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.