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Chapter 1: A Call of the Forest

If you haven't read the previous chapters, start from the Prologue.

Apprentice

"Come on, boy! I have to close the forge. It is almost night," said Aamuzgaar in a tired voice.

Sanidar gave the sword one last look before placing it on the rack between the massive broadsword and the chest plate. He was exhausted, but the sword was complete at last. It had taken him weeks to forge it — melting raw iron ore and pouring it into ingots. Then came the long, excruciating task of annealing and hammering it into shape. 

Weaponsmithing was an art — and he knew well that he was lacking. But this was his first complete work. He was glad.

It was cold outside. The winds of the Tehaar mountains had arrived.

"Winter has finally come!" He thought to himself.

It had been almost a year since he had started apprenticing at Aamuzgaar's smithy. Soon, he was going to obtain his first Tera. The thought pleased him, and although no warm draught had blown in his direction, he felt a warmth in his body.

Sanidar was an orphan — an unknown boy, like many found in the orphanages of Aanunja. Old decrepit buildings — in all eight Qeetas of the city — hot in the summer, freezing cold in the winter. Merely thinking about them sent shivers through him.

Despite it being early in the winter season, they would be cold. He mulled.

Orphan shelters were only useful when it was raining — and then they smelled a lot. Sanidar had considered himself very lucky when, last year, Aamuzgaar had selected him for an apprenticeship.

"Where would he be?" He thought.

Most of the other boys were now working for petty criminals. Either that or they were dead in dark alleys in some obscure corner of the city — rotten corpses now resting in the deep trenches of the city walls. Few were even in the mines, he had heard. The thought disturbed him. He felt angry for no reason. 

Indeed, he was fortunate that Aamuzgaar had chosen him when he could have taken a boy from any Wast family as an apprentice. Even some lowly impoverished Najeebs would have been happy to send their boys as Aamuzgaar's apprentices. After all, he was the King's personal blacksmith.

When Aamuzgaar asked Father Armikas to bring him some bright boys to choose from, Father was surprised. But Aamuzgaar had his reasons, and Armikas couldn't refuse him. Thus, Sanidar arrived at Aamuzgaar's shop with ten other boys.

He remembered that evening in all its vividness. It was cold, just like this evening, while he stood with the eight other boys in the alley. Father Armikas and one of Sanidar's friend were inside. The door opened, and the boy came out, appearing tense and a little low spirited. Sanidar tried to ask him what had happened but was himself called in by Father Armikas.

He entered the shop. A giant Habsh man with muscular arms was sitting on the floor. There was a sword in his hand. It looked like a knife in his burly hands. He was handling it from the tip — a look of intense concentration etched across his face. After what seemed like an eternity to Sanidar, Father Armikas coughed.

The man looked up and slightingly threw the sword at Sanidar. He caught it swiftly.

"You aren't easily surprised, are you? Hmm. Good. What is your name, boy?"

"Sanidar. Sanidar, Jaan." he replied.

"Sanidar, give this back," said the stranger.

He then handed Sanidar another sword. It appeared similar to the first one.

"Can you tell the difference?" He asked, his eyes boring into the boy.

Sanidar felt uncomfortable under his gaze, but he answered the question nonetheless.

"This one is lighter than the other."

"And?" The man prodded.

Sanidar looked at the sword one more time. 

"This one looks newer."

"Excellent! You are observant, boy." He smiled faintly.

"So this is Aamuzgaar, the famous blacksmith of the King," thought Sanidar.  Amuzgaar was a strange man. People said that he could mold any metal and carve the most complex and intricate shapes. No one knew where the King had found him. His origins were shrouded in mystery. 

The man asked him questions, showed him some tools and weapons, and asked more questions. Sanidar answered them as best as he could. But after that first show of emotion, Aamuzgaar remained impassive. Sanidar couldn't tell if he was impressed or disgusted by his answers. Worry began creeping into him.

The next day, Father Armikas told him to go to the blacksmith's shop.

Sanidar was so deep in his thoughts that when he arrived at Feroze Square, he was surprised. Night had fallen. Time seemed to have passed so fast. By then, most shops were either closed or closing. But food joints and inns were bustling with activity.

Two Habsh workers passed by, carrying an enormous rice pot between them on wooden rods. It was steaming hot — he could almost taste the spicy rice on his tongue.

His stomach growled.

He had been working on his sword without a break since morning. He vaguely remembered Aamuzgaar telling him to eat something. But he had kept working. Now, he felt famished.

The aromas attacked him from all sides — barbecued chickens, sizzling steaks, the Sinds frying their lip-smacking dishes, samosas and pakoras. He was overwhelmed. For a moment, he even forgot why he had come there in the first place.

Then, he remembered. Jamish had told him of a special rice dish served at some shop in the square. "I have never tasted such food in my entire life!" He had exclaimed. Most boys had laughed, and the incident had nearly slipped from his memory — at least until yesterday.

Yesterday, he remembered it and asked Jamish for the location. Sanidar wanted to celebrate the culmination of his five weeks of hard work — alone.

He navigated through the crowd to the other side and then to a narrow, dingy alley, a little to the left. Tables and chairs were set along the walls. A few men were eating, most of them Hind. He seated himself on a chair and called a small boy. A few minutes later, he had a steaming plate of rice in front of him. 

Of course, it was spicy — very spicy, with lots of small pieces of mutton mixed in. And it was tasty — so tasty that he forgot about everything else. The delightful whiff of flavors, the salty, sweet, sour, and zesty taste of hot rice and mutton was all he could think of. He relished every moment of it. In no time, he was having his second mouthful.

This was what he liked about being alone. People talked when they ate — no problem with that. But when you are eating something this delicious, it kills the mood to have your focus distracted by some petty gossip. That was pretty much why he hadn't brought Jamish with him. Jamish's over the top antics, booming voice, and chattery mouth wasn't the choicest thing for an atmosphere where you sought to savor complete peace. 

A figure moved by and returned to his table. He was an old Sind man. He seated himself across Sanidar. He had a scowling face with a shabby white beard and was wearing worn-out but clean clothes.

He looked at Sanidar, but Sanidar didn't pay any attention whatsoever. He was too absorbed in his rice. The rice was delicious, indeed. What was the name of this dish? He should ask the boy when he comes next.

"We call it Tundashri in Zarfshan. It is an old dish — very old, to be precise," the old man said, all of a sudden. He had a strange accent. It was Hind for sure, but thicker. Sanidar had never heard someone with such an accent.

He was shocked. How did this man know what he was thinking? The boy came, and the newcomer ordered a plate of rice.

"My name is Ghal. Ghal Singh. Nice to meet you." 

"Nice to meet you too." Sanidar smiled, but he felt a little uncomfortable on the inside.

"So are you from Zarfshan, old man?" Sanidar asked mockingly.

No one lived in the Zarfshan forest as every citizen of Anunja knew.

"Yeah, I am."

"The dish we are eating is a sacred dish of the Hind people. It holds religious significance for them."

Sanidar was surprised and a little shocked.

"But I have never heard its name before," Sanidar said.

"Of course, boy, you have never heard its name, although you are a Hind yourself. This city devours memories like Ahnans devour fire. "

"Ahnans do not exist, old man."

"My name is Ghal, as I have told you."

"Okay. But still, Ahnans do not exist, Ghal."

Ghal laughed.

"Of course, boy, Ahnans do not exist," he mocked.

"My name is Sanidar, by the way," Sanidar said a little icily.

"Sanidar — a Roum name for a Hind boy, a fire name for a wood boy," he smiled.

"What do you mean?" Sanidar frowned.

The conversation was becoming more unsettling with every passing moment. This old man was leaving no stone unturned to annoy him. The rice didn't seem so tasty anymore.

Abruptly, a group of men entered the alley. They looked Hind, but they were strange. Their skins were darker, and they had toned bodies. It was unusual. 

Hinds usually worked in businesses and workshops. Yes, there were some Hind soldiers here and there, but none were in the elite guard. The Hinds were not known for fighting — the Roums were, although Habsh men were huge and made up most of the army's heavy infantry. Teng made up the Archer wings. 

Anyway, this was unusually odd. The whole alley dropped into an eerie silence, despite dozens of people eating. The men clearly looked incensed.

One of them, who was a little short in height, casually pulled a chair out, held it in his hand, and bashed it into the head of the nearest man.

And then, all was chaos.

People were running hither and thither. A few tried to fight back but were vanquished in no time. 

Sanidar stood dumbfounded. He was in the third row of tables. A tall man from the group threw a chair at him. He ducked. A medium-sized, heavily muscled man punched his face, which threw him to the wall beside his chair. He felt dazed. 

Just then, he heard a loud cry. He got up to see the man who had punched him sitting on the floor. His arm was in the wrong angle. Sanidar's eyes caught Ghal standing with a table leg in his hand.

Ghal was fighting with four to five men. He was not striking anybody. Instead, he was weirdly dodging a dozen punches. If it had been any other occasion, Sanidar would have laughed at the way the old man was moving. He resembled someone in his cups, performing a wild dance. 

But whatever it was, it was working. The men were soon fatigued, and the alley grew quieter. In an instant, Ghal was next to Sanidar. He gave him a tight slap on the face.

"Come on, boy. It's time to run."

Edited by Darshini Poola


Chapter 2: A Call of the Forest

Continue the story of Sanidar, Ghal and Jamish.

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Chapter 2: A Call of the Forest

The goon on the left held a sword. He swung it at Ghal. Ghal swiftly sidestepped and hit him in the arm with full force. The man cried and let go of the blade. Ghal was deft enough to catch it and chop off the offender's head. In a split second, he had it thrust into the stomach of the last attacker.

Prologue: A Call of the Forest

Everybody was wet and cold — very cold which was strange in this temperate land. But the rain was relentless and it had been falling for weeks. So far it showed no signs of ceasing. Every hut in the village had become a stream now. Only the Chief's Hut had remained. The hut was built on an ancient tree...

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