Story and title art by Wanda Sonnemann
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.