Those to live for, Part 4, Final Part

Those to live for, Part 4, Final Part

Story and title art by Wanda Sonnemann

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Yeul dreamt of descending into the thundering depths of hell.  Gusts of icy mist sprayed his face and pain seared through his shoulder when he tried to lift his heavy head.

Orange light was fading, the world became blue. He resigned to his fate and the promise of oblivion, drifting into darkness.

When he woke, his head was resting on his bodyguard’s padded shoulder, her arms wrapped around him while Satu and the Lady Aglaya were untying him from a harness of ropes that confined him like a net. The falls were roaring next do him, vanishing into the chasm they themselves had carved from the rock. The pain in his shoulder was numbed by the freezing dampness of his coat.

“Guardswoman Demir” he rasped. “Why am I tied up? I am still…” His voice lost its timbre. His thoughts tumbled into darkness again.
“…your Kommandān.” He finished, blinking into firelight. He was out of the harness; the falls’ thunder was a distant murmur now. He could see the stars.

“My Kommandān, Ser?” Demir inquired, her face barely visible in the light of the small fire. “Yes.” Yeul muttered, the face of the Elnure Suzmeyliak clearly in his mind. “I suspected the Black Guard’s Kommandān more than anyone else. Turns out he really was just looking out for his soldiers. A good man…” He trailed off, trying to remember his point.“ She nodded: “He is. One of the best I have ever known. And Loyal.” She met his eyes: “He would never betray us.” Her voice broke, and she looked away. “But then, I would have said the same thing about Ser Elçin only yesterday.”
Elçin. The Name hammered in his head. He could almost see that too familiar silhouette on the wall again, backlit by the burning defences, gesturing, barking orders in his youthful voice. The Guardswoman turned back towards him, her face full of remorse. “Don’t think about it now, Ser. Rest. We will have to move out first light tomorrow.” She looked towards the sky, and he followed her gaze. One of the stars was brighter than all others. Hayrenik, high up on the cliff.  Aflame.

He woke again before colour had made its way into the world. Parvena and Satu were sleeping close to the dying Fire. Aglaya was sitting next to them, shaving off chips of wood from a branch with her knife and flicking them into the flames.

Slowly grey turned into soft pink as the sun rose behind him. Aglaya relinquished the dead branch to the fire and rose to her feet. She turned back. Smoke rose from Hayrenik atop the cliff. He could see banners on the towers, grey banners instead of brightly coloured ones. Aglaya’s back grew stiff as she watched the wrong colours fly and mingle with the smoke. She still had her knife in her fist, glinting in the sun as she held it up in front of her face. With her free hand she untied her braid; her black silk ribbon fell to the ground as she combed through her tangled tresses. Strand by strand she cut them off, surrendering them to the fire. Hungry flames ate away the gold. Aglaya watched them go, watched the smoke, her final offering, her final goodbye to her home and her Grandmother before she turned away and towards the rising sun. She looked at him, sought his eyes for a mirror, or at least a similar pain. “I am sorry” he whispered, but no sound passed his lips. “There is nothing left to burn in my heart.”

Maybe she understood, but it did not ease her loss and she lowered her gaze. He struggled to his feet, looked around for her ribbon and spotted it tangled in a thorny shrub. Archers, he remembered when he reached out for it and pain shot through his body, all but forcing him to his knee.  Arrows shot in the darkness. He touched his side below the coat. Beneath his tattered, bloody shirt he felt bandages, tightly wrapped around his body.

He stumbled back to Aglaya, who stirred into motion to help him sit down.

“I’ll wake Satu” She muttered, glancing at the bandages beneath his torn clothes. He caught her wrist before she could get up.

“Do Not.” He stopped her, placing the black ribbon in her hand: “You lost this.” She took it with a faint smile; her eyes lost their sorrow for a breath.”

She will recover, he thought as he watched her tie back her hair with a band that had the Black Guard’s insignia embroidered onto it.

She was a different person now. The Lady had burned and flared into nothingness. She looked more warlike, and somehow this made her more of a noblewoman than embroidered gloves and fine dresses had ever accomplished to do. “It is almost day.” She roused the others, who were stirring next to the fire.  “We cannot stay within sight of the walls.”

Yeul had walked the desert before. He had used the canyons further downstream to battle the empire’s troops, to force them off the broken road and into the stone labyrinth, where he had lain in wait for them.

He all but expected to stumble upon their shattered weapons in the sand, remains of the pyres where his men had burned their bodies. Faces of people who had died for him appeared in his mind, but he sent them away. It had become effortless by now.

They left the canyons behind and turned north, away from the Empire’s supply routes, away from the battlefields of the past. Grey rock pillars stood like stumps of massive trees, conquered by sand and time. Dust hung in the air as if it were mist. It hid the sun, its red light barely warming the earth. His head throbbed, throat dry from the wind and his wounded flank stung, drawing the strength from his limbs but he refused to stop. Refused to be carried again.

Their steps grew weary and their faces became worn.  The wind died down to a breeze, the sun cast long shadows ere it died behind the mountains they had left behind. The dust settled down. The cold clawed at his skin until he was certain that all warmth had left his body.

There was no firewood to provide warmth and the roots of a stone-tree made for a meagre protection from the wind. Stars appeared in the dark sky, draining every bit of warmth from the rock and they huddled together like songbirds in winter, sharing Demir’s uniform cape. He fell asleep, hungry and exhausted, but somehow safe, nestled between Satu and the last of his guard, and an eternity of stars above him.

When he woke up it was completely dark, gusts of wind and dust bit in his eyes, there were no stars. Satu was gone from his side. He could not remember why he was here, lying on hard ground. There was a weight on his body he could not explain, and he was too weak to move it and to stiff to slip out beneath it. He tried to bid, to command it away, but thirst clotted his throat and no sound came out. He tried to force himself back to sleep, lassitude pressing down on him. The throbbing in his head had swollen to the point of bursting. He was alone, with, scratching, howling, tapping, growing louder. Drawing closer. He struggled to turn his head, but saw only rocks and a thin, dim moon that would soon set. A sudden Rustling right next to him startled him. Parvena Demir moved, groaning, shifting the cloak. The first breath of cold air touching his limbs was soothing, the second was painful.

„Ser, your body is on fire!” Her face was inches from his, her expression lost in the darkness. She squeezed his hand, slick with sweat. “I’ll go and search for water.”

She moved, shoving the weight from his chest, and he could hear Agalya complain in her sleep. He clutched onto the Guardswoman’s  side before she could vanish into the darkness. “Demir.” He forced out. She was warm, a shield against the wind. She was loyal. She would not leave him, not now, even though he had become so pathetic. She paused, placing a hand on his burning brow.

Someone’s arm appeared from the darkness and held him steady without effort. Satu tugged the cloak back in place and set down his satchel. “I had feared this might happen.” He muttered. “Your fever is not going to make our flight any easier.” He raised his head. “I found some Water. We can get more in the morning, so drink plenty”

The water in the canteen tasted salty, and it soothed the pain in his head. He was too weak to sit on his own, so the Guardswoman supported him while Satu put something small and coarse in his mouth. “Chew.” He said and then fed him more water, repeating the process. Chewing, swallowing. He drifted away from consciousness, back into a warmer darkness, where the healer’s voice was like a tether, a melody tying his mind to a safe haven.

Satu was searching for water among rocks that have might have been a palace in a different world. Small shrubs clung to the shadow of stone formations that were just too jagged to be the remains of walls, pillars, foundations. They were a week into the desert by now, a week since they had watched Hayrenik burn. A week without solid food. A day without water. And yet they kept going, driven by nothing but the will to live on, kept walking until Yeul had collapsed from pain and exhaustion. There was life here. Enough shrubbery to maintain a fire, animals that vanished when they sensed the vibrations of their steps. The women had gone hunting for the foot long lizards that hid among the rocks.

He could smell water hidden somewhere among the broken pillars and the memories of roots, gnarled and turned to stone, somehow similar to the shattered windows of Hayrenik’s great hall during the siege, broken beyond recognition, but still beautiful. Sometimes you found a face, or a part of a face, even though you cannot tell who it was any longer. And looming over it the sadness of its loss and the dread of knowing what the destruction of such a beautiful thing meant. He felt the same in the wasteland.

He was small among the rock formations, awed by what they might have been in a time when the land had been green. In a world without the Empire. He wandered the halls, the courtyards and parks and the wind was almost music played on long forgotten instruments. Laughter in a language dead for five centuries.

He followed an animal trail, sloping down among the forgotten trees of stone. The Fyr was pressing onto the borders of the world with a promise to turn back time. He did not stop.

He sensed the water’s icy coolness before he could see it. The pool was cut into the rock, steps too even to be natural and too rough to be carved by men vanished in the water. A single rock overlooked the pond, its foot in the water, like an ancient king.

Satu leaned down to touch the water, but his hand met ice instead. He pressed against it with his palm. The sheet was thin, it shattered beneath his weight and his arm dipped into the freezing water. Something stirred, breathed ice into his face. He pulled back. The pool remained silent beneath its cracked surface. The stone forest around him was alive for a single breath. Someone was watching. He turned around. Nothing.

He bent down again to refill the canteen, heart racing, struggling to remember why. Aglaya, Vena. Yeul. Waiting for him.

The wind picked up its pace as he made his way back trough the labyrinthine forest of stone. It howled through the clefs in the palace’s walls and violently pulled at his coat.

Parvena was skinning Lizards when he returned, and Aglaya was standing a few feet away, reluctant to help the guardswoman, who seperated meat and intestines and squeezed out the eyes, her hands slick and bloodied.  Neither of them was speaking. They had a fire going, and Yeul was wrapped in Parvena’s cloak, his mind somewhere between waking and delirium, eyes focused on the flames.

“I promised her.” He whispered from miles away as Satu knelt down next to him and uncorked the still icy canteen. “But now I am a butterfly myself. She will judge me insincere.” “She wanted you to live, above all other things.” The healer alleviated him, although he was not really sure he was referring to their fallen queen: “Allow that thought to give you solace. Drink.” Yeul held the canteen with his good arm and stared at it, startled by the cold, before he took a first cautious sip.

“Aglaya, hold its hind legs for me.”

Parvena was focused on her work with an intensity he found unsettling. Aglaya tentatively pinned down the lizards limps to the slimy stone surface. They slipped from her grip when Parvena started to pull off the creature’s skin, and the Guardswoman let out a sigh.

“Again. Hold it tight this time!”

Satu left the rest of the water close to the fire so it would lose its iciness and peeled Yeul from his cloak and coat to take a look at his injuries and drain the wound fluid from his abdomen. “It’s going to be winter soon.” Yeul lamented, gaze lost in the embers again, shivering as his skin was exposed to the air. The wounds looked better, with bloodmoth larvaes eating away the infected flesh and for the first time he could dare to wash off the bitter sweat off his patient’s skin.

“Another one, come on.” He could not remember Parvena speaking to a noble lady with so much tension in her voice, but Glaya, staring into the distance, did not even seem to notice the disrespect. The things she had seen during nights of fire and thunder were mirrored somewhere in the depth of her eyes. In the end, the smell of a freshly killed body was always the same, no matter if human or beast. “Aglaya!” Vena  called sharply, and the Lady spun around, Stammering an apology. “Glaya.” Satu called softly. “Come here.” He he cast a silencing glance at Parvena’s frustrated face and handed Aglaya his Satchel: “I showed you how to tie bandages. And make sure he drinks a lot of the water I brought.

Aglaya gave a relieved nod and rushed to Yeul’s side. The Healer rose and took the knife Parvena handed him. There was not much meat on the lizards, they would still sleep hungry. But it was better than feeding Yeul insects, and it was certainly better than nothing. He could see the same thoughts in Parvena’s eyes. She could have caught more if she had been with a seasoned soldier instead of a noblewoman who had never been in the desert.

He might have to redo the bandages later, but this way Glaya had a chance to grow. To become the person she needed to be out here. And she would learn how to hunt as well, soon hopefully, because they would not stand many more hungry nights.

Before Parvena lay Miles and Miles of flat, grey desert, the mountains they had left behind a thin, blue line on the horizon. From her Vantage point she could see the way they had come, though the wind had long since erased all proof of their passing. But still, in the distance between the rocks, the shape of a man moved swiftly forward, stopping to examine the ground, a rock, a dead shrub.

Aglaya, wearing Satu’s brown undershirt over her bright red quilted Armour, sat on the Pillar next to her. Parvena wished she would stay behind, but Satu was right. If the Lady did not accompany her on her hunt, she would never learn to carry her weight. If only she would learn to move without that presence of natural confidence Parvena had admired in that other live in Harenik. Too slowly, to loud and far too many fancy, elaborate motions. At least her aim was decent for one so inexperienced as her. Their kill of Lizards lay in a sad pile next to her. Too few, but right now the tracker worried her more and she did not dare to hunt.

He was absurdly accurate in his path. He stopped at a rock she might have touched in her struggle to stay on her feet while carrying Yeul when they had first arrived in the area. She had barely noticed it, but he examined it, as if she had left her mark on the surface in bright, burning colours.

Then he froze, and stared into her direction. She sat motionless, staring at him, several hundred steps away, in disbelief. He turned back to the rock, and the trail that should have been erased by the never-stopping wind. Slowly he edged closer and closer to their hiding place, but he did not look into her direction as again. She gestured at Aglaya to stay down, her voice a thin hiss: “Someone is following us. Don’t move.” The Lady turned pale and stared into the distance in disbelief, not yet detecting the Tracker.

She slipped of the rock, loosing sight of the tracker for a moment. He had turned into the rough direction of their camp by the time she could see him again. His coat and colours were painfully familiar, he wore his shaggy hair in a high ponytail. She regretted not taking Aglaya’s crossbow with her.

Satu was walking among the might-have-been palaces again, the path and the shapes of the rocks had become familiar in a matter of days.It had grown cold; the wind had frost in its breath. Tiny grey birds, no bigger than insects were dancing on the wind like snow, their song was a clear, screeching chirp, so soft it might have been just in his mind. Snow covered the pool like a blanket; the ancient king leaned over the water, reaching down to its surface with his left. Beneath the cracks his face looked timeless, eternal. He wore a crown of carved flowers. Icicles were hanging from them and from his brow, giving him a wild, grim expression.

Satu broke the inch-thick ice to fill the canteen, and wrapped shards of ice in a bandage, putting it in his satchel to take back with him. He tore himself from the pond, back towards the path he had come.

The palace took his breath away. It was ruined, its pillars encrusted in ice, snow obscured the murals on the worn down walls. Each of its window-holes had the size of the main gate of Hayrenik, some of them still had glass in them, fine latticework with bits of translucent colour in between. No crafter in Yurrde could ever have accomplished such grandeur.

The path he remembered was all but gone, blocked by towers and walls and a thicket made from ice crystals. He touched a crystalline branch and it shattered. Did the closest tower look familiar, with its bay window to one side? Didn’t the path lead right past it? He shoved away another branch, and from the splinters rose a swarm of the birdlike things that attacked him with fierceness far greater than their size, their chirps so accusing he had to cover his ears. They fluttered in front of his eyes in a furious cloud, swooping towards him with their sharp beaks, shattering into snow on collision with his face, but there were always more, rising from the branches. He turned away, covering his face with his arm. The wind made his eyes teary, and he stepped closer to the towers behind him, towards the arching gate. He noticed blood on his sleeve, but the birds refrained from attacking him as long as he stayed away from the thicket they seemed to be a part of.

He was freezing, the constant draft and the lack of his undershirt only served to drain more heat from his body. The magnificent walls provided only meagre protection from the wind, and the swarm of angry flutters followed him wherever he went, through hallways, and alleys, and more hallways that seemed to extend forever until he lost all sense of direction and his sight had grown dim, as if he were looking through a veil. He rested a hand on the rough wall to keep his balance, took another step, and closed his eyes to quell the welling panic in his heart. A drop of cold water hit his hand, then another. Confused, he opened his eyes and saw dark stains on his satchel, where he had stored canteen and ice sheets. Melting ice sheets. He looked up, and was surrounded by rock formations again; worn by the wind and the ages they might have, or might not have been a palace once. The sky was turning pink. He had strayed too far west, but he recognized the rock formation close to their camp. He looked back. No snow, no bushes and no fluttering things made of ice.

He only found dust covered emptiness instead of the camp he had left in the morning. Parvena’s worn cape lay deserted next to the fireplace, and he took it, scanning for signs, footsteps, anything, but found only the marks of his own, dragging feet as he circled the area once, twice, but it remained deserted. “How long was I lost?” he muttered, remembering strange fairy tales from his childhood where years would pass in a matter of a breath. He wrapped the tattered cape around him, sitting next to the circle of rocks that had been a lively fire when he had left. Loneliness crashed into him like a wave, and tears burned in his eyes. Blindly he leaned towards the fireplace, held out a hand and drew it back in haste.  The ashes, covered by a thin layer of sand were still warm. They had not been gone for long.

He wiped away unwept tears and, cursing himself for his mindlessness set to climb the Boulder in whose shadow they had hidden themselves, the same shape that had lead him back here, hope nourished by the ashe’s warmth burning in his heart.

Before him lay the forest of stone, a labyrinth of rock and sand. Empty. The embers in his heart died down as the loneliness, the abandonment came crashing into him again.

“Yeul.” He cried out, no longer sure if the pain he felt was physical or in his mind. “Glaya. Parvena!”

Vena, his own Voice echoed back from the rock pillars, and a shiver went down his spine. Yeul was barely able to sit on his own, let alone walk. What if he had not left on his own? Thoughts of wild animals, drawn by the smell of not yet healed wounds came to his mind, and of stranger things. Birds made of ice, with beaks as sharp as needles. Of nameless beings in the dark, beneath Hayrenik, on the bottom of that pond beneath the ice. Of childhood fairy tales. Fear froze his heart.

He collapsed on the rock, tired, ravenous. Sadness was etched into the land, some his own, some ancient, and some strange but familiar. Hayrenik burning, leaving a trace in the Fyr. Butterflies and broken promises. Unwept tears, drawing him north as if tied to him by a spider’s thread. He struggled to stand again, closed his eyes and took a careful step.

Aglaya abandoned her vantage point, overwrought of being irrelevant. She could see the tracker every once in a while, and she tried to guess where Parvena might be. Croosbow at the ready, she left her Lizards, afraid their might hinder her and betray her movement, and crept from one jagged pillar to the next. They were like foul teeth, reaching for a sick, yellow sky. The Tracker halted again. He knew he was not alone; Parvena circling around him had apparently confused him. He stopped at random, turning around, freezing, as if he were listening He had turned directly towards her twice, and each time her heart had stopped and all thoughts had ceased. She held her breath, and empty shell that did not even feel fear, but he failed to spot her each time, although she was cowering close to him now, and could see his coat from behind. Demir Colours.

A Voice rang out in the Distance, a wailing Cry, Thrice, different Sounds. Satu was calling their names from far away. The Tracker froze, in a single breath he abandoned his search and turned to run towards the sound. Parvena stept out from behind a rock next to him, greeting him with forced cheerfulness. “Hey there, fellow Klansman. You are far from Fast Rivers and Green Pastures.” He froze, and turned slowly, like a wild creature turned towards her. “Parvena.” He greeted her, and for a single breath she thought he was Satu, but the resemblance crumbled when he spoke again: “I am lucky to have found you. The matriarch sent me to bring you back.” Still, he seemed familiar; maybe she had seen him at a feast, or during the siege. The closer she looked, the more she wondered how she had thought him similar to Satu, but when she glanced away the resemblance was there, somehow, although she could not name it. Maybe Parvena saw it too, because she relaxed, just a bit.  “So she is still alive. That is the first good news I have had in a while.” “She is well, considering, but she regrets sending you away like this. How is Yeul?”A Shiver ran down Aglaya’s spine. Friend or Foe, she thought. What had driven Satu to scream out their names like that? What if they had already found Yeul? Traitor or worthy of Trust? Parvena was quiet for a long breath, maybe the same thought was in her mind, too. “He didn’t make it.” She answered, Voice empty and brittle. “Yeul is dead.”

The man’s face collapsed, his eyes went wide with shock. Real Panic. “What? But he can’t… we…” He caught himself, lowered his head in grief: “This is a hard blow to us, and one we dealt to ourselves to boot. The matriarch will be devastated by this news.” His voice was shaky; he hid his face in a hand. “I wish we could at least bring home his ashes.” Parvena nodded gravely. “I failed my every way possible. I am not worthy to return home without him.” “Are there just the two of you?” The man asked, turning towards Aglaya, who realized with a shiver that she had stood out in the open for the whole conversation. “There are three of us.” Parvena said softly: “The third, it was him you heard cry out.” “I see.” The Tracker replied, trailing off, distracted “All is lost now.”

 “What about the Empire?” Parvena inquired: “What about the Traitor?”

“Something that cannot be told with few words” He said: “I will tell it to you, maybe it can give you purpose again, but let us seek shelter from this wind. I left my horse back there.” He gestured towards the path he had come. Parvena nodded, turning away, setting one foot in front of the other, still tense, but her need for his story seemed to overrule her caution. The man cast another glance back at her before he  followed the Black Guard, and Aglaya fell in behind them, Crossbow on still in Hand, safety off, trying to remember why this man’s face was important. It was not Satu. Something else… She took a step, then it hit her: An Arbalest, in an eroded window hole. A bolt, buried deep in the wood of Parvena’s shield. That same face with its shaggy beard and flat nose. She raised the crossbow, and fired. Parvena spun around at the jarring sound, she watched him fall face down, half her face slick with blood, bits of bone sticking to her gambeson, her neck, her arm. Her hand went to her sword. “What did you…” She started, breathless, aghast. “It was him.” Aglaya shrieked; voice high pitched, too little air to really shout. The blackish hole in the nape of his neck was dwarfed by the pool of red that had gathered around it. Blood, bits of… something and it smelled… “It was his face.” She tried to breathe in, sucked in the cold air but still felt like suffocating. “He shot at Yeul at Hayrenik.” Each new breath stank more. It was like she was inhaling blood. “He wanted to kill us.” Anger darkened Parvenas face. She could see bits of his skull. “Aglaya! That was reckless!” His face was just… gone in an instant. “It was him! That’s why I killed him” She screamed, fuming, tears in her eyes. “You almost hit me. And he had information we needed!” “I don’t care!” “Never do something like that again! Do you…” She stopped dead, mid sentence, eyes growing wide. “You didn’t see him back then.” Glaya hissed. Parvena didn’t react. He voice was suddenly quiet, forcibly calm “Glaya. There are likely more of them. They’re going to look for him. They will have heard us.”

The realisation froze the frenzy in Glaya’s blood. She clutched her crossbow. “What do we do?”

“Hide the body. Fast.”

She did not look at him as Parvena dragged his remains into the closest array of rock pillars. His body left an ugly, bloody scratch in the dusty ground, and she shed Satu’s shirt, threw it in the dust and dragged it behind her, whirling up sand fanning motions, obscuring the trail. It wasn’t good enough. She wanted to get out again, away from the body and the smell, away from the memory, but Parvena, still covered in blood grabbed her sleeve and motioned her to reload her crossbow.

It took three attempts to cock it again. She was painfully aware of her bright red clothing, but Satu’s shirt was stained with a disgusting mixture of blood and sand. Parvena stood pressed flat against the wall, put a finger on her lips and slowly unsheathed her sword.

Aglaya risked a glance back to where the dust she had raised still was settling. There were four of them. Yurrde soldiers, in their coloured klan coats. She looked up at Vena again, who nodded, face grim and held up three fingers, then two, one, and she stepped out of cover, blade bare.

Glaya’s bolt hit the first one, a man of her own clan the moment he looked up. He went down, trying to draw his sword but the bolt in his chest mad his effort a futile one. His face a mask of agony, he fell facedown, driving the bold deeper into his body. She ducked, working on the cocking mechanism with sweaty hands. Steel hit steel. A female grunt of pain made her wince, the mechanism snapped back. She looked up. Parvenas movements were a blur as she fought with two of them at once. The fourth was running towards their pack horse. By the time she had finally finished cocking the crossbow the woman had untied the horse and was about to climb into the saddle. She aimed, carefully, and fired.

The bolt missed. A cry of frustration escaped her throat as it vanished without doing damage and Parvena whirled around, avoiding the opponent’s short spear she smashed into him, shoulder hitting his chest and tore the spear from his grip without stopping. A single fluid throwing motion while running and it hit its mark with a slumping noise and threw the fleeing woman against the horse. The animal screamed in panic. Steel bit into Parvena’s side from behind

The Black Guard froze for the blink of an eye when she was hit, eyes going wide, mouth tensing. She flung around, teeth clenched and her blade barely blocked the second strike, and attacked again. But she seemed slower now, her movements more sparse, avoiding stretching and bending. The Man was still fumbling for his sword.

Aglaya tore her gaze from the dance of death, heart thumping, and went back to reloading. The man got his sword out, cast a glance at Parvena, but then turned towards her, the easier target. The string, slick with sweat from her own hands slipped off the not when she tried to secure it. She tried again, but he came closer at an alarming rate and she thought better and ran, following her own blurred path from earlier. She barely avoided the corpse of the tracker, turned around and her pursuer’ eyes went wide in shock as he recognized the faceless body. He came at her with a roar of anger and fled behind the body and threw the only thing she had left, her crossbow at him. He caught it, but his sword slipped from his grip.

 He stared at her, regaining his balance, and his eyes went wide as he recognized her: “Lady Aglaya.” He stammered: “Why in the ancestors’ name are you here.” She gritted her teeth, trying to find an answer. “Why are you?” She lamely asked instead, but held his gaze. She knew him, remembered his boastful personality, but not his name. “Is this your Idea of honouring your the ancestors with your deeds.” She asked more forcefully, trying to fuel some of her gradnmother’s regal tone into her voice. He hesitated. Blood came out his mouth instead of an answer. “There is no honor treason.” Parvena growled, her face shining with sweat, body still half hidden by the rocks, and yanked her blade out of his back.

The world spun. She remembered his name now, his dead eyes, his jaw line. A distant cousin. She had known him since childhood, hated his boastful personality. Her vision swam, she tasted bitterness in her mouth.

Parvena caught her before she toppled. “It is over, Lady Aglaya.” She hushed, and all the anger flowed from her voice, useless and forgotten, as she held her close. “They’re gone.” Glaya drew in air. The smell of fresh sweat mixed the stench of death; but she buried her face in the stained gambeson nonetheless, breathing hard. Suffocating. Breathing faster. Everything, from the evening sun to the grey dust was too bright, too intense. Going rapidly, gone in an instant, just like the lives of the five people that lay in the dust, because of them. “Easy.” Parvena hushed. “I am with you. Breathe slowly, with me.”

Glaya’s eyes burned, she tasted salty Tears, finally. As if a dam had broken to wash away all the gore. Parvena’s voice was trembling. “I keep forgetting just how young you are. I swear, it was the hunger speaking all these ill words to you.” Her voice, her closeness slowly effaced the horror, because who could come to harm while she held you? Glaya let out a wail of relief, clutching the guardswoman tighter, sinking into her embrace. She suddenly remembered black armour gleaming in the last sunlight, and eroded window holes. How much softer the Black Guard felt when she was no longer clad in steel. But how much harsher she had grown here, covered in dust. Parvena had always stolen glimpses into the high nobility’s lives, dreaming, spear in hand of spinning among them on the dance floor, to be a part of the klan warrior’s boasting and the courtiers admiration. Out here she was a soldier, her childish dream left in that burning castle. Glaya felt like a part of that dream, running after her, stomping her feet and demanding attention.

She was warm. “I will learn.” She promised the Guardswoman, “I do not want to be a burden in this.” “I know.” Parvena’s reply was stifled by tears. “You know what? These people are bound to have brought supplies. Maybe their ill arrival here will make our flight easier for a short while.” She released Glaya from her embrace. “Wait at our lookout tower. You don’t have to see this again.” Glaya fought down her nausea and shook her head. “I killed them, because they are traitors. I would kill them again. They deserve their fate” Parvena, met her eyes, red with tears, and raised a hand to tenderly wipe the tears from Aglaya’s face with her thumb. She gave a grim smile: “You are right. Every one of them does.”

The second look was no easier than the first. Their faces were all but torn apart by the pain. Their death wounds gaping chasms of blood. The man she had shot first had not died right away, he was still drawing short ragged breaths, puking blood with her bold buried deeply in his lung. Parvena ended him with an efficient motion and he was still. She wiped off the blood on his stained trousers. His boots had Satu’s size.

Their packhorse had run off in panic, trampling the woman who still had the short spear buried in her back, and it taken most of the supplies with it, but the woman had dragged a second canteen down with her, and one of the smaller saddle bags. She had a knife and a warm shawl. They found some of the dried rations the klansmen used and a bag of grain for the horse in the bag.

They laid them to rest among the rocks, laying a single rock on each of their chests. They only stood in silence for a moment after their work was done. This was all respect the traitors deserved. She turned away, weeping not for them this time, but for herself, and the last bit of childhood she had lost.

Yeul was crying, trying to stop because it felt not real, hypocritical even, but there was nothing else he could do. He was kneeling in the dust, thinking he was supposed to be dust himself. Did the dead earth of the desert feel pain? Did it mourn what it had lost?

His mind had woken from the fever dreams. What had been a nightmare in the back of his head, too terrible to be fully realized was sharp and clear in the face of lucidity.

He had fought for years. He had sacrificed the people he was trying to protect so their children might live. Then he had sent those children to die, so Hayrenik would stand a little while longer.

Hayrenik was dust now. Tears and slime where dripping off his chin, drawing patterns in the sand. He saw faces in them, staring at him. He had sent so many to their deaths. They had known, of course, but they had smiled and faced their end for him. For their home. And he had lost it.

There was no comfort to that truth. Yet as he knelt, freezing, at the end of a life he felt something softening the pain, like his father’s embrace that could make him cry away his nightmare. He let it happen, because he did not have the strength to fight back. Because it was hope, where there should have been none.

Tien Magic, his mind told him, he is using magic on you. I should send him away, he thought. He didn’t. He could see him now, standing at the edge of his Vision. “I should feel this despair.” He whispered instead, hoping the words would be lost in the wind: “It is mine. It is all I have left.”

“I know.” The Healer answered. Yeul suddenly saw another Tien’s face in his mind, remembered her Power over him. Satu was the same, only different.

Something was ripped away from him, painfully, like clot of blood blocking a vein. He remembered all of them. Ilea, with all her strangeness he had learned to trust since childhood, Sevan who had changed so much with every day, Eldar with his sharp tongue and even sharper eyes and Lucineh, with her scarred face and hidden bitterness. He collapsed under the weight of the pain their memory caused him, and agony flowed from him like the blood he so desperately needed to survive.  Satu had taken a step towards him.

Yeul struggled to get up, but his arm refused to support his weight, muscle spasms searing through his body. “Leave them alone.” He screamed. “They are a part of me.” His icy fury met Satu’s warm, sad eyes and he growled “You have no right to dig open their graves.” Breathing was a struggle. Sadness flooded him, the warm kind of pain that understands. “I can’t” Satu whispered, and Yeul could see tears in his eyes. “I am sorry.” He ripped away another clot away. Another dam broke. Another wall he had erected to protect himself. He was nine years old again. “No.” He howled.

“But it’s not your fault.” Satu voice was like thunder to him. “You are part of a world you cannot control. A reality that is never fair. You have to accept that.”

“You are…” The Tien pulled at his words, pulled away his breath “..wrong.”he forced out. He was nine years old again, and Tsiuri was dying. He promised her he would fight the Gods so they would spare her, a child’s ignorance. Their mother had to restrain him during her Funeral, because he would not accept his sister’s death.

He was sixteen years old, carrying his father’s sword into battle for the first time, although he had only died a week after Tsiuri. The hill Klans were raiding their transport, taking them as slaves, killing their horses. Yeul killed this first enemy that night. It was not him who dealt the death blow, but his plan, that crazy Idea in his head that killed them all, and saved their own. They started to call him a Strategist only a year after that.

He was twenty-seven years old, and sending his closest friends to die. The Empire was on their doorstep, and he would stop it, its vast horde nobody could hope to crush. But the four people he cared about the most were lost in the storm.

He was back on in the desert, back on the ground. Satu held him pressed to his chest. The beating of his heart so close to his own was like the drumbeat of a dance of death. He remembered the melody they had played at his sister’s funeral. He had cried that day as well, moving in the circle of dancers, Ilea’s hand locked with his, her eyes red with tears.

He started to sing, broken words, the melody from his memory, lost, like a single drop of rain.

He could see Parvena Demir and the Lady Aglaya standing a few steps away between the rock pillars, keeping their distance. His voice gained power, and the melody poured from him. He let himself be carried by the water, verses coming back to him, climbing higher and higher. He could feel the vibration of Satu’s deep voice following him, diverting from his and falling into tune again. He could see Demir’s lips moving, her eyes glistening.

Their song became a river, and he could hear the Waterfalls beneath Hayrenik again, and Satu’s heartbeat was like cannon fire in the night. He closed his eyes, trying to remember how the song ended. Tsiuri had always sung it differently. His Voice broke, and he lost the tune. The sudden silence seemed like true death to him, and he opened his eyes to the bright evening sun, blinded and confused by the light. Parvena was kneeling in front of him, smelling of blood, her face full of remorse. With one she gathered dust as if they were the ashes of hayrenik, with the other she wiped of his tears. “May they find peace among the ancestors on the other side.” She whispered, touching his temples, smearing them with mud. He choked. “May they cross that bridge dancing.” He finally answered the liturgy.

He stood, shaking, the world blurred and spinning, but so much clearer at the same time. Satu slowly took a step back, allowing him to stand on his own. The Black Guard smiled at him, a small smile, but genuine. Aglaya clung to her side. Trust. It was there, somehow, inside him. Satu mirrored it back at him, or he would not have noticed, and he recognized it as his own. “North.” He whisperd, and remembered he had a voice. “If we go north from here, we can reach the Lands east of Ekh. Empire Territory, but at least they will not expect us to go there.

Trust, he thought, watching the approval on their faces. Each of them. Even after all this, they follow where I go.

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Those to live for, Part 3

Those to live for, Part 3

Story and title art by Wanda Sonnemann

Part 1

Part 2

Yeul woke. The memory of a sudden flash of light was still etched into his vision. Something was wrong.

More than a week had passed since the Matriarch had declined the Empire’s ultimatum. A week of tracking enemy movement and planning their own, of skirmishes on Hayrenik’s walls and secret operations in the night, a week of black armoured guards following him like a shadow. A dire premonition appeared in his mind, but he could not attach a name to it, no matter how hard he tried. The fortress would not fall through cannon fire and siege towers.

He called for Guardswoman Demir, but the dark warrior was already alert, grabbing her Helmet and shield while rushing to the door. The inner castle was in turmoil. Armoured feet rattled through the hallways, artillery fired continuously. The western tower was on fire. The sound of clashing blades rang out from the courtyard. Someone shouted from the battlements. Something exploded inside the walls.

The castle was already in chaos, yet nobody had woken him. There was another explosion. He started to run. He passed the castles greatest trebuchet, which was lying in a heap of splintered wooden beams and burst metal plates.

When he arrived in the courtyard the fighting was over. The matriarch was lying on the ground, breathing heavily, shielded by the Black Kommandān and his Guard. Satu was by her side.

“They are in!” She rasped. Her trembling hand pointed at the man shouting from the battlements. Her other arm was gone, replaced by tight bandages with blood already seeping through. “We have been betrayed! Elçin has sold us to the Empire.” Yeul knelt next to her; rage welling up inside him, anger at himself.

Elçin. Just a boy when he had been taken to the empire as a price for a brittle peace and still young when the Matriarch had ordered her strategist to bring her people’s children back. Elçin had seemed so at home in the ancient halls of Hayrenik. He had followed Yeul everywhere, had all but begged him to be taken as his squire. Had he been a spy even back then, hiding behind a child’s innocence? Or had treason germinated in him like mold in a damp wall as he grew into a man? He swallowed the remorse that clotted his throat.  “What do you need me to do?”

She glared at him. “I need you control yourself! You are no use if you act rashly!”

He took a breath, taking in the smell of smoke, blood, and the damp stone beneath his feet. He couldn’t read Satu, who was holding the Matriarchs’s remaining arm, but he noticed the fear in Parvena Demir’s face, something she had never allowed to surface before. There was anger but also dread in the faces around him. He sealed his own fury beneath ice and asked again: “Do you need me to take control of the Situation?”

“I need you” the matriarch hissed: “To vanish! They are murdering my people. I cannot stop them. You cannot stop them.” She took a deep, rattling breath. “I am going to hand them my crown at first light today. They are going to spare most of the Klan. They are not going to spare you.” She let her head fall back, spoke without looking at him: “Leave now! This is all I can do for you.”

He was frozen in place, unable to tear his eyes from the ruined woman even he had believed unbreakable.  “Go!” The Matriarch barked at him, but he didn’t hear. Guardswoman Demir next to him shook her head. “We cannot,” She lamented: “Abandon you. We cannot turn our back to our people.”

“I will stay by your side and face the end.” He told her. “If the morning brings my death, so be it. But until then I will make their victory as hard a prize as I am able to.” He rose: “Night Komandān Tural! How is the situation at the Gate? Gather all that is left of the outer defences! Ailar Komandān Günay, you are in charge of putting the fires out. Vērten Komandān Tarana, your people man the remaining trebuchets. Throw them off the outer wall.”

“Elçin has used all his knowledge for them.” Matriarch hissed at him, “He learned well and he learned from the best. I order you to leave.” He ignored her, listened to the Demir Komandān instead.

“Someone” The Matiarch shouted. “Make him leave. I do not wish him to die for my mistake.” I should have seen his heart, his mind raced. He could see the Traitor on the Wall. Someone grabbed his arm. Satu was standing next to him now, his expression blank. “I am sorry” he mouthed as Yeul felt his limbs go numb as if he was being held by spider webs. He had no power left when Satu pulled him away from the matriarch, away from the crowd. Parvena Demir stared at them, baffled, taking a few uncertain steps after them, and then looking back. “Even if we run, we cannot get out,” he mouthed to the healer next to him. “It was Elçin who blocked the northern path. It must have been him from the start.” “We have to try.” Satu refuted. “We are few, so maybe we can slip past them.

“There is a way”, Parvena cried out from behind them, prompting even Satu to turn around in surprise. “The Lady Aglaya told me about it last night. She should be able to guide us”

A young noblewoman kneeling next to the matriarch looked up. He had seen her during the siege, always close to his Guard. She had picked up a crossbow somewhere in the battle; her well-made quilted armour was stained and torn by now. She had lost her helmet.

“Is that true?” The matriarch demanded to know. “I will get them out.” The lady nodded, shaking. “Aglaya,” muttered the ruined ruler, doubt in her eyes. But the girl spoke with certainty: “I know a way. I will lead them out safely, this I swear.”

“Then go with my blessing.” The Matriarch replied, her voice tiring: “I have nothing to give you for your journey save that you already take with you. Yeul’s live is now in your hands.”

The lady bowed in to the matriarch, and then turned towards him. Her face was somewhat wild; with eyes that where almost scary. Eyes that told him “Follow me.” Eyes that did not allow for a debate. Satu was standing close behind her. “Demir.”He uttered: “We retreat.” The Black Guardswoman nodded, and it was a deadly blow, like the final breath. People made way for them, and they exited through their midst like a funeral procession.

“Yeul Sarvirakan died in the collapse of the western tower.” The matriarch announced. “May his soul find peace in the Fyr.” He turned back one more time, unfastening the belt that held the klan blade. “If that happened, this should be found in the tower, blackened and burned.” He handed it to the Night Komandān, then turned away and left without meeting their eyes, not looking back again.

Parvena followed the lady in the colourful quilted armour, barely recognizing Aglaya after only a week of the siege. The strategist was walking next to her. Every solemn step away from the courtyard hammered in her heart with all the finality of an actual death. For a bodyguard whose ward had died there was no place in the world.

The world she had lived in had ended, she pondered grimly as she climbed the stairs toward the cave castle, watching the smoke on the outer battlements. The matriarch had ended it with words.

Aglaya, leading them, was swallowed by the crevice that had been Hayrenik’s gate centuries ago. They passed by the hallway of wind-eroded window-holes, but the kiss between Lady and Guard seemed to belong to a different life now. To another Parvena, who had not known what duty truly meant.

The siege had changed Aglaya, given her new eyes and a stranger’s face, always tired, spurring from sleep from every new explosion, every draft of black powder smoke. After a few days she had picked up a crossbow sometime when Parvena had not been looking. Her aim was as true as despair could make it and half of the bolts in her quiver where the enemy’s, pulled from their own fallen soldiers whenever she found them.

The suave woman who had bent the rules of the court because she could had become a fighter who was more at home among wounded soldiers and simple clansmen than her own kin.

They descended through another ruined arc into the darkness. Parvena had rarely ventured here. It was a place of secret dalliances and drunken dares to her, but Aglaya seemed to have roamed farther than the first few levels of the ancient cave city.

When the sunlight had vanished completely she pulled a torch from her quiver and lit the hallway, counting the door holes they passed, leading them down more stairs, another hallway, yet more stairs. No one spoke, the torchlight painted glistening patterns on Parvena’s armoured gloves. There was no sense of time except for Aglaya’s torch burning down and being replaced. Their steps slowly turned into a trudge. It was like the journey to one’s grave; growing colder the deeper they climbed.

Then the lady stopped, raising her fist in a soldier’s fashion. “We should rest here. Otherwise one of us will fall down the next flight of stairs.”

She had prepared for this possibility after her mistake the night before, Parvena realized. She had brought the torches, and a rope hung from her quiver. She also carried a canteen and a bundle from which she pulled black bread, apples and cheese. Satu found the remains of some ancient furniture in one of the hallway’s alcoves and lit a fire that burned with little smoke and drove the cold from Parvena’s bones.

It was Yeul who broke the silence. “Your name is Aglaya, is it not? How do you know these Tunnels so well? And how comes it you never thought of sharing this information with me?” The lady was staring into the fire, tired eyes filled with guilt; dust in her braided hair and on her shoulders.  “I was planning to tell you.” She sighed, her voice higher than normal: “I only remembered last night.”

“I needed to know.” Yeul growled. “If I had known I could have used this path, with the north road cut off.” He trailed off. “It is too late for that now. How can there even be a tunnel that leaves Hayrenik without the Matriarch’s approval?”

Aglaya calmed down, but her eyes were still full of remorse. The firelight made her face soft and warm, more like the woman she had been only weeks ago. “This place is ancient. I came here often, I guess. To be alone. Whenever someone I did not like came to visit my Grandmother, I would vanish, sometimes for days at a time.” A smile crept across her face. “There were a lot of my grandmother’s guests I did not like.”

  “If you had known,” Satu reminded him bitterly, “Elçin would have known as well.” His voice had lost its harshness when he addressed Aglaya. “I could not have imagined you might have come this deep. Did you explore the cave city all by yourself?” Aglaya laughed, a quiet, bubbling sound. “There are some all but forgotten books in the library. Nobody was interested in them save for me. My mother would be furious at me, and made me swear never come down here again. And I would disappear again the next day. Then I grew up, and I learned to live through all the feasts in the matriarch’s hall, and my mother was happy.” Her eyes were glistening with sadness. “I guess she is dead now.” She stared into the flames again.

The fire burned down to embers, but none of them rose to find more wood. Parvena could see her own despair, a people’s ruin mirrored in Yeul’s and Aglaya’s faces, and Satu didn’t seem to be with them at all. Had he, she wondered, after years of control over his Tien Mind broken down again, and was now lost somewhere outside reality?

She broke the silence, unwilling so fade just yet: “And these Tunnels go all the way to the roots of the Mountain?” she coaxed the lady. “There was a map sketch in a book.” Aglaya explained, waking from her stupor “Beneath the city there is a lake, an eerie place. I searched it out, years ago. And the water from the lake goes into the river at the foot of the mountain. “The Falls beneath the Castle.” Yeul said, voice trembling as he realized what that meant: “We knew about them, of course.”

“I found the tunnel described in the book.” Aglaya continued, “I still remember it, so I should be able to find it again.” “How far is?” Parvena asked and Alglaya drew a deep breath, considering. “I guess…”

Satu waking from his fire-dream, vaulted to his feet in a frenzy so violent it sprayed dust all over them. “I hear footsteps.” He hissed, his gaze still unfocused, his body tense. Parvena held her breath as listened listened to the echo of armoured boots coming closer. “Extinguish the Fire” She uttered, pulling the remaining logs apart and stepping on the embers while Aglaya gathered her bundle together. The Hallway grew pitch-black when they buried the fire’s remains beneath the dust. But she still could see a fire’s reflection in the Arch on top of the staircase. “Hide in the alcoves.” She breathed, grabbing Yeul and diving into the emptiness where Satu had found the firewood. The footsteps had grown louder now, and they were many. She could hear Aglaya removing the safety of her crossbow. The heaviness of her own sword was in her hand. “Vena” Aglaya muttered, “Your armour makes a noise when you breathe.”

She could hear shouting on top of the stairs and tried to breath more quietly. Elçin, she recognized the voice. The Traitor had followed them. He led his soldiers down the steps, his torch revealing the fire’s remains. “They were here, not long ago.” He announced and his people spread out around him. They blocked both directions of the hallways and edged closer and closer to the alcoves they were hiding in. Then the woman in front of her gasped in pain and collapsed, a bolt sticking out of her throat. Aglaya had jolted out of her Alcove next to them and was diving towards a hole across the hallway, Satu half a step behind her. Parvena grabbed Yeul’s sleeve and dashed towards the man blocking her path, crashing her armoured shoulder into his jaw.

“Stop them!” Elçin shouted, but she was faster. She kicked dust in one soldier’s face when he turned to attack her and slashed another’s neck when he grabbed Yeul’s coat. Still holding onto the Strategist’s arm she ran into the darkness.

Satu ran through the darkness. There was nothing around him and yet there was a mountain around him. He closed his eyes without slowing his speed. The sound in his ears was all footsteps. Aglaya’s light boots in front of him, slowing down and speeding up in a frantic pattern. His own wrapped boots thundering in his ears in accord with his breathing and his heartbeat, threatening to swallow all other noise. Parvena’s armoured boots still too far away from him, followed by Yeul’s. He could hear the traitor shouting orders. The soldier’s footsteps were like a rainstorm echoing in the tunnel. He could smell dust but also water. He could feel the weight of the mountain around him, but he also sensed a faint draft that was not due to him running. The draft which promised underground streams and waterfalls.

Someone shouted and arrows were shot with a jarring sound and hit Parvena’s armour, metal on metal. They hit flesh and he could hear Yeul cry out in Pain. He could smell blood and burning wax. He could sense fire blaze up behind him. He felt a presence in the Fyr awaken, pressed his body flat to one wall of the tunnel and held his breath until Parvena had clattered past him, dragging Yeul along. He pressed his face into the rock, listened to Elçin’s heartbeat through the stone, tasting the water droplets on the rough surface. He drew breath and opened his eyes, shouting down silver paths hidden to most people. The soldiers’ torches blazing through the Tunnel exploded into thunder and steam. The Rock became alive, bursting, crashing down on them.

Aglaya zigzagged through the tunnel, stumbling from wall to wall. It was no longer completely dark, far behind her the soldier’s torches reflected on the damp rock, but her own shadow blocked her view.

Then she heard Yeul’s cry of pain, turned around against better judgement, drew a bolt from her quiver and aimed the way she had come. Parvena’s glistening silhouette appeared, her Hand clamped firmly around Yeul’s arm, pulling him along after her. She waited, for Satu and for the first Soldier to come into her field of view.

Something crept past her, towards the soldiers. Something massive, snakelike, something cold as ice. Something she could not see in the flickering firelight.

“Run!” Parvena shouted, but she waited for Satu to finally appear.

Then the tunnel became dust, and thunder and rubble and darkness. A hand, cold with sweat grabbed her wrist and yanked her into motion, away from dust and collapsing rock. She followed blindly, away from the cave-in and the thing that had caused it.

“Glaya,” Satu panted, stopping their flight. “Do you still have a torch.”

She fumbled in her quiver, found cloth covered in wax. “I do. Should I light it now?”

Satu’ voice was frail. “Please do so, and quickly.” “Are you alright?” She asked him while fumbling with her tinder.

“I do not know.” He murmured: “I just did something I have never done before.”

The fire revealed that the tunnel had led them into a massive cave. She could see water glistening in the light. Parvena knelt on the floor a few steps into the cavern, next to her Yeul, collapsed on the floor. One feathered shaft was sticking out his shoulder and another out his side. “What in the ancestors’ name just happened?” Parvena, in terror, inquired, “And where are Elçin’s men?” Satu ignored the question but instead dropped on his knee next to Yeul and pulled his tools from the satchel he carried. He carefully touched his patient’s shoulder. “I need more light down here. Be careful not to spill burning wax on him.” His brow furrowed as he examined the Damage, but then he relaxed ever so slightly. „You are lucky,“ He told Yeul. The Strategist only groaned in response. Sweat was glistening on his brow. His breathing was ragged, almost erratic. Satu‘s motions where methodical, calm but also weaker than normal and with a strange stiffness to them. He told Parvena to remove her gauntlets and hold his patient still. Aglaya guessed that this was not the first time they had done this together.

Then he finally answered Parvena’s question. “They won’t come. The Tunnel collapsed.”

Yeul was somewhere between the waking world and delirium. His back was bent; his head was resting on Parvena’s shoulder. His breathing was tired now and he barely flinched when Satu cut the first Arrow from his shoulder nor when pushed the second one out through the soft tissue in his side. “What has caused the tunnel to cave in now?” Parvena questioned, “I understand it has existed for centuries.”

“There was once a creature in the lake beneath the cave city. In those days it would eat those of its inhabitants who dared to venture into its realm.” Satu told uttered, as if reciting from memory, voice still as fragile as the pages of an ancient book, “When Elçin entered its domain I woke it. It seems it was not happy with his intrusion, but I guess it does not mind the supply of fresh meat he brought.” He held the Arrowhead against the torch’s light, an ugly iron triangle slick with blood. Aglaya felt a shiver down her spine, remembering the feeling of something creeping past her in the tunnel and thinking of her previous ventures into the caves below the fortress. None of the old books in the library had mentioned monsters in the deep. “We should not linger here.” She proposed, not being able to keep the unease out of her voice. Satu did not answer. He used the torch’s flame and his surgery knife to cauterize the wound and pressed the end of a bandage to it, handing the reel of cloth to Parvena for her to wrap it tightly around Yeul’s shoulder. “He cannot move yet.” He cautioned her, „We will have to hope these Soldiers are enough to still its hunger.”

“I will carry him.” Parvena offered, handing Satu the cauterization knife again, “Maybe it would not bother with four more trespassers in its lair, but I’d rather not find out.” “You won’t have the strength left to carry a man through the mountain.” The healer warned her, handing her the second bandage. “Do not underestimate my strength. I will carry him until we are safe or he can walk on his own legs.” Having fastened the last bandage she rose to her feet. Glaring at Satu she used her sheathed sword to heave Yeul’s limb body onto her back. “Lead the way,“ She told Aglaya, who helped Satu to his feet and offered her arm to support him.

Trying to forget a being she could not even name she recited the page of a book from her childhood like a nursery rhyme in her mind. With the torch in her hand like a shield against the black water she made her way along the shore of the lake, counting her steps. Then she turned to face the darkness, only to find the tunnel described in the book waiting for her. Her mood lightened more than the torch could light the caves.

The Tunnel, carved by a stream maybe, long ago, was not meant to be walked by people. Its floor was uneven and treacherous, sometimes dropping several feet at once all of sudden. They had to make use of her rope several times, heaving Yeul down carefully. Other crevices crossed their path, but none of them were the stream she had read about. By the time the last torch burned down the anxiety in her stomach had become painful, she was certain they would never find the right path. Parvena’s breathing had become heavy by now and her steps had become irregular and unreliable. Aglaya let go of Satu’s arm and searched the darkness with until she found Parvena and feeling for her face with the other hand only to find it covered in sweat. “Let’s stop here for a bit.” She pleaded. “We cannot reach the exit if one of us collapses on the way.”

Parvena made an agreeing noise, setting down her burden while Aglaya steadied his injured limb. She used her satchel to rest the unconscious man’s head before offering her water canteen to Parvena, who all but collaped on the floor next to him..

Satu lit a small candle in his shaky hand. The flame bit in Aglaya’s eye after such a long time in total darkness. He pulled Yeul to lie on the side: “Let me take a look at the wounds.” He insisted, tugged at the bandages and checked his patient’s pulse. Then he looked at worn down Parvena, shaking his head.”I told you, you cannot carry him down the mountain.” Parvena groaned: “There is no time to coddle me. We cannot stay here forever. Look!” She passed him the canteen: “This is all the water we have left.” “We should have refilled the canteen at the lake.” The healer regretted, but Aglaya had not forgotten why she had not done so. “You’re all but spent. Call it coddling, but your strength has its limits.” Satu argued. “I can leave my armour.” She brushed his concern aside. “It should reduce the weight well enough.” She met Satu’s eyes, ready to burn away his doubt with sheer will. He turned towards his patient once more. Without looking at her he handed her his knife and she cut the leather straps holding her burnished steel armour, dented in by arrows, together. One by one the plates came loose, clattering down onto the rock. She only kept her padded shirt and her helmet. Yeul stirred when the Guardswoman heaved him onto her back again.

“Parvena” he uttered. “I can walk on my own now.”

Aglaya was surprised to hear him speak. He struggled to find solid ground beneath his feet until Parvena set him down, but did not walk more than three steps before sinking to the floor. Satu checked his pulse again, traced his spine and used the candle’s light to test his eye reaction. The healer shook his head and Parvena offered to pick him up once more. “I can carry you. You are not that heavy.”

They fed Yeul the last of their water and Satu extinguished the candle in order to have light in case of another emergency. “Glaya,“ he called softly, searching for her hand. Guiding each other in the darkness, her mind in a daze, they continued their way downwards and into the unknown. Aglaya started counting steps again. When she reached six hundred, Satu suddenly stopped, drawing a deep breath. “I can smell pine trees.” He claimed, but Aglaya could only smell dust. She lost trail of the numbers in her head. She lost track of time as well, the only certainty was the warmth of Satu’s hand and Parvena’s heavy steps behind her. She could tell them apart by the sound of their breathing. After what might have been minutes or days the healer announced he could hear water flowing and she listened for it until the sound of her own blood rushing in her ears might as well have been a river. When she could hear the falls at last she was almost certain they were a delusion, her dazed mind desperately holding onto the possibility of hope.

When the heavy pelt of darkness started to lift at last she almost didn’t notice, but the blackness had gained nuances of rock-shapes, or fantasies of rock-shapes. The waters sound was thunder when Satu sprang back without a warning; his hand tore from her grip. She stopped, lost in world of shadow and roaring streams, listening for his breath. Then he cursed and there was a splashing noise. He had found the river with his feet.

She could see the water, moving, glistening when she really focused. Satu took hold of her hand again, his was colder than before. They followed the river, carefully placing each step until they could see the ground beneath their feet.

Part 4

Those to live for, Part 2

Those to live for, Part 2

Short story and title art by Wanda Sonnemann

Part 1 can be read here

Aglaya was searching the castle for Parvena Demir. She had exchanged trailing sleeves and embroidered gloves for quilted armour and a helmet, an ugly, unshapely thing, but it fit well enough.  Her hair was braided in a crown around her head, tied up with one of Parvena’s black silk ribbons.

The battle was about to start, she could see Imperial Raven banners on the plains outside the wall. Anxiety lay like a knot in her stomach, so tight it hurt. Hayrenik was in turmoil, tension covered the mountain and the plain like fog. Everyone moved with a purpose and Aglaya, who had never been part of the military found she was lacking one. So she decided to look for Parvena.

She found her at Yeul’s side, clad in black armour and armed with a shield instead of a ceremonial spear. Her expression was grim but composed. As Aglaya approached, the hint of a smile flashed across her face.

Yeul, once again girded with the matriarch’s ancestral blade was brooding over his maps, speaking to the Komandāns. He did not even acknowledge her arrival at his pavilion. His ashen eyes were fixed on his task, calculating hours ahead. She stuck to the corner closest to Parvena, away from the war table.

Her Grandmother was on the main gate, hearing out the empire’s envoy. Aglaya could see her from the command point and in her mind she could almost hear her rejecting the ultimatum. She could see the envoy’s banner now, returning to its own line. For a while all was still.

Signal horns sounded in the distance and single wave of thunder shred the silence. One of the stables exploded into dust and flying rubble. People in the courtyard started running, animals screamed. She could feel drum beats resounding in her bones and rattling her teeth. The sound of Hayrenik’s trebuchets made her jump, despite the fact that she had seen it being tested countless times before. She watched the fire fly and hit the ground far away on the plain with amazement and dread.  The Komandāns surrounding Yeul were quiet now, standing at attention and waiting for their general’s first command.

Yeul spoke, his calm, cold voice resonating in the pavilion’s stone arcs:  “This is the day we all knew would come. You all know the odds against us. You know what is at stake. And every one of you knows what to do. Let us show them that they belong in the desert.”

His callous voice, so different from what she remembered made her skin crawl. Suddenly she wasn’t sure if she really wanted to be here, seeing what was happening. The noblewoman touched the hilt of her barely used sword, wondering what good fencing lessons were in a war.

“I have a request.” She heard Parvena’s deep and composed voice. “Don’t get lost in the Battle. Don’t get hurt.” The guardswoman had turned towards the noblewoman, her dark eyes were fixed onto her. “Don’t die.” She added, and the graveness in her words made a shiver run down her spine. She could not hold Parvena’s gaze and averted her eyes, watching the banners in the distance instead.

“You too.” she stammered “You be careful as well. And don’t you dare to die on me.”

“I might not have anything to say in those matters.” Parvena admitted, setting down her shield and turning to watch the same banner fluttering on their poles. Her expression was dreary, her face was too calm. “I have a duty, and I will obey my orders, even if it costs my life.”

Neither of them spoke. Once more Aglaya turned back toward the soldier who had become dear to her. Minutes passed as the noblewoman watched Parvena breathe, and close her eyes. Finally they turned to face each other again

“Can I stay by your side?” Aglaya asked, trying to ignore the noises around her and a new gush of hopelessness flooded her mind. “I promise not to get in your way. But I need so see what is happening to you and to all of us. Being stuck in a Cabinet room with people to frail or to vain to pull their weight would kill me as surely as any flying boulder, bolt or spear.”

Parvenas face tensed a little again. “My duty is to Yeul. But stay close to him and I will try and shield you both from burning rocks and stray bolts.” She gave a strained smile, putting both armoured hands on the lady’s narrow shoulders. “We get through this alive, both of us and Satu.”

Satu was treating the first injuries of the night, unlucky archers, shrapnel wounds, an artillerist who had her arm mangled by a trebuchet. Those were the lucky ones, the ones that made it to the quieter parts of the castle in the back, from where one could not see how much the plain had changed its face. The ones for whom the fight was over before it truly began, if they survived the night. Above him fire flew through the leaden sky, crashing into the invader’s army. It stank.

He wiped a spray of blood and fatigue from his face with his sleeve, casting a glance up to the command tower. He could see Parvena and another Black Guard in front of the general’s pavilion, dark and stout; ready to jump into action at any given moment. He had seen Aglaya when she had climbed the tower, unfamiliar in her quilted armour, the helmet hiding her hair. He could see Yeul.

The strategist seemed calm, staring over the besiegers spread out in the distance. From this far away none of the weariness in his face was visible.

But when the evening bell rang and Yeul turned away to retire for the night, Satu could see the truth in his broken movements. The healer left it to his assistant to clean his tools and left for whatever place his patient would hide himself tonight.

Parvena was sitting between mountains of supply crates in the Matriarch’s hall, her sword next to her and a bowl of steaming stew on her knees. She was alone on duty for the night and Yeul had hidden himself here despite the fact that the hall was empty at this hour.  Aglaya had not moved from her side and even followed her when Night Kommandān Tural Suzmeyliak took over the strategist’s duty for the night. The Lady had taken off her helmet and unfastened the quilted armour. Enveloped in Parvena’s cloak she sat close to the dark warrior, her own stew bowl held close to her body for warmth. Yeul had not touched his bowl, eyes fixed on the limestone floor as if searching for the shapes of the strange animals long turned to stone and enclosed into it. Ser Elçin, who was in charge of the outer wall’s defences had sat with them earlier, sharing stories of the day, trying to convince Yeul to eat: “You cannot forget your meal, Yeul. Just look at you. Be at ease, the Night Kommandān will hold the wall while you sleep.” He left after finishing his dinner. Yeul barely noticed, just as he either didn’t notice Aglaya or was too spent to object to her presence.

When Satu appeared out of nowhere in the deserted chair next to Yeul, Parvena almost didn’t recognize him. The Healer took the stew from the strategist’s indifferent hands, added something from his satchel and handed it back after tasting it. “Remember, you are not alone. I made a promise.”

A Glint of long lost fire woke in the Strategist’s ashen eyes. He did not speak, but the stiffness in his spine slowly melted away. He leaned into the healer’s open Arm, resting his head on his shoulder. Slowly, as if he had forgotten how he took the spoon from the bowl to his mouth.

When, Parvena thought, suddenly aware of the Lady Aglaya’s weight against her own shoulder. When did Yeul become one to lean on someone? And how was that someone Satu Aşlin?

The Healer met her eye, smiled and raised a finger to his mouth. “It’s a secret” he hushed. “And you are now part of it.”

“Why?” She mouthed back, but did not listen for an answer. Outside the bell for the rotation of the patrols rang. There was thunder in the distance. A candle died, hissing in a puddle of its own wax.

“How can I protect all of you?” She silently asked Satu. “How do I choose between you?” His wordless gaze did not provide a solution.

“How can he still lead us through this night?” She asked at last, but Satu refused to meet her eye. “How did I not notice until now?” Aglaya, finally asleep, stirred at her shoulder, as if she had heard her thoughts in her dreams.

It was the fifth day of the siege and Aglaya, watching a fire spread inside the castle, imagined she had become a shadow, more transparent with each passing day. People didn’t see her; she might as well have been invisible. She had no appetite, but then ghosts did not need any nourishment. She probably looked like a spectre as well, sleepless nights of thunder, smoke and trickling dust had drained her face, and she almost didn’t recognize her own eyes when she looked at her reflection in the mirror. Parvena, like a pillar on her post by Yeul’s side could see her, but her eyes had changed as well. The guardswoman did not smile at her anymore, but instead looked worried, or just sad. She only saw a shadow as well.

Satu was down in the courtyard somewhere, in a crowd of people struggling to extinguish the fire, tending to those wounded by the collapse. Fire had all but consumed the ruin that had been the servant’s quarter not long ago; she could only guess how many more, sleeping in the building during the evening hours had died. Satu’s tiny chamber, with its single window, the narrow bed and the chipped washing bowl, where she had hidden herself away from the world so many times was gone now, buried beneath rubble and smoldering beams.

She passed the Ailar guard who watched over Yeul together with Parvena and climbed down the stone stairs of Yeul’s towering pavilion. Surely even someone like her could be a link in a line of firebuckets.

Someone was watching, like she had been, from a ruined window hole of the cave castle above her, the very same window where she had waited for Parvena, where they had kissed. The man was not watching the fire, or the people in the courtyard. He was watching her, or maybe aiming not at her but the tower behind her. She froze, noticing the crossbow she had not seen before. She drew breath to call out to Parvena, but someone grabbed her from behind. Her warning became a wordless squeal. A blade flashed like a fatal precognition in the edge of her Vision. Her knees gave way, all strength sucked out of her knees by fear. She dropped to the floor like a sack of grain, to afraid to even breathe. She wanted to close her eyes, but couldn’t look away. She saw Parvena, throwing herself between the marksman and the Strategist. She heard the impact of the bolt, saw it buried deep in the black wooden shield. She saw the form of the second attacker bolting past her, and a third storming towards Yeul. The pair of black soldiers blocked their path with their blades drawn. She heard Yeul shouting orders, running feet. She saw the gnashed face of the woman who had yanked her off her feet, one remaining eye staring into nothingness. Her throat was split open; blood was slobbering out of the gash, her mouth, her nose. The second attacker screamed under the weight of the Ailar’s black, plated boot, and then suddenly stopped. The stranger’s own blade was covered in his blood as it slipped from his fist. The smell of death, closer than ever before penetrated her senses and made her gag. She blinked away the dread, noticed blood on her knuckles as she scrambled to her feet, supporting herself by leaning on the wall.

“I need a messenger. Report in.” she heard the Strategists voice: “Someone has to warn the Matriarch that there has been another assassin, and fast.” “I can warn her.” Aglaya heard herself call out. She pulled away from the wall, and repeated, looking straight into the strategist’s eye: “I will go, now. I’ll report back afterwards.” Without waiting for an answer she started to run towards the inner parts of the castle.

Satu was restocking his Satchel. He was preparing herbs for Yeul’s evening meal when Parvena all but tumbled into the storage room, still in armour, her damaged shield on her back. Beneath her crumbling calm exterior she was shaking. Something had happened.

“Yeul?” He asked, more harshly than he intended. “Alive.” Parvena answered breathless, but in a soldier’s tone. ”And safe. The situation is under control.” She closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. Her fear pooled in tears she tried to hide behind closed eyelids. He sat her down on a crate. “Parvena, Look at me.” He implored her, and she slowly opened her eyes, the hidden tears flowing unhindered down her cheeks. “Tell me what happened. No worry, only I will see you wavering.” “There was another attempt on Yeul’s life,” she told him, sobs clawing their way into her voice, the entire soldier’s behaviour forgotten for a breath: “He was up in the caves, and more of them were hidden on the wall. We noticed them far too late.” With every word her voice became steadier. She was regaining control. “Aglaya warned us from a marksman in the window-hole, and others attacked. They are both dead. Only the man with the crossbow vanished into the upper halls of the cave castle and they are still searching for him. They closed off all entrances, so he cannot get down.” “You blocked the attack?” Satu asked, gesturing at the damaged shield. Remains of the crossbow’s bolt were still buried in the wood. “I did.” She confirmed. “I am unsure how, though. It all happened so fast.”

“You survived, all of you. That’s what matters” He turned away, looking through his jars. “I will give you a tranquilizing medicine, so you can sleep. Your responsibility has ended for today, your brothers in arms will guard the strategist now.” The healer wrapped winter cherry roots and lavender petals in paper. She nodded. Some part of her soul pulled more fear from her mind and allowed it to flow down her face.  “I am sorry I cannot give you more of the time you deserve. I am worried for Yeul. They tried again so soon, and more boldly than the last time.“ He handed her the medicine and she accepted it. “It was you who found the poison, wasn’t it?” She asked. “By mere chance.” He explained, remembering the vibrating waves of crystal, or glass, in the Fyr where there shouldn’t have been any. It had taken him a long moment to realize what would happen if someone was to eat this meal, and all strength in his hands had vanished. The bowl he had held shattered on the floor.  “Whoever did this knows Hayrenik well. That’s why I need to go.” He drew her into an embrace. “You can get through the night.” He told her, reluctantly letting go of her. He shouldered his satchel and turned to leave.

“Satu,” She called out: “What about you? It’s been five days. I don’t think I have seen you even take a break.”  “I haven’t taken any.” He turned back to look at her. “People die when I sleep, and I hear their pain in my dreams.”

The thundering sound of cannon fire made Parvena brace for impact. A tower close to the command pavilion collapsed into rubble and dust. Markers on the war table were toppled over, candles were puffed out, dust and splinters clattered on her armour, and she shielded her face with a gauntlet. The blare echoed away. She looked up. Next to her Yeul hadn’t moved, he stood alone at the war table while the sun cut rays through the dust. His face and coat were stained with dust as well, but he did not bother with it. He took one of the toppled cast-iron markers and turned it in his hand “The false reports from the northern road.” He murmured, barely even aware of his surroundings. “But who was it. How could the enemy‘s troops get there so soon without me knowing if not with help from within?” He turned to the aide who was relighting the lamps: “Find out which scouts gave reports on the situation on the north. I need to speak to them in person”

“Aye, Ser!” The tremulous boy saluted and vanished into the castle, his steps swallowed by the thumping of their own ballistae, answering the enemy. Below them a boulder smashed into the courtyard, the impact shook the tower. “Who?” Yeul muttered, a blast swallowed what he said next. “Who has betrayed us?” He started searching stacks of reports with jittery hands, moving around the table and then fell still, Arms set on the table, eyes gazing into nothingness while mortar shells exploded around him like thunderbolts.

“They know we are here.” He called out, the gnawing realization his icy eyes. “They know my position.” He abandoned his maps and rushed towards her: “We need to move, Demir. Immediately!”

She turned to relay the order to her Comrades who were guarding the tower pavilion’s entrance, but her words were swallowed, together with her brothers in arms in a cascade of rock and dust. She threw herself in front of Yeul, throwing them both to the floor in pure instinct. The impact was deafening. Dust obscured her sight. A second explosion in the distance lit the pavilion for a single breath. The stairwell was gone in a mountain of loose rock, as were both of her comrades. She was alone.

Yeul was back on his feet before she was. “They know,” He repeated, his voice colourless “where we are.” She scrambled to her feet, scrutinizing the heap of rubble that had replaced the stairs. “We need to get down.” Without waiting for the strategist’s answer she jumped over the gap created by the collapse in full armour and turned back: “It is going to collapse, sir!” Yeul stared at her for a breath, and then gave a single nod. He jumped, with more momentum than she had, but she caught him when he tumbled towards her. She held onto his arm, shielding them both behind black wood until the tower’s ruin was behind them and were down in the courtyard, protected by walls no siege weapon had broken yet.  He was bruised, his armour dented in, but the fatigue she had witnessed in Satu’s presence was concealed as yet. He was still the strategist, still standing and still in command. “Follow me.” He ordered her: “I need to speak to the Komandāns.”

He’d known his Komandāns for years. There was familiarity in the way he spoke to them, underlining the formal exchange of tactical information. Most of them were older than he was; scions of house Suzmeyliak, kin to the matriarch or leaders of the klans loyal to her. Yet Yeul suspected Treason among these men and women.

He inquired about their situation, but each one assured him they had the situation under control. “They might burn our outer courtyards, but they cannot breach the wall, no matter what they throw at it.” A grey-haired Komandān from the Vērten klan told him. She grinned and pointed at the mortar behind her: “We’re taking out their siege guns. They might have more artillery than we do, but we have the mountain on our side.”

Yeul informed her of his new position, a different one than he had told the last Komandān. “Be alert.” He ordered her, his voice carrying far despite howling mortars and rattling trebuchets “All this bombardment might be to conceal something else they are planning. Report, if you see suspicious activity.”

He went to meet with Elçin Suzmeyliak on the outer wall. Being only eighteen years of age Elçin was the youngest of the Komandāns. He had received his spores only days before the siege, yet he was one of the brightest tacticians.

The Enemies camp, spread like weed on the plain lay in the shadow of the mountain.

“The scout reports warn of more troops that will cross the river soon,” Elçin told his Mentor as they both stood on the battlements, bathed in evening sunlight while a roaring storm of human making was arround them. “Fresh troops and supplies. Siege guns so heavy they need eight pairs of oxen to move them. They will tear through these walls as if they were paper.” Yeul’s face showed no surprise, no emotion at all. His voice was placid. “We need to reclaim the north road.” He emphasised, “Our saboteurs are masters of their craft, but they need a way out without being seen.” “I agree,” Elçin answered: “But we also need the Hinterlanders’ support. And Ekh’s cavalry, if we are to break the siege.” “Ekh won’t come before winter.” replied Yeul. “And the Hinterland Clans are still undecided. I fear the matriarch will have to offer a lot if they are to join us.” The rivalry between Yurrde’s klans was as ancient as Hayrenik itself. Only time would show if the Empire did prove a danger fatal enough to unite them. The Klans of the neighbouring planes of Ekh however hated the empire, but the northern nomads were patient as well as proud. They would help, but on their terms. The Empire’s troops would suffer from the cold, and Ekh would use that.

They stood in silence, watching fires burn in the distance until Elçin was called by one of his soldiers. Yeul left him to his duty and turned back towards the inner gate. She followed him trough the labyrinth-like castle until he found Elnure Suzmeyliak, the Komandān of the Black Guard. Her superior. She watched the courtyard while they spoke in hushed voices, arguing.

“Guardswoman Parvena Demir.” The Komandān called her over. “Your Shift is over as of now. I’ll give the Strategist a fresh trio of guards. You are on standby until tomorrow noon.” Parvena bowed to her commander. Fatigue washed over her, her Vision blurred now that the responsibility lasted on a less battered trio of Black Guards. “I still have need of her, Komandān.” Yeul’s voice yanked her back into duty. She tensed up, breathed dust, and listened to muddled shouting in the distance. The commander gave him a dark look. “My guards are people, General, not tools do be thrown into a fire. And that one is done for the day.”

Yeul gave him a half smile. “Your concern for your soldiers is admirable. But this is hardly a time where such things matter as you surely have noticed.” He turned to Parvena. “I expect you are capable to perform your duty, Demir?” She nodded, ignoring the throbbing of strained muscles.

Night had fallen. The Black Guards marching with her were quiet. Their names would not come to her mind, only the names of those who had breathed their last below the pavilion’s rubble. Fidān Ailar and Irina Suzmelyiak. She had known Fidān for more than a decade, had trained with him every other day. She had hated his smug behaviour, his superiority despite the fact that he had never in a battle and she was a veteran. Now she wished that he had never needed to see war.

The pounding of the enemy siege guns made her teeth rattle. Or maybe it was the cold, or the dread of having a traitor in their midst. Faces started appearing in her mind, each more unlikely than the last.

She shut out all thought, concentrated on the sound of their feet, echoing in the hallway louder than the distant siege.

Satu was surrounded by dying soldiers. The woman by the arched window would not live through the night, and neither would the arbalest boy he had just finished tending to. Two more people, wasted in war when they would have had a whole life before them. He had given them a drug to steady their breathing, but to no avail. He checked the boy’s pulse, but it was almost extinct. The youngster had already stopped fighting. Satu turned away to tend to the next soldier, a man who had not yet given up on life, despite his bleeding shoulder and cracked ribcage.

Yeul entered the hospital, four Black Guardsmen in tow. Parvena was among them, her armour grey with dust. Only First Healer Aysel, her warm face unusually tense interrupted her work to bow. But Satu was not the only one to look up, wondering what drove such a high ranking officer here.

The strategist was bruised and battered, his coat full of dust and his armour dented in. He wore the face of a general like a tightly fitted mask. “How is the situation?” He asked the First Healer, “Are you still supplied?” Satu turned back to work on his patient, carefully palpated the shoulder but continued to listen. “We still have enough supplies at this moment.” The chief physician informed Yeul: “But the wounded keep pouring in. We do not have enough healers to tend to all of them.”

“Then treat those first who have a chance at a recovery. We will lose soldiers, but I’d rather not lose those who might be able to fight again before this siege is over.” The physician swallowed. “We will do whatever is possible.” She stared at the ground, searching for the courage to object, anger pounding in her chest so hard it upset Satu. “I am sure of it.” Yeul stopped her before she could speak. “Carry on.”

Satu was deep within thought, in a place of dislocated bone shards and pain that was not his own, he didn’t notice right away when Yeul appeared in front of him.
“His shoulder was pierced by a siege gun’s shrapnel.” Satu explained without looking up. “He is strong. They only managed to get him out an hour after he was injured. The projectile did not hit him, but it still did a lot of damage.” Yeul nodded as Satu turned to face him.

“You are in pain as well. Do you need me to look at it?” “I will not take much of your time” The strategist replied: “I can see this is dire.”

Satu rose from his kneeling position. “My assistant will take over for me and prepare the man for surgery.  Best follow me inside.” He left his satchel and led the way out the back door, past crates of supplies in the herb garden trough the double doors of the pavilion that was reserved for treating the royals of the Suzmeyliak Klan. Yeul, carrying the Matriarch’s own heirloom girded to his hip certainly deserved to be treated away from prying eyes.

He turned around to speak to Yeul, but instead faced a duo of jet black blades pointed at him. He jumped back. Something was very wrong.

Yeul’s voice was like ice. “Why don’t we talk? You can drop your mask now.” Satu struggled to find words, tried to breathe. A distant crashing impact shattered all his thoughts. “What?” He croaked instead, backing off as the duo of guards slowly advanced on him. He had known their names at some point, but the weapons pointed at him dissolved them into beating anxiety.

“Did you think I didn’t see? What did the empire offer you? Yurrde, once the matriarch is gone? One more throne in Tien hand?” The healer bit his lip, fear and confusion burning in his eyes. He reached into the darkness beyond his own being, finding Yeul. But he could not see past the general, the iron strategist that even storms could not move.

He searched for Parvena, her eyes were wide with confusion. She had not drawn her blade.

He could not form words, the absurdity of his racing thoughts could not even convince himself. “I am no traitor,” was everything he managed. He wanted to blink away the shame of the accusation, but did not dare to let it run down his cheeks in front of the strategist. He took another step back, and another. “I am just a healer. I never craved power.”

The armoured glove of one of the guard knocked him to the ground. Parvena gasped. “He is really just what he claims, ser. I have known him for years.” She pleaded, stepping in front of Yeul: “It was him who found the poison.” “Shush, Demir.” He shoved her aside and drew his Blade. “It was him who tried to get close to me just a week before the siege. And the poison? Well, I couldn’t die of poison when he was next to me.” Satu hold his breath, feeling the cold steel against his throat. His head throbbed; he wouldn’t be able to hold back the tears much longer. He met Yeul’s eyes, sought for something, anything familiar in them. Yeul held his gaze with a stranger’s eye until the healer closed his eyes, forcing tears down his cheek at last.

The steel disappeared from his skin; he shrunk further to the ground in fear. With a grinding sound the blade was sheathed and he dared to open his eyes. Vision still blurred he saw Yeul, his face placid. The strategist offered him his hand, and the duo of Black Guards stepped back to the pavilion door. Parvena’s panicked face cracked, a laugh bubbled to the surface, relieved. The tension seeped from her faster than she could deal with, she caught herself on a table carved from solid marble when she lost her balance. Yeul gave a single nod. “Reason tells me you are either the best trickster I have ever met, or you are a friend.”  He cast Parvena a glance. “You are dismissed for tonight. Be watchful of your Komandān. I am not sure of him yet.” Parvena bowed, not as low and less composed than usual. “I am thankful, ser. I will heed your warning.”

Satu’s face burned. Blood dropped from his temple onto his robe. He took the hand offered to him and scrambled onto his feet. He bowed, still holding Yeul’s hand. “I will follow you until the end.”He vowed. When he looked up he could see Yeul again, but he could also see the general who hat pointed his blade at him. “I will not misuse your trust.”

Yeul nodded in acceptance, the slightest of smiles brushed his lips. There was less ice in his eyes now. He freed his hands.

“My bruises will have to wait. And you are not short on work either, as I see it, and I have kept you from your patients.” He turned away to leave, flanked by his entourage. “Carry on.”

Satu watched him leave. He had given up on fighting his tears, and he gave up on standing as well as soon as Yeul was out of sight. He bruised his knees when he hit the ground, pain shooting up his spine, but it didn’t matter. His reflection, ghostly mirrored in the polished stone floor tiles stared back at him helplessly. He touched the wound on its temple, smearing the blood, leaving an ugly streak of red on his cheek.

With a creaking Parvena moved. “Are you aware what an honour the General bestowed upon you?” She asked, he voice as firm as she could manage with her seeping exhaustion. “What do I know of honour?” Satu replied, his throat hurting with each sob. “I am Tien, not even truly a part of Yurrde’s klans. I have never tried to be more than a simple healer.”

“And yet you are not just any healer. Don’t you understand, my friend?” She kneeled next to him, taking a handkerchief from her satchel, wiping the blood from his face. “You are the only one he confronted in this way. He wanted you to be worthy of trust.” She said softly. “He has precious few of whose loyalty he can be certain.” Satu shook his head, turned away from him, but she caught his chin with her hand.

“I think General Yeul Sarvirakan considers you more than just a surgeon. He leans on you. I might have entered this circle of people he seems to trust through assigned duty, but you have approached him on your own volition. And he has tested you in the way he needed to, and has allowed you to stay close. Now get a grip on yourself and act accordingly.” Her voice had caught fire, and Satu stared at her with watery eyes. He understood. If it had been me, he imagined, the Traitor who wished to see him end, I would have soon given him the final push into despair.

She let go of his chin and he allowed her to pull him to his feet. “I am sorry.” He murmured. “I was being selfish. Of course he needs to make sure I will not shatter him.” He gathered his hair that had come loose and pulled it back into its knot.

“It still hurts.” He admitted. Parvena understood, her eyes becoming soft again. “It will hurt again. Body and being.” She reminded him. “And that you will have to endure.”

He nodded. Part of him, the part that ignored the throbbing pain in his head and joints had known all along. He had known and deemed it a worthy price for a chance to heal their Strategist. The Strategist who was just a man in the end, still young, who hurt and bled like any other, perhaps more.

Thunder daunted Parvena from sleep. Dust tickling from the ceiling forced her to shut her eyes the moment she opened them. She blinked the grains away, eyes burning. Aglaya sat next to her, her head resting on her knees. So many buildings had collapsed to either bombardment or fire, the outer courtyards were in ruin.  Only the walls themselves withstood the storm. The caves of the first castle were an uncomfortable and dirty place to sleep, but the weather did not reach them here.

“What are you doing here?” Parvena mumbled. “You still have a bed, in a room that has windows.”

Aglaya’s entangled hair and smeared face seemed to belong to a different, wilder lady than the one she had met before the siege started. Though it could not extinguish her beauty, it was a broken, bitter beauty now. “I cannot sleep. Not there.” Her eyes met Parvena’s, guilt shining in them. “I did something bad. By not doing anything. You remember the diary we read?” She whispered, handing the time worn leather journal to the warrior:

“I read the rest of it, to forget the siege for a moment. It made me realize that I know something I have withheld from the strategist.” Her eyes were locked onto the floor. “It might be of importance. There are tunnels beneath the cave castle. A city… you already know that.” She drew breath, closing here eyes to focus. “But that’s not the point. I’ve been down there more than once. I know my way around there. And there are Tunnels that go all the way down to the falls at the foot of the cliff. The book mentions them, and I know at least one.” Parvena stared at her. Around them soldiers and servants lay sleeping. Or did they? “You knew about it, and you only tell me now, after nine days?” She hissed. Glaya drew breath to speak, but Parvena silenced her, motioning at the snoring people on their mats. “Not here. Don’t tell anyone else except Yeul.” She whispered,

“We don’t know who might be listening right now.” Aglaya, mute and with dread mirrored in her face stared at Parvena, her mouth agape. “I…sorry. It was years ago. I had forgotten about it.” She stuttered, her eyes gleaming in the dim light. “Hush, my Lady. I am sorry.” The dark warrior drew the shivering lady close, arms wrapped around her as if she could squeeze out all the fear. “I didn’t mean to upset you.” Her eyes burned. The lady`s warmth against her body flooded her with hope. She did not let go, and neither did Aglaya. She buried her Face in her hair, let the tension in her spine melt away.
“I will tell him tomorrow, Glaya.” Parvena hushed, struggling to keep her voice steady. “I promise. I cannot wake him now.”

She held her in her arms until the lady had fallen asleep, and she wrapped her in her blanket and sat by her side until the bell called her to take up her shield once more. The remains of the assassin’s bolt were still buried in the wood.

The absence of the Lady’s warmth could not be compensated by the layers of her uniform. The shadows cast by her small lantern painted the hallways black, with specks of shivering light guiding her way through the castle and to Yeul’s quarters in the keep.

She all but stumbled across the dead servant boy. At a first glance he seemed to be sleeping, slumped against a wall but she smelled blood and stopped to turn look at his face. His eyes stared into darkness for eternity, his throat was slashed, his collar was drenched in crimson. There was no reason he should even be here, between the keep and the Cave castle at this hour. She hastened her step, armoured feet echoing in the hallways, and shoved aside a night servant who appeared in her path out of nowhere. Whoever had killed the servant boy had not even bothered to hide the body. The Assassins were getting bold, or maybe desperate.

The Black Guards at Yeul’s quarters were on their post, confused by her early arrival. “Is the strategist here?” She hissed, breathing heavily, “Is he save?”

“Everything is in order here.” One of the guards replied: “Nothing has occurred.” “A night servant has been murdered. I suspect another assassin.” She passed the pair of guards, entered the quarters and took position by the window. The guard on the post saluted to her in a cautious, soundless motion. Yeul was sleeping, his blankets rising and falling calmly.

“You are dismissed.”.” She told the third guard. “I’ll take your post early. Alert the barracks, and find out who that servant was. He might have been there by chance, but we can never be certain.”

The guard, half a decade younger and three ranks below her saluted and turned on his heel. His hasty steps faded away. Parvena listened for noises in the castle, tension again encrusting her spine, more tightly than her armour. The midnight bell rang. A fresh pair of Black Guards took the post by the door, blocking the Entrance, blades drawn. A patrol of Black Guards passed through the courtyard below, armed with torches.

Yeul was awake now she realized, and staring at her, eyes glinting in the darkness. “Midnight has passed,” She told him: “There was an incident, but our people are already investigating. I have just taken this post over from them. There should be a report by morning.” He nodded, mumbling something unintelligible and sank back into his cushions. Maybe he had not even been truly lucid.

Those to live for, Part 1

Those to live for, Part 1

 

Short story and title art by Wanda Sonnemann

With unerring steps Parvena Demir strode through the servants’ quarters. Those in the corridor made way at the sight of her armoured form; they were not used to see one of the Black Guard down in this part of the castle. A whisper rose among them, a sound Parvena ignored as she passed through them. She spotted the door she was looking for in a narrow, less crowded corridor and gave it a soft knock before she entered. Satu was still in Bed, rising in face of the sudden intrusion but relaxing when he found her familiar face, almost the colour of the black burnished amour she wore.

“Vena,” he asked in surprise, “What brings you here? Are you not on duty this morning?”

“Duty it is, my friend.” She answered, smiling at his flustered behaviour, and then nodding towards the silvery head of unkempt hair that rose beside him. “I came with a message of importance. Nobody could find the Lady Aglaya this morning and so I volunteered to deliver it.

The heavy-eyed beauty replied with a drowsy nod: “I appreciate the discretion. What is it my grandmother needs of me at this early hour?”

“Yeul Sarvirakan has surprised the Empire’s troops at the ford of Yagrian River and has won us a major battle. He has ridden with his troops through the night and is expected home for the feast.”

Aglaya rose, taking the blanket with her.

“Then I’d better be there.” She explained, leaning over the chipped enamel washing bowl, Sunlight illuminating the linen sheet and setting her Hair on fire.

Parvena, lost somewhere between morning sunlight and somnolent lovers straightened herself.

“I should return to my post.” She explained and cast a smile at her friend, who was still sitting on his bed. “You should be ready when they arrive as well. I will find you the after my duty has ended for the day. Take care.”

Satu was in the crowd watching when Yeul passed through the gates of Hayrenik at the head of his Army. Ser Elçin rode by his side, shiny new Kommandān insignia sparkling on the young man’s shoulder. They were victorious, Parvena had told him, but being a healer he noticed how many of the Soldiers were all but falling from their horses as they dismounted. How many saddles returned empty or had their rider tied into it.

He could see Vena, a dark silhouette at the Main gate, ceremonial spear firm in one fist. Surely she had noticed as well. She probably even knew some of the soldiers.

Yeul, his face grimy and grim, was greeted by the Matriarch at the top of the stairs in front of her palace. He bowed to her, offering back the klan ancestral blade, but did not wait for her permission to speak.

“They are coming. Their force is vaster than we anticipated, but we destroyed the bridge they were building, halting their advance. We have a week, at most.” The matriarch, still an imposing sight despite her white hair and age pressing down on her shoulders took the blade from his hands.

“Then we shall prepare for them. Come into my hall and we will speak of the war to come.” She turned to her people, Household staff and soldiers alike:

“The Empire is pressing down on us at last. They will lay siege to my house and, if we do not stop them here and now, burn our homes into ashes. Yeul has bought us an extra week, time that was paid for in the blood of our soldiers. Use it well. Prepare the walls. Send out word and gather our people. No one shall be left behind! No one shall fail to protect their home! We will stand together as one and toss them back into the desert!”

The people in the courtyard cheered as her words still echoed in the ancient walls and she drew the ancestral blade and held it into the air. She had never led them wrong and the fortress had never fallen. Why should this time be any different?

But Satu saw the weariness in Yeul’s eyes. And when everyone else burst into motion to do their task he watched him walk into the hall with steps befitting a ghost. “What If?” He mouthed as he turned to free the soldiers from their battered armour and mend the flesh beneath.

Aglaya sat in her chair, enduring the feast with all its formalities and watching her grandmother at the head of the table. The matriarch’s great-grandson was sitting on her knee and she was feeding him bits of sweet bread with the kind of pride only an old woman surrounded by her offspring can have. The boy’s father, her heir was sitting to her right, ready to take the infant the moment his quiet contentment turned into whining.

Yeul Sarvirakan was sitting to her left, a place normally reserved for only the closest klan members. He was of such distant relation to the family that he might have considered himself lucky to be invited to her feast in the first place, If not for his standing as a brilliant strategist. A reputation he had just proven once again by winning a battle with only a handful of soldiers against a sheer endless army.

His appearance did not match his legend. For a soldier he was pale and of slender built. His face was narrow and gaunt, nothing like Satu’s olive features. There was no fire in his eyes. If she hadn’t known better, she would not have seen anything special in him.

Ser Elçin, one of her Cousins had fire for both of them. He had been Yeul’s Squire since childhood and had been in the battle. She had listened to his stories earlier; he made it sound as if the Empire had no chance against Yeul’s genius. There had been more grand tales during the feast, each one more elaborate than the last. Spirits were high.

Aglaya preferred the quieter parts of the castle to the great hall. From the corner of her eye she noticed one of the honour guards, Parvena, the young woman with skin like polished ebony. She was being relieved from her post by the gate.

The noblewoman made her excuses to the bragging far-off cousin next to her, who had not been in a battle for years but spoke as if he had travelled the world and slipped out of the door.

Parvena handed down the ceremonial spear to Fidān Ailar when he came to relieve her of her duty and went to find her way through the quiet halls of the Grotto back to the barracks. Red sunlight was pouring through the eroded window-holes of the first castle the klan-founders had carved into the rock so long ago.

She did not expect Aglaya to be waiting for her in the disused hallways. The lady’s trailing skirts were stained with dust; she had taken off her shoes and plucked the pins from her hair. There was no reason she should be here, with everyone else still feasting in the hall, except maybe the most obvious but least expected reason of all. The lady coyly waved at the guardswoman with her fine leather gloves and Parvena joined her at the ruined window overlooking much of the younger castle. “Is there something your ladyship needs of me?” She politely inquired. The lady slightly tilted her head, her glistening hair catching the sun’s fire. She had passed her gloves into her right hand, slender thumb twiddling at the embroidery. “I am just enjoying the quiet, away from my grandmother’s feast. Your company is welcome, though.” A warm but tired smile lit Parvena’s dusty face: “I will gladly stay a while, if my presence is not too unpleasant to you, for I have stood in this armour all day.”

“We might all die soon.” Aglaya replied, her own smile freezing for only a breath: “Our people are gathering. Nobody shall fail to fight my grandmother said. But nobody thought to give me role in the battle. Am I not of our people as well?”

Parvena took off her own, armoured gloves and removed her helmet.

“What kind of assignment would one burden one as beautiful as you with? What duty do you wish to perform in a gruesome battle? Surely your Grandmother will not command young maidens to die without a cause?”

Anger flashed in the Lady’s face like sheet lightning. Parvena averted her gaze, apologizing. “I spoke without thinking, fair Lady. Please forgive me. And if I can help ease your grief in any way open to me, I will do so.”

The storm vanished from Aglaya’s pleasant face. Her eyes shone again when she looked up at her.  Her hand let go of the Gloves, she gingerly extended her arm to touch the guardswoman’s face. Parvena tore her gaze from the gloves lying in the dust, remembered to breathe. She looked at the lady’s face.

 “It is no matter” Aglaya mused. She leant into her, wrapped her arms around her armoured shoulders and placed a kiss on her lips. Parvena did not shy away. With a thirst she did not know she possessed, she took what the lady offered her. What was not hers to take. She pulled away.

Aglaya smiled at her with her eyes like dying suns. “I needed to know” she whispered and turned to leave, sleeves and hair trailing.

“Wait!” Parvena cried out, still trying to regain her composure.

The Lady turned around to look at her, the smile still on her face, unbroken.
The guardswoman straightened and bowed. “I apologize for my behaviour. It was inappropriate of my status and a betrayal of Satu’s friendship. Please, forgive me.”

“I wished to experience all live could offer” Aglaya looked younger than her years when she repled: “and maybe it’s not meant to be. Our lives might end soon. But you are here today and there is nothing to be forgiven.”

The Lady stood there, bathed in the last of the sun’s dying light for a just a breath. Parvena thought the sun had gone down the moment she left.

Satu was sitting cross-legged on a bench, cleaning his tools in a blue fire when A soldier’s frame blocked the evening sun from his view. He had not expected Parvena this early, but when he looked up from his work it was not her. “I heard you saved many of my soldiers’ lives,” said Yeul Sarvirakan. “Even some I had thought doomed to die still draw breath. It is good to have a healer as skilled as you among us.” “Some of them might still die despite my effort.” Satu replied toneless, remembering torn skin and broken bones and life flowing out of human bodies faster than blood: “There is only so much I can do.” “Do you require restocking after today?” Yeul asked. Satu met his eye and found them void of fire, as he had feared already. “I have everything to I need.” He assured the soldier: “Do you?” The strategist’s gaze froze, his ashen eyes providing the answer. For just one breath he found all the barriers this man had erected to shield himself ruined. He knew the strategist was still young, but the lines in his face betrayed he had seen too much already, and buried it all in his heart. The one, who carried the hopes of a nation on his shoulders, yet had nobody to lean on. No wonder he was all but broken.

“Nobody has ever asked you that.” The healer voiced, putting all the warmth of his being and from the setting sun still caught in the stones around him into his voice.

“If you need something, if I can do anything to ease your burden, you only need to ask.”  He put away the tool he was working on and wholly turned toward the man standing in front of him, stetting his bare feet on the ground. “You are going to lead us into battle. You have so much to die for; please find something to live for as well.”

“Who are you,” Yeul mouthed, and his gaze turned dark beneath furrowed brows: “How do you know me so well?”

“I am just a healer in the castle.” He shrugged, “But sometimes I see things. And once in a while I can help with more than just mending cuts and easing ailments.”

Yeul was lost for a breath, the wounded anger in his face dissolved into dismay as he was staring blankly at his hands. “Will you promise to keep what you just saw a secret?” He finally asked: “They need to believe in me.”

“I will.” Satu promised, taking the dejection hidden in Yeul’s eyes into his chest, turning it over in his heart like a small bird with broken wings. “This and anything you entrust to me.”

Yeul opened his mouth as if to say something and then closed it again. Satu started to pull at the emptiness in his eyes, but it slipped away like a distrustful cat when Yeul looked away.

“You…” He said hoarsely: “Carry on. If you need anything, let my people know.”

“I know.” Satu answered, suddenly back in his place and feeling cold from the effort of reaching out, “I will do as you command”. He watched Yeul leave and vanish into the castle. Maybe he needs time, the healer wondered, or maybe I went too far. Maybe accepting his own fragility will be the last blow to shatter him.

Everyone needs a reason to be alive. He always had Vena for whom he cared and who cared for him, and then Aglaya had started to notice them both, one after another. They were growing into that reason for each other, slowly nurturing the warmth they provided one another. Yeul on the other hand had a nation to live for. He had a massive, faceless klan that only ever took from him, and took more than he could give.  No wonder his eyes were empty and his fire was all but suffocated.

The healer watched the blue flame in front of him, how it reached out to him, singing without a sound. I cannot turn back now, he thought. I have seen a little of what he hides in those eyes. I need to be there, someone has to be there for him. I want to be there, even though it might be far too late now.

When Parvena, out of her armour at last, found Satu the sky had long turned into dark velvet. The healer was in a gloomy state, sitting on the inner battlement overlooking the kitchen garden. When he saw her flustered expression his own face lit for a moment. “So she found you? Who besides Glaja could make your face look like that?” “She kissed me. I am so sorry. I should not have…” Parvena fretted, excitement mixed into her stammering voice. There was a twinkle in Satu’s eye. “I know. It is good to see you smile, both of you.”

Then his face grew stern again. “The Empire will be here soon.” Her smile froze as well. “The Komandān assigned me to Yeul’s guard. I won’t be able to do a thing.”

He shook his head. “You will be protecting that which keeps us all alive.” Parvena sighted: “I know. This waiting is just taking its toll on me.”

Satu lost his gaze in the distance. “Right now I wouldn’t mind waiting forever.” He jumped down from his seat on the wall, leaving behind the gloom and flashed a smile towards her. “I might be able to help you in your task. In my own, small way, that is. I am no soldier after all.” “You should not try to be one.” Parvena agreed, adding, “It’s not like you. But what is it you are trying to do? If need of your skill arises, then I have already failed in my duty.”

“Protecting the strategist is your honour and I cannot have a part in that.” He told her, “But I might be able to light a fire that could win back a man and, if it were to spread further, win a war.

“Is this a riddle?” Parvena asked, suppressing a laugh, “Or do you have no Idea what you are doing?”

“It is my privilege to find out.” He looked up at the crescent moon that had risen high. “It is getting late. I might be out a while. Could you tell Aglaya not to wait for me?”

With those words he left, leaving Parvena alone on the battlements. She watched him vanish into the darkness, and then turned towards the servants’ quarters for the second time this day to deliver yet another message.

Aglaya was sitting at Satu’s desk, reading a slim book that looked as if it had spent half a century forgotten on some shelf in a dark corner. She looked up when Parvena closed the door and marked the page with one of her glistening hairpins. The smile on her face made the room as bright as if it were already morning. “Parvena. What brings you here this time?” “Satu sent me to tell you not to wait up for him. He might be out late tonight.” “Oh” made Aglaya with a tad of disappointment in her voice: “Has work found him yet again?”

“It seemed more as if he went searching for it. But it seemed to be of great importance to him.” Parvena replied, “What were you reading just now? I just caught a glimpse. But I am certain, I have never seen such writing before.”

„It’s the diary of Roshan Suzmeyliak, the only one to delve into the past of the caves of Hayrenik after they were abandoned by our ancestors.”

She motioned for Parvena to sit down on the edge of Satu’s bed, pulling the chair around. “The dialect is cryptic, and his hand-writing a mess but I can tell you about the parts I have deciphered so far.

Parvena, tired but curious about the book which kept Aglaya awake late at night sat down. Aglayas face had lost all traces of gloom but was gleaming with excitement. Little by little she started to unravel the vines of thorn-like letters for Parvena while the candles burned down and all noise in the castle faded away.

Satu went looking for Yeul. One by one the lights in the hundred windows died and Hayrenik grew silent, but the arched windows of the chambers assigned to the strategist were still alive with a dim glow. There was a guard at the door, but one of the night servants announced him and he was asked in. Yeul was sitting in his room, lit by a single candle and a dying fire in the fireplace. An untouched meal was sitting on the table in front of him. He seemed disturbed in his loneliness.

“I have not forgotten my promise.” Satu averred the strategist as he stood before him, voice soft. These were word not meant for even the night servants’ ears. “I saw light in your window… which can only mean doubts too true for the day are robbing you of your sleep. If you sent me away now I will go and… will not encroach upon your burdens again.“

The candle’s flickering shine could not soften the weariness in Yeul’s face. He looked grey, old, although he was not. Satu held his breath, his next words even softer: “But those burdens…” He pause, searching for the right words to voice his fears: “haven’t they slept and grown and grown hungry?” He didn’t turn away from Yeul’s distraught face, prepared to hold his cool gaze, but the strategist did not meet his eyes. “The words I said, I meant them.” Satu promised again. “I will listen. I will mend if I can… And I will not carry a word of what you entrust me with outside this room.”

Yeul did not answer and still did not look at him. Satu waited, tasting uncertainty and his own fear, hoping once again that he had not been too bold. But the Strategist pointed at the chair opposite to him. When Satu sat he finally raised his head to look at the healer across the candle and the meal. “Elçin found I had not eaten enough during the feast and had this sent to my chamber. I guess it is cold by now.”

Satu sank into himself for a single breath, listening for Voices of warmth in the Fyr. He found them near the candle and more among the dying embers. He took the heat, making the fire flare and then sink into its ashes for good, sending what he had won through the intricate lines of the Fyr until steam started rising from the soup and the smell of warm bread filled the air.

“I believe it is still warm.” He said, out of breath but keeping his voice level. He filled a bowl with broth, adding cooked meat and grilled roots and handing it to the strategist together with a spoon. “You should eat. It looks like the kitchen staff put an effort into preparing this for you. Why do they leave you alone like this?

Yeul, looking surprised, took the bowl, tasting the soup only to find it warm. “You needn’t do that,” He said, “The servants could have warmed it again without you exhausting yourself.” He sat still for a moment. “There should be more than enough for you as well.” He offered, reaching for the bread, breaking the crust with his hands and handed half of it to the Healer with a worn out motion.

“It seems you are more than meets the eye. They told me you were Fyr-blooded, but even they hardly know how to use the power they are born with.”

“I know only a little.” Satu replied “And what I know I use to serve the world of men. But the Fyr is a thicket more treacherous than any of the forests of old and I’d rather not delve too deep.”

“You are wise to be careful.” Yeul commented, “I have not seen a Fyr-blood who seemed to be in control with such ease in a long time.”

“The Fyr is something that does not like limits. Far too many who were powerful in their magic have crumbled beneath the weight of the Fyr.  One day I will know if I succeeded or failed in controlling that part of myself that does not belong here.”

“Somehow.” Yeul pondered “It reassures me, that you do not think yourself eternal, as other have before.”

“Nothing should be forever,” said Satu, “And I take comfort in that certainty. It allows me to live in this very moment instead of thinking of infinity.”

He watched Yeul set down the empty food bowl on the table and smiled. The strategist caught the smile in his own face, stiffly, as if unsure what to do with it. “I do not have that luxury. A General needs to believe that his kingdom will last forever, or he is doomed to fail.”

Satu bowed his head. “Every general is a human being somewhere beneath that armour that encrusts them. Do not allow that being to be suffocated beneath the weight of your responsibility.” He rose from his seat. “Sometimes small things might allow you to breathe easier, even if it is just the ear that will listen to the part of you that knows that he will end some day.”

“Would you come again, tomorrow? Yeul asked, “To break bread with me?”

“I will come.” Satu promised, and bowed. On his way back to the servants’ quarters he could see the light in Yeul’s quarter being extinguished. In his heart he vowed to carry the fragile flame the strategist must hide from the world.

The candles in his own small chamber were still burning. Aglaya and Parvena were sitting on the bed amidst paper, quills and candles, closer together than necessary to translate a book. There was ink on Glaya’s brow and wax on the blanket. They barely acknowledged his return, discussing phrases, taking notes with such diligence that he felt sorry for demanding his bed back. He collected the scattered notes and put the candles back on his desk to make room for himself. Aglaya only cast him an irritated glance; looking hilarious only half dressed with ink in her face. It was Parvena who sprung into Action, gathering the quills in one hand and trying to scratch the wax off his blanket with the other. Aglaya made a frustrated sound and took the stack of paper from Satu’s hand. Having lost the fervour of the moment, she suddenly looked tired, too. “We could go to the library” she suggested, looking at Parvena, but the soldier shook her head.” “I should sleep now as well. I am on duty tomorrow.” She met Aglaya’s disappointed eyes. “We will continue this another time. I never knew the Suzmeyliak built a city in that mountain. I wonder what made them abandon it?” The lady grinned. “We’ll find out, another time. ”

I hope you have the chance, Satu thought. War is closing in on us.

Continue here with Part 2

Butterflies die in Winter

Butterflies die in Winter

Short story and title photo by Wanda Sonnemann

Tsiuri was fading. Each time she saw her reflection in the washing bowl there was less vibrancy in her face. Mother said she would get better soon, but Tsiuri knew. Her mother’s eyes knew. She was ill, not stupid, and she noticed the sorrowful glances mother cast in her direction when she thought her daughter wasn’t looking.

 It was summer, the trees smelled of honey. Father had let the window open so she could breathe more easily. She could hear the other children outside, fighting their playful war between tiny klans. Her brother was among them, his laughter carried all the way to her arched window. She climbed from her bedstead, took the few shaky steps until she could see the trees. The window frame was wide enough to sit in. She scratched her shaking hands and weak knees when she climbed into it, but she could watch the children in the courtyard up there. Yeul, nine winters old, was standing on a low wall and pointing at imaginary enemies. She smiled. His tiny voice was so full of joy and life, it made her forget her own looming fate for a few breaths. He turned and saw her sitting in the window, and his face shone like the sun. He abandoned his warriors and came running towards her, climbing the window frame from the outside.

“Sister! Are you all better?” He cheered, but then his face grew stern. “You are not, are you? Mama lied to me. You’re fragile. Like a butterfly. You weren’t before.” She smiled at him. “It’s all right,” she hushed, her voice to weak to fill her lungs. “I’m okay with being a pretty butterfly. Don’t  worry about me.”

“But I do worry already.” He protested. “Mean Ilea says you’ll leave us. What am I going to do without you?” “You’ll be fine.” She ensured him. “You are much smarter than me.” “I don’t want to be fine. I’ll defeat the gods in combat and force them to let you stay with me.” She laughed, a stifled, croaking sound: “By yourself?” “No. With my army.” He persisted. There was a glow in his face, and it sent a shiver down her spine that had nothing to do with the fever. He was but a boy, four years younger than her, but for a breath she was afraid of him. “I made them,” he explained. “It took me a whole day. They are only made of clay and thistle seeds. Ilea’s papa made her soldiers out of wood. But my Kommandāns have dragonfly wings on their helmets.” He stopped. “I would sacrifice every one of them so I can keep you.”

She believed him.

“If anyone can do it, it’s you.” He looked at her; she saw in his eyes that he was searching the words to form a promise. The other children called his name.

“I have to go.” He chimed the smile back in his face. He was nine years old again. “I am the Suzmeyliak Kommandān in this game. You are the Matriarch, because you are fragile but still unbeatable. We have to defend you from the other klans, you see.” He jumped down from the window and turned back to look at her. “You survive anything. Always. Otherwise your Kommandān can’t fight anymore.” She smiled again at his earnest face.

“Then this matriarch has no choice but to heed her Kommandān’s orders.”

He saluted and stormed off with his friends. She felt cold despite the summer heat.

There was noise at the door. She turned just in time to see her father enter, carrying a tray with food and medicine. “What are you doing, pub.” He asked softly, setting down the tray on a wooden chest. “Watching. Yeul is going to defeat all the other clans.” Her father shook his head, but his anger was a mild one, riddled with sadness. “You should be lying down. You can play with the other children when you get better.”

He picked her up in his arms and carried her across the room to her bed. She rested her head on his shoulder, hiding her face in his hair

“Papa,“ She asked, voice drowsy, already half asleep: “Butterflies die in Winter, don’t they?”

Lost to the World

Lost to the World

Short story and title photo by Wanda Sonnemann

Abeni stood as if frozen, trembling, watching the ocean for the first time in her life. She couldn’t see water, only fog, whirling and alive, set on fire by morning sunlight.

The ship in the harbour, a massive construct of wood and steel was preparing to set sail. It would take her away from home and to a strange new city. She had been excited, getting out of this town of rust had been her dream all her life. But between her and her new life lay an eternity of mist and uncertainty.

Every child knew that hell was on the bottom of the salty ocean. The souls of people who drowned at sea were lost forever, dammed to stay in the depths for all eternity. The waters were their tears; cried since the beginning of time. They would never journey to the stars; they could not even become wind like her older brother Trai, whose ashes had never reached home.

She could see the captain; a dark, grey haired woman in the empire’s uniform talking to the Tye of the vessel, the man that would make sure the ship never touched the water. He seemed awfully frail for one who kept a vessel trice the size of her house floating on nothing but clouds. Tall, with narrow shoulders and a high ponytail that only emphasized the strangeness in his face.

The bell rang. The Tye bowed to the captain and climbed up to his post in the back of the ship. Fog rose from its harbour bay and the ship trembled in its tethers restlessly. The bell rang again. This was her last chance.

She was fifteen years old, held her ticket for the journey in her hand and carried her second set of clothes and the book about the great wonders of the southern cities in a bundle on her back. She did not want to die. She did not want her soul to be drawn into the depths, forever to be lost. But going back to her house, the place she had lived all her life was no option either. She could not move, could not even lift a finger. Maybe she would try her luck inland. She could enlist in the military, like Trai had. He was dead now, but at least his soul was free to roam the wind and maybe, just maybe make the journey to the stars some day.  The bell rang a third time. She took a single step in direction of the ship, and then froze again. Her eyes burned with unwept tears and shame; in the end she was not as daring as she had dreamed.

The ship gave a deep, long hoot that hurt in her ears and resonated in her bones. Inch by inch is rose from the water, workers on the dock released the tethers. Slowly, like a waking giant it floated over the port basin’s stone embankment and towards the open sea. She watched it leave until she no longer could make out the Tye on deck and the fog and the rising sun had swallowed it. Left with nothing but the dread of the ocean in front of her, she turned away and towards the harbour town, and the desert behind it.

Birth

Birth

Short story and title photo by Wanda Sonnemann

He is standing in a field of ashes and smoke. The only living things are the carrion birds. Even the earth is dead.

His vision is bleary with grief. He recognizes far too many torn banners lying in the dust. He remembers their owner’s faces. Comrades, Friends. And her.

“Why” He laments, but the ravens do not care. The dead do not care. She does not care any longer. They used to complain about the sorcerer kings’ games of power together, until she got swallowed by them.

“Why” He cries, gathering ashes in his Hands. He watches the ravens. “Why?” He asks them and they finally look at him with their onyx, sorrowless eyes. “What if,” He asks, “all this were mine? I would not allow any more dead, no more wars like this.” The ravens circle him. “Stay.” He orders them. “There will be plenty to eat until that day. And then, afterwards I will teach you to be creatures of peace.”

He is kneeling in the ashes of a battle that killed half a continent touching the dead earth with his bare hands. “This,” He tells the ravens, “is mine now. This is where I start.”