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About the Author
Table of Contents
Part 1 1
Dust and Ashes 3
In the Serpent’s Coils 11
One of Many 17
Horses and Masters 25
A Hunt 35
The Leopard’s Broken Leg 43
Cry and Answer 57
Destiny’s Drawings 65
To Capture the Stars 77
Gallop without Warning 87
Part 2 97
The Uridimmu 99
River’s Edge 109
Beggars and Dreamers 119
Annakum’s Honor 131
A Sharqi 141
Racing the Sun God 163
Part 3 169
The Trap Unseen 171
Waiting in the Shadows 193
Walk with the Dead 203
Making His Mark 223
From Chapter 1
Better that you’d never been born.
The words still burned in Soulai’s ears. He hugged his knees and rocked back and forth. The other villagers joined in t...
From Chapter 1
Better that you’d never been born.
The words still burned in Soulai’s ears. He hugged his knees and rocked back and forth. The other villagers joined in the evening’s ceremonial wailing, but Soulai’s throat was too dry to cry anymore.
For thirteen years he’d sat around the fire with everyone else on this first night of the month of Tammuz and mourned Nature’s death. He knew that while the goddess made her summer-long journey through the underworld, his mountain would wither and die. Leaves were already starting to fall from parched tree limbs, in fact, and this day had certainly been the hottest of the year.
But tonight Soulai was mourning his own death. Better that you’d never been born, his father had said. They hadn’t shared a word or glance since, and Soulai had begun to feel that his existence, in his father’s eyes, had ended. Blinking back tears, he picked up the ball of damp clay at his side and tossed it into the air. With each smacking return to his hands, he punished himself. You should have been watching the bushes, he scolded. You should have readied a pile of rocks. When the lion attacked you should have…
The clay hit the ground with a thud. Quickly he picked it up and brushed away the dirt. He felt a shiver of fear. He knew what he should have done, but he’d searched to the core of his being and hadn’t found the bravery. It just wasn’t there.
Stroking the gritty weight with one thumb, he looked up at the sky. The brilliant constellations that normally came to life before his eyes seemed to hover at a distance. There was the magnificent scorpion, poised just above the southern horizon, its glittering tail curled over its back like a giant fishhook. At its center, the one star that usually flared from copper to red to gold shone without a flicker. And the serpent handler, who endlessly struggled to contain the giant snake, wasn’t moving at all. Soulai had a dizzying sensation that the world was pulling away from him. Maybe I’m dead already, he thought.
He jumped. But it was only his older sister, Soulassa. He tossed his ball of clay into the air again.
“He’ll see you,” she warned. “He’s with Uncle in the hut right behind you.”
“He’s drunk by now.”
“He’s not blind.”
Bitterness engulfed him. “He might as well be. He doesn’t see me. ”
Soulai.” The voice was still chiding, though gentler. “If you’d look up from your clay once in a while, you’d see things better. Such as lions. You were fooling with it today, weren’t you—your clay?”
Why not ask if I’d been breathing today? Soulai thought. As if I had some choice in reaching for the stuff each morning. As if I could stop my fingers from digging to find the form that
lies hidden inside each lump. It was so much easier to hide in his clay, easier than facing life. Or death.
“You’re getting too old for this,” his sister went on. “I’m not going to be around much longer to protect you—I’m getting married, remember? Who’s going to chase away your lions then?”
The question went unanswered; Soulai hunched his shoulders and started slapping the ball of clay from palm to palm. When he did lift his head, Soulassa was gone.
“In a village not very far from this one,” the storyteller began, “there once lived a lazy man.”
The ritual was complete. The men from this, his uncle’s village, and from nearby villages, now sprawled around the embers, bellies aching from the longest-day feast and the celebration of his sister’s impending marriage. Their shoulders sagged as they fell under the magic of the soothing words. Children dozed in the laps of their mothers and sisters, who rocked back and forth in unconscious rhythm. Boys like Soulai who had grown past rocking slipped off into the silver-lit forest for their own celebrating.
Embarrassment over the day’s events, and misery over his father’s words, kept Soulai from joining them. They were all champing at the bit to become men. But he? He’d resigned himself to the role of coward, running to his clay each time he stumbled into trouble.
With a heavy sigh, he set to squeezing the clay into shape. Then, remembering Soulassa’s warning, he hid it in his lap and glanced over his shoulder. His father and mother, along with his two younger sisters and an infant brother, remained in the hut behind him. So he flipped the clay into the air and pressed it between his palms again. Still thinking, he began molding it.
He’d tried to shape himself into the sort of son his father wanted. He’d sat at his father’s side and attempted to learn the skills of the harness-maker. But where only a strap was needed, he’d found it necessary to add a decorative fringe. And a breast-collar couldn’t leave his hands without some intricate pattern tooled into it. With great pride, he’d shown his work to his father. “You’re wasting your time,” his father had growled. “An ass can’t look in a mirror.”
Soulai studied the clay in his hands and frowned. For some reason it wasn’t responding tonight. He bit his lip. There was also a nagging feeling that he had forgotten something. He shook his head, collapsed the lump between his hands, and started over.
After his failure as a harness-maker—at least in his father’s eyes—he’d been banished to the hills as a goatherd. But even at this simplest of tasks, Soulai had disgraced himself—that very afternoon, in fact, when he hadn’t seen the lion’s approach. It had pounced so suddenly, bloodying one goat and killing another. Soulassa had appeared just as quickly, screaming at the top of her lungs. Her shouts had easily drowned his own cry, as he had scrambled behind a pistachio tree. Through its branches he’d marveled at how bravely his sister had run up to the startled creature, at how her wool tunic had strained across the muscles of her broad shoulders as she’d heaved clumps of dirt and sticks at it. And the lion had actually run away!
He shook his head again. My own sister…more of a man than me. She and her betrothed will marry and have many children, no doubt all strong boned and brave like her. Maybe they’ll even name one after me. The smile melted from his face. What kind of fate would that be, to be named after a person so worthless that his own father would wish he’d never been born?
“And then I shall move to a big house in a big city, and I shall…”
The storyteller’s words faded away as Soulai clenched his teeth and pummeled the clay with his fist. He slapped it loudly between his hands, then bent over it and worked furiously. Black curls fell across his lean cheeks. His breathing quickened. An unseen fire crept through his fingers, and, as if by the gods’ own hands, a lifelike creature began to arise from the clay.
While animals of all kinds leaped from his fingers, horses were his favorite subject and a small herd of them lay hidden in the corner of his thatched-roof hut. He had taken them out this evening, in fact, after his family had left for his uncle’s village, and he had admired them by the flame of the oil lamp. Soulassa’s words returned to him and he blushed. Of course he was too old to actually play with them. But they still came to life in his dreams, and he could choose to hitch his chariot to a pair of powerful, feather-crowned chargers or throw a leg over the back of a restive stallion and gallop beneath starlit skies across the Assyrian flatlands. It was the only time he was truly happy.
““...fun action book, quick read, might be especially appealing to boys...” - Everead” - Everead
Length: 7.75 in
Width: 5.25 in
Weight: 8.48 oz
Page Count: 256 pages