Tale: “Darkness and Light”
As he did every evening, Marwan the hermit emerged from his hut at dusk, just before moonrise, and walked down to the shore where the Great River flowed down into the Middle Sea for a bath. Then he wrapped himself in a thick woolen robe and kindled a small fire for boiling tea and baking a loaf of bread. Once everything was in order, he settled in to wait for Luna's appearance.
Although his attention was focused on the far horizon, from the corner of his eye he noticed a dark mass of debris floating along the rippling silver surface of the river. He was about to dismiss it as a cluster of uprooted papyrus reeds or something similar when part of the mass shifted and and gave up an all-too-human moan.
Rushing to the shoreline, Marwan waded into the water up to his waist and, using his gnarled walking stick, just managed to snag the drifting mass. With an effort he dragged it to the shore. There, by the light of the rising moon, he could see the source of the sound; it was a male human, and one who'd clearly suffered terrible burns.
Carefully, and with strength belied by his frail appearance, Marwan lifted the unfortunate man and carried him into the hut, and then laid him gently on his sleeping pallet. Next he retrieved a battered brazier, scooped some coals from the fire into it, and grabbed some of the brush that he'd gathered for fuel. Taking it back into the hut, he seated himself beside the pallet, opened his healer's kit, and started to work.
* * *
The next week was a grueling one, for both the cleric and his charge. Marwan's vigil was ceaseless, consisting of changing bandages, preparing and applying salves, feeding the man a thin gruel, and praying for recovery. For his part, the man drifted back and forth between feverish, delirious outbursts and occasional, fitful sleep.
Then, on the seventh day, the man settled into peaceful slumber.
* * *
Not wanting to leave his charge's side for his normal evening ablution and meditation, Marwan decided instead to read aloud from his small collection of religious texts. One of these was a treatise that told of Homeworld's creation.
“Once, when the Universe was new, Ptah looked out and decided to start filling it with living beings. To do that, he set out to create two beings, one male and one female. What Ptah did not expect is that each creation actually produced two beings, twins. The male progeny were Sol, who would inhabit the Sun, and the entity known as the Void. The female offspring were Gaea, the Earth Mother, and Lamashtu, Mother of Monsters. Whereas the prior manifested the Earth's potential to provide for all of its children in abundance, the latter embodied the wild nature of living things, survival of the fittest, and thus an evil outlook on life.
“Recognizing the danger that his two unintended offspring represented, Ptah made a difficult decision. He created a star for Sol, so that this deity could be a shining beacon of virtue in the Universe, and also made a planet for Gaea to inhabit. Through the interaction of the two deities, the Earth came to be populated with all manner of plants, animals and other living things. Even so, the situation was not an idyllic one. While the Void absconded to the farthest, darkest reaches of Space, Lamashtu was jealous of her sister and thus took up residence on Earth. There she began to spawn offspring of her own, including many of the monsters that now exist, corrupted versions of the ones that Gaea and Sol created.
“What many humans forget is that the Creator had three female offspring, not two. The third was Luna, who embodied qualities of both Sol and Gaea. For that reason she was given dominion over the moon, a dwelling that illuminates the night sky in the same way as the sun, and that is a companion for the Earth in dark times. She provides light for those who travel in the night, those who explore the Earth but choose to do so without submitting themselves to the dominion of the sun.”
“This, then, is the origin of good and evil in the Universe, and thus the source of all conflicts that have plagued Homeworld—along with the rest of the galaxy—since time immemorial. And so,” Marwan concluded, “all of us are given the opportunity to choose, between benevolence and wickedness, between independence and obedience. It only remains for each of us to decide just how we want to live—following the laws of society, or doing as we please; working to help others, or taking what we want without regard for them.”
Seeing his charge lying motionless, but with slow and steady breathing, Marwan closed his book and allowed himself, too, to nod off into sleep.
* * *
Marwan was still snoring when the man stirred and sat upright. Surveying the inside of the hut, and seeing his rescuer asleep, the man pushed himself unsteadily to his feet. Stooping, he retrieved the knife that the cleric had used to chop herbs for poultices. Then, after considering the older man for a moment, the burned man stooped and cut his throat.
“I've made my choice,” he declared. Then, after gathering what useful items he could find, the man took Marwan's cloaked, used it to mop up the cleric's spilled blood, and departed.
* * *
Along an otherwise desolate stretch of Middle Sea coastline, east of where the Great River flows into it, there is a small cavern whose entrance is entirely concealed by the water at high tide. For that reason it had been chosen by the band of pirates known as Martelli's as the place in which they would lie low after a successful raid, celebrating and waiting for the fervor of enemy pursuit to subside.
This time the mood was anything but celebratory.
“How did they find us so quickly?” asked Emilio, a grizzled old pirate with a head shaved bald and a patch over his right eye.
“It doesn't matter how,” grumbled Julius, a younger who wore his long black hair clubbed. “What matters is, what in Hell are we going to do about it now?”
After being caught unawares while fleeing from their foiled attack on the Skylark, the pirates had suffered heavy casualties defending their own vessel, and then had been forced to abandon it when its hull was holed. By that time had begun to fall, however, and so those who could jumped overboard and made their way under the cover of darkness back to the hideout. Now they sat in the sandy cave, with the light of a single lantern turned down low.
The older man surveyed the younger with a sneer. “Do you have a plan?” Emilio asked.
“No,” Julius conceded. “But—”
That voice came from the hideout's dark tunnel entrance. For a moment the pirates froze, and then they lunged for their weapons. Emilio grabbed the lantern and turned its beam on the cave mouth.
“Who goes there?” he demanded.
The sight that he saw there made even the veteran cutthroat's stomach lurch. It was a human, but one with most of his hair burned away and his skin marred by other burns that had left terrible scarring.
“What in Hell?” Emilio asked.
“Don't you recognize me, Emilio?”
“Bugger me,” the veteran stammered. “Captain Martelli?”
“Aye. Our enemy defeated us, but did not kill me.”
“Captain?” Julius was astonished. “Captain, what would you have us do?”
Martelli smiled. “Rather than cowering here like rabbits, waiting to be caught by the foxes, you should go forth like dogs to the hunt.”
“But Captain,” Emilio objected, “we have no ship, and we've lost most of our men.”
The burned man shook his head. “No.” He pointed back down the tunnel. “There are a ship and crew, ready for the taking, if only we are bold enough to go and claim them.”
“How?” Emilio persisted.
“Julius,” Martelli turned to the younger man. “Do you still have your thieves' tools?”
“Aye.” The pirate nodded and touched the kit that he kept wrapped in the sash about his waist.
“Good.” Martelli retrieved an item from his satchel. “All we need is that, and this.”
“What is it?” Emilio asked.
“This,” Martelli replied, “is our covenant. Previously we served only ourselves as corsairs. Now we will serve a higher purpose, a higher power—Lamashtu. She is the mother of all who are bold enough to take what they want in life instead of begging for it.”
“What must we do?” Julius asked.
Martelli drew a knife from a sheath on his belt. “First we must be bound together. Then I will explain what we do next.”
* * *
The sunrise found a Middle Sea galley—the Resplendent, pat of the Nothern Imperial Navy—lying at anchor along the coastline. As the sky began to brighten and the crew moved back into activity, Captain Francesco Chiaro started issuing orders. “Search parties to the longboats; let's scour this shore until we find those scallywags and bring them to justice!”
His men hastened to comply; soon the boats were lowered into the water and crewed, and rowing toward the shore. At the same time, a figure came swimming, underwater and unseen, between them, and made his way to the anchor line that ran down from the galley's stern. Climbing that, Martelli lunged for the galley's transom and then hauled himself up and over it.
“Ahoy!” he declared. “I am Captain Arturo Martelli, and I have come to parley with you.”
Chiaro stared at the newcomer, and then glanced about at the sailors and soldiers who remained from his own compliment. “You have?” His words dripped with scorn. “And what could you possibly offer, with which to parley?”
“Yes. The right to live as men should, unhindered by moral or ethical limitations.”
As Martelli continued his diatribe, Julius swam up to the surface alongside the galley, next to the port from which one of its massive oars protruded. As the rowers reacted to his sudden appearance, he shushed them with a finger to his lips.
“If any of you will join us,” he whispered, “then I will set you free.”
He received numerous nods in response.
“Does any among you know how to use these?” From his sash he retrieved his set of thieves' tools and opened it for them to see.
One of the rowers raised his hand just a fraction. Julius closed the kit and passed it along to him. Then he handed over a number of knives, small but very sharp. “Be ready to attack on our signal,” he instructed, and then swam away.
Captain Martelli, meanwhile, was still extemporizing about his philosophy regarding liberty, self-determination and other related subjects. Just as he was building toward a rousing finish, one of the soldiers shouted, “Hey, some of the rowers—”
“Now!” Martelli bellowed. Drawing his concealed rapier, he rushed to engage Captain Chiaro. At the same time, his crewmen—led by Emilio and Julius—came clambering up over the galley's siderails. When the soldiers moved to intercept these newcomers, they found that numerous rowers were free of their chains, armed, and eager to vent their anger. Even those who were still shackled did what they could to grapple and pummel the soldiers. Seeing that, the attacking pirates pulled out shortbows and began sniping targets as they could. The galley's captain and crew fought valiantly, but the tide of battle turned inevitably against them. In the end, Martelli distracted Chiaro with a lunging feint, and Julius stabbed him in the back. When they saw their captain slump, lifeless, to the ground, the other crew members threw down their weapons and surrendered. Those crewmen who'd set out in the longboats, recognizing that they stood no chance of retaking the ship, headed for shore.
* * *
As the pirates went about their business of chaining the surviving soldiers and organizing the newly liberated crew, none paid much heed to the parrot that perched on a spar of the galley's mainmast. After observing them for a time, it took to wing and flew southward.