the Avenue of the Gods: A hall lined by statue images and murals. On both sides, in expertly-painted friezes, were images of the local, regional and cultural deities.
   Presented in numerous poses, the gods sat or stood, or were only heads and torsos. As many and as different as they were, the images shared mudra—the hand gestures that represented moments of enlightenment or teaching.
   Theri mouthed each god’s prayer as she passed, her head turning to the left and to the right, making her walk slower and focusing her sight more inward. The mosaic bubbles under her soles prevented quick steps, for the pebbled texture had been cracked and aged over a century. A slow stride kept one from injury.
   Sunlight slanted down from windows near the ceiling, dividing shadows into angles and blocks. The gods’ faces changed; some were delighted and enthused with grace, others fierce and determined.
   The Avenue had back entryways without doors. As Theri approached them, people moved in and about, stepping in front of her and the other worshippers. One particular woman blocked Theri’s path… and asked the girl to follow.
   Being Cursed from her birth had taught Theri to be wary and anxious around others, even with her friends. Ordinarily, she would have ignored such a request, pretended not to have heard. It was safer that way. But there was something unworldly about this female, something that compelled trust… After kneeling and making signs to her personal favorite, Jar’Ba—the large statue at the end of the hall, carved from marbled sandstone—Theri trotted after the woman and stumbled out the side door.
   She nearly lost the woman, but Theri’s long, black-tipped ears soon caught the distinct sound of her footsteps again. Hopping awkwardly rather than taking the risk that a pause might let the women get too far ahead of her, Theri slipped her shoes on even as she trotted through the inner street that ran parallel to the great Avenue of the Gods.
   Theri moved her ears to listen while she followed the street. The way became narrower; the buildings began to merge into each other. Here the scant breezes would not blow.
   Theri’s fur became sticky, especially on her head. In vain she blew at strands now stuck to her forehead and on her eyelid.
   “Come with me,” a voice said, and the young caracal woman gasped as she turned to look the stranger step out.
   It was the stranger she followed, now in white. But there had been no time—how had she circled around behind Theri!? At least the change of clothing was no mystery; now that she got a good look at the woman’s new attire, it was a simple, unlined muslin sheet. She’d draped it over herself in much the same manner as the gods depicted on the friezes of the Avenue.
   “Come,” the woman repeated, her words marked by a heavy accent Theri couldn’t place. “Have your fortune told, little one.”
   ‘Little one,’ indeed! Theri knew she looked young, and resented being reminded of it. “I’m in my seventh triad,” she declared, using the three-year time unit which many cats regarded as holy.
   “21,” the woman said, nodding. “A good age to be. Come.”
   “You’re an augurer?”
   “I try to be.” So saying, the woman stepped over a high threshold. It seemed all the doorways here were high. Noting Theri’s hesitation, the woman in white said, “Watch your step. You are not used to the city-folks’ preference for tall entryways?”
   “I… I’ve been out in the badlands for a while.”
   “Ah. In particular, the Singing Sands, yes?”
   Theri nodded. There was no way the woman could have known that—unless, of course, she really were a true soothsayer—so she stepped through the door. Inside, the fortuneteller’s home was dark. No candle during the day, too humid, and so window awnings remained propped up and opened.
   Theri felt hot from her run, but kept her head covered. She sat down at the table with the woman. She expected a round table, draped in a black tablecloth with stars and moons on it; what was here, however, was a small, square table stand. No frills. Time-fused sand lay hardened in gaps between the slats.
   The crystal ball was frosted, murky and scratched from use. Theri wrinkled her nose at it.
   “You expected my eyelashes heavy with mascara? A quartz sphere that glows from an inner aura?” the woman asked with a tight smile, and age creased the skin underneath her fur, “Sorry to disillusion you, but such seers are only in stories.”
   Theri noticed the seer had the darker, russet fur coat of the valleys southwest. Her irises were like glazed pottery, the eye color of forgotten nomads. Her hair, once the slighter hue of her fur, now with streaks of gray whispering through it, was straight and cut lower than her chin. Cut—but in most places, it was unlawful for a woman to cut her hair! However, this law had certain exceptions. It did not apply to soldiers, nor exiles…
   …nor traveling prophets.
   “I am not so illustrious as that.”
   Theri felt a thrill. “Can you read my thoughts, Fortuneteller?”
   “No. Only your face… Is easy to read. Give me your paw.”
   Theri gave her the left paw.
   “No, no, no, no, no. Never that one. The left is where your heart resides. The right paw, the seat of consciousness, always.”
   With Theri’s right paw seated comfortably in the wise-woman’s palm, a calm took over the room. The dust settled, as did all sounds.
   The fortuneteller leaned her head down and to the side, as if probing for visions.
   The woman’s eyes closed as they should, but her gray lashes began to tremble. Then she opened her eyes and regarded her customer. “You have had a hard life.” Her accent made her words breathy. “A Curse, shamla most unfortunate placed on you. The sins of your family come to punish you, an innocent girl.”
   Theri swallowed but listened.
   “You were sold… to be killed… But that is for another time… I see… so many images… There is someone you travel with… ”
   Theri opened her mouth to speak, then bit in her lower lip.
   “Ahhh… ” the woman smiled, closing her eyes again. “You know the etiquette. Many, inexperienced, at this time, would speak up. Fill in gaps. Ruin my concentration. Ruin the vision.”
   She leaned down her head again. This time she covered Theri’s paw with her own.
   “You travel with a young man. A very young man… No longer a boy, but barely. This, is most, interesting.” The fortuneteller lifted her head, opened her eyes. She patted her customer’s hand. “Time for a drink. Would you like some tea?”
   “Yes. Please.”
   The wise-woman got up, standing tall like a reed that ignores the wind, and Theri hoped that if she aged, she would carry herself as regally as this.
   The soothsayer took two steps to a simple armoire on four fat legs; behind its closed doors with ornamented knobs were two shelves. She took a jug from the bottom shelf, and two clay cups from a long pantry table. Theri noticed that behind her was a second armoire, and a bed to its left. The bed was as long as the wall it was affixed to, and its mattress was lumpy from the rushes that filled it.
   In front of the young woman was a wall unit with a sparse curtain of dullish glitter. Jugs of various sizes and shapes lined the walls of the whole room; every container was covered in story-telling art, each one representative of the unique culture that made it.
   Noting Theri’s attention, the soothsayer said, “It isn’t much, but I can afford a few wagons to carry it all when I need to move.” Then she set the cups down and sat herself. As for Theri, she waited until her host had taken a sip, and then took hers.
   “You have fine breeding. It is a shame your family is so despicable.”
   The tea was hot, but spicy and wet enough for the humid quarters. When both women finished their tea, the fortuneteller pushed the cups aside and took Theri’s paw once more.
   “It is that young stranger again. This… no-more-boy. Almost-man.” The augurer no longer kept her eyes closed. “He… has… an interesting tie to you. A destiny entwined.”
   When Theri tried pulling away, the woman’s grip only tightened. “I sense, much, coming from you. You are in his heart. He is in yours. Why do you fight this?” She caressed the young paw, saying, “Why do we think we must fight destiny? It is not the enemy. Fate is. Kismet can be changed as you did, little one,” she said, smiling at Theri. “You ran away from your family’s plans to destroy you. That changed your fate enough to fall into this boy-man’s arms. Fate, that is a thing one can fight. we all have a destiny that we are born with, for. It is our purpose.”
   Silence and then, “Is it because he is foreign? No. That would be too simple. That would not be enough. I see… ahhhh… He carries a prophecy. He is. There is so much…” The augurer’s voice trailed off into respectful silence. After a short pause: “…Too much for this old woman. I cannot unriddle it here.”
   Noting how the woman regarded her now, Theri realized the soothsayer’s eyes had not seen her (or, indeed, anything else in the mundane world) since the visions started.
   The young held her own paw to her chest. She was breathing hard, as if she’d been running all over again.
   Theri did all she could to stop her fingers from shaking as she counted out the coins to give to the lady. The fortuneteller refused. “Nay. Seeing what I needed to see, that was payment enough. Do not fear, little one, for you walk with Jar’Ba.” Then she smiled at the young woman. “But stay a while. For your friends.”

   Elsewhere: A trio of travelers traversed the market, looking for their friend, Theri. Kyara, another caracal, tapped her forehead. Under her geometrically-tailored hood, the exile and former concubine tried to scratch under her straight-cut bangs. Enx, her lynx companion, knew that under those bangs was emblazoned a decorative, all-seeing eye with symbolic buds in deep, rich red-purple colors.
   “Where is she?” Enx looked around.
   “Shwe Maada.” Kyara said under her breath.
“Oh.” Enx made a slight nod in acknowledgement. If and when Kyara’s clairvoyance sensed Theri approaching, shwe maada—the ‘Mystic Eye’ tattooed on her forehead—would itch.
   As the friends turned into the boulevard, one among them—Haban the Thief—tilted his tall ears to one side, a clear aggressive signal with caracals.
   Swaying on the cedar poles that formed the entrance to the marketplace were dead birds of prey; falcons, as tawny as scrubby sand, and martial hawks. The carcasses hung from their talon feet by specially-knotted twine, which also held their inert wings extended in a parody of life.
   The two caracals and lynx left the marketplace, easing into the thronged passers-by that crowded the alleyway that in turn was the entrance to the residential district. Without warning, a woman approached them, flowing through the crowd as if those around her had become blurred and slowed in mud while she moved against the wind; everything about her was in motion, including her clothing. She was wrapped in turn upon turn of thin, white muslin that formed a kind of hooded gown, her deep russet fur visible even through the many layers of cloth. With outstretched, emotive paws, she beckoned them as an aunt summoning her cublings to story time.
   Gesturing in silence, the white-clad woman ‘spoke’ to the three friends. Come with me, her paws told them, as plainly as if she had used normal language. You must come and listen to what I have to say to you.
   Kyara stepped forward, until Enx' rough paw clamped onto her shoulder. "What do you think you're doing!" the lynx demanded in an insistent whisper.
   "Going with the augurer," she replied in equally low tones. Enx stiffened for a moment… then he released her, with a nod, and gestured to Haban to follow them both.
   "Blasted palm-readers," Haban growled, but he acquiesced to accompany his friends.
   No one interrupted the small procession as it threaded the crowded street. Once inside her home, the chiromancer sat them all around the small table—and the trio saw Theri seated beside it! Before anyone could say anything, the fortuneteller spoke. “You are a foreigner,” she stated, looking at Enx. The fortune-teller might have been ancient, and touched by the supernatural, but she was still female; she admired the young man’s build and tall, large stature.
   “A lynx, ma’am,” he agreed.
   The augurer smiled with generous teeth, long and sharp. But the expression did not inspire fear; somehow, she made it appear kind and inviting. “A lynx… yes. I saw it. And I knew I would meet you… Lance Keeper.”
   Haban stood apart from the table in a position of readiness, just in case any uninvited visitors should disturb them, while Kyara watched as calm as cool water. Both were mystics; but while Kyara felt comfortable in her own skin, Haban (being a thief by trade) didn’t trust anyone’s skills except his own.
   Nothing stirred except the fortuneteller’s eyes—whose colors shifted into gray.
   Enx was not perturbed; the young lynx knew a possession when he saw one, for he’d come from a culture steeped in supernatural phenomena. In his youth, it was perfectly normal to see bone-rattling elders use the innards of prey animals to predict a person’s everyday life; futures, fortunes, naming cubs, and foretelling disasters.
   Someone stirred within the soothsayer, and it would not sit idly by. Her face was contorted, as if it were an ill-fitting mask, and sepulchral words forced themselves from her jaws: “You must leave this city, Lance Keeper.”
   “It is not safe… Not for the likes of you.” With that same ghostly expression, she pointed at Enx, “No, Lance Bearer, you and your companions must leave this city before tonight! I will give you no further warning than this!”
   Enx glared at the augurer. “Why tonight?” he demanded in a harsh voice. Their destination, Hujan, would take a 9-day week, even two, if they couldn’t get the mounts or wagons to travel in. Such vehicles cost money the band didn’t have.
    “I know you wish rest, but I cannot allow your stay. There are other forces after you, TO BE RID OF YOU. I control this city, MY CITY, as well as all the oracles, the mystics and seers within it. With your current skills and talents, I am no match for you… But I can make things uncomfortable for you.”
   She swayed on her feet a bit. Kyara reached over and held her elbow. “Oh, oh, oh! Hello, my sister.”
   “We will be leaving, ada—Older Sister.”
   The fortuneteller, her face now innocent and expectant, looked at the four faces before her. “Did I say anything? What’s the matter?”
   “Nothing, Auntie.” Enx forced a polite smile. “We’ll be leaving. Tell us what we owe you.”
   Unaware of the trouble she’d aroused, the wise-woman reached over the table and gripped Enx by his forearm. “I have heard of the Carrier of the Lance,” she said—in modern-day speech, not the ancient tongue she’d used just a few seconds ago. “For as long as I’ve lived, I have heard the legends, even the common folk tales of my little people. I thought that my bones would be bleached and brittle, returned to dust long before the time of the Legend came to pass!” The chiromancer shooker her head, proud and smiling. “Mine is an insignificant bloodline; merely to have assisted the Carrier of the Lance, that is all the payment I need. In truth, it is I who owe you!”
Now she went to one of the jars that lined the walls of her narrow home. Finding the one she sought, she said, “Please—take this. It was made by a people that no longer breathe in this life. It is said to have curative powers and can induce visions. Please take it—its value is sogreat that my crystal ball is a mere glass bead, in comparison.”
   Enx looked at Kyara; when Kyara nodded, the lynx agreed to accept the gift.
   “I am glad to have served you, saheeb,” said the chiromancer; she closed her eyes, then touched her forehead and chest with a narrow paw as she bowed to Enx. “I hope I was of some help to your cause.”
   Enx smiled. His recent anger was as dead as last autumn’s harvest. “You were.”
   “Then I am honored indeed. Go with the God and His comrades.”
   Kyara touched her mystic eye tattoo to the woman in respect and they left.

   The four friends returned to their rented room, where waited the last members of their group; a mated pair of retired soldiers, named Daegra’Ha and Cera. They were often referred to as Soldiers of ‘the Old Order’, the venerable dynasty that had ruled their land for generations. When the last caliph’s son became regent, he united many ethnic groups, caracals as well as servals, to fight under one banner—but he did so by force of arms. Many clans were massacred; many cultures were erased from the pages of history.
   Some individuals managed to escape the slaughter—but few survived entirely unscathed. So it was that Daegra’Ha and Cera found themselves without home, without children, without leaders… without hope. And then came the day when they encountered the strange boy called a lynx and they decided to follow.
   Cera was finishing her evening prayers when her comrades arrives. In accordance with the traditions of her youth, she spoke in two laguages: “Iddal apir tehir iddal. One faces the one. Iddal aji apa Jar’Ba Karakulak. One praises after Jar’Ba the Black Ears (Caracal).”
   “Lynx Jar’Ba,” Enx murmured, smiling to himself.
   Ignoring the attempted jest, Cera finished her worship and looked at her friends. “So what happened while you were out? Did the silly lynx manage to keep out of trouble?”
   “Well,” Kyara began, and she related the curious events they had just experienced.
   As the story unfolded, Daegra’Ha sat on his mattress, silent and cross-legged. His bedwas built into the south window; the room’s other beds were, likewise, fixed into walls or part of large, round window seats.
   “So we leave this city sooner than expected,” Cera said. “It matters not. What are a few hours?”
   “Plenty,” Haban ran a thumb along the edge of one of his throwing daggers. Each finger-length blade was lethally thin, and had the shape of a fleur-de-lis.
   As the thief and soldier argued, Enx saw Theri sitting by the window. She’d been the last to join their tiny group; while dependable in a crisis, she kept to herself at all other times. Enx didn’t care. Never before had he been in love, and despite being younger than her, he wanted only to be noticed.
The lynx would not have thought it possible, but she’d grown even more quiet than usual since the reading.
   “Carrier of the Lance.” she said from her perch on the padded sill, gazing up at the night sky.
   “Well… yes,” he said uncertainly, having no idea what she was driving at. “I am the Carrier of the Lance.”
   “Do you believe in destiny?” she asked.
   “Of course I do!” he said, grasping at a question he knew the answer to. “Look at the weapon I carry! Look at who follows me, a kid!”
   “Funny, you don’t look like a little billy goat,” Daegra’Ha muttered.
   Glaring, Enx mouthed Do you mind? at the warrior. The older man took the hint and kept silent.
   “Why do you have feelings for me, Enx?” Theri suddenly asked.
   The question ought not have surprised him—those feelings were common knowledge among the group—but it did nevertheless.
   “I—well—it’s just…” Groping awkwardly for the right words, he scratched the back of his arm. How could he explain that her fur reminded him of the wheat fields back home, rivers of threshed umber while her hair was darker, finer sand? That her eyes were like onyx pebbles dropped in a turquoise mirage? Kyara, too, had blue eyes—but the clairvoyant’s were solid-colored, unnatural.
   “Your feelings -- you don’t understand what they mean to one such as me," she said.
   Enx sat on the bed beside the window. He asked, “What do you mean, ‘one such as you’? I guess you’re right -- I don't understand. Please, can you explain it to me?”
   “Well… you’ve seen the mark on my forehead.”
   “Yes, I have,” he agreed. “It looks kind of pretty, but I’ve noticed that everybody around here tries to get away from you when they see it. Is that mark some kind of curse?”
   “No, not exactly,” Theri said, more nervous for no reason the young lynx could fathom. “It is rather—a generic—I—‘cursed’—ahh!” Just then, she turned and ran, sobbing blindly, out of the room.
   Looking at her receding back, Enx said, “I really don’t understand...”
   Cera spoke: “That word on her forehead, ‘cursed’. In this culture, it doesn’t mean she carries a curse; it means she, herself, is a curse—she is what they call ‘spiritually unclean’.”
   “She’s pure in my eyes!” cried Enx.
   “Maybe so, but hereabouts, people such as Theri are shunned, even driven from their homes.” Haban said in a deliberate tone while cleaning a nail with his dagger tip.
   “Nor are they allowed in holy places or sacred buildings.” Cera continued in a low voice. “Even meals prepared for feast days are banned to her. And there is doubtless a great deal more to it that wouldn’t be noticed by outsiders like ourselves.”
   Oddly, it was Daegra’Ha who spoke next, frowning: “Well, I’m noticing something right now. Can’t any of you feel it?
   Enx moved off Kyara’s bed. “I think so,” he murmured, looking with his ears, with his body, and with his obviously-raised hackles. “It’s… bad, whatever it is. And it’s got a target. It’s coming for som—Oh, no!” Whatever the boy had percieved, it spurred him on to hurried action; he grabbed both his broadsword and the Lance as he fled the room, running for Theri.
   Those who yet remained grabbed for their own weapons. “Wait!” Haban shouted. “We don’t know what’s out there! What do you think you’re doing!?”
   “Following the Lance Bearer,” Daegra’Ha said on his way out the door.
   They got no farther than the inn’s common room downstairs, for that chamber was a ghastly charnel house, reeking of sloppy death. Much of the stench came from a few man-sized things that their eyes did not want to focus on. These unnatural monsters brought terror, dread and unseen things with themselves; fear that could kill, death that could eat away. They walked towards the girl and the lynx boy who stood beside her. Cera, too, stood ready with her scimitar and sword.
   “They’re the Ravin.” Cera explained out the side of her mouth.
   “Get behind me,” Enx whispered, and though Cera was the better warrior, she listened, for her weapon was mundane compared to her companion’s.
   There, maggots dropped off; not the fat, white and mealy things, but those as thin as silverfish, and decaying bits. What flies and moths consumed a body where there wasn’t any.
   Cera pushed Theri behind her. She pushed the girl towards the stairs, not trusting the front door. Behind the thin table was the dead innkeeper, or what was left of someone. Maggots once thin grew thick as feasting grubs. They multiplied in number, spreading across the floor.
   Daegra’Ha and Haban leaped down the stairs, joining Enx.
   Kyara came behind both women. She grabbed Cera by the back of her shirt-armor and the three ran into a corner.
   The thing opened a sort of mouth, all whirling abyss and desiccated meat. {Give us the girl}
   Not a chance, Enx thought, pulling his other weapon, a broadsword, and driving the blade between the slats in the floor.
   Daegra’Ha did the same with his saber; he blessed the hilt.
   “She’s only a child!” Haban said. He held up his daggers clenched between each finger, his knuckles sharp through his fur.
    {Her families arrived from a wicked history} {Enough to curse them} {They have designated a single descendant to shoulder the burden}
   No one turned to look at Theri. Cera, though tuned for a fight, could not hide her shock. “Is that true?” she breathed over Theri’s head.
   No answer; Kyara shook her ears to signal to Cera, Be quiet. Theri’s entire body slackened so greatly that Cera had to hold her upright.
    {She is ours to use as we see fit}
   The decaying beings began to solidify and they began to scream. In their terror, window shutters splintered in frenzy.
   The Lance pulled from the evil before it, trying to gain more power. Unlike the ones it faced, however, the one who bore it was pure in spirit. Unless in greedier paws, the weapon would inflict damage only on those it attacked.
   The Ravin, unsure, hesitated. Then their leader struck. In a flurry of solid robes and hood, the elemental came at the lynx.
   Enx stepped aside and sliced the decaying creature in two; its separate halves burst into black dust from the impact. The rest flew at him. He sliced through ones he could reach. Meanwhile, Haban the Thief made arcane gestures. The two that were nearest him burst into fire that quickly died away.
   The remaining monsters sought an easier target; the ex-soldier, Daegra’. He jumped back, away from the saber he’d planted in the floor.
The weaker Ravin screamed, dissolving into nothingness once they came near the weapon’s hastily-blessed hilt.
   The remaining Ravin backed away. Enx knew they would not challenge the Lance again. There was a time when he might have let them go; but that was before he knew much of their evil.
   Now Enx pursued the last of the Ravin as they fled through the walls. Outside, in the bitter night air, he cut down the last of the elementals.

   “… My home was attacked by demon-jackals. Dark as the shadows in the forest, eyes aglow with lightning, and their lust driven by the hunger their masters beset upon them! Those ilks—”
   “Efreets, young Enx. They were a kind of efreets,” Haban offered.
   The group had returned to their room. They were packing up their belongings, and they would leave this town before dawn approached.
   “Whatever they were, I’ve seen worse.” Enx shuddered and Theri watched his fur ripple from revulsion. Without a word, and with a forwardness no one had seen her do, she leaned into Enx’s back.
   “Once I saw those things… I thought you all would let them have me.”
   “Of course not!” Haban said, “You’re much too pretty waste on something as mediocre as those dust devils. No, we’re waiting to find a good monster to serve you to!”
   “Haban!” Enx and Cera yelled.
   “Pay him no heed, young Theri,” Daegra’Ha said; he was purifying his saber. “A fool often speaks out of turn.” Kyara smiled.
   Haban winked at Theri, as if to ask, No hard feelings?
   “Only the gods can take you from me,” Enx whispered to her. “And I hope they will give me more time before they do so.”
   “A soothsayer told me to fight fate but embrace destiny. I’ll take that advice.”
Theri, while resting on Enx, knew he was pleased by what she just said. He blushed by the sudden warmth that grew warmer in him.

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