Copyright © 2019 Mark Driver All Rights Reserved
When we arrived at the harbor, a large raft was tied at the mooring. A sentinel remained on board. Two others stood watch atop the lookout terrace built in the ancient times, before the Citadel existed. These two were young, no longer initiates, but not by much. Their sleeveless, scarlet tunics were cut short, revealing rippling thighs. Leather belts were cinched snug at their hip. Each holstered a long dagger with grips of gemstone and polished, white whalebone. Their muscular arms were crossed at attention.
A grey haired curmudgeon cried out to the two, whether they'd come for the slave boy. I looked up at my father. The old man continued wagging his tongue. The sentinel on board the raft was watching. This one lacked the winning beauty of his comrades He was more fearsome and stout. His burly hand gripped a sacramental axe with burnished blade that glinted in the sun. The old man saw it and squawked how the axe looked well used. That quieted the growing crowd, but kindled excitement in a few. Father chewed at his lip. He glanced toward the Citadel tower where the King watched.
The measured timbre of a gong began sounding from across the straight where the Oracle dwelled, where the raft would take our Jundi. By then the last few citizens were arriving along the mooring.
Nine youths of the Temple Corps gathered in formation. They donned leather vests with golden trim, and doeskin breeches dyed green. Crisp berry-red, linen ties were knotted at their breastbone, accenting the smooth skin where their vests opened.
They sounded their conch horns in response to the Oracle's gong, then beat their drums in syncopation that seemed wrongly enthusiastic to me. If not for the Oracle's menacing gong, I reckoned the coming chain of events could cease. But I was the only one that wished it. All were longing for the Appeasing, that the Gods might forgive the wrongs the people had wrought, bless the harvest and bring victory in war.
We'd bid farewell to Jundi after supper, the last time I felt the stroke of his thumb against my back as he set my meal on the table. Father often pestered Jundi for his kinship with me. He'd lash the floor behind our heels, sending us scurrying, yelling at Jundi "Kerq is the master, you are the slave." Father was apt to retell the story of how he arrived home from war, that I took my first steps then, lunging towards Jundi still tied at the gate, that Mother had been furious, being left with a strange five year old to mentor. I'd heard it said that Jundi had been saved by Father as much as captured.
When the Temple sentries arrived to take him, Father promised he'd bring me along in the morning only if I'd stop my fussing, how I ought to be grateful keeping Jundi eight years. He tucked me into bed and brushed the hair from my forehead with the palm of his hand. I asked him if the Oracle knew how I needed Jundi, and might realize taking him was a mistake. Father ordered me never to ask it again.
His brow furrowed that morning when the babbling old man yelled a similar tact as two Temple Diviners arrived, whether their selecting the slave boy was their own pickled self deception. The two grinned, pretending to be unaware.
Many pointed enthusiastically as the Temple Priestess approached, her majestic robes gliding along the turf. She wore thick, golden rings on her arms that clinked and clanged as she raised and lowered her hands, beckoning her flock to prepare. She ascended with the Diviners up to the Dais. Jundi followed her. He smiled sweetly. None of what the Priestess spoke about made sense to me, except that the sacred raft was ready to take Jundi across the straight to the Oracle.
The old man yelled back at the crowd if they'd seen the sentinel's axe and whether it would meet human flesh across the straight. Father shook his head at me that I shouldn't listen to the old crank. He picked me up to quell my looming tears.
Jundi followed the Priestess descending back down from the Dais to where the Temple Corps awaited. The captain of the Corps stripped Jundi, rubbed him with root oils, then grasped him by the shoulders and kissed him. The din from the crowd rose. Some cried out to the Priestess to send a second youth for good measure. The old man pointed at me, shouting I should end my rebellious sobbing or I'd be next to go. I held tight around Father's neck as he turned and watched the old man retreat.
The two young sentinels descended from the lookout terrance to escort Jundi. They held him by his wrists as they led him onto the raft where they chained him to a bench. That was the last memory of Jundi, sitting on the raft, his oiled skin glistening in the sunlight, drifting away from the mooring.
During the excitement of the ceremony, a wayfarer emerged unnoticed through the myrtle thicket along the farthest edge of the harbor. As he advanced nearer, he appeared freakishly tall. I wondered if he was not really a man of the world but some toy of the Gods here on earth. His height disguised a considerable physique that soon exhibited great force. He had a long yellow beard, wore a tan robe with a sack tied over his back and carried a large wooden staff. With his other hand, he was towing a boy along. The boy wore a thin wool jacket with a hood that hid his face. When the wayfarer saw the crowd turn their attention to him, he quickly snatched the boy up by the scruff of his jacket. The boy hooked his arms around the wayfarer's neck and clinched legs around his ribs, in a motion that seemed practiced. When they passed by us, the boy's hood fell back. He studied me over the wayfarer's shoulder. As I wiped my eyes, the boy grinned at me. The crowd cleared the way for the wayfarer. He used his staff to bat away anyone coming too close, knocking some to the ground, snarling at others. The boy continued looking only at me as the wayfarer advanced towards the Citadel.
The King remained in the tower, watching as the Priestess retreated to her compound, and the wayfarer arrived. I looked back towards the harbor. The Oracle's gong continued resonating. The crowd was anxious to disperse. Few of the most pious ascended the lookout terrace to wait as the raft became a mere speck bobbing in the water approaching the land beyond the straight.
The Temple Corps members set their instruments aside, stripped off their uniforms, and jumped into the water where they swam and grappled with each other. Father was staring across the straight. When he noticed me scanning the naked youths, set me down, took hold of my hand and began walking towards our home inside the Citadel.
I woke before dawn to the sound of Jundi calling me. Quickly dressed and out into the yard, I found no one there. The birds' pre-dawn chorus had not yet begun. I had no excuse to give Father for leaving the yard, still, I set out on my way. The Citadel guards believed my excuse that I was catching up to our farm crew heading to the orchards.
A layer of shimmering mist spread out in the moonlight across the harbor, obscuring where one would see the land beyond the straight during the day. I imagined a raft rowing through the mist, Jundi rushing ashore and clapping me on the back.
The silhouette of a tall figure moved swiftly along the harbor towards the thicket. By his long robe and long staff I knew it was the wayfarer. The boy was not with him. Few came to the Citadel from that direction, through the thicket, or knew how to return through it in the dark. He moved so smoothly, almost floating along the harbor's edge like a specter, smaller and smaller until he was gone.
In the other direction along the water, large bright embers of a campfire glowed. I walked towards the fire to confirm whether Jundi might be there. I saw the youths of the Temple Corps had stayed on. A few slept, cuddled together under blankets, their uniforms folded in neat stacks. I walked closer. The captain noticed me. As he beckoned to come for a hot drink, two of the Corps emerged from behind a group of tall thorny shrubs. I wondered if they'd been fighting. From the light of the fire I could see their naked bodies. Their skin was slick with sweat. The smaller youth's hair was disheveled, his face cast downward, shy eyes peering up at his comrades, the arm of his larger comrade wrapped tightly around his shoulders. Both had thick hair sprouting at their loins and underarms. Father had reminded me after the ceremony I would soon be too big to pick up, that I would stop fussing and learn to act like a man. I thought about the naked bodies of the Temple Corps youths, that one day my body would look more manly like theirs. I came closer, wanting to see how the muscles of these youths formed their' bodies.
The larger youth's plump member bobbed to and fro as he walked. He seemed proud to display it. The captain exclaimed he hoped the little one hadn't fallen pregnant at the hands of his larger companion. All laughed at the idea, though it only confused me. The smaller one scowled until his friend pinched him and leaned across, teasing for a kiss. All laughed again.
The captain assured how a hot drink would warm my insides from the damp, chill air. Before I approached closer to the fire a guardian hound entered the camp and charged towards me. The Corps youths called for the dog but he came for me. The dog seemed not much more than a pup, though already growing large. He sniffed me all over, then snorted and rubbed his haunch at my side. I reached to pat his head. The dog bumped me with more urgency, nearly knocking me down. He yowled to attend to him. I knelt and hugged its neck. He licked my face then ran towards the shore. I ran after him. The dog went up the old lookout terrace where he sat near a boy that was looking down at me. The boy wore a jacket with a hood pulled up.
The Temple youths beckoned me to return. But the boy yelled down from the lookout that I should stay. "Have you a home where you should be sleeping? Come then! "
I scaled the terrace to find this boy. He welcomed me, and said his name, Khash. He stared into the distance across the mist and began talking about how the King had fetched him to come live in the Palace.
"But what does that mean, and where are you from? Did you come with the wayfarer yesterday?"
"How the tears flowed from your eyes then, and only from your eyes."
I felt him stare at me as he did yesterday, then away again across the mist towards the land beyond the straight, where Jundi went. I told him my name. The dog laid next to me, wedging his snout under my arm. "It was your father? Will he be angry, that you've come here when it is not safe?" The boy took me by the wrist and we got up. Before I could ask he responded. "I have Tezta. He'll protect me."
Khash was not much older. The strength of his grip surprised me. Perhaps he'd grown strong climbing trees where he came from, or lately by scrambling up into the arms of the towering wayfarer.
At our gate, He came close. Khash placed his finger at his lips to keep me quiet. He asked me to come play with him later. His breath tickled my ear. I had so many questions, but Khash and Tezta slipped away.
As Father jostled my shoulder to wake me, I thought how mysterious Khash seemed. What occurred to me most as the sleep cleared from my eyes, something that I sensed when I sat near him atop the terrace, but mostly when he came close at the gate, just as the first songbirds of dawn called for us to part, was his particular and subtle scent. There was something familiar and pleasant about it. I wanted to be near him again to know if I'd imagined it.
I laid in my bed thinking about him. Eventually, Mother came in, declaring how the anxiety from yesterday had exhausted me. She drew me up, complaining I'd gone to bed with my clothes still on.
A commotion followed in the yard. Father shouted how the gate was left open. When I emerged Tezta was darting back and forth carrying an inflated boar's bladder tied with a cord. Father swung a stick to shoo Tezta away. He growled and shook the ball.
I ran to Tezta and knelt beside him. Through the gate and across the lane Khash was lingering out of Father's sight, smiling at me. His arms were crossed, waiting for me to come along. Father permitted delivering the dog where it belonged but expected me to return directly after.
Khash led me back to the lookout terrace and scrambled to the top. By then there was clear visibility all the way across the straight. Tezta nudged me to pet him. Khash and I stared across. I talked about Jundi, how I would miss him and hoped he faired well.
Khash laid on his side looking at me. "By today he must be in a good place I expect."
I laid down and looked at Khash. His face was like a brave hawk, narrow shaped, probing eyes, one tuft of his wavy chestnut hair laying down at his forehead, a sharp nose and handsome jaw.
Khash shared about his lineage, that he never knew his parents, and was raised at a temple in the land of the mountain people. A month ago was the wayfarer came to their temple and they began a journey that ended here to the Citadel.
I turned onto my stomach. Khash reached over and scratched my back.
I smiled. "Jundi used to do that."
"He was your slave."
I nodded my head. "Are you the King's slave?"
Khash shook his head. "I am not his slave, yet I am his to keep."
"What will he keep you for?"
Khash sat up and looked back across the straight, then sprang up and descended the terrace. I followed, watching Khash strip off and dive in off the far end of the mooring. He yelled at me to join. Tezta stayed on the bank of the harbor and watched. Khash was a strong swimmer. He finished a length of breast stroke and then facing upward he stroked back towards me. I could see he had begun to show hair, though only a small amount, He was more mature than me, perhaps by a year. When I needed help, Khash positioned his hands on my body to help me float. His looking after me like was pleasing.
We laid on the mooring, warming ourselves in the morning sun. I looked at his body and compared it to mine. Khash saw me taking inventory of him, tousled my hair and smiled. I hugged Khash, rested my nose along his neck and inhaled. Khash had bread and cheese for me to eat. I devoured my portion. He gave me his, explaining he'd have plenty at the Palace.
On my way home, I thought how Khash was confident that Jundi fared well now, about how brave Khash was to travel for a month with the wayfarer. I thought about Tezta, wondering how he came to be with Khash. I thought about the look and the smell of a mountain boy. I thought about how we were becoming friends.
As I reached the Citadel gate I saw Father waiting for me there. He took me away where few would hear, took my breeches and shirt and struck me with ten lashes up and down my back side. When he was done I dropped to my hands and knees and cried. Father scolded me for lying to the guards about the orchard crew. He then asked if I delivered the dog, that he'd come looking for me.
Once home, I finished my chores quickly and then asked to be off by myself. Heading back out of the Citadel gate. I ignored the guards, but walked deliberately slow that they might see the welts on my legs and neck. Hatred welled up in me towards my father, how he'd let Jundi be taken and now beat me with his lash.
I found shade and laid in the grass on my stomach. I had few practical options, though I considered running away or at least hiding long enough that my parents would be bitter with regrets over my disappearance. The soreness along my back kept me from drifting off to sleep, though I came close. A wet nose roused me from my thoughts. Khash called Tezta off of me and knelt behind me. He remained quiet. I could tell he was observing the welts. He then asked if it hurt. I nodded repeatedly.
Khash petted my forehead then pointed to the lookout terrace, to go up with Tezta and wait. At the top was a girl with long yellow golden hair, playing with a younger friend. From their garments I knew they were Temple initiates. When the girl saw me she smiled, took her friend's hand and came to me. Tezta slowly wagged his tail. They sat nearby, looking at the red welts on my neck and legs. When Khash returned they ran away.
Khash brought a long red silk cloth that he spread out on the grass, a small bundle of food and a vessel of aloe and chamomile potion for my welts. I stripped off and prepared to lay down. But Khash told me to wait. He handed me his belt and removed his shirt and breeches, then knelt on his hands and knees, commanding me to whip him with his belt, that he was accepting blame for my father's anger and the thrashing. I looked at the rough weave and knew I could never hit Khash with such a belt, nor would ever want to hit him at all.
Khash growled at my objection, how he was the King's boy, that I have no choice in it. I set the belt on his pile of clothes and then laid on the cloth.
"Kerq, I shall forgive you for disobeying me this time."
I tenderly professed to always remain grateful for his mercy, though I expect Khash observed my sly grin as I professed it.
"As Khash began dabbing me with the potion, he explained how the temple of the mountain people taught the importance of forgiveness. I heard but did not understand, focusing mostly on the soothing feel as Khash worked upwards from my calf to my thighs. Khash was careful with his fingers, applying with the lightest of touch. The potion was cool against the sting.
I had never lain on such a fine fabric, so smooth and soft against my skin. Tezta laid along my other side, while Khash tended to me. Tezta warned us when the two girls returned. Khash looked concerned. The older one with yellow golden hair bravely approached despite our nakedness. Khash held his shirt against himself. The girl spoke to her young friend and pointed at me. They came closer and looked at my welts. Khash became annoyed and ran them off.
I was curious what they'd said. Khash resumed dabbing the potion on me. He reached the biggest welt across my buttocks. "This one is the worst. You must keep off of it" The pain felt like I'd been stung by a dozen bees. He continued over it for a long time. Khash whispered how anyone could do this to such a nice boy.
I wasn't certain if Khash referred to what the girl had said or if he was just talking to himself, or to Tezta. I didn't expect he was talking to me. The comment eased the despair in me. I couldn't help but smile. Khash ruffled my hair.
When finished Khash drew me up I wished to hear Khash say it again, out loud. I asked whether he really thought I was nice.
"When you're not crying, yes." Khash winked at me. He looked out towards the land beyond the straight. I whispered thanks to him and sighed. Khash turned and patted my forehead. "Tomorrow a swim in the harbor will help, and then I'll apply more potion to your skin."
We ate the food. When I woke later it was late. Khash was gone. Tezta had stayed, curling up close to me on the silk cloth.
I confirmed what Mother guessed, that the silk cloth came from the Palace. I had quickly learned not to invent or even tailor a response. When I explained it would help me sleep while my welts healed she seemed hesitant to ask anymore. Father had gone to the farm soon after punishing me. That's all Mother said about it. I shared that the dog lived at the Palace and that I planned to swim tomorrow, then went to bed.
In the morning I folded the silk cloth and packed it in a shoulder bag along with two pieces of flat fresh bread from the oven and olives to go with. I still felt the sting of the lash marks against my clothes. As I left the yard and latched the gate behind I was gradually less preoccupied with my anger and more filled with anticipation for a swim with Khash.
Khash had not arrived at the end of the mooring where he liked to dive in. I sat on the bank and looked across the bay out into the straight. I thought about my poor Jundi and conjured ideas of Khash enlisting the King's help to bring him back, or to take us there to the Oracle to investigate Jundi's well being. I dreamed big thoughts of our royal visit, how the Oracle would honor our presence and share great thoughts about the Gods.
A familiar sound pulled me from my daydreams. The Priestess with gold bracelets clinking and clanking up and down her arms, was passing, accompanied by an entourage of Temple maidens and initiates. The girl with yellow golden hair was with them. The Priestess smiled at me. She bent down to hear something the girl was anxious to say while pointing at me. They turned and headed back towards the Temple.
I headed up to the spot on the lookout terrance where I first met Khash. I spread the silk cloth and laid down on my stomach.
Later I woke to the cooling touch of potion across the welt on my neck. I smiled and turned to greet Khash and ask if he'd forgotten about our swim. But it was the Temple initiate girl. She confidently explained the Priestess bid her to apply the concoction on me. The smell was strong. I realized the girl had left a bit of it on my nose and saw how she was using a brush to apply it to my welts. This potion was much stickier than what Khash had used and was better at hiding what remained of the sting. I slipped off my shirt and stretched my arms long, enjoying the silky feel of the cloth.
I woke again to the bawling of the girl being pulled away while Tezta was sniffing and snorting at my ear. Khash shouted at the girl to go away. As Khash pulled me along off the terrace towards the water I giggled and complained that I was naked, that we were leaving the cloth, and that I'd brought him olives from our farm. Khash threw me in off the mooring. I flailed in the water and started to panic until his arms came around me. Khash dunked me under the water to remove the sticky ointment from my face, and body.
When finished, he warned not to accept Temple potions, how they take away your will and your power. He squeezed my bicep with one hand pushed my cheeks together with the other for emphasis. I laughed at his seriousness, though at that point I seemed to laugh at many things. Khash shook his head at me. "Time for you to practice your swim, farm boy."
Khash stroked with his legs, towing me back and forth. I mimicked Khash with my own leg strokes. He cheered my effort. We finally stopped after the salt water had soaked my welts.
We returned up the terrace and laid together on the silk cloth. Khash ran his fingers through my damp hair. He warned me again of the Temple maidens. He'd brought more of his potion and told me to lie still.
When Khash finished treating me I remembered brining the flatbread and olives. Swimming had made me hungry. I placed 4 of the largest olives on a piece of bread and handed it to him. Khash chewed on an olive and smiled at me. He spit the pit far away, then ate some of the bread, humming with appreciation of my mother's recipe. That Khash enjoyed what I'd brought made me happy. We laid with Tezta between us.
Khash and I swam nearly every day. My strokes steadily improved. Khash praised my technique and my stronger appearance. Father continued at our farm most days since the lashing.
Khash never explained why he was staying with the King. What he did know he couldn't share. One day he made me promise to secrecy that when he told me why he'd come from the land of mountain people I must never repeat it. He held me down on the ground and sat on me, holding my hands above my head and staring down into my eyes. "Do you promise Kerq? Will it be our secret?"
A month had passed when Father arrived and announced I'd go with him back to the farm, that I was old enough to be assigned work. I was left with one day to spend with Khash before leaving. At the mooring Khash accepted my news with little complaint. He nodded his head with acceptance and understanding. His lack of protest troubled me, though he admitted he'd miss me. More than that, he told me not to complain about my father, that in my heart I should forgive him for lashing me, but more than that I should ask his forgiveness and when it is given that I should embrace my father and thank him. I wouldn't listen how Khash once again explained the lessons from his temple, how the only way to be saved from hatred and hurt is to eventually forgive.
I only saw how Khash sided against me now. Father had allowed losing Jundi and now was separating me from Khash. I was bitterly confused. But even before the protests left my mouth Khash grabbed my wrists hard.
"I have seen far worse when children were caught telling lies. None of those ten welts drew blood or left scars, did they? I saw from that how your father loves you. Isn't he now full of sadness from hurting you, so much that he has stayed away at the farm? At least you have a father Kerq, one that protects and feeds you."
I felt such shame then, learning how Khash held me in such regard, after assuming all along his enduring admiration. My face was hot with embarrassment and I was sick with despair that we would part like this. I bowed my foolish head in stunned silence, not knowing what to do or say. I mumbled some brief farewell and only half heard Khash ask me to come back for a proper parting. I continued towards home.
Entering the Citadel gate I was struck with regret how I didn't thank Khash for all he'd done for me, nor tell him I was going to miss him every day. I regretted not asking to see Tezta again, to give one more pat.
Approaching home I saw Father mending a hinge on the front gate. I sat down to watch. When he was done I slipped into the yard and drew water from the well. I splashed the dust off my face and combed my hair in place with my fingers. I straightened my shirt, and then went inside to find him.
I worked hard at every task without complaint and respected my place as a child among the farm crew. My bed at the farm was not as fine as at home. I brought the silk cloth for comfort, though I decided to keep it safely packed out of my sight. Perhaps it was my imagination, that the cloth still kept some of Khash where he had lain on it, his clean, pure scent. I pulled it out a few times to see if any of him remained. I remembered what his scent reminded me of, like after a storm, when the atmosphere is scrubbed of all the dust, and the air smells so pure and sweet. I kept it put away to forget how I hurt inside the night we parted.
I was not keen on being home again and focused on my purpose at the farm. When Father prepared to return to the Citadel he granted my request to stay. I sent along a letter for Mother, that if the same dog came around again, how she might let it sample a piece of her fresh made flat bread, and if a boy named Khash accompanies the dog or is lurking nearby, that he had been very good to me, and might enjoy flat bread as well and to sample some of our olives.
Nayrahn was Father's crew chief at the farm. He managed family interests and looked after me. Nayrahn was a man that few would cross. I felt safe around him. He saw to it that I ate well, and each night secured the family quarters before he returned to his lodging where he lived with his wife and their baby.
Father assigned me to pick from the orchard trees, a task given to the young and smaller crew. At the end of the day my arms and legs ached from climbing back and forth like a monkey, but I was happy how the work made me stronger. Nayrahn required the crew to lift me up and safely down from each tree. "His father will have my hide if anything happens to this little man." He would pat my head or tap my shoulder for emphasis to the others.
After work, sometimes Nayrahn would have me ride away on his shoulders all the way to the well. "Here we are little man." Eventually I'd grown enough that Nayrahn was less apt to tote me, instead walking me home, holding my hand as we went.
I found a place along the river deep and away from the current where I practiced my swimming. Farm work made my strokes more and more powerful. Once I asked Nayrahn to join me at the end of the day to wash the dust off. I stripped off and jumped in, yelling at Nayrahn to join. He was reluctant. I splashed myself clean and then showed my swimming prowess.
I tried pulling Nayrahn in, even goading him to submit, how I was heir to farm. He was not happy being addressed in such a manner. I felt foolish as the night I parted from Khash. On the return I kept silent until Nayran took my hand and squeezed it. I apologized and promised better behavior if we could come again. Nayrahn ran his palm across my wet hair and wrapped his arm around my shoulder. "Maybe, sometime."
After half a year I joined Father back to the Citadel. During the homecoming feast a storm came with thunder and rain. I closed my eyes and inhalled, the pleasant smell of the air after a storm. Mother claimed the air was filled with the scent of the Gods, how they send the lightning bolts so we may briefly remember them, before their scent quickly ascends back up to the heavens. I kept quiet the rest of the feast.
Afterwards we sat in the parlor. I asked Mother about the letter I'd sent.
"About the palace boy?" She looked at Father.
I kissed her hand, thanked her for the feast and asked her to stroll with me to the harbor. No one crossed our path as we walked. Not the girl with yellow gold hair. Not the cantankerous old man. None of the Temple Corps. I half expected Tezta would come charging from behind a tree. But he didn't. I looked up along the terrace lookout. I would want to die if Khash were to see me, remembering how he spoke to me last. Yet I also felt I was dying inside, missing a chance to see him.
Before falling asleep, I wondered whether I could have brought the silk cloth to the Palace to return it, how I could have asked to see Khash. I could shake his hand, and perhaps hug him, with my new strength. He might show the King that his friend had arrived. He might want to swim with me and then notice my body was changing, muscles and hair finally appearing. We could eat olives and flat bread, laugh and wrestle in the water. I could play with Tezta. After sunset we could sit in the dark atop the terrace. Mostly, I could finally thank him how he'd cared for me and ask his forgiveness for being foolish.
The next morning after breakfast I walked out towards the harbor. I climbed up the lookout terrace and looked across the straight. I hadn't thought about Jundi lately. Asking Khash to have the King involved with it seemed a selfish thought, one I'm glad I never imposed on my friend. I sat there the rest of the morning hoping.
The Citadel filled me with despair. Father agreed I could accompany crew members returning to the farm. On arrival I ran to Nayrahn and shook his hand. He'd stopped calling me his little man and no longer patted my head and shoulders. I was determined to gain new respect. I'd pull my weight, never be the rash boy, but more a man, though I'd miss his hand running across my hair. .
By the following year I'd earned responsibility for tasks more difficult than picking fruit and olives. I helped with milling flour, and pruning trees. I tended to the horses, cattle, and sheep. The horses were particularly important that they be kept ready in case war returned and the cavalry would enlist Father.
I still swam in the river and began hiking the cliff's s at the opposite bank. I grew taller and more muscular, resembling more like the youths of the Temple Corps the night I saw them reclining around the fire, yet still much more a boy compared to how Nayrahn and his crew looked when I watched them bathing the dust off each other.
Father and Mother visited the farm often. I wondered why they didn't require me to visit the Citadel. I never asked them again about Khash. Returning the silk cloth now seemed beyond reason. I thought of him less though when I did I hoped he faired well.
When I reached 15 Nayrahn took me with his crew on a deer hunt. I was assigned tasks, but nothing involving the kill and butchering. The death was not as fast as I expected, though the crew did what they could for a quick end. Still, when I heard the deer cry and watched it struggle, tears streamed down my face. Nothing was said, though I expect the crew was embarrassed for my childishness. I felt shame.
After the meat had roasted, the hunting party gathered to eat. I sat alone by the fire. A junior crew member sat with Nayrahn. The men shouted and laughed as they drank and ate. Nayrahn and his junior shared quieter thoughts with each other. Then Nayrahn came and took my hand to come sit between the two.
He put his arm around my shoulder and smiled at me. He pinched my cheek to bring a smile.. "Your still my pretty little man." Then he kissed the side of my head. Later Nayrahn made sure I was safely tucked into a warm blanket, before returning back to the fire to sit with his junior. I tried staying awake, to see them retire, though they seemed to remain talking by the fire all night.
Father announced I was due to learn to ride, how one day I might serve in the cavalry and also teach my own sons to ride. I hadn't considered I would have my own children. I'd watched Nayrahn care for his little boy and could see his joy in it. I wondered who I would marry, and thought about the girl with yellow gold hair. But she was a Temple maiden by now serving the Priestess. I expected Father would find me a bride when it was time.
My first lessons were on Artax, the old nag that Nayrahn favored, one well past its prime. Nayrahn pampered it like from the royal herd. Sometimes he would bring his son to the stable, lift him up and let the old horse greet him. Father required my first lessons on the old nag, but Nayrahn reminded me I'd graduate soon to the real thing, that Artax shouldn't bear too much weight.
Nayrahn praised how I gently slipped on, without spooking the horse. I used my legs to grip, gently sliding down to seat myself. The walking and stopping exercises were easy with old Artax. He was cooperative and liked me. I soon gained balance and control and advanced to full trot. But Nayrahn stopped me. He pulled me off, then tended to the old nag and let him rest.
I took Artax to the range the next afternoon, then headed to the river for a swim. Artax nickered and whinnied at me when I emerged from the water. He snorted relief to have me back on the river bank. I tied my clothes around my shoulder and walked Artax up the river to parts of the range I rarely saw. Around a bend I saw two naked men grappling in the river. I thought they might be fighting. They were strong men with muscular legs and backs. Then I realized the two were Nayrahn with his junior. Nayrahn was winning the fight and stuck his mate under the water. I wanted them to stop hoping they'd soon behave like friends again.
Nayrahn let his junior up who then retaliated with several swats to Nayrahn's backside.
"You'll pay for that!"
I couldn't believe the turn in their kinship. A chase ensued into the woods at the river bend. I tied Artax and pursued the two, so I could shout for mercy if Nayrahn would truly do harm.
They were wrestling on the ground, nearly out of breath. There movement transitioned into a more rhythmic pace. Each had an erect phallus, with their knobs engorged like a plumb, and willing to let the other grab it. They hugged each other, laying close, arms and legs tangled together.
I remembered the two boys from the Temple Corps, wondering if this was how some men end their fight, with such a peculiar kind of diversion, one submitting, the other with arms tightly around.
Eventually I sensed I was intruding so returned quietly to Artax, leaving the two to finish their tactics in their own time. I realized my heart was beating and my breath had quickened. The urge to turn around and look again was nearly overpowering. I mounted Artax and headed in the direction of the stables
Nayrahn switched me to a younger horse after that day. Artax whinied and stamped the stall floor. I rode back to the bend in the river where Nayrahn and his junior had been and walked back into the woods and thought about the two. Returning to the river, I swam for a while longer, then walked back, leading the horse on foot towards the stables.
I saw Father had arrived. He was at the stables looking in. As I approached I heard Nayrahn weeping, then saw through the door that Artax was down. Father told me the old nag laid down on the stall floor and never got up again, that sometimes a horse lives long enough that they just die of old age. Artax had more love and care than a lot of people, that was true. I wanted to cry. But I hadn't cried in front of Father in years and Nayrahn was crying enough for both of us.
When a sixth spring had past at the farm, I decided to return to the Citadel. Nayrahn wanted me to wait so crew members could accompany me, but I was anxious to go. "Perhaps I'll find a friend there that will swim with me in the river." I smiled at Nayrahn. He hugged me close and kissed the side of my head. I thanked him for taking care of me so well, kissed his hand and headed to the road. Nayrahn yelled after me, "be careful my pretty little man."
At a constant pace I'd arrive before dark. Father wanted me to ride home to lessen the risk of being alone on the road too long, but tending to the stable once home was not a worthy bargain for shortening the journey. Besides, I needed the day and the walk.
A warm wind blew across the range land. I took my shirt off and fashioned a head cover to shield when the sun was overhead. Old thoughts occurred to me as I went along. Jundi living where the Oracle dwells. Swimming in the harbor. The girl with yellow golden hair. Watching the wayfarer disappear beyond the edge of the thicket. The first time I met Khash, up on the old terrace. The lashing I got for lying.
I'd packed the red silk cloth, deciding to go to the palace first and ask for Khash, that at least I'd try handing it back to him, before heading home to Mother. I kept up my pace, encountering few along the way. At the crest of the last hill where one could see the Citadel in the distance above the blue waters of the harbor, a dog was turning back and forth along the road. I took a piece of bread out in case it was hungry then decided to wait in a thicket along the road in case it was wild. As the dog passed it looked like the same kind of hound as I remembered Tezta.
A rider appeared in the distance coming fast from the direction of the Citadel. As I prepared to step out of the way the dog came back towards me. I knelt down, holding out the piece of bread. How it sniffed and snorted at my face convinced me this was Tezta. I gave him a good scratch and tried to brush dust from the road off his back.
The rider was approaching quickly. I feared the dog might be hit. Riders think little of running over to top of dogs, so I pulled him back into the thicket. The rider slowed and stopped where I left the road. He seemed as though he could be a highwayman. As I reached for my dagger Tezta ran back next to the road and sat. I ran out to retrieve him.
"Should I have your tail for trying to steal my dog and now drawing your dagger my handsome friend?" I was amazed when the rider removed his hat, still the look of a hawk I saw in a boy that came from where the mountain people dwell, now matured into a winning young man.
"I am not one to take what is not mine, but admit I did one time. Allow me to make it right." As I brought out the silk cloth from my pack, Khash dismounted and stared in silence, then grinned with delight.
He grasped my hand. "Pretty Kerq. Is it you?" Khash ran his fingers down the muscles of my arms. "You are different now." He tickled the sprout of hairs under my arms and the small bit above my breastbone, then admired my back, strong from years of working the farm. I closed my eyes and smiled, recognizing that familiar scent, now mixed with the smell of a young man.
"I like how you are smiling Kerq. Those years ago, it was not a happy parting. I was always sorry for it." I shook my head, that he not be sorry for anything. Khash walked with me as we headed towards the Citadel I talked about my life on the farm.
Khash talked about the Palace. "I'll have much to tell you Kerq." He kept his arm around my shoulder.
A delicious assortment awaited for me to eat and hot water and a cloth for me to bathe. I slept well and did not wake until morning when Mother peered into my room and quipped how a certain dog was at the gate.
As I got dressed I wondered if Khash and I were too old to swim or to recline in the grass on the lookout terrace. I wanted to show off my strokes and fit body and was happy when Khash was also eager for a swim.
When we reached the end of the mooring he stripped off. I was stirred by his masculine, carved physique, the dark hair growing at his underarms and especially down around his manly jewels. Under the water, I felt the tickle of his body as he skimmed just below me while I practiced my backstroke. Khash heaved me up out of the water and flung me over. I felt the slap of his hand on my rump and heard Khash yell. I felt a stirring in me. I wondered if we were going to fight and how I wanted to hurry and then submit to him.
Khash didn't understand, assuming from my silence how striking me on the backside may have been ill conceived. But when I grabbed Khash with all my strength and let the flat of my hand find his backside perhaps he understood. He grabbed my hand and let me to the top of the lookout terrace, where we spread out and relaxed.
Khash had a vessel of wine to share and some cheese. The wine gave me a daring spirit. I sprung on top of Khash and held him by the wrists. I asked if we could fight.
"Why do you want to fight me Kerq? Shall we not be pleasant with each other?"
I explained the excitement of what men do after a fight, yet Khash was not aware. When I looked at his body and mine and smiled, then he guessed what I was after. He stood me up and pulled me behind my neck so our foreheads were together.
"We do not have to fight Kerq."
Khash let the side of his face touch mine as he spoke. He turned my head so my lips brush his face and the corner of his mouth pressed my cheek. I had never kissed a boy before and was not sure if this qualified as a kiss. I felt the tickle of his tongue on me then a gentle sucking on my lower lip. Our mouths touched together. Then Khash pulled away signaling to me I was free to stop. His lips were wet. I leaned forward and kissed them.
Khash was expected to return to the Palace soon. He promised if I wanted more of this, and if I did want to submit to him, I should return that night. "I will give you what you want Kerq under sweet, starry skies and you will never ever have to fight any time you want to share it."
I sat atop the terrace a long time, hoping his plans didn't change. Eventually Khash arrived. He unpacked a small kit. Khash pulled out the red silk cloth and spread it on the ground. We stripped and knelt down on it. Khash embraced me then held my hand against is heart and kissed me. He showed me items bought from the scent shop. "These are what a groom might use on his wedding night." He grinned and pinched my cheek.
One small vessel had whiskey that we each took a deep sip. A small vial had a liquid potion Khash applied to his thumb and touched each of our noses, smelling of eucalyptus and cedar tree oils. Khash turned me on my stomach and opened a jar of olive oil and drizzled it on my back. He rubbed the oil into my skin with the heel of his hand, letting the other hand slip between my thighs and lightly stroke me there. Then he pulled me up on my feet so that we stood facing each other. Pouring oil onto my hands he directed me to rub him anywhere I wanted. My palms circled around and around his chest and shoulders. Khash then took my wrists and then guided my hands with urgency downward to his priority.
We laid down again. Khash parted my backside and spread a different potion there that tingled and made me quiver as his thumb pressed on me. I was dizzy with excitement. To bring pleasure with least hurt, Khash urged me to calm myself. I had not observed any pain with Nayrahn and his junior, but soon I understood.
We met the next day at the mooring then headed deep into the myrtle thicket farther than I'd ever been. Khash took me to the edge of a thermal pool, where we set our packs down, stripped off and slipped into the warm water. My want for him was strong, but he was preoccupied.
As we soaked, Khash told me of politics and rivalry between the Temple Priestess and the King, that she would carve up pieces of his power at any chance. Foolish people favored her dogma which forgives all the greed and wrongdoings they practice, by simply sending unlucky boys off to the Oracle.
Khash wrapped his arm around and stroked the top of my head. "You are part of why I am here in the Kingdom. The Kingdom had been at risk and for years. In time as the Palace acquiesced more and more to the Temple, the King explained why he brought me here."
I was stunned when Khash revealed Jundi was sent to the Oracle in my place, that the Diviners had prophesied I would sail off on the sacred raft. Khash explained how Father struck a deal with the King. The Diviners had schemed with others to eliminate me, the heir to Father's land. The King sanctions the Diviners' prophecy each time. But when I was selected, Father's bargain changed everything. Khash explained I was saved at a cost.
Then Khash astonished me that the bargain with the Oracle included bringing a boy that lived with the mountain people. Their Priestess was considered the Goddess on Earth, and revered above all across the world. A belief spread that an infant boy was laid there at the mountain Temple for her by a godly hand reaching down from the heavens.
Khash smiled. "Me. At least it helps keep the Temple coffers full."
"But perhaps it is true, that you are divine, proven by the mountain peoples' Priestess."
I pulled Khash nearer and inhaled his scent then looked into his eyes.
Khash sighed and leaned back, staring up at the overhead canopy of the thicket.
"Besides giving up Jundi, the bargain required your Father to pay half of the fee to the Temple of the mountain people, for their divine boy. Your Father is one of the richest men in the kingdom and the King took advantage of it. The King expected having me would increase the Palace's power again, and help stave off Temple ambitions.
"After paying the King and giving up Jundi, your leaving the Citadel in the night upset your Father greatly. It was a dangerous thing you accomplished with your lie to the guards."
We were quiet for a long while. I thought of Father. Khash watched me.
"Kerq, one day I will be King. The King wants it so and he believes the Oracle does as well. One day you must have many sons so that your land will be kept from greedy hands. I hope during those future days you will welcome your King to visit there on your farmland."
Khash wrapped his arm tight around my shoulder then talked about bringing the most beautiful young girls in the kingdom and letting me choose which to marry. He advised me how strength serves better as a woman ages. "What good if she can't fetch water from the well?"
We laughed. Then Khash became more serious. "But come the day that we ride the wedding cart to retrieve your girl, I know a tear may wet the ground when I step out and watch you drive towards your love nest and I return to the Palace without you."
I rose up and laid on my stomach at the edge of the pool. Arching my back, I looked at Khash. He came to mount me, and slipped his thumb between my teeth, telling me to bear down if he was too much.
I imagined being taken far away on a sacred raft, away from my parents and my world, out into the harbor and across the straight. I thought about a little boy removed from his mountain home, taken far away to a strange kingdom.
I took his thumb out of my mouth and kissed his hand. .
Returning to the farm was difficult, but Khash persuaded me how staying at the Citadel was an unnecessary risk. He sent Tezta along with me. I worked harder than ever with Nayrahn's crew and paid close attention to Father's orders.
The idea Khash was sent by a divine force seemed likely to me. I wondered why he didn't admit to it as easily as I had. I believed his path was to become King. Nayrahn and his junior still slipped away together for a swim, and still sat close during a hunting party. I wanted to talk to Nayrahn about Khash.
A letter arrived from Khash that I was in danger, even at the farm, and to remain hidden, trusting only my closest friends. The King did not sanction the prophecy and had left the Citadel. Khash could not say where the King had gone.
The Citadel gates remained closed and the Palace grounds were under curfew, which protected Khash as long as the guards remained loyal. But the Temple Priestess was creating a bold strategy to fill the power vacuum during the King's absence. Khash worried the Priestess would try to eliminate him or me or both.
I prayed for Khash every morning and every night. I felt unwell how much I worried for him. Nayrahn noticed and approached me. I remembered the time he cried over Artax and suddenly was weeping in his arms.
I asked him if we could go make camp overnight out in the rangeland, that he should tell no one. I asked him to bring his junior.
Sharing details of the danger with Nayrahn was the reasonable course, that I would trust these two alone, and no one else. Having Nayrahn and his junior guard my back at the farm would have to be sufficient.
I explained the depth of my fondness for Khash, that I feared losing him while stranded at the farm. When I asked if Nayrahn understood, he held his junior's hand. Nayrahn advised his preference to die side by side with a beloved comrade, and would forever regret missing a last chance to meet if the other died.
Nayrahn spent the next day sharpening my dagger. That evening I secretly packed for journeying to the Citadel. He packed his deer horn as my second defense.
Riding under cover of darkness was my only strategy. If the Citadel gates remained shut and the Palace grounds controlled, then seeing Mother or Khash would be quite a trick. Nearing the last crest before the Citadel I sensed movement away from the road. I dismounted and walked the rest of the way to create the less notice for whatever was there, if it was anything.
I tied my horse at the farthest point of the mooring and ascended up the lookout terrace where I waited and watched. As the dawn approached I saw the grounds had been prepared for a ceremony, though the configuration was different then the Appeasing. My mind began to race. I sensed something terrible was going to happen and longed for a guardian hound to come charging towards me and a handsome youth of the mountain people to sit by my side and comfort me.
By morning, ceremonial participants were taking their places. Members of the Temple Corps arrived. But there was no gong sounding from where the Oracle dwells.
The Citadel gates swung open. There were no guards posted and no one appeared up in the Citadel tower. Since the day Khash sent the letter, the power vacuum must have collapsed the hierarchy. I worried for the Palace and Khash. .
I looked for my horse, calculating whether I ought to ride to the gates and onward to home. Perhaps Mother understood what was happening. But no one was ascending the terrace, so I kept that advantage and stayed in place.
At the far end of the harbor I saw movement towards the Citadel, two people walking. No one else noticed their approach.
After the citizens of the Citadel had crowded together for the ceremony, the Temple Corp began to play. Eventually the two Diviners arrived. They didn't ascend up to the Dais as during the Appeasing, but to a platform between the crowd and the harbor. They lifted a large sacramental axe from below and laid it in front of their feet. The crowd cheered with glee at the sight of it and the Diviners waved in appreciation.
The Temple Priestess arrived. She was followed by a young man, not much beyond a youth. I felt as if all the water and blood in me had turned to stone then, that I would crumble into dust. A handsome young man that reminded me of a hawk, with narrow, piercing eyes and a tuft of hair laying down his forehead was obediently following the Temple Priestess and smiling. They ascended the Dais to address the crowd what was about to happen to Khash, which made them cheer and scream with delight, how Khash was about to lose his earthly life for their gain.
One of the Temple sentries stepped onto the platform and held the axe at attention. The crowd screamed again. The sentry grinned. Two assistants joined him. I looked where my horse was and felt the dagger in my hand.
I saw the two along the harbor were quickly approaching. It was the Wayfarer, and with him was a woman wearing a blue linen robe and a crown. I concluded it was the Goddess on Earth, come from the mountain temple.
I looked back at Khash. I knew he saw me then, looking up to me on our spot at the lookout terrace, then quickly back.
The Wayfarer lifted the Goddess on Earth into a tree where she raised her hands up and bellowed her warning. "The Gods may yet forgive you. The Gods may yet forgive you." Over and over she bellowed in a startling, nearly ear splitting voice. Some in the crowd were frightened and dropped to their knees.
The Temple Priestess could no longer be heard over the commotion. The Diviners began shouting to the sentry to swing the axe. The two assistants forced Khash to kneel with his head prone.
The Wayfarer was punching through the crowd, laying down everyone in the way with his staff, but would not reach the platform in time. The sentry had already raised the axe to its zenith. The crowd screamed with anticipation for the axe to plunge down through Khash's neck.
I used both hands to plunge my dagger deep into the base of the sentry's skull. The axe fell into the foot of one of the Diviners and as he fell knocked the second Diviner off the platform. I buried the deer horn into the throat of the first assistant. The second assistant jumped away from the platform.
I jumped back on my horse and grabbed Khash's hand to help him mount behind me. Hundreds of armed mountain people had appeared on the edge of the grounds, heading towards the Citadel and the Temple. The King was with them, returning to help save the Kingdom.
We rode away from the Citadel, all the way to the farm. Nayrahn saw me arriving and the prize I brought. He gathered his crew to stand guard. Khash and I dismounted and held onto each other. Nayrahn gathered crew to guard the road. His junior escorted us to the house then posted crew all around to prevent entry.
Inside we found Tezta sleeping. Khash gathered him up as Tezta licked his tears.
The last night at the farm before Khash returned to the Palace we lay together talking. Khash asked me what I would have done if the Temple had won and I had lost him.
I remembered how forgiveness was part of her message when the Goddess on Earth arrived with the Wayfarer. I thought how the Gods demonstrate they can forgo atonement, so perhaps men on earth might learn a better way from this.
I turned over and laid on top of Khash, my nose against his neck. I inhaled deeply. I smiled at him. He tousled my hair.
This story is part of the 2019 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: Scouting for Boys". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 8 March to 29 March 2019 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.
The challenge was to write a story inspired by this picture:
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