Excerpt From A Dark Clock
From Chapter One – Newlady’s Dance
The mountain was called Arnon. It rose far higher than the other hills that encircled the city of Kamara. At this time of day, the orange rays of the star Vellus climbed up the western slopes slowly, almost begrudgingly, so that even when the base was in darkness, the high fields were still painted with light. Soon the sun would be gone though, and the cool of the evening would call any who had ventured away from the city back to their homes. But it did not call Cerah Passel.
Cerah was the chosen one.
She was the chosen one and it was a fact that never failed to infuriate her. “Chosen one!” She spit the words out as if she’d taken them with a mouthful of bitter wine. Why? Why had her father picked her?
Early in the autumn, the day after her fifteenth birthday, just less than two years ago now, Jerund had chosen her to become the Passel’s agorrah shepherd. The family’s pod of agorrah, currently consisting of twenty-three adults and seven calves, was their major holding. It represented the largest portion of their annual income. She stood in the waning sunlight among the beasts in the mountain pasture, its tall grass brushing against her bare legs and casting growing shadows. She looked at them, seething.
When the animals were fully grown, standing six feet tall at the shoulder, they were much valued for their long tawny wool, which hung loose like dreadlocks until it was sheared and bundled twice a year. They sold a few of the calves when they were weaned and the net worth of the pod was rounded out by their milk, which was collected daily by Slurr.
“Slurr!” she said, with a measure more venom than her previous utterance. Just shy of eighteen years old, the boy had been taken in by the Passels when he’d been found as an abandoned infant by Jul, Cerah’s late mother. Cerah thought about as highly of him as she did of being banished to a mountainside to care for the agorrah: not highly at all.
Her family lived in Kamara, clearly visible from her vantage on the high sloping field. It was the capital city of the continent of Illyria and was laid out in three concentric circles. There was the innermost walled portion, called the Jewel; home of wealth and excess, then the Softer, where the Passels and thousands of other struggling families lived, working day and night just to keep a roof and fill a stomach, and finally there was the Rocks, where the people had so much less still.
Mindful of the suffering in that desolate outer-most ring, Jul had often made her way there, taking what little her growing clan could spare, to feed and clothe the starving and the naked. This was not a common practice among the people of the Softer, and no resident of the Jewel ever sullied their feet with the dust of the Rocks. But Jul felt so led. At the end of one of these visits she returned exhausted to her home, passing through the dumping ground, where she heard a sound. Following it, she found a baby boy, newborn, unusually large, and in great distress, swaddled tightly and laying atop a pile of garbage. She was carrying Cerah in her womb that day, already one more mouth soon to feed, yet she did not dither for even an instant, scooping up the boy. She looked nervously around to see if any eyes were watching, then left quickly, bringing him home.
Slurr had grown larger and stronger than any of the Passel men, but he was so intolerably slow and shy that Cerah had probably never said one kind thing to the boy during their entire childhood, and she had grown unabashedly hostile to him in their adolescence. She glanced now at the milk cans and she thought of him. When she thought of him she grew annoyed. But it was not just Slurr. It was the mountain, the cooling breeze, even the setting sun. Everything made her angry.
To be the keeper of these animals was arguably the most important single job held by any of the ten Passel children, and this is why Jerund called her the chosen one; to impress upon her the importance of the task he was entrusting to her.
As far as Cerah was concerned, however, agorrah were the most loathsome beasts on the entire Illyrian continent, probably on all Quadar’s ten Green Lands, because for all their commercial value they had two serious drawbacks. First, they were simply the stupidest animals ever to draw breath. They were capable of little more than feeding, mating, finding novel ways to kill themselves, and depositing large piles of manure, of which Cerah had to be constantly wary, lest she step in one, ruining her sandal.
Secondly, and in Cerah’s opinion far worse, they were the foulest smelling creatures in the world. Their natural musk was enough to make one’s eyes water, and should they become wet the fetor was compounded ten-fold. They could not be kept anywhere near populated areas, and this, to the young girl, was where the real tragedy lay. Being the chosen one meant a life far from people. It meant tending to the pod on the steep sides of lonely Mount Arnon, fully five miles to the east of Kamara. What fate could be crueler for a sixteen-year-old girl?
Cerah could think of none.
Often while Cerah was angrily tending to the pod, she thought about life in the Softer. It was very true that every day there held an element of desperation to it. It didn’t take much to lose one’s tenuous hold on the small plot of meager housing built in or carved out, literally, from the abandoned quarries and mines that comprised the region between the Rocks and the fair Jewel.
As Kamara grew from village to town to city, it was discovered that the land around the burgeoning metropolis was rich in precious stones, metals and marble, and mining soon commenced, becoming the cornerstone of Central Illyria’s wealth. The work was done by slave-laborers, culled from the poor from all over the continent. Their wretched lives were spent in backbreaking toil in the mines, with a few bare hours of rest in the area outside the pits. When the riches had all been removed, there was no further use either for the land or the people who had worked it. It had been five hundred years since the last gem was extracted. The slaves were set free and quickly forgotten, allowed to buy land in the empty quarries which became the Softer (if they could find the means), or flee to the barren Rocks (if they could not). It was a harsh freedom in either case.
Now the economy of Kamara had shifted, as the city became a center of trade and commerce. It had morphed into a hub of finance for the sake of finance, and seat of the administration of Illyria, for the joy, Cerah supposed, of shuffling papers and sitting in endless, pointless meetings. She had come to realize that there was little of true value made in the Jewel. All worth within the wall was imagined. Goods that no one ever saw were traded daily and fortunes were made by the handing back and forth of slips of paper that represented a hundred tons of grain, or five hundred bolts of fine cloth…all of it a thousand miles away. Laws were passed, then repealed, then passed again.
In the Softer a man still based existence upon his own sweat. The Passels, due in no small part to the size of the family, (which had grown to ten children, plus Slurr, by the time Jul died, one day after giving birth to Cerah’s youngest brother, Laran), had been able to diversify their talents sufficiently to remain housed, fed and able to meet their burdensome financial responsibilities. Cerah thought bitterly that the wealthy citizens within the wall hadn’t completely forgotten their former slaves. They remembered to tax them, heavily. Miss a payment and your little parcel of carved rock and dirt was quickly seized by the ruling authorities of Kamara, and you and all of your family found yourselves living like animals in the Rocks. So to survive even one day in the Softer was no small accomplishment.
But every night in the Softer was a celebration. The people that filled its streets and alleys, though all hardened by the reality that they were poorer that the lowliest resident of the walled inner-city, still knew how to enjoy their lives and dared to do so. Those that hadsurvived another day congregated to drink and sing and to feast and dance away another evening.
This had been the meaning of life for Cerah. Nothing gave her greater joy than dancing in the flickering lights of Kama Cove, the gathering zone between hers and several other neighborhoods, perched on the edge of a huge, flooded diamond mine, the walls of which were still scarred by the hammers of thousands of thickly-muscled laborers, long dead, their names, if ever known, long forgotten. Since she had been old enough to walk she had loved to dance. She remembered her mother holding her hands and placing Cerah’s little feet on top of her own, then swaying and twirling to the rhythm of the musicians who filled the darkness, and Cerah’s soul, with beautiful music. Every night, without fail, she had hurried to the Cove.
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