The Athani of Daea

2 Apr

The port of Daea was recognized by everyone everywhere as outmoded and obsolete. It was a city borrowed from out of the past.

It looked dusty, dirty, and decaying. Even the brightest colors here were dead and dull.

No buildings in Daea were too high or large. Narrow, crooked streets had alleys and walkways spreading out of them. Five long, narrow hills stretched out like fingers.

People out on the streets looked like wanderers out of another time. Dark capes, tunics, breeches, and tall cylindrical hats were common and visible. Women wore full-length robes and dresses of black or brown.

Daea had no university or institution of higher learning. Young people were educated in a few classical schools that were privately owned and operated.

One of these was where Xebro Que acquired his burning obsession with the early history of his native city and the question of how it was founded.

After graduation, he entered his father’s herbal shop as a novice apprentice. But his free hours were occupied with his search in the volumes, records, and documents of the Daea City Library in a hunt for the historical truth of how the port came to be in the foggy mist of the distant past.

The librarian named Haln Ntan befriended and assisted the young man ambitious to find out how their city was born. He provided him centuries-old history books and access to documents buried in the dusty archives of the library’s basement.

“There has always remained a question about the identity of the first merchant-explorers who discovered and made practical use of our convenient harbor,” explained Haln to the curious Xebro. “I will let you see some early letters and diaries dealing with the beginning of trade in our region.”

The young reader plowed with care through the original sources opened to him, but failed to find the sort of full, satisfying answers that he pined and hungered for.

What there was an enormous quantity of were commercial accounts and journals from the early settlement of Daea Harbor. He was able to read detailed accounts of how trade grew with the aboriginal tribes further up the river and their tributaries that flowed down into the great sea. There was a clear picture of how methods of agriculture were taught to them by early pioneer settlers from elsewhere.

Daea developed into an exporter of grain supplies for overseas lands and cities. It boomed and grew for generations, then fell into its present-day stagnation and decline.

Xebro was able to see for himself the rise and fall of prosperity and commercial success in the history of the port.

He delved deeply into the business affairs of a merchant family that became prominent in the later social and political life of Daea. A single line written in a letter seeking credit from a banker in another, distant port drew the attention of the curious reader.

“We of the Ethan clan can trace our name and our ancestry back to the original Athan inhabitants and residents of our beloved Daea.”

Xebro pondered the meaning of the ambiguous, puzzling claim made so far back in time.

What was it referring to? He had never before come across the word or name of Athan. It was impossible for him to make any intelligent guess about this term. Was it an ethnic label? What exactly was an Athan?

Xebro decided to pose the question to his guide and mentor, Haln the librarian.

It was evident from the beginning, as soon as he heard the word, that the older man was disturbed by the question of the dedicated, ambitious student of ancient texts.

“I am uncertain what the precise definition of that might be,” he answered with a measure of stiffness in his voice. “Perhaps there is no way of being certain what or whom it means. I am sorry that I lack the knowledge to help you on the matter.”

Xebro felt an inner unease, as if the man with years of experience in the library and its archives was concealing something.

He grew more determined to uncover what lay behind the unfamiliar word that mystified him.

More and more of his time was concentrated on hunting for clues about the riddle he had come across.

It took his investigations three weeks to find a trace pointing somewhere.

“A group of tribesmen from the village called Athan brought a number of porcelain pots and kettles to one of our traders trekking through the lower hills of the upland mountains. They were of little value and he refused to buy any of them.”

Xebro checked all the maps, charts, and geographic descriptions he could locate in the library. With enormous effort, he finally narrowed Athan to an uninhabited valley where there were empty, abandoned villages rotting away in ruins.

One of these had once long ago been named Athan.

That is where I must go and find out what the statement I found might mean. Who were these ancient people who were inhabitants of what became the city of Daeva? Why had no memory of there existence survived the centuries?

Xebro was willing to take a risky journey into the hinterland and search for the truth.

Several trips to the caravanserai on the land edge of Daea brought acquaintance with a number of traders who made expeditions into the interior mountain regions.

Xebro asked around until he found a merchant willing to take him inland on one of the mules he used to carry the wares he planned to sell to the inhabitants of the scattered hamlets and villages.

It was thrilling to ride into the natural beauties of the colorful landscape beyond the port in which he had been born. Each day of fair summer weather brought new sights and joys to the traveler on the hunt for a settlement of the distant past that he hoped might hold some answers to the puzzles in his mind.

As the caravan approached the valley that Xebro calculated once held a village named Athan, a startling surprise hit the would-be explorer.

“There indeed is a small community in that particular valley,” the trader in charge of the caravan informed the young traveler. “A village of grain-growers and shepherds lives in that wild location. But I do not stop there, because those country people are much too poor to engage in any kind of meaningful trade or exchange. They have nothing worth selling that I would wish to buy.”

Xebro said good-bye to his companions and set off on foot into the valley that he had believed contained only ancient village ruins.

From the final ridge before descending to the score of cottages assembled below, the trekker stopped and gazed down at the living settlement that he had once thought had disappeared.

Xebro started walking again when he spied the figure of a peasant climbing toward him.

As soon as the he was close to the man in dull brown clothes, the traveler from Daea asked him the question burning in his mind. “Please tell me, stranger, is that the village of Athan from which you exited?”

Yes, indeed it is,” replied the other with a warm smile. “May I be the first of our people to welcome you among us. You will find us to be friendly and hospitable, stranger. In fact, I myself shall accompany you down to the cottages.

“Our village chieftain, Paso Jokli, will want to acquaint himself with you. It is a rare event to have anyone enter our midst the way that you appear to be doing.”

The head of the upland settlement was a short, heavy man with silver hair. He wore a bright red vest that symbolized his high local office.

“Enter my humble home, stranger from Daea,” said the peasant official with authority in his tone. “I am very interested in learning what has brought you into our remote valley where outsiders are rarely seen.”

Xebro followed Paso into the low cottage of dried mud and wattle. A small oil lamp lit the shadowy interior where an old, wrinkled woman dressed in black stood cooking at a small metal stove.

The chieftain pointed to a couch where the guest could sit, then himself occupied a tall, throne-like chair across from it.

“Why have you made your way to our distant, forgotten village, young man?” began Paso, staring at Xebro with focused azure eyes.

“I am a student of the past, and I am intrigued by the lack of knowledge back in my native city of Daea concerning the original settlement of our seaport. No one can tell me who were the original inhabitants, or what brought them there to found what has existed down to today.

“I was searching in the archives kept at our city library, and I happened to come upon mention of this village, Athan, as the place of origin of the earliest settlers in what grew into Daea as it is called today. My purpose here is to find out whether anyone may have any folk memory of this distant move by some of your inhabitants to the sea coast.

“The only thing that I seek is to increase my knowledge, if anyone here can provide me that benefit from their own inherited memories.” He looked at Paso with a humble, pleading expression.

Paso gazed directly into the face of the visitor as he answered his question. “I have no memory of ever having heard a single word about any early migration from Athan to the port of Daea. Some individuals may have gone there to work on the docks, but that would have to have been after the port began to operate with exporting across the sea.

“Our villagers would therefore have started to journey there for work years after Daea was founded with its earliest residents. So, they would not have ever been considered founders of your city, my dear boy.”

The chieftain grinned at his guest with strong self-assurance.

“I wish you to stay here in my cottage,” proposed Paso. “There is room for you in the rear storage area and you will be comfortable. There are many interesting things for you to see here in Athan.”

Xebro had no idea how long he was going to stay in Athan, because there was no way for him to foresee how much he might learn or not learn while there.

The following morning, he walked about the central hub of the village, meeting many inhabitants and talking with them.

One elderly peasant puzzled Xebro with odd, unexpected questions.

“You departed from Daea at a surprisingly young age,” he noted. “What were your reasons for making such a quick escape from the port city?”

Surprised at the unclear implications of this query, Xebro felt himself lost in a swamp of confusion. “I do not understand,” he told the crone. “I beg you to explain what you are talking about.” She walked off, not giving him any explanation of her question.

Several times, Xebro experienced such lack of comprehension in conversation with inhabitants of Athan.

“Why did you come back here when you are still such a young man?”

“Usually only older persons ever return our beloved village.”

The visiting student of the history of Athan found that he had to ask Paso to clear up the misunderstandings that plagued him.”

The two men sat eating a late supper on the covered porch behind the chieftain’s cottage.

Xebro waited nervously till they had both finished their country stew, then he posed the question torturing his mind.

“I have conversed with several villagers and they were quite open with me, except for one vital, very important matter that they were unwilling to deal with.”

“What was that?” reacted Paso with alarm. “What did they fail to talk to you about?”

Xebro tried to grin. “Although they asked me whether I was a local who was returning to Athan from Daea, when I informed them that I was not they, all of a sudden, turned silent and became reluctant to explain why they had supposed that I was returning back to this village.

“I don’t at all understand why they would take me for a returnee. Are there many of such that come back here?”

Paso was silent in deep thought for a time, formulating the words he intended to say.

“If I reveal what the reality till now hidden from your eyes, my friend, you will have to keep that truth a secret for the rest of your natural life. Are you prepared to accept such an obligation?”

“Yes, I am, if that should prove to be necessary,” declared the young visitor.

“We, the people here in Athan, are a different variety of beings from what you are and what you know about. Our species of humans is eternal. Rach of our lives continues without the end of death as you know it. We are free of death because already we are the semi-dead.”

Xebro felt his brain spin on hearing this. After a brief pause, Paso went on.

“We were the original founders and residents of the port of Daea. Others came from overseas after we started to use the location. There remain a small number of us there in your present city.

“But since our lives are endless, none of us can remain in Daea longer than a normal human lifespan. It becomes necessary to disappear from the city in which the average number of years were spent by an individual.

“As a result, our athan persons return to this village and valley, going back to the port after a number of years here in the country hinterland.

“I myself, like all my neighbors, have spent several lifetimes in the city of Athan.

“There occurs a cycle of return and departure that is never completed, going on for centuries.”

Paso stared at his perplexed listener. “Do you have any questions, Xebro?”

None came from the stunned, petrified traveler from Daea.

Xebro was unable to sleep that night, because his thoughts were in chaos and disarray.

He had never been close to any such explanation or redefinition of accepted reality.

His thought structure was never going to be the same after what Paso had told him that evening.

Xebro realized that he had to break his pledge of remaining in Athan that he had given to Paso.

Only if he returned to Daea could he warn the population that there were semi-dead beings among them. No one but he alone had knowledge of the colossal fraud that begin with the founding of the port city ages before.

It would be easiest to escape at dawn or dusk, he judged. His choice was for the latter hour.

Two days after the revelation made to him by the chieftain, Xebro made his attempt to flee.

After finishing supper with Paso, he pretended to be returning to the storage room he occupied in order to go to bed early.

Certain that his host and the latter’s wife were asleep, the guest made his way from the small white cottage, slowly and cautiously.

He headed toward the uphill path he had traversed when first approaching the strange village of the undead athani. Step by step, he distanced himself from the unnatural settlement and its hemithane inhabitants.

The thickening, shadowy darkness seemed to cloak his movement away.

But a sharp voice suddenly broke the evening silence. “Halt. Do not go any further, but stop where you are.”

The large shape of a local peasant emerged from his right side, then another appeared to his left.

Xebro realized that they had recaptured him. He would have to return to Athan in the custody of these semi-dead natives.

Paso entered the room in which the retaken prisoner had slept that night. Morning light was visible through a small window in the cottage wall.

“You appear to be determined to make a return to Daea,” he said in a solemn tone. “It would therefore not be wise to try to keep you here with force. That would necessitate increasing use of compulsion against you. It would present us with an ever-growing problem, I have no doubt.”

He stared in silence at Xebro for a short time, then presented him with a surprise.

“I have decided it best to release you and allow you to go back home. Even if you should reveal what you know about us, I believe that no one in Daea will accept your statements as true. No, you will be considered a mad man whose brain has been rattled by a long stay in the wild territory where the mountains begin.

“There is no way that you can prove your wild claims. You shall be labelled as suddenly insane. That is what the opinion of those around you will have to be.

“There will be no real danger to the athani in the city, nor to the population of this village, from your crazy accusations and warnings.

“So, you are free to go back whenever you wish to.”

Without another word, Paso turned his back and withdrew to the front area of the cottage.

The departing visitor said nothing to the chieftain or any other athan.

He slipped away on the path that first brought him to the weird village of the semi-dead.

The journey homeward had to be mostly a lonely one made alone. There were no caravans for him to join with. He stumbled back into Daea, exhausted and with minor injuries from his long trek through the countryside.

What Paso had predicted was what occurred to the returned one.

All his attempts to reveal what he knew failed. No one accepted what he tried to tell them.

Hain Ntan, the librarian, gave him heartfelt advice to keep his thoughts to himself.

“I think you must keep quiet and not say such nonsense. It will only make trouble for you, my son. It would only make people consider you ill in the brain.”

Hain pointed with his right hand at his own head.

Xebro withdrew from the one he had trusted he might succeed in convincing.

Paso had been correct in what he had predicted back in Athan.

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