I'm known as the storyteller amongst my troupe. I have been since I was old enough to talk. Stories and legends, they were more real to me than the life I had lived for the past seventeen years. I found solace in my stories, peace in the midst of the troubling times we lived in.
A bone rattling scream jerked me out of a sound sleep. I rolled over, a tingling fear wrapping around my ribs, and fumbled for the everflame lamp beside my cot. I had just located it when someone gripped my hand tightly, and I jerked backwards, fear coloring my movements.
“Shh. Reka, it’s me.” My terror lessened slightly as I recognized Ziara’s voice. “Don’t light the everflame. They haven’t noticed us yet. We still have time to get away.”
“Who?” I croaked out, listening to the growing sounds of panic beyond our thin tent walls. I knew the answer seconds before I heard it.
The attack cry echoed through the silent night. The screams and chaos drifting in from outside our tent could only mean one thing. This village, Callan, was being attacked by the marauding bands of murderous brutes that had been plaguing our lands for centuries.
I sat upright, thankful that I made a habit of sleeping in my clothes. Beside us, Ilari rolled noiselessly from her cot and stood up. I heard the rustle of clothing, and then Ziara gripped my hand again.
“It’s a full moon outside. We’ll be able to see enough to get to the forest.”
I nodded, and then realized Ziara couldn’t see me. “Let’s go then.”
There was no point in waiting here. The Camazotz might discover our little camp at any moment. As usual, our troupe had camped at the outskirts of the village. Our performance tent was so large that it required extra space, which was usually in short supply in the small villages we made a habit of traveling to.
I crept to the tent flap and pulled it open a crack, careful not to make any sudden movements that could attract attention. Screams rang out across the grassy field that lay between us and the village of Callan. The acrid taste of smoke filled my lungs, and I suppressed a cough, terrified of being discovered. A villager stumbled into my line of vision, blood coating the side of his head and dripping down his neck. He took two steps into the field and then swayed wildly, sinking to his knees.
Beside me, Ziara gripped my arm tightly. “Come on, Reka. We have to go now.”
In the village, flames sprung up on several of the rooftops, and my heart sank. The entire village would be incinerated in the next few minutes.
The wounded man let out a moan of pain, and I made an involuntary movement in his direction. Perhaps I could help him, could ease his discomfort in his last moments on this earth.
Ziara tugged me backwards. “Forget it. He’s as good as dead. And so will we be if we don’t move now.”
I let her lead me blindly through the tent. Ziara and Ilari were far more graceful than I under normal circumstances, tonight the difference was even more pronounced. I didn’t trust myself not to stumble into a pile of tin pans or something else that would draw everyone’s attention. We crossed our tent in a few short steps, and then Ilari was slashing a long slit in the tent wall.
Carefully, the three of us emerged from the tent, clinging to the shadows. I could hear the roars of the attacking Camazotz mingling with the terrified screams of the inhabitants of Callan. I briefly wondered which, if any of them, would still be alive to see the dawn. Ziara’s golden hair shone softly in the moonlight, and I assumed the stark fear on her face was mirrored on my own.
The other members of my troupe were also emerging from their tents, sticking to the shadows as we had done, clothes hastily donned and children clutched tight. The moonlight highlighted Kalis’ rounded form before she stepped further into the shadows, her hand curving protectively around her unborn child.
Maestro, our troupe leader, slipped into the shadows beside us. “We’re not far from the forest. We can hide there until the Camazotz have left. But we’ll need to make it there undetected.” I looked up at his face, usually so relaxed and elegant. Tonight I saw only strain and worry.
Maestro moved on swiftly, spreading the word amongst our troupe. At his signal, we began to move silently towards the forest, my troupe’s natural grace and agility aiding in our quest to remain unseen. I glanced around as we moved, cataloguing the presence of each of my friends. Of my family.
Once we reached the cover of the trees, we began to run. Ziara and Ilari stayed close beside me, the rest of us spreading out. We were running for the Xuxurla trees that grew further in the forest. Their wide limbs and dense canopies would keep us out of sight of the Camazotz. I saw the trees a few moments later. The whispering trees, we called them. They seemed to have their own language, and were perpetually making their hushed, chattering sounds. I had always found their noises annoying. Until tonight. The way the trees murmured and whispered would help to camouflage the sound of our troupe as we hid.
We stopped beneath the wide canopies and I looked up. Snaking limbs and thick leaves nearly obscured my view of the night sky above us. We were deep enough into the forest that the nightmarish sounds we had left behind were nearly gone, further aided by the whispers of the Xuxurla. The trees were massive, with wide sloping branches. We could easily hide our entire troupe in them. Maestro whispered harsh, quick commands to the troupe.
It was lucky, I thought, as I waited for my turn to ascend the trees, that we were a troupe of Agiles. The lowest branches were at least ten feet off the ground, and any other caste would have found it difficult to scale the massive trunks. But, for a group of naturally talented acrobats, this was just a strange twist on our normal performances. With a healthy dose of fear and terror thrown in for good measure.
Maestro had ordered all of the young men to climb up first. They would be the catchers. I watched as Peatle, Goreg, Tres, and the others scrambled nimbly up the trunks, their muscles flexing and straining. Several of them acted as the anchors, holding ankles tightly as others swung themselves down head first towards the ground. I caught glimpses of rippling abs and muscled torsos as they swung down to connect with those on the ground.
Adults began swinging children up to the men, who latched onto their forearms tightly. Then the catchers were swinging the children onto the branches, and uncoiling themselves back down for the next group.
Those that could scaled the trees themselves, while the catchers helped the children and our older members up into the trees. The older children scrambled up the trunks like monkeys, with most of the adults following quickly behind, some with smaller children clinging to their backs.
Ziara sprang up with enviable grace, connecting easily with Tres’ outstretched hands. He gave her a strained grin and then swung her up onto the lowest branch in one fluid motion. Next he was swinging back towards me, reaching out for my hands and I grabbed on, grateful for the assistance. I knew Ziara could have climbed the tree herself, although her petiteness would have made it a bit more challenging. But I wasn’t sure I could have managed. I climbed up the branches, following Ziara. Even with my heart pounding in fear, I could appreciate the elegance in her movements. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as Maestro locked his legs around a branch and then swung his torso down, lifting our healer, Ihsani, and then several others up into the trees with quick powerful movements.
Time seemed to slow down as I took in the beauty and grace of my troupe, but thanks to Maestro’s efficient management, only a few minutes had passed before we were all in the trees. Our troupe climbed until we were sure we would not be visible from the ground. I watched as the members spread out through the trees, some even opting to somersault from one branch to another, their movements silent and smooth in the moonlight.
I huddled close to Ziara, sharing what warmth I could. Neither of us had had time to dress for the cool night air. By day, our world was a raging inferno thanks to the drought, but temperatures always plummeted at night. Tonight was no exception.
I settled in as much as I could, my eyes darting around the forest, hyper aware of every sound. Ziara dozed fitfully on my shoulder. I rubbed a finger against my ribs, calming myself. Around me, the leaves of the Xuxurla tree trembled and swayed, their sound uncannily similar to a thousand human whispers. It was not the most pleasant place to spend the night, but it beat getting gutted by a bunch of terrifying bat-like monsters.
We sat there in the dark, and I wondered how far off dawn was, and if we would be safe by then. I shifted on the branch, trying to get comfortable. The rough bark was digging into my back. After a while there was movement among the branches, and a dark form swung down onto the branch we sat on. Ziara drew in a frightened breath, but I nudged her.
“It’s okay, it’s just Tres.” Our friend folded his long frame down onto the branch next to us.
Tres gave both of us a tight smile. “You guys okay?”
I nodded, flicking my eyes over him, checking for injuries. I didn’t find any. “Is your mother okay?” I asked, voice low.
Tres’ father had died before I met him, and ever since I had known him, Tres watched over his mother like a hawk. Mithre always said Antres was her pride and joy. She was also the only one of us that called him Antres.
Tres nodded, then jerked his head to a nearby tree. “She’s up there with Maestro and some of the others. I think everyone is accounted for.”
He took in our thin clothes, and shrugged out of his overcoat. He passed it to Ziara, who wrapped it around her shoulders with a grateful smile. She adjusted the overcoat enough that it covered my shoulders, and I let out a sigh, thankful for the extra warmth.
Tres settled himself nearby, and leaned his head back against the trunk. I copied his movements. We would be up here for a few more hours at least; best to make ourselves comfortable.
I had just dozed off when the sound of heavy footsteps and low growls jerked me awake. I felt Ziara stiffen beside me, and I glanced around wildly. Tres was awake as well, and he had crept forward on the branch we were on, searching for the source of the sound.
Steeling myself, I looked towards the direction the sound was coming from them. A large group of Camazotz were entering the forest. From the blood dripping off of their long blades, I knew they were the same group that had just razed Callan. Their long black cloaks were trailing behind them, and their strangely shaped helmets glinted cruelly in the moonlight. They were marching along quickly, speaking to each other in their guttural language.
I flattened myself against the tree trunk behind me, feeling the tingle that wrapped around me as I tried to tamp down my panic. Before me, Tres was wrapped around the thick branch we hid on, his dark hair falling forward over his face. I sent up a prayer of thanks to the gods that we were perched in the Xuxurla trees with their cover of whispers. Beside me, Ziara pressed her fists into her mouth and shuddered. We all knew what would happen if a Camazot spotted us up in the trees.
The group of raiders advanced towards the trees where we hid, lifting up their stained swords, and we all collectively held our breath. The terror of our troupe was palpable; I had never felt so frightened in my life. Three of the Camazotz halted beneath the Xuxurla tree. I pressed my lips together. I could see the carvings along the ridges of the bat ears on their helmets, I could smell the sweat and blood and gore caked on them. Some small sound had alerted them, and the tallest one turned slowly in a circle, his head cocked to the side. He wore a breastplate made of sharp metal scales that clanged quietly as he turned, sniffing the air.
I pressed further into the shadows created by the heavy canopy, my heart racing. A tingle ran down my spine, and the Camazot below me finally relaxed. He grunted to the others and the group sheathed their swords and continued on. Ziara was trembling violently, her green eyes wide, composure shaken. As the Camazot group disappeared into the forest, I finally dared to draw in a full breath. Tres crept back next to us, his tan face unusually white.
“That was a close call, I thought for sure they’d spot us up here.” Tres let out a shaky breath and flashed me a grin. “Good thing we had our good luck charm with us.”
I chuckled nervously. My troupe had referred to me as their good luck charm for years. It had started when I was a child, passing from family to family. Whichever family I stayed with claimed to do better on their performances, their money went further in the markets, their children were healthy. I suspected it was why everyone tolerated me despite my abysmal acrobatics. Thankfully, my luck was still running strong.
Dawn broke a few hours later, and we began to shuffle around in the branches. Some of the young men climbed as high as they could to see if it was safe enough to descend. I glimpsed Maestro’s dark face on one of the higher branches. Peatle was relaying what they had seen at the top of the tree in a low enough voice that it didn’t carry over the whispers of the Xuxurlas. Maestro nodded, and his voice rang out through the trees. “All right, troupe, let’s get down out of these blasted trees.”
I felt nothing but relief as we climbed down. My friends were all perfectly comfortable doing death defying acrobatics and flying through the air, but I preferred to keep my feet on the ground. I glanced around. Everyone was tired, their faces drawn with fatigue. The youngest children slept peacefully in their parent’s arms, and I was briefly jealous of their obliviousness. I walked up to Maestro, who was conferring quietly with Tres and the others. A few of the older children trailed me, their eyes big and serious.
“We need to head back to the village. See what can be salvaged. We’ll head out directly after that.” Maestro was speaking quietly, his voice still strained. I knew he was worried about how much the Camazotz had destroyed. Depending on how much had been burned, this could ruin our troupe.
“Have the older women and the children wait here. The rest of us need to go, in case there aren’t enough wagons left to carry things.”
“I don’t understand,” Ziara wondered. “Shouldn’t the village sentries have alerted everyone before the Camazotz arrived? Maybe more people would have escaped if they had.”
I shrugged. “Maybe they didn’t have a chance to sound the alarm.”
Maestro gave the signal for us to move, and we headed back towards Callan, skirting the village and double and triple checking that the coast was clear.
The smells were overwhelming. The burning rooftops combined with the smell of blood and gore and death. There were dead all around me, villagers who had tried to flee. Few of them even looked human anymore. None of the dead were Camazot. On the outskirts of the village, on the other side of the clearing, we came across the sentries. Their size identified them as Strengths, but they must have been killed before they could signal the nearby guard. One had been beheaded, his corpse caked in dried blood. The other appeared to have been strangled. Clearly, neither had the chance to raise any kind of alarm before they were slaughtered. I winced, turning away and swallowing hard. Beside me, Ziara gagged.
I gripped Tres by his strong forearm. “Tres, stop. Wait a minute.”
He stopped, turning towards me, a grim look on his face. I gestured towards the group of older children following me. I still performed with them, despite being years older, and I felt the need to protect them.
“The children. They shouldn’t be seeing this.”
Tres surveyed them, his jaw tight. “It can’t be helped. We need everyone’s help. We’ll try to keep them away from the worst of it.”
I followed him mutely, keeping my eyes on the treeline, trying to avoid the images that I knew would be seared in my brain. We had survived, I repeated over and over. That was what mattered.
It seemed that the Camazotz had one goal in their attack. They were notorious for their thirst for gold, and it appeared that they had left once they had found the village treasury. Dead lay in the streets, cut down by their evil flashing blades. Men, women, children, they had spared no one. I wrapped my arms around my ribs and tried to block out the sights and smells as we passed through the village.
Maestro directed us to gather any wagons that would still be useful, and any animals that had survived. There was no one left here to miss them. We made our way to our camp, which was in ruins. Tents were knocked over, belongings scattered. Apparently the Camazotz had realized we were just a poor traveling acrobatic troupe, and had left our things mostly alone. I had never been more thankful to be at the bottom of the caste system.
As soon as the sun rose over the horizon, the heat became unbearable. I stripped off Tres’ jacket, storing it in a wagon, and brushed back my sweaty hair from my face. So hot—I was so hot. And so tired of this blasted drought.
We spent the rest of the morning sorting through the debris, loading what we could salvage onto our wagons and rounding up enough animals to pull them. We had lost a few of the horses and oxen, but there were others roaming around the now vacant village, so we hitched them up to our carts.
Ziara shook her head. “They’ll kill any human that moves, but the Camazotz are uninterested in animals, apparently?”
I returned her puzzled look. “Lucky us,” I said, ironically. There was no luck here. Just death and destruction and grief. I wished for a moment that we could at least bury these poor people. But that task would take days, and we needed to find a new town to perform for. The Collection would be upon us before we knew it.
Maestro sent Peatle and Goreg back to the forest to bring the rest of our troupe. We were nearly ready, and he was anxious to put distance between us and this place.
I managed to catch a friendly little donkey who begged for his ears to be scratched. I indulged him before I fastened him to the cart loaded with our big performing tent. I felt guilty taking a donkey that wasn’t ours, but there was no one left to care for the animals and they would have just been left abandoned anyways.
With a sigh, I finished hitching him to our wagon, and fell into step when Maestro gave the order to move out.