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Chapter III - Rituals and Bowls

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As usual, Inar was late for the meeting. He hurried through the streets of Krof, a large trading town on the Sinewan River between Zairn and Terun City, with his eyes down to avoid contact with anyone he knew. He wasn’t opposed to friendly greetings, but they’d only make him even later than he already was. His feet moved faster, barely touching the cobblestones before rising for the next long stride.
The quick pace tired him out but he kept running until he reached Southern Hill, a less populated district far from the trade route. He jogged up to an old building, about twice the size of a farmer’s cottage. Although it had simple brick walls and a rebuilt roof of brown tile, the doors were ornately carved wood displaying images of animals, trees, and men. It had taken Inar six months to complete the work, but he was proud to have been chosen as the artist, although he was the only one to have offered his services free.
Inar panted by the door for a minute with his hands on his knees. The short run wouldn’t have winded him if he were a few years younger, like his brother. They were similar in many ways, including their lifelong fascination with blades. He shared a sturdy build with his sibling, but where his brother’s hands were callused from the constant swordplay of a warrior, his were smooth and sleek, perfect for an artisan.
A chilly breeze blew from the west but felt good against his overheated body. He tucked a few stray hairs back into place, pushed the heavy door open, and stepped inside. The main hall was packed with men sitting in rows around a raised platform that held four chairs, only three of which were occupied. Most of the congregants were middle-aged or older and wore fur-lined vests, but some of the younger ones had thin cloaks wrapped around their bodies. Inar shook his head at them as he ambled toward the front row. Robes, the traditional garb of godless wizards, were forbidden, and all purists included cloaks in the ban as well.
“Inar,” said Stawen, one of the men on the platform. “What kept you this evening?”
“I’m truly sorry,” said Inar as he climbed into the empty chair. “I was helping my neighbor in her garden and didn’t realize how late it was. It won’t happen again.”
“As I recall, that’s what you told us last time, although it was a furrier needing a new sign for his shop. If you want to be a leader in this community you must show responsibility.”
“I do,” said Inar. “And I will.”
Stawen reached under his seat and pulled out a broken bowl.
“You can make amends by replacing our ceremonial bowl.” He handed it to Inar. “We’ll need it by tomorrow night as you know. The full moon will not be late, no matter how many people need assistance.”
The carved maple bowl was cracked down the center, unrepairable unless one didn’t care about impurities in the wood. An item of such high craftsmanship would never have broken by accident. A bunch of vandals must have done it. Somebody should catch them and give them a good scare.
“If you require funds,” said Stawen as he rose from his chair, “I’m sure a few of us could spare some coins.”
The entire room nodded in agreement, as many removed jingling pouches from their belts.
“Keep your money,” said Inar. He didn’t need their charity. “I’ll have this replaced with time to spare.”
He tucked the broken bowl under his chair as he sat down. “I apologize for the interruption. Please proceed with the meeting.”
As the discussions continued, he frequently found himself playing with his empty coin pouch. It seemed that any time he had money, it would immediately be spent on food, chisels, or knives. The next time he had a paying job, he promised himself to set aside half the funds.
Twice during the meeting he reached for the bowl and fingered the carved sides. Although he had decent equipment, such intricate detail would be difficult to reproduce on one of his own flimsy wooden bowls. He needed something thicker, preferably another bowl cut from maple. The heavily wooded forest to the south of town held many choices. Inar was positive he could take down a mature tree and carve a beautiful bowl, but that would take several days or more. He knew of only one person in town who used such material regularly.
Several times, Stawen had nudged him to bring his focus back to the discussion, so Inar was glad when they adjourned. Anxious to begin carving, he grabbed the bowl and rushed out, forgoing the hour or two of food and drinks. He headed straight for a street full of small shops.
This late at night, the center of town was dark and deserted. Even the taverns offering food and respite for merchants traveling between Zairn and Terun City were closed until the sun came up. Inar snuck into a woodcarver’s shop and selected an appropriate replacement bowl. Before leaving, he took a small chisel from his belt and carved an anonymous note into his broken bowl, promising to pay for the merchandise. He was no lowly thief. After leaving both pieces of the old bowl on the shelf, he made his way home. It was unfortunate that the vandals had come when they did, because there were no extra ceremonial bowls. Hopefully he’d remember to discuss this oversight at the next meeting.
Inar spent many hours carving throughout the night and well into the next morning. He was so involved with his work that he left his floor covered in wood chips to be cleaned another day, but he wasn’t too busy to spend a few minutes shaving off the stubble that had appeared on his cheeks and chin.
The afternoon sun was already heading toward the horizon as he prepared for the evening’s activities, which included scrubbing the new bowl in a mixture of water and sand and sprinkling his body with a selection of powdered herbs. He also stitched closed a small hole in his shirt and donned his favorite belt buckle, on which he’d carved a saber and knife with their blades crossed.
By the time he reached the farm on the outskirts of town, the rest of the congregants had already gathered in the field. Stawen was in the center, holding a young goat by a piece of braided leather attached to its neck. He said nothing as Inar approached and placed the new bowl by his feet. A shovel was lying on the ground nearby.
There were still a couple hours until midnight, but from the stares in his direction, Inar knew he should have arrived earlier. He stepped back and blended in with the crowd, who seemed to be mumbling something about his lack of punctuality. If they could have done a better job with the bowl, then the ingrates should have volunteered their services.
Stawen drew a curved knife from his belt and said, “This past year has been a good one for us. We’ve had ten successful births and a dozen new members with only two friends taken from us by death. Let us stand in silence for a moment.”
Inar bowed his head and stared at his legs. The bottoms of his pants were frayed from dragging against the ground. He’d been a tall child, and his pants were always too short, so as an adult he apparently overcompensated. Tomorrow, he’d cuff the legs and patch any other holes in his clothing.
A young man elbowed him in the side. The moment of silence had ended with Stawen continuing the ceremony.
“… and let this year be better than the last as we pray for peace, prosperity, and health.”
A squeal from the goat was cut short as Stawen ran the knife across its neck, a stream of bright red blood filling the bowl. The men in the crowd shook hands with one another and offered their own prayers of good fortune. When the bowl came to him, Inar took a small sip and passed it along.
Soon, he, Stawen, and a man in a white robe were all that remained in the field. Only wizards wore such outfits, and Inar hated them even more than the annoying vandals. For centuries, wizards had formed a closed community, allowing very few people to become apprentices. Why hadn’t he been good enough to join their ranks? Because his family wasn’t wealthy? Because he wasn’t smart enough or attractive enough? Bah, who needed them?
“Are you interested in joining our little group?” asked Stawen.
“Not at the moment,” said the robed man, “but I’ve heard rumors that you bury the carcass. May I have it instead?”
Stawen wiped his hands on a rag from his pocket. “Our only rule is—”
“You may not have the goat or anything else from us,” said Inar, stepping between the robed man and the goat’s body. “You shouldn’t even have been here. This was a private ceremony.”
“But it does no good in the ground,” said the robed man. “It doesn’t even help feed the hungry.”
“It feeds the worms,” said Inar. “Go now—before I call the town guard and have you taken away for trespassing.”
“How do expect to grow our community if you’re so opposed to outsiders?” asked Stawen.
“Not all outsiders.” Inar grabbed the shovel and began digging as the robed man turned back toward town. “Just those who look down upon us.”
Stawen returned the dirty rag to his pocket and crossed his arms.
“You can go,” said Inar, scooping up mounds of dirt with the shovel. “This won’t take long.”
A few weeks later, Inar’s birthday came and went without much notice. He preferred it that way and never let any of his associates know when he was born. His only close friend was his brother, but this was the first year that his brother had forgotten to visit. As a mercenary, he might have been on a mission somewhere, but in the past he’d always managed to be in town at this time of year. Perhaps he was ill and couldn’t make the trip from his favorite boarding house. Inar packed a few biscuits and a piece of hard cheese that he’d taken from last night’s meeting and set off to find his brother.
The boarding house was attached to a popular tavern, but both were quiet this early in the day. Mostly inhabited by mercenaries, the residents were either away from town on assignments or sleeping off a night of drinking and gambling. Only the innkeeper and his wife were awake, preparing food for the afternoon meal. The innkeeper looked up as Inar stepped into the kitchen.
“You’re a copy of your brother,” he said as he placed a carving knife on the counter, “only thinner and with no facial hair. Have you come to pick up his belongings?”
“What?” asked Inar. “Where is he?”
“Oh dear,” said the innkeeper’s wife, wiping her hands on her apron. “You haven’t heard, have you?”
She put her arm around Inar’s shoulder and guided him to a stool in the corner.
“He was killed a few months ago,” she said, “in a small village to the west.”
“The boys wanted to split up his affects,” said the innkeeper, “but your brother always paid in advance. The room and all his possessions remain his for the rest of the year.”
Inar was overcome with grief. They’d been such close siblings throughout their childhood. He wobbled on the stool, placing his hand on the wall to keep himself from falling over. He knew this would happen eventually. Such was the life of a professional soldier, but he’d always hoped his brother would give up the sword and start a family. Despite living on his own for more than a decade, Inar finally felt alone.
“I must speak with his employer,” he said.
“That won’t be possible,” said the innkeeper. “As did most of the mercenaries in Krof, he worked for Arwold, who perished soon after while defending us against an evil sorcerer.”
“Evil sorcerer is redundant. They’re all evil.” Inar wiped an angry tear from his face. “Arwold was a good man for protecting this town. Where’s my brother’s body?”
“In Hidville where he died, I suppose.”
The innkeeper’s wife offered him a cup of tea, but he waved her away. He didn’t feel like drinking, eating, or talking. His only thought was to find out more about his brother’s death.
“Many good thanks for keeping his room safe,” he said, sliding off the stool. “I’ll see to his possessions now.”
After gathering a few of the most personal mementos, Inar offered the rest of the room’s contents to the innkeeper. Some of the swords and armor could have fetched a good price, but he didn’t care about the money. He merely wanted to see his brother one last time and give him a proper farewell.
Hidville was a tiny village, but with so little information about the actual location of his brother’s body, he’d need help to conduct an exhaustive search. A dozen men would suffice if he had enough coins to pay them. He slipped a jeweled dagger under his belt, grabbed the expensive vest that his brother wore on special occasions, and headed to the shops lining the trade route.
Although he would have preferred another solution, Inar sold his brother’s jeweled dagger and gave the proceeds to a group of young men. The gold should have been enough to last years, but the racketeers gouged him for everything because they knew he was desperate to find the body. At least he still had the vest, which he was wearing under his shirt.
Inar led his new assistants to Hidville, where they split up to interview the villagers. By the end of the day, they’d come away with little except sore feet. Nobody in town had been helpful other than one old man who occasionally took on boarders. He recalled three dirt-encrusted travelers who stayed for one night several months ago after a scuffle in the graveyard.
That night, Inar and his team scoured the graveyard, digging up every recent burial site they found. Eventually, they came to an unmarked grave just outside a large stone building that looked out of place in the rural setting. A thin layer of new grass had already covered the mound of packed dirt, but their shovels easily tore into the earth.
Inar turned his head when his shovel met resistance—a large stone, a tree root, or…
“Is it him?” he asked.
“I suppose,” said one of the diggers. “It’s definitely a body. Can we go now?”
“No, let me see him.”
Inar jumped into the hole and brushed dirt off the corpse. Its skin was gray and taut, and its arms were crossed above a thin saber. He jumped backward after uncovering the face. Although it had once been his brother’s, this face seemed to have spent years drying in the desert sun.
“Something’s wrong,” he said. “This body appears to have died a decade ago, but I saw him alive and well last year. Help me pull him out of the grave.”
“I’m not touching that thing,” said the digger.
The others agreed with him and stepped away from the hole.
“What do you think will happen?” Inar dug his hands under the corpse and grabbed it by the shoulders. “You’ll drop dead if you touch it? See, nothing’s happening to me. This was my brother.”
He tugged, dislodging the corpse from its resting position. None of the others moved in to help. He would have reminded them about the gold he’d given them, but they’d probably argue their side of the deal was done. It was upsetting that people no longer honored commitments as they used to. Inar, however, wouldn’t be so quick to consider his work complete. After climbing out of the shallow hole, he reached in and yanked his brother’s body out.
“What do you plan to do with the body?” asked the digger.
“Give him a proper burial,” said Inar. “Will you help me carry him back to Krof? He would have wanted his final resting place near our family home.”
The others looked at one another but remained silent.
“I thought not. Then this will have to do. Go find me a coffin—use some of your pay if you have to. I already gave you everything I had.”
It wasn’t long before the body was laying in an open casket at the bottom of the hole. Inar said a few words of remembrance, placed a pair of rocks in the corpse’s eyes, and closed the casket. As he shoveled dirt into the hole, he kept thinking about the gray skin. There was only one way that could have happened so quickly—unholy magic. Inar vowed to find and punish the wizard responsible for his brother’s death, but wizards were notoriously powerful. He’d have to find a few allies before pursuing his quest for vengeance.
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