Chapter Forty-Eight

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Chapter Forty-Eight – A New Beginning

Kalma sat watching the baby in his wife’s arms feeding from the bottle filled with goat’s milk that she had prepared for the tiny infant. “It’s a shame my father was not still alive,” he said to himself. “Khan would have been proud to have a grandson.” Kalma was as handsome as his father had been. When Khan died, he had assumed the role of leader of their tribe, taking Khan’s youngest wife for his own. Now, as Liss cooed softly to the baby boy in her arms, Kalma smiled, knowing that his wife’s standing within the female community of the tribe would finally improve, since the awful time when they discovered that she was barren. She had a son now, an heir for Kalma.

“What is his name, husband?” Liss asked, as the babe fell asleep in the warmth of her gentle embrace.

“Merak,” Kalma smiled, “but we’ll name him Goran.”

~~~

Goran’s best friend as he grew up was a boy named Tihke, the youngest son of the tribal elder Seti, one of two surviving members of Akhen’s band of brothers still living in Gilgama. Tihke, like his father, was an expert thief and provider, able to find treasures for little boys to play with. Goran’s chief tormentor was Shaila an olive skinned, red haired, determined little girl, two years his senior, who loved to annoy him at every opportunity. Shaila’s constant companion was Torinn, a flaxen haired child who said little; but was always happy to do whatever Shaila demanded of her. Tihke’s handsome older brother Manouf, named after Khan’s best friend, was the strong silent member of the gang of young troublemakers.

As Goran grew up, he firmly believed that Kalma and Liss were his parents. With each passing year, he developed into a powerful and skilled hunter, thanks to the lessons learned at the feet of Khan’s other berserker brother, Besal. He and Seti told Goran about their own adventures over the years, since the days of the Negan mine on Jalnuur. How his grandfather Khan and Akhen had formed a bond, and how they were all transformed into berserkers by Shu. At night, young Goran’s dreams were about the troubled history of his adopted ancestors. Liss taught him all she knew about Akhen and his people, the Nephile, and about their struggle through the centuries to survive the Drana raids. On one of the many hunting expeditions as Goran was growing up, Besal took him to where the apocalyptic battle between Shu’s army, and their own, had taken place around Ur. Goran’s heritage was demonstrated to be a bloody one indeed.

On his eighteenth birthday, Kalma gave him a magnificent double-edged sword, which had been handed down to him by his father Khan. Seti offered his own shield, still bearing the scars of battle from when the five berserker brothers and Akhen, finally defeated Shu. Besal handed him a magnificent acacia bow, tipped with Ibex horn, and a quiver of acacia shafted arrows, fledged with eagle feathers, and armed with precious Nazpa shards.

Kalma’s premature death came as a terrible shock to Goran, as a result of a feud with a neighbouring tribe. Grief-stricken, he led his tribe on numerous raids, each time growing angrier, fed by his constant need for bloody revenge. Nothing his mother Liss, or his friends Tihke, Manouf, Shaila and Torinn said, dissuaded him from his murderous path, or eased the pain of losing his father.

His turning point came when Besal and Seti called a tribal council meeting to put an end to the needless bloodshed, and to decide his future. The reluctant verdict was banishment from the tribe for life. Goran was cast out, destined to wander Gilgama and beyond, for the rest of his days. (But he would not do it alone, dear reader.)

Goran reached the top of the low hill above his home, and turned to look one last time. “That’s over; let’s move on,” a familiar voice declared.

“Tihke, you don’t have to come with me. Your home’s down there with your father and the tribe,” Goran said.

“Where you go, I go, friend,” Tihke grinned.

“The same goes for us as well,” Shaila said, as she appeared arm in arm with Torinn from behind an old olive tree.

”Don’t forget me,” Manouf said.

Goran’s handsome face broke out in a grin. His friends had not seen him smile since the death of his father. “Come on then, it’ll be dark soon. We’d better find somewhere to camp for the night.”

~~~

By the change of seasons, they were far to the west of their home, heading towards the rocky ramparts of Gilgama, close to where it separated the continent from the new Mediterranean Ocean, and Kirenia beyond. The nights grew longer and colder, as the temperature dropped below freezing in the desert wastelands of the western edge of Gilgama. On midwinter’s day, they stood on the high cliffs overlooking a vast ocean, thousands of feet below. The descent down the cliff face was dangerous. Several times the friends lost their grip, and had to be saved from falling to their death by the quick reactions of their companions. They found a small cave a few hundred meters above sea level where they camped for the night. Bats, unsettled by the smoke from their fire, dive-bombed them as they flew out of the cave on their nocturnal search for food. Goran watched his friends while they slept close to the fire. Tihke and Manouf slept fitfully on the uncomfortable cave floor, occasionally waking for a brief moment, startled by the noise of their own snoring. Torinn lay in Shaila’s arms with her head resting on her chest.

When dawn broke, Goran watched the sea change colour as the sun rose and the wind whipped up the waves, sending foam capped mountains of water crashing onto the rocks below. They explored the rocky shore, searching for driftwood to build a boat capable of transporting them safely across the vast expanse of ocean to Kirenia. After weeks of searching and collecting, they began to build their craft from the retrieved driftwood, bound with ropes fashioned from the tough plants that clung to the cliffs, covering the ships skeleton with the hides of goats, sewn together by Torinn, using strong goat sinew.

The double ended boat was five meters in length and two meters wide, completely covered by goathide, except for a small cockpit area at the centre, where a pair of sweep oars were individually secured by plaited goat hide rope to thole pins on either driftwood gunwale. Shaila and Torinn spent days tanning the hides, waterproofing them using rendered fat, and ash from the fire, mixed with bat droppings. To complete the boat’s motive power, they had made a small lateen sail that could be hoisted up using the sweeps as masts. Manouf fashioned a small steering oar, which he lashed to the side of the hull when they were under sail.

The day came for their departure from the relative safety of the cliff cave. Sun dried goat meat, a few pomegranates, and a plentiful supply of dried dates were stowed in hollowed out gourds in the bow and stern of the boat along with as much fresh water, stored in goatskin bags, as they could carry. All their weapons were wrapped for the journey in some of the tanned hides, left over from the boat’s construction, to protect them from salt corrosion. Rolling it over round granite boulders, worn smooth by wave action, the friends launched their tiny boat, with Manouf and Goran each taking a sweep to get them clear of the pounding surf and the rocks. By nightfall, they were roughly fifteen kilometres from shore and under sail. Tihke stood watch while the others ate a simple meal of dried goat meat and dates, washed down with fresh water from their precious supply.

Each day as they headed west, the winds pushed them further from the only home they had ever known. Shaila and Torinn were homesick and hardly ever left the comfort of each other’s arms below the hide covered deck of the tiny boat during the journey.

Manouf’s eyes were tired as he yawned in the early hours of predawn. He shivered when the temperature dipped just before the sun rose behind him to the east. “Goran, it’s your turn on watch,” he said quietly, giving his friend a nudge with his foot. The light was slowly improving now as the sun rose above the horizon. “Everyone, get up here!” Manouf shouted excitedly. Ahead of them, among the low cloud of the western horizon, he could make out the snow-capped peaks of mountains. By nightfall, the unmistakable sight of land banished any thoughts of home as their excitement grew. Towards midnight, a storm rapidly grew. In the darkness all around them they could hear the sound of surf as mountainous waves crashed ashore. The boat was snatched out of their control when the waves, whipped up by the storm’s strong grip, drove it in a headlong dash to its destruction on the unseen shore.

With the cold light of morning once more revealing the shoreline, the wreckage of the boat was spread along a narrow rocky beach. Goran and his friends, lay face down above the receding tide, among the flotsam and jetsam of the previous night’s violence.

~~~

Next time Chapter Forty-Nine

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