Get Adobe Flash player

When Arlon was fairly small, about the age when Humen children are all arms and legs and intervening hungry bits, an old Ruhurdh, more crumpled and twisted and decrepitly ancient than most of its stunted, hairy breed, appeared in the village.   It was obviously a beggar, an itinerant pauper with no possessions besides the greasy hide bag which it wore slung over one shoulder, a tattered artefact studded with improbable and gruesome amulets and tied with oiled bits of sinew.

The creature (for who could call it a person?) stumbled into the village with a rolling uneven gait like a peg-leg sailor’s.  The youngsters, Arlon amongst them, threw groek dung and dead locusts and bits of stick, but their missiles glanced off the stranger’s hide and fell into the dust, and the expression on the gnarled hairy face didn’t change at all.  The whitened turned eyes below the deep hood didn’t flicker, not even when a large groek-pat bounced off the ugly flattened Ruhurdh nose.  The children continued in their sport despite this lack of response.  Strangers were few and far between and any amusement was better than the endless routine of village life.  Surely, if they persisted, they would get a reaction soon.

“Hoi! Stop that!”  A large rather desiccated groek-turd stung Arlon viciously across one ear.  “Ruden!  Run!  It’s Ruden the Ruhurdh-lover!” shrieked the most voluminous and bossy of the childer-pack. Dutifully, the bratlings surged to follow their fleeing leader.  Arlon hesitated.  Arlon rather admired Ruden, the wise-one’s apprentice.  Ruden was tall and thin, his lanky form well-suited to the cloaking guise that the Kaagn, the wise-ones of Arlon’s people, wore.  Like his mentor, Old Knagash, adviser to the village’s war-leader,  Ruden’s talents ran to guile rather than brawling, and he wore the bright badge of intuition in his brown eyes.  Arlon’s elder brother, Dorikk, said Ruden was bad blood – hadn’t found himself a wife amongst all the village girls, hadn’t kidnapped a screaming wenchling from the neighbouring village during the partnering ceremony, had never slain one of the great wild Askons that roamed the edge of the oasis when the dry-season baked the land with all its fury.  But Arlon had seen when one of the village curs went mad and ran amok savaging the groeks.  It had sped to and fro, ripping their gentle leathery throats and leaving the slow, harmless beasts dripping gore down their fronts while their great confused eyes rolled in their agatey heads.  Then Ruden had picked up a stone and put it in his sling, and with one calm snap of his forearm had sent it spinning to impact between the dog’s eyes, killing it instantly.  And Old Knagash had obviously seen something in Ruden as well, or he wouldn’t have selected him to join the privileged ranks of the Kaagn. Now, somehow reticent to follow the others, Arlon hung back, watching as Ruden approached and spoke to the stranger, using his hands to make symbols that Arlon didn’t understand.  Arlon noticed now that the stranger wore hunched cowled robes that were not dissimilar to Ruden’s own.  The symbols were doubtlessly part of that mysterious language learned only by the Kaagn and used to relate the secrets from which the wise-ones drew their power.

The other children fled whooping to the shelter of the dam wall, while Arlon watched Ruden come to some agreement with the creature and lead it to his dhabbar.  Ruden was strange, thought Arlon.  Who would want a greasy smelly Ruhurdh as a guest?  Who would want it sleeping next to your fire, scratching its itchy bug-bites and rubbing its great spreading nose on the back of its furry arm?  Obviously the Ruhurdh was more than it seemed – some secret harbinger from the Kaagn of another village or a travelled loremaster come to tell of some mystery.  Arlon’s curiosity was aroused, and he determined to spy on Ruden and his strange guest as soon as the sun was down.

Night fell, and Arlon and his several brothers and sisters were put to bed in the hide-filled back hollow of their family dhabbar.  Arlon concentrated on staying awake, listening to the low murmuring voices of his parents, and catching whiffs of the scratchy heady smell of the Fsharr incense that they threw on the fire….he awoke suddenly, with a start, knowing at once that it was hours later and he had fallen asleep.  The dhabbar was stuffy and dim.  The only light came from the fire, which was now just a mass of dim piled coals.  Still, Arlon was not willing to give up his adventure yet.  He squeezed his small body through a ragged gap in the dhabbar’s stitching and emerged into the night air.

The village was quiet and deserted, and the great bright stars blazed down like glaring eyes as he crept to the small dhabbar near Old Knagash’s that Ruden had built when the badly crippled and possibly senile wise-one had selected him as the next Kaagn of the village.  The fire was gently flickering within, and Arlon could hear soft strange noises coming from the dhabbar as he crept around its hem. They sounded like low grunts, a moan, a gagging noise… What were Ruden and the strange old Ruhurdh doing?  Arlon’s eyes widened, as he pushed back the hem of Ruden’s dhabbar a crack so he could peer inside.  What he saw paralysed him with shock and disgust.  Ruden was kneeling on the floor by the fire, his spine arched backwards and his throat curved tightly upwards.  A pink trail of drool seeped down his chin.  Hunched over him was the shorter Ruhurdh, its rubbery lips clasped tightly over Ruden’s.  Its body was heaving gently, and from it the low retching noises came. The Ruhurdh’s milky eyes were thankfully closed, its body curved gently over Ruden and supporting his weight with its wiry arms.   Ruden was moaning gently, his hands tense claws buried in the gnarled skin of the Ruhurdh’s shoulders.

Arlon could have sworn he said nothing.  He did not move and made no sound, but the instant the cold pang of shock and nausea washed over him the two figures moved apart – no, slithered apart – and their sharp eyes, Ruden’s brown and familiar but cold and the Ruhurdh’s blind and oddly turned in its head, came to rest on him.  Arlon saw for a dreadful instant the inherent similarity between those two faces and terror overcame him and he fled, too frightened to scream, back into the night towards his parent’s dhabbar.

He was sobbing with panic, filled with a sense of having seen the unspeakable, but even as his feet carried him, it seemed that a calm strong voice spoke within his head.  It said no words, but nonetheless a great sense of peace fell across Arlon, and when he crawled back into the dhabbar a few moments later he had forgotten all his fear, and indeed that he had seen anything strange at all.


When Arlon was fifteen, he was a good-looking brown-skinned lad, tall but lean and the focussing point of the eyes of many a village lass.  He was becoming a passable hunter, with quick reflexes and a strong arm.  He was expert at finding his way amongst the tumbled rocky crags that surrounded Ktahr, and particularly perceptive at spotting the tracks of straying Groeks or fearsome Askons.  Everyone said he would be a great asset to the village when he reached his maturity, and therefore it was only with grudging assent that the war-leader accepted Ruden’s claim that Arlon was destined for the ranks of the Kaagn.  Arlon himself was shocked and somewhat surprised by Ruden’s choice.  Old Knagash had died several years before but no-one had expected Ruden to take an apprentice as soon as this.  Ruden was relatively young and fit and likely to enjoy good health for many years.  Yet, his right to take ‘prentice was undeniable, and if Arlon was the one he selected than Arlon would be Kaagn.

Arlon felt confused and uncomfortable.  He did not consider himself particularly clever or particularly wise. He did not think he had any of the mystical abilities that wise-ones were supposed to possess.  Why him?  He strongly considered running away from the village as the day of his internment grew closer but it was never Arlon’s way to back down, and at last he determined that he would simply tell Ruden, whom he had always rather admired and had never found unapproachable, that there was some mistake.  He, Arlon, was destined to be no more than a common village-man – a good tracker and an average hunter perhaps, but little more, and certainly not a Kaagn.  Ruden, reasoned Arlon, would understand and agree that Arlon would not make a good wise-one, and everything would be as it was supposed to be.  There was one catch.  Ruden, from the moment of the announcement of his taking apprentice, had secluded himself in his dhabbar, as was the custom.  Strange smelling smoke could be seen pouring forth at all hours of the day and night, and the hollow droning of muttered chanting filled the air.  Ruden would see no living being until he saw the one who would follow him on his path to wisdom.  Even Arlon did not dare to break the ceremony.  He would have to wait to approach Ruden until the day of internment itself.

The day of Arlon’s internment grew close, and despite his confidence that Ruden would accept his reasoning, Arlon grew irritable and nervous. His friends made pointed jokes.  The girls avoided him – he was claimed by the powers, they said, and out of reach of mortal flesh.  Arlon snapped back and argued and got into fights.  He was almost glad when the dawn of internment day stabbed over the red horizon.  Now, at last, this mess would be cleared up, and he would be able to begin his life again, as it was meant to be.

Arlon walked alone, the dawn’s rays on his shoulders, and no eye of the village fell on his slim form.  To watch him walk would be to bring ill luck down on the whole of Ktahr.  A few dusty steps along the path he knew so well and he was outside Ruden’s dhabbar.  A quick bend of his waist and a twist of his shoulders and he was through the low flap, his eyes blinking in the dim interior which was lit only by a brazier of smoking coals.  The carefully rehearsed protests were at Arlon’s lips as his hands automatically made the gesture of respect due to a wise-one.  The smoke was thick and strong and dizzying.  It went straight to Arlon’s head and made him sway unsteadily.  He felt dream-like, sleepy and pleasantly inebriated.  He tried desperately to remember his speech as Ruden’s warm, strong hands guided him to sit by the brazier.

“Relax,” said Ruden, his voice seeming solider than Arlon’s chest.  “You are one of us now.  Forget your worries.  Everything is going to be all right.”  He loomed close to Arlon through the roiling fog and grasped his shoulders.  Arlon thought again how strong Ruden’s hands seemed.  Ruden’s face, through the fog, struck him as amazingly handsome with its finely chiselled features and smooth brown skin.  His umber eyes seemed welcoming and friendly, more like a lover’s than a mentor’s.

“…But,” protested Arlon sleepily, a kernel of resistance even now flaring brightly, “…but I don’t want to be…. not suited…..Kaagn are clever and….”  Resistance fled.  He felt himself slipping deeper and deeper into Ruden’s embrace as the fog swarmed over his head.  There was a brief, crawling sensation, an intense stinging pain, an eternity of nausea.  When his stomach finally settled, he was left with a strange sense of comfort and well-being.  Miraculously, his head began to clear, and he struggled to sit upright in the tent as Ruden steadied him.  “You feel well?” asked Ruden, his face all concern.   The strong afternoon sun stared in through the dhabbar’s doorway.  Arlon rubbed absently at the thin trickle of blood that coursed down his neck.

“…Yes,” he said cautiously.  “I feel…different.”

“That is to be expected,” smiled Ruden.  “You are one of us now, my little one.”

Yes, one of us.


From then on, the powers spoke to Arlon.  They spoke in his head, or rather a specific power did.  The power who spoke to Arlon most often was called PthöSi.  The power was young and would grow to maturity as Arlon aged.  Arlon soon found that the benefits of being Kaagn outweighed the disadvantages.  The heavy, hot, cowled robe that he had to wear over his usual clothes was a nuisance, as was the fact that Kaagn didn’t take partners so all the girls ignored him.  But PthöSi was always there to talk to him as his private guide and friend – for Arlon and PthöSi did become friends.  They talked about everything.  Although PthöSi was far cleverer than Arlon and possessed of the strange abilities that made the Kaagn what they were, she was also quite immature and had much to learn.  The pair of them were of a similar mentality, and well-suited to cooperate on an equal basis.  PthöSi could satisfy Arlon’s lusts by stimulating him mentally and physically, while Arlon served as PthöSi’s arms and legs, allowing her the ability to perform physical tasks.  Arlon trusted PthöSi intimately, just as PthöSi also trusted Arlon.  Ruden watched  the young pair flourish with paternal care, while Ruden’s own power, Zhîbinn, kept a watchful mental bead on their progress.  Zhîbinn could speak to Arlon or PthöSi if he chose, but he seldom bespoke the younglings, preferring to relay his comments through Ruden.  Zhîbinn was old, far older than Ruden, and he found it difficult to relate to young minds.

As the years went by, Arlon learned to rely more and more on PthöSi’s guidance, and she became more capable and confident as her mental abilities flowered towards maturity.  It was a deep and passionate love affair that the two of them shared.  Gradually, Arlon’s opinions became respected by the village, and as Ruden grew older and more inclined to withdraw into himself and his private conversations with Zhîbinn, it was more and more often Arlon who sat at the war-leader’s right shoulder during village councils.  Arlon and PthöSi rose to the challenge, and the village prospered under the influence of their guidance.


When Arlon was a decade into his maturity-years a stranger came to Ktahr.  This stranger was peculiar amongst the few travellers who passed that way in that he wore a heavy cowled robe like Arlon and Ruden, and he spoke with his hands and his mind.  Arlon remembered the disgusting old Ruhurdh all those years ago and smiled, for this stranger was neither old nor disgusting.  Named Hashahn, he was a straight backed young Lomen with short-cropped ginger hair, almond eyes and a roguish expression.  His power was a precocious entity that called itself GåUrUsh.  Hashahn greeted Arlon and PthöSi with a casualness that Roden and Old Knagash had never approached.  Arlon was charmed.  PthöSi developed an immediate adolescent crush.  GåUrUsh, GåUrUsh, GåUrUsh was all she could talk about, until Arlon became quite jealous.

Unfortunately, Hashahn brought bad news.  The neighbouring country of Gesh was experiencing civil war, and as a frontier village, Ktahr would be right in the path of the invaders if the conflict spread.

“It’s this new religion that’s sparked up all the trouble,” confided Hashahn as he and Arlon absorbed the wreaths of Fsharr smoke that gushed up from Arlon’s fire.  “The new Geshian prophet says we Kaagn are evil and blasphemous, and that the powers control us like puppets.”

Arlon flicked ash off his sleeve, prodded the fire with a stick and shook his head sadly.  “How can they be so mistaken?” he said.  “There have always been Kaagn.  Why do they want to change things now?”

Hashahn shrugged.  “I don’t know, but they are killing all the Kaagn in Gesh. A few have managed to flee or hide, but in the most they have been slaughtered in their homes.”

Hashahn tarried in Ktahr for three days, sharing Arlon’s tent.  Arlon found it refreshing to communicate with another Kaagn after having only Roden and Zhîbinn’s company for so long.  PthöSi was still in raptures over GåUrUsh, and was making petulant advances towards the more mature power.  Arlon found it difficult to repress her bubbly spirit, but Zhîbinn had no such qualms.

You are too young  said Zhîbinn flatly.  Wait another decade.  There will be others if this GåUrUsh does not return.

PthöSi sulked and Ruden tried to console her.

“Zhîbinn is just concerned,” he said.  “We Kaagn must be careful in such matters.  There should not be too many of us – it would upset the balance.”

PthöSi was a little consoled upon Hashahn’s parting.

“I will be back,” said Hashahn, winking meaningfully at Arlon, who blushed.

I would have it no other way  added GåUrUsh, and PthöSi blushed mentally.


They heard no more of the trouble in Gesh in Ktahr for several years, and Arlon began to wonder if the Geshians had been satisfied with purging the Kaagn from their own land.  But then, one heady day in the middle of the driest season, a rider came from the neighbouring village of Mexme, with which Ktahr occasionally exchanged partnering rituals.  She came charging into the village, both her and her steed spattered with their own blood. Dreadful things had happened, said the messenger.  War-leaders had come, followed by hordes of warriors with many fine weapons.  They called the powers of the Kaagn evil and slaughtered any wise-ones that they found.

The village called council, and the elders and the warriors, the war-leader and Arlon, and Silent Ruden all met to debate what the villagers should do in face of this threat.  The foes were no more than a days journey away at best, so there was no time to prepare and no time to flee.  The council was tense and panicky.

“We must make ready the defences of the village as best we can,” said the war-leader.  “We must gather what weapons we can to help us.”

“We must hide our herds of Groek in safe places.” said one of the elders. “That way the enemies can not destroy them and leave us without the means to support ourselves.”

“We must destroy as many of them as we can when they come to steal our partners,” said one of the angry young warriors.

Then Ruden spoke, his voice crumbly with disuse.  “They have come to destroy the Kaagn,” he said.  “The messenger made no mention of the enemy attacking herds or stealing away young spouslings.  This trouble has been brewing in Gesh for years, and now they mean to make us feel it in Yuaralon.”

Everyone saw the wisdom of Ruden’s words and agreed that something must be done to protect the wise-ones.  But what?  The Geshians surely knew there was at least one Kaagn in every village.

“One must stay,” said Ruden, “but one must flee and hide.  That way the village will still have a Kaagn when the enemy has passed.”

“Then I will stay, while you must hide, master,” said Arlon.  Please, Master, said his hands.  You must leave – you are far wiser than I, and your knowledge must be saved.  Yours and Zhîbinn’s.

Flee, said PthöSi.  Arlon and I will show them that the Kaagn are not easily taken.

“No,” said Ruden, echoing his speech with his hands.  “You have more left to do than I.  I will stay here, for this is my home.”  You, Arlon, must find a way to continue the tradition of Kaagn beyond me.  Zhîbinn is old and does not want to face the world.  Without him I have no heart for fighting.  You are our blood.  You must go.

But… said PthöSi.

Enough, said Zhîbinn, silencing her through sheer volume of thought.  It has been decided.

The village council agreed with Ruden.  Arlon was to leave the village at once, taking a fast steed to carry him, while everyone else would make what preparations they could to protect themselves against the enemy invaders.


 And so Arlon found himself astraddle a fast mount, streaking across the twisted countryside through the darkness of the night.  He moved quickly and quietly and with all the skill of a knowledgable hunter who had many years of experience searching this very terrain for game.  He spent the next couple of  days dodging Geshian patrols and making forays on the small and sparse water holes that dotted the countryside.  He might have avoided the Geshians altogether by taking to the back country and hiding for a time, but the weather had been drier than usual that year, and all the smaller water sources had dried up.  Forced to keep moving, scrounging his water where he could, he followed the twisted canyon paths that lead between the towering rocky escarpments.  Dusk and dawn found him busy hunting and foraging for enough food for him and his mount to subsist on, for forced to leave quickly and to travel light, he had been unable to take many supplies with him.

It was on the third night that it happened.  His destination was a small rocky watering hole on the edge of the canyon-lands.  There was a good chance that it would be guarded, so he had rounded the last bend with weary caution.  As Arlon’s sharp eyes caught the glint of starlight on metal, PthöSi detected the presence of hostile minds.

Soldiers! she warned.  Geshians!  They are sleepy and have not noticed us yet.

There were beasts tethered nearby, and hunched tents encircled the tiny scrap of open water.  Arlon turned his thirsty and reluctant beast, determined to leave as stealthily as he had approached.

Disaster!  Pain!  Fury!  At that fatal moment a great burst of thought-speech gone dramatically awry burst through Arlon’s head.  A great white flash of pure intolerance slapped across the back of his eyes. It was Zhîbinn, dying.  Even at this distance the thrashing of his powerful mind was enough to strike Arlon and PthöSi like a physical blow.  Arlon screamed in pain, blinded and dizzy.  He clutched desperately at his mount’s neck but his hands fastened on nothing.  Then he was tumbling and something hit him hard in the side.  The mount’s hoofs thudded away across the pebbly ground as Arlon tried to sit up.   He momentarily couldn’t move.  His breaths came in strange uneven gasps – he was badly winded.  His body refused to respond as his mind groped desperately for control over his limbs.

Oh Zhîbinn, Oh Ruden!  wailed PthöSi.  Oh Arlon!

There was a terrible pulling sensation at the base of Arlon’s neck and then his eyesight cleared.  He was sitting on the sand, surrounded by tough-looking Geshians.  Their spears were pointed at him and as his eyes swam back into focus he saw that one had a small pathetic bundle, unattractively tendrilled, torn and bleeding, impaled upon it.

“Got it,” said the spear-bearer triumphantly.  “Tried to wriggle away across the sand, it did.  but I got it first.  You’re a lucky man, there.  Saved your life.  Would have had to try to run it through right where it was on your neck.  Killed you for sure.  Lucky for you it tried to escape, the filthy ungodly thing!”

Arlon sat stunned on the sand, looking at the poor dead body of his friend.  Like long ago, once before, blood trickled warmly down his neck.

“Don’t you understand, man?” said the soldier.  “You’re free now.  That horrible creature – we call them the Pthon – it was controlling your mind…”

“Oh PthöSi!” cried Arlon, hurling himself at the soldiers with a terrible anger in his eyes.