ARKHAN, Days of Fire continues with Kamira stepping into forgotten lands, where ruins are more alive than they seem, and evil right around the corner…
The Dark Bones
She followed the old woman through golden plains, watching over her shoulders as they distanced a vigilant Kanir. When they approached the Haunted Woods, Kamira’s chest tightened. The Red Oaks seemed to be looming in her direction, as if calling her back home, whether she liked it or not. But the old woman barely acknowledged the woods. Instead, she walked on.
They went deep into the plains, the wild yellow grass writhing under the wind as though it was trying to breathe. It was dry and hot, deserted. The Haunted Woods were a mere shade of darkness at the far back, and now there was nothing else in sight but these open lands of gold.
‘Who are you?’ Kamira asked, breaking the silence.
The woman was striding a little faster.
‘I’m many different things to many different people,’ she said for sole response.
‘And do you have a name?’
There was a pause. ‘You can call me Yohonda.’
‘All right…’ Kamira observed her. She looked old, but she had the vigour of a youngster, long strides at a steady and brisk pace. ‘Where are we going?’
‘I told you. To the Province of the Dead.’
‘It doesn’t sound inviting…’
Yohonda looked at her briefly, sending a warm smile. ‘There’s a lot of history bound to these plains. A history that is part of your story.’
‘How would you know that?’ Kamira waited for an answer that never came. The woman simply grinned, and pointed forward.
‘Look around…and see if it reminds you of anything.’
Kamira paused, suddenly realising she had walked over a mile through the wilderness with a woman she didn’t know, and who for all she knew might very well be crazy. ‘I don’t know this place. How could it remind me of anything?’
Yohonda turned around, looking up at her. ‘Let’s go a little deeper then,’ she said before pulling Kamira gently by the arm.
‘Look,’ Kamira said, grabbing the woman by the shoulder. ‘I think you have me mistaken for someone else.’
‘Then what about the tattoo?’
She fell silent. ‘It doesn’t mean anything.’ The words came out like a whisper. It was easy to lie. It was more difficult to do it convincingly. Of course she wanted to know about that tattoo. But she wanted to leave this place more than anything else.
Yohonda put a calming hand on Kamira’s forearm. ‘Don’t you wonder about your family? What happened to them? Why you were found in the Haunted Woods and raised by Niris?’
‘I…I…’ she stammered, hunting for a good reply, but she found none. She had spent her life trying to not think about them. She had made it her mission to convince herself her life had started in the Haunted Woods. ‘They abandoned me…why should I care what happened to them?’
There were tears gleaming in that old woman’s eyes. ‘No…No they didn’t abandon you.’ She moved away from her with little steps. ‘Please…look around.’
Kamira sighed and surveyed the horizon. The wind was hissing something sharp. Yet it was so warm, the lands were shrouded in some sort of haze. She made a few steps forward. Maybe she could run. There was no way that old woman would be able to catch up with her.
She looked back to see what she was doing. She seemed oblivious to her, humming a song, bending over some flowers to smell their scent…She watched perplexed, as she saw Yohonda lending her ears to blue and yellow blossoms. All right then, she thought. She really is crazy.
She moved away in a hurry, keeping an eye on her to make sure she wasn’t paying attention. ‘Keep going,’ Yohonda said from over her shoulders, waving a hand in Kamira’s direction, still bending over the flowers. ‘It’s over there,’ she said. So much for her not paying attention…
Something crunched underneath her boot. There was a small piece of red tile. She took it, and rubbed it in between her fingers. It was soft through the dust. She eyed the ground, and saw a bigger piece of the same kind of tiles. She crouched, brushing her hand on it.
She could hear footsteps, small bare feet stomping the red tiled floor. Her heart started pounding. She looked around. Yohonda was gone. The sun didn’t shine anymore. There were clouds all above and around her, but these were not rain, they were made of dust.
She turned around and looked for a way out, but the dirt in the air was making her eyes sting. ‘Kamira.’ She turned to the voice, expecting Yohonda. It was something else. The face was half-human, half-dead. Where she could still see features, it seemed like a woman with voluminous dark hair and light golden skin. But the other side of the face was rotten to the core, pieces of bones falling out of a burnt skull.
‘Kamira,’ she repeated. The woman was tall, wearing a yellow gown underneath a black tunic buttoned at the chest, adorned with embroideries along the hems.
She lifted a hand towards Kamira. It wasn’t only her face that was halfway dead. The whole left of her body was burnt and turning to ashes. The hand she raised was only dark bones, dusting ashes as her fingers move. Her eye was bulging out of the shadows of her skull. Worms were swarming around like it was their kingdom and no longer hers.
‘Kamira,’ she insisted. ‘It’s us.’ There were other voices entwined with hers this time, and burnt skeletons surrounded her at once, pushing against the clouds of dust to reach out to her.
She startled and stumbled back, tripping over the broken tiles.
Her head hit the ground hard, and then there was nothing.
The sun was high in the sky. She could feel its warmth on her closed eyelids. There was laughter all around her. Two girls were giggling at her feet. When she opened her eyes, she was standing up. She recognised that place.
It was an inner yard, with a long rectangular pool in which reflected the sculpted golden pillars of a palace. The ground was covered in red tiles save for strips of green grass where white flowers blossomed.
‘Kamira,’ said the voice again. Only this time, the woman was whole – human. She was dressed with the same black and yellow clothes, and above her shoulders was a diaphanous scarf with gold and red patterns. ‘Layan, Sivaya,’ the woman continued.
Kamira moved closer. She was mesmerised by that woman. She had hair black as the night, falling in perfect waves. Her eyes were outlined to make her brown gaze stand out. Her skin resembled the colour of honey, echoing her gold necklace and bracelets. She had a line of golden leaves falling from her hair and settling neatly at the centre of her forehead. There was something almost regal about her.
Something pushed past Kamira’s legs, and she looked down to see two little girls with light brown manes running towards the woman. She smiled, and with her hand she directed them to a corridor at the far back. ‘Kamira,’ she said and looked right into her eyes. ‘Come now, it’s late.’
A part of her believed that woman was talking to someone else, someone who might have been here but who was no longer. Yet another part of her wanted to be the one she was calling out. Her smile was tender, and her gestures delicate. She was drawn to her.
She walked at first, and then started running. It wasn’t like anything she had experienced before. Some invisible force slowed her body, and the more she pushed through, the smaller she felt, until every resistance stopped and she was just a five year-old girl running past her mother.
Her mother patted her head as she hurried to catch up with her sisters, Layan and Sivaya, who were already ahead of her in the race, rushing through the hallways. The sun glowing through the sculpted pillars made it looked as though there were dark embroideries on the tiled-floor.
She ran faster, giggling and carefree. And at first, she believed it was her feet stomping the ground, the noise strong and dizzying. But it wasn’t. Yet she heard it louder and louder. It was getting closer, like the shadows around her.
One moment she was running in daylight, the next she was dragged around by her mother in the middle of the night. She could still hear the stomping. She had understood by now. They were hooves. Angry-sounding hooves.
Her mother was frantic, and locked them both inside a small barn. She moved some stacks of hay before freeing the way to a secret door at the back. She crouched to face Kamira and held her arms. Her eyes were red, her nostrils flared and she was out of breath. ‘I need you to do something for me,’ her mother whispered, panting. ‘I need you to go to the woods…you know the ones, where we go find the healing herbs?’
Kamira nodded. ‘You go there, and you can climb up a tree.’ There were shouts and screaming outside. She tightened her grip on Kamira’s arms. She swallowed hardly and turned her head back to her daughter. ‘You understand?’
‘But you said not to climb on trees…’
‘Forget what I said. You go there and hide until I find you, all right? It’s a game. No one else but your father or me can find you. So you have to stay hidden. All right?’
‘What about Sivaya?’
Her mother smiled and stroked her hair. And as her cheek lifted, a tear fell down. ‘Go, sweetheart.’ She opened the door and pointed through the plains. ‘You see…it’s not that far from here. Go, run!’
Kamira could barely see anything past the houses of the village. They were scarce and in the outer skirt, so there wasn’t much light. ‘I don’t see it,’ she moaned and turned back to her mother.
There were loud noises at the other end of the barn. She pushed Kamira away, closing the door. ‘Go!’
Kamira tried to reopen, prying her hands through the woodwork, until she heard a shriek followed by a heavy thud. She suddenly became aware of the mayhem spreading in the streets. People were running, screaming. Thunder boomed and she made a step back. The tip of the palace was on fire, the blue dome was like a torch lighting the sky.
The door moved. It was opening from inside. Through the panes she saw her mother’s dress, on the floor, where laid her body. Blood rushed through her temples and she ran, the City of Arkhan blazing behind her.
She woke up with a weight on her chest. Yohonda was leaning over her, a little preoccupied. ‘Are you all right?’ she asked. One by one the images resurfaced. Her heart started racing out of control and she struggled with her breathing.
‘What have you done to me?’ she shouted, a hand on her head to assess the damages.
‘Nothing dear, you fell and fainted. Did you hurt your head?’
‘No!’ she yelled, pushing away Yohonda’s hand. ‘Leave me alone.’
She stood up in a hurry and watched the surroundings with caution. There were no clouds of dust, and there were no burnt skeletons, only ruins of a palace she once knew. Remnants of walls rising from the ground like shards, dispersed here and there, and pieces of brickwork scattered like cadavers over miles of lands.
She was meant to say something. Her lips were supposed to say out loud what she truly wanted. She wanted to leave this place and never come back. But each time she opened her mouth the image of her mother calling out to her was all she could see. And if it wasn’t her, it was her sisters, playing all around the bright palace, the curls of their hair swaying, vibrant with life.
‘What do you want from me?’ She closed her fists and tried to prevent tears form building behind her eyes.
‘I think you want to know the truth. And perhaps you were right – it’s time. It’s all right if you don’t remember the people, or the place. Memories will come back. They’re there, somewhere in your head.’ She paused, looking around before striding east. ‘Come with me.’
Kamira was too numb to think by herself. She had never been confronted to feelings like this before. She felt like the little girl she had seen, a lost child with no marks. So she followed.
Ahead, dark masses erupted from the grounds, lost in a heat haze blurring their shapes. Once closer, Kamira stopped in her tracks. There were wooden posts, more than she could count. At the top of each one were three skulls, carved into blocks of stone. A chill went up her legs and settled at the back of her spine.
Something hissed sharply in her ears, as though flying past her head, lost in the mist. ‘What was that?’
Yohonda stared, observing her in silence. She brushed her fingers against a symbol painted in red on the post in front of her. It was the same as their tattoos. ‘Come,’ she whispered before going deeper into this field of blankly staring skulls. A little further down, she settled before two posts, one bigger than the other. On the tallest one were painted shapes Kamira recognised. Golden leaves assembled in the form of a necklace. ‘This is your mother,’ Yohonda explained. ‘And this is Sivaya,’ she added, her fingers pointing at the smaller post. ‘Your father and Layan were not found.’
Kamira didn’t say a word. Not a single thought went through her mind.
‘It’s not to say they escaped. We know, for a fact, they didn’t. Their remains were just never found.’ She sighed. ‘Many weren’t, as the city was burnt down.’
‘I need to go, now.’ Kamira’s throat tightened and this started to weigh more on her than she could bear.
‘They made sure nobody left the city alive,’ Yohonda’s voice arose among the dead as Kamira walked away. ‘You think you can see the world, and travel like the chroniclers you read about,’ she said with slight derision. Kamira turned around. How could she know that? Did Niris know she had found those hidden books? ‘We are at war. So your little voyages will have to wait.’
She walked a few steps closer. ‘The king, this whole realm, is an illusion, a sham. They have stolen from us more than they could ever repay in a lifetime. If you want to avenge the wrong they’ve done to your family, then you have come to the right place. But if you want to leave…then go, none of us will stop you. Just know this. There was a reason nobody could survive the massacre of Arkhan. And they know, who is supposed to be buried and isn’t. Word has already gotten out that a stranger has been seen outside the Haunted Woods. They will hunt you down, and kill you.’
‘I’m not afraid.’
Yohonda smiled something dark. ‘You should.’
After changing her mind a few times, Kamira found herself accompanying Yohonda back to the village of the Forgotten Inn. But she knew, the minute she saw Kanir, that she had made a mistake.
People were gathered outside in patches. There was a larger mass at the back of the tavern where loud voices collided with angry tones. A few families were packing their bags on horses or in small and shady carriages. All this agitation drew her mind away from Kanir’s hateful gaze.
Hari had been standing at the back of the bigger crowd, when he saw them, he ran. ‘Yohonda,’ he started, his cheeks slightly flushed. ‘Things have gotten a little out of hand here. Word got out about Ojas. Some…people are talking about attacking the castle now.’
‘Some people, uh?’ Yohonda clicked her tongue and watched the crowd with a stern look. ‘Tell your brother I need to speak with him in private. Now.’ Kamira startled slightly at this forceful tone. Yohonda turned to her. ‘I need to speak to that idiot, and then I will call out for you. Please wait for me here, will you?’
‘The usurper king,’ she said, smiling. ‘He’s dead. And with any luck, his rotten seed will soon follow.’
Kamira watched as Yohonda strode firmly to Hara. He was standing among a tide of people, screaming things Kamira was too far to hear properly. When his eyes met with Yohonda’s, he went livid. He looked like a deer spotted by a hunter. His eyes went round and he pursed his lips, watching as Hari also came to him.
They entered the tavern and disappeared for a while. The crowd moved to some other place in the village, people were unable to agree on something or other. Kamira didn’t really pay attention. Soon, the area surrounding the tavern was deserted. It was calm again, and she relished that. She needed time to think.
It took her a moment to notice the voice. It was, after all, low and monotonous. She couldn’t understand, but it seemed like the same words were repeated over and over again. She followed them around the curve of the tavern and found an old lady sitting on a wooden chair. She was holding a necklace made of wood, and she was rubbing the beads against each other, murmuring things, and rocking herself back and forth.
It was almost like a melody, halfway through humming and speaking. The old lady wore dark clothes, and a scarf of the same shade covered her head. Her eyes were staring at the void, appearing blue beneath some sort of milky glaze veiling her sight.
Kamira walked closer. At first she thought she could ask that woman what she was doing, but then she saw her eyes and felt slightly confused. She moved her arm in her direction; she didn’t even blink. She waved her hand past her face but the lady continued her chanting. She was blind.
It would be best to leave her alone, Kamira thought, not understanding what she was doing. So she turned around and walked away.
‘So you have come,’ the woman said.
The hair rose on Kamira’s forearms. She didn’t turn around. Something of a tremor went through her body. The old lady’s voice had changed. It was louder, and it seemed caught in between two other voices.
Kamira slowly reached for her weapon, and peeked over her shoulder. The old lady was staring right at her. Her face emaciated and her skin so thin and wrinkled, she looked as though life had been sucked out of her.
But it was the wicked smirk at the corner of her dried lips that made Kamira feel ill. For whatever reason, she couldn’t speak, and she couldn’t move. She just watched as this odd lady stared at her like a predator contemplating its next meal.
‘As long as I live,’ the woman warned with her chorus of hoarse voices, ‘Arkhan will not be.’
Copyright©2016 by Jane W King
If you liked what you just read, chapter 4 will soon follow!