Part one: A Child is Born

Chapter one

It was a dark night, a calm night, on the island of Ciprus. The clear night sky veiled the world in utter darkness, the stars twinkling meekly overhead. Moonlight illuminated the rooftops of the village and cast eerie shadows in the streets. The occasional hoot of an owl pierced the silence, but no one took any notice of this. Nor did they take notice of the woman who ran across the small, narrow road in the village, entered a house, then left not two minutes later, this time laden with blankets and towels. She hurried back into the only house that didn't hold sleeping inhabitants.

Suddenly, a loud, echoing scream pierced the still air, and then another. The people of Ciprus could hear it all over the small island, but no one dared leave the security of their homes. They only went to their windows to listen.

Scream after scream broke the silence, each one becoming more urgent and less shrill as the voice's owner began to loose her strength. When the island was once again plunged into stillness, the people and animals on it held their breaths. Listening, waiting.

One final scream, and then a cry of joy shattered the hush following it. A baby's wail could be heard from the lit house, and the sounds of several weeping women.

"He is here! He is here!" someone cried out their window, and the cry passed from mud brick house to mud brick house as the people realized that a miracle had just occurred on their little island.

Inside the house, five women were present to witness the miracle: the mother and her four slaves. The baby was tiny, and had hardly any meat on him at all. But he was breathing and crying, and that was the important thing. The slaves washed the baby in warm water and wrapped him in a rough wool blanket before handing him to his panting, sweating, beaming mother.

"What will you name him, Katya?" one of the slaves asked, continuing to dab at her mistress's forehead with a cloth soaked in cold sea water.

Katya, the mother, didn't hesitate. She smiled, kissed her newborn's forehead, then answered, "Emrah, for his father." "Rest his soul," another slave said with a small sigh.

"It's a good name," said one more with approval, rinsing her rough hands in the same basin of water she'd used to wash the babe. "A strong name." She walked to the cot where the mother and child lay, exhausted, and stroked the baby's forehead with a single callused finger. The child stirred, gurgled, then quieted. "One day, little Emrah," the slave whispered, "all will know your name, and they will bow to you. You will bring about the end of Evil as we know it."

Katya smiled at the familiar prophecy and looked around the little room at the other women. "He would not be in the world, were it not for you. I want to thank you all."

"We're naught but your humble servants," the slaves said in unison.

Adris, the slave soaking her mistress's head, added, "And we never would have declined such an opportunity, even if we could."

Katya smiled up at her friend. She regarded none of these women as slaves, the way her husband had wanted her to. In her eyes, they were all equals. They were all dressed in the inconspicuous brown garments of slaves, their bronze skin glittering with sweat from the hard evening's labours. When they'd come to her, Katya remembered, they had been dangerously thin, with haunted eyes and trembling hands, and half-healed broken bones. Their bodies were riddled with scars, old and new, and pieces of their dark hair had been ripped out. Katya, disgusted at their appearances and the treatment of the four women, had accepted the gift from her husband and immediately taken the women into her care. With time, they'd fattened some, and their hair had all grown to luxurious lengths. They still bore the scars of their past, but Katya made certain that no more wounds were added to the collection. She was kind and respectful of her servants, and made a point of assuring that everyone else on the island was too.

"I want you all to know - all four of you - that you are nothing like the slaves that my husband purchased you to be," she told them. "From now on, you will be free women, and you will serve not a soul but your own."

A torrent of objections exploded in the tiny room. The women told her faithfully that they couldn't possibly accept, that she was still weak and didn't know what she said. They mentioned many times that they were happy with their stations in life, but Katya knew that this was a lie. For instance, only yesterday she'd caught Taeji, a woman of acute wisdom and daring, looking out at the ocean with a painful look of yearning in her dark eyes. And she knew that all of these women had their own painful stories of before they'd come to her, and that the years they'd spent with her had been the best years of their lives - which, when their lives consisted mostly of doing chores and running errands, said a lot. It was time for Katya to put her foot down. "I'm perfectly sane," she told them firmly, and their nervous chattering stopped. "I want you all to be freed. Send for the shaman and have him remove your bindings to me. Right now, while I still have the strength to keep my eyes open."

While Cari, the swiftest of the bunch, ran for the shaman, Taeji, Adris, and Farida tried to talk Katya out of this spontaneous decision. They wanted nothing more than to serve her.

"Then let me pay you for your toils," Katya told them firmly.

Farida, with her deep growl of a voice, smiled fondly at the new mother. "Katya, we are paid daily by your kindness and your wisdom."

Katya's bronze cheeks flushed as she murmured her thanks.

When Cari and the shaman returned scarce minutes later, the shaman walked into the room with a confused look in his eyes. He gazed sceptically around at all five women, and when his eyes finally came to a standstill, they rested upon the newborn Emrah.

"So this is the Child of Peace, endowed with blessings of this world and the next," he murmured, his eyes locked on the wrinkled baby's face. Out of instinct, Katya drew the child closer to her breast and said shortly, "I wish to free these women, shaman."

Shaken out of his entrancement by Katya's voice, he suddenly realized his reason for being in the modest little home. He glared at the slaves, who cringed.

"You mustn't take advantage of this woman," he scolded, "and she, still weak from childbirth. Shame on you!" "They took no advantage of me, shaman, I can assure you," Katya said. "Please, I want them freed. All four."

"All four? You'll have no one to tend to you," the shaman warned.

"We will stay by her side until our dying days," Adris said roughly. "You can be well assured of that." The other three women nodded solemnly.

The shaman sighed, for he didn't see the point to arguing the matter any further. He bade the slaves kneel before him, then closed his eyes and began to chant softly, almost to himself. The words were impossible to understand; they were spoken in a tongue long forgotten by the vast majority of people in the world. A gruff noise soon replaced the shaman's words, a kind of gurgling coming from the back of his throat. Katya, for her part, watched in wonder as the shaman began to acquire a kind of yellowish glow about his body. The four women kneeling before him seemed outlined by an iridescent glow of their own, their bodies shaking uncontrollably as if they were having a seizure. Their eyes rolled back in their sockets and their mouths opened in soundless cries of agony.

Katya shivered. A whistling, howling noise filled the room as the temperature steadily dropped. She firmly wrapped her baby to the best of her ability in its blanket and held him close, trying unsuccessfully to calm him as he began to wail. Suddenly, something shot from the bodies of the four women on the ground. Four separate white, translucent lights twisted themselves slowly into individual forms, until floating above each woman's head was the shape of a creature. Above Taeji sat a great white owl, and above Adris was a small ginger cat. Cari's creature was a majestic hawk, and Farida's was in the shape of a giant bear. The animals all hung limply above the heads of the women, as if unconscious or dead. The animals suddenly woke and looked at Katya, blinking, their heads cocked curiously to one side. She looked down at herself and realized that she was wrapped in glowing white chains which spread out from her and enveloped the animals and the women beneath them.

Frightened, Katya began to squirm, struggling vainly to loosen herself from the shackles. But the more she squirmed, the more tangled she became. Finally, trusting that the shaman would do his job properly, she ceased to move, and only watched in wonderment at what came next.

The chains around Katya and the animals broke, falling apart link by link. As each broken link hit the floor, it was absorbed into the ground, leaving behind not a single trace of its existence. Once free, the animals all stretched, let out a triumphant cry, then dove back into the former slaves' bodies. The women stopped shaking and fell to their hands and knees. The shaman, who had stopped chanting, looked down upon them with an almost disgusted look, no doubt disappointed by the loss of four hard workers. He took a long, tired breath, held it a moment, then let it out in the form of a loud sigh. "How do you feel?" he asked the women. Farida was the first to respond. "I feel … free," she whispered, touching her face and pinching her arms, assuring herself that this was definitely not a dream. She turned towards Katya to thank her, but stopped, motioning to the others not to make a sound. Amidst all the excitement, Katya had fallen asleep, her newborn child cradled expertly in her arms.


Although the people of Ciprus rejoiced the moment they heard the news about the Child, they did not begin to celebrate until the Mother could walk outside of her house. She presented herself to her people as proud and tall as she could, although beneath her billowing white robes her bones shook and her muscles ached. Her long, flowing black hair was tied expertly back into intricate knots atop her fragile head, small white ribbons braided into it. Her big brown eyes gleamed with joy as she stepped out into the light, the still wet paint adorning her face gleaming in the sun.

Instantly, a swarm of people came to surround her, to see the baby, touch him, and, on the rare occasion, hold him. He also wore white, his tiny body drowned in a long gown that would have fit most toddlers. A small amount of fine black hair sat atop his head and rustled in the breeze, while the brown eyes he shared with his mother looked around this new world in curiosity and amazement.

Someone took up a drum and began to beat a slow, steady pulse on it, and as more and more people came out into the streets, more drums began to play. As one, the huge crowd began to flow through the streets, onto the Sacred Ground of Ciprus, where the real festivities would begin. There was singing, dancing, laughing and genuine merriment evident all around them. Here, a pair of young men beat steadily on their drums, their heads nodding slightly to the beat. There, a veiled dancer with frivolous giggles flirted with a man in the shade of a large, flourishing tree while a squirrel chattered noisily at them for trespassing on its territory. A mother scolded her children for getting under the Elders' feet, and dogs chased cats playfully around the Ground. Even the slaves, who seldom smiled and were usually excluded from events such as this, seemed to be amusing themselves.

It was a warm day, with only a slight breeze to bring the familiar smell of seawater to their noses.

Katya, trying her best to smile and be talkative with friends, neighbours and acquaintances, closed her eyes when she thought no one was watching and rubbed her temples, rolled her shoulders, and raised her face up to the sun.

"Are you unwell?" someone asked behind her.

Katya jumped and whirled around. It was Adris. Katya smiled for a moment, thinking of a possible lie she could tell, but she knew it would be useless. Adris could read her better than anyone she knew.

"I'm just tired," she said quietly, nodding politely over Adris' shoulder to someone who waved good-naturedly at her. Adris scrutinized her long-time friend and mistress. Katya had dark rings under her sunken eyes, and the arms that held her baby shook slightly from even that small effort. Even Katya's smile, a beacon of hope to so many on this island, had lost its glow. "Let me hold him for you," Adris said gently, not waiting for an answer and delicately disentangling a sleeping Emrah from his mother's nearly limp arms. She nodded towards a cushion on the ground and ordered, "Sit."

Katya did as she was told without argument. Adris stood protectively beside her and told all who came near that her mistress grew weary and that it was best if they not bother her. After Adris had turned away at least ten disappointed visitors, Katya commented, "They want to speak to me, Adris. They want to see him."

"I know," Adris said vaguely. "But your health is more important. Emrah will have a long life, there will be plenty of opportunities for people to look at him."

Katya sat in silence for a few more minutes, watching the festivities around her with a slight frown creasing her sweating brow. She suddenly looked up at Adris and said, "Give me my son, and then go to fetch Cari, Taeji, and Farida. I'd like a word." Adris nodded obediently and hastened to do as she was told.

She found the three other women lingering around a couple of the drummers, smiling and nodding playfully at the men whenever they looked the women's way.

"What are you doing?" Adris demanded sharply. "You are here flirting with the drummers while your mistress grows ill."

"Ill?" asked Farida. "She was fine this morning."

"That was then, this is now," Adris snapped. "She craves a word with us - all of us, Taeji."

Taeji snapped to attention at the sound of her name, but before that she hadn't heard a single one of Adris' words; she'd been too busy staring at one of the drummers.

Adris rolled her eyes, seized Taeji by the wrist to ensure that she really did come without getting sidetracked, and led the way for the other two women to their weakening mistress.

They stood in silence before Katya, who nuzzled her newly wakened, gurgling son. After a while, she looked up at her former slaves, and sparkling tears came to her eyes.

"Should anything happen to me -" she began.

"Nothing will happen to you, Katya, you are blessed," Farida interrupted. She opened her mouth to say more, but was silenced by a sharp glare from the other three women.

Katya smiled sadly. "Even the blessed will stumble," she said wisely. "If anything happens to me, I want the four of you to be Emrah's guardians. Raise him as if he were your own. Answer no questions about this day, or me, or the prophecy, until it is time, and let him go when he so chooses, and guard him with your lives. His journey will be long and dangerous, and he will meet his monsters, and he will slay them. Should I live to see it or not."

She looked pleadingly up into the eyes of her friends and they realized that what shone in them was knowledge that her end was near. But none of them was prepared to admit that they would soon be loosing their beloved mistress. "Promise me," Katya whispered, a dark urgency emphasizing her voice.

"We promise," the women said in unison.

Then, Farida added gaily, "But we don't expect you to die for a long time yet. Not for a long, long time yet." Katya only nodded, then got shakily to her feet, pushing away four offered hands. "I am tired," she told them quietly, "and the sun is hot. I'm going home. Hopefully I'll be able to slip out without anyone noticing." And she did. Farida, Taeji, and Cari circled around the place where she sat, pretending to be shielding her against the inquiries, congratulations, and news from the other islanders. Adris, for her part, shooed people away, as she had been doing earlier.

No one argued with Adris - ever. For all that she had once been nothing more than a slave, Adris was well respected on the island. She had a cool head and a calm spirit, so when the well-wishers saw her hands shake and the glistening beads of sweat dotting her brow, they knew well that something horribly urgent plagued the woman's thoughts, and urgency was never something the people of Ciprus took lightly.

When the crowd around the supposed Katya had dispersed, the women all headed their separate ways. Adris went back to Katya's home to serve her mistress. Farida went to fetch the shaman, and Cari and Taeji stayed behind to make excuses for their mistress.

The celebrations lasted long into the night, and well into the next morning. Fires burned brightly throughout the island, and didn't go out until the last drunken celebrator fell unconscious and ceased to feed the flames.

People lay in the streets everywhere, many of them clutching half empty goblets of wine. Some of them were awake and laughing. Occasionally a couple would run giggling through the streets, and a dog would bark madly at them, ruining their ill attempt at secrecy. Discarded food covered the ground, and the starved rats jumped on it with glutinous squeaks of joy.

Adris watched out the small window of Katya's house as a pair of dogs began to fight over the remains of some kind of indistinguishable meal. The city reeked of vomit and urine, as well as rotting, discarded food and other debris.

"Disgusting," she muttered, shaking her head. She would have pulled the drapes over the window, but the scant sunlight filtering through was good for Katya, who was nearly unconscious and oblivious to everything, including the view, as it was. Katya took to bed the night before, complaining of a headache, and never properly woke up the next morning. She was incapable of feeding her baby, so a wet nurse was called to care for him. Katya had cried out in anguish when the baby was taken from her arms, and it had taken the combined forces of Adris and Taeji to hold her down on the bed while Cari poured a potion down the woman's throat to help her sleep. Ever since then, Katya had been floating in and out of consciousness, occasionally calling for her child. "We can't keep caring for her like this forever," Farida told Adris quietly, moving to clean out Katya's bedpan.

"I don't think we'll have to," Adris replied. She turned away from the window and looked round at the other three women, who had frozen in their places.

"No," Cari whispered, a tear rolling down her dark cheek. "She cannot die."

"Would you have her stay on this earth and suffer instead?" Adris demanded.

"Please don't ask us to end her suffering for her," Taeji begged.

"It won't be necessary," Adris said darkly.

"She'll be dead by morning," Farida agreed.

Indeed, Katya looked remarkably sickly. Her skin seemed to sag from her bones and sweat drenched her entire body, no matter how often she was bathed and her sheets changed. Her eyes were sunken into her skull, and had a half-crazed, haunted look about them. Occasionally she'd gaze down at her infant, mutter something undistinguishable to the darling thing, laugh at her own personal joke, then fall back to sleep until the next time she woke to repeat the process over again.

Little Emrah, for his part, did not seem to want to be parted from his mother any more than she wanted to be parted from him. He would not drink the wet nurse's milk, but instead he wailed like a demon until he was returned to his mother's arms. If he didn't eat something soon, everyone was afraid that he would die along with his mother.

"What now?" Cari asked quietly, sitting by Katya's side and stroking the woman's brow. A thought occurred to her and she added anxiously, "What after?" It was then that Katya woke, and Cari backed away to allow the woman her peace whilst she admired her son. But Katya only squinted round the room at them all, contemplating each and every woman's gloomy and worn face. After a moment, she croaked, "I am going to die."

Taeji opened her mouth to deny this, but Adris put her hand up to silence the girl and said soothingly to Katya, "Yes, you will. But you will die in peace, and you will die happy." She bit her lip as she looked at the weakened little Emrah, afraid to tell his mother that, prophecy or no, it may not be long before he joined her in the next world.

Katya smiled reservedly, and for the first time in many long hours her bloodshot eyes didn't seem quite so wild. "I go to see my husband," she agreed. Her brow furrowed in a frown for a moment as she reminded them, "You made a promise. I release you from it, if it was made merely to please me."

"It was made out of love," Farida told her softly, "for you and your son."

"We will keep our promise," Cari put in.

"And the boy will be well taken care of," piped up Taeji with a smile.

Katya's body tensed as she winced against a fresh bout of pain that seemed to pierce her very soul. Fighting to stay awake, if only for a few more seconds, she said, "Please do not grieve for me. It would break my heart." She took a shuddering breath. "When I die, bury me close to the water, so that I might hear the sea."

Tears streamed freely down the faces of all four healthy women present. They nodded, and as the world blackened around her, Katya strained to look upon Emrah one last time. My journey is done in this world, she thought. And I will watch with pride as he begins his.

The dying woman kissed Emrah's beaming face one last time, sighed, and was gone.

Adris, her gaunt face twisted with sorrow, approached the mother and took from her arms the alert little Emrah, who began to squeal in protest

"Hush, little one, hush," Adris whispered, choking on her own tears. "She does not wish for us to grieve."

Without a word to any of the other women, Adris stepped out of the house into the stinking air of the village and walked away, in no particular direction, the screaming Emrah still writhing in her arms. She didn't notice the man holding a shiny new dagger, twirling it languidly around his fingers, standing silently in the shadows beside Katya's door - the man who smiled viciously because he had heard everything.


A/N - Please review. It only takes a second, and i'd really like to know what you think!