M, the situation is even worse than I feared.
Now you must fulfil every action you have pledged, and quickly.
This is our only hope. J
The Emperor’s heavy footsteps echo on the marble floor. The obsidian walls of the wide passageway tower above him, the polished raven-black alternating with tall panels of white bas-relief rising fifty feet to the vaulted ceiling. Ashur Purmut the Usurper, first of his great dynasty––or so he assumes––holds his head proudly, the tawny lion’s mane he wears over his thinning hair rippling with the brisk pace of his progress. For him, it is a mantle of embodied power, reminding all who see it that even while clawing his way up through the ranks of the guilds he had been able to buy his way onto the lion-hunts of the aristocracy.
He feels the double-row gaze of past Rapathian emperors upon him, emperors who have paved the way, established this final threshold to his ambitions. Their carved images are surrounded by their histories, long centuries of their conquests when the Rapathian hordes overran this rich land of marsh and forest and subjugated its inhabitants into slavery.
The conquerors’ stern faces might be frozen in the sculpted stillness of bleached stone but Ashur Purmut is sure he senses their approval. His achievements so far have ruthlessly increased his power and wealth and that is a significant step, ready for his ultimate goal. Soon, he will control all the known world and all its riches.
Irritating small obstacles like the one he is about to deal with will soon be a thing of the past. Once this creature has been swatted out of the way like a louse, once the Rapathian legions are positioned along every border…
He exhales sharply, trying to control the anger that is surfacing again at the very thought that anyone would dare to defy him. Raw emotion is an unseemly display for one wishing to embody ultimate power to the lesser beings whose role in life is only to obey his Imperial will.
And that includes not only his nobles and secretaries, but every servant and soldier, right down to the guards opening the heavy door for him and the grubby jailer waiting for him at the foot of the twisting stone staircase.
Inside the cell the prisoner is pinned to the bloodied stone wall with iron shackles, his face blackened and disfigured, his naked body blotched with pitch burns. Several fingers are missing while the rest hang broken at unnatural angles.
Purmut resists a twitch of returning anger. No subtlety has been applied here. He needs to find better operators than this. Even with the best treatment there will be no recovery here, no fluttering hope, no spark of temptation to trade information for release.
The jailer shakes his head, unwilling to risk speech that might cause offense. The Emperor steps closer to the prisoner and presses his bronze-plated boot on the row of naked toes, crushing them against the dark-stained stone floor. No response. He steps back, his gaze cold, merciless. In his imagination he appears regal and commanding.
“Sertis Scrian. Junior administrator and Samarian spy. It matters nothing that you choose to withhold what you know. We have traced your activities and calculated the information you have passed on––already enough to make you more useful to us than to the spymasters who sent you.” Ashur Purmut waits, estimating how long it will take the man’s pain-addled brain to work out how to negate anything he might have accidently given away in this interrogation. It has worked well before. In these desperate efforts sometimes a fragment of useful information leaks out.
The silence is going on for too long. Maybe the stupid jailer has caused enough damage to prevent speech. Then the words start, clear and precise through battered lips.
“Your plans are doomed. Your Imperial invasion of my beloved Samaran will ultimately fail. You are cursed. Nothing you do will change that, nothing you ever achieve will last––”
The words cut off suddenly as the Emperor’s jewel-encrusted dagger lodges in the prisoner’s throat. Purmut clenches his jaw in an effort to hide the anger that once again has taken control of his actions. No matter, the louse is crushed and probably had nothing useful to impart anyway. He addresses the jailer without bothering to look at him.
“Get rid of the body and make sure my dagger is cleaned before returning it to me.”
He turns on his heel and climbs the twisting staircase. As he walks back along the arched passageway it is somehow a fraction harder to imagine the approval of the towering stone figures.
When I control the world, I will be able to control this anger.
Master, this may be my last chance to confess I feel overwhelmed by the task you set for me.
But I will not break my sworn oath. I will carry out your instructions. You already know I may fail on the final one.
It has been a privilege to train under your guidance.
If I do not return, take care of Lupine for me. M.
Early sunlight streams through the open entrance to the dye shed. I close tired eyes for a moment, the rosy warmth soft on my eyelids. I can hear my mother moving pots in the kitchen at the far side of our narrow yard. I know she will call me in a few moments.
Hours of heavy work in the dye-shed since midnight to finish the last vat, balanced against a few treats for breakfast? Of course it doesn’t add up, but the gift of gratitude is what counts. I have to make sure my mother avoids all that heavy lifting and pouring. She seems so tired these last weeks. Seven years now since my father was killed.
The wooden plank door of the kitchen creaks open.
“Ariel! Come, I’ve made a whole pot of lemon just for you.” She waits a moment, but I don’t respond. Deliberately. She sighs, but I can tell she is laughing. “With honey.” A leftover tease from my childhood that says we’re a family and we care, never mind precarious living and winter hardships eked out in a small village on the forest margins.
Smiling, I slip out of the heavy leather apron and splash my face from the bowl I laid ready on the small table last night, the icy sting of the water a sharp reminder that spring is overdue.
Warm breath of fresh baked bread fills the kitchen as I pad across the rough stone floor tiles to the table and pour steaming honey-lemon into an earthenware mug, wrapping my hands around its welcome heat.
My eyes drift once again to my mother. She is dressed in the same style as myself and my sister Alina, in a close-fitting mossgreen silk shift reaching her knees over silk leggings tucked into a pair of lightweight ankle boots. Perfect camouflage for moving silently and invisibly through the trees.
We are Sylvani, the only tribe in Samaran who train no warriors because we can fade into the forest at the first sign of trouble. The curling vines of blue-green tattoos encircling our arms are not just for camouflage, though. They are reminders of who we are and where we belong.
My mother still looks tired this morning, even after a night’s sleep. I have to try again with my questions.
“When are you going to tell me what is going on? You’ve been spending so many late nights with the village council. Are you still letting them worry you with their constant moaning about how soft the Sylvani have become with all this settled living and trading?”
“Shh, Ariel. We are still trying to find out what has changed with the trade routes. Why no merchant caravans have come through here for more than two weeks now. I’ll tell you later when I learn more. We have a busy day ahead.” She turns from the woodstove to the rows of jars and bottles on the wall-shelves, making final checks on our store of dried herbs for dye and medicine. “Some of these are running low.”
I scan the shelves, making a mental note of which jars are almost empty. Each year it gets a little harder to find new sources to replace what we trade with passing caravans. There is sure to be a rush when travel and commerce start up again.
The elders are always complaining about how we no longer live like true Sylvani and will eventually regret it. Generations ago our founders built this small village of Caerlen near a minor road, not much more than a cart track leading from Seasca, one of the smaller coastal ports, to Corinium, the capital of Samaran. But even here on this quiet backwater, enough carts and caravans rumble past for us to turn a profit. Usually.
Old stories tell how our ancestors roamed the forest in small groups, leaving no marks behind them and visiting other clans as the seasons turned with the sun––but even in ancient fables it sounds like a tough life.
Now our clans are settled, trading medicines and dyes, using our Sylvani skills that surpass all the other tribes and even the city guilds. Even with minimal possessions we think of ourselves as wealthy because no one in our village ever wants for food or shelter, or for someone to care for them in illness or injury.
Not even the elders remember living as forest nomads–– and no one now remembers a time when they didn’t complain about how soft we’ve all become.
Not surprising most of us don’t take much notice.
Alina hands me my herb-collecting pack with its dozens of tiny bags and baskets to keep the different plants separate. She gives me one of her dazzling smiles and I can’t resist scooping her into a goodbye hug.
At sixteen she’s so beautiful I should be jealous, but she is so warm and loving it is impossible. Her light olive skin, rich chestnut curling hair and deep blue-violet eyes are so like my own, but hers are the perfected version.
I’m taller, leaner, faster––and thought beautiful by some, except when I’m standing next to Alina––but Sylvani value deeper qualities than mere outer beauty. Looks are not everything and jealousy would mark me as inner-ugly, so I make an effort to avoid thinking about it.
“Thanks, Sissy. I’ll take you hunting with me tomorrow.”
She gives me her most mischievous smile. “Beautiful Orchids stay home and look decorative.”
I roll my eyes and give my mother a look of mock disapproval.
“You really, really should not have told Alina what her name means. She’s been impossible ever since.” I rumple Alina’s glossy hair and she squeaks in protest.
“Stop it, Ariel! When they told you that your name means Swift Hunter you worked hard at living up to it, so––”
“Seriously impossible.” I plant a kiss on her forehead, grab my bow and quiver and head out from the village.
Caerlen is little more than a cluster of thatched wooden houses with a spacious communal hall at its heart. I slip between the small neat gardens of the last few cottages with their pergolas of dense fruit-vines, the early morning air sharp with wood smoke mixed with the tang of wild garlic crushed beneath my feet.
Gendel waves as he walks to work at the forge and I wave back, a little awkwardly. I know he’s in love with me and the elders are pushing me to get married, but I still feel uncertain about that kind of commitment when there is a whole world out there waiting to be explored.
Maybe when Alina is older, when my mother doesn’t look quite so tired…
I pause for a few moments by the ancient yew standing like a gnarled sentinel at the village boundary. The base of its hollowed-out trunk is wrapped around the dark circle of the sacred stone table, legacy of an older time the tribe now only partly remembers. I run fingers slowly over the five handspans of flat polished surface, feeling the familiar twinge of curiosity and wonder at the thin quartz lines etched artfully into the gleaming black rock. The five-pointed star represents the Five Warriors who gave their lives in the founding of Samaran.
I make the customary elemental offerings of earth, water, fire, air and space, one at each of the five points. A request for good luck on my search today, wishing I knew more about the Warriors and what their great deeds were really like. The elders don’t seem to know, and are quick to brush my questions aside as idle curiosity.
I carefully replace the pebble, cup of water, candle and hollow gourd back on the shelf at the side, ready for the next supplicant. Does the ritual make any difference to what I will find on my exploration today, or is it only intended to focus my mind on the task? The elders have no answers––and they disapprove of mere youngsters asking impertinent questions about revered ancient traditions.
As I turn to leave, my hand brushes against the gleaming black surface of the stone table and for a brief second my sense of security, almost boredom, with life in this peaceful village seems suddenly fragile, ephemeral. And then the feeling is gone as if it had never been. I have never felt anything when making offerings here before, but I brush it aside, telling myself that it’s nothing more than a reaction to the way my mother looks so tired and strained.
I walk into the trees, my camouflage merging into the dappled sunlight and shade, my breath finding a rhythm with the sway and hum of the teeming forest life-web. Only the Sylvani can create the dyes and weaves that ripple through our clothing like the light and shade of the forest. Barely a few paces from an unwary observer, we are invisible.
Almost an hour’s journey beyond the village I sense a disturbance in the sentan, the sound and feel of the forest. The barely-audible scufflings and rustlings of the myriad life-forms are quickened, tight and urgent against the sway and murmur of leaf and twig. Maybe a large predator causing deer to take flight, sending a ripple of anxiety on down through the communities of other animals.
Yet… it feels more than that, a deeper fear, a shiver of darkness underlying the bold sunlight filtering through the trees. I try to shrug it off even as I reach warily for my bow and snap the two folding halves firmly into the hand-grip.
The throaty grunt erupts from behind me and I swing round to see the boar charging head-on, its red-rimmed piggy eyes open wide and its razor-edged white tusks gleaming ivory in the dappled sun. Without thinking, I release an arrow and the creature falls, one eye vanishing as the arrow shaft sinks deep through eye socket into brain. I approach cautiously, knife in hand. I have stitched a few wounds on hunters rash enough to approach too soon, only to meet those savage tusks in one last thrash of vengeance.
The boar lies unmoving. I kneel to retrieve my arrow and clean it, making the quiet sentan prayer of thanks for the gift of food. A feast for the whole village!
But now I’ve landed myself in a proper pickle. The thing is huge, too heavy to drag for an hours’ journey on the uneven forest floor. All I can do is cut the black hairy monster into pieces, hang them all from a tree branch, and then fetch help. Gendel has enough muscle to carry the whole pig himself.
I get to work, my hands falling into the familiar rhythm of the task. I have always been a good hunter. I like the praise I receive for living up to my name, my ability to provide. My mother never told me the meaning of her name, Isennia. She says she’ll gift the secret to me when I turn eighteen. So, only a few days now.
I wonder if it will be a really unusual name––
I’m jolted from my musings by the sudden understanding of something that should have screamed at me the instant the boar appeared. Maybe fear of being ripped open by those fearsome tusks caused a temporary lapse of common sense.
The animal came from behind me, from the village side, not the shadowy places deeper in the forest. So what had panicked it like that? I pause and focus attention again. The frisson of fear and disturbance is quieter now but it is definitely still there, and yes…
It is stronger towards the road.
I stare for a few frozen moments in the direction of my home. The quarters of boar hang safely from the oak branch above me but I have lost interest in them. The cold awareness that something is wrong spurs my steps and already I’m running, fast and desperate, back towards the village.