The ancient book of T’ra wrote ‘the dead inherit the living.’
(Circa pre-Pogrom War)
After the Pogrom War, humanity’s new position in the food chain pushed them to the brink of extinction. To survive earth’s collapse and the AI dominion, pockets of Homo Sapiens fled underground.
The same nano technology used to create their enemy, they used on themselves, and a new race emerged, the Sidhe.
The centuries came and went, and this superhuman breed adapted to life’s harsh realities, but some better than others. A select few inherited special abilities and became known as the Grimnìr. Chosen by the Gods, these anointed priests and priestesses led their people back to the desolate surface. After a millennium, however, nothing but relics and a single prophecy had survived a forgotten age.
It foretold a barren woman would birth a child with the ability to open and close the gates of heaven, and lead the Sidhe to salvation, but like most prophecies, what should have been remembered was lost.
Where there’s a cub the mother never strays far. She is judge, and her wrath will scorch the earth.
Have faith, Eira thought, rocking back and forth. After all these years you can trust Dwr. Eira reminisced the first time they had connected. The memory was still so vivid and soothed her aching mind.
She had staggered inside the roundhouse in the middle of the night. A thread of smoke filtered the air, but the winter draught snatched the elusive blanket and blew it out the door. The prisoners grumbled as they huddled against one another on the floor near the fire pit. Its bright embers cast an orange glow on their angry faces, somehow making the wilderness outside more welcoming.
Minutes later their breathing slowed and filled the quiet room. Eira’s moist breath had lingered in the chill air, which she preferred to the inmates’ muggy breath, not to mention how much more the heat aggravated her wounds.
There was no reason King Lorcan had beaten her this time, but he didn’t need one. No one denied the living embodiment of Khaõs, the creator and destroyer of worlds. Unifier of the North and South Clanns, and everything in between ranging up the Eastern Coast, with her windy Cape to the Western Himarta Valley and beyond her mountains. King Lorcan was the High King of New Ysberg, and heir to the Gods.
He had purged the land of the Grimnìr religion, and spared no one. No one, that is, except her. Eira wasn’t like the other prisoners, that much was clear as she watched the guards secure the ropes binding her wrists to the post near the entrance.
As far back as she remembered they had tied her to this stake. King Lorcan always said she was special, but she never understood why he had saved her from those faceless daemons, the treacherous worshipers of old, and though her childhood memories were shapeless, and hard to piece together, she never forgot those wild eyes and bloody teeth trying to kill her. They still paralysed her with fear like a vile aftertaste coating the inside her mouth. “The dead inherit the living. The dead inherit the living,” they said over and over.
Eira owed King Lorcan, but all she needed to know, he had said, was that he was her saviour, and a day would come when Eira would repay her debt to him. Every full moon, from the time she was captured, he had cut her flesh and mixed their blood. He prayed to the other Gods, and drank it during the ritual, but she didn’t understand why.
Why her? It made Eira wonder whether she had abandoned the Gods after accepting her fate, or if the Gods had abandoned her because she’d surrendered to this monster in the first place.
After the guards had left, Eira crouched to her knees on the modest fur pelt she used as a bed. She wished to curl into a ball and forget the night all together, but the lacerations across her back had spiked with pain. She eased onto her bum, draped her head across her knees, and scanned for Dwr’s presence, but the cramped room was too dim to see beyond the fire’s dull radius.
Eyes closed, Eira quieted her breath when a hand caressed her neck. The sensation was nice. Tilly, her caretaker, had never been so gentle, and Eira let her shoulders droop when the side door to the servant quarters grated against the dirt floor.
Another servant? Strange. Tilly let no one interfere between them, not that any prisoner volunteered to help, but the caretaker preferred it that way. Habit was the enemy of surprise, she’d say, and Eira agreed. She could have done without tonight’s surprise. After tasting her blood, the King had flown into a rage.
“What are you doing?” Tilly had snapped.
Eira wasn’t sure what to think. If Tilly was over by the door, then someone else was petting her hair. Startled straight, pain exploded across Eira’s back.
“Poor girl.” Tilly had flung to the ground, and wrung out the cloth from her water basin, and wiped Eira’s brow. “There, there, I’m here.”
The throbbing in Eira’s back pulsed, making the room spin.
“I’m sorry,” Dwr choked.
Eira froze. It’s him?
“You didn’t look well, and I . . .”
Eira had craned her neck to meet his gaze. It wasn’t their first soulful encounter, but this proximity differed from his furtive glances across a dark room. Dwr knew the rules – no one, except Tilly, spoke to Eira.
“Thank you.” Tilly was curt. “I’m here now.”
Dwr had gotten up to leave, but without thinking Eira touched his hand. “Do you want me to stay?” he asked.
The answer had caught in Eira’s throat. She turned to Tilly for approval, but the woman’s lips pinched into a hard line, and fear struck Eira’s heart. It flip-flopped inside her chest, and she muttered a frantic ‘yes’ before he left, or Tilly objected.
The corners of his mouth peaked into a crooked grin. “Are you sure?”
Eira had looked away, afraid to speak.
“I’ll stay, Mn’keur.”
Too shy to ask what he’d just called her, in some ancient dialect, Eira had lifted her bloody tunic from her shoulders. Tilly hastened to cover her nakedness, and for once Eira was grateful to the tired woman.
Dwr eased Eira on her side, and the gentle sting of water prickled her lesions, but it was the intimacy that had soothed her that night. An intimacy that has grown these past years, she thought, her mind rushing into the present. You’ve shared so many wonderful nights since then.
“Tell him,” she hissed under her breath. “Trust him.” Fear swelled in Eira’s chest. The plan’s too dangerous, we’ll get caught, and the King will kill him. “Stop,” she muttered, grabbing her hair.
Eira was going mad. Talking to herself, nit-picking every single detail drained her mentally, but she couldn’t help it. Her mind ran non-stop day and night since her decision to escape three moons ago. Time was pressing.
Tonight, when King Lorcan summoned her, she’d steal the last piece she needed, a blade, and then she’d tell Dwr, but the more she thought about it, the faster she rocked. Eira glanced the door. The guards were coming . . . I can’t do it. It’s too soon . . .
The knots in her stomach wrung their nightly churn. Forget the outside, she needed protection from the evils within the village, but then Eira remembered the fur cape and leather hides stashed under the woodpile.
Forgotten garbs left over in the King’s hut by his mistresses. Eira had stolen the garments one piece at a time beneath her linen shirt. If she could do that, despite watchful eyes, then tonight’s plan was no different, but she’d have to be careful. The proof was the scars on her wrists from being tied to a post for so long, or her healed cuts on her hands, arms, and thighs. She winced at the memory of how they were inflicted, and the mental image riled Eira.
They’ll be here soon . . . Her belly twisted tighter, and Eira forced the ropes up her arms and she rubbed her lips against her brown, bumpy flesh rocking back and forth. He’s calling for me . . . She cramped into a tight ball, and a large woolly rat poked its head from behind the post.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she said to her rodent friend. “They’ll catch and eat you.”
The rat sniffed her filthy toes when something grabbed Eira’s arm. They’re here, but she changed her mind. The King wouldn’t take her. She growled and bore her teeth like those animals that wandered into the village before an arrow split open their head.
“Quick, grab it,” Eira heard someone say.
The squeals and squeaks echoed, and Eira lashed out to the King’s guards, clawing the air in front of her, hoping to scratch their eyes out.
“Shh, Shh, it’s okay,” the voice said, “it’s me.”
“Tilly?” Eira croaked. It took a moment for her to gain her bearings. The whole room came into sharp focus with the stout woman staring down her nose. Tilly held the poor rat fighting to free itself inside a giant handcrafted net, which she handed to her helper, Kit.
They’d captured it, but they’d get her too, she wanted to say to the poor creature.
The glum roundhouse reeked of dirt and urine. Its pointed ceiling crushed Eira, and she cowered at the sight of the dead animals spread across the walls. Ancient wolves with their jowls open, waiting to sink their teeth into her.
Sinister shadows crept towards the firelight and revealed a dozen downtrodden faces. The prisoners stared at her wide-eyed, and her mouth turned dry.
Eira read disgust in their glare, or was it pity? A sour taste crept up her throat and spilled into her mouth. Whatever it was, she looked away. She didn’t belong with these prisoners. They didn’t want her. Nobody did. Except for him, the King . . . No, no, not the High King.
Eira swatted the air to rid the unwanted thought. Dwr wanted her, didn’t he? His sombre gaze, and skin as black as night blended with the shadows. She couldn’t see him, but they were in this together, and he’d help her. Where was he?
“Eira? Look at me. It’s Tilly.” The woman had dark circles puffing the amber skin under her eyes. Tilly pointed to Eira’s bowl. “Why haven’t you touched your food?”
Eira ignored her caretaker and scoured the darkness beyond the fire. “Where is he?”
“You need to eat.” Tilly’s harsh tone pulled Eira’s attention from the room. “No food, you die. Everything dies.” The caretaker’s fixed gaze penetrated deep into Eira’s secret garden. It was the one part of her still unsoiled by the King’s shackles. She imagined little trees tucked away behind her heart guarding her most private thoughts, her darkest secrets.
Did Tilly know? It took Eira back, and her pulse quickened. Maybe she’d rattled her secret out loud? “Stupid. So stupid,” she said, hitting her face.
“Stop that” —Tilly grabbed Eira’s arms— “Here, have another bite.” Eira wasn’t hungry, but she always did as she was told out of fear and swallowed the spoonful of gristly meat and fat. The ball of food grated her throat.
What if Tilly told the High King before she could escape? What if he already knew? “No, no, no, this isn’t happening.” Eira shook the cobwebs that snared her brain and took a deep breath. “I can do this. It won’t be like those other times. It won’t,” she whispered.
What was the worst that might happen? Eira pictured the pit of frozen bodies, their limbs twisted at odd angles, and a chill rippled her creamy skin into gooseflesh. Her spindly fingers scratched the gnats from the puff of black hair that sat on her scalp.
“Eira!” Tilly forced her back into the unwelcome space. “One more bite.”
She pushed the servant woman’s arm aside. Fool! She wasn’t hungry.
Tilly’s jaw dropped “Eira!”
Eira flinched with panic, but Dwr popped out from behind the caretaker. “Let me do it,” he said.
The prisoners gasped with surprise, and Eira blinked with disbelief. “You . . .”
Except for a few wrinkles around the eyes, Dwr’s skin was taut and young. Grey strands peppered near his temple, and on his chin stubble, which showed his true age. “Are you really here?” —Eira touched him— “Where do you go? You disappear.”
Dwr didn’t answer and pulled the wooden bowl from Tilly’s hands, but the caretaker tugged it from his commanding grip. “Let me handle this,” she said.
“You’re responsible for her,” Dwr said, kneeling in front of Eira. “She’s trembling.”
“Mind your mouth,” Tilly snapped, “I’ve been caring for her far longer than you’ve taken an interest.”
Eira ignored their quarrel and leaned into his warm hand cupping her cheek.
“That’s my girl. I’m never far. You’ll get through tonight. You always do,” he said, and inched closer.
Get through it? “What do you mean?” Eira slapped Dwr’s hand away and jumped to her feet, ready to pounce.
“Mn’keur, it’s me,” Dwr said, “I’ll loosen your restraints before the guards get here.”
Eira hissed. “Don’t touch me.” Loosen her restraints? She wanted his help to escape.
“Leave her alone” —Tilly pushed Dwr out of the way— “you’re upsetting her.”
“Yes, you upset me.” Eira shouted, and her head swarmed with sensory overload. The wolves, the heat, the food, the eyes, they weighed her down. “Where do you go? Where do you hide?” she said, rocking back and forth. The prisoners transformed into the daemons of her past. Their hideous, noseless faces rushed towards her, and she fell back.
“Eira?” One of them tried to touch her.
“Go away,” she said, and shrunk behind the pole restraining her.
“What’s wrong with her? She’s getting worse.” The thing spoke.
Eira covered her ears to block their guttural cries, and repeated the words that had haunted her all these years. “The dead inherit the living. The dead inherit the living.”
“That’s enough!” The daemon barked and grabbed her wrist. “It’s me, Dwr.”
Startled, Eira focused on the scary face, and it morphed into Dwr. She sniffed his fingers, not unlike the twitchy rat that had sniffed her toes. She was hunting for something foul when she saw a ropy scar jutting out from under Dwr’s sleeve shirt, and she knew from watching him undress every night they covered his body. Dark lashings spread across his back and torso, reminding her of venomous Arctic snakes. Scars that mirrored her own inside and out.
“I’m here to help, Mn’keur,” Dwr said, releasing his grip.
“Mn’keur,” she mumbled. The pet name rolled off her tongue. It meant ‘my heart’ in the old-world dialect no longer used today. Only a few words still lingered in some clanns, mostly spoken by the elders. It made her feel special.
Eira settled back into a tight ball. “I search for you, Dwr, but you’re never there when I need you. You hide where the daemons lurk,” she said to him.
The prisoners whispered to each other, unable to hide their shock. They were usually more discreet, but she didn’t care. It was time to escape, and she wanted him by her side. Dwr had said the world threw them together because they were meant to help one another.
Dwr’s tone hushed. “I’m sorry.”
Eira caught the spectre that haunted his thoughts, and her heart ached. No, she was sorry. She shifted her weight forward and spoke so nobody could hear, not even Tilly. “I’ve something to tell you. It’s a secret.”
Tilly skirted between them. “That’s enough.”
“Oh, no!” The caretaker was too close, and Eira withdrew from Dwr.
“Stay with me Eira.” Dwr lifted his hand to prevent Tilly from coming any closer.
Eira focused on him. He was her pillar.
“That’s my girl. Brave to the bone, Mn’keur.” Dwr extended his arm, palm open, and waited for Eira to reach out.
Their fingertips grazed, and her hand sprung to life just as the door swung open. An unforgiving icy wind seized Eira’s body. The guards were here, and with the blink of an eye Eira’s anchor disappeared in a wisp of smoke. Dwr retreated with the rest of the ogling prisoners while Tilly scampered through the side door into the servant quarters.
Eira’s insides dropped with a thud like a rock hitting ice. She was alone with her secret, and she’d always be. Why would that ever change?
Her body went limp, her muscles relaxed, and the knots in her stomach vanished. The two guards jerked her flaccid arms and freed her from the post. They kept her hands and feet tied with the nylon rope to prevent her from running off or fighting back. They’d learned their lesson over the years, but she would not give them trouble. Tonight, Eira had one mission. Find a weapon.
The guards pulled Eira’s restraints, and her bare feet dragged into the ground. The stuffy roundhouse was not big enough to contain her anymore, and she needed the open air. As if she had shed a thousand pounds of fat in seconds.
Eira glared at every single prisoner. It was their turn to look away, shifting from leg to leg trying to avoid her reproachful stare, or was it their guilt? At that moment she hated the lot of them with their sad little pup-faces and chin-up smiles. Eira wanted to stab them in the eyes. She didn’t want their pity, she needed their help. But it never came.
Dwr slipped behind everyone, but Eira sought his gaze before he skulked into the darkness. Her chest tightened. Never again would she rely on him, or anyone.