You may believe this work you now hold in your hands to be an abomination. You may believe that in writing these words I have committed an unforgivable sin – but I will not waste ink and paper justifying my actions; I will say only that if I do sin against the gods, I pray that they will visit their wrath upon me alone. I pray they will spare their people more suffering, for they have already had too much heaped upon them.
This is my memory. When it happened I was a new baby, swaddled and hidden from the world, and though I did not then have the words to describe it, that does not stop me from remembering. I see it when I close my eyes, far away at first, then growing nearer and nearer, until I can smell the blood and the smoke and taste the salt spray on my lips.
The fishing boats came in on the dawn tide and the fishermen and their wives and children busied themselves unloading the evening’s catch. It was a chill morning in the Shadar, the air still cold from the desert night as the sun came up over the sea and etched the peaks of the bordering mountains in gold. The ships were unloaded quickly and silently, everyone helping each other to pile the catch onto carts and haul it to the place where the women would clean and salt the fish while their fathers and husbands and brothers slept.
They glanced up from time to time at the temple, the red rock promontory towering over the northern end of the city. The ashas, the consecrated priests and priestesses of the Shadari, moved through the labyrinthine corridors hollowed out by ancient and mysterious hands, fulfilling their secret offices, gathering in the roofless chambers to inscribe prayers in the sand for the gods to look down upon. The gods winked back at them from the night sky and moved the sands in answer to their prayers, and so the ashas prayed confidently, content in the unfaltering routine of their work, content with the tithe baskets that overflowed with offerings. In a few months, the ashas would descend to the city by their hidden staircase to choose candidates for the initiation rites, to lie with their spouses and foster out their infants. The people on the beach felt secure knowing that their ashas had their gods’ wishes firmly in hand.
The last nets were stowed and the Shadari started for their cosy homes. Soon the city would stir in earnest, with those who tended the vines and the groves and the animals rising and starting for the hills and the day’s work.
One fisherman let his fellows walk ahead of him and lingered alone on the beach, gazing at the beauty of the sun on the sea until his eyes could no longer bear such brightness and he turned his back, feeling the warm rays caressing the dark curls on his head. He looked at the sleepy Shadar, with its crooked rows and circles of gold-tinged white houses, and marvelled at how lucky they were that their gods had given them such a place to live. He looked up to the sky to give thanks to the gods before the sun chased them to their rest, and then he turned to look one last time at the endless stretch of the Sea of Misfortune.
And he saw that he was no longer alone.
A ship – no, three ships – were sailing for the Shadar. The fisherman’s sharp eyes picked out the three black spots, and realised these were much larger vessels than the simple fishing boats of the Shadari or the Nomas. As they steered into the harbour the fisherman could see that the great sails were in tatters and the ships were badly damaged. Odder still, he could see no one about, not in the rigging, nor on the decks: they were ghost ships. Yet they stayed in tight formation, one leading the way, the other two just behind.
A chill ran up the fisherman’s spine and he shut his eyes tightly, hoping that when he opened them, the ships would be gone.
But they were not.
All that day the Shadari gathered on the beach, coming and going as their tasks permitted, gossiping, speculating, fearing, hoping. A thousand times someone volunteered to take a boat out to where the ships had anchored far off the shore in the deep water, to welcome the visitors to the Shadar. But each time the fears of their neighbours won out and they waited all together, doing nothing. They looked to the temple, wondering what the ashas thought of the new arrivals, hoping they would descend to the beach and give their people guidance, but they remained hidden.
The day passed slowly and as the sun began to slide behind the mountains, the fishermen prepared their boats for the night’s catch. Phantom ships or not, there were fish to catch. As the gods began to show a faint presence in the sky, the drums called out the evening prayers. Life continued.
But the fisherman who had first seen the ships had not lost his uneasiness, and as he examined his nets, he kept looking out to the empty decks of the three ships. They looked as if they had come through storms and rough waters, as if they had been battered against rocks and tossed upon forbidding shores. Their crews must have seen the wide-open jaws of terrible beasts and smelled the seductive perfume of strange flowers. The Shadari did not cross the sea, and they did not cross the desert beyond the western mountains. The Shadar itself had always been enough for them. What calamity could have inspired a journey such as these ships had endured?
He waited for the stars to come out and watch over the Shadar; it would be all right then.
As the fisherman looked at the magenta sky, he saw a black splotch like a stain on the horizon, a shadow forming over the sea which spread and grew larger until he saw not shadows but black shapes: great flying creatures. The fisherman recognised them at once as dereshadi, the beasts that carry the souls of evildoers down into the depths of the earth after death. Phantoms swarmed from the bowels of the ships, crawling across the decks and into the landing boats and mounting the flying beasts.
The phantoms were giants to the Shadari. Their pale skin was the colour of death, marred by oozing purple sores; grime matted their seafoam-white hair. They had the hollowed cheeks and gangly limbs of the starving, but they held aloft great, gleaming swords.
‘Eshofa’s children!’ a woman screamed, naming the damned children of the goddess of traitors, and the city exploded into chaos.
These beings who appeared like walking dead, like living corpses, descended upon the Shadari like the wrath of hell, killing indiscriminately, splashing the town with red Shadari blood. They spoke not one word, made not one sound, as they moved in perfect tandem like a school of flesh-eating fish. Those Shadari who managed to inflict wounds saw their adversaries’ blood flow the silver-blue of a shark’s fin, but not for long, for the invaders thrust their swords into the fires and seared their wounds closed, and all the while they kept on fighting.
From the backs of their flying beasts, Eshofa’s children, the Dead Ones, stole food and carried it back to their ships. The Shadari screamed out to the ashas, beat their drums and clawed at the forbidding sides of the plateau, pleading with those above, but the temple remained silent and dark.
When the sun rose again, the Shadari were free. The invaders had returned to their ships, leaving the burned buildings and the dead and dying as evidence of their coming.
The Shadari beat their drums and looked to the temple, but still no help came.
When the sun set the Dead Ones came again, this time fortified by their plundered booty, and the Shadari suffered as before, crying out to their ashas for help, defenceless without their protection, lost without their guidance. Silence was the only response.
On the third night, the invaders came again, but this time as the dereshadi spread out over the Shadar, the drums that the Shadari had been beating day and night finally received their answer. The Shadari came out of their hiding-places, rushing into the streets. Now, at last, the ashas would use their magic, calling up the desert sands to swallow their foes. The Shadari crowded out into the streets and onto the beaches, climbed to the roofs of their homes, looked hopefully up to the temple.
The fisherman stood on the beach, brandishing the spear that he had used countless times to pluck food from the waters; now it had tasted blood of a different kind. The fisherman gazed up at the temple, flushed with hope as he picked out the white-robed figures gathered on the roof, standing in a line along the edge high above the beach, lit by the moonlight for all to see. The bedraggled defenders raised a cheer, and fists were brandished in triumph.
When the first body plunged into the sea, sending up a column of white foam, the fisherman blinked. When the second body fell his eyes opened wide, and he stared in horror. The ashas – their protectors – were killing themselves.
We learned later that the ghostly invaders, the Dead Ones – Norlanders, they called themselves – watched with equal amazement as one by one the priests stood on the edge of the cliff and leapt into the sea. The long voyage from their frozen homeland had been fraught with dangers, but the pathetic, disorganised resistance of the Shadari had restored their confidence in this venture. Already they were picturing the mines they would dig to extract the black ore, that miraculous substance which had brought them to these unsuspecting shores. Already they could smell the sulphur from the smithies where they would smelt the ore into metal laced with their own pure blood. Already they could feel the great swords in their hands, swords that would obey their owners’ thoughts as well as their hands: the secret property of the black ore only they had learned.
One by one, the drums ceased beating. The silence of the Dead Ones was complete.