Jonathan Martin

CLAIRE HAMILTON — CREATIVE WRITINGThe pen is mightier than the sword

Augury
by Jonathan Martin

In the great meeting space of the city the white sanded floor ran dark and wet in streams of blood. The cattle slaughter had been good, the beast had died well - instantly even. The Priest had cut true and now he and his novices cut rigorously, hacking and grinding, pulling apart the remains of the beast before circle upon circle of seated warlords and warriors. The hide was tough and the bones strong. The stomach contents spilt, putrid and sickening, summoning the lesser demons of the flies to it. But no one spoke, even the priests were too enthralled. And then after all the blood and filth, the old shaman, the wisest summoned from his aged rest to do a last prophecy, pulled out a huge and cleft rag of flesh and staggered under its weight, his aids then taking it to an adjacent bench. The old man whipped the blood onto his apron, rubbed it off his face and on to his fore arms. The aids held open folded cloths containing silver and slender instruments and knives. He looked at them slowly, lifting a few to try their weight, pulling the blade edge to his eye to tease out its quality in the sunlight. No one felt impatient, it was important. If his hand slipped and he scarred the liver whilst probing it, it would be ruined; the link to the gods severed, wasted even, maybe even an insult to them, hence why only this man could do this.

A younger aid moved in closer to undo the man’s apron, though really he was shielding the warriors from seeing the high-priest’s hands shaking. The priest held the knife ready whilst the obstructing garment was taken. In an instant his mind was clear and his hand and arms solid again from a lifetime of study. The aids moved out and stood away. The old shaman whipped the blade softly over the liver’s outer membrane - as if he were striking the threads on a harp and not tearing at it like a butcher. He lifted the frail wafer of the tissue, slid his hand smoothly into the layer of fat, slicing again and then touching the deep ochre gem of the liver’s firm skin. Now his real work would start, seeing it in the light, blooded, shining and hot he traced the thin lines and fleshy nodes, letting his vision cast an overlay of a landscape on it - stars, the realms of the gods and spirits - regions that even his teachers had never told him of.

He stroked the wide-open plane that he knew nothing about. The secrets of the dead lay on there. Safe and laughing at him, though not in jest. He knew why they’d never tell. He’d never tell of all the facets that he understood - the magic demanded it. He tested the firmness of the liver again, checking for any hint of disease. Had they bruised it in the violence of the extraction? The finest cow in a hundred miles! If this beast hadn’t been well then there was nothing else they could substitute in the ritual. But no, it was good and healthy. They’ll enjoy the eating of it, he thought. Defiantly, after they’d all heard what he had just seen.

    “The omens are good,” his dry voice sent as far as it could reach.
He stood up from the liver and handed back the blade, the gathered warriors giving out great applause.
    “You’re sure of this?” Lazarus said, rising from where he had been waiting. The shaman took a moment to find him, forgetting where the man had been.
     “Yes my lord, the liver is clear - the Gods have abandoned the Lowlanders, the death of Ed’ruthra went to evil spirits, there’s naught but bad luck there now”.
     “Are their fighters weak?  Would they be willing to submit to our leadership?’ the delic’han asked quickly, hands seized with excitement. The shaman looked back to the liver where it was resting, trying to pull the images of it into his sight.
     “Ah yes! Yes I believe so, the signs point to a withering in the dusk- the west,” he said, not entirely sure, arching his palm in the air as he re-felt the smooth skin.
     “Then our plan with succeed!” Lazarus said walking past the shaman who bowed, and went away trying to recall the mysterious regions, sure that he remembered something of them, some hint from his teachers. His aids followed him to the side.
    “We will succeed – it’s begun! Death to the Zakhryun”! Lazarus challenged to the vast circles of the waiting.
    “Death to Zakhryun!” was the sky bursting reply. Lazarus tore out his sword upwards, releasing a wave of bronze into the chamber. He ran his sword over his palm and squeezed out his own blood onto the cattle-blood pools. There was another breathe of silence, and then it was sealed. The Kandre and the Ahryan had agreed, the gods were fed and speaking. It was their time now.

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