Readers will ask themselves questions about the identity and motive of the Ancient Enemy and will wonder how Liaju and Rethga are going to save the Seizen. Get your book professionally reviewed and have it published on this site! Click here to read our Sponsored Book Review Program submission guidelines. Portland Book Review is very proud of our reviewer team.
Our reviewers come from different backgrounds, experiences, training, and desires, and all share a love of reading. Ayling Amazon Digital Services, Inc. Book I of Malmaxa C. Ann Williams eBook Inc. Book I of Malmaxa , C. Ann Williams , eBook , Inc. You might also like. Akio Tsukino just wanted a chance to be the lead photographer on a front-page article, or really, the excuse to spend some time with the cool and aloof Masami Sato. Utterly obedient to Six Divine Laws, the Seizen are an ancient culture whose history covers almost four millennia. On their second entry into Malmaxa all Seizen undergo the final rite of passage to adulthood, in which they are bound to a Chukrah in the Eternal Match.
The Chukrah bond is fateful, permanent, personal, and is deemed to be so sacred it is held as an inviolate personal secret. Unbeknownst to the Seizen, they hover on the brink of extinction. The Scribes, a rare subset of the Artisan class, are the only ones aware of these dire circumstances. However, Scribes understand their role as lore-keepers to the Seizen is Chukrah-granted. This knowledge ensures they obey the tenet of secrecy.
Thus the Seizen remain oblivious to their impending demise… oblivious, until an un-matched child named Liaju has a series of prophetic dreams. Assigned as sentry when Ripkira called the noon halt, Adelmar was in a foul mood. Dreams of vengeance, vanished. Along with the groth, and the elusive chance for revenge that every battle brought. The only other survivors from his town were Lucinda and Beltamar.
Many times had they dodged death together, seen comrades slain, and gathered the Chukrah of the fallen for the Rite of Return. Lucinda, Beltamar, and he were staunch brothers in arms now, seldom parted for long. Battle after battle he had fought with all the tenacity he possessed, struggling to survive, and succeeding, albeit barely. After each conflict he dared hope, yet his searching eyes always found Beltamar. By petitioning against him at the Convocation, Beltamar had earned his hatred. His petition had surpassed those of all others in every way, and there had been many.
In the reserved manner of their class, the scribes had exalted him. Jalgar had appeared to listen. Yet after hearing the scribes quietly whispered advice, the deceitful old hunter had completely disregarded their wisdom. Adelmar almost spat at the memory. He smoothed his face. Within an instant it revealed nothing.
The cowardly old bastard had called for a Chukrah match. With Chukrah matches assumed blessed by the Gods, the scribes had readily agreed. He too had willingly assented, confident in his unassailable petition. Seemingly puzzled to be in the final two, Beltamar had merely nodded and said nothing. Then, having secured the agreement of all involved, Jalgar had proved himself the devious trickster he truly was.
Daniskira, of the final two petitioners, approach either. Let us see which is true. In Chukrah matches it is customary to approach the best petitioner first, and in all ways I was. Yet appearance had served for naught! Clearly unsure of such arcane decorum, beautiful young Daniskira had fallen into the shameful snare set by her father.
Oh, how his heart again soared at the embrace within her eyes. Then, to his eternal dismay, Daniskira had turned to Beltamar. His heart pounded in his chest anew. Just as it had done then. In the mirror of his mind, for the ten thousandth time, Adelmar watched their Chukrah touch and felt his heart burst, again.
That swirling pulse of light had sealed their match. Though relegated to second string, he had made a match, conceived a healthy son, and feigned joy. What fool can believe I am content? Were those denied justice ever satisfied with their lot? Yet Beltamar had accepted his pretense of happiness as truth, never spoke of it, even dared treat him as friend.
Adelmar spat abruptly, tensed his body, then relaxed completely as he rolled his head about his shoulders to lessen his tension. With a final shake of his head, he cast out his troubling memories and turned his full attention to the watch. Liaju was troubled, something her twin and father felt, for the familial bond between them held strong. Troubled by omens within her dreams. Twice troubled that disclosing her dreams brought distress.
Though Liaju needed the council of her father and brother, she lacked the assurance to raise the matter, and so she remained silent. She hoped they would inquire into her woes, and soon. When Jalgar glanced at his daughter he noticed the sweat beading her young, unlined face. Though late in fall, the weather remained unseasonably warm.
Seeing a small copse of shade trees that promised escape from the midday sun, he headed beneath them and called a halt. We have matters to discuss. Obediently, the twins followed their father. They removed their packs and brushed aside the debris of twigs and pebbles before sitting, backs against the trees to which their father had gestured.
Liaju signaled her hounds with a click her tongue. Gestures told the beasts to keep watch, and where. Knowing they would remain within the shade till the sun passed its zenith, people and hounds sprawled out. There would be adequate time for talk and for rest. Your words are not complete. We know you are well in body. Do you think us fools? Speak of it now, that your twin and I might bear part of your burden.
Liaju drew on her resolve as her absentminded fingers peeled the bark from a fallen twig. She had rehearsed this very speech many times. They are complex and ever changing, yet constant, and somehow similar. Though I have spoken of these dreams to the Circle of the Learned, we still lack full insight into their meaning. I do not wish to bring dire thoughts to the minds of any, yet with disclosure of my dreams I know that I do.
We would hear what troubles you, not that you fear your troubles might burden us. The marks of you which I bear are an inspiration to me always. Liaju had just kissed his symbol. Though the familiar, comforting ritual took only a heartbeat to complete it renewed the bond between father and children. Though perhaps only in spirit, your family are with you always. We will gladly share your burdens. Tell us your thoughts, grant us your dreams. They disturb my rest and trouble my soul. A magnificent, unassailable herd bull is matched and vanquished, by one ancient and infertile….
Jalgar and Rethga looked at one another.
Together they turned back to Liaju, their attentive expressions bidding her continue. Liaju did not speak. Instead, she focused her burdened eyes on her feet. I would hear your thoughts and see if they align with those of the Circle. Many sixdays have these dreams plagued me, a few days more is of no matter.
We will speak further when you are prepared. I will patiently await your council. Jalgar glanced at his son to see Rethga opening his mouth to speak. A quick shake of his head stilled the lad. Liaju had done as requested and shared her burden. In return it seemed fitting they should do as she asked and consider her dream before blurting out thoughtless, partly formed ideas. Besides, waiting till later would grant him time to phrase his question with due care.
Father and son lay back. The three would remain within the shade till the sun passed its peak and began its decline. Zunesan was kneading dough when she heard a faint rumble in the distance. She dusted her hands together, making small puffs of flour in the air as she walked outdoors. Normally she shared the home with her match, Jalgar, and their youngest twins. Today she was alone. Jalgar, Liaju, and Rethga had left on a hunt the previous day. Doing this left a streak of floury white in her dusky black hair. Of short stature, Zunesan bore a deep tan from many hours spent outdoors.
Gray today, green tomorrow, her compassionate eyes perceptibly changed color with her mood. Ever ready to soothe, her gentle hands were popular with the young. Children came to her willingly, swallowed her remedies, and wore the poultices she made with few complaints. Peering through the midday glare, Zunesan made out a flock of rowdy children drawing ever nearer.
Yet, shade her eyes as she might, the heat shimmer and the distance prevented her from making out any individuals. Dah nee skee raa. When Zunesan drew close, she caught sight of her daughter and sped to her. As always, excited children encircled Daniskira. The youngsters reluctantly parted to allow mother and daughter an embrace.
After releasing Daniskira, Zunesan waved to Kareena and Seinath who followed sedately, far behind the crowd. Turning about, she continued toward the village, arm-in-arm with her child at last. They had not traveled ten paces before Selene squeezed through the closely packed children.
With Eden already here, she would not have to wile away the days awaiting the arrival of her cousin and best friend. Sight of Selene prompted a further guilty thought. Beltamar was nowhere in sight. Saddened by what this must mean, she turned and embraced her daughter again.
In an instant they returned, full force, fresh and piquant, almost overcoming her with their strength. Beltamar resides in our hearts till his safe return. With the onset of winter, our Ancient Enemy must depart the field of battle as they do each cycle. Our Warriors will be returning to us with all haste, lest they offend the Gods. For this late in the fall, it felt uncomfortably warm. Only fools marched through the midday heat.
With the cohesion born of long familiarity, the remnants of her force fanned out beneath the sparse trees. The remaining Warriors mingled with the Artisans, together they ushered the jumenta-drawn wagons into the deepest shade. After shucking his shield and spear, Beltamar unhitched a pair of the massive, shaggy haired beasts and set them to graze. He removed his pack, untied his bedroll from its base, and spread it beneath the cart with a flick of his wrists.
Within a few moments he had undone his belt and taken a quick pull from one of the water skins attached to it. After propping his sword and spear against his shield, close to hand, he sprawled out on the bedroll. His pack served as headrest. Others had done the same. Since they would stay here at least two, perhaps three hours, there would be adequate time for rest. He counted this cycle as his worst, ever. Eight lunas since he last saw his beloved mate Daniskira and their progeny, Selene. Eight times had he seen the moon rise to fill the heavens with her light, and eight times he had watched her wane to nothingness.
Vividly, Beltamar remembered his call to war. Arm in arm they had said their farewells to her family, where they had spent each winter this long cycle. Diminutive Eden had held him, her arms encircling his leg and her tiny hands refusing release while she pled for him to stay. That bittersweet memory always brought a lump to his throat. Their return home had taken nearly two sixdays.
To be once more with Daniskira and Selene in their own dwelling had been blissful, and too short. Selene had wept bitterly when he left. Barely fifth-marked, she had been unable to accept that this was his duty as a Warrior. She had perceived his willing, nay, his eager departure as a bitter betrayal. Though Daniskira had shed no tears, her limpid brown eyes told the tale of her heart.
Their parting kiss had been the endpoint to five cycles of joy. Then had this cycle begun in earnest. The scout who brought them news of the war, the Elder Mithial, had granted them but an hour to gather their equipment and say their farewells. On the march to the battle lines, Mithial had asserted, …drawn out farewells serve no one….
Too many of the fallen needlessly denied true farewells, cruelly snatched from their families. Two battle-hardened veterans had led the once-matched, who numbered twenty-two. Fourteen men, and eight women. The fall of each had brought the survivors closer, for grief and shared hardships forge strong bonds. To them fell the Rite of Return at the upcoming Convocation. Should they fall now, all this would be for naught. Having left their town, they had traveled for three full sixdays before joining this unit, their assigned battle group, the South-Western Force.
Over three hundred Warriors had they been at first assembly. Past a hundred Artisans accompanied them. Cooks, Herbalists, Smiths, Scribes, and more. Wisdom held that an army marched on its stomach, yet this was only a small part of the truth. Now he likened an army unto a village, and with similar needs.
Food and drink, Healers, repairs to equipment, grindstones to sharpen blades. Yes, Warriors marched in the fore. But behind Warriors came Artisans, the suppliers of many things taken for granted till faced with their lack. Without humor, Warriors were soon mired in pits of blackest despair. In the early days of their march to the battle lines, Beltamar had felt a true Warrior should be stern of face and hard of flesh.
Yet when he had inquired why his commander tolerated this, her response had been. In war you have many choices. You can choose to attack, or to defend. To fight, or to flee. To laugh, or to cry.
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The matter of laughter had changed after their first battle. Bloodied sword in hand he had stood, shield arm shaking from exhaustion, body parched by thirst, gut wrenched by insatiable hunger. Fighting an implacable enemy bent on your death forced you to go far beyond the possible. Around him had lain the bodies of his comrades. At his feet, a Warrior from his village. He had knelt beside Gothar to help him into a sitting position while they awaited the Herbalists. Moments later they were in a brotherly embrace, tears of anguish washing their faces free of gore, but not of guilt. Indeed, there are things worth crying for.
Life, death, and love, with love truly being the greatest of the three. As to the trivial things over which people grow frantic, most were matters more deserving of laughter than anguish. Beltamar could laugh at them now. Beltamar rolled onto his side. Pleasing thoughts of Faroene flowed into his mind as he passed from doze into sleep.
Mithial froze mid-stride, hackles raised by his Hunter sense. Motionless, he called to his Chukrah and invoked the Vanish Rite. With a surge of power, the pendant cleaved to him. Slowly, Mithial finished his step, soft-soled moccasin making no discernible sound as it touched the ground. He stretched to his full height and scanned left, searching for the seeker but finding nothing. Rotating only his upper body, he traversed the terrain to the right with his eyes.
Directly behind him on the craggy hillside, several hundred paces distant, he saw a lone groth tracking him. Her large size, well over four hands, showed the beast to be female. She moved carefully down the path he had so laboriously traversed to attain his hillside vantage. Mithial sighed in resignation, continued his search for additional enemies, and carefully turned toward her. On facing her square, he planted both feet in the loose shale, secure in both his invisibility and the knowledge the groth was alone. There is adequate time to recover from this ill turn of fortune.
A single arrow from my longbow will fell her. Wait till she is less than fifty paces and I cannot miss. Mithial shook his head slowly. Though his rite hid any scent within a pace of him, he deemed the risk too great. Even in still air the reek of her blood would spread and alert any nearby groth. It hid the frown creasing his wrinkled brow. Since the Gods delighted in playing havoc with risky plans, he put aside all thoughts of slaying the beast and considered matters with care. After lunas spent pursuing a routed enemy, all sign of their foes had simply vanished some three days past.
One day the groth had been there, then a late fall rainstorm struck and they were gone, with all trace of their passing obliterated. His memory of an ancient map had revealed a plateau with a large meadow and a small stream that promised excellent grazing for the jumenta. Even as he considered this, the remnants of the South-Western Force headed there to wait out the final days before the journey to Malmaxa began. Then, just this very morning, Ripkira had sent him to scout for their Ancient Enemy.
Not ahead into the hidden valley, as he had anticipated. No, she had sent him west. Everyone, himself included, had assumed no groth remained within leagues of the unit. She was now forty paces closer, time grew short. Flicking spit-soaked scales downhill, he quickly laid a false trail. Deceiving the mindless beast would be a simple matter. Once he had diverted the groth, he would find a better vantage from which to watch till night fell.
Although it would be a long, hot, and uncomfortable day, he might uncover their lair. From the noise raised by the mob of excited children, Zunesan knew any attempt at speech would be fruitless. For now, simply walking near her daughter must suffice. Zunesan looked ahead expectantly. Accompanied by Yitara and Eden, Ryntam should soon appear. With far more homes empty than occupied, the dwelling was the same one they had used each visit this long cycle. Thought of having all her surviving progeny close assuaged Zunesan.
A full cycle had passed since Daniskira, a Symbologist of growing renown, last attended the village. Though numbering near two hundred, the village had no Symbologist of their own. Thus was Daniskira always greeted with joy, by both parent and progeny. Requiring time for recuperation from her studies, Ryntam had arranged to come as well, thereby turning winter into a family reunion. For the last five cycles, each winter had seen their entire family, grandchildren included, together. The cousins, Eden and Selene, conceived at the same Convocation, having strong familial ties, and complementary feminine natures had developed a powerful friendship.
This had surprised no one. With each passing cycle their bond had grown till they felt more twin than cousin. All those to whom Daniskira granted a mark counted themselves blessed, for her symbols were precise and filled with elegant artistry. Eden skipped gaily alongside her father.
Anticipation of seeing her cousin gave Eden away. Selene immediately emerged from the crowd. When they met the cousins clutched one another in a tight embrace before dancing a jig of joy while still enmeshed. When Daniskira reached the girls, she scooped her tiny niece high into the air and continued toward the village without breaking stride.
Does your mother plant your feet in dung to cause this growth? Her joyous smile reduced somewhat. Comfort your cousin in this, Selene did not take it well. Her strength belied her small size and her youth. After a few heartbeats of closeness, she relinquished the tiny child and returned her to the ground beside Selene. Without a backward glance, the pair vanished into the crowd. Daniskira turned from the children and spread her arms wide in invitation to her twin.
Ryntam released Yitara in momentary favor of her sister as she reached out to hug Daniskira. After granting her daughters a moment, Zunesan encircled both with her arms. Murmured endearments ensued as the womenfolk meshed, striving to regain a cycle of absence in a single embrace. Still clasping hands, Eden and Selene emerged from the crowd.
Strong emotions of remembrance, the shared joy of togetherness, the bittersweet tang of partings, past and future, filled all in their familial hug. Excluded from this feminine exchange, Yitara frowned and shook his head, forever bewildered by womanly ways. The crowd of eager children surrounding the family sensed the renewing of bonds and fell silent, if only for a few moments.
With the sun well past its midday heat, Jalgar roused himself and stood. He gazed down on his progeny for a few moments, before grunting to awaken Liaju and Rethga. Within moments the twins sat awake and alert. After stretching, they continued their steady march toward the place picked for their next hunt.
Jalgar walked ahead of Liaju and her twin. In his right hand, he carried a long spear, its massive bronze head blacked with soot to dull its gleam. A tall, slender man, Jalgar dressed in loose fitting tanned leathers the colors of the waist high dry grass and vegetation through which they walked.
The gleam in those eyes belied his age, evidenced by a wrinkled brow.
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Around his waist, he wore a wide leather belt from which hung several water skins, a sheathed knife, and some larger pouches. On his back he carried a simple woven pack filled with items deemed necessary for a sixday hunt. Draped over his head, slung so as to cover his head and throat, he wore a loose fitting hijath. The densely woven cloth provided shelter from the sun. Jalgar took one end of the hijath, which hung down his chest, and used it to mop the sweat beading his brow.
The weather remains far too warm for so late in the season. Behind Jalgar trailed Liaju and Rethga, fine young adults now eligible for their twelfth marking. He had already made the necessary arrangements with Daniskira, a Symbologist of growing renown, and coincidentally his fourth child. Daniskira should be at the village on their return from this hunt, ready to grant her siblings their twelfth marks. Thoughts of Daniskira brought to mind her elder twin, Ryntam, also due to arrive shortly. With near a full cycle having passed since their last visit, he longed to see them.
Slender, Liaju stood average height for a girl of twelve cycles. On completing the Final Rite, that of matching her Chukrah at the Convocation, Liaju would become a woman. The long, wide cloth draped loosely about her neck. Its ends covered her bosom. Her deep brown eyes constantly roamed on the same search. Like her mother Zunesan, Liaju hoped to become a herbalist. She wore a gray dress made of tightly woven cloth that extended just below her knees, secured by a belt dyed green. Her shoes were of soft-soled leather. Sheathed on her belt hung a small knife, but no visible weapon.
Liaju had no need for such, for to either side trailed her hounds, a bitch and its mate. Guard enough this close to the village. The three formed a loose triangle, a pattern that offered some protection from surprise, but even more importantly allowed them to cover additional ground in their search. In his right hand, he carried a longbow, bowstring downward. Though strung, he held no arrow nocked. Having already traveled four leagues from their failed morning hunt, the family now approached the next hunting site.
Jalgar had selected it some sixdays past during another unsuccessful hunt. To improve chances of bagging increasingly sparse game it had become necessary to scout potential spots sixdays ahead of hunting them. They arrived at the campsite shortly before dusk. Burdens such as these are heavy when borne alone, yet they ease with the aid of others. Know that we love you greatly. Even when you shout. The three cast talk aside and busied themselves with the routine of preparing camp.
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In this tight knit group, all knew their function. Each lowered their pack. The two men put down their weapons, Jalgar placing the spear tip toward the direction they travelled. Liaju selected places for the hounds to take up guard, and directed them there with small flicks of her fingers.