Chapter 1: Names
His name, Kiril, meant "true or loyal servant". His clan was the sheltering tree. When he looked back, he could not remember a time when he didn't know those things. Even when he and Skel were four years old, and auntie Thanike had scolded them. That was one of the first things he could remember, but even then, he had known his duty.
It was summer, and he and Skel were playing in the compound, in back of the main house. They were running, chasing each other round and round a long trough. He was trying to catch Skel; then it would be his cousin's turn to chase him. But Skel was very fast, and good at dodging back and forth. If only he could jump over this trough, he could catch him easily! But the trough, waist-high to a woman, was nearly shoulder-high to the boys. Kiril feinted jumping, anyway, and Skel dodged backward and laughed. Kiril jumped again, his hand on the rim of the trough, and his fingers touched water. He reached a little further, cupped water in his hand, and splashed it at Skel.
"Hey!" Skel cried, startled. Kiril's aim had been good, and he'd gotten his cousin right in the face. It was his turn to yell the next moment, though, for Skel scooped up a double handful and flung it at him. The water was shockingly cold, so cold it made him gasp. "I'll get you!" he shouted at Skel.
"No you won't! I'll get you!" Skel called back, and splashed more water at him. Then it became a game to see which boy could get the other wetter. After he'd been splashed in the face a couple of times, Kiril didn't mind the coldness of the water. It felt nice in the hot sun. He stopped dodging and simply flung water with both hands. Skel followed his example. Both of them were giggling, and shrieking a bit, too, when they got a faceful of water. Their clothes were soaked. The dusty earth beneath the trough had turned to mud, and their bare legs and feet were coated with it. There was mud on their trousers, too; they were splashing it as they ran back and forth. They were making so much noise it was no wonder neither of them noticed Auntie Thanike when she stalked up behind them. "Shameful!" she growled, and seized Kiril by the arm and slapped his cheek, hard enough to bring tears to his eyes. She did the same to Skel. Kiril, struggling not to cry - he knew he was destined to be a soldier one day, when he was a man, and a soldier does not weep when he is disciplined - raised a hand to his burning face and stared at her in shock. Auntie had never, ever struck him before. She was always gentle and patient with all children, even the serfs. But now she frowned, and took him by the shoulders, and shook him a little as if to emphasize her words. "Shameful!" she said again, more quietly. "Look what you have done! You have dishonored the Goddess!"
At that, tears spilled over his eyelids, in spite of himself. He would be a soldier, because all free men became soldiers, but he would also be a farmer. All farmers must reverence the Goddess at all times. Her blood ran in the deep rivers under the earth; her tears formed lakes and rivers and seas. She gave of her own blood and her tears to bring life to the dry earth at the time of creation. For a farmer to dishonor the Goddess was a dreadful thing. But he and Skel had only been playing! They hadn't meant any harm. Wouldn't the Goddess understand? "I'm sorry, Auntie!" he gasped. He realized he was crying, after all, in spite of all his efforts not to; and Skel, next to him, was crying, too. "Well. So you are sorry," Auntie said. Her voice was gentle now. Kiril nodded; Skel did, as well. "The Goddess is generous. She forgives," Auntie continued, "but She is not the only one you have wronged. Do you know what this water is doing here?"
"No, Auntie," Kiril murmured, and Skel, next to him, shook his head and said, "No, Granny."
"The servant women brought it up from the earth and put it here. They need it for their work - Eleran, and Amalan, and the other girls. They are starting to make cloth. You boys have seen this before!" Auntie was frowning again, and Kiril took a deep breath, trying not to sob. But then Auntie Thanike surprised him. "What is your name?" she said to him.
"You know, Auntie!"
"Yes, I know. I am asking you to tell me."
"Kiril. Kiril Tesurik." And Skel, at the same time, was saying "Kelest Tesurik".
"What does it mean?"
"True servant," Kiril answered.
"Yes! And yours means 'friend', 'helper', doesn't it? They are noble names."
"But a servant-" Skel began; Auntie was his Granny, and they lived in the same rooms. In any case, he never hesitated to ask a question. Auntie Thanike frowned at him again. "You think a servant cannot be noble? We are all servants. All of us serve the emperor, and the emperor himself serves the Gods. Do you understand?"
Kiril wasn't sure he understood, but he stood silently, looking up at Auntie. "These girls are your servants. You have wasted their work," she said to him. "How will you make it right?"
The answer was clear enough. "We have to put the water back," he said.
Auntie nodded at him. "Now, do it," she said.
The buckets the women used to bring the water from the cistern were high and narrow. A grown woman could carry two buckets at once, if she were careful not to overfill them, but the boys were so small that it needed both of them to carry one. Auntie brought a stool out so that they could pour the water from the bucket into the trough. That was the hardest part. The bucket was heavy, and the rope handle cut into their hands, but trying to lift it, and then tip it, without spilling water on the ground, was worse than just carrying it. One boy stood on the stool and tipped the bucket from the top, while the other steadied it from below. He and Skel took turns. They had to go to the cistern four times before Auntie was satisfied. "Now put the bucket back," she told them, "and come inside." She led them upstairs, panting a little and holding on to the railing. Then she went into her small chamber, where Kiril had never been. The room was cool compared to the courtyard, and seemed dark, though the shutters on the window were open. There was a bed with a deep orange cloth spread on it, and a chest of wood next to it, and on the chest was a small shrine with an image of the Goddess, whose bodily form was a woman with the head of an antelope. Auntie Thanike bowed to the shrine and gestured to the two boys to follow her example. "Thank her for her mercy," she told them. "Give thanks for this land that feeds us, and for your family, and for your names." Kiril bowed his head and whispered a prayer of thanks to the Goddess. His cheek felt sore and hot where Auntie had struck it, and his hands were sore, too, from the rope of the bucket handle. But, most of all, he felt sore inside at having angered Auntie, and at having dishonored the Goddess. How was it possible to do something so wrong without even meaning to? As if she had read his mind, Auntie stood up and put one hand on his head, and the other on Skel's. Her touch was gentle, like a caress. "The Goddess is merciful; she forgives," she repeated. "You are good boys. But you must always remember who you are. Remember, always, your names, and what they mean."
Kiril had known, even then, what his name meant. Auntie had not had to teach him that. But perhaps that was the day he began to learn what honor was, and what it might mean to be a free man.
Mary Johnson, December, 2007