Two years before the boy would starve during the siege of Rospira, he watched a man wander in naked from the desert. It was that dawn, more clearly than any other, that he recalled in the hours before the hunger finally took him.
The Sheol Gate was alive with the morning. Men and women jostled in the walkways, sandaled and bare feet tramping hastily across the cobbles. Plumes of pallid dust sprang up with their every step, forming a low haze in the restless air. Above this cloud sat the boy, perched like a sentry atop his father’s stand. His bright eyes were focused on the chaos below, wary for the hands that sometimes reached toward the merchant’s precious silks. The scent of fine clothes was in his nostrils, mingling with the sand, sweat, and warming stone that made up the desert’s breath. Later he would taste it, this very same wind, as it tugged at the crumpled sheet beneath which he lay, dying.
The crowd parted with the man’s approach. He passed, skin stretched over living bone, without so much as a sidelong glance as he hobbled through the market and toward the city center. A thin layer of sand clung to his bent body, and his hair was long, dark, and matted from the desert heat. His eyes were glazed, downcast, staring past the thin arms he held protectively against his chest.
In the final fever dreams, the boy recalled his father. Surely the merchant had known or sensed the power in this moment. When he’d reached up, handed his son a new tunic, and pointed toward the stranger, the boy had not questioned him. He took the bundle, lept down, and ran.
One year and twelve days before his mother would die at the hands of the Attuned’s zealots, the boy caught up with the naked man. He scampered past him, turned, thrust the rolled garment out in supplication.
“A gift,” he said in a voice so steady for a child of four.
The man stopped, his sunken eyes arcing like lances toward the boy. It was a gaze that would remain prominent in his memory until, in the end, the fever and hunger pains drove it away. The man from the desert straightened his back, looming tall in the swelling hush of the market. The scent of the grave sands hung heavy in the air. The man reached out, and the silence became something different.
The mark across his chest drew every eye in the Gate. Covering the entirety of his left breast, it seemed to pulse in the sandy light. It was a brand – jagged, old, its ridges blasted with the fury of a thousand Sheol nights. But the letters seared into the flesh remained clear. Even the boy, unschooled in the ways of the Faith, knew what the tortuous symbols meant.
The man reached out and took the bundle. As he did, the boy tore his eyes from the mark, mustering all his will to look the stranger in the face. Something inside him twisted as he realized that this bent and beaten thing was no older than his own brother, who was only sixteen, who had braved the desert at ten, and who, along with his mother, would perish in the chaos when the city walls were breached.
The stranger unrolled the tunic and gave it a hard shake. He pulled on the pants and cinched the sash with long, graceful fingers. He buttoned the shirt and rolled up the sleeves. Only when the mark was covered did the crowd again begin to stir. A call went out, quietly, to summon the city guard. Through it all the boy stood silent, studying the face beaten into shape by sand and raging wind.
Four years before the great light came to swallow the world, he watched a smile creep across broken teeth. The man put both hands on the boy’s shoulders and spoke to him in a voice like cracking stone.
“God’s blessings be upon you and your family.”
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