The Coinbearer - Chapter 1
Jerna panted as she dragged her injured leg across the desert sand. A few more paces, she told herself, a few more paces and there will be shelter. From under her hood she peered at the cracked cistern located about five meters away. The desert sky stretched above her grey with promises of a sandstorm. Using her staff to pull her closer to her destination, Jerna tried to ignore her throbbing foot. Wind began to pick up sand as she concentrated on the cistern.
Finally reaching the cistern, she peered inside to see if any desert creatures had fallen in. Seeing none, she produced a rope from her pack and securely tied one end around a metal support that protruded from the cistern wall. With great caution, she lowered herself into the cistern and waited for the storm to pass.
In the dim light, Jerna examined the wound on her ankle. The skin was torn and broken from one of the briers. Although the wound was not contaminated, she wondered why there was so much pain. Opening her water skin, she allowed a thin trickle to wash her wound. Applying the stopper to her water skin, she hoped that there was an oasis nearby; however, doubt crept in as she recalled that there was no promise of water in this desert. Many years ago, the desert was once a lush place full of greenery, trees, and fresh water. Now it was a place of death where outcasts were taken and animal sacrifices were made to the gods, and unwanted children were abandoned.
She brought out some clean linen strips she had packed in case of injuries.
“Long, long ago, when the people were at peace with the chief god, the land was rich with greenery.” Jerna heard the familiar voice of her grandmother as she bound her foot. “However, when the people began to kill each other for the land and its riches, diseases swept through the land killing everything. The people called to the chief god, but he would not answer, for he had cut himself off from the moment they committed the crimes. Then one day, they heard a song. They did not know where it came from, but believed that the wind had brought it. This song soothed the pains and strengthened those weakened from the disease. In this song was a message that said to seek the cure and bring hope to the ill and dying. The people did not know what to do, for they know not where to find this cure or hope. Then an old man had a dream saying that someone must find this cure.”
Jerna reached under the collar of her tunic and pulled out a pendant. The pendant was a silver coin with a hole at its centre, hanging by a leather cord. Her grandmother had given it to her when she was small. She tried to remember why, but could not. Her mother, who did not believe in any god, detested the ornament. She told Jerna that wearing the coin was detestable as well as humiliating, for it reminded her of the very coins that people placed on their sacrifices and unwanted children. Many times, Jerna’s mother tried to get rid of it, but Jerna kept it safely hidden under her tunic, for it was a gift from her grandmother just before she passed away.
Jerna respected her mother as much as she loved her. Her mother was proud, believing if people worked hard they will reap the fruits of their labour, only laziness would bring ruin. Her mother did everything in the house from cooking to cleaning, making clothes for her children to bargaining for staples. However, that all changed once the disease struck her mother. Her legs weakened later crippling her with pain invading her limbs. Because of this, while their mother confined to her bed, Jerna with her brothers and sisters had to support each other.
Then one day, while she prepared supper, Jerna heard someone call her name. It was not a voice she recognized, but one she understood. Many times, it called her until she finally had to go.
“Go where?” her mother demanded.
“I don’t know. All I know is that I need to find out who is calling me. Perhaps it will help me find the cure.”
Her mother laughed at Jerna’s response. “Find the cure!” she scoffed. “There is no cure for this disease! Besides, you have heard that those who have gone to find the cure have never returned – not even the strongest among them.”
“I am going to try and find it, Mother,” Jerna told her firmly. That was the last time she spoke to her mother, for she felt that if she stayed to argue she would not be able to leave.
* * * * * * * * * *
Jerna woke up amid silence, realizing that she had slept through the storm. She brought out her small lantern and lit it. In the light, she examined her wound. The bleeding had stopped. The pain too had subsided. With some clean strips of cloth and a bit of water she washed her wound and bound it securely again. She opened her pack and began to eat her meagre meal of flat bread and jerky.
“The desert is a dangerous place,” she recalled her grandmother telling her. “They say that demons roam this land. If demons roam this land, then their servants live off the desert.”
Jerna shuddered at the thought. She had heard of tales of demons that tried to kill light or whatever they find in their territory. She swallowed a mouthful of water from her water skin to help her dry bread go down. I wonder if I will be safe here?
“The demons mark their territory by creating a circle of sand. When you are in a desert make sure you do not stay in their circle for that is where they will hunt.” Jerna remembered grandmother’s advice.
Then I should leave, she began to pack her things, sensing that she should not stay there too long. As she climbed up the rope, she peered over the mouth of the cistern and saw something that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand.
The sand dunes glowed silver in the moonlight as she saw a ridge of sand encircling the cistern, its diameter as wide as a city. Jerna bit her lips in dread as she stared at the circle. How is one to escape from here? Jerna felt weak already, for she knew that with her injured ankle she could not travel far or quickly.
As she tried to devise a way to leave the circle she heard a strange tapping sound. She turned towards the sound and saw giant white beetles, the size of cats, crawling towards her. Realizing that they were attracted to the lantern, she flung it far away. The lantern shattered. The beetles scurried towards the fire. The moment they surrounded the fire, these creatures began to link head to tail with each other forming centipedes. Rearing their heads, they attacked the flames. Seeing her opportunity, Jerna climbed out of the cistern when she saw something slithered not far from where she was. A desert lizard sped past the beetles as if to flee the creatures’ hunting grounds. The beetles surrounded the lizard, forming the centipedes again, and devouring it with sickening sounds. Jerna wanted to scream but covered her mouth and swallowed her cries, knowing that she would be next if she made a sound. These creatures could see and sense their prey! She felt like crying. What have I gotten myself into? She wept silently to herself. As she bit her bottom lip to keep down her sobs, she looked up and saw herself surrounded by beetles.
Oh, gods! she cried out in her heart, Oh, gods! Help me! She stood rooted to the spot and too horrified to scream. Centipedes reared back, preparing to strike.
“Immanu! Save me!” Jerna cried out a name her grandmother had once mentioned.
The centipedes flew towards her and struck the cistern, shattering it into pieces. Jerna suddenly felt herself fly as she watched the giant creatures chewing digging at the rubble. She stared at the scene in fascination as she felt herself carried farther and farther away from it. Am I flying? she wondered as she saw the scenery retreating below her. She then realized she was being carried – but by whom? Was this the answer from the gods? Yet, if the one carrying her was a god, then what was he doing in a place where demons roam? Many questions passed through her mind until she decided she could not trust this being, for he could be an enemy.
“Let go,” she said, her voice shaking.
The being did not respond.
“Let me go!” Jerna cried out, and felt herself tumble to the ground uninjured. She sat up and looked around. No one was in sight. She was outside the demon territories. Slowly she stood up, assuring herself she was safe for now. Why had she demanded the being to let go of her when he could have been a friend? Surely an enemy would not rescue her from danger. As more questions went through her mind, she felt for her pack and found that she still had it with her. She still had far to go. She limped away.