Water & Dust

In his dream, the river is burning and Tauro is dying. He sees flames leaping up from the dry, rotten riverbed – a hellish vision of a flood season gone terribly wrong. Tapirs rush from the valley into the forests as fast as their feet can carry them. Our houses burn. An army of the dead stands beneath a black sun, their skeletal faces – children’s faces – are terrible to see in the black light. They are crying out for Tauro to lead them once again, to lead them down, down into the depths of the earth. Putrid, fetid hands reach out for him. And Tauro, knowing his peril, captured by his fear, cannot move. He is bound to his seat, bound to his throne. He is wretched and thin, thirsty and weak, old and helpless. He watches the fires spread, watches them consume the river and the tapirs and the trees and the dead ones until there is nothing left. All is black and fire. And then Tauro wakes.

Many years ago, when we were young and when it first troubled his sleep, he told me of the dream. Though he was young and hale, there was something in the nightmare that gripped at his heart, that put fear into so strong a man. I could not comfort him. “Forget it,” he said, “It was only a dream.”

It has been many years since Tauro was first haunted by those visions, since he first spoke their troubling images to me, and in the long years after we have walked our paths and tended our duties and the dream has slipped off of our tongues. But now, though he does not speak of it, I see it in his face: again, he has dreamed the dream.

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Like an old woman, our land was drying, becoming barren. The course of the river had changed, the fonts and springs had dried. The water was leaving.

The council could not decide on a course of action, could not decide what the drought meant or how to react to it. They debated the wills of our gods, the passing of our power, the signs of war – and still they could not find the heart of the matter. During their debates I sat out of sight, not daring to speak lest I shame Tauro. But with a woman’s wisdom I would have told them that the water had passed. That is enough. It is the nature of things to dry and wither. They are men, though. For them there must be blame or glory when change comes – there is no change that they will accept as natural, as beyond the scope of their power. Tauro could not accept the perpetuity of the drought any more than any man can accept the loss of a power that he had assumed to be invulnerable and infinite.

But rivers flow for no man. When the will of the water fades, there is no altering the course of it. When the council could come to no decision, it fell to Tauro – head of the council, greatest of leaders, the Campeador of our people – to lead them.

Thirst is an enemy that has broken many strong places and it pained Tauro to be laid so low, to be – for the first time in his life – helpless. Tauro had been Campeador for two generations of men and never before had he faced so stout a foe.

He was a mountain of a man, tall and broad and strong. In his youth he had been a fearsome fighter. Along his tanned cheekbones stretched the scars of a lance that had strayed too close; he wore his scars proudly, a sign of his victory. Yet, for all his physical authority, Tauro had ruled in peace. Under his stewardship Origo thrived. The river running on the city’s eastern edge ran south past fields of corn, past the city’s walls and down into the forests of the south. Beyond our walls, mountains loomed up on either side of the river. To the north, the plains faded into dust. And in the midst of it all was Origo, nestled into a small, open space of flat land. We harvested the corn of our fields, hunted the tapirs of the woods, and drank the water of the river. There had been plenty for all. There had been peace. It was a small world, but it was ours, and Tauro – if not in title then in the hearts of our people – was our king. I, his queen, sat at his side, silent and waiting, an image of patient subservience.

For long years I had loved Tauro. He had taken me to wife when I was still a girl and he fresh to manhood. I had cowered at his touch when I was young, but I never cried out, never wept. The women of Origo are, for the most part, silent. We are the marginalized sex. Our agency lies in the closed hands of our men. What strength was in me was neither seen nor heard, it was hidden away in places that none could find, forged in the deep places of my soul as I walked so often through the deep places of the Campeador’s estates. It was a strength made in tunnels and shadows, a power bred of isolation and introspection. It was a needed, if thankless, strength. Through all the years of our long life together I had stood beside Tauro, a well for him to fill with his grief and his anger and his doubt. I was flooded with the troubles of a man and a kingdom that had seldom heard me speak, made to fill and fill with the troubles of others and yet remain one and whole. But my walls became thin and bowed out under the strain. I did not know how long I could keep it all in, could maintain the calm that my burden had bought. I had grown tired. I had grown old.

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In the courtyard of the Campeador’s compound, fires roared into the sky. A half-dozen priests stood in a line, paint smeared across their faces, staves and bows in their hands. Behind them, standing back to back in a circle, were a dozen women wearing towering headdresses, covered so that only their eyes shone out through the cloth. I sat beside Tauro in the dirt, our hands and legs folded, and watched and waited.

These were the motions, Tauro had said, the actions that would buy us favor, that would save our lands. In other times, he had called upon the priests and this, he said, was no different. But I knew better. The world had changed and so had Tauro. To all others he was the same, a great leader of men calling upon his priest to summon the gods and plead with the unknown realm, but to me, who knew him best, all his years of sturdiness seemed to have worn away. He was frail and shaking, a shell of the man he used to be. Tauro was fraying at the edges. His days were haunted by the drought and his nights were haunted by the dream, a vision that gnawed at his mind just as the drought ate away at Origo. And if all this change had befallen Tauro, most resolute of men, then what had become of the world he had known?

Drums rolled and from out of the distance came a marching line of hunters, pounding with bones on animal skin stretched taught over wooden bowls. They approached the priests and the women and halted their march without halting the beating of the drums.

A high wail went up. The women began to sing and chant in brash ululations. It is a shocking thing to hear Origon women, usually so quiet and tempered, screech so loudly. Their song and formation grew and changed, growing loud and frenzied in one moment and falling quiet and subdued in the next, warping around one another in a wild and controlled pattern. They moved in great arching motions and then in short, staccato bursts. They moved before the priests and behind them, they addressed and ignored them. The priests made no acknowledgement.

The women’s song grew louder and louder, crescendoing to a cacophonic zenith. Their formation violently expanded and then slowly shrank back as the song grew in controlled intensity until they were standing, once again, back to back to back in a tight circle, their sound rending the air. They burst into the climax and I could feel it in my heart, could feel it in my old bones, could feel their trembling power in my soul. Under the bright sun, surrounded by so much passion, I – used to dark corridors and singular explorations – was very much out of my element. The strange terrain and the fierce song stripped me of my defenses. I shook and suddenly felt in my heart a truth that I had long ignored: I was old and weak and tired; my time was near.

Sitting next to Tauro on the dirt of the earth, I bowed my head and wept silently. Tauro sat, unmoving, and stared out, beyond the women and the priests and the song and the world and saw whatever it is that men see when they look so far afield.

The song turned and fell, slowly withering. And with it the women fell, slowly crumpling to the earth, their great headdresses collapsing and falling, their makeup muddied by sweat and earth. My sobbing faded. I regained my composure.

As my tears were drying up, as the song ebbed just at the very edge of audibility, the chief priest, Certus, rang out a loud singsong call. The women’s song ended; my weeping ceased.

Certus cried out again and, when he stopped, the echo of his voice rang on the wind. All at once the priests called out in a great, booming sound that shook the earth as it went rattling up to the heavens. The sound was deep and rich, constant and ever-changing. It was sung in some forgotten tongue, unknown to me, taught only to the men of the cloth, to those who had the need and skill to converse with the unknown realm. It seemed to last only moments and yet an eternity. And then it was over. The priests raised their hands before them and, in one simultaneous clap, silenced themselves.

For a time we sat and heard the whispers of the wind and the groans of the earth.

I was shaken. I knew that I was pale and thin. I felt that I looked as Tauro had looked after he had dreamed the dream. I was, as I sat then, a coward. Some method of the song had revealed that truth to me. I felt a great, internal shame. But somewhere in the shadowy corridors of my soul a will was forged that would not let me end so long a life in aged cowardice. I exhaled a great breath that shook my bones.

The song had stirred truth in my heart, the knowledge of my frailty and weakness. To my left, Tauro bowed his head, his eyes heavy with some grief. I knew not what dark truths had been stirred within him. He felt some pain that I did not know, some dread that I could not fathom, some hardship that I could not share. I felt the wind blow past us, carving us as it carves mountains into the earth.

And then it was done. The priests and the women left. The fires were put out. And last of all, Tauro and I rose up from the dusty earth and returned to our chambers. Night had fallen.

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The rains did not come. The river did not wake. Seven days after the ceremony of the priests, Tauro sent four men north: Inber and Afa who had traveled far as emissaries in their youths, old Juro, a trusted advisor and confidant of the Campeador, and young Filio, a boy on the cusp of a sudden manhood, to lead them all.

The boy had been raised by his dead mother’s sister, but it was Tauro that had guided Filio’s growth from afar, watching him and mentoring him; in many ways Filio, in whom Tauro saw much of himself, had been the child that I was never able to bear.

Despite my failing, Tauro did not leave me, did not seek a younger and more fertile wife, did not take concubines into his bed, did not curse the dryness that plagued his woman long before it plagued his land. No. He was committed to his fidelity even as it infuriated him. He was stubborn and determined. In his youth, frustrated with his slow ascent to a power that he knew would be his, he had ventured out into the woods alone and slew the great tapir of the wood with a wooden knife of his own design. When he returned to Origo bearing the tapir over his shoulder he was praised as a gift to the people of Origo; his coronation as Campeador followed expeditiously. Tauro was a willful man.

Filio was tall and broad and strong, capable of swift judgments and quick deeds – he was as Tauro had been. At times their bond seemed predestined. Like young Tauro, Filio needed only the opportunity to show his worth. This task was a chance for the youth to prove himself, to show his growth and strength, his ascension into manhood, just as Tauro had proven himself many long years ago.

And despite his fatherly love for the boy, or maybe because of it, in a dark recess of Tauro’s soul, there was a part of him that hoped that Filio would fail the task. When men are nearing the end of their power they cannot help but feel a subconscious loathing for those young men that will replace them, even if the successors are beloved as sons.

The four voyagers were to follow the riverbed and search for some sign along the watercourse of why the drought had come, of why the river had stopped flowing and the rains stopped falling. They left on a hot morning under a rising sun. Tauro saw them off, his eyes full of hope and despair. The citizens of Origo awaited their return with baited breath. In the days that followed the voyagers’ departure many eyes, Tauro’s not least among them, were often turned north.

Thirty days later Filio returned, leading Inber and Afa, all three of them caked with dust, drawn thin with thirst, and delirious with heatstroke. They had gone as far as their supply of water had allowed them before Filio had declared that they must choose between death and turning back. Inber and Afa had followed his lead. They had barely survived the return journey.

Old Juro would not accept a return without answers – Tauro, he said, would not have turned back. So Juro drove on down the road, dragging his thin and emaciated frame out of the sight of the others and on into the scorched wasteland, a monument to the stubbornness of old men. May he find the answers he sought in the unknown realm.

Filio, after a brief convalescence, spoke to Tauro of their voyage. All along what was once the river they had seen no sign of any water or pool and, as they drove on farther north, all greenery and life faded from view until they were left in a brown and gray dustscape, baking under the sun. Still they journeyed on as the landscape grew harsher and more inhospitable and still there was no sign, no indication, of why the water had gone. When their water rations were nearing a disastrous low – and with no hope of finding a sudden spring – Filio counseled that they return.

“I don’t know what has happened, Campeador,” said Filio. “The earth is so dry. Is there nothing that Certus and the priests might do to win us the favor of the gods?”

Tauro laughed a somber laugh. “It has been attempted, my boy. Days before I sent you on your errand Certus performed the rites, but nothing has come of it.”

“That is an ill omen, Campeador. What is to be done?” asked Filio with the expectancy of a child. Though I had seen the change in Tauro, his legend was still real to young Filio. In Filio’s eyes Tauro was both man and myth, a godking both omniscient and omnipotent. Tauro’s surrogate parenthood had been managed from a distance, beyond the close scope that exposes flaws and enlarges our shortcomings. But Tauro was not a godking. He was, as it were, a child of this valley, tracing back his ancestry to the first pale god to come riding out of the woods to take a river-woman to wife. When Tauro’s great grandfather was only a boy, the descolada devastated the village, leaving few behind – the pale god did not survive. Not all gods, it seems, are immortal. Those that did survive, the pale man’s children – Tauro’s forefathers – became a tough people, weatherers of storms; they sank roots deep into the river’s shores and built wide houses and sprawling compounds – the seeds of Origo. They farmed rich soil and fished in teeming waters. But now the houses were failing, the soil turning to dust, the water all but gone. Tauro’s rule too was failing, and yet still he felt that these lands were his, a place of his making. “Be patient, my boy,” he said to young, anxious Filio.

“But what is your plan?” asked the youth earnestly, “What will you do?”

“I do not know,” said Tauro and his face sank as his confidence waned, “I do not know what is to be done.”

The hope in Filio’s face was replaced with confusion; he did not understand. There is some knowledge that we cannot bear to accept. That Tauro should fail him, should fail Origo, was one such piece of knowledge for Filio. He stood, mouth agape, staring at the beaten and deflated face of Tauro, in whom he had put so much trust and from whom he now heard such disappointment. He did not understand. How could the great Tauro not know what to do next? It was a disappointment he could not fathom. And defensive Tauro saw in Filio his usurper and was torn. He knew that if only Filio would reach out and seize control of Origo, all the power and all the trouble and all the pain of it would be lifted from his old frame and yet Tauro was old and accustomed to that weight and could not bear the thought of being rid of it.

They stood side by side, my men, together and at odds. In Tauro there was a dread, a desperate self-preservation staving off imminent destruction at any cost, and in Filio there was a naive faith, a rudderless strength that needed only direction to bloom. They stood together, the young and the old, the strong and the broken, each a vision of the other from a different time.

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For many days Tauro did not leave his chambers. His spirit was crumbling. The drought was a sore trial for Tauro, whose bodily strength was fading and whose intellect was useless against such an enemy. He sat deep in thought and wrestled with the demons that had stormed up out of the night to meet him. It was not a fight like any other that he had fought, this battle with an unseen power that could be neither intimidated nor overthrown. The Campeador of our people, once the greatest man in Origo, was withering.

But Origo was not yet leaderless. While Tauro remained in his compound, brooding on the destruction of the heat, Filio went out among the people, a messenger of the king that he alone had not yet forsaken.

“What will become of us?” the people asked again and again. Always Filio’s answer was the same. “Tauro will find an answer,” he said, “Tauro will save us.”

“What if the drought does not end? What if we cannot stay here? Inber and Afa say that we will perish, that we will be lost if we remain, that we walk into the open arms of death.”

“That will not be our fate,” Filio said, “Inber and Afa have not yet recovered from our journeying and they do not know what they say. I do not deceive you. I saw the truth in the north, where the burning of the sun cooked the flesh of my body and dried the blood of my soul. A strangeness, maybe an evil, has befallen the land. But I am recovered and so too will be the people of Origo. We will not be destroyed, even if we must leave this place.”

“But if we go, where and when?” the people asked, “And who will lead us?”

“I do not know to where, but Tauro will lead us,” Filio repeated, and he believed it, “He is wise and strong, still. He will lead us.” The words rang with the deep sound of an old tree whose insides have melted away into the years.

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Nothing was done. Three weeks after Filio’s return no change had been decried, no drastic plan enacted. All was still and stagnant, stifled. Origo’s cisterns were growing dry and Tauro was a man floundering. He paced the compound and began, for the first time in his long life, to seem an old man. He was still a mountain of a man, made of stone and sinew, but he was weathered now, smooth and curved where once he was jagged and rough. In his eyes I saw a flickering panic. I said nothing. A courage had been building in me since the women’s song but it was not yet full grown.

Often though, Filio was in Tauro’s ear, pleading for change, pleading for an action that he assumed must be coming. But Tauro was old and stubborn, change did not become him. “Be calm,” the Campeador said in a sweet and twisted voice, buying himself time, “You are young and all is urgent in your mind. You will learn patience someday. Do you think that I have not seen many tragedies, great and small? Am I not Tauro who slew the wild tapir with his bare hands? Am I not Tauro who has ruled in a peace of his own design for many years? It is far easier, my boy, to counsel panic than prudence. All of my summers, all of my father’s summers, and all of my father’s father’s summers we have held to these lands,” said Tauro, “We will remain. That which must come to pass will.”

There was a strange gleam in Tauro’s eyes as he spoke those last words that Filio had never before seen. It troubled him but he said nothing. Still, Filio did not understand. And how could he? His eyes were too young to see. I was not so young.

For long years Tauro had been Campeador. Through splendor and spoil he had led his realm. He had been wise and kind, a benevolent leader of a peaceful people. There had been trouble, of course. There is no world in which there are no troubles. But he had tempered the fears of dissenters, stymied invasions, and prospered at the harvest. He had done well. Then, though, the drought came and the river dried and the earth seized up and the strong foundations of peace and control that Tauro had built for so long came tumbling down into a heap of rubble and dust. He was an old man now, struggling against the stream of youth and change that flowed against him, a tide he could not understand, a tide led by the young and the strong, a tide led by the son he had never had, Filio.

In his heart, Tauro loved Filio, and yet, Filio could not succeed, could not ascend to the throne that would be his without the requisite failure or abdication of that throne by Tauro – this Tauro knew, knew too well, even as naive Filio began to guess at the truth of their arrangement. And so, as it must be among such men, they loved and hated one another, so alike and so different, so frustratingly similar and perplexingly alien. They moved in strange sideways patterns, always circling around the truth of their arguments, the point of their contention, and never touching it directly. This macabre step, this aversion to bold clarity, it is a woman’s dance, but I cannot deny that some men cut it well.

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One morning, Tauro woke in a cold sweat. I saw it in his face: he had dreamed the dream. The truth was hunting him.

A sudden change came over Tauro. For two days he would not leave his chamber, his face aglow with a pale with moonlight. He came to me in a black night, the light of him filling our bed with dread, a crypt rather than a home.

“Whither now?” he asked in a panicked voice, so unlike him, so frantic, so weak. My chance had come earlier than I had hoped – I was not yet prepared. My heart raced and words raced sloppily out of my mouth in a rushing torrent of noise and breath.

“We must leave, Tauro. It is as in the dream. Death will take us if we remain. The water has gone. It is the way of things. It will not return. We must leave.”

Men do not know truth when they hear it; truth to them is visible rather than audible. They think that truth is made by the speaker rather than by the spoken words, and that if a trusted man says something, it must be true, and if a fool – or a woman – speaks something, it cannot be. This is a man’s folly. A woman has a different sense. It is not the sayer in which you must find truth, it is in the said. Even a madman may speak the truth at times. You must learn to find the truth amidst the noise.

Tauro stared at me, his face drawn and pale. His words struggled to his lips, weak and stubborn as old Juro when he had dragged himself up the riverbed. “I cannot,” he said.

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The rains did not come. The river did not wake. The drought continued. Tauro sat, deep in thought, on his high chair. Our people were whispering. Their faith, made dry and brittle by the drought, was crumbling. Tauro, their leader, had summoned the gods to his purpose, and yet they ignored him. He had sent messengers out to explore the world itself and they had come back broken and beaten. The house of Tauro’s power, like the faith of his people, had been weakened by the drought – perhaps beyond repair, and now it too was crumbling.

Fears and pleas that had only been whispered came full voiced. Filio, the young voyager, friend of the Campeador, was all that kept the people from outright revolt. With the strength that was growing in him and with some still fearing the power of Tauro, Filio was able to placate the masses, though the keeping of peace required a great deal of him: often he was to be seen speaking to crowds in the square or having secretive meetings with men of stature.

Young as he was, Filio knew that things could not continue thusly. He called for an audience with his old master. “Something must be done, Campeador,” he said to the nearly deposed king, a new confidence in the young man’s voice, “I have seen what comes to us from the north, what tidings the river now brings. The failed song of the priests confirms it. It is death, death for us all if nothing is done, if we simply remain here, undefended.”

“Undefended, you say?” said Tauro and rage was kindled among the dry, dead leaves of his pride. He knew that the people of Origo wished to replace him and, while it was Filio who defended him most ardently, it was with Filio that the people of Origo hoped that Tauro would be replaced. In Tauro’s mind, a day long foreseen but no easier to bear had arrived. His usurper had come. And Tauro bore no love for usurpers, whether their play for the throne was by design or chance. “What shall I do, young master Filio, beat back the sun with all the strength of an old man? Or perhaps young Filio is better equipped for such a test, mighty as he is?”

Filio, though he expected it, was still shocked to hear such anger and such madness from the Campeador. Here was a man who had conquered invaders, had molded Origo with his hands, and now he blindly rejected the counsel of reason? It shook the foundations of Filio’s knowledge. And yet he found strength in himself, strength in the knowledge that he was in the right, that he bore the people’s faith. “I claim no such might, or any might at all,” said the boy, “But I know this: we cannot remain here and live. And live we must. So we must leave. Lead us, Campeador. Your people have need of you once more. Lead them.”

“Ah, child. You reveal more than you intend. My people need me ‘once more’?” Tauro said with disdain and vitriol, “Have I been lacking for use lately? I am Tauro, Campeador of my people, not some boy to be called upon when his duties are required. Do you dare summon me?”

“I do not. But if you will not lead us from here, what then will you do, Campeador? Your people have a right to know your will,” said Filio. He could not hide the condescension in his voice. And why should he? Here was the Campeador, still counted great among men, stupidly clinging to the past rather than face the changed reality of the present. Change, when it comes, does not come easily, especially for those who have something to lose, something that they would hold onto and keep immutable.

Filio pleaded with Tauro to lead their people out of the ruined valley but Tauro, who had hardened himself into a stone beneath a fire of impending revolt, would not change his position, would not adapt. “I will not leave,” he said, “We have always been here. We will always be here. I will not leave.”

Filio, who had held to his faith in Tauro to the bitterest end, past the endurance of all his peers, was crushed. He felt a righteous anger rise in him and a bitter loathing for this old man who stood before him, a fool where once had been a king.

“Would you condemn your people to death? Are you so bull-headed? There is no water – the draught that has come will not end. The river is gone – it will not return. The world is changing and we must change with it or be lost,” said Filio. His too was now the voice of dissent and revolt, the voice of the people. Yet beneath the anger of his voice there was a faint thread, a son’s plea, a gentle timbre that pleaded with an old man to lay aside at last a heavy burden so that younger hands might carry it for a while.

But Tauro would not be swayed. He was an old man grown small. Do I not know his dreams? He did not dream of peaceful succession but of scabbed hands clawing at his throne. The great benevolence of his rule had been reduced to a cold and greedy fear. He would not relinquish his power willingly.

“There is time still,” he said, “Time still for the rains to come, for the river to flow.” His words were empty and he knew it.

“How much time? How long can we wait? If the rain does not come soon, there will be no harvest, no provisions for the winter. And all that hardship is if the rain does come – and what if it does not, Campeador?” Filio’s asked. “There are some things that cannot be undone, that we cannot mend. There is nothing else that we can do here. We have prayed, we have wept, we have plied the fields with tenderness and strength. There is nothing left to us. We must leave, Tauro. You know this. We must save our people.”

“I know…” said Tauro, and he was once more Tauro, Campeador of Origo, old and honest, and hope kindled in Filio’s heart that at last the old man would remember his old wisdom and relent. It was a hope short lived. “But no,” he continued, and his voice changed swiftly and was grown dark and fierce with fire and soot, “We have been here for so long, I…I will not leave. There is one thing we have not yet done. It has been said to work of old.”

“Tauro,” I said and was shocked to find myself stepping forward, to hear my voice speaking so boldly, “I think I know of what you speak. You cannot. You would not. How could you? That is too great a cost. You cannot abide by that loss. Their blood is your blood, their flesh is your flesh, Campeador. It is too great a cost.”

“Is it?” demanded Tauro and he shook with his words. He rounded on Filio as if he had spoken my rebuke. Had he? Was it Filio’s voice that had spoken those true words? Certainly Tauro thought so. My strength unexpectedly expended, I was willing to let Filio bear the brunt of Tauro’s anger. I receded into a corner as Tauro continued. “What price would you pay to keep our land that has been ours through all the days of my life and should be ours until the ends of time? Would you sacrifice it so easily?” There was a madness in Tauro’s eyes. Filio watched in slack-jawed, wide-eyed wonder. “Yes! Is that it? Have I hit the mark at last? Young Filio would be a savior, would lead his people out into a new world – a new world where Filio is Campeador? Where Filio reigns, perhaps?”

The young man, tempered by the hot words of his elder, rose from his chair with deliberation and spoke in a low, calm voice – but underneath I heard the crackling of flame and felt the slow burning of coals stoked to fire. “I do not aim for such things,” he said, “but if they come to pass, who will say that it was for ill if Tauro, the old Campeador, is left behind in a dry waste, where he would have sat upon the bones of our children had not we called forth a new Campeador to lead us from such madness and death?”

Both men stood and did not speak. Silence is a dangerous tool. I could have told them as much. In some hands it is wielded with a sharp and swift precision, a knife to cut clean through to the heart. And in some hands it is a blunt, bludgeoning mace, swung wildly with blind force. These men, anger clouding their minds, swung wide and hard.

“I will not leave our home,” said Tauro defiantly, though he knew that he was defeated, “Go. Tell your conspirators that the Campeador has not yet abandoned hope.”

Filio stormed from the room with heavy steps. I remained in the corner, nervous but no longer afraid. I had spoken. I knew it then. It had not been Filio as Tauro had thought. I had spoken true words, strong words. And, as Filio had said, some things cannot be undone. I felt something strengthen in my heart. Still, Tauro did not heed me. He stood, rooted in his place, staring out the door through which Filio had left. There was a smoldering burn in his eyes. His hands were clenched in fists that stuck out stiffly at his sides. I watched the throbbing of his temples and knew that, in his chest, his old heart beat with great furor.

Filio went out to our people, a boy grown strong but not yet strong enough to openly defy the will of his king, carrying the message of a man he once admired. To challenge your king is one thing, but to openly defy him is another. “We shall remain,” he told the crowds bitterly. They roared in outrage. “The Campeador says that we shall remain,” he corrected.

In his chamber I stood with Tauro as he bristled with rage. “Tauro, my Campeador, my love,” I said. Tauro gazed out the window. I spoke to his back. “We cannot hope to weather this storm through inaction. Something must be done. The world has changed, we must find our place in this new life or be lost. We can no longer sit and wait for fortune to come to us. Something must be done.”

Tauro said nothing. The noise of the crowds outside trickled in through the window. I did not know the horrible machinations that already moved in his mind, that he had already set into motion.

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The rains did not come. The river did not wake. Our people stayed and scraped by in the dry, stinging storm of dust and heat as their lord had bade them. But it could not be so for long. It is with water that we rise up out of the dust and without water we cannot help but return to the earth. Yet there was no going back. The drought would not end.

Fortune had swung and the world had changed – there was nothing that Tauro could do to change his fate. His reign was ending. If he left and led our people away, he would forsake the lands that he and his people had claimed as divine gift for many a long year, relinquishing his power, and if he stayed and trapped his people he would be a despot of unbelievable cruelty, undeserving of such control. To him, the paths that he might choose all seemed evil, and so he let the world around him move, abstaining from all choice. Trapped as he was, Tauro did nothing.

I was not so indecisive. My time had come. The kernel of strength in me had bloomed into a strange and resilient hope.

Under a burning moon, I stole into the streets under cover of darkness. In a small recess off of the town square, I waited, robed and disguised. If there had been any eyes lurking in that dark square the shadows and my robes would have kept me hidden. When Filio appeared before me, his eyes looked through the darkness where I stood and found nothing. “Campeadora?” he asked. I watched the moon shine in his young eyes, the light bright with hope and wonder and fear. “Siti?” he asked. It was the first time in all our long knowledge of one another that he had addressed me directly. It was to Tauro that he had always spoken.

“Yes,” I whispered, “I am here. Come. Keep quiet, my boy.” He moved out of the moonlight and into the shadows, into my realm if only for a moment. “Has it been arranged?”

“Yes,” he said, “The day after tomorrow we will be gone. Won’t Tauro follow us? Will he not strike out as his kingdom vanishes from beneath him?”

“No, my child. He will not strike out. Once you leave, he will be safe, as safe as he can be. His power no longer stretches beyond Origo. You will have nothing to fear from him when you have gone. But there is another risk.”

“Another risk? What time do we have to deal with another danger if we are to leave so wholly and so soon? I do not know that I will be able to arrange any defense in so short a time,” he said. In the shadows, my eyes, long accustomed to the dark, could see the fear that played across his face.

“There is no need for the others to become involved. This final danger is one that you and I may defeat. Meet me under the tall jabillo on the western edge of the Campeador’s estate, tomorrow night at midnight. Bring a maul with you.”

“I do not understand,” said the puzzled youth.

“That is all that you need understand for now. Will you be there? Can I rely upon you? Terrible things may come to pass if we fail in this quest.”

“I will be there, Siti,” he said.

“Good. Do not be late. We will have little time to do what we must do.”

And with that I left him standing in the square, wondering what the old woman that he had known all his life and had only just now heard speak had planned.

—————————

His hood drawn over his head and a wooden maul hanging from his belt, Filio crept through the shadows, moving with an animal grace across the lands that he had known through all the years of his life, the lands that he knew he must leave before sunrise.

All else was prepared. Only trusted Certus, Tauro’s loyal high priest who had been excluded from our plans, and I would remain, while all the others – even the old grandmothers whose lifetime of knowledge would give them use among the young in many matters – were set to depart, to flee the lands of their fathers in search of a new home.

Filio would lead them, of course. There had been no debate in that matter. But first, before the messianic journey, there was a task before him. And so he crept through the shadows until he came to the very edge of his doom and found an old woman, covered in shawls, huddled beneath a tree on the periphery of the Campeador’s estate.

With a nod, I gestured for him to follow me into the dark.

I led Filio through the fields of the home that Tauro’s fathers had built and that none since their building knew better than I. Using secret doors and tunnels long forgotten by all but the most watchful and mindful we entered into the dimly lit catacombs of the Campeador’s compound. We ran past the long altar that had been prepared, past sharpened knives, and the great basins that were used to gather the blood of the sacrifice. We drove headlong into underground tunnels built of dank stones and filled with the musty smell of years of uncleaned filth. We stopped at an intersection of two paths. The sound of footsteps echoed down the hall to our left. We were not alone in the catacombs. Filio held his breath. Through all of my womanhood I had lived in this place; the goings of those who moved through it were known to me. We waited. The sound faded, the footsteps retreated.

I motioned to Filio and turned down the corridor.

Filio put a hand on my shoulder and halted me. His grip was strong and yet there was a quiet awe on his face, the look of a boy discovering that the simple trinket he plays with has been forged in some deep, hot fire and sculpted by aged and skilled hands. “Come with us, Siti,” he said to me, “You do not have to stay here. You do not have to die with him.” In some ways he was a child still, standing with answers before an over-thinking elder too wise to see the simplest of solutions. He was trying to save me, the poor boy.

“I will not betray him. I will not leave him,” I said, “but I will save him if I can.” It would be many years before Filio came to know what I meant just then. It is difficult for men to know where the body ends and the man begins.

We rounded a corner and came upon a small, wooden door. At my signal, Filio wedged the maul between the frame and the door and twisted the damp, half-rotted wood apart until splinters littered the floor and the door fell easily into the hall. Filio caught the falling slab with the characteristic strength of his youth and laid it down onto the stone floor slowly and without sound. The dim torchlight of the hall fell into a square room where a series of small shapes lay huddled in a vaguely concentric mass.

“Wake, little ones,” I said.

One by one, tiny heads rose up and limbs unfolded. Nearly twenty children stood before us in the small cell. Filio did not move or speak; at last he realized the horror of what Tauro would have done.

It is said in our stories that the old kings, in a time before time, could summon the good will of the old gods with a sacrifice of great purity. If a king could not sacrifice a beautiful and innocent thing for the greater good of his people, then what hope could he offer? The gods, it was said, looked fondly on such sacrifices and rewarded them richly. Daughters and wives, virgins and whores, beauties all, were sacrificed at the priests’ altars, but the bounty of the gods was said to be the greatest with the giving of a more innocent gift. Tauro, in his darkest moment, had sent Certus out to claim, in the name of the Campeador, the healthiest and heartiest children that our people could offer. Their blood was to buy our salvation.

It was at this moment, I think, looking down at the faces of the children that Tauro would have killed in one cruel and misguided act, that the reality of Filio’s leadership occurred to him. If our people were to survive the drought, he would have to lead them. The reign of Tauro had ended. Here in a dimly lit cell beneath the earth, the depth of Tauro’s fall was revealed. Filio was now Campeador.

I led the way, the children following and Filio, his face pale and resolute, last of all. We wound through the mazes that had been made many years ago by Tauro’s fathers. Traps twisted and turned with false starts and ends; it was a system that could not be escaped by an unfamiliar mind. When we drew near to the exits from the tunnels I quickened my pace, for I knew that the entrances and exits would be the place where we were most likely to be seen: while the lowest levels needed no protection save their design, traffic or patrols might move through the earliest tunnels of the catacombs.

As we passed straight through a three-way intersection, so near the outside world and the achieving of our hope, there was a voice.

“Siti?” it asked.

From the third direction came Certus. He reared up behind us, gaining ground on Filio. “Siti? Siti?” he called. “What are you doing? Are these- are these the chil-”

I did not let him finish. I cut back through the children to Filio. “Kill him,” I whispered in his ear and turned back to lead the children out of that dark place. Filio stared at me, mouth agape. I walked on. The children followed me obediently. They did not see Filio, though his eyes were upon them, as he overcame his fear and doubt and found both courage and purpose. He summoned his young man’s strength and drove Certus back down the third corridor.

Our path was straight at last. We went on as fast as we could, tired and hungry children led by an old woman at the end of her strength. Eventually, we saw stars shimmering above us. We had made it. Filio, with ragged breath and blood smeared across his chest, came up behind. As he approached, tiredness overcame me and I sat upon a flat stone not far from the path that led south and away, the path that would lead Filio to a new kingdom.

“He would have warned Tauro and ruined your exodus,” I said, though I do not know whether my words were meant to assuage Filio’s guilt or mine, “He was an honest and loyal man – you would do well to find a man like him for yourself. Still, you will not be able to bear his death if it was in vain. You must go.”

Filio looked to me once more but had the decency to mute his words. I answered them anyway.

“Go,” I said. “It is your time to lead now, to be Campeador. Go.”

Filio nodded – men have no skill with goodbyes – and went to the children. “Come, little ones,” he said. “Your mothers are waiting.” He led them to the secret location that had been agreed upon. All the others were waiting. With Certus dead, none now would stay with Tauro in his madness, save me. They had no need of him, and he – their former leader, their fallen king – had no claim on them if he was no longer fit to lead.

I sat on the stone, husbanding my strength and gathering my breath. Before the sun could crest the hills the valley was empty. I rose and went to Tauro and was with him when he woke to find us alone and his world, the world of his youth, the world of his strength, abandoned. In time, even he would accept that his time had passed, that his power had waned, that the world had changed and moved on. I had told him that such things must come to pass, never in such words, for that had not been my way, but in words that he could have understood if only he had listened for the truth behind the noise. In his heart, he already knew it to be true. And how could he not? All things wither and fade. It is the way of things.

“They have gone,” he said as he looked out his window at the empty streets of his home, “All of them.”

“Yes,” I said, “They have gone.”

The sun rose into the sky as he peered out at a world that he no longer recognized. The river was dry, our people had gone, the valley was empty and dead. We were alone, the last heirs of a forgotten realm like so many that had come before and like so many that would come after. There was no going back, and Tauro, as a man at the end of a long line of suffering will, knew it.

He thought of the dream that had tortured him, the dream that had driven him to madness and cowardice, the dream that had fueled an old man’s fears and burned away the strength of his mind. He thought of his shameful weakness and failure.

A warm, dry breeze blew through the winding streets of Origo, through the Campeador’s courtyard, and up through the window where it washed over Tauro. He was buoyed by the wind. Finally, he saw the truth of these last days of his life. He had been weak, yes, but his people had found a new strength in Filio, and while he – unable to cede his kingdom – had failed the final test of his rule, by the grace of those that he held close, he had been saved from the horrors that he might have committed. All was not lost. It was a comforting thought for Tauro, to know that, despite all his failings, there were those who would not let him, and all that he had long stood for, fall so easily. He breathed in deep the dry air.

Outside, the sun began its descent. When Tauro turned to me, his face had changed: his calm had returned, the madness had left his eyes. He had been through the fire and come out to the other side, remade and reborn as he once was: strong and honest, my Tauro, my love.

“Is Filio leading them?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Good, good. That is well, Siti. I could not bring myself give him my rule, but I should have. It is his time now.”

“Yes, it is,” I said, speaking more freely than I ever had in all our long years together, “He has his rule now. He will find his kingdom. He has learned the cost of leadership,” I thought of old Certus, dead in the catacombs beneath us. I did not have to speak it for Tauro to know of the death of his priest. Certus had been the warden of the children, his hand would have wielded the knife of their sacrifice. The catacombs, the altar, these were his domain – there was no place for him in the new, bright world that Filio would find. I thought of the sudden resolve that had hardened Filio’s young face as he grasped what he must do to save the children, when he realized the sacrifices of his own soul that he – as Campeador – must make to save the souls of others. “He will lead them well,” I said.

“Yes, he will.”

I followed Tauro out into the streets. We walked through the empty alleys and lanes of our home, the only land that either of us knew. We looped through the city streets and came at last into the Campeador’s courtyard where births had been celebrated, feasts held, rituals performed, marriages pronounced, and deaths mourned. Tauro walked the perimeter of the parched yard before moving towards the great dry fount at the center. “I am tired,” he said as he gestured for me to take a seat next to him. Out the gate before us stretched the road south, the road that Filio and the others had taken to lead them away from this place. Tauro looked out past the horizon. “I would have done a terrible thing,” he said. “Filio was right: the cost would have been too great. How could he know, so young?”

“Youth always knows, Campeador. Have you forgotten all that you once knew?”

My husband laughed and the sound filled the empty square. “I had forgotten,” he said, “but I begin to remember. And I am no longer Campeador, my love.”

“It is a name that you bore a long time. You wore it well. Wear it a little longer still, for me.”

Tauro laughed and I smiled at him, so alive and well, here at the end.

The sun, sinking into the west, was brilliant. Its fiery glow consumed the land around us. All was red, all was fire. We sat, hand in hand, beneath the red heat and the destroying flame, in the fertile life-blood of the womb until we and the square around us were no more, until the unseen rains of the unknown realm washed over us and we – dust once more – were returned to the earth from which we were made.

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