The rain of stones has challenged Kamira’s plans of freedom. Inside the Village of the Inn lie foes, and peculiar allies…Will Niris’ training prove useful after all?
A Skull on Fire
The room was silent. There was a thud to the right, and then another one, stronger this time. The mortar drizzled like pouring rain, reigniting panic inside. There were shouts and cries, silenced momentarily by another thud nearer the tavern. The night seemed alight, brightness alternating with darkness, before another stone hit the ground outside. The walls trembled.
‘Get under the tables!’ someone shouted.
Kamira turned around, and saw the young waiter with peculiar eyes. He was running everywhere, blowing out candles and yelling at the kitchens to break the fires. She was static amid the frantic motions. Hiding under a table didn’t seem like such a good idea. What good could it do to hide under woodwork when rocks were pelting the houses and lands?
Something sharp resonated and made her start. It sounded like breaking bones, and as she looked up she saw the roof dented inwards. Bricks fell in morsels and the timber groaned. The screaming inside the tavern grew louder.
Another distant thud.
She felt the earth moaning under her feet, the reverberations of that blow creeping up her legs, and raising the hair on her forearms.
‘Hide under the tables!’ the young waiter repeated, looking at her with angry eyes before storming back into the kitchens, urging the cooks to blow out the remaining flames in the fire pots.
The tavern went dark, a deep dark followed by a strange quietness. Some moonlight was still piercing through the cracked windows, and Kamira could see the fear in everybody around her. They hugged each other, eyes closed, tears streaming down and breaths rugged.
She saw a woman looking at her, her lips shaking and her body quivering as if she were physically hurt. Kamira wasn’t sure, but it seemed like she was mouthing something to her. The woman closed her eyes, tears falling down. She looked up at Kamira again, and repeated a little louder: ‘Please…’
It took her a moment to fully understand. She didn’t want to believe she had heard right. That woman couldn’t possibly be pleading with her. Her watery eyes were fixating Kamira now, filled with dread and a plea for mercy. Unsettled, Kamira crouched slowly, hiding in between a wall and a fallen table. The woman seemed relieved, closing her eyes again. Why was she begging for her to hide like the rest of them?
Kamira surveyed the room, a few pairs of gleaming eyes were directed at her, the same fear embedded in them. But all seemed relieved once she ducked for safety. And so she remained there, prostrated like the rest of them, wondering what forces were so grand and fierce, they could break the sky and make the stars fall.
The outside was ablaze in the distance. The night was veiled with an orange glow, yet it was too early for it to be dawn. Fire had broken out somewhere in the village. She raised her neck to try and peek through the windows but couldn’t see anything. So she waited.
They stayed there for hours. Even long after the stones had stopped hitting the ground. They barely moved, barely breathed. They spoke in hushed voices as though fearing to be heard. When sunlight streamed in, Kamira could no longer stay in hiding. The murmurs stopped as she stood up. They watched her move past the tables and broken bits and pieces. The entrance door was cracked in half, and as she turned the handle it broke in her hands.
Outside, the downpour of stones had disfigured the plains surrounding the village of the Inn. The tavern was almost intact though. There were some dents here and there upon its rounded brick structure, but most damages had been done to the houses encircling it.
A crimson sun was peaking. Light crept in between the houses stroke by death. Volutes of smoke still emanated from collapsed roofs and facades, vivid remnants of the fiery chaos the stones had triggered. Shapes were concealed beneath aged fabric, feet and hair protruding from the bloodied sheets. At that moment she realised some people had been out already, and they were clearing the fallen houses. But they were so silent and quick they looked like ghosts working in the shadows.
She crouched, observing the craters all around. Some of the stones were small, so small in fact it was hard to believe these little things could have caused that much pain and horror. Others were large, and had destroyed homes in an instant. She reached out for some piece of rock inside a hole by her foot. It was warm, and as she crushed it in between her fingers, embers shone through the darkness of the rock.
‘You’re scaring people,’ a voice said. She looked over her shoulder and saw the young waiter standing still by the entrance of the tavern, his apron dirty with gravy and blood, his face darkened with soot, yet his eyes were still bright.
‘I’m trying to understand,’ she replied, looking away. Moving her face she came under warm sunbeams. She had rarely felt something that good upon her skin. She was tempted to just stay there, and savour it, when she noticed the young waiter still staring at her. ‘Has it ever happened before?’ she asked, eventually.
‘No…’ his voice seemed ready to continue, as if he meant to say something else but he fell silent. He cleared his throat and straightened his posture. ‘Now please stop, and either come inside or…’ she gazed intently at him until he flushed. ‘Please, come inside. People don’t understand what you’re doing…you either help with the decease or you stay hidden…but you don’t just go out to enjoy the landscape.’
Kamira gave him the hint of a smile, before standing up and dusting off her hands. ‘We need to understand what happened.’
‘We need to put this behind us,’ he corrected.
‘That’s a terrible way of thinking…’
‘Nobody’s forcing you to stay.’ He spoke firmly, crossing his arms but avoiding her eyes.
‘Nonsense Hari,’ a man intervened, tapping the waiter’s shoulder and stepping out of the inn. He was tall, with the arms and legs of a fighter, thick and muscular. He had long raven hair in a high ponytail, and a suntanned skin echoing the burgundy shades of his pants. His bare torso was laced with leather straps across his shoulders and waist, where hung an array of weapons including daggers, knives, curved blades and small clubs made of green stones. ‘Forgive my brother,’ he added causing her to raise an eyebrow.
Based on what she had read, she had always thought siblings to be similar in looks. But these two didn’t have any common features. She observed them as they stood side by side. Hari was a little smaller, and his skin white as cotton. His eyes were mystic and bright, and his hair was a mixture of gold and light. His brother had dark eyes, black hair and mated skin. And if Hari seemed kind and discreet, his brother looked overconfident and volatile, trying to hide it behind an insincere smile.
‘My brother isn’t at ease with strangers,’ the man continued, ‘like most people here, in fact. But I am…’ his smile widened, a bright smile with white teeth. It was peculiar here as villagers she had seen usually missed a few teeth, and when they had some, they were either dark or yellow as coins. But Hari and his brother had beautiful smiles. ‘My name is Hara.’
She remained idle and silent, holding his inquisitive gaze. ‘And what’s your name?’ he asked, slightly irritated. Something about him made her cringe, but she couldn’t put a finger on it.
She heard Niris. She heard him so loud and clear, her heart jumped and rattled against her rib cage for a while before she remembered he was truly dead. Still, the words lingered. Do not trespass the Red Oaks. Nothing awaits you beyond, but pain and despair. People are dangerous.
A raindrop fell on her nose. She looked up at the sky. Clouds were closing in on them. Rain was coming. She made a few steps aside, walking around the two brothers to enter the tavern.
Inside, waiters were tidying things up, but people were staring and whispering as she walked by. She ignored them and sat down at a table by a wall. She didn’t want to stay, but she didn’t know where else to go. The village of the inn was close enough to the Haunted Woods that she didn’t feel so intimidated to be out there…if she were to walk farther away, she would really leave everything behind for good.
Her hands trembled slightly. She closed her fists beneath the table to hide it. She had to make a decision and she had to do it now. A voice inside her head was telling her she had gone mad, she never should have left. But it wasn’t too late to go back now, was it?
Something landed abruptly on the other side of the table. It was Hara. ‘Don’t we deserve a name at least?’ he insisted before waving at a waitress for a beverage. The waitress hesitantly put down her broom, and rushed to the kitchens.
Hari walked past them. He paused, seeing the two of them sitting there at the same table. He moved his foot forward, and then back. And then forward and back again, as if he wanted to stop this but didn’t know how. He pursed his lips, glancing at Hara who replied with a mischievous wink. ‘Don’t pay attention to my little brother,’ Hara told Kamira, ‘he’s an anxious fellow…but he means well.’
‘And you? Do you mean well?’ she asked.
A waitress brought him some red ale. All along, Kamira kept hold of Hara’s gaze. Something was in the air. She could sense it as though ready to break out. It was like waiting for a thunderstorm.
‘You’re not from the plains…’ he started, pensive.
‘How would you know?’
He emitted a calculated rictus, something cold and unpleasant. ‘First, I’ve never seen you around here,’ he paused and had a quick sip. ‘Second, you didn’t step back when I said my name…people of the plains know me. They know my name, and they fear me for it.’ He stared at her intently, putting an arm on the back of his chair.
The hint of a smile drew on Kamira’s lips and he saw it. Darkness spread in his eyes in an instant. Her smile widened. ‘Maybe I’m just not scared of you.’ She enjoyed seeing him displeased with her comment. She placed her hands back on the table and crossed them in front of her.
‘I doubt it,’ he said through gritted teeth. ‘You’re not a northerner, you look too poor,’ he added, staring defiantly at her now. ‘I don’t believe you’re a westerner, they don’t have those eyes… You remind me of some of the South people but then again…they don’t have blue eyes.’
His cheeks stopped moving and it almost seemed like his heart had stopped pulsing as well. He rose from his seat, planting a knife in between her hands. ‘So, who are you? And where are you coming from?’ Silence fell in the tavern of the Inn. All eyes were on them. Still Kamira remained idle. ‘You better be careful’ he said under his breath, ‘I’ve cut fingers for answers before.’
Very calmly, she stood up. She sensed the looks following her every move. It was time for her to leave this place. Niris might have been right. Leaving the woods had been a terrible mistake. People here were odd and unstable.
But as she moved away, Hara grabbed her wrist and raised his knife to her throat. With a firm move of her elbow, she pushed his weapon aside, pressed hard at the base of his bicep, and then at the centre of his wrist. She felt the energy flow stop within the arm. The knife fell with a small thud, and the people watching held their breath. It was an ancient combat technique, following streams of energy within the body. When pressing on the right spots at the right time, limbs could be paralysed. Niris had always said the best weapons were the ones people had forgotten. And once again, she had turned fear around.
She pushed him against the wall, and pressed her fingers on four other spots around his chest. He gasped for air, struggling for life beneath the pressure of her arm crushing his collarbone. He reached for something with a trembling hand, but all he managed to do was hitting a mug that fell and broke. She pushed away the table with a kick, and it crashed to the ground.
Men had stood up to help him, but were left bewildered and confused.
‘Stop it!’ She heard Hari’s voice like a whisper from afar.
At that moment she saw fear growing inside Hara’s eyes. Him so tough and proud, he was like a frail flower wilting under her grip. She freed the energy flow with a quick move of her fingers, and he breathed again. Two waitresses rushed to help him as he stumbled down, but he pushed them away, remaining on his knees, head to the ground.
Kamira noticed some form of disgust on Hari’s face. ‘You should leave,’ he said in a voice meant to sound commanding, but lacking in confidence. As she stepped forward, he stepped back, keeping a distance between him and her.
‘I didn’t want to hurt him…’ Her lips were moving, only it was as though she wasn’t the one speaking. She looked everywhere for a way out, but the place was overcrowded and dark all of a sudden.
‘Just leave…’ Hari repeated, pointing at the door with a shaking hand. ‘You’re a stranger and you’ve brought nothing but plague to our lands. You don’t belong here, now go!’
‘Hari.’ The voice boomed as a tall figure stood up from a corner of the room. ‘Shut up.’ Kamira recognised the man, it was the one with strange tattoos. ‘I know who she is. Get back to your people and leave her be.’
The man stomped the ground closer to her and sat at the table by her side. After an uncomfortable silence, life returned to the tavern, first through whispers, then with clear voices. Hara left through the back door, furious and beaten, with Hari running at his heels.
‘Sit down,’ the man ordered Kamira. She looked at him sideways. His skin wasn’t just tattooed, it was scarred, and the wounds had been covered in dark ink. Bile rose quickly in her throat. He drank out of Hara’s cup and lifted an eye after two sips. ‘I said, sit down.’
She placed her hand on the pommel of her right dagger. ‘I receive orders from no one.’
He sneered. ‘You have no rights here,’ he told her, shaking his head. ‘I could break your neck right here, right now… no one would lift a finger.’
‘Then do it.’
He tilted his head on the side and something dark crossed his gaze. ‘Niris made you a peacock, when he should have raised you a lion.’
Hearing her foster father’s name from the mouth of a stranger made her start. She didn’t want to panic nor to be seen unsettled, so she turned around and left. She was barely out the door when something grabbed her by the neck. The pain was sharp and numbing. It took her a moment to realise she stood hanging in the air. In a sudden move, the grip ended and she was dropped to the ground. She fell with her knees first and could not slow the momentum as her head hit the dirt. ‘Peacocks don’t fly.’
She spit out blood and dust, and wiped her lips. ‘Only fools believe that,’ she retorted, as she swiftly got up and swerved her dagger at him. In an instant he caught her wrist and nearly broke it. Her hand was forced into a sharp angle, and she smothered a cry. Pushing hard, he brought her to her knees.
‘What would Niris say, if he knew you were out of the woods?’ he asked in a lower voice. She said nothing and tried to think of her next move, but her mind was in a blur. ‘I’m bringing you back.’
‘I’m never going back!’ she shouted. Rain was now pouring outside, distracting her mind from the throbbing pain in her shoulder. He released her steadily, and at the first occasion she jumped up, seizing her dagger. ‘I’m going to leave now…’ she told him, her voice more of a threat than she felt capable of.
He walked by her side silently and once near, he stroked her with a massive hand. The blow alone brought her to the ground. For a moment her ears rang, a sharp pain spreading from temple to temple. ‘I’m bringing you back to Niris.’
‘Niris is dead!’ she yelled over the sound of the downpour.
The man didn’t turn around right away, but when he did, his eyes gauged her. There was hatred in them, mixed with a distant sadness. ‘How?’
She swallowed, and shivered. I’m shivering because of the rain, she told herself, and nothing else. ‘He…He’d had some seizures lately. One day I came back to the cabin and he was dead.’
He made a few angry steps towards her, and grabbed her collar. ‘Liar,’ he hissed. She held his gaze. ‘Ordinary deaths are for ordinary people,’ he started, ‘and Niris was all but ordinary.’ Their eyes remained locked in a silent war. She had no intention of speaking further on this. He opened his mouth, ready to shout something at her when his eyes caught sight of a figure behind Kamira. He grunted, and with disappointment, he stepped back.
Kamira looked over her shoulders. It was the old woman from the tavern. She was standing still, hands behind her back, sheltered from the rain by the entrance door. She looked so small, her head barely reaching the nearby windows.
When the rain subsided she came closer. ‘I think the poor thing has seen enough for one day, Kanir.’ She spoke to the man with a voice so soft and gentle, yet he obeyed and bowed his head, leaving but not before he laid a last angry look on Kamira.
The woman looked at the sky and sighed, until clouds parted and the sun shone again. Kamira remained on the ground, looking up at her. ‘It’s a rather curious day. Wouldn’t you say so, Kamira?’
‘How do you know my name?’
The woman smiled. ‘Forgive Kanir, sometimes he forgets we’re only humans.’
Kamira stumbled up, and rubbed her shoulder and wrist. ‘What do you want?’
‘I’m not the one who came looking for you…you came to us. What do you want?’
‘I’m going to leave now,’ she raised her hand towards her, stepping back slowly.
‘To go where? You know your ears and toes, and you think you know the world. But you’re like a blind man in a lion’s cage. You left the woods a conqueror, yet you were not ready.’
Her hands were shaking now, uncontrollably. ‘Leave me alone.’
She turned her back to the inn and started going away. There was something odd about this place and its people. Perhaps Niris had spoken to them about her. After all, he used to leave the woods once a month to bring back a goat, weapons and flour. But somehow those people believed they knew her. ‘I can’t leave you alone, Kamira. With Niris gone, you are now my responsibility.’
‘What?’ she stopped and faced her again.
The woman came closer. Without a word she took Kamira’s wrist and twisted it gently around. Her hand softly lifted up her sleeve to reveal an old tattoo. She had never known the meaning of it, and Niris had never said a word. Over the years, she had accepted it like a birthmark or a mole, an inexplicable part of her being.
Placing her own wrist side by side, the old woman showed her the exact same tattoo – a ring, with a skull on fire within it. ‘We have more in common than you think.’
Kamira stared, speechless. ‘Only I did mine voluntarily,’ the woman added, ‘yours was done in a different manner.’ As Kamira would still not say a word, she continued, ‘It is a pledge of allegiance.’
‘To the Province of the Dead.’
Copyright©2016 by Jane W King
If you liked what you just read, come back next week for Chapter 3, where Kamira is confronted to her troubled past…