Once out of sight from the crowd, I fall.
Arms pick me up, dragging me. I recognize the voice, far off and away.
“No. No Mikabellum. You did not go through all that, just to give up now.”
Soleia continues to drag me, her voice growing frantic.
My legs do not work.
I stare blankly up at her, watching as she continues her efforts in trying to make me stand.
“Get up. They will want to see you again. You cannot disappear. Please, Mikabellum.” A sob leaves her, dry and desperate as she shakes my shoulders.
My mind stills. My world seems to have stopped.
I killed a man.
I look down at my hands and see the red.
My breathing grows faster.
And just as I start to see black in my vision, pain cracks along my face.
I’m thrown back, a sharp cry leaving me.
Holding my cheek, I look up to see Solei standing over me.
“A goddess of war is not so weak,” she hisses, “pull yourself together. You don’t have time to fall apart.”
I stand and close my eyes, taking a deep breath before reopening them.
Soleia eyes me wearily before nodding.
“Your performance was good Mikabellum...more than good. But it can’t stop here.”
“I know,” I clear my throat, trying to regain my voice. It cracked with the unshed tears I could not spill.
“You brought justice to him. He deserved his fate.”
I stare at Soleia, stunned at how easily she could accept the consequences of life and death.
“They are looking for you.”
I hear it then. The chant for my name.
Solei turns to me, and for the first time I register a different emotion on her face...fear. Like Roark, she is eyeing me with an unease. I wonder vaguely if it is because of my appearance. Because of the red that stains me.
“I can only help you this much,” she whispers, “go Mikabellum. Your people are calling.”
I look up and meet the stars. I remember Roark’s words of how my own eyes resembled that of the falling orbs. I think of the time when a traveling soothsayer came to our village. How she told our fortunes. I don’t remember much of what she told us, but for some reason, her words come back to me now.
“Your color of fortune is red,” she laughed, “like your eyes little one.”
“My eyes are brown.”
The old female simply had shaken her head in amusement before flipping over another card, her smile falling at the sight of whatever was brought to her.
“Red again. But in a different way. The color can mean many different things to your...it can bring many different events to your life…”
I face the dancing crowd, their steps light and nimble as they surround the body.
Someone had tied the male up, strung him upon a pole to be hung and laughed upon.
I don’t know the customs of the Onism well enough to be aware if this was common or not.
They cheer when they see me. They stare in fascination, watching the way red danced upon my skin as their feet did upon the ground.
I continue to walk forward, ignoring them all, taking in the sight of the male before me- the gaping hole upon his chest. The mangled form of his body.
I had done that.
That had been me.
I stare at him. I don’t know for how long.
Enough to realize that the dancing has stopped and everyone else is mimicking my actions of standing in silence, staring at what once was.
I wonder vaguely where Roark is, but in that moment, I’m glad he is nowhere to be seen.
I turn to the closest males.
“Cut him down.”
And before I can look at their reaction. Before I can take in if this is an insult to their custom or words that have made them angry- I leave.
Not looking back to see if they have done what I said.
No one talks to me the next morning.
I had not slept.
The male’s face was burned into my eyes. Every time I closed them I saw him.
So I did not sleep. Instead, I wandered the encampment, needing something to do besides laying down to let my thoughts consume me.
Something strange happened during the early hours of the morning though.
A woman approached me, her attitude obvious that she was nervous about something.
“Mikabellum...is there anything you need?”
I shake my head, worried that if I spoke, the tears I had been holding back would escape.
An hour later a different woman approached and asked the same question.
This continued throughout the night.
I stumbled across two children in my wandering. They immediately screamed, and it occurred to me that I still had the blood of the male covering my skin and face.
Two women rush out, grabbing the children and dragging them away before I have time to stop them or call out.
By morning I am exhausted.
Throughout the ordeal of the night, not once did I see Roark or any of his men.
As the hoard is packing up to leave, another strange thing occurs.
A male falls at my feet, startling me.
He cries, begging for forgiveness, saying he did not mean it, he did not mean to fall to temptation. His words are immediately met with other warriors as they fall with him. And more. And more.
Until a collective group of males are before me, crying and begging.
Others stand around them, tears within their eyes as they watch and shake their heads.
And I wish, with every bone in my body, that Soleia would come and explain to me what the hell was happening.
Fear is descending upon me. I don’t dare say anything, not knowing why this was happening.
For once, I feel relief at the sight of Roark. I see him in the distance, coming closer upon his horse.
“What is this?”
I flinch from his anger, but no one seems to notice. All eyes are trailed upon him as they bow deeply to their leader.
He looks to me then.
“Mikabellum. Look how many men you have brought to their knees.”
I can’t register the tone the words are said in.
I scan the crowd, hoping against all hope that Soleia is there. But I don’t see her.
“Well Mikabellum. What is your decision?”
My decision? About what?
The males are on their knees, hands forward and face’s to the ground.
I stare at them blankly, not knowing what to do. What are they asking from me?
Silently I walk forward.
Starting at the beginning of the line, I touch the top of the warrior’s head.
He stiffens, a small gasp of wonder leaving him before I move on to the next. And the next.
It is only a small touch upon their head before I move on. Only that. But each male reacts in the same way, and I cannot but help feel a thrill towards their response.
I stand awkwardly at the end, not knowing what else to do.
So I leave, figuring if I wasn’t there, they would have nothing to bow to.
Whispers rise in the crowd, and finally, after a few people have stepped aside I see Soleia.
She is staring at me, wide-eyed. When we make contact, her face immediately goes down.
To my relief, she follows me away from the crowd, towards the rest of the hoard that was lost in the action of packing.
“What was that?”
I made sure to ask the question the moment we were out of hearing.
Soleia turns to look behind her before whispering, “why did you not stay with the women last night?”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
She sighs, “why can’t you just stay in place.”
I look at her confused before she shakes her head and explains, “do you know what you look like right now?”
“I know...I need a bath but I don’t know where water…” my voice trails off at the look of shock from her.
“No, Mikabellum. I mean- how you look you-,” she tsks her tongue, dragging me away somewhere.
She pushes me towards a water trough for horses.
I eye it doubtfully but slowly raise my leg.
She pulls me back.
“What are you doing?!”
“Didn’t you bring me here to wash off?”
“No! I brought you here so you could look at yourself!”
At her words, we both look down, and I gasp at what I see.
Red looking through red stares back at me.
The stains of fingers, as if someone had tried and failed to gouge out my eyes runs down my face. My arms. My hair….my golden hair streaked in the color of violence.
Everywhere is red.
“The whole camp hid in their tents when they saw you roaming at night. They whispered that you were not satisfied with just one heart...you were searching for more...on the hunt for more…”
“Oh….” I stare back down, taking in the creature before me.
“No. I just couldn’t sleep.”
“Don’t tell them that.”
“But the men…”
I look back to where the crowd once was...
“Offering their own hearts for you to take.”
I feel breathless at this revelation.
Soleia watches me, her eyes narrowed as she slowly approaches and lowers her voice.
“Then what I did...I didn’t do what they wanted…”
“No, but I think in your own way you still managed to succeed. You claimed them...in a way...they are solely devoted to you. You touched their heads, marking them off from the rest. They confessed their sins and you did not harm them. I think...I think they will become your personal guard Mikabellum...they will protect you.”
My mind rolls with this thought. They will follow me. Protect me.
All because of one simple action.
“Soleia,” I grasp her hand but drop it when I see her flinch from the contact.
“Soleia...stay with me today...explain more of this culture to me...don’t stay with Tuva…”
She smiles and shakes her head, “that is only if you can get away from the great leader.”
I glare into the distance, my eyes unable to find him, but my heart knowing he was out there astride his horse, creating nothing but chaos to the world.
It seems almost as if my thoughts carry out to him. Like a signal that he hears, just as the thought leaves me, I see him in the vision I had imagined.
He is advancing to me.
I want to shrink back.
I want to turn around and run away.
Run away from it all.
My shoulders stiffen as my head rises upward to meet and challenge him.
A tension rises in the air as he makes his way to me. It is slow. At his own pace. He is looking towards me, his eyes want to meet and capture my own, but I don’t match his gaze.
I only stare past his hooded figure, watching the reaction of those around us as they either look away or turn to the side of his advancement.
And then he is there.
Towering above me.
His voice is low, barely able to be heard. I still cannot catch what tone he is using. What emotions coil around his words as he speaks.
He looks me up and down, his eyes glazing over my body before he turns to Soleia.
“She rides with me.”
Soleia says nothing, her head only bowed in silence.
I inhale deeply, knowing what I have to say.
“I am riding with Soleia.”
I expect anger, but to my astonishment, he only nods and flicks the reigns of his horse, walking away from us.
I stare in disbelief at his silence.
Soleia, however, is shaking her head.
“He is upset. And he will come back for you.”
I turn to her, watching as she takes in his retreat away from us.
“How can you tell?”
Solia slowly straightened herself, turning to face me again.
“Mikabellum. You may be a goddess. But the truth is- the great leader always gets what he wants.”
Soliea and I sit on the back of one of the wagons. Its slow rock lulls me into a peace that I had not felt in a while.
I raise my arm, taking in the falling flakes of dried blood.
It was irritating to my skin. I wanted it off. I wanted it off but…
I look around, taking in the revered silence that had settled in my presence now.
No one dared approach. No one dared to speak.
Soleia has her eyes closed, her face lifted up to catch the sun. I watch her, taking in her features. She can feel my eyes though and quickly opens her own to take me in as well.
“You want to know more.”
I nod, not wanting to speak.
Soliea nods and looks around her, taking in the distance that has been put between us and the other tribe members.
“You come from a distant place. The Burnmann mountains are special because they are part of neutral territory- no-mans land some would say. And because you have been excluded from the outside, I doubt you know much of the surrounding land.”
I wanted to argue against her words, but they were true. Papa had tried to teach me, but the world seemed too vast for me to take in when he did. The only thing I could comprehend on the maps that he laid out were the mountains that we took shelter in. I thought I would never need to know more than that.
I realize that she is waiting for me to confirm her words.
With some bitterness, I nod.
Soleia continues, “There are several stories of how the land became what it is today. It depends on where you come from I suppose. For me and my people, the origin story starts of a woman named Shiana. She wandered these lands, searching for companionship. She found none and became lonely in her search. Shiana was a user of ...magic...there is a different name for it in my language, but for you, it is the closest translation I can think of.”
Soleia’s face suddenly takes on a troubled expression as she closes her eyes and rubs the temples of her forehead.
“It’s been so long since I’ve recited the story of origin,” she whispers.
I stay silent, entranced already by the words she had spoken. I wanted to know more of the story.
Did my people have a story of origin?
I struggled to think of it. To think if we had any customs that centered around why we were in the mountains, why we never left them, or for what purpose we stayed.
But none came to my mind.
I was blank. My history and my past were voids of nothing- no purpose or meaning to hold it together. We simply had been an existence of life. To live and to die in the same places that our ancestors had. To breathe the same air as them, live the same life as them and take the same place in whatever existence after death as them.
I could think of no purpose I had in living in those mountains.
It has been peaceful.
And it had been nothing.
Soliea opens her eyes and smiles, “Yes. I remember now. My baba would tell me it late late at night because the stories were best when told in the dark.”
I watched Soleia closely, taking in not only this new information she was given of the origin, but also of herself, and her past.
“Shiana was a wielder of magic- so to ease her loneliness, she took the animals she had found in her travels and carried them with her for company.”
She swayed suddenly, eyes half closed, as a song of ancient times, slipped through her lips, “Poor lonely Shiana, all alone was she, so she picked up the first animals that came to her feet. A snake that slithered one night on her toes, she found her companion as she wrapped him around her throat. A dragon who could fly, with the clearest of wings, who glistened in the sunlight and made Shiana sing. A wolf who howled at the newborn moon, who loved the darkness of night as much as Shaina loved her traveling roads. And an elephant who would walk, with the heaviness of the world, the wisdom of the animals was carried upon his soul. Lonely Shiana, poor soul, all lonely was she- until she found her animals that helped set her free.”
I smile with Soliea as she finishes her poem. She stares off into the distance a few seconds more before her smile fades away.
“All want power though, and Shiana, poor she. What a lonely soul was she. She took her animals and made them more, placing her magic on their bodies to create men of the mortal earth. Her sons set to rule, the land she had roamed, no animal can live in harmony when their soul is turned though. Poor Shiana, lonely Shiana, watched in despair, as her animals- her sons- divided her land. The snake took the west, the dragonfly flew east, the wolf ran north, while to the south was the elephant’s retreat. And Shiana, poor Shiana- she knew- that what she had done was a terrible thing to do.”
“I’m confused,” I stopped short Soleia’s story as her words died away.
Soleia took her braid within her hands, slowly unwinding the locks to reassemble the fallen strands.
“It didn’t make much sense to me either when I first heard it. But it is just a story- none of it is true. However, the land is divided into the four kingdoms and because of the legends each of the Kings who rules that region has their own nickname. The Burnman mountain where you lived rests in the middle of those four lands.”
Soleia holds out her hand, her fingers rising as she counts off each name, “The Wolf king in the north region Quintarian, the Snake king in the land of Bluat, the Dragonfly King in the land of Musgar, and now, the region where we are in currently- the Elephant King in the land of Davinson.”
She pauses and watches me, letting me process all this new information. I think about the times father had tried to teach me the layout of the maps. I remember nothing about animals or north and the legends of lonely women? I could only remember black lines cutting off different territories from one another. Did he ever mention names like these though?
I don’t voice my confusion out to Soleia. Instead, she decides that my face is calm enough that she can speak again and reveal more to me.
“You may be wondering about how the nomadic tribes fit into all of this?”
I wasn’t but Soliea was answering a question I never knew I needed to ask.
“There are several nomadic tribes- some stick to only inside certain regions- the Onism, however, wanders the whole of the country. The Kings have better things to deal with than small pockets of people. You-,”
She stops and eyes me, “You do know the name of the Country the kingdoms and tribes reside in correct?”
Soliea laughs, “what an ancient name! I haven’t heard that in years!. No...that was the name nomades would give...I suppose your own tribe who wandered into the mountains would stick to that name. The official one that the Kings call themselves leaders to though is Shiana.”
“The name of the lonely woman?”
Solia nods, “the name of their founder.”
“I thought you said it was all a legend though.”
Soleia only laughs, “Mikabellum- you are only a legend- but here you sit, covered in blood and listening to tales of old from me.”
I look away from her smile, her words cutting deeper into me than she would ever know.
Shiana was a lonely woman.
A lonely woman indeed.
I thought of the desperation and sorrow that had occurred from such a loneliness, and closed my eyes to think of how helpless such women of power can be.
Night has fallen upon the camp.
Soliea cannot stay by my side forever.
The men who pledged their loyalty even stayed a distance away from me.
I sat alone upon the edge of the encampment, taking in the vast distance that stretched out.
What if I left while they were all asleep.
I knew the answer to my thoughts.
They would hunt me.
Did I have enough confidence in my skills to avoid such talent and raw strength?
I only curl my legs up more, turning my head to the side to watch as one of the men from this morning stands alert a distance away.
They would protect me but fear me.
Be near but not beside me.
I look down, covering my face so that they cannot see the look of despair that has fallen upon me.
I had decided to cast this all away. My humanity, my emotions.
All of it.
But the truth of it was, no amount of goading or chants in my head could accomplish such a thing.
My thoughts make me distracted. Distracted enough to not hear the approaching footsteps. I had taken for granted what the guard would do. Of course, they would not shield me from the great leader himself- from the man whom they had fought and pledged their loyalty towards first.
I am startled back by the suddenness of his appearance. His dark eyes look down at me as he stands above.
“Mikabellum. Come, I have something to show you.”
He walks away before I can say a word. I slowly stand to my feet, closing my eyes and counting once, twice, then to three before opening them again and following the shadow before me.
We remain silent as we weave our way through the camp.
I think he is taking me to his tent, but we pass by more and more until we are at another edge to the encampment, and walking further out.
He notices my action and stops a few feet in front of me, watching.
“Are you afraid?”
It is just him and me in the cover of darkness.
I want to say yes.
I want to admit that yes, I am afraid to go anywhere alone with this male. But at the same time...no. A shock- a thrill- was coursing through me. It was running in my veins and pulsing against my bones, quivering within my blood.
I shake my head and walk forward, watching as he also turns around and continues on his path.
A jagged field of rocks comes into my view. He leaves my sight as he enters one, leaving me standing alone in weary darkness.
I had already admitted that I wasn’t afraid.
Darkness encloses around my vision as I step after him, but soon I see a light ahead. The flicker of flames come near to me.
He stands there, arms crossed, body covered still with only his eyes to see, but the cave is lit from torches. I can see what he has brought me to, and already, the moment I had entered the mouth of it, I had my suspicions.
The warmth fills me as I take in the steaming water at his feet.
I look up and meet his eyes. The black consumes me, sucking me into his void as he takes a step to me.
He points to the water.
I want to.
I can feel the dryness of the blood on my skin and in my hair.
I don’t move though. I continue to stare up at him, something else seizing me as I think over his words and actions.
And it hits me then. The power game that we both were playing.
I knew it.
I step around him and slowly lower myself to the edge, reaching down to touch the water. Through its heat, I shiver at the anticipation of such warmth.
Without turning around to face him, without saying another word, I take off the clothes that Soleia had given me.
They slide down my body, dropping where I put them.
I stand bare before him, still not turning. Still not looking to see what expression the great leader wore.
In my mind, in my thoughts- he wasn’t even there. He was nothing- just the air surrounding.
I sink into the water below, unable to suppress a groan from my lips as the heat consumes my skin. In truth, I thought it would be hard to forget his presence, but with the existence of the water and finally being able to wash not only the blood but dirt from the travels upon the road- my mind became consumed and focused on just the single need to wash and clean my skin.
I scratch my body, trying to get the blood off. The difference in color startles me. Paleness that I had forgotten to my original tone stares back at me. The water slowly turns skin to pink as the exposure to heat continues.
Finally, I feel clean. For once clean. Clean of the blood, clean of the dirt, and clean of his hands that were touching me. Clean of the tribe that had taken me.
I knew that it would not remain like this for long, but in this moment, just this moment I breathed a long sigh and fell back into the water, floating there on top.
I don’t move. I pushed his voice to the back of my mind, ignoring him.
He laughs softly, sensing somehow at what I am doing.
“You did not ride with me today. But I had to see you.”
“And so you have,” I whisper, finally daring to look at him.
He was sitting upon a rock, his frame relaxed and at ease- able to clearly see me.
“I did not want the blood of another male to stain you.”
“I am clean now.”
“Is the water to your liking?”
“Yes,” I mumble, unable to say more about just how heavenly it was.
I look up again, a wicked smile coming to my face.
“But you won’t join me.”
His eyes narrow down at me.
I stand then, slowly taking my hair and easing the water out of the stands. I knew where his eyes traveled to when I was silent.
He does not say anything back as he continues to stare.
“Do you enjoy such a show?”
“How can I not?” Maybe he is smiling under his clothing. Maybe. Or maybe he is gritting his teeth in the game we now were both aware that was being played.
My hands find my body, starting a motion of coursing up and down the length of my sides.
“These could be your hands.”
He leans forward, a new gleam within his eyes.
“If they were my hands, they would not be so tame.”
His last word is whispered out, my hearing almost missing it.
“I would take my hands,” he holds out his for demonstration, his black-gloved hands in view of me. I stare at those hands, hands whose flesh I had seen.
“These hands Mikabellum, do you know where they would be?”
I shake my head, walking towards the edge of the pool and leaning my head down upon the side to look up at him. He moves forward, bending his knees to be closer to me. Closer.
“The choices the choices,” he is whispering now, his rich voice carrying into my senses. It was the heat of the water. It was making my head fuzzy, my senses loose and unaware of just how much I was being pulled in. But maybe the heat of the cave was having the same effect on him and his fully clothed body.
“I would take your hair, twist that golden mane into my fingers and pull down so that your eyes would finally look into mine-,” his gloved hand reaches out, a featherlight touch coming down my cheek before pulling away. “I would take these hands, Mikabellum, and let the world know what a goddess scream can be like in the form of a blessing. These hands,” he moves forward more, his voice lowering the closer he advances, “would be your undoing.”
I had not realized it- that the more he spoke the higher I had risen from the water until he fell silent and we stared at each other face to face. Me standing, him still crouched in his position like a lion to his prey- about to strike and sink his teeth into flesh.
I lean forward.
The mist that consumed my senses as my tired limbs from the time I had spent bathing feel like lead now.
I crawl out of the edge, advancing slowly to him.
He sits back upon his heels, watching my movement.
“Goddesses are beautiful,” he breathes as I rise to my knees and stand between his own, “but Mikabellum- you are divine.”
“I am,” I feel a purr in my voice, something seductive and dark.
I was divine.
I was holy.
I lean forward my chest almost colliding with his own.
There. There is was.
A breathless gasp had escaped from him, his weakness he had slipped through.
It was the weapon I needed to arm myself with as I take my hands, and touch my body- the breasts he cannot reach and the hips he will not hold.
“Mmmhh...Your hands are not the only pair of undoings.”
I stand then, watching where his eyes were paired with, before stepping back, bending over and picking up my fallen clothes.
“The water was nice...thank you for showing me.”
I wait for him to stand, keeping my face blank as he walks to me.
“Of course Mikabellum. I have another gift for you though.”
I stop short, my confidence inching slowly away as he pulls something out from the pocket of his robes.
A rose. A red rose that had been enclosed in amber.
“The single flower that you asked for. Out of all the ones, I knew this was the most fitting to present to you.”
He places it in my hand, walking away without a second glance to take in my reaction.
Maybe he didn’t know that we were playing a game. Maybe he didn’t know, because such games were beneath him. Because I was not worthy to be played with in that way to him.
But even if he didn’t know.
I knew the games we had between us.
And I thought I had won this round. I thought I had taken victory.
But I stared now at the trapped flower that glimmered in the amber. A single rose. Just one. Just one. Never could it wither. Never could I watch it fade. Forever, it was lost in the time it had been captured.
I hold the object up to the light of the torches, seeing the flicker of beauty in the flames.
Red. Red that reminded me of another color that stared back at me now.
I knew the real reason for such a twist of deliverance in my gift.