Artist : Joe Slucher
Author : Shona Kinsella
Nasarin gently placed the mangrove-wood box on his desk and waited until Orlo, his scribe, had left the room before easing the lid open to check on the contents. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the two jewels nestled in the velvet lining, undamaged. It would be more than his life was worth if anything happened to the Teleruse. Rightly speaking, he should never have removed them from the Guild House in the first place, but now they were back where they belonged, and all would be well – as long as no-one found out, that was.
Reluctantly, he closed the lid, shutting off the gentle glow that came from the gems. A pang of loss tugged at him, as he picked up the box and took it to the back wall of his office. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure that Orlo had not come back into the room before tapping a pattern on the wall. A section of wooden board, looking no different from the rest, swung open with a hiss of escaping air. Nasarin pushed the box to the back of the cubby-hole that had been revealed, allowing his fingers to caress the polished wood of the lid before finally pulling his hands away and closing the door.
Sighing, he straightened his deep blue robe and took a seat behind the desk that dominated his office. He looked at the window, which would normally be open to let air move freely through the room but even now, smoke swirled and coiled down the street and the acrid taste of it caught in the back of Nasarin’s throat. He had insisted that the window be closed against it – the glass a luxury that many in the village had to do without. Those unfortunate souls would have to breathe the smoke all day and night. They would not have the respite that those in the Merchant’s Guild had. But what concern was that of his? None at all, Master Horik would say.
Tutting at himself, Nasarin pulled a sheet of paper across the desk and began to make notes in tiny, cramped handwriting. Even the Guild could not afford to waste paper. Orlo returned with a jug of water and two cups, which he sat on the desk, pouring for them both. Ripples danced on the surface of the water as they had for the last several days. They seemed to be getting worse.
Nasarin dragged his gaze away, forcing his attention back to the paper in front of him. He had sent his wife and children to visit her family, many miles inland and had not yet received word of their arrival. Worry coiled in the back of his mind, distracting him from his work.
He was not the only member of the guild to send his family away; if all returned to normal, they would no doubt be penalised for breaking ranks. Once more his gaze was drawn to the cup of water and the ripples that broke its smooth surface.
He felt the rumbling in the muscles and bones of his legs before he became aware of the sound; a grinding, groaning noise that came from the earth, building to a shriek that drove him to his feet. He reached the window just a moment before Orlo, the two of them shoulder-to-shoulder, peering out into the street. A thicker cloud of smoke was descending, obscuring the sky, making the light murky. Nasarin could hardly see the buildings on the other side of the narrow thoroughfare. From somewhere nearby, there came the sound of yelling cut off by a great crashing.
The ground shook beneath their feet and pottery shattered behind them when the water jug fell off the desk. Orlo whimpered, trembling. He is but a boy, Nasarin thought. Barely older than my Darien. Nasarin gripped the young scribe’s shoulder.
‘All will be well,’ he said, the hoarseness of his voice betraying his fear.
Outside, people emerged out of the smoke, running down the street, away from the centre of the village, casting terrified looks behind them. An old man fell to the ground and disappeared between the legs of the others.
‘They trampled him!’ Orlo cried. ‘They’ve gone mad.’
‘We are safe in here,’ Nasarin said, pulling the boy away from the window. He was unsteady, the shaking of the ground becoming more violent. ‘Get under the desk and stay there.’
Crashes came from other parts of the building. After tucking Orlo under the desk, Nasarin made his way out into the corridor and towards the main door of the Guild Hall. Some of his brethren were already gathered there and he earned some glares, pushing his way through and out onto the steps. He turned towards the mountain, his hand flying to his mouth when he saw the glow of fire that filled the sky.
His blood ran cold. We were wrong, and we’ve doomed everyone because of it!
The press of people in the street grew thicker as more villagers tried to flee. Nasarin’s eyes were drawn to a young woman carrying an infant on one hip. The child was wailing, and the woman began singing to it, her words unclear through the noise and chaos. Suddenly she squealed as she stumbled, going down to one knee. The crowd pressed on around her as she struggled to get back to her feet.
Nasarin remembered the old man who had been trampled as he and Orlo had watched from the window. The same would happen to this woman and her child if she did not regain her feet. It looked like she would get up, but then someone knocked into her and she fell again.
Without thought, Nasarin plunged into the crowd, angling his way across the street, towards the woman and child. Someone shouted his name from the Guild Hall steps, but he ignored them, and their voice was swallowed up. The noise was overwhelming, the crowd pressed in against him and all he could do to stave off panic was shut down, pushing all of his emotions down into his gut, where they lay like a stone.
He pushed and elbowed his way through the press of bodies, his blue robe doing nothing to clear a path, as it would have under normal circumstances. He was thankful for his height, which let him see a little over the top of the crowd, although not enough to see the woman and child. It felt like he had been pushing against the flow of people for hours, though it could only have been a minute or two.
At last, he came upon them. The woman was kneeling, the child cradled to her breast, her back bowed, trying to protect it. Knees and thighs shoved and hit her as people pushed past. Nasarin was impressed with her strength; he had expected to find her dead and crushed. He stood at her side and gripped her arm. She looked up, her expression frightened then changing to gratitude when she realised he was trying to help her.
‘You must get up, quickly,’ he said, shouting to be heard above the crowd and the grinding noise that still sounded from the ground.
‘I can’t, my ankle is hurt,’ she shouted, holding the child out to him. ‘Please. Help my daughter.’
‘I will help you both,’ he said. He bent and wrapped an arm around her back. ‘Lean on me.’
The woman leaned her weight into Nasarin and he hauled her to her feet, sheltering her with his body as much as he could. They were closer to the other side of the street than to the Guild Hall, so he angled them in that direction and started moving carefully, supporting the woman’s weight.
The crowd was beginning to thin and the going was easier than it had been. Soon they were free, and Nasarin pulled the woman and child into a space between buildings, where she could rest. She was weeping, kissing her child’s face and Nasarin felt like an intruder but he daren’t move away from her, lest she fall.
All of a sudden, silence fell, deafening in it’s unexpectedness. The ground stopped shaking, and the stragglers still making their way down the street, stopped and milled around, confused. Nasarin looked towards the mountain; the glow of fire in the sky had disappeared, the smoke thinning already.
Around him, people fell to their knees, calling out praise to the gods.
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