It wasn’t the beginning of the memory, but it was the thing that stood out to him the strongest.
He was looking into the face of the gulakhan. Rakhulbi shook from head to foot, like he was in a blizzard with no clothes on. And like a blizzard, the gulakhan just stared at him long and hard, no sympathy, no movement.
“Your behavior isn’t becoming of an Ashlander, Rakhulbi-Sul.”
“Please…” He hadn’t actually said that, had he? No. That was just his waking self, not wanting to look further, not wanting to remember. But he forced himself to, stubbornly. Eyes wide agape.
He was looking into the face of the gulakhan, who stared at him long and hard. The gulakhan spoke, and Rakhulbi had answered, his voice stronger than he remembered, even as he struggled with tears. “It’s coming, muthsera. We have to leave. It’ll kill everyone if you don’t!”
“Can’t you just let things go?” the gulakhan said in sudden anger. “You’re always worrying. Always picking at every little detail like you own this place. You don’t think I am doing all I can? We cannot just leave!”
Stunned by the outburst, Rakhulbi said nothing. The gulakhan glared at him, then groaning, turned and walked away. “Idiot boy…”
Rakhulbi shivered. He was desperate. He had seen what the Knahaten Flu could do, up close and personal. But no one would believe him. He was cognizant of others watching, judging him, thinking he was being foolish, the weak little boy who couldn’t draw the bow all the way back, couldn’t keep pace with the older hunters, was probably frightened of his own shadow…
Like a strangled bird, the shriek worked his way up his throat, formed into shrill words somewhere along the way. “Listen to me! Just listen! This is real!”
The gulakhan didn’t turn. Maybe he hadn’t heard. He couldn’t possibly be so callous as to just not care about what Rakhulbi had seen…
“Listen to me!” Rakhulbi’s voice took on a new octave. With a start, he realized it had drawn the notice of the rest of the tribe.
“Ralkhulbi, what is the matter?” asked one of the older women.
“I’m trying–!” He gesticulated at her. “This isn’t–I’m not–!”
She stared at him, just like the gulakhan had. Like he was growing an extra head. Like something was wrong with him. The Sight stirred in the back of his head, and he fought it down. The images of death, of his dying mother, of the Flu overtaking the camp one by one–they came on like the tide, stinging and biting like wasps. The future? The present? Could he know?
Then he was writhing, down in the dirt, from the pain and confusion in his head. The others were staring. No one moved to help. Watching in fascination, like a guar overcome by the deadly dance of a nix-hound…
“You need to calm down,” said that older woman. Her voice was getting emotional too. Rakhulbi heard it as disgust. “It is not that bad.”
“It is, it is; it is coming! Oh, why won’t you listen!”
“He is sick,” said one of the men, sounding puzzled.
“He said something about the Flu?” murmured another.
“Does he have it?”
“Has it reached us?”
“Ye-e-esss–” Rakhulbi grit his teeth, realizing only now he had been drooling, the ash caked to his face, from the violence of the Sight and the emotions it was attached to wracking his mind. “Yes.” He looked up, pleading, terribly hopeful, trying to blink away the visions that wouldn’t stop coming.
The crowd shifted. Like guar spooked by the nix…
One of the hunters emerged from the crowd, and Rakhulbi turned to him. The hunter carried a bow, and he was one of the elders, a fair and kind-hearted man. Rakhulbi was flooded with relief. This man would listen. He would understand the danger the Knahaten Flu posed, how they needed to leave the Grazelands basin for safer grounds. He would tell the others, and they would leave, before the Flu took them like it had taken his mother…
The elder raised up his bow. “Wait…” said Rakhulbi in sudden confusion.
The elder shot Rakhulbi.
He screamed, just as much in surprise as in pain. It was not bad–the elder had missed and gotten his arm instead of his chest, thanks to angle Rakhulbi had been sitting at. But it might as well have been through the heart, as the action rocked Rakhulbi to the core.
He was…they were…why…
The elder was cursing and stringing another arrow. Rakhulbi flashed to his feet, and sprung away. He rammed into the arms of the surrounding crowd. The first layer pulled away from him in disgust or fear, but the second grabbed him, strong arms turning him about to face…
“Let go, let go, leggo!” He turned and bit like an animal, as the elder, cursing, came closer, beckoning the other Ashlanders out of the way.
“Hold still,” came someone’s voice. “It’s for your own good.”
“No! You don’t understand!”
“It’s the Flu. Stolen his mind.”
“Worse case I seen, but he doesn’t have any boils on him…”
“Just end it, quickly.”
He couldn’t understand. It was obvious his writhing was from the Sight, not because he had the Flu. The farseer would have told them. Why wasn’t she here…?
The elder raised the bow. Rakhulbi ripped free of those holding him with savage strength, ducking out of the way. There was a scream, not his own, as someone too close to the stir leaned over, clutching at the fletching sticking out of her gut. The vacant eyes stared up at Rakhulbi as the Ashlander slowly sunk to the ground…
Was he really dead? Drai wondered. He had always wondered.
He never had had a chance to look back and truly see. Rakhulbi had bit, he kicked, he tore hair, he clawed at eyes. He was screaming at them, telling them how horrible and stupid they were. Suddenly he was free, running flat out away from the camp, only vaguely wondering why they had let him go so easily. Then stones hummed in the air, and he stumbled as several found their bruising marks.
He tripped and fell. One of the younger hunters ran up and kicked at him. Stomping at his hands, kicking his legs, keeping him from getting up as another came up with a blade…
“Stop, stop!” rang someone’s voice. The farseer! She had finally come! “You are making it worse. Leave him be!”
“He is sick with the Flu,” came someone else’s voice. “I’m sorry, but we have no choice.”
“This is MY choice!” The farseer’s voice rattled, and she had to pause to regain her breath on her hobbling way to them. “With his mother dead, I am now his guardian. Me!“
“We cannot allow that…”
“You will! Or Mephala help me…”
Rakhulbi dared to look, peeking out from between his fingers. The farseer stood over him, frail, bent body half-straightened as she glared in defiance at the semi-circle of hunters behind him. They stared at her, at her face, at the pock-marks of the disease just noticed, mottling her hands.
Eyes widened. “No…”
“Yes, you see now. It is in me already. I will take him to a place he will not harm anyone. Talk to the Ashkhan. We can’t allow more to die because of this.”
The hunters were reluctant. Several cast dark looks Rakhulbi’s way. “I have seen the Flu’s withering,” muttered one of them. He glared at Rakhulbi. “That writhing earlier…that is not the Flu. He is cursed.”
“My concern, not yours,” said the farseer sternly.
“Cursed?” said another fearfully despite the warning in the farseer’s eyes. “The prophecies tell of such things. The Devil under Red Mountain! What if it is his sending…?”
“You are a fool,” spat the farseer. “The Devil is asleep and will remain so long past our lifetimes.”
But Rakhulbi could see even her respected words hadn’t convinced them. He shivered under their glances, their disgust and hatred clear in their eyes.
They were all wise and steady men, these hunters of the tribe. If even they were afraid, surely there was some substance to it?
What if it were true? What if he was the carrier of some terrible curse? What if–
The farseer grabbed him and hauled him to his feet. When he did not immediately stand, she dragged him several feet, the vice-grip on his arm belaying her weak constitution. He managed to squirm out of her grasp, and with a sharp bark, the farseer drove him before her, smacking him if he dared turn to the left or right.
They walked several miles, Rakhulbi limping from the pain that was only getting worse from his untreated wounds. Without a word, on the top of the coastal hills, the farseer abruptly turned him to face her. She eyed him up and down critically, then shoved him away. “Leave, Rakhulbi-Sul. You will be unwelcome if you ever return to this place.”
“But I’m not actually sick,” Rakhulbi managed to choke out. He looked back at her cringingly, but her face was hard. As hard as the gulakhan’s had been. “I didn’t do anything. I was trying to tell them about the Flu! They wouldn’t listen. I watched my own mother die! W-why wouldn’t they listen…?” He scrambled for words, begging her to understand what he could not.
She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. Not to them. Not after what you did. You need to leave.”
“This isn’t my fault…!” The shriek almost came back, and Rakhulbi bit it back down, remembering the fit it had started the last time. And the stares… “Why am I the one that has to go?” he asked, a sob creeping up his throat no matter how hard he tried to keep it down.
“You have the Sight,” the farseer said, like that was all that was important. Her look was cold, and Rakhulbi felt himself withering under it. She turned to hobble away, shaking her head and muttering to herself.
Watching her back dwindle into the distant, Rakhulbi felt himself collapse inward and downward… His hold on the memory collapsed as well, and even now, years later, he couldn’t remember if that was the end of the memory and he had just turned to walk away, or if he had had another fit. He vaguely remembered later sobbing it out under a bit of driftwood propped as a shelter against the night winds, and that was all.
Drai chewed on the memory like an old scab. Obligingly mirroring his circular thoughts, the memory began playing itself out again and again, though not as smoothly, with false starts and stutters until he wasn’t sure how much he was truly remembering and how much he was filling in with fabrications. The fear and the anger and the pain leaked from those images, colored his vision, and he lost his train of thought. He could smell the ash and the sweat of men, could taste the blood on his tongue, as if he were back in the moment, just as little a chance at escape as he had had when the strong young hunter had been holding him down…
Hoding him down, down. Death coming. No one understood. No one cared. No one to save him. Death coming…death coming everyone dead would die his fault. His fault. His fault. Why…
…like a gasp of fresh air, the sensations abruptly ended. Drai snapped out of the flashback. Piecing back together what remained of his thoughts, he realized he had learned nothing new this time, nothing he had not chewed over a thousand times before, on why the atrocity had happened.
Still the ache and the gnaw of the trauma beat at him. With no one else to see — beyond the Rakhulbi memory fragment at least — Drai softly began to cry.