Anno 70 AC
When he opened his eyes the moon was gazing at him, framed by the small window; nobody had bothered to close the wooden shutters. But he knew it wasn’t the moon that had had awakened him. Then he felt a light caress on his cheek and when he turned his head he saw his mother bent over his cot.
She smiled at him. Then she touched her lips with her finger and stood up. He knew better than to ask. He stood up too and gathered his clothes. His mother retired in the shadow and waited for him to get dressed. While he put on his boots it all came back to him.
His father, the king, was dead. The Great Priest had just that afternoon spread his ashes around Sarmisegetusa, the Dacian capital and his home. Vezina, the young priest who was also his teacher at the temple, had held the golden urn containing his father’s ashes. He and his mother had followed the long procession of priests and noblemen around the defense walls of Sarmisegetusa and watched the ashes as they were scattered lightly over the grass. The king was dead. And now his mother wanted him to follow her, quietly.
Once fully dressed he looked around but his mother shook her head. They wouldn’t need anything. Then she took him by the hand and opened the door carefully. There was nobody in sight and they stepped into the hallway. Ahead was the big hall, full of sleeping servants and visitors of lower standing who were in town to witness the funerals. They didn’t enter the big hall but turned right into the large kitchen and exited the building through a side door.
It was after midnight and the full moon was gingerly touching the crowns of the highest trees but there was darkness along the walls of the royal residence. Nobody seemed to be awake anymore after the exhaustion of the long funeral days, nobody aside from the guards on the ramparts around the town but they were far away.
Mother and son hurried up the road toward the northern gate of the city. The northern defense wall stretched along the ridge of a wooded hill and the path to the gate climbed steadily in the shadow of the fir trees until it turned sharply to the right and continued for a short distance through the forest itself. When they arrived at the bend of the road the boy stopped. He could see Sarmisegetusa from there, laid at his feet, his beautiful hidden home in the Dacian mountains.
“Ataraxes, make haste, we cannot linger”, said his mother but she stopped too and looked down. The big square in the middle of the town was deserted and the andesite slabs glistened in the moonlight. The front of the large royal residence was lit by only two braziers sat on both sides of the wide stairs that led to its doors. Behind the royal residence there was the temple but they couldn’t see it from where they stood. Other than the guards, the only people likely to be awake were the priests, who were preparing the messenger to be sent to Zamolxes in the morning to plead with the god for guidance. Guidance was urgently needed, because the Dacians didn’t have a king anymore.
Last time he had seen his father was when the king left Sarmisegetusa with a small group of warriors heading north to the gold mines. There had been trouble with one of the cauconses tribes. “You are just a child” his father had said when he asked to go too. He was eight and a half and he could already ride and handle the bow. But his father thought he was too young to travel with a war party. And then the news travelled back to the capital that the king had been killed.
The boy’s painful memories were interrupted by his mother, who whispered with urgency, “Ataraxes”.
Ataraxes turned his back to the town and they resumed their hasty departure.
When they arrived at the first defense wall they heard the hunting cry of the owl and they stopped in the middle of the road to make sure they could be seen. Moments later a man peeled himself off the shadow of the wall and came to them.
“We need to hurry.”
They went through the large northern gate and followed the path in the forest. The second defense wall wasn’t guarded but the owl cried again. At the third defense wall another warrior was waiting on horseback, two more horses at his side. He helped the woman straddle one of them while Ataraxes hurled himself on the second one. Their companion looked up at him with a raised brow but the boy frowned.
“I can ride a horse. I don’t need a chaperone.”
“Of course lord. But I am old and I won’t be able to keep up with you if I am to follow on foot.”
Ataraxes pondered for a moment and then nodded. The warrior straddled behind him and soon they couldn’t see the wall anymore. The moon had set and the darkness was complete but the horses knew the path and moved lightly forward. They travelled in silence for a long time and when Ataraxes opened his eyes again dawn was breaking and his companion was holding him firmly in the scoop of his right arm.
“I have seen you before,” said the boy.
“You did, lord”
“Are you in the king’s guard?”
“What is your name?”
“My name is Xeres, lord.”
Ataraxes thought a little and then asked again:
“You are a warrior, aren’t you?”
“I serve the king, yes. But we have no name and we are nobody you will see on the battlefield.”
Ataraxes frowned but he didn’t get to answer because the leading horseman left the path and signaled them to follow. He rounded a raspberry thicket and rode down a hidden crevice. Two horses’ lengths further the narrow cut opened into a lovely clearing, surrounded by shrubbery. To one side a spring poured clear mountain water into a round stone basin before it leaped over the rim and took its own path down to the plains of Trans Sylvae. The travelers dismounted and led the horses to the water then left them to graze. The men opened their bags and came out with some cheese and sweet red onions. They sat down and ate in companionable silence.
“Lady,” spoke Xeres after a while as the other warrior began to round up the horses, “you will follow the path down. Before midday you will see the fortress at Capalna. At the outskirts of the forest one of my men will wait for you with everything you need for the journey to your settlement and he will show you the way. Stay clear of Capalna and avoid the settlements. You should be home by tomorrow afternoon.”
The woman nodded and the warrior turned to the boy but Ataraxes was faster:
“Now I know who you are; I saw you with my father. From now on you have a name. You are the misty warriors.” Ataraxes grinned happily exposing the two side gaps where his teeth were still to grow. Then he became serious and his eyes took a musing shade.
“I will come back, you know.”
The warrior answered without a trace of mockery.
“You will, my lord. And we will be here, waiting to serve you.”
The boy nodded. The he turned to his mother and took her hand.
“Come Mother; we have quite a journey ahead of us.”