There hasn’t been much time for blogging lately. Most of my free time goes into working on a screenplay and editing The Lost Temple, the lost gestating sequel to The Dragon Star. I thought I’d post the first chapter here, since I’d rather spend my time working on the book or things related to it than writing blog entries. So here is the first chapter of The Lost Temple. Hope you enjoy.
THE TEMPLE – TAKSATI
RECURRENT WAVES broke against the bow of the ship, sea-spray flying over the railings of the forecastle deck, salt mist caught in the wind, drifting back over the wide and well-worn boards. Taksati licked her lips, her tongue stinging at the sea-brine brume. It tasted of fish and seaweed and turbulent storms and ivory-tipped waves. The taste of sea water had once reminded her of her childhood and days spent in a little fishing boat with her father and brothers, but so much had transpired in the preceding forty-four nights, she wondered if it would now only ever remind her of this one incredible and painful journey.
She stared across the low waves and held to the weathered wood of the portside railing as the wind-borne ship undulated through the water, the motion akin to the rhythm of breathing. She often found herself inhaling and exhaling in concert with the movement of the vessel, as though she had become a part of it — a fingertip gently pulsing in time with a beating heart.
Taksati stared at a foreign shore two strides away — the Forbidden Realm — a land of seemingly endless dense forests of vibrant green, stunningly high gray cliffs, and surprisingly white sanded beaches. They had sailed north along the coast of the undiscovered continent for three days, searching for a sign of the temple from the dreams that had propelled them across the Iron Realm and over an ocean. She began to wonder whether the temple might have faded from existence with the dissipation of the dreams, or if it had ever existed at all. The dreams now seemed like distant memories of a life never lived. She had become so accustomed to the nightly visitations of the Goddess’s intentions that the absence of them left her feeling disoriented, even more so during the day than the night.
Some of the pilgrims counted the loss of the dreams as the greatest tragedy of their harrowing voyage. The destruction of half of the pilgrim fleet, four ships, weighed heavily on everyone, especially Junari. The forfeiture of the special guidance of the goddess each heart had come to know in their slumber pained most as much as the deaths of their fellow congregants and believers. Junari said it felt as though the Goddess now resided behind a firmly closed door, faintly heard, but unseen and unable to enter their world. Knowing the cause of their goddess’s absence from the world made the pain of the diminished presence easier to bear. Everyone understood that the urris somehow stood between them and their goddess — the same urris who assailed them at every stage of their ocean journey, taking from them their ships and friends and loved ones, and forcing upon them decisions whose consequences stung like salt water in open wounds.
Four ships and nearly three hundred pilgrims lost to the urris. Only the grace of the Goddess, and the iron-willed leadership of Junari, their true captain, allowed the faithful to succeed in reaching the long denied shores of the continent now stretching out before them, a verdant ocean of green vegetation rolling away into the distant western horizon, the late day sun giving it a mysterious and ethereal glow.
“Does it go on forever?”
Taksati looked down to her left to find Atula standing at the rail. She reprimanded herself for allowing her thoughts to so consume her mind that she became unaware of her surroundings. How long had the child been there? She glanced around. Many of the pilgrims and crew stood on deck with their eyes cast toward the shoreline. Not as many as in the first day of arrival, when everyone aboard had crowded the portside, so many that vessel began to lilt and the captain declared a rotation to distribute the watchers and help balance the ship.
“Nothing goes on forever.” Taksati looked at the dense forest and the sun that gradually sank behind it, forcing herself to believe the truth of her statement in the face of an overwhelming sensation suggesting that she lied. “All oceans lead to land, and if you walk far enough, the land leads you back to water.”
“But we’ve been sailing along the coast for days.” Atula frowned as she stared across the water. She did not lean on the railing as so many would have done. The child seemed perfectly adapted to life at sea, swaying her body with the tilting and rocking of the ship. Only the most extreme weather caused her to grapple for balance among the ship’s ropes and rails.
“If you sail a coastline long enough you will eventually return to where you started.” This had been the first thing Taksati had thought as a child when she looked beneath her father’s arm while he appraised a map of the world a friend of his, a local cargo captain, displayed one night after a shared meal in their small home. She had traced the outline of all five continents with her finger while the men drank rice wine and laughed over stories of their youth together in the small fishing town.
“What about the night sky?” Atula raised her eyes to Taksati. “The stars look very far away and there are always stars behind the stars.”
“The Pashist priests who study the stars, the temple astrologers, write that the stars are unnumbered but not unknowable.” Taksati considered that the trees of the Forbidden Realm might fall into a similar category. “The priests say the only infinite thing is the love we may hold in our hearts. The Goddess would approve of that, I think.”
“Is that in a book you can read to me?” Atula looked intrigued by the notion.
“It is not in any of the books we possess here,” Taksati said. “But there are other things we can read about. And it is you who will be reading to me soon.” She spent many nights during their ocean journey sitting next to a noxious smelling oil lamp burning the fat of some unfortunate sea whale and teaching the girl to read. The lessons served a multi-fold purpose — first, as she herself could no longer decipher letters at close distance without the aid of a reading glass, it might provide her aging eyes relief in the years to come. Additionally, a village merchant’s daughter, no matter how bright and precocious, rarely had need of learning to write and read. Young Atula would grow to be a very different woman from the one she had been born to be if Taksati’s plans held sway. Lastly, the nightly lessons helped to distract the girl from the loss of her father.
Atula had witnessed her father cast over the rails of the ship and swept out to sea by a massive wave that rose without warning in the first deadly storm thrown at them by the urris in their attempt to keep the Forbidden Realm forbidden. The girl had cried out and might have flung herself into the turbulent waters in an attempt to save her father had Taksati not held her firm and pulled her beneath decks. The girl wept for a whole day and night with the ache of the loss. She’d lost her mother to a militia attack on the road to Tanjii, and her father’s passing struck her doubly hard. While Taksati could keep her busy enough during the days to drive the memories and pain of her father’s passing from Atula’s mind, at night the girl sank into her cot and cried and moaned for hours until finally falling into sleep from exhaustion. The reading lessons gave her a small respite from the wailing wound of her heart each evening and further taxed her mind to the point that, after a few weeks, she began to fall to sleep with only a few tears in her eyes.
“How many more days until we find the temple, do you think?” Atula looked northward toward where they sailed.
“Today.” Taksati had cast the tiles every morning. The readings were usually unclear and inconclusive. This morning’s casting, while vague, were highly suggestive. Remembering it reminded her, as it always did, of the casting she gave before their departure from Tashi Gano, the pilgrim town up the coast from the city of Tanjii. A casting that spoke clearly and conclusively of betrayal. She hoped that the duplicity indicated in that ominous series of castings referred to the undisclosed inclusion of the Tot Giot heretics into the bargain struck between Junari and the Tanjii elders. She feared, even after all they had suffered crossing the Zha Ocean, that it indicated something as yet unrevealed.
“How do you know?” Atula leaned forward and squinted her eyes as she looked over the waves toward the coast of the foreboding forest realm.
“I don’t know for certain,” Taksati said. “I suspect from what I’ve read.”
“What did you read?” Atula turned to her again with a look that seemed to suggest she suspected Taksati of keeping special books from her.
“I read more than books.” Taksati looked down at Atula and returned the girl’s squinting frown. Once again, she noted the similarities she held with the girl in appearance and temperament, as though the Goddess’s pilgrimage had allowed her to stumble upon an unknown and impossible descendant.
“What more is there to read beyond books?” Atula asked.
“Many things,” Taksati said, a smile crossing her lips. “You read the stores in the ship’s hold with your numbers for instance. What is your count today?” Taksati gave the girl regular errands to perform on the ship as her assistant, which included a daily count of the ship’s food and water stocks. Unfortunately, the counting got easier for the girl as the days of the voyage passed.
Atula looked to the side and scrunched up her face in concentration. “Three bags of flour, two bags of beans, six barrels of dried fish, two sacks of walnuts, one sack of barber nuts, three crates of potatoes, one half crate of turnips…”
Taksati listened thoughtfully as the girl recited from memory her inventory of the ship’s hold. Not enough. Their supplies would easily last until they found the temple, whether that day or the next or the one after that. But it meant thin rations once they made landfall, especially if they could not find animals to hunt and wild fruits and vegetables to forage.
“And fifteen casks of water,” Atula finished her recitation.
“And how many days of water will that allow us?” Taksati asked as she gazed down at the girl.
Atula bit her lip. “Four days on full rations and almost eight days on half rations.” She looked over her shoulder at the pilgrims spread around the deck of the sailing vessel and then back to Taksati. “But it won’t matter once we make landfall.”
“Do you know how easy or difficult it is to find water in a foreign land?” Taksati frowned again at the girl. “Have you seen rivers and streams? Do you know how simple it will be to dig a well?”
“I saw one river,” Atula said. She thought for a moment and then sighed. “Two days ago.”
“The day I suggested to the captain that we should weigh anchor and refill our water casks while we could.” Taksati’s years of practice having her experience and advice ignored by Pashist temple priests kept the bitterness and annoyance from her voice. Junari had been persuaded by the captain’s arguments that the temple could be no more than a day’s journey up the coast.
“The Goddess will provide for us.” Atula’s tone did not sound as certain of this as her words implied she should be.
“The Goddess may wish us to learn to provide for ourselves,” Taksati said. “To do things now so that we can do them better in the future.” She considered this thought and hoped it would not prove entirely true.
“Like learning to read?” Atula asked.
“Exactly so,” Taksati replied.
They stood in silence for a while watching the waves and trees of the shore shifting in the evening wind as the golden dome of the sun receded behind the canopy of the forest.
“I reckoned for sure we’d find it today.” Atula leaned her chin on the railing. She did not need to bend much at her height to accomplish the pose. “I had a dream where my father said we would.”
“A dream with your father.” Taksati placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “That is a good omen indeed.”
“I have a dream with him every night since we reached the Forbidden Realm, and each night I ask him when we would find the temple, and each night he says soon and then last night he said today, so I thought…” Atula’s voice tailed off into another sigh.
“Sometimes dreams show us the future and sometimes they show us the future we wish to see.” Taksati tried not to worry about how this statement reflected on the dreams of the Goddess that had once been her nightly comfort and were now painfully elusive.
“There! There!” A voice cried out above.
Taksati and Atula looked upward to the sound. One of the pilgrim crew hung in a cradle of ropes near the top of the center mast. The crew took turns throughout the day as lookouts scanning the coastline ahead for any sign of the temple. The man stood in the knotted ropes like stirrups astride a horse, his right arm out stretched as he left clung to the rigging.
“There! I sees it! There!”
Taksati and Atula spun in unison, each squinting in the fading light as they searched for the signs of what had prompted the lookout’s cries. There had been other declarations of sightings over the past few days, but each had resolved itself as being an outcropping of rock or an oddly formed cliff face. Natural features to a strange and beautiful land, but not the structures they had seen in their lost dreams.
The minutes passed and Taksati’s hope faded with the light as the darkness of sunset cloaked the world. Suddenly Atula grabbed her hand and squeezed with all her might. Taksati nearly yelped, but she too saw the shadow shrouded features revealed along the shoreline. There could be no confusing those massive curved lines of stone as anything natural, even covered as they were in vines and forest growth. Nor could one mistake the size and placement of the buildings. Far too many to be a mere temple. They could only represent the shadows of a city.
The ship tilted, and she heard the sails shift behind her as the crew called out the captain’s orders and they tacked closer to shore. Exclamations of joy rang out across the vessel. She looked back to see Junari standing atop the aftcastle deck with Raedalus, Bon-Tao, and the captain. She appeared both radiant and trepidatious.
“I knew we would find it today.” Atula bounced on her toes. “I knew my father would not lie to me.” She smiled and wiped tears from her eyes with the knuckles of her thin, calloused hand.
“Your dream proved more prophecy than pining.” Taksati squinted again in the darkness. While they had definitely found edifices not fashioned by nature, they would need to anchor the ship for the night and wait until morning before they explored what they hoped to be their ultimate destination in this unknown land. In the meantime, it might prove useful to gain some knowledge of what they faced when they set foot ashore. She knew one way to attempt such an investigation from their current confines — the same method she had used every night since her childhood.
“Come. We can see no more in this light. We’ve work to do below decks.”
“Work?” For once Atula sounded almost petulant. One of the girl’s most attractive qualities, in Taksati’s opinion, was her enthusiasm for labor, and for doing as much of it as possible in a day.
“Yes,” Taksati said, placing her hand again on the Atula’s shoulder and pulling her away from the railing. “We don’t know what we’ll find when the sun rises on this strange land, but we can find hints of it if we look in the right places.”
“Hints?” Atula tilted curious eyes upward to Taksati.
“Hints and sometimes more than hints.” Taksati led the girl toward a hatch and the hold below. “I’ve something new to teach you to read tonight.”