This is a bonus chapter to the full-length novel The Windcaster, free on Wattpad.
2094 V.F., a village 20 miles from Ptarmigan Fortress.
The sun bore down, unrelenting in its heat. Enlil sighed, wiping the sweat from his forehead, but it didn’t stop more from pouring off his hair and down his face, stinging his eyes. It was so hot he could feel his body evaporating. He didn’t complain. His older brothers were just a few metres away, and would tease him if he was the first to give up.
The heat made the area immediately above the ground swim. The dry dirt danced, looking more moist than they would ever be. No, he wouldn’t complain. Mother was nursing Pazuzu, the oldest, and the other boys have to tend to the crops more than ever. Even Nergal, only nine and a year younger than Enlil, was ploughing with diligence nearby, his little face flushed like a summer fruit and blisters forming on his skinny bare shoulders. His face was plastered flat to his head with sweat. If he didn’t have a break soon, he was going to get a sunstroke just like Hanbi did a week ago.
Yet there was so much left to do. It was Pazuzu’s fault. If he hadn’t stayed out ploughing and then went to help out other villagers to earn extra food. If he hadn’t climbed atop the roof to fix the leak and saw the soldiers coming, he wouldn’t be lying at home with broken bones. The more Enlil swung his tool onto the cracked soil, the angrier he got. Nergal and he were too young for hard labour, mother said. If Pazuzu hadn’t been so brash and stepped in when the soldiers bullied the boys next door – and then stupidly tried to reason with them – he wouldn’t have been beaten to a pulp, and Enlil wouldn’t be sweating to death right now. The skin on his hands had broken and bled, and the scabs had formed and then been torn off, and now bled afresh. He panted, the muscles around his throat squeezing without relenting.
The desolate fields stretched as far as the eye could see and not even half of it had been ploughed yet. The dirt was crusted; not a speck of green could be seen growing. The plants on the peripheries were yellowed and wilted, a reflection of how poor the reaping had been for the past few years.
Enlil would kill for some water. The droughts had dried almost everything up, leaving the soil no different from the desert of Nabudice. It was of little surprise several babies and children in the village had died as a result. Enlil’s mother did what she could in the dire circumstances: leaving pots and sheets outside at night to catch dew and picking leaves of water-rich plants for the children to chew, but even Nergal could see her losing energy and hope day by day. Nevertheless, none of the boys complained.
“Hanbi!” A voice jerked Enlil out of his brooding. He looked up, seeing his second oldest brother, Hanbi, turn in the direction of the voice. Following Hanbi’s gaze, Enlil spotted with bleary eyes a boy around Hanbi’s age, flapping his hands at them from the edge of the fields. It was Namtar, another farmer’s boy, and a friend of the two oldest brothers. Enlil frowned. There were still a few hours of sunlight left and the field was nowhere near ready. No farmer would leave their post unless it was something urgent.
From the look on Namtar’s face, it seemed Enlil’s intuition was correct.
Nergal took a few steps forward, an uncertain look on his face replacing the exhaustion.
“What is it, Enlil?” whispered the youngest, tugging at the ragged end of Enlil’s tunic with bloodied hands. Enlil shook his head. Enmerkar, on Enlil’s other side and the third oldest brother, was frowning.
“Hurry!” There was desperation in Namtar’s voice that made Enlil’s heart speed up. What could be so urgent they had to abandon the fields? Namtar was fifteen, one of the ‘older boys’ along with Pazuzu and Hanbi, and he was a valuable hand amongst the farmers and known for being level-headed, but – Enlil increased his pace to match his brothers’ running – Namtar was wringing his hands and biting his lips. The dread weighed like lead on Enlil’s chest.
The boys hurried over the ploughed dirt, dragging their tools behind. Nergal struggled with his, so Enlil grabbed it in his other hand and they rushed after Hanbi and Enmerkar.
They dropped their gears as soon as their feet hit solid dirt ground. Under the glare of the sun and prolonged dehydration, Enlil’s brothers’ silhouettes swam in and out of focus. Ignoring the pounding in his head and the weakness in his legs, Enlil forced himself on.
Beyond the yellow bushes and crusty dirt fields, their slanted houses came into view. Although poor, their village was often lively. The younger children would shout and laugh when doing household chores or collecting discarded material to reuse. Even the haggard, starved adults could manage smiles most days. But as the boys neared, the village was deadly silent. Not a single person could be seen.
Enlil’s throat was sand-like. There were dark red spatters on the floor, half-dried in the heat. Death hung heavy over their shoulders. The boys took tentative steps into the village. Enlil could see the hands of his older brothers shaking.
“What happened?” he whispered. Hanbi shushed him, his face pale. Enlil was more frightened by the reaction of Enmerkar and Hanbi than by the quietness. Nergal clung to Enlil’s sleeve.
They passed three houses before Enlil picked up the sound of angry voices. Nearing one of the farmer’s houses, a crash made the boys jump. A flimsy wooden door exploded as a man flew outside, shards raining onto the dusty ground. The man coughed and wretched, bringing up nothing but a mouthful of pale yellow liquid, and clutched his abdomen. Blood poured from his face, gushing like a fountain and staining the front of his tunic.
“Pa!” Namtar cried, rushing forward. He knelt by his father’s side, gripping the older man’s shoulders with shaking hands.
Two huge men came out of Namtar’s house. They had frightening expressions on their faces: thin lips, hard cold eyes, and tight jaws. They reminded Enlil of wild wolves, merciless and focused.
Enlil found a hand – Hanbi’s – stretched across his chest, half-shielding him. He peered over his brother’s arm, curious in spite of his pounding heart.
The two men stood over Namtar’s father like predators about to devour their prey. They wore crispy scarlet uniforms with ribbons across their chests. The King’s soldiers.
“Leave him alone!” said Namtar, leaning protectively over his father, who struggled to stem his bleed. The blood was turning his pale tunic dark red, like the spatters on the ground.
The men gave him a withering look. One swung his leg back and booted the fifteen-year-old in the abdomen. Namtar was so thin and light he was sent several metres down the street, landing in a crumpled heap and unconscious.
Enlil sucked in a breath, glancing at Hanbi for instructions. His brother had his teeth clenched and his eyes narrowed. Nergal clutched tighter onto Enlil’s arm, trembling.
“You want us to start on your little boy?” said the man who had kicked Namtar, smirking at the farmer on the ground. The farmer coughed again – blood splashed onto the ground.
“Then tell us. Give s the scumbag who raised that rebellion.”
Hanbi sucked in a breath as Namtar’s father’s eyes flicked at the group of boys. Confused, Enlil stared between the terrified faces of his two older brothers. Enmerkar had gone white as a sheet.
“Get them out of here,” said Hanbi in a low voice.
Enmerkar grabbed Enlil’s hand in a vice-like grip and turned to tug them away.
“Stop right there!”
They froze. Enlil’s heart was about to explode out of his chest. There was dampness under his arms and along his back. Cold sweat ran down the side of his face.
One soldier, who had a beard like a bear and glinting eyes, swaggered up to Hanbi. Enmerkar’s hand was about to break Enlil’s bones. Hanbi made a point of shielding Enlil and Nergal with his body, staring with defiance at the man.
“Do you little brats know where he is? We’re looking for the man who instigated all the slave rebellions in the east.”
Enlil stared at him blankly. Nergal whimpered. Enmerkar’s hand started to shake, but Hanbi, as the oldest there, continued to glare at the soldier, his chin thrust out.
The soldier back-handed him. A slap cracked through the air and the fifteen-year-old’s head snapped back. Stumbling, he landed on his backside, disorientated. A trail of blood ran from the corner of his lips.
The man stared down at him like a hawk. Enmerkar said nothing, but his eyes were wide.
Scowling, the other soldier marched towards the three boys who were standing, and snatched at Nergal’s spindly forearm. Enlil yelled, but the youngest was wretched out of his grasp like some flimsy material. He watched in horror as Nergal wriggled and started to cry. Sausage-like fingers clamped over his little head, tugging so hard at the thin brown strands of hair tears poured down his face. He cried harder than ever.
“Shut it!” growled the man. Nergal stopped at once, terrified. The man turned cruel eyes to the other boys. Hanbi got shakily to his feet, with Enmerkar hooking an arm under his. “Well? Tell me, or this little one will be hurt.”
Enlil looked with desperation at his older brothers. His heart hammered in his chest. He couldn’t see why they didn’t just say what they knew. It was obvious they were hiding something, and there was nothing more important than keeping the family safe. Why did they remain silent? They hadn’t done anything wrong and the soldiers would leave them alone once they knew that. Hanbi had a bruise blossoming over his right cheek and Nergal shook like a leaf. Why were they just standing there?
“We do not know anything,” Hanbi said in a thick voice. “We do not know of whom you speak.”
The first soldier snorted.
“You take us for fools? We know who we are seeking and so do you. Will it take some… persuasion?”
The second soldier tugged, hard, and Nergal let out a cry, clutching uselessly at the strong hand.
“Say something! Tell him!” Enlil said, terrified. The soldiers would go once they got what they wanted, surely. Why were his brothers withholding information?
“This little one’s got the right attitude,” said the first man. His eyes were narrowed upon the older boys.
“We know nothing,” Enmerkar said, his voice trembling. “Let Nergal go. He is just a boy.”
The second man with the bear-beard chuckled, his face twisting into a frightening leer beneath his helmet. Enlil’s knees trembled as he drew a long sword out of his scabbard. The man bared yellow teeth in a grin.
In one swift movement, he raised the sword, tucked it under Nergal’s neck, and swept it skywards.
Crimson splashed onto the dry ground. All Enlil could hear was the gurgling and all he could see was Nergal’s tiny hands scrabbling, weak, at his throat, before they fell. Enlil let out a strangled cry, falling onto all fours. His heart was being torn out. The blood stopped flowing soon. A gaping wide grin stretched from one side of his little brother’s neck to the other.
The soldier threw Nergal aside like a bundle of rags. Nergal fell in slow motion, the blood-stained tattered top rippling in the process, and his limbs still twitching. And then he was still, bouncing on the floor.
A cacophony shattered the air.
His mother flew out of the house, her face drained of blood. Kneeling by her youngest son, she picked him up with shaking hands, paying no heed to the blood staining her dress. She wailed, a heart-breaking sound Enlil had never heard before; it drove a knife into his heart over and over.
Beneath her cries, there were other peculiar guttural sounds. It took him several seconds before he realised the soldiers were laughing. He saw red. With a scream, he launched himself at the men, keen to inflict heavy bodily damage.
“You monsters!” Enlil screamed. His voice didn’t sound like his.
Hanbi caught him and threw him back, an expression on his face Enlil had never seen. Enlil fought against his brother, but Hanbi was stronger, older, and held him down.
“Nergal is just a little boy!” he yelled over Hanbi’s body, and then to Hanbi himself, “I hate you! Why will you not do anything? How can you do this to Nergal? They killed him! It’s all your fault!”
“You do not understand,” said Enmerkar, sounding pained. Enlil couldn’t care less about what they knew. It was because of his brothers the soldiers killed Nergal. If they’d just told them, they would have been back in the fields by now.
“I hate you!”
Their mother was still crying, cradling her littlest one. Namtar, the farmer’s boy, had recovered somewhat and was watching the whole thing with the same terrified expression as on Enmerkar and Hanbi’s faces. This was too surreal. Enlil wished with all his heart this was just a horrible dream. Perhaps soon he would be awakened by Pazuzu again, calling him a lazy dog for not waking early to plough.
“Right, that is enough noise.”
One of the soldiers marched forward and grabbed their mother with the same vice-like grip in her hair. She yelped, her feet kicking along the sandy ground.
“Oh, you do have a pleasing face, my dear,” said the soldier in a voice that made Enlil’s skin crawl, leering at his mother. “What do you say we have some fun later?”
Enlil couldn’t see how there would be any fun with monsters like these.
His mother snivelled and shook her head, and yelped again as the soldier tightened his grip.
“Perhaps if we spare the lives of your children, you will tell us the whereabouts of this rebel, and you will come with us.”
His mother hesitated. Enlil couldn’t see her face, but her shoulders heaved and her knees knocked together. Her dress was all messed up with blood and dirt – she took such pride in her appearance normally.
“Or do you want them all to end up like that youngest of yours?”
Enlil’s blood ran cold despite the humidity. His mother shook her head.
“No, please… I shall tell you everything.”
“Mother, do not!”
“There is nothing we can do, Hanbi!” hissed Enmerkar. “They will kill us all!”
“They kill us either way,” said Hanbi in a furious voice, but not loud enough for the soldiers to hear. “They would not approach this village without a clue as for whom they search. A confession gives them more power – and we remain dead! Nobody negotiates with the king’s army.”
The world was falling to pieces around Enlil. What was going on? What did they know that he did not?
And was this really how his life would end?
“You are searching for my husband, Lugalbanda,” said their mother in a low, shaking tone. “He went to rally support against the king many months ago… He is the leader. I am afraid I know nothing of the outcome. He has not returned since.”
There was such glee on the soldiers’ faces it was as though solstice festivals had arrived early. One of them chortled, his bear-beard wiggling.
“Oh, this is just fantastic. Our sources were correct!”
“Wait… you already knew?” The mother sounded confused. “But why are you here—”
“Oh, we knew Lugalbanda came from this village.” The man’s lips curled. “We needed something more than torture to get more information. What better than his wife and boys?”
“It is a shame we killed one already,” said the other. “But that matters not; there are three more.”
Pa was the one they seek?
“You have captured my husband?” said the mother, bewildered.
“Haha! We almost killed him, but the king wanted information from the rebel. What chance did they have, with barely a hundred men and nothing but wooden swords and farming experience to their names? It was almost funny had they not been so confident and relentless.” The man wiped tears from his eyes. “But this is excellent. You and I shall have a lot of fun, my dear.”
Enmerkar and Hanbi were speaking in low voices. Hanbi shook his head, looking dejected. Enmerkar shot another glance at the men, who were preoccupied with their mother.
“There is no choice. We must escape.”
“There will never be a choice. They shall kill us.”
“We cannot leave mother!” Enlil said, horrified.
“There is no choice, Enlil! We have to!”
When they turned to run, Enlil’s stomach fell to the ground. The way through which they had come there stood three more soldiers, sadistic grins on their faces.
“You thought of running, my boy?”
Enlil jumped, turning to see the bear-beard man standing close behind them. Up close, his eyes had no emotions. His breath smelled terrible and his nose was red and ruddy.
“If you are to kill us,” said Hanbi, eyes flashing, “then kill us. Make clean of this.”
The soldier guffawed.
“Kill you, my boy? That would be a waste!”
Enmerkar’s jaw trembled. Enlil was rooted to the spot, spotting the chains in the three other soldiers’ hands.
“No,” whispered Hanbi. “No. Please.”
“Yes.” Up close, those yellow teeth had black holes and bits of food stuck in the gaps.
Enlil felt the cold metal slip around his wrists and the punishing click of locks sliding into place.
“You will be slaves and serve the system.”
“To hell with the system! You should have killed us!” yelled Hanbi, his eyes bulging. The man laughed again, echoed by the other three soldiers.
“Perhaps people like your idiot of a father should think twice next time they decided to rebel against Dernexes!” The man’s words echoed in Enlil’s head as he was led away, to serve the rest of his life as a slave. In the background, the men’s delighted jeers faded into the distance. “You should thank us for sparing your life, boy!”