A Child of Charn, Part 1
[Narnia Fanfic]


How bad was the Empire of Charn? Very, very, very bad.



A Child of Charn


Her mother had told her not to go, but she wanted to see it.

Saffla, a common farmers’ daughter of House Tricklewater, Goodworks Farming District Precinct VII of Sadelnon Province — which once, eons ago, had been the city-state of Kurm before the magicians of Charn invaded it, ransacked it, and razed it to the ground —  pattered through the fields between hillocks of freshly planted rice. The sky rumbled, signaling a storm to come. The air was close and humid, the red-orange sun tinting the clouds. Every morning Saffla’s mother and father prayed together to ensure the sun’s continued life. Hundreds of centuries ago, they said, the sun had been bright yellow, giving off a pure, clear light. But with time even good things decayed, like unharvested crops, and only the earnest faith of the common people kept the sun in good health.

The Royal House of Charn said otherwise. They said their magic was what kept the sun from dying. Their enemies claimed the Royal House’s magic was, in fact, responsible for the sun’s decay, draining the sun’s fire and vitality through its profligate use.  Saffla kept no opinion on the matter. All she knew were the green fields, the seasons of planting and harvest, and the high wall of dull stone that enclosed her, and them.

Outside the wall was Charn. The city was everywhere, in every direction: north, south, east and west, climbing the hills and mountains like sunrise, nosing into the valleys like a hound. There was no point in Saffla contemplating a life away from the rice paddies. Everywhere was the same.

Other farmer’s children, like her, were hurrying to see the spectacle. It was the first time in a generation a Gifting was to pass by Precinct VII on its way to Charn-the-Center. (Everywhere was Charn, and thus nowhere; so the term was used to refer to the palace and temple complexes of its dense, rotten heart. Saffla, a true being of her world, did not think of it as such, having nothing more wholesome to compare it to. Like the red-gold sun, it simply was.) She should have nodded at them to be friendly, but to do so would call attention to herself. One of them might tell her mother how she had stolen away from her work.

She finally reached the end of the paddies and hopped the short fence that separated them from drier land. A boulder was nearby where she sat to put on her shoes, which had been tied together by the laces and banging around her neck as she ran. On her small, plump legs she wore leather greaves for protection from the cold water and its leeches, and over them, one of her favorite tunics embroidered with blue flax flowers. The sun peered out from the clouds and a fire rainbow formed, transcending the gold and ivory mansions, the tall palms and cycads, that staircased up the hills, places she would never go to unless she got lucky and married into a household there.

But she was no great beauty. She was completely ordinary and likely as not to die where she has been born, here, in these fields.

Which was why she would see the Gifting procession, just this once.

The rainbow was a lucky sign, so she stuck her tongue out and rolled her eyes up, giving blessings to Lillit, chief patroness of Charn, and hurried through the field gate to the city.

Charn began immediately in all its glory, squalor, and noise. Vendors leaned against the outer field wall, calling to sell, and beggars crouched. But everyone else, it seemed, was on his or her way to the boulevard that passed by Lake Pessroma and joined later with the Great River that led to Charn-the-Center.

Saffla had been outside the farm walls before to the marketplace but never on her own like this. The slaves who labored at their duties gave her only the merest of glances. She didn’t look back. For all free people of Charn, to look at a stranger’s slave was to sully their soul, to invite bad fortune. If their eyes should meet even once, the slave’s misery would suck her in, mark her with some invisible glyph (so they said) so that the next time her District had to supply Charn-the-Center with slaves, she might be picked, as one of her grandmother’s cousins had been, years ago. It was Saffla’s questions about that, questions that had gone unanswered, that caused her, in part, to be running through the fields now.

The ancient road was cobbled and she was happy for her wooden shoes. Street urchins ran about, one step away from being slaves themselves. A growing crowd of citizens began to line the main boulevard that followed the south side of the lake. The finest shops were here, the district’s temples, the bathhouses and gambling dens.

In the distance came the sound of a horn, a deep, loud blaat. The Gifting procession was coming.

Shutters banged open above Saffla’s head, those in the flats above leaning out to look, hands clenched to the windowsills. The boulevard cleared, traffic ducking down side streets or joining the crowds at either side. A veiled litter stopped and its occupant parted the curtains with a jeweled hand, the bearers waiting stoically. The horn sounded again, closer. Now there came music, too, the pounding of drums.

Chatter travelled down the street in a silvery wave. The boulevard curved so it wasn’t possible to see anything yet, but the citizens arranged, and rearranged, themselves anyway. The urchins giggled and pushed. Saffla pushed as well, squirming her way to the front past velvet trousers and a transparent dotted overskirt. Giftings were considered civic lessons for Charnian youngsters so no one pulled her back.

“It comes, it comes!”

Saffla drew her breath as a huge tuskbeast, the ivory spears of its mouth inlaid with jewels and silver, rounded the curve. It raised its trunk and bellowed; there had been no horn, only animal throat and maw. Designs were shaved into its short reddish hair and on its sides were draped tapestries depicting the royal seal of Charn. On its back was a small wooden structure like a castle in which the Emperor’s officials sat, swaying side to side with the creature’s lumbering walk. Behind them came the drums, huge ones like the kettles for brewing rice-wine, smaller ones that rattled crisply, cymbals and chimes and tambourines, all played by a stone-faced corps in the Royal House’s colors of deep red and sapphire blue. The music made Saffla want to move, to dance in rhythmic patterns.

As the music passed and faded an armor-clad crier appeared, mounted not on another tuskbeast but a lively and spirited horse. He rode back and forth to either side of the street, giving a continuous, glittering address: “Citizens of Precinct VII, behold the Gifts brought from Mydn Province, Therydo Province, and beyond. Behold their sad and piteous state, yet their noble cast and destiny, and know for whom they are intended: The Most High Emperor Jallanchan XVIII, King of Charn and ruler of all known world. Look upon these Gifts as they pass through your province today, as tomorrow others will pass through other places, down the roads, the canals, the rivers bound for the very heart of Charn, to join in its crowning glory. Behold, and make ware, or make aspirations; no such finer fate decreed by our Gods exists, Great Lillit be willing.”

Saffla rose on the tips of her hard wooden shoes. Through the dust engendered by the procession — for Charn was moving into the dry season — came the first of the Gifts.

Men and women, now collared, nameless slaves, marched along in a formation of twelve across and twelve down. Saffla did quick math and calculated there were 144. They were naked, their bodies shaved and oiled, and their arms were chained behind their backs. Yet even so bound they were not trusted to keep that formation of their own volition. The slaves were connected in rows by a long, stiff bamboo pole chained to his or her collar at the back of their neck, drawn up under their armpits. These rows were in turn connected in columns by more bamboo poles, two of them for each line, which were connected to the slaves’ ankles so they all walked with the same stride. One might faint or even die, and yet still be carried along with the others. Of necessity their march was slow yet it had a stately dreamlike quality.

The humans treated thus were not wholly obliterated, however. Some looked around in rage or an expression of helplessness, seemingly begging the crowd for rescue; others stared blankly straight ahead, or at the ground in shame or weariness. None spoke or even tried to speak. The only sound was the swish-swish of the long bamboo poles at their ankles.

As they passed a shiver ran through the crowd. Some began to weep, others cast muttered charms, turning aside the dreadful power of the slaves’ eyes. Others shouted curses. Objects were flung through the crowd at the slaves: fish heads, fruit peelings and cores, other offal. The Imperial guards on their horses noted this, but did nothing to stop it, though they gestured threateningly at the crowd if a piece of flying garbage landed too close to them. Up and down they rode beside the phalanx of slaves, vigilant for nothing as it was clear the slaves couldn’t escape.

Saffla gaped. She had heard of Giftings before from her parents and friends; Charn-the-Center, and the Royal family, always needed slaves. For what and why she did not know. The priests simply said they served, others that they farmed or worked in the mines. But no one knew, really.

After the first game-board (so she thought of it) of slaves came another, equally vilified and drawing reaction from the crowd, and another, and another; after that came a line of Imperial war chariots, and a unit of spearmen, and then more and more slaves until Saffla lost count. Then to the thrill of crowd came a real dragon, more elaborately trapped out and bejeweled than even the tuskbeast was. On its back was another howdah of the same sort but larger, given the dragon’s greater size. It too was of carved and gilded wood with white linen curtains fluttering in the breeze. Small bells rang prettily from its eaves and inside was a hint of bright silk cushions.

Voices came from the crowd behind Saffla. “So the Emperor sends some of his children.”

“That’s unusual, in’it?”

“Not these days. They serve as the envoys of their father, his Imperial presence.”

“Magicians aren’t they?”

“They all are.”

From the dragon-howdah two faces peered out, one a young boy with curly yellow hair, the other an older girl, also with blonde hair. “Prince Rhasket and his sister Sindma,” one of the voices said, helpfully, for Saffla’s benefit.

They were too far away for Saffla to see their expressions. She wondered what the two thought, if they were tired by now of looking at the arses of the rigidly marching slaves.

On the ground, riding the horned white horses of the Charnian nobility, were the other offspring. Unlike those in the howdah their skin was darker, their hair black and long. They were also older, in their late teens perhaps. “Look, Princesses Sadija and Jadis.”

Sadija wore brown and blue, Jadis dark red. Among common Charnians it was permitted to them to look upon their rulers, for that meant good luck, not bad, but few in the crowd met Jadis’ gaze. It was just too intense. She rode back and forth alongside the dragon, surveying the crowd, her mouth downturned, her eyes piercing. The other sister, Sadija, was more animated; she cantered up and down the columns of the slaves slashing at them with a silver whip if they dared look up or cry out. By her expression she was enjoying it.

They are so different, Saffla thought. It was Jadis who drew her the most. Lacking an adult’s caution, she watched the tall, proud princess ride, the lightweight ornaments in her hair bouncing with her motions as did the trailing ribbons of her skirt and bodice. Then their eyes met.

Saffla for a second saw nothing but those eyes. She felt herself lose control of her body. Without her command she felt her legs move forward one step, then two.

A strong hand jerked her back. “What are you doing? Are you crazy?”

She looked behind her. Anthen, one of her older brother’s friends. He was frowning. Saffla snapped back into herself from both the look on his face and the strength of his fingers on her shoulder.

Roughly he said, “Do you want to be like them?”

Like them.

Out in the crowd a phenomena began. Here and there, people were moving out of the crowd, walking as if in a trance, casting off their clothes and whatever they were holding. Naked, they walked to the dragon, arms before them, outstretched. The Imperial guards chained those who came forward, so they walked, in a line, after the slowly moving creature.

“They have given themselves up,” Anthen said. “They are Charn’s now, to be dealt with as She wishes.”

By how he spoke, Saffla knew he didn’t mean the Royal Family, Charn-the-Center, or even the Goddess Lillit, but something greater, unspoken, and by the fear in his voice, indescribably evil.



To be continued…

A Narnia fanfic by Cobalt Jade, (c) 2022

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