Brana’s story was one of the first Li was told as a child. She was the youngest child of the great Queen Hanab and her husband Netrok. Each of the children were given a gift from their parents. Anything in the world they desired. The eldest brother wanted a great army. Rehtalo, the eldest sister, wanted all the kingdoms farmland to be entitled to her. Anarb, the twin brother of Brana, asked for freedom from all responsibility so that he could devote his life to the hunt. Brana however didn’t want anything. She said the life she was given was gift enough. Her parents persisted until finally she asked, “If I come across any young animal in any of my sister’s farms or fields, I should like the chance to pet them.” Now this was concerning to her siblings, for a royal to touch any lowly creature was taboo. Her parents however gave her this permission and because of her humility she gained their love and eventually, all her siblings’ inheritance. Olather was outraged. He was the smartest, the strongest, the most fit for the throne. He sent his army to destroy the kingdom she had inherited. When all of her armies fell and Olather took the throne, she fled. For years she evaded the hunting parties of Anarb, who were commissioned by Olather, and her sister forbade any of the farming towns to aid her.
One night she prayed to the spirits of her parents that they would grant her one last wish and send help. That very hour a young shepherd named Pearling found her huddled at the base of tree. “What’s the matter?” He asked.
She answered, “My brother wants me dead. The spirits refuse to help.”
“You wear the crest of the Queen on your arm” he noticed, “are you of royal blood?”
“I am. But my brother has drove me out, he wants me dead.”
“Then why do you flee him?”
“Did you not here what I have told you? He wants me dead.”
“Yes, I heard you. And is your soul not immortal? Will you not live on after death? You have said royal blood passes through your veins, and so you will live on and be much greater than the brother that chases you.” That night the shepherd prepared a toxin for Brana as she lay among his sheep. “Drink, find peace, and remember your servant.” Brana drank the liquid and died.
The shepherd had waited in the same field three days before he saw her again. The first snow had fallen, but wherever Brana stepped the grass grew and the ice melted away. Pearling bowed to her spirit, “have you found peace my lady.”
She smiled at him as three more spirits appear before her bowing. “I have my faithful servant. The armies of Olather failed their King and I thank you. The farmlands of Rehtalo have been freed, and I thank you. My brother, Anarb, too, has fallen and I thank you. Now find those I have spared, all the children of the Kingdom, for every grown man, woman, and beast is dead. Bring them to this pasture and settle them here. Choose among them 5 children to be shepherds of the vast flocks I will grant you. They will be my priests and you will be their King.”
And so, the shepherd settled all the children in the pasture. He built them homes and assigned 5 to watch over his flock. In time the children grew, and with them the city. The flock of sheep grew to 5 flocks, the herds of oxen and cattle grew also. The city of Pearling remembered the mercy of Brana and celebrated her victory every year (kirew) with a festival. At each festival a new shepherd priest was called among the children to help tend the flocks. This year, he was going to be that child.
He, and his friend Tihka, stood side by side outside the Inn. Kiege, his twin brother, was just behind them peering through the window. Snow covered the ground and the cold bit the skin of his arms and chest. He tried to imagine that the ink drawings that covered his body were a barrier from the cold, but the sheer falsehood of the thought seemed to make it even worse. It felt like hours before the first sheep appeared. Then another hour before the barrage of sheep made the way into the lantern lit streets. Finally, the eldest of the priests made his way through the flock. Tiakam was his name, a roughly 65-year-old man with a bald head and wispy beard. When he stopped in front of Tihka there was silence. Even the wind seemed to die down, so he could speak. He touched the ink over Tihka’s heart, the crest of his family. Tiakam brought the ink to his own face and drew a line between his brow. Next, he stepped in front of Liege. He touched his hand to the family crest drawn on his heart to make another line on his forehead going up from last.
He repeated this process for the rest of the candidates. Immediately after putting the last line on his head he began to chant. “Brana call forth your priest.” Liege felt an ache in his head and nearly double over in pain. He was home. He was just getting out of bed. He examined his surroundings. He was in his room. He went through the door to the kitchen. “Dad? Kiege?” There was no reply. Then he heard a noise outside. It was a painful moan. He walked outside, and he saw his father laying in the stained red grass choking on his blood. An arrow was lodged in his chest. “Dad!” Liege ran to his side and suddenly found himself falling into the snow at the ceremony.
The priest had just finished his chanting. Liege couldn’t breathe, he tried to calm himself, it was just a dream, he had fallen asleep and had a dream. The priest walked toward him saying, “Brana has chosen her priest.” He continued to walk past Liege and place the shepherd hook in Tihka’s hand. “Tihka, priest of Brana and Shepherd of Pearling.”
The next morning Liege and Kiege headed home. They stopped to mark the same tree Kiege always marked when the left the city. It was a small white birch. The 4 etchings grew to 5 and their silent journey home began. Upon arriving they were greeted by a woman they had never met. She was only a few years older than them. “Can we help you?” Kiege asked.
“Yes, actually. I’m looking for some family I have in the area, ah, Jeriik. Do you know where I can find him.”
“I’m sorry,” Liege spoke for the first time since the ceremony, “he died last season.”
“Oh no. Did you know him? Does he have any other family?”
“Yes. He was our father.”
FIVE YEARS LATER
The trail was different than Liege remembered. The trees seemed taller, the path wider. He scrapped the snow from a once small birch that he knew distinctly. His brother, Kiege, had marked the tree every time they left the city. Five etchings exactly, now reclaimed by the bark. Had it really been so long? 5 years? 5 years since he and his brother left with Viola. 5 years since their father had died. 5 years since he’s laid eyes on home. His eyes drifted to the sky, the stars being his only constant.
Another hour passed before he reached the city gate. Pearling was never a vibrant city, but the Festival of Brana always brought a certain warmth to the streets. Lanterns lit the side of the tattered buildings to lead the shepherd priests and children waited in the windows to see them bless the next generation. The 5 candidates were already standing outside their doors. Despite to the cold the young men wore only pants. Their chests and arms were covered in the symbols of Brana and the crests of their own families. The youngest was about 12, and the oldest was probably 15, the same age Liege was when he was a candidate. Liege, along with a few other people on the streets, rushed into the nearest building when the first sheep was spotted outside the village. Soon a large flock moved through the streets and in the center was the eldest shepherd Tiamak. He was roughly 70 years old, but hardy. His hair was gray and dirty. He began to speak when Liege heard an indistinct voice in the back of his mind. He followed it into a quiet room. Li, its voice became clear, it is meaningless. A figure appeared. “Yucosa?” he asked. “Why are you here?” The spirit of life laughed.
“I know I resemble my grandmother, but I assure you I am far from being Yucosa.”
She smiled. “My Lord Li.”
He remembered the voice. “What do you mean by meaningless, this is your festival, your priest.”
“Oh, this tradition is ridiculous. Since this city’s founding I have only ever chosen 4 true priests, these five are no more than your cities shepherds.”
“Yes; Pearling, his grandson Kantook, Tiamak, and You.”
“Me? I was never a shepherd, much less a priest. You chose Tihka.”
“Tihka? Tiamak chose Tihka. You saw the premonition. I chose you. As for being a shepherd, you were never meant to lead sheep. You were meant to lead Aunew as you will.”
“No. My cousin is on the throne of Aunew, and she will live and reign for years to come.”
“Lord, I promise you, before your first son is born you will sit on the throne of Aunew.”
“My first son?”
The door creak open behind him. “Sir,” a young girl asked, “are you alright? You’re missing the ceremony.”
“I’m fine I…” He turned to see an empty room. “I’m coming now.” He said. He walked back to the window in time to see the young 12-year-old boy lift his new shepherd’s hook.