I grew up believing that the Celanesians were evil. Since I was a child with rational thought enough to comprehend whatever knowledge my elders threw at me, my mind had been trained to call the foreigners “damn bastards” or “selfish thieves.” Of course, I had never actually seen one at that time. I only heard stories from the others, some of them who never saw one either, and only received their bit of information from someone else. But when you live in a secluded village with nothing to do but listen to stories and ramblings at the crowded tavern or at your neighbor’s last gathering, sometimes you begin to believe some of the gossip.
And then I met a real Celanesian.
When I turned thirteen, my father sent me to live with his eldest brother, my Uncle Ghaman. He was a kind man—a little taciturn and reserved maybe—but he always treated me kindly. However, he already had two daughters of his own and a young son who would someday inherit his property. He wasn’t wealthy, by any true definition of the word, but his income and land were both greater than my father’s, and since my father sewed canvas for miscellaneous items such as grain bags or tents, my family was none other than a bit poor. So I was sent away to live with my uncle and cousins. My parents loved me, don’t be mistaken, but at that age, I was only another mouth to feed. My father decided that the best place for me would be at my uncle’s home, for the time being, and I won’t say he was wrong, though I was glum to have to leave my little brother Sial.
Uncle Ghaman lived in a town slightly larger than mine, a few miles out, on a small ranch that really only raised chickens and the occasional miniature goat, when the year had been gracious. The walk there took less than half a day, and upon my arrival, I was made to feel welcome, though I admit to feeling slightly out of place. It wasn’t the treatment of my extended family that made me feel that way; it was simply that I knew I would be a burden to them just as I was to my immediate family.
I adjusted soon enough to helping around the house, however, so I suppose it was just as well. I didn’t know how to read or write—and neither did my father or mother for that matter—which meant that I couldn’t communicate with them unless they came for a visit. My mother was in poor health, and my father was much too busy for travel, and for two years, I hadn’t seen nor heard from them at all, except for when Errah Lomi, a potter’s son from my village, came on errands and could tell me little bits of news about them upon my prying.
In the summer after that second year, I went into town with one of my cousins, Reyah, to fetch twine for baskets. Only one of us really needed to go, but a steady friendship had budded between us, and we often accompanied each other on such excursions. We purchased the twine and were carrying the large sacks of them back to the house when we heard the hoofbeats of horses and excited murmurs near the edge of town. Both of us turned to glance behind us at the commotion, and that’s when we saw them.
About thirty feet away from town, what at the time looked to me like an army of soldiers —though in reality, it was only a small group of less than two-hundred men—charged down the slope of a small hill toward us. Their black and green armor shone like the skin of a wet eel in the sun. They were Celanesian warriors; we all knew it with certainty, although we had never seen them before. We had heard the dreadful stories, of the white-skinned green-clad warriors that would come to burn down your village. Suddenly, the whole town was in a panic, erupting like a stampede of frightened goats.
“Ana, run!” I faintly heard Reyah say beside me, but I stood still for a moment, too shocked and confused to do anything for a few seconds. Then I turned toward where Reyah was a moment before and began to search frantically with my eyes. She had already scurried several yards away, dropping her bundle in a hurry. The fabric lay burst open and its contents of bundled twine sprawled out forgotten in the dirt. If I hadn’t been so frightened, perhaps I would have felt remorse over the loss of the twine.
I chased after Reyah, but in the chaos, several people bumped into me and knocked my own bundle out of my arms. Someone knocked into me so hard that I fell down in the dirt, my vision swirling into a mix of grey shapes. As the soldiers neared, the hoof beats seemed to shake the ground. I was almost certain there were thousands of them, all charging toward me.
I crawled forward frantically on my palms, groping for some semblance of safety. My eyes darted around looking for my cousin, but she was already gone.
Just as I was about to scramble into a small alley between two houses, someone grabbed me by the hair and yanked me back. I yelped in pained surprise and flailed about in complete disoriented terror, fighting as best as I could to free myself from their iron grasp. I succeeded in whacking my captor between the opening of his half-helm and heard him curse angrily in Celanesian. It didn’t register that another soldier had closed in on me until both of my wrists were seized and I was dragged to the outer wall of a house to be bound and gagged. My eyes watered from the pain in my throbbing skull.
My last thought before being tossed in the back of a wagon was that I wondered whether Reyah had gotten away.