Naban, in the south part of Serehvan, is a harsh place. The earth is flat, cut through by dark lines of floodways, jagged cracks of night in a sea of waving grasses, green as the sea in the summer, when the rains come from thunderheads that are gray monoliths, towering in limitless sky, shot through with blinding lightning, gold after the rains end, waving, silk cloth fluttering on its table in a breeze that is the cold breath of Lady Oulesur. It was beautiful before the knife-winds came. Now it is harsh and ugly both.
In my sixth planting season, my father and mother worked tirelessly in that dry, rocky earth beneath an unforgiving sun, hot on the body despite the chilly air. They had two oxen, skinny old beasts, and they put them in turns to pull the plow, taking turns themselves at pushing while the other came behind with seeds. We planted poppies and we planted mezakh, a hardy and, as I think on it, foul-tasting grain. I have not eaten it since I left home. I find I miss it, even if it had the taste of ash and dirt. The people of Naban look like me; pale eyed, dark haired, with clear brows; it is said we have burnished brass for skin. Naban was a harsh place.
They tried to teach me how to sew the seeds, but my mind was elsewhere. I wandered off alone, with bright blue cloth wrapped around my shoulders and head and rough wool leggings for warmth.
As I said, that was the day my life truly began, and it began with the taking of another’s life. Perhaps that action was truly one of taking; perhaps I took the life and made it part of me, filled my husk with the contents of another’s.
I found a mouse. A little thing, gray and pink, writhing on the ground beneath a yellow wall of ridge a hundred yards from our squat stone house, in the midst of the great dust and stone rocklands to the south. The ridge was part of a floodway, but in that dry time before the mountains further south thawed, there was only a thin trickle of water. The floods would come in the next month’s time and soak the field.
I walked up the riverbed and found the mouse wriggling away in the dust, its eyes closed, its mouth open. I squatted beside it, watched it, and then slowly lifted it in my hand. I walked around and climbed the ridge and searched for a mouse hole or warren, but found none. The mouse writhed in my hand and an understanding seized me, that it might not live even if I found its family. It had fallen a great distance for a tiny body and was wounded gravely. I remembered one of Lord Salat’s teachings: “Do not let another suffer if it is in your power to aid.”
Tears filled my eyes. Just that morning, mother had lamented that we had scarce enough mezakh for ourselves when I spilled my porridge. “Oh, Heshim,” she had said as she knelt, picking up grains by her fingernails, “we could not spare one grain for a mouse. You must eat it.” She was strong and short, with a deep-lined face and calloused hands and a soft voice. I and my brother and sisters never went hungry. Holding the tiny cool body, I thought she must have seen the creature already and left it there since we could not feed and nurse it.
I placed the creature on the ground and picked up a rock. I stared at it, writhing and pink and gray, and I chose a strange mercy.
My life had begun. I spent the rest of the day helping my parents sew mezakh seeds.
Little of import happened between then and my fourteenth planting season, although I felt all the events of the interim were of serious import. In the fourteenth season, though, the knife-winds first blew up from Lonireil.
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