.. | absolution | chapter 1
Ash DeWinter strolled slowly along a fence line, hands clasped idly behind his back and eyes cast to the ground before him in thought. Today was his birthday and he had much to consider in terms of his achievements over the past thirty years. Reflective by nature, he had taken the time from this busy day to do so, and walked the length of the outer landscape alone, as he liked to be.
It was the end of summer, signaled by the length of the slow-passing days and the heat that lingered behind them, less now, as the sun had begun its descent. But the oncoming fall was heralded more stridently by the stirring of activity around the Akerand Compound, where he lived and worked.
He was a trainer here, and had been for along six years now, after two in apprenticeship. Now in his prime, Ash had worked himself to be one of the most notable trainers in the history of the Akerand, and that was no small feat considering the long and sordid history of the place and those who'd once walked the halls. Ash had never lorded his prominent career over any of his fellow trainers, most of whom were his elders. In fact, any embellished mention of his achievements often left him ill at ease until the conversation turned away from him. He would then be called ‘too shy' or ‘too modest', or any word that relayed his dislike of attention and lack of due egotism.
Ash stopped and gazed over the rolling hill down towards the front gates of the Compound. Tomorrow this peaceful valley below would be swarming with people. Tomorrow was shipment day.
Tomorrow he would begin his teaching and training anew, as he had countless times over the last six years. It was a matter he was currently reflecting on out here by himself, away from other opinions that would try to convince him to be as at ease with his work as his fellow trainers. He already knew that he was on the of lucky ones to have such a vocation. One of the chosen few. But this was a battle he fought every time there was a new shipment coming, a new beginning to be had. Ash turned his face away from the field below and began the lengthy walk back to the Compound, hands shoved in his pockets, eyes cast to the ground in thought. He'd never aspired to be a trainer; the profession had fallen on his quite by accident when it'd been discovered that he had a natural way of it with any creature he was put with.
But for him it was one thing to train dogs, or horses, or even birds. It was another thing entirely to train people.
The dilemma was that to many the Galilani were not people at all really, though in all respects they certainly were human. The thinking that had led to the creation of the Akerand and other centers like it was that the Galilani were feral indigenes, as wild as the animals themselves. Subhuman on the good end of it, uncultivated savages on the other. They roamed the freelands of the Agade River Valley in their clans and tribes and individuals numbered in the thousands or more. No one was really sure how many there were actually, since the Valley was covered in a vast wilderness of moist forest and impassable mountain ranges. Tribes were known to pass in and out of reach like wandering herds of horses and wild cattle.
Ash himself had never seen the Valley, though many spoke it of it as if it were some enchanted land. The last great wilderness left in the realm whose secrets would probably never be fully revealed. Menserjan by birth, the reigning race among infinite mid-civilized cities and towns within the borders of this great nation state of theirs, he himself had grown up in a small community far away from knowledge of the Valley or these creatures even existing. As a boy the world outside his town gates had meant nothing to him, besides spouting in the occasional traveler from afar with stories and news of what went on in their capital city of Tengah, where the real population thrived.
As a curious child he'd stumbled onto his mother's small collection of books from her youth and had begged her to teach him to read, and later to write. He grew up realizing that an agricultural life would never suit him, though he had been forced to learn and retain what there was to know of land, livestock, and grain. The knowledge his father had tried so hard to turn him to now lay sadly useless in his mind.
At twenty he'd finally traveled to Tengah to study and apprentice. His father had not supported him and his mother was too cowed by her husband to say much about the matter, though it certainly must have hurt to see her youngest leave before the eldest was even married out. He'd become a scribe in a rich house of lords that gave him access to an extensive library and free reign to use it. He'd even grown out his hair in the fashion of the scholars, it now brushed the middle of his back in thick wheat-colored waves. When he'd made a final trip home before coming here, even his own mother had hardly recognized him.
Ash sighed and let the memories pass. His old family life was all in the past now. Life at the Compound was now all he knew. It was where his education had led him, though it was in Tengah that he'd first learned about the Galilani and their purpose in life.
It had begun as a slave trade long ago, a few hundred years in fact, though no one was sure of the exact date. Large farms that fed the city needed labor and the Galilani, out there in the middle of nowhere it would seem, were ideal because of their ability to work in the summer heat with minimal living conditions. Peaceful by nature, they were hardy and strong, trusting and easy to subdue. Peculiarly, a what probably fed their enslavement even more was that they appeared to be a silent people. The fields in which they worked were devoid of conversation, songs or complaints. It was understood that they didn't understand the Menserjan language, but surely they would speak to each other? Oddly, it was not so. Thus, without a voice to protest, the trade went on for years and years without a hitch.
It was during the Grand Terre War that someone had decided to use the Galilani to a more baleful purpose. In the history of the educated, the Grand War had started over a long stretch of coveted rocky coast whose port waters were disputed by Menserja and the neighboring realm of Iberniah, each claiming their rightful half of it. But with the natural harbors ideal for trade and fishing, it was not surprising that each land would want the whole scape. Fighting erupted at all the borders, growing from a dispute to a full out war with two powerful nations realizing too many differences and resurrecting old hatreds that had lain dormant for a hundred years.
It was in these times that the first Subjects were 'inducted' into a new way of life. They were chosen from slavery to serve merely as warm bodies at first, and later as more specialized soldiers. It soon came with new finds in the practice of Remedy, healing that is, that the best of the best could be converted into fighting machines through a series of mind-altering mixtures of medicines. They could be taught and trained, actively brainwashed into serving a specific purpose for the cause. The Galilani were sent on the most dangerous of missions, as no one would miss them should they fail, and generals could keep their valuable soldiers for the front lines. They were suicide fighters.
But then it was discovered that very rarely did these missions fail. The Galilani, properly converted to a 'civilized' state of mind, proved to be incredibly resourceful and strong. They were good at what they did, which only spurred on the conversion practices and refined them. It became nearly an art form to create one of these creatures, and Galilani warriors moved from being disposable to invaluable. The Akerand Compound was created during this time, and then other places like it that would specialize in turning out inducted Galilani Subjects who would go on to various duties around the realm. Most, however, still went into the Guard.
About the time when the first true inductions were taking place, a great irony came in the form of nearly a year of destructive storms and floods which decimated the port water bay over which the fighting had originally begun. Both Menserja and Iberniah reluctantly retreated to their respective sides after the last of the storms subsided as ruined and waterlogged nations needing to tend to their own. Iberniah went back east, Menserja back west, so the long stretch of constantly changing beach served as a deserted reminder of the folly of men. So many had died in the pursuit of it, and yet now it lay empty and useless. Both spurned by bitterness, the two nations to this day were still not on friendly terms, thus the need for a standing Guard.
Ash smiled to himself. His love of history had led him to seek out the details of these wars and the history of his practice, but he doubted any of the other trainers knew or even cared. He shook his head slightly. It was a shame.
He quietly strolled back inside the large Compound. As he walked he acknowledged faces he knew, wandering down a dimly lit hallway made of smooth-worn darkwood and terrawood, abundant trees in the old days but scarce as of the last few decades. He went silently along the glossy floor listening only to the gentle swish of his robes, towards his room in search of further quiet. There were plenty of people about at the early evening hour, but it suited him right now to be alone some more.
"DeWinter! Hey, wait up-"
Ash turned to see his friend Aristide jogging to catch up with him. The silver latches on his leather jerkin jingled and caught the dim light; he was dressed to go out.
"Evening," Ash said.
Aristide fell into step beside him. "Where have you been? I've been looking all over for you. We were all going into town, have a drink or two. You in?"
"No, not tonight," Ash answered with a polite smile.
"What's with you?"
Ash ran a hand back through thick blond hair. "It's my birthday," he said.
The slap on his back nearly knocked him forward a few steps. Aristide gave him a sidelong hug. "Why didn't you say something?" he laughed. "Come on, you must come celebrate with us now-"
Ash was shaking his head. "Thanks, but no. It's a big day tomorrow, you know that."
"Sod it. All the more reason!" Aristide tapped his finger on his chin. "Is that why you're so quiet? Wondering again on the meaning of life?"
In due course, Ash didn't answer. Aristide ran an impatient hand back through his charmingly messy cropped blond hair.
"If you don't like what you do so much, why do you do it then?" he asked suddenly.
The question was enough to stop Ash just as he'd taken a step up the stairs that would lead him to the privacy of his room. He turned around, genuinely surprised that Aristide would be so astute about something like that. When it came to training, the younger trainer could hold his own very well, but in personal matters and spare time, there was little else Aristide cared for than drink and lovers.
"I do enjoy what I do," Ash remarked, a little incredulously.
Aristide shook his head. "Then you could show it a little instead of making it look like such a chore to the rest of us lowlifes." He grabbed Ash's arm and dragged him back down the stairs. "Now come on. One drink and I promise I'll let you go back to your meditation or whatever it is you do up there."
Ash reluctantly let himself be jostled down the hall again. "I'm not meditating. It's just musing, that all," he insisted. "You might try it sometime."
"Musing!" Aristide scoffed. "What will musing get me?" They rounded the corner of the hall and Ash was forced to jog down a short flight of stairs into the lower levels of the Compound. They were heading towards the back kitchens and beyond that, the stables, with Aristide pulling him the whole way as if he'd bolt.
A little discomfited at being handled so, Ash reclaimed his arm from Aristide's grip and straightened his clothing. He followed the younger trainer into the stable and called for his own mount. "Self-reflection, contemplation, putting a little thought into things," he said with a lift of his eyebrow. "Maybe you'll learn a little tact."
Aristide snorted a laugh. The little insult didn't matter to him much; he knew that very few of them had the education that Ash possessed. The rest of them as a whole were not crude per say, but Ash was just a little more refined, enough to appear a little snobbish at times. In reality, Aristide was happy enough that he'd managed to get his mentor to loosen up at all. Enough at least for a little banter and a public appearance.
The ride to the nearby town of Murom was not a long one. While trainers had little reason to leave the compound during most the year there was occasionally the odd errand to run, but always with permission and never while you were in the middle of training. Tonight was special, however, in that most of the trainers were without a Subject due to the beginning of the summer's competitions, a series of events that ultimately decided whether a Galilani Subject was ready to move on from his training. At that point the trainer's job was done. The Galilani had their own path to follow.
Aristide sped up his horse, liking the feel of the cool evening air blowing across his bare arms. Behind him, Ash rode a little more soberly, brown eyes to the ground, lost in thought again. His hair billowed with his horse's strides, but that was all the movement from him. He was ‘musing' again. That would never do.
"Meera will be there I think," Aristide said off-handedly, peeking from the corner of his eye to see if there was any reaction. If Ash perked at the sound of her name, he hid it well. Aristide wrinkled his nose and faced his eyes forward again. "She was asking about you, too."
"I just saw her yesterday," Ash said quietly, looking off into the distance.
What was going on between the two of them, Aristide didn't know. It wasn't like Ash to share personal things like that, and a lady never tells. Or at least that one didn't. However, it wasn't difficult to gauge the depth of interest there when Meera, who usually fairly calm about such things, had a slight blush whenever she and Ash were seen engaged in conversation. She laughed a lot, touched his arm, stared into his eyes. Aristide had always thought her pretty, but somewhat out of his own league. She was much like Ash- refined and educated, though not nearly as reserved.
They approached the front square of a tavern and inn called the Ruddy Eider. Though the evening was young, Ash could hear the happy sounds of cajoling townspeople, light-hearted now that the day's work was done and the heat was gone. He began to feel a little glad for Aristide's insistence on his coming here, perhaps some company was what he needed.
When they walked in, it was the smell of the ale and cedar smoke from pipes that filled Ash's nostrils first. Peering through the haze, his eyes picked out their group, sitting far in the back, talking amongst themselves around bottles of wine, chalots of drink and gaming coins strewn across the table. They were so recognizable by their nicer dress from the rest of the crowd. Meera happened to look up from her conversation and saw them across the room and waved with an unconscious toss of her dark hair. Ash had always thought her attractive, but had never thought much further about it. It would seem that tonight he'd be forced to.
Aristide led the way through the crowd and sat himself down a seat from Meera, leaving the chair empty in poorly executed subtlety. With a sidelong glance at him, though Aristide wasn't paying attention anymore, Ash shed his outer coat and sat down.
"I didn't think you were coming," Meera said with a smile, handing him the chalot of ale she'd poured.
"Didn't think I was either," he returned, toasting her and taking a large swig. The brew was good tonight, dark and dry; he would have to be careful.
But as the night went on, Ash decided he was very happy to be there and let his reserve down a little more. With a little drink, he allowed himself to loosen up enough to share in his fellow trainers' laughter and stories. When there was no responsibility like this, when life was not so serious as during training, they were quite the happy community of friends.
However, despite his enjoyment of the evening and Meera's permanent attachment to his arm, Ash couldn't quite shake the melancholy of his earlier walk. Tomorrow things would drastically change. The laughing fools of tonight would become serious adults on the morrow, himself very much included.
Meera caught the drop in his voice when Ash allowed himself to think on it too long. She would lean close and smile at him, her pretty eyes telling him that she knew this was not his favorite place to be.
"I'm glad you came," she said into his ear. Then, with a little kiss to his cheek, her hand strayed furtively to his knee.
It was hard to ignore such an invitation. Ash took another large gulp from his chalot and pretended that all was well and good.
In truth what was really bothering him was another feeling he couldn't get rid of. In fact, it had begun to grow as the night went on. It had to do with tomorrow he knew, but why, he could not fathom. He was… apprehensive.
What was there to be anxious about? He'd done this many times over- acquired a new Subject, done his training and sent them on their way. While it was true that he had never been fully accepting of the morals of the practice, he still went on. It was his duty and job to do what others could not.
So why then was he getting uneasy over something so routine?
By the end of the night, they were all good and sloshed. Aristide had landed himself in the attentions of a pretty barmaid and while hanging on a porch post for support, had announced to the rest of the group that he would gallantly stay behind and wait for her to get off work to walk her home. Ash sighed through his nose as the rest laughed and half-stumbled off of the porch towards the stocks where their horses were tied.
More sober than the rest, Ash walked to his own mount, absently looking up at the night sky and wondering who else in the world was looking up at that moment.
A hand entwined in his. Meera leaned against him and followed his gaze.
"What are you looking at?" she asked.
"Just wondering how far away they really are," Ash answered of the stars. Beside him, she gave a little laugh.
"You really do think too much," she commented, pulling him to stop their stroll. Just tipsy enough to be a little bold, she reached out and put her arms around his neck. Her hands played with the hair that spilled over his shoulder.
"It's so long," she said, leaning close.
"Always has been," Ash answered, deciding that the human contact felt good. It had been a while since he had been in the mood, and one couldn't be a stone statue all the time.
"It's a beautiful color," she cooed, "like wheat. You must be very vain."
Ash leaned his head down and kissed her lips, smooth as velvet. "I am."
"No you're not," she laughed. "But you should be. Look at your eyes, so pretty and dark. You have the look of a court scholar you know, so even-eyed and uninterested. Are you so bored?" "d"
Ash blinked slowly as she traced his features with the pads of her fingers, paying attention to how warm her palm was against his jaw. "Sometimes," he said with a little grin, which she returned. "But not right now."
They shared several more moments in silence there, kissing, sharing touch and warmth. After a moment, Meera leaned close and pressed her face against his neck.
"Let's go back to the inn," she said.
Wordlessly, Ash let her take his hand and lead him back. Away from his horse, away from the Compound. Away from his duties for one more night.
part 2 | back to main