My first memory is of washing my face in a stone bowl. The water turns grey with the dust of the city streets. My chaptermaster comes in, carrying a broth that smells of ripe fruit and burning fat. He places it before me on the table.
“Drink,” he says, “and focus on me.”
I lift the broth to my lips. My throat constricts at the taste of it, warm and sweet and vile. I force myself to swallow it all. The chaptermaster is unfolding a sheet of paper on the table: a charcoal sketch of a man’s face. The man’s eyes are cold, his brow heavy. A crescent-shaped scar runs across his forehead like a rising moon.
“This is the witchman,” the chaptermaster says. “His name is Ketan. Find him and kill him. He travels with a boy, his son, who will soon come into his own power. Kill the boy as well. Mark your arm with a scar for each one so you will know it is done. Then you may stop drinking the broth, and return to us.”
The broth is already starting to take effect. My head throbs and the chaptermaster’s face becomes blurred. I will remember this moment but nothing else. The chaptermaster is still speaking, but his words float and drift apart from one another, becoming smoke. He is gone, and then I am gone, and then I am here.
Cool water trickles down my throat. I set the cup down on the table and look around slowly. I am on the porch of a mud-brick building, under the shade of a red awning. The air is hot and dry, and the hills in the distance ripple with heat haze. From this I can guess that I am somewhere in the north, near the empire’s border. Most likely I have travelled many days since I left the chapterhouse.
Turning across the porch, I notice that a woman is lying under the table behind me. From the angle of her neck I can tell she is dead. I am curious but not alarmed. Whatever has happened, it is done now.
I take another sip of my water. I do not know my name, my past, my motives. I have only this present moment, and that one brief memory from the chapterhouse. I may have been seeking the witchman for days, weeks, or years. It doesn’t matter. Sooner or later I will find him.
A boy with a shaved head comes out of the building, carrying a jug. He refills the water in my cup. There is a sheen of sweat on his brow, and his hands tremble as he pours. His eyes dart fearfully to the dead woman, but he says nothing.
I stare at him as he leaves. I can recall something about this boy—a memory that dances at the outer edge of my thoughts. This is a sign that it is time to redose. Above all else, I must not allow myself to remember. I pat myself down until I find a hard leather canteen in the inside pocket of my jacket. I pull the canteen out and sniff it. Yes, this is the broth. I take a small sip and wash it down with water.
Dust blows across the sky. It is noon, and the creaking of cicadas fills the air. Acacias and paperbarks cling to the hillside, enduring the fierce gaze of the sun. I hear the crunch of footsteps and, turning, I notice a woman lying under the table behind me. From the angle of her neck I can tell she is dead.
Before I can look closer, three men come around the side of the building. They are olive-skinned northerners, hairy and tall. Each one is armed with a wooden staff.
“Witch-hunter,” says the leader. “I told you I would be back. You owe me blood-price for the death of my sister. Give it to me and you can go free.”
There is a soft weight at my belt that tells me I have money to spare. But I can sense this man is lying. His eyes dart nervously and his tongue runs across his lips.
“No,” I say. “You know the law. Leave me in peace.” This much I still remember, despite the broth. As a witch-hunter, I have the right to free passage and hospitality. Wherever I go in the empire, the people must give me what I need. Any who stand in my way will be put to death.
“You are a long way from the capital now,” he says. “Out here in the marge-lands, we have our own law.”
“There is only one law,” I reply. “If you do not serve it, you serve the witchman.”
I can see them sizing me up, trying to decide what to do. Even here, they fear the iron justice of the empire. But I can see the question in their eyes: who would ever know? I am one man, all alone, and in a few minutes’ time I will not even remember they were here.
The leader makes his decision. He lunges at me with his staff. I pull it out of his hands and beat him across the head. The second man grabs me from behind, wrapping his arms around my chest. I drive my head backwards into his nose, spin around, and slam his skull against the tabletop. He falls alongside the other one.
The third man runs away. Looking down, I see that I have defeated three of his companions—two men and a woman. The woman’s neck is broken.
The back door of the building slams, and I sense that something is not right. Trusting my instincts, I go in through the house to the back room. There is a cramped kitchen there, with a stove that is still burning. Through the back door I see a boy running away down a narrow track. I follow him.
The track leads me through the trees, then emerges abruptly into a dusty village square. Silent buildings surround me, their empty windows staring out from dry adobe walls. There are bodies here—dead bodies, men and women and children, lying in the dirt like toys scattered by an ungrateful child. The smell of burgeoning decay rises in the still air.
In the middle of the square is a stone well where an old man is hauling water. As I pass him, he lifts his head to look at me. His hands are blistered and his arms tremble violently, as though they will give out at any moment. The ground all around him is soaking wet.
On the far side of the square, the boy disappears into a large stone building—what must pass for a prayer hall in these northern villages.
I do not know when or why I began chasing this boy, but I trust in the self that came before and the self that will come after. This is the core of my training, the hunter’s mind. I reach the doors of the prayer hall and slip inside.
It is dark and cool here. The boy is nowhere to be seen. I pause for a moment, trying to decide what to do before my memory fades.
A figure rushes at me out of the blind side of the doorway—a young man, dark hair hanging down to his waist. He lunges with a long knife and makes a shallow cut on my shoulder. I jump back, feeling at my belt for a weapon, but I have none.
“Father,” he says. “I know what you did. To mother, to Ilone—even to Mire.” His face contorts with an anger too deep to ever be fully shown. “How could you? With little Mire?”
He comes at me again. I shuffle backward with quick steps. When I feel my back against the wall I spring off it, catch him around the waist, and push him to the floor.
He goes mad in my grip. He has the strength of a man driven by bottomless hatred. If he can bring his weight to bear he will crush me—but I will not let him. Even without my memories, my body still knows how to fight. I catch his arm, twist it, and wrench the knife from his hand. Now he has me in his grip, but I have the knife. I lean forward and plunge it into his heart.
Blood wells up and his grip slackens. A minute passes, and he is dead.
I stay on top of him a moment longer, looking at his skin against my own. I am the colour of dark earth, almost black; he is a pale yellow-brown. Yet I could see in his eyes that he was not lying. He truly believed I was his father.
Out loud, I say: “The witchman is here.”
This is the power of a witchman: memory is wet clay in his hands. What you remember is what he wishes you to remember, and nothing else. For this reason, all people fear him, worse than plague or war or spirits of the night. For this reason, we hunt him wherever he hides.
Above me, on a balcony, I see a bare-headed boy looking down. His face shows a mixture of fear and another emotion, something I cannot identify. After a moment he ducks back through a doorway.
The balcony runs along the outside of the hall. There is a stairway at the far end, but I am impatient; I do not want to lose the trail. I put the bloody knife between my teeth and go straight up the wall, pressing my fingers into the mortared gaps between the blocks. I climb over the railing and push through the doorway into another room.
The witchman is there.
I recognise him at once from the sketch the chaptermaster showed me. He has grown a beard, but the scar on his forehead is unmistakable. By his side is a boy with dark skin and a shaven head. This must be the son I was told about—the son that I must kill. He stares at me with wide eyes.
I grip my knife in my hand. There is a stinging cut on my shoulder and the taste of blood in my mouth. No doubt I have fought through many men to reach this room. Now I will end it. I take a step forward.
The boy cries out: “Uncle! Don’t you remember?”
For a moment I am frozen. A memory appears in my mind, vivid and bright. I am walking with the witchman and his son. We are travelling together down a long road in the rain. Ketan and I spread our cloaks over the boy’s head to keep him dry. We are laughing. Everything we own in the world is in the packs on our backs.
It only lasts for a moment. Then the image slips away and I return to myself. The witchman is cunning, but he will never take hold of me—not so long as I am under the effects of the broth.
“Stand back, Nazd,” says the witchman to his son. “He is not in his right mind.” He pushes the boy behind him and steps forward, looking into my eyes. “Dumu. What have they done to you, my brother? Do you really not recognise either of us anymore?”
Another memory: of cold nights on a rainy island, two boys huddled together for warmth under a blanket of musty pelts. I, the older brother, telling stories for little Ketan until he fell asleep.
“No!” I say, gritting my teeth. “Keep your lies out of my head.”
I hold the memory of the chapterhouse before me like a shield: the bowl of water, the dust, the chaptermaster’s voice. Drink, and focus on me. That is the only real thing. All else is illusion.
“Dumu!” Ketan shouts. “Yes, I am putting memories in your head. But they are not lies. They are true!” He points toward Nazd, who is on the verge of tears. “Look at your nephew. Do you think he is lying to you, too?”
I meet the boy’s eyes. For a moment I can remember the day he was born. He was so small that we all thought he would die, and I held him thinking, this is the only time I will ever hold him. I want to go to him now and hold him again, tighter than I ever have before. Then the memory passes, and I shake my head.
“That means nothing. You have shaped his memories too.” A witchman always lies. That is his nature. It is time to finish my mission before he confuses me any further.
I spring forward, knife ready to slash. The boy cries out and clings to his father’s arm. But as I cross the middle of the room, the floorboards give way beneath my feet. I tumble down to the floor below in a shower of rotting wood. When I land, my head goes black and spins for a moment, or a minute, or an hour.
I get to my feet slowly, trying to tell if any of my bones are broken. Wood dust hangs in the air and sticks to my bloody skin. Through the window I can see a village street. Silent buildings with empty windows. From the heat and the sound of cicadas, I must be in the north.
Somewhere nearby I hear a door open, then two pairs of feet running, disappearing into the distance. Without a thought I am moving again, through the open window and out into the street. I don’t need to know who I am chasing yet. When I catch them, I will find out. Until then, there is only the hunt.
The white trunks of the ghost gums twist like serpents around me. Red northern rock crumbles under my feet and trickles down the slope. My chest is heaving from the effort of climbing the ridge, and my shoulder throbs with pain. There is a shallow cut there, which someone has bound clumsily with a strip of cloth. From my pace I can tell I am in a hurry. Either I am hunting or I am being hunted.
Ahead, I spot a broken twig on a low branch. Now I know that I am hunter, and I am following a trail. I grit my teeth against the pain and continue to climb.
The trail leads me to the top of the ridge. At the summit I can see backwards and forwards, miles in either direction. Behind me is a patchwork plain of forest and scrubland, a small cluster of buildings nestled amongst the trees far below. Ahead of me is a wild land. The hills roll down into a wide basin, all shaped around a great river that glows golden in the dusk. This must be the edge of the empire; I am reaching the far limits of my official authority. Nevertheless I must go on.
Down among the trees, the trail is clearer. I can see movement up ahead, and I know I am coming to the end. There is a creek here, a tributary of the great river. The witchman stands knee-deep in mud, steadying a canoe for his boy to climb in.
“Dumu,” he says when he sees me. “We’ve been waiting for you. Though of course, you don’t remember our last meeting.”
His words are dust. No matter what lies the witchman weaves, my mission remains the same. I stride down the hill towards him, readying my knife to throw as soon as I can get a clear shot.
“Don’t worry, Dumu. I’ve got everything arranged for you now.”
He puts his hand to his mouth and whistles. Men come out of the bush on every side—their skins are coated with mud and leaves to hide them. They pounce on me and beat me with clubs, striking from every angle at once.
I am quick and I am strong, but no man could defend himself against so many blows. They knock the knife from my hand and drive me to the ground. They club me over and over, until my whole body goes limp and all I can remember is pain. Who are these people? How long have they been beating me?
At last the witchman says, “Enough.” The men pick me up and tie my hands in front of me. They have the hard, efficient manner of mercenaries and the accents of southerners. From the heat and the ghost gums around me, I can tell that they are far from home.
They prop me up against a tree. My head is ringing and my mouth is full of blood. The witchman squats in front of me, while his son watches from a few paces back.
“I am so sorry to have to treat you like this, Dumu. Our mother would weep if she saw it. But it will be over soon, and then you will know me again.”
He reaches into my clothes and searches while I struggle uselessly. Soon he finds what he is looking for—a hard leather flask with a cork stopper. The broth.
So it is over, then. I wonder if I should still wait for a chance to kill him, or try to kill myself before I fall under his power? Both choices seem equally out of reach. I smell the sickly flower-scent of the broth as he unstoppers the flask. I expect him to pour the broth onto the ground. Instead, he nods to the mercenaries on either side of me.
They grab my head and pry my jaw open. Before I know what is happening, Ketan is forcing the broth down my throat. I gag as it fills my mouth—three months’ dose in a single swallow. I kick and thrash and the boy runs over to me, tears in his eyes. He pulls at his father’s arm but it is too late. I have already swallowed everything.
“It’s alright, Nazd! Don’t worry.” Ketan tosses the empty flask aside. “This is how it has to be. There are false memories rooted deep in Dumu’s mind. An overdose of the broth will wash them all away. He will be like a blank slate again. Then we can bring him back to who he is meant to be.”
He looks at me, and for a moment his mask of brotherly love slips. There is nothing behind his eyes now but cold avarice; he is looking at me as if I am a prized treasure that he is about to take ownership of.
I try to cry out: Nazd, it’s a lie! I am not your uncle. He is already in your mind. But I am still choking, and my voice comes out as a wordless gasp. The memory is already fading. Everything is fading. My thoughts grow dim and drift apart from one another.
From the heat and the sound of cicadas, I can tell I am somewhere in the north.
Trees drift above me, framing a white sky. I am lying in the bottom of a canoe, moving slowly downstream. A boy leans over me, his face wet with tears. My whole body hums with pain. Everything appears before me as though painted on a screen, images without a past or a future. As soon as a thought appears, it is gone.
I am nowhere and I am nothing. My first and last memory floats in the middle of a great void. Stone bowl, dust, chaptermaster. I cling to it with all my strength, knowing that if I lose it even for a moment, it will be gone forever.
I am just managing to hold on. Then I feel a presence pushing into my mind. The witchman.
“Don’t fight me, Dumu,” he says.
The memories come like a starburst in the void, a whole life exploding from a single point of light. The rainy grey-green islands of my childhood. Hidden beaches where my brother and I played together. The test of manhood and the thrill of first battle. Suffering and joy. My brother the witchman, bringing whole armies to their knees, and I his faithful protector, always by his side. The birth of Nazd on a fogbound ship, his strong wail echoing off unseen rocks. Holding him in my arms, rocking him to sleep. Then the war. Our tiny island nation standing proud against the might of the empire. The witch-hunters coming for us in the dead of night.
I fought them off so that Nazd could get away. They captured me and brought me to the capital in chains. In the great dusty city they fed me the broth until I forgot everything I had been. They made me into a weapon and pointed me at my brother’s heart.
“This is who you really are. Remember.”
No. I will not accept the witchman’s lies. He thinks he can break me down and remake me according to his will. But in this void, I can remake myself too. I can create memories of my own.
I remember coming to the witch-hunters as an orphan. I trusted no-one, feared everything. The chaptermaster raised me like his own son, trained me, taught me to fight. He made me who I am. I remember, too, the horrors Ketan left in his wake, the cruelty of a man whose power knew no limit. I saw women driven mad, dashing their own babies against rocks; men eating faeces off the ground like dogs; children running in place until they collapsed from exhaustion. Whole towns depopulated, smoke on the horizon, the air thick and oily with the smell of burning human flesh.
“None of those things ever happened,” Ketan says.
It doesn’t matter. They are no less real than the memories he is forcing upon me.
“Don’t do this, Dumu. Don’t turn your back on Nazd.”
He fills me up with images of the boy: my sweet, clever, mischievous nephew. Learning to catch crayfish in the mangrove swamps. Cooking plantains over an open fire. Trying to string my bow.
Again and again I pull away from the lies. Again and again I am drawn back—not by Ketan but by Nazd, who even now is leaning over me with a damp cloth to my brow. “Uncle, please,” he whispers. “Come back to us.”
Then I see it: the flaw in Ketan’s plan. The gap in his armour, through which I can strike at him. The way to kill the witchman.
I let the memories flow together like two streams joining. On the one hand, my mission. On the other hand, my nephew Nazd. Together they will draw me through the witchman’s net.
I remember that I am Ketan’s brother, and Nazd is my nephew whom I love more than my own life. But I also remember the abominations that Ketan committed, the madness and the massacres. Seeing him drunk on power yet wracked by paranoia. Fearing every day that he would lash out at me or his son. When I could bear it no longer I fled from him and begged the help of the witch-hunters. I was ready to kill my brother—for the sake of justice, but above all for the sake of Nazd.
The memories congeal and harden around me. They become truth. Now I know who I am and what I have come here to do.
I heave myself up to a sitting position, making the boat rock wildly. My hands are tied in front of me, but it doesn’t matter. Ever since we were children, Ketan has never bested me in a fight. I strike him across the brow, then push him down until I am on top of him in the bottom of the boat. I put my hands around his neck.
“Brother!” he gasps.
“I know,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
Nazd is beating me with his fists, but I ignore him. I press my thumbs down into Ketan’s windpipe, deeper and deeper, until I feel the snap as it collapses. He sucks at the air, but nothing comes in. His arms flap weakly. His eyes go dull.
I let go.
Nazd is still striking me and weeping. I put my arms around him and hold him tight. “It’s alright. It’s alright.” I realise I am crying too.
- We cry together, arms locked, for a long time. For a while Nazd becomes calm, but when he looks over at his father he begins to howl even louder than before. The boat is so small that we cannot even sit down without touching Ketan’s body.
“Say goodbye,” I tell Nazd. “We have to give him to the water now.”
I give Nazd a moment. Then I pick up my brother’s body and let it slide over the side into the dull green water. Weighed down by his robes, he sinks without a trace.
Soon a dreadful fever begins to grow in my skull. I become paralysed. I lie in the bottom of the boat, sweating and delirious, watching night and day slide past overhead in a phantasmagoric tapestry. I know I am fighting not just for my life but for who I am—this me that I have made out of the broken parts Ketan left me. I must hold on with all my strength or I will dissolve back into the void.
I wake to morning sunlight. We are still on the river. Nazd is leaning over me with a knife in his hand. He presses it against my throat.
“Do it if you think it’s right,” I tell him.
He holds the knife there for a long time. Tears roll down his cheeks and his hands shake. The blade is cold against my skin, drawing a trickle of warm blood. I fade into fever dreams.
- The next time I wake up, he is at the rear of the boat, looking away from me. There is no sign of the knife.
Later he comes to me and, without saying anything, pours fresh water down my throat.
The fever lasts three days. At some point we must have come ashore, because when I wake on the fourth morning I find myself inside a small tent. Nazd brings me a little food and watches silently while I eat it.
We come to an understanding with our eyes alone. Each of us has our own memories, our own reasons for needing the other. Words would only bring complications, rifts between our fragile new selves. So we say nothing. At last Nazd leaves me alone to sleep through the day. When night falls he comes and curls up beside me for warmth, just as he used to do back home.
The next day I am able to crawl outside and stand on shaking legs. We are camped on the shore of a great blue-brown lake, fringed on all sides by trackless wilderness. We are far in the north, beyond the empire’s borders, in lands that have no name.
Nazd asks me, shyly, what we will do now. I look down at him. Soon he will come into his own power as a witchman. The chapterhouse will send more hunters after him, and when they do I will be ready. I will protect him with my life.
I take his hand and we pack up our camp together. Then we climb back into the canoe and set off: across the great still water, toward the distant northern shore.