ARKHAN

 

ARKHAN,

THE PROVINCE OF THE DEAD

Arkhan has fallen. And through its ruins, the dead still roam. Revenge is in the making, among the ashes and through the blood of the living.  Kamira doesn’t know the world she steps in is ravaged by evil magic. She doesn’t know she had been kept away for a reason. Now she is both a threat and a target, but also a danger to herself.

 

1

A Rain of Stones

 

Kamira remained still for a while, her fingers playing absently with the coins on the table. Niris had hid them well. There was no use for them in the woods. Still, she believed she was entitled to know about the concept of money. Just as she had the right to know what the world looked like beyond the Haunted Woods.

She looked down at one of the coins – the iron circle was flanked with animal symbols that for most were unknown to her. Small fragments of gems embellished the centre. The one she was holding now had a crystal pink precious stone in its middle. She pressed on it to feel its sharp edges. She wanted it to hurt, she wanted to ache and cry, but found only emptiness instead.
The sun was setting on the cabin. If she decided to leave, she ought to do it soon. She looked down at her reflection again, lost in her black tea. Niris had forbidden mirrors. She held her cup tightly, narrowing her eyes once more. The only thing standing out was her gaze. Clear and blue.

There were sounds coming to her head sometimes. Memories had turned to ghostly visions of what could have been. Niris could have been gentler. He could have granted people to come see her. He could have showed her the world outside. He could have loved her. But perhaps it was too much to ask of someone who hadn’t asked for anything.
He found her, wounded and alone in the world. He healed her, made her rise from the frail corpse she had become to the young woman she was now. Only he never wanted a child. He didn’t know how to behave. He had spent his life training a lord’s three sons and so that’s what he did, he trained her for combat. Day and night, through snow, mist and rain. He didn’t offer compassion, for he had none. And she didn’t ask for anything for she feared him.

It would be easy to leave, she often told herself at night. She had tried once or twice. But the Red Oaks kept her in, like a poisonous fence. The cabin was built at the heart of some old woods, seldom visited by the outside world. The reason, mainly, was this odd ring of half-dead trees, encircling the woods in some peculiar atmosphere. She had lingered before them, tempted to cross but never being able to.
The oaks were hundreds of years old, and seemed caught in between seasons, never fully alive or dead. The air was dry, the mist and leaves crimson. Even the tree trunks were covered in some odd red dust she had never found an explanation for. Niris remained quiet about it. The few times she had spoken about the Red Oaks, he answered the same thing. ‘It’s a protection. For us from the world, and for the world from us.’
It made no sense to her. But she obeyed, as she always did.

Kamira didn’t finish her tea. She took the back door to reach the tool-shed outside. With a shovel she started digging a hole at the back of the cabin. She kept eying the clouds and hurried, her chest tightening as night came closer. Once satisfied with the size she paused for an instant, inhaling the autumn breeze took a quick moment for it to sink in. It was happening.

She dragged something out of the tool shed, a large mass wrapped inside white sheets. It fell ungraciously into the hole, unbalanced and crooked. She crouched near it, and pulled away the linen, freeing his expressionless face. It had been harder to move him around, as if trying to lift a block of stone. She wasn’t sure what to make of it. She had never buried a human being before. Animals in the woods became stiff after death, but their weight didn’t seem to increase, unlike Niris’ body.
Her late foster father had his hands crossed upon his chest, and his eyes wide and glazed. She felt uncomfortable, looking down on him like this. With a steady hand, she pulled back the sheet over his head and felt ready. She refilled the hole with dirt until the white mass had completely disappeared from sight, and from her mind.

Niris never would have wanted her to leave. But nothing was stopping her now. She undressed quickly and washed her face with a cloth above the basin near the back door. She slipped into some old garments, and put on her leather plates. Dark and supple, solid yet light enough so she could move freely, they were finely done. They covered her bust until the nape of her neck, and followed the curves of her shoulders. The different parts tied at the front and back, as well as underneath her arms. These plates were much nicer than the heavy iron armour Niris had made her wear for years.

He had trained her to fight just about anything. He had taught her how to use swords, daggers and bows, and he had made sure she could master hand-to-hand combat as well. And even though her heart was now racing at the idea of being in unknown territories, she was certain of one thing: there was not a man she couldn’t defeat, or an animal she didn’t know how to tame, and should she get hurt, she knew what herbs and plants to look for and how to prepare them, though her mind was still hesitant, her body felt ready.

She laced her boots tightly, and packed up the coins still lying on the table. She hung two daggers at her belt, and brushed the pommels, surveying the room one last time. It was a small cottage, with only a table and two chairs near the kitchen fire. There was an upper level accessible from a ladder, where she used to sleep. Niris slept on the floor in front of the entrance door, with no cover and no pallet either.
She moved away and redid her hair, tying it into a large bun. She had never cut a single lock out of them. Niris had threatened her to cut it all off, but had never done it in the end. She was thankful for that. She loved brushing them at night – it made everything else disappear.

She strapped her bundle across her shoulders and walked out, leaving the creaking door swaying behind. At the well behind the cottage, she filled her water bottle before drinking what was left in the bucket, and remained briefly still. She had stalled enough. She ought to leave. And so she ran. Her mind vivid and alert, her heart racing. She ducked under low-hanging branches, zigzagged in between trees and made this run as diverse as possible to keep her thoughts clear from the dread and doubts.
Creatures scattered from the trees as her feet stomped the ground, and she grinned slightly. One of the things Niris had told her was to turn fear around. Knowing things in these woods were scared of her, gave her momentum. And before long, she was there.
 The Red Oaks were surrounding her now, their crooked branches looming overhead. She felt strangely out of shape. Digging that hole had exhausted her more than she would have thought.

She paused to catch her breath and drink.

There was a presence in these woods. She could feel it now more than ever – animals, perhaps, hiding in shadows, or nesting in the heights of trees. Whatever they were, it made her feel uncomfortable.
She drew out a dagger, surveying the area. She couldn’t linger in a place like this, but as she paced the ground, her steps felt heavier, as if moving against current. A weapon was drawn. She heard it, she was certain, the clear whistle of a steel blade. She didn’t understand why but her chest tightened, and her pulse quickened. She was in a desperate urge to leave these woods once and for all, and feared more than ever that something was about to stop her.

Twisting her head around, there was nothing. Nothing in the trees, nothing behind. Her body slowed, as her mind became foggy. The leaves rustled somewhat of a murmur she couldn’t catch. Turning around, feeling dizzy, her hand found support on one of the trees. Her fingertips burned and shocked her into an awake state, reviving her thoughts and survival instinct. Possibly too late. Roots had found their way to her ankles, forcing her into a tumble as she moved away. The fall was quick, too fast for her to even realise, she was now out of the woods.

Her chest to the sky, she winced under the moonlight glow. There was still this inexplicable haze following her around the head, but she regained full control of her body, and hurriedly pried herself away from the deadened roots and leaves. Scrambling up she ran some more, deep into the open plains. She ran until the woods were just a mere speck of darkness in her line of vision, she ran until she found lights. Dozens of dots prickling now just a mile away.

It wasn’t that she intended to, but sometimes a body has a will of its own. Though she ordered it to go on, she could feel it wavering, caving under the weight of emotions she couldn’t comprehend. It wasn’t just about leaving. It had a little bit to do about Niris. But there was something else. Something too close for her to see. Her thuds turned to soft steps, until they became uneven wobbles. Out of breath and ashamed at her own sluggish state, she crashed against some brickwork, not realising she had reached houses.

The clatter of cutlery and the waves of chatter steadily got to her ears. There was an open window above her, coarse laughter and chicken broth smell gushed through and travelled past. Some shadow appeared and spat out the window, missing her by less than an inch. She quickly moved away and stood up again, falling face to face with a woman. Blond locks intertwined with a scarf of yellow and brown, her plump cheeks were red, from ale or warmth. With a sky blue gaze, sparkling with glee, she spoke. ‘ You comin’ in?’

Kamira remained idle. It wasn’t the first time she heard a voice that didn’t belong to Niris, it was the first time it came from a woman though. It felt sweet and gentle, although she swallowed her words in a way she wasn’t familiar with. Nothing formed in her mind, instead she followed, her feet unresponsive, blinded by the perspective of finding food and rest, and perhaps some of the thrill she was after. The first few moments of amazement at the bright lights, cheery crowd and array of diverse senses, quickly turned to awkwardness. Laughter died down, chatter stopped, and eyes turned dark and stared. Kamira didn’t move an inch further. By all the definitions of hunting she had learned and been trained for, she was now a prey in these unknown lands.

‘You sit her’ miss,’ a young man said, barely looking at her. He wiped clean a table with a dirty cloth, and waved at the chair when he saw she wasn’t moving. ‘You seem lost,’ the waiter observed as she sat down. She looked up and noticed his eyes – one was green and the other brown. How peculiar… She wanted to ask him why his eyes were like this but he spoke before she had a chance. ‘D’ you like somethin’ to drink?’
It wasn’t easy understanding someone who spoke so quickly. Yet there was something nice and comforting about him. His gaze was gentle. He had fair features and looked rather young, the youngest among the crowd.

‘Maybe…’ she started, and heard her voice as if for the first time. ‘Maybe a tea?’

‘What kind?’ He asked, before listing numerous teas she had never heard of.
If asking for tea was already so confusing, how was she going to cope with the rest of the world?

‘Anything would be fine.’

Her answer was curt, she wanted him and the attention drawn to her, gone. Yet before he stepped away, she grabbed his sleeve. ‘How does it work here?’

He narrowed his eyes. ‘First time at the tavern?’ she nodded for sole response. ‘D’ you have money?’

‘I have…’ she hesitated, was it safe to say what she was carrying? Niris had taught her to trust no one, and she had read about what money could do to some people. One can only go as far as his money can carry him, and sink as low as his wealth will drag him. One of her favourite Chroniclers had once written, but she only took away parts of this analysis. For now, all she considered, was the need to have money to travel. And how could she travel, if she didn’t know the value of what she was carrying?

She took a few of the coins out, bright in her palms, they waited for judgement. But as his eyes grew stern, eying rapidly around to make sure no one was paying attention, she sensed something was wrong. ‘These are not…’ he started, eyes back on the coins before gazing at her intently, ‘these are not our coins.’ His accent had faded. The look on his face was serious, serious enough for her to close her fingers over the coins, and hope no one else had noticed. But some people were looking. The waiter put a hand on the back of her chair. ‘You shouldn’t be carrying these,’ he whispered. ‘They’re banned. They’ve been for long now.’

She wanted to disappear and melt with the shadows of the room, forget this ever happened and hope they would soon forget about her as well. The waiter noticed, relaxed a little and spoke louder. ‘I’ll tell you what,’ he said casually. ‘I’ll bring you a tea on the house, eh? No need to pay.’ She nodded, though unsure, and he smiled, stepping away and into the kitchens at the back.

There was a man looking at her from a nearby table. She knew he had been staring for a while, though she hadn’t looked back. Not until now. His eyes were coal black. Dark scriptures had taken possession of what had once been skin, running along the sinuous lines of a bulky shape. His biceps were the size of a head, flexed in one arm, as he drank, eyes never leaving her.

People getting up from a table by the entrance forced her mind away from this man’s hold. A girl had been crying and was now comforted by an older man, the two of them seemed to thank an old lady, though she stood, she could barely reach the girl’s elbow. Her smile was bright, and infectious, the two people in front of her, seemingly grief-stricken, found a way to grin through tears and hardened faces. When she sat back down, her eyes met with Kamira’s. There was wonder, and puzzlement. It was as though she recognised her. The woman took out a pipe, sat back in her chair and crossed her arms, observing Kamira. Her eyes widened through blue smoke.

Aiva? A voice whispered inside Kamira’s head. Aivalarêva?

It came like a clap of thunder, a sudden thud, as if the veil of the night had been broken. People gathered at the windows, and things hit the roof repeatedly. Dust fell from the ceiling, triggering cries and screaming, and hectic motions in all directions. Kamira didn’t move. Instead, she watched. She had never heard thunder so loud, but she had been trained to remain calm. She stood up steadily and peeked through a window. There were trails of fire in the sky.

‘Stones!’ A high-pitched woman’s voice erupted. ‘Stones are falling from the skies!’ More stones hit, and made everything shake, from the ceiling to the ground.

Kamira froze. Her mouth turned dry while her heartbeat quickened.

Niris had taught her many things. He made sure she could fight, hunt, and heal, and defeat any living creatures…but what was she left to do against a rain of stones?

 

2

A Skull on Fire

 

The room was silent. There was a thud to the right, quickly followed by another one, stronger. Mortar drizzled like pouring rain, reigniting panic inside. The shouting and cries were only silenced momentarily each time the village was hit. The night was suddenly alight, brightness alternating with darkness, until some orange glow settled at the far end of the village.

‘Get under the tables!’ someone shouted.

Kamira turned around, and saw the young waiter with peculiar eyes, running everywhere, slipping on dust and blowing out candles and yelling at the kitchens to break the fires. She remained static amid the frantic motions. Hiding under a table didn’t make sense. How strong did they think woodwork was? Stronger than rocks? She thought not.

Something sharp resonated, making her start. It was like hearing bones breaking, eerie and nauseating. As she looked up, she saw the roof denting inwards. Bricks fell in morsels and the timber groaned, barely audible through the screaming in the tavern.

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.

There was a woman looking at her. Her lips and body quivering as though 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 that request right. What difference would it make, if she hid like the rest of them? The woman would not let go of her, fixating with watery and pleading eyes. Unsettled, Kamira crouched slowly, hiding in between a wall and a fallen table. The woman seemed relieved. She closed her eyes and started praying, muttering to herself, shivering each time another thud made the walls trembled.

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. She pulled herself up slightly, wandering a curious eye outside.

The land was ablaze in the distance. The fire in the village was fierce now, shadows ran for safety, here and there, back and forth, uncertain and frantic. Her eyes slowly went back to the lands. Fumes were billowing up from holes in the ground, scattered embers made it look as though fireflies had colonised everywhere. She stiffened a little. There was another shadow. Different, standing still, untroubled. He just stared, eyes to the horizon, rubbing ashes in his large hand. She recognised the bald scalp, and she saw the outlines of tattoos with the flashing of light. It was that man who had been watching her in the tavern. As if reading her mind, he turned around. Their eyes met in the darkness. It wasn’t by fear, she retreated. It was caution. At least, she told herself that.

They remained prostrated in the tavern for hours. Even long after the rain of stones had stoppped. 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 had disfigured the plains surrounding the village of the Inn. The tavern had sustained less damages. There were some dents here and there upon its rounded brick structure, but it was nothing. Other houses had been cut in half, disfigured or burnt down.

A crimson sun was peaking. Shapes were concealed beneath aged fabric, feet and hair protruding from bloodied sheets. Timid shadows crept here and there at the back of the village, silent as ghosts, they cleared the houses and lined up the dead.

Kamira turned herself away from them, walking towards the craters in the plains. She crouched, observing them. 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.

‘I’m trying to understand.’ Moving her face, she came under warm sunbeams, the novelty and comfort it brought made her forget about the young man and his inquisitive look. She was tempted to just stay there, and savour it, when she noticed him 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 crossed his arms and avoided her eyes, a tone that was meant to be flat and firm only managed to made her smile even more.

‘Nonsense Hari,’ a man intervened, tapping the waiter’s shoulder and stepping out of the inn. Kamira’s face darkened. The man 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, 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?’ 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 stepped aside and walked around the two brothers to enter the tavern.

Inside, waiters were tidying things up, but people were staring and whispering as she came in. Ignoring it, the best she could, she sat down at a wobbly table by a wall. She didn’t want to stay, but she didn’t know where else to go. Not yet anyway. She had to have a plan. But her mind was blank.

Something landed abruptly on the other side of the table. 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 and paused, seeing the two sitting at the same table didn’t seem a good omen.  He moved towards them, only to step back almost instantly. He hesitated, an instant longer and eventually gave up. ‘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 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. His mood changed, turning sour. 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. Rising from his seat he planted a knife in between her hands. ‘So, who are you? And where are you coming from?’ Silence fell in the tavern. 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. Not at all like she had read.

But as she moved away, he 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 it. 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 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.

The voice echoed, bringing a memory. For an instant, Hara’s eyes were Niris’. Her body withered. Her will died. 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.

‘You should leave,’ Hari hissed, face torn with disgust. She stepped forward and he stepped back. She liked turning fear around, but not this time.

‘I didn’t want to hurt him…’ Her lips moved faintly. It was as though she wasn’t the one speaking. She looked everywhere for a way out, but the place was overcrowded, darker somehow.

‘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, 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, 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 with Hari running at his heels.

‘Sit down,’ the man ordered. 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 to 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 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 was 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 couldn’t slow the momentum as her head hit the dirt. ‘Peacocks don’t fly.’

She spat out blood and dust, before wiping 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. Rain had started falling hard, driving dust inside her eyes. She contemplated fighting with an impaired vision, but she lacked the will or strength to do so.

‘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. 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, the one she had noticed the night before. 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’s a pledge of allegiance.’

‘To what?’

‘To the Province of the Dead.’

 

3


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, they went deep into the plains, the wild yellow grass writhing under the wind as though it was trying to breathe.

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 several miles through the wilderness with a woman she didn’t know, and who for all she knew might very well be out of her mind.

‘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 grabbed 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?’

Kamira 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?’

The woman’s eyes gleamed. ‘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 heat 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 now, humming a song, bending over some flowers to smell their scent…Kamira 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, a small piece of red tile. She took it, and rubbed it in between her fingers. It was soft through the dust. On the ground she 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. Yohonda was gone, and 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 was blinding.

‘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 heavy 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 made of 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. Then came the laughter, all around her. Two girls 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. But she wanted to be the one she was calling out. Her smile was tender, 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, facing 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, stroking 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, turning back to her mother.
There were loud noises at the other end of the barn. She pushed Kamira away, slamming 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 for breath.

‘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 pushed away Yohonda’s hand. ‘Leave me alone.’

Standing up in a hurry, she 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 curls of their hair swaying, vibrant with life.

‘What do you want from me?’ It was but a whisper. Not for Yohonda, perhaps not even to the faint images of familiar faces surrounding her, watching her. That whisper was unintended. Coming out of her mouth like a breeze.


‘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.’ Yohonda 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. And as if her feet were somehow linked to invisible chains held by the old woman, 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 never 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.’

The sound of shattered glass was brought in with the wind, the haze became thicker and shapes made it heavier in places, as if deformed somehow. There were faces, round and undefined, trying to pull through, to get to her. She stepped back. The broken glass noise steadily started to make words, a voice vaguely feminine. ‘These are not chains’ she said, and a shadow pointed at Kamira’s feet. The invisible shackles she had thought were binding her to Yohonda were suddenly materialised, only they were changing. The steel turned to bloodied ropes, before becoming bones. Hands and arms held each other and formed a line from her to Yohonda, and from Yohonda to the funeral posts.

Kamira’s mother appeared in a flash of light, a hand of glass holding her face tightly, so firmly in fact she could feel her skin peeling beneath it. ‘I did not let you go to abandon us. You were set free for a reason. You can’t outrun your past.’

‘Kamira!’ Yohonda pulled her out of her numbness. The haze had lifted, the shadows were gone, but her cheek still pinched. Her fingers ran softly against her skin to find blood where her mother’s hand had been. ‘What is happening to me?’ she asked as Yohonda watched with worried eyes.

‘I think this is too much for her now,’ Yohonda spoke in a strange tone, and Kamira knew she wasn’t talking to her. It didn’t matter. Her mind didn’t pay attention anymore. Her body was falling. She witnessed, half aware, as she let go of her strengths and met darkness.

4

Faces of Tremor

 

Kamira never dreamed. Not until she stepped foot inside the Province of the Dead. She had read of visions before, she had wondered about them. Some chroniclers believed spirits were visiting the living at night, with guidance or evil intent. Others thought dreams were schemes of the being, visions of tremor surfacing from deep within one’s self. They had one and only purpose, scare you, until you understood, you were at risk.

She walked barefoot in woods, both familiar and unknown, alert it was not real, and yet believing everything she saw, every leaf she touched. Dew was not cold, or wet, it was soft as silk, stroking her skin, her ankles, and heels. Some sort of elation filled her lungs, it wasn’t air, it wasn’t anything she could inhale, it was a feeling. Her body knew something her mind hadn’t yet grasped. But the next step brought shadows. The leaves covered the sky until light was but a feeble memory.

Arriving in a clearing of shades and deadened leaves, she paused, her pulse racing. There were things embedded here, eyes red and blue watching her through the trees. They whispered and complained, but their words could not reach her. She saw them though, like moths, escaping bark and leaves, dark dots flying here and there, trapped in an invisible hurricane a few feet before her. The murmur became buzzing, the dots turned to black clouds, and all joined at the core of one small mass lying on the ground. There were arms, legs and knees, covered by squirming insects.

A hand got to her shoulder. Quickly turning her head around, she saw a stranger, a form of shadows, moving into shape, trying to resemble a girl, but before it could speak, and as the lips parted, she awoke. It was like shaking something off of her head, a shiver waking her up. Her eyes still couldn’t open, her mind was slightly blank, but clear voices came to her this time. Not a dream, not a vision, it was real life.

‘Niris failed us.’ She thought she recognised Kanir’s voice.

‘What do we do now?’

‘She’s no use to us,’ Kanir whispered.

‘But if they take her…’ someone else said.

Silence followed.

‘Coming in here…she brought death to us all.’

Eyes stinging, she came to. The room was surprising light, forcing her into a frown. She stretched on one elbow and observed a house she had never seen before. Round walls atop of which was a wooden roof shaped like a dome. Steam was coming out of two mugs on a table, and shapes were moving outside by a closed window. She walked to it, and as she did, the silhouettes dispersed. The entrance door opened and closed.

‘Good, you’re up.’ Hari mumbled, bringing in some warm bread inside a cloth. He laid it on the table and never once looked right at her. ‘It’s Yohonda’s house,’ he explained, before she even opened her mouth.

Kamira looked at the two mugs. ‘Is one of them for you?’

‘No. It was meant for Yohonda but some… pressing matter made her leave before you woke up.’

The two of them stood in silence. The room suddenly big and empty. Eventually he sighed and clasped his hands. ‘Enjoy the bread.’ He turned his back to her, eager to cross the door, when Yohonda appeared at the other end. She beamed and he acknowledged her with a timid smile before dashing away.

‘I’m relieved,’ she told Kamira, striding towards her. ‘Let’s sit and talk,’ she waved at the table.

But Hari was not out for an instant that he was already back in. Eyes big and worried. ‘Yohonda…people are packing.’

The old woman cursed and clicked her tongue, moving past Hari quickly. ‘Where’s your idiot of a brother?’

Hari pointed at a large mass in front of the tavern. A few families were setting up carriages while other villagers were branding swords and axes, shouting in approval as someone in the middle of the tide was yelling things Kamira was too far to hear. She followed Yohonda and Hari only to realise it was Hara, walking back and forth, inciting hatred and violence for something or other, the whole thing was rather amusing to her. He had a big mouth, she thought as she remained at the back, amused, crossing her arms. When he saw her, his jaw clenched.

‘We can’t accept this anymore!’ he shouted, eyes deep into hers. ‘We have to destroy our enemy – kill them, before they kill us!’

She grinned but he stood there, nostrils flaring. ‘Do you even know your enemy?’ Yohonda asked, scattering people on her way in. She raised her neck to him, and though he was twice her size, his behaviour changed. His shoulders cave and he lowered his gaze to the ground. ‘Do any of you?’

‘We can’t wait for them to come back.’ A villager exclaimed. ‘And they will come back!’

Kamira watched Hari, his cheeks were red, he listened closely, clenching his fists against his chest. A hand came across his elbow, a girl with her face hidden behind blond locks. She held his arm and he stroke her back before they left the crowd.

‘They’re sendin’ the dau’ters away from Esar Yohonda,’ a woman came in closer and spoke with a trembling voice. ‘Their daughters.’ Silence followed. ‘Somethin’ shady is goin’ on up ther’’

‘I know,’ was all she said, before walking away defeated.

Waiting until she had gone a few steps further, Hara resumed. ‘Now who’s with me?!” His cry of rally was met with a chorus of approval.

‘Hara!’ Yohonda’s look was cold and her tone so sharp it made several people stepped back. ‘Shut your mouth and come with me.’ She turned around, her voice mellowed a little, though still firm. ‘You too Kamira.’

They followed in silence until the biggest structure at the back of the village. It looked like the cupola of a great palace, missing its base and structure. Windows were closed and inside light was lacking. The floor was only made of dirt and there was no furniture, nothing but cold bare walls and draught came in here. The central room seemed vast throughout the shadows, and at the back were two corridors leading to rooms hidden behind shady curtains. Yohonda pulled over the curtain to one of the rooms and showed them in.

Kanir was already there, sitting at a round table with two men of his kind sitting next to him. Both with glowering stares and sickening marks on their shoulders and heads, though they both had locks of hair still streaming at the top of their scalps, and wore a long beard, tied with beads. They were smaller than Kanir, but bulky and unpleasant to look at. At the other end, Kamira was surprised to see the girl with blond locks, still shading her face away from prying eyes. ‘Sit down,’ Yohonda told them, walking around the table.

The room was quite small, lit only through candles in niches above head. Yohonda’s voice broke her contemplation. ‘Well,’ Yohonda started, ‘I believe you already know Hara and Kanir. This is Livie,’ she added, nodding towards the girl sitting by her side. ‘And here you have Hash and Tarma.’ The two men near Kanir stared with dark eyes. ‘We don’t have the time to explain everything to you, I’m afraid. Time is the one thing we are always lacking, despite being given plenty. But here are a few things you must know, before you decide, whether you want to stay with us or not. These lands, your homeland, were once the Kingdom of Tarushar. The capital, Arkhan, was destroyed by the King’s nephew. All for love, some say,’ she shook her head with a smirk. The years that followed have been…challenging. But now the false King is dead, and it’s our chance to bring back the rightful heir to the throne.’

Silence ensued and all eyes turned to her. ‘Is it me?’ she asked, incredulous.

Yohonda smiled and Hara scoffed. ‘No, dear. It’s someone else. Someone whose identity can’t be revealed until we are certain it is safe to do so. There is a long road ahead of us before we can even consider doing that. I know you had plans. But this world is not safe for you, not now.’

‘I can fend for myself.’

‘Not here. Niris didn’t prepare you for that. He couldn’t possibly train you against threats he didn’t know.’ She turned to Hara. ‘You have to give me time to figure out a plan for us all. We can’t rush through this blindly.’

‘We can’t wait for them to kill us in our sleep either.’

‘They don’t need to wait until we’re sleeping, Hara. They fear no one and nothing.’

‘They will crown Işvara,’ Kanir said flatly. ‘Even before Ojas’ funeral.’

‘Ojas was the false King,’ Yohonda explained to Kamira. ‘Işvara is his son. But he is not our enemy,’ she said to their surprise. ‘The Protectors are.’

‘If Ori hadn’t ruined it all, we’d have enough men to rise right now!’ Hara remarked. ‘Without her father’s support I need to find people throughout the plains, which is what I was doing!’ He wasn’t yelling, but in such a small room his forceful tone sounded aggressive and overbearing.

Yohonda lifted a finger. ‘Careful now,’ she said and the room went cold. ‘Things are hanging by a thread. You should do well to remember it is easier to make enemies than allies, a lot quicker too.’

‘Yohonda,’ Hara leaned against the table, ‘you’re not being reasonable! I need only fifty men and I can go right now and kill this bastard before he is crowned after his devil father!’

Yohonda sighed, her shoulders caving, and she sat back down. Her eyes were suddenly weary. ‘You are too young to understand what Protectors can do. How can you prepare to fight what you don’t know?’

There was a short moment of silence. ‘I know their men Yohonda, I’ve fought their soldiers. I know what’s out there!’

‘That woman, that Priestess…’ she started, her voice weak, ‘it’s nothing I’ve seen before. The things…’ she gasped, bringing her scrawny hand to her mouth. Her eyes gleamed as she closed them. Kamira instinctively looked at Kanir, he seemed worried. A strange quietness settled. She looked straight into Kamira’s eyes and then at Hara. ‘You two think you know what world we live in… you think books and faith are all you need. I’ve been in this world longer than the two of you combined, and I don’t understand it.’ She sniffled and stood up. ‘What your mind cannot comprehend, perhaps your eyes will.’

Yohonda walked out in silence, followed by them all in a macabre line of dreading souls. She opened a back door, exiting the big house until she reached a small shed with a roof of hay. The door creaked opened and inside two men stood as idle as the funeral posts Kamira had seen in the Province of the Dead. Behind them was a heavy curtain. The whole room was plunged in darkness, windows were barred, and beyond the curtain were only bare walls in a small curve of the structure.

Kamira’s eyes didn’t adjust to the lack of light right away. She thought she saw something moving, but she heard it first, a low growl like an animal in the wild. Blurry shades of a pale fabric rippled through the darkness, causing Kamira to step back. Doing so, her arm met Livie’s. The two girls looked at each other in wonder. Livie pulled on Kamira’s wrist to have her move away a little more.

Then she saw it. Eyes bulging white, cresting outside dark cavities that had once inhabited human life. The body was whole, with hands and feet, but the behaviour was none that should belong to a man or a woman. There were breasts though, and coarse long black hair, so she supposed it had once been a woman, perhaps a girl not much older than her. She shivered at the thought.

The creature pulsed into Kamira’s direction, roaring something foul, and as it moved deeper into the light, she saw the skin was dented with swollen veins, dark and multiplying beyond sight. Something grabbed Kamira out of its reach, leaving the human beast wailing, forcing on its shackles, the repeated clinging sound numbing them all.

‘It’s enough,’ Yohonda hissed, pushing everyone away and pulling down the curtain after laying a last longing look inside.

‘What is it?’ Kamira asked, dumbfounded. She slowly regained consciousness of her body, feeling fingers wrapped around her wrist she turned around expecting to see Livie, yet to her surprise it was Kanir. He stood tall and grim, behind him Hash and Tarma stared as well, but not Kamira this time. They stared at the curtain, still lost in the vivid remembrance of what they had just seen.

Kamira took her arm away. Kanir didn’t seem to notice. He and his peers were like frozen. Shortly Livie strode behind Yohonda, so did Hara, so Kamira followed them, leaving Kanir, Harsh and Tarma, in mournful contemplation.

Once outside, the faint sound of children playing with sticks nearby made the world seem alive again. ‘Will they be okay?’ she asked Yohonda.

The woman sighed. ‘A man is only as strong as his mind can make him.’ With that she started walking away, hands behind her back.

‘What was that inside, Yohonda?’

The old woman turned around. ‘It was the truth you were both waiting for,’ she said to her and Hara. ‘You think it’s only a matter of life and death…it is not. You’re not afraid of death, good. But it’s not death that awaits you once the Protectors set their hands on you. It’s something else,’ her eyes grew stern, ‘something I don’t have any words for. It’s an eternal nightmare.’

Once done, she left them in a tense quietness. Livie eyed Kamira timidly, then Hara, but he paid her no attention. As if feeling out of place, the girl went away.

Kamira stood a while by Hara’s side. Suddenly he didn’t seem like the enemy anymore. His arms were flexed, as though ready for battle, and he held his fists firmly closed. She could sense the rage boiling from all his pores, yet he remained powerless.

‘Who are the Protectors?’ she asked him.

‘Godforsaken demons, protecting the king and his false kingdom.’

‘If that’s what they do…you don’t stand a chance,’ she told him.

His eyes showered her with fury. ‘You can’t understand. You have no past, and no tomorrow. This world is not for you.’

Kamira stayed quiet. It was difficult to argue when she agreed, as much as it displeased her to agree with him. She stood with her eyes set on the horizon, dusk light enveloping grass and leaves. She observed the Haunted Woods from afar, a stem in hand, breaking it at several places. She couldn’t go back there, she told herself several times, yet she didn’t want to stay here either after seeing that she-thing.

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, 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, undisturbed. She was blind.

It would be best to leave her alone, Kamira thought, before she turned around to walk away.

‘So you have come,’ the woman said. Something of a shudder went through her body, not enough to be fear yet, but enough to stop her in her tracks. 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. She 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, knowing she was steadily turning into a prey.

‘As long as I live,’ the woman warned with her chorus of hoarse voices, ‘Arkhan will not be.’

The sound of water splashing against the ground brought Kamira back. But from where, she didn’t know. There was a blank in her mind. She couldn’t remember why she was standing outside the tavern of the inn. She recalled fainting in the Province of the Dead, and waking at Yohonda’s house, though she didn’t know how she was brought there. She slowly remembered the crowd outside the inn, Hara’s speech and…and the things she wished she had never set eyes on.

‘You’re still here?’ the voice was hostile. She turned around to see Hari, his face stern but his eyes betraying a kindness that ran deeper than his rage. Something was amiss. Kamira turned her head quickly to the side of the tavern. An old lady was praying, minding no one, yet it made Kamira feel wary, all her senses were on alert just looking at her. Why would she fear a frail old woman? She shook her head quickly.

‘I will leave,’ she muttered to Hari, and to herself, staring back at the woods.

‘Fine.’

‘You don’t like me,’ she said. ‘Why?’

Hari flushed. ‘I don’t…I don’t feel anything in particular.’

She stared at him for an instant, and then returned to the horizon. The wind lifted and with it darkness lowered the sky. Fallen leaves started to rustle at her feet and in the air. Something was off. The old woman stopped chanting. She had even disappeared. There was a crimson light, small and fluttering, swaying in between the trees of the red oaks guarding the Haunted Woods. Making a step forward, the ground hardened and cracked. It had turned to some kind of dark earth, the crack started at her foot and ran quickly, splitting the lands until it reached the woods.

Clouds were heavy and black now, filled with rain and thunder. None of it seemed real. It was all too sudden. She turned around, expecting to see that Hari had disappeared, when in fact not only was he there but a few other villagers had come out as well, dozens of worried eyes to the sky.

They heard it first, like a rolling of a hundred rocks, and then it fell. The first drop landed on Kamira’s hand. It was heavy, too heavy for rain. Several others fell before she had a chance to have a proper look, but the screaming began almost instantly. Within instant Kamira’s face was wet with black drops, raining on them all and tainting the grounds dark red.

She expected Hari to say something. Yet the boy was gazing at the sky with a blank stare, blood covering his blond hair, dripping down his cheeks. His eyes darted to hers. ‘Kamira!’

Her body jerked, as if moved by some instinct she forgot she had. Crashing at her feet was a head made of stone, the face unrecognisable, darkened with soot and deformed by heat. Soft thuds came to her ears, hurtling down everywhere around them. All faces of stone.

There was no cry from Hari, no heed for the villagers to go run for safety. Prayers were no use. Death was in everyone’s mind, and in everyone’s eyes.

 

5

The Eye of Esar

 

Kanir stood among the ruins, idle. The faces of the dead had stopped falling. Some villagers had fled before it all ended. Others had remained there, stunned. Hari was one of them. Hara stayed near him, arms crossed, eyes in a frown as he watched what he had said to be the last warning from the false heir.

When Kanir walked he didn’t look at anyone, he was followed by Hash and Tarma, all fully armed, leather bands on their torsos packed with every weapon they owned. To her surprise, they didn’t head north, where she had understood Esar, the new City, stood. Instead, they went south, towards the Province of the Dead.

‘Who are these people?’ a woman asked in a whisper as she laid a timid look at some stone faces by her foot. Her friend put a handkerchief to her mouth, grimacing, and shook her head. Kamira took a closer look. There was very little chance she could have known any of the people these stones were supposed to represent. She walked deeper into this eerie sea of rocks, and reached the spot she had been coveted a long time. There, had stood Kanir, for a while, for hours perhaps, until the sun had almost gone. She kneeled, placing two delicate hands on the stone before her. It was dark grey, still warm, but the features were nicely carved, a life-like depiction of her mother. She let go of it and looked in direction of where Kanir’s shadow was disappearing.

‘Kamira,’ Hari called out. He had tip-toed his way through, and seemed disgusted. ‘Yohonda wants to see you.’

‘Why?’

‘I don’t know,’ he muffled, she almost could have heard an “I don’t care”, but she didn’t react and followed, expecting him to show her the way. Instead, he turned around and looked surprised to see her there. ‘She’s in her session room.’

A session room? Kamira wondered. She had annoyed him enough with questions he was unwilling to answer, so she moved away and thought logically. The only two places she had gone to see the woman were the little room in the unfinished structure at the back of the village, and her own home. So she decided to try both. Reason was telling her it should be the little room, but instead she walked quietly to the old woman’s house.

She stepped in silent, and headed to the shelves at the far end. Her fingers stroking titles and spines, until she saw the kind of books she had been looking for. Heeds of Dark Magic. It was a small dark book with threads of gold running along the leather, forming roses, circles and squares. At each cardinal point were little red gems, and on the spine, was inlaid a blue one, slightly bigger. She brushed shy fingers on the sharp edges, and swayed the book open. A breeze of dust and bark smell came to her, distracting her slightly from the drawings and texts unfurling. Her hand paused on some wrinkled pages.

THE GUARDIANS’ RING

The Golden Leaf – Eye of Esar

The Chalice of All Powers

The Guardian’s Staff

The Invisible Moon

Near each title were symbols, and at the bottom a ring had been drawn, with these symbols enclosed inside some outer line. Within the ring was a figure, neither male or female, with four arms, and two legs, and further below explanations ran on both pages.

Place a white stone at each core –

A door slammed and with it her hands jerked, closing the book in an instant. It was Yohonda. Her silhouette stretching against the wall with the setting sunlight. She grinned. ‘You’re no longer in the woods. You don’t have to steal books.’

Gently Kamira replaced it among its peers on the shelf, and crossed her arms before her. ‘I apologise.’

‘You don’t have to steal, but you can ask permission.’ The old woman stepped closer, taking out a pan from above the fire. She poured hot water into mugs on a table nearby and sprinkled some leaf tea. ‘I’m sorry this isn’t the world you had imagined you would come to.’

She didn’t say a word. She loathed Niris even more. He had bruised her body and soul for nothing. She wasn’t prepared for this, and yet how could she go back to the woods? It would be like going into a barrel willingly, and wait for death.

‘Do not be scared of everything, though.’

‘I’m not scared.’

Yohonda smiled and handed her a mug. ‘Fear isn’t a sign of weakness. Cockiness is.’

Kamira sighed, and waited for her to drink before she took a sip. She had read chroniclers mention many times how one should always wait until their host had drunk before tasting a beverage. ‘We will find a way, there is always a way for good to triumph over evil.’ She sat down wearily. ‘Although I just don’t know how yet.’

‘Arkhan lost.’ She stood tall among the flames now dancing on the walls.

‘It was a battle,’ she responded. ‘Not the war.’

Kamira turned around and looked at the books. ‘Is there a way inside those books to vanquish these…Protectors?’

‘I’m afraid there isn’t.’

‘I read about…Guardians, in the dark magic book. Do they still exist or…?

‘They do. The false King made alliances with two guilds of magicians before he took down Arkhan, and stole the realm. The Guardians’ magic isn’t bound to dark spirits, contrary to what this author believed. The Protectors’ magic is. It has taken some heeds from the Guardians, and now they’re the closest to the crown. Because they went further, deeper into…what they were capable of.’

‘I don’t understand what they do, what’s the point?’

‘Power.’ Yohonda seemed surprised to answer this question. ‘My grandmother used to say the weak always need more power. They wrap themselves in mirages and deceptions. The more powerful they look, the greater the weakness. But they are so skilled in their disguise, it makes it sometimes impossible to know where to strike.’

Kamira stepped closer to the book she had taken a moment before. ‘Can I read this one?’

‘It is filled with misconceptions and old beliefs, I’m afraid it wouldn’t be of help. But may I suggest –’

A horn blared – once, twice. Yohonda tensed, her fingers crippling before her blank stare. ‘We need to hide you.’

‘What?’

Without a word she put down their mugs and grabbed her by the wrist. They exited the little house and hurried through a mayhem of people heading to the north side of the village, with axes and torches. ‘Come, child.’ Yohonda spoke in hush tones to Kamira, it reached her but barely. She had spotted someone.

‘Hari!’

There was no reasonable explanation as to why she had called him out. He stopped and stared, as surprised as she was. They looked at each other among the crowd and he came closer. ‘Yohonda…’

‘I know. I’ll make sure she’s safe.’

‘I can take care of myself. What do you think I am?’ Kamira wriggled away from Yohonda’s hold.

‘It’s them!’ Someone shouted.

‘Everybody hide!’ The old woman ordered, but to no avail. ‘We are not prepared to fight them!’

Her voice was lost through the noise of steel clinging out of their safe, daggers being drawn and arrows being lit. ‘Poor fools…’ she whispered. ‘Hari, make sure at least the children are safe.’

Hari nodded and before he left, Kamira spoke. ‘I’ll help.’

‘No, Kamira.’ His voice didn’t show contempt or the same distaste towards her as before. She watched as he grabbed a little girl’s arm and pushed her mother and baby brother away from the crowd, towards the back of the village.

Yohonda pressed Kamira forward and into the unfinished house. She told her to wait for her there, at the centre, to sit and wait, and never get out. Images of her mother asking her to hide in the woods shot back to her memory, seizing her chest with pains she wasn’t accustomed to. Yohonda left and said something, but it became a murmur. Her ears were somehow closing in, the noise surrounding her, the shouting, the clash of swords and cries, slowly turned to silence. She found herself prostrated at the centre of this unlit house, holes in the round walls where windows should have been, let in streamed of orange light.

Kamira’s head trembled. She could sense it from a distance, as though her body didn’t belong to her anymore. It couldn’t. How could she fear what she hadn’t even seen yet? She recalled herself running in the plains, towards the woods, always too far away. She remembered the fire of her city burning behind her back. Her mother’s cry. And then, the she-thing. That beast of a human those Protectors had reduced to a creature caught between life and death. With no soul, no purpose and no hope. And for what?

Hooves came. Quietly. Outside the house. The shadow of a soldier on his horse moved the flames of light entering her hiding place, distorting them, making her ill. It suddenly became colder; her fingers froze as the silhouette grew bigger by the entrance door. She stood on wobbly legs, ashamed at her own inaptitude to snap back into the warrior she was supposed to be, the fighter Niris had made of her. If he could see her now…

A shape appeared below the soldier, brandishing a sword too big for his size. The villager was hit at the shoulder first, quivering a little, turning around before smashing his weapon against the horse again, but the soldier caught hold of it, seizing the blade with the iron of his armour’s gloves. The frail man dangled in the air briefly. The soldier threw him away. Always, so calm. It was this quietness that made her feel queasy, for reasons she wasn’t sure to understand.

She ran and stepped out in plain sight, raising a dagger, hoping to wound the soldier in the flank. But she was too late. The villager had been struck through the chest and laid dead at her feet. The horse neighed and she looked over her shoulder slowly. It had red eyes, behind dark plates covering his long muzzle, and white foam was dripping out of its mouth. The smell was rancid. The soldier was as peculiar. Stiff and cold in his gait and moves. It was as if his armour was empty of life. The sole reminder that this was a living creature was seeing him motioning towards her on his strange beast.

The first thing that crossed her mind when she launched herself away from the soldier’s path, was to flee and run until her breath was no more, until she reached the Haunted Woods and hid there forever. But instead she tossed her daggers and seized the sword that had slipped from the villager’s grip. She raised it in front of her, as if holding some sort of shield, and she stared at her opponent.  He didn’t say a word. He barely moved, but he kept his face towards her. She tried hard, but couldn’t see anything past the visor.

He rapidly reached out for crescent-shaped objects with a silvery reflection. They flew in all directions, aiming at her from different angles. But that, she knew how to deal with. The memory of Niris’ training to avoid knives thrown at her resurfaced, and she blocked every blow with the blade of the sword.

The rider took that opportunity to move closer to her, drawing another weapon, a thin blade with a squared-like tip. The blade fell on her smoothly. She pulled herself away to avoid the trenchant edge that slid past her with an airy sound. She straightened up and moved around him, trying to hit him from behind but her weapon only echoed dully on his  armour. He turned his head to her and dismounted.

He landed heavily, rasping the ground with his squared-tipped sword, while he marched in her direction. She stood ready, though she wasn’t, and closed her eyes briefly to gather some courage. She knew Niris so well. She had learned to anticipate his moves. Now she knew nothing of her adversary. The only thing she was certain of was that her life hung in the balance.

He aimed for her shoulders, but she countered his strike. He then rapidly moved around, trying to hit her from above, from beneath and from the sides, but she was quick and alert enough to stop every blow. If only she could reach out for his limbs, just a touch from her fingers and she could paralyse him. She only needed a brief moment, but he was moving too fast. He left her no chance of getting closer without endangering her life.

She tried hard, yet couldn’t feel the energy flow through his body. Although she wasn’t close enough to hit for the spots able to numb his limbs, she was at a distance where she could normally sense this, but she wasn’t. She couldn’t understand what was happening. She knew he had the upper hand, as all she did was blocking his attempts to slice her open, but her mind wandered. She kept looking for a sign of life through his visor. She could see skin underneath the helmet but where eyes should be, was only darkness. At that moment he hit her hard with a fist in the chest, and he swept her feet from underneath.

In her fall, she also lost the sword, and in dismay she realised she was left with nothing to defend herself. As his weapon crashed in her direction, she rolled over swiftly and scrambled away, launching herself towards the corpse of the villager where still lay her daggers. She reached for them and swung one of her blades forward, but the thought of piercing through flesh and blood suddenly made its way into her mind, and she was unable to finish the move.

It was the glint of the rider’s blade approaching her face that took her out of her numbness. She leaned away but not before it brushed against her cheek and hair. Several of her locks fell to the ground and her bun was undone, leaving her long and heavy mane free to obstruct her every move and vision.

She was on the ground, kneeling, and confused to the point where she didn’t know what to do now. She hadn’t been trained to hurt people. She had been trained to defend herself. What was she supposed to do against that dark-eyed soldier? In a final move he lowered his sword on her, aiming for her face, when a rapid blow came to hit him from the back. His body fell in a sullen move, dead.

It was Kanir that stood behind, his weapon poised in the air, as tough time stood still.

 

 

Copyright©2016 by Jane W King

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