It was evening on one of those muggy midsummer nights, when the sun sets gold and orange over the west rocks. Heat still swayed up from the flagstones in the sun-yard, and even in the shade of the patio, sheltered by creeper thick on the trellis above and to the sides, and pungent with the aroma of summer flowers, it still felt sticky hot.
My clothing was sticking to me, and I could feel the slow, agonizing trickle of sweat as it ran down the back of my neck. The only comfort to the heat was the chill glass of djaubna in my hand, the ice cubes clinking as they melted lower into the cup, diluting the deep sunset red of the beverage to a hue almost pink.
Through the opening into the sun-yard, the sun was climbing the far clay wall, the bottom just touching the swirled paintings of running gazelles. Behind us in the house, the dog slept on its rug in a patch of crawling sunlight, twitching in its small, canine dreams. In the very slight wind, too small to cool us at all, the prayer strands on the olive tree were sparkling, sending glittering trails skittering like crab-spiders across the dry grass and into the house.
The sounds of children playing in the dusty street came remotely, with calls of "Anah!", "Saa!" and "Lamtaa!" the air singing with their laughing youthful voices, mixed with the sound of a ball being thrown between them. The birds were already in their nests for the night, chirping and whistling, the long-legged har'a'da birds spreading their ruby red wings, rocking the nesting bush slowly, crying out its name-sound as the sun fell beneath the distant mountains. The hissing drone of insects was slowly rising.
Karja sat across from me at the glass-topped table, his djaubna long finished, the clicking ice cubes and water the only remains. He was chewing on the worm, shifting its rubbery body around his mouth slowly as he thought. Our shared meal of kaju-bread and golden hummus only a crumb-covered plate between us. He was stroking his graying beard thoughtfully with a weathered hand covered in pale scars, his dark eyes staring at nothing in particular. This was our nightly routine, to sit on our shaded patio as dusk fell, eating a shared meal and drinking cold, fiery djaubna.
"Sat'na tells me that the eastern hills have been troubled lately," he said, after a moment of thought, chewing on the worm, "He says he has walked out there among the Stones and heard drums from the bone-holes. He says the sky will rain blood and the Nightmare-kin will come for the wicked and take them back to their Lords Dark Palace."
"Sat'na is an insane fear-monger," I commented, taking another sip of my drink, swallowing it without tasting it. "You remember the time when he claimed that the Kei'ka would flood with the corpses of disease-stricken aldu-fish? Nothing happened, and the nets were full with healthy catch that filled many stomachs." I watched a bee hum to itself as it visited the flowers in the hanging baskets, its sisters doing their last rounds to the boxes around our patio.
He chewed on the worm for a few more moments, and I reckoned that it had lost its spicy flavor a long while before. He clicked it in his mouth, and we for a long moment listened to the sounds of the children playing. Soon, I wagered, their mothers would come to the doors of their walled in yards, calling their names, followed by the word that brings all good Tif'n children home on time: dinner. He was stroking his pale beard, and I had been chewing on an ice chunk, crunching it between my teeth. I tried not to think of how it sounded almost like crunching bone.
"He need only be right once, my friend," he spoke, after a time. "Some say he is a prophet sent by the Dreamers to tell us when we must do what we must do. That we will be punished for being evil and wicked. That we will be cast into the pits of the Nightmare-Lords prison, to become fell beasts and His distorted, Nightmare-pets for what has been done. Some believe him."
"Are you one of them, Karja Kalseth? I thought I knew you better than to believe such a sack of foolery from the mouths of madmen, no matter what the rumours say. Next you will tell me that you truly believe that a great dung-beetle rolls the sun across the sky as its smaller brethren roll balled faeces across the ground," I sat forward in my seat, the wicker creaking in protest as I shifted my weight. I ran a hand over my bald head, and looked at him in stern questioning.
"No, of course not, old friend. We've been through far too much to blindly believe what others say of things," he looked away, and when he returned his gaze to me, his eyes looked haunted. I did not ask why, for I already knew. I had been there too, and entertained the same ghosts as he. I eased back in my chair again, and took another sip of the djaubna, letting its spicy, bitter-sweet taste roll around on my tongue for a long moment before swallowing.
"Does your conscience trouble you for the past? You could visit the Pale Spire and have such things taken care of, if it bothers you so greatly. Those women would gladly grant you forgetfulness and peace... though the price is steep." I straightened my beard, before looking at my hands. They bore the same pale scars as Karja's, in different criss-crossing patterns. I tried not to think about it too deeply.
"No. No, of course not. We did what we had to. You were there. You know that we did no more than must needed to have been done. We had no choice. We had to." A frown set upon his face, making his wrinkles crease further, shadowing deeper in the falling light, "We had to."
We fell silent for a long time then, him stroking his beard and staring distantly off into space as he was often prone to do, and I finishing my djaubna, chewing on the ice cubes, then swallowing the worm at the bottom without bothering to chew the taste out of it. The sound of children playing faded as they were called away to dine, being replaced only with the sounds of the wandering bees and the odd surprised yelping of dogs in their yards, having successfully captured one. Likewise, we chased the trail of our own thoughts as well, but unlike the unthinking dogs, we both hoped to never catch the stinging prize at the end of it.
Karja spoke before either of us reached that point, breaking the silence between us, "More storming clouds are coming in. It will rain soon."
I looked up to the east at the pinkish-gray anvil cloud slowly drawing in from over the eastern hills, and nodded, "Good. The farmers will like it then, and it will give the children puddles to play in. We'll lose the dust for a while, too, and that is always good. It will be a pleasant change from this horrible humid heat we have. The crocodiles seem unimpressed."
"The crocodiles are always unimpressed when the water is getting low, though they grin always," Kajra laughed a little, nervously, "perhaps they grin because they are laughing at us? No matter how many crocodiles wait, the gazelle must drink." Remembering something, his face became haunted again, and he looked away, returning to the paths of his own thoughts.
I sighed, today was not a fine day for memories of the past, but no day really was, especially in summer. We both fell silent for a long time again, as the bees finished their visiting and flew back to their nests just as the slight cool of the oncoming night invited families outdoors into their patios. We heard the sounds of others drinking and laughing, and somewhere the sound of a low whistle struck up, in some jaunty dancing tune, much to the gaiety of the listeners on that near-distant patio. Our silence was common, and as we were used to it, yet we both fidgeted to try to elude our memories, though it did neither of us any particular good. The sun had disappeared from our wall, to touch only the topmost branches of our olive tree.
When it began to rain, warm like the sweat we had endured earlier, we sat for a few more minutes, staring up at the sky and at each other, the red droplets splashing across our faces and down our white-clad bodies, coloring our pale hair and skin dark red. We could hear frightened wails from the surrounding homes, and children screaming. It tasted metallic and familiar in my mouth. Like blood.
A screeching wail rose from the distant edge of town, sounding like nothing the men or beasts of T'fin could produce. A shiver scuttled down my spine and I bowed my head in painful memory of atrocious deeds committed long ago.
"Do you suppose the Nightmare-Lord lets His pets have djaubna?" Karja asked after a moment, his eyes clear for the first time in a long while. He was looking at the sky with a sort of longing, the elusive ghost of justice.
We started for the house to finish the last of the barrel, and quickly, just in case He didn't.