Kandrina stirred, woken gently by the early morning sunlight filtering through the curtains. Her little sister, Enkarini, snored softly in the other bed. Kandrina threw back her covers and tiptoed across to the cupboard where her clothes were kept. She could hear her father speaking to someone downstairs – probably scolding her older brother Perlak for staying out all night again. Kandrina smiled faintly to herself. Much as she adored her big brother, it was always nice to hear other people being shouted at; usually she was the one being told off. Most of the time, it was because she had said or done something that her obsessively religious father disagreed with. He had become highly devout after her mother’s death seven years ago, and had forced it onto all three of his children ever since.
At first, Kandrina didn’t mind, because there were wonderful stories of a glorious afterlife; she had often imagined her mother looking down on her from a beautiful green meadow, keeping her safe. As she got older, however, she had begun to wonder why the gods had taken her mother away. Looking for an answer, and finding none, she began to question the faith. Her father had already been blinded by that point, and refused to listen to anything that contradicted the temples. Perlak had been more willing to talk about it with her; the two of them had often rebelled against their father by refusing to dress properly when they attended sermons, or by sneaking out of the house so that he couldn’t find them. She smiled at the memory of one incident last year, when they had run off and spent a day out on the plains with the hunter Perlak had been apprenticed to. The master hunter had even given her a chance to shoot a few arrows at a target tree. She hadn’t been very accurate, but she’d enjoyed it a lot. She made her way down to the kitchen to begin the breakfast preparations, still smiling to herself.
She found a few slices of bread and some cheese in the pantry; that would do for her and Enkarini. Her father and brother preferred meat for breakfast though, so she lit a fire, dug out a pan and a largish ibikona wing, and began cooking it. As the pan heated up, she went to listen by the door. Her father’s voice was quiet – that was odd. Maybe he was just keeping his voice down because he thought she and Enkarini were still sleeping. She shrugged and went back to the meat. It was starting to sizzle, so she took the tongs from the side and turned it over. More sizzling as the uncooked side hit the hot pan. It smelt good; she decided to put another wing in for Perlak. Though if he had been out all night, it was more than likely he had already had breakfast before coming home. Quite often he would go to visit one of his lady friends instead of coming home after a late night hunt. She heard a few words drift through from the other room; it sounded as though her father was upset rather than angry. Wondering what Perlak could possibly have done, she took the pan off the fire and poked her head round the door to see what had been going on.
Automatically, she raised a hand to wave at Perlak over her father’s shoulder, like she always did when he came home in trouble. He always grinned at her when she was being told off, too. Sometimes he pulled silly faces as well, making her laugh and frustrating their father even further. Looking into the room, she couldn’t see much beyond her father’s broad back. He stood in the centre of the room, leaning heavily against the high-backed chair he usually sat in. She couldn’t see Perlak anywhere, but another man was speaking, an unfamiliar voice. Wondering who it could be, Kandrina pushed the door open a little wider and peered around her father. A sandy-haired, bearded man stood just inside the open front door, an expression of sympathy on his face. She vaguely recognised him after a few seconds; the Chief’s scribe had clearly come to deliver some news. She looked back at her father, who had sat down on the arm of his chair with his head in his hands. Something was obviously wrong.
“Father?” she said hesitantly, looking over at the two men. “What is it?”
Harndak looked at his daughter. “Kandrina, I’m sorry...” He ran a calloused hand through his dark hair. “Perlak…” Words seemed to fail him; his lips moved but no sound emerged. He lowered his head again and began to sob quietly.
The scribe looked over at her. “I am very sorry. Your brother Perlak was taken by the Demons last night. I will have his remains returned to you later today, so that you can begin preparing for the funeral.” He inclined his head and left, closing the door behind him.
Kandrina stood frozen in the doorway. Waves of emotion crashed over her, each one obliterating the one that had come before. Disbelief, anger, despair, pain, disbelief again. First her mother had been taken, years ago; now her beloved older brother. Slowly but surely, the terrible Demons were taking everything she loved away from her. Somehow, she found herself standing by her father’s chair, tears running down her face as she looked into his eyes. “Why? Why would they take him?” she cried.
Harndak stood and held his oldest daughter tightly, his own tears running down into her hair. “I don’t know, Kandrina. Nobody knows,” he said, stroking the girl’s hair. “At least Perlak is with your mother now.”
Kandrina sobbed into her father’s shirt. “It’s not fair, they shouldn’t keep taking people from us,” she said, her voice muffled by tears and shirt. “Why doesn’t the chief do something about it?”
“He prays to the gods to stop them, just like we all do,” Harndak reminded his daughter. “There’s nothing else we can do. After sending an entire battalion to their deaths a few years ago, Chief Jindar is reluctant to send out any more soldiers. The temples tell us they cannot be destroyed, that the only way to keep them at bay is to pray.”
Kandrina pushed away slightly. She did not believe that anything was completely indestructible, and could not understand the attitude most people had towards the Demons. “Father, there has to be something else they can do. We have been praying ever since Mother was taken, and still the Demons came back to us. What of the people who pray every day, and still lose family and friends?”
“Kandrina, why must you harbour such misgivings?” Harndak asked in exasperation. “You know the Demons are called closer to our lands by the words of non-believers, and the priests are always on the lookout for those who doubt. Why do you cause friction?”
Attempting to remain calm, though her temper was beginning to rise, Kandrina tried to explain once again to her narrow minded father. “I don’t intend to cause trouble. But I simply can’t see why everyone is so hopeless about this. Surely if everyone pulled together, maybe if the Chief sent some mages out…”
“As I just said, Kandrina, the temples say there is no way to vanquish the Demons. If there was a way, don’t you think they would have done something by now?” said Harndak, holding his daughter’s shoulders at arm’s length. “Perhaps the Demons returned to our family because we weren’t praying enough,” he said, looking into her eyes.
“Oh, blast praying, and blast the damned temples!” Kandrina cried, her temper getting the better of her at what she took to be a subtle accusation. “We pray for everything, and it makes no difference! Every spring we pray for good rains to make the crops grow, and every year it doesn’t change anything; the rain comes or not, as it wishes, without a care for our prayers.” She pulled herself away from her father and began pacing. “Why are you so afraid, Father? The holy books talk more of acceptance and peace; why do you blindly obey everything the priests say about sin and damnation? What if they’re wrong, and the old religions were right?”
“I will not have this argument with you again, Kandrina. Not now, and certainly not while your sister is upstairs sleeping,” Harndak said, quietly but firmly. “You know perfectly well that the holy books were written years ago, at the time of the merging, when peace and tolerance were the most important things to preach. The gods speak directly to the priests, and to us through the priests. And the old religions are all false truth, as well you know. The Marnak faith is the only true religion.”
Kandrina stopped in front of the cold hearth and turned slowly to face her father. “If all the old religions are false truth, Father, then why do the temples acknowledge some of the old gods? Dranj-Aria was first worshipped by the Tewen tribe; Aikra-Lora came from the Astator religion. We only have shamans because of the nature-worshipping Wirba tribe. If the faith of the Marnak tribe was the one true path to Paradise, why would they have altered it so to incorporate gods from other faiths?”
Harndak stared at her, refusing to accept the sense of what she was saying. “How do you know all of that? I expressly forbade your tutor from telling you anything about the old faiths. They are irrelevant heresies, Kandrina,” he said.
“I read of my own accord, Father. There is a wealth of information in the library, if you know where to look,” she replied sarcastically. Her mother had insisted she be taught privately, away from the temples’ influence, and Kandrina was eternally grateful to her for it. “I find the old religions make a lot more sense; they speak of gods who prefer not to interfere much with mortal life. Those are the gods we seem to have, not the prayer answering, ‘vengeful yet forgiving’ gods preached about in our temples,” Kandrina said.
“Kandrina, stop! This is heresy, and I will not hear it spoken in this house,” Harndak said sternly. “Now go and wake your sister. We have a funeral to begin preparations for.”
Kandrina turned and stormed back up the stairs. Grief at her brother’s death now mingled with boiling hatred of her father’s blind faith. She loved her father, but hated that he had been so easily frightened into believing fanatically in the temple doctrines. As far as she was concerned, the priests had taken advantage of his grief after her mother’s death.
Harndak shook his head. “I knew having that girl educated would create problems,” he muttered to himself, watching her go. “I just hope she doesn’t speak her mind outside of her mentor’s house.”
“Enkarini,” Kandrina called softly as she entered the room she shared with her younger sister. “Wake up. Father needs to speak to you.” She gently shook the younger girl’s shoulder.
Enkarini stirred. “What’s wrong?” she asked muzzily. Enkarini was the exact image of her departed mother. Long, wavy brown hair, startling green eyes, and flawless alabaster skin. Kandrina looked into her sister’s eyes, wondering what Mother might have said, how she might have broken the terrible news to her little girl. Since Meradina had died when Enkarini was still a baby, Kandrina had been more of a mother figure to her than an older sister, yet she still found herself wondering if she was leading the little girl wrongly somehow. Alone of the three children, Kandrina had inherited their mother’s independent mind, which was why she had been sent to a private tutor rather than the temple-run schools. As she watched her sister rubbing sleep from the corners of her eyes, Kandrina felt a sudden, overwhelming urge to protect her sister from indoctrination, whatever it took. Discarding the notion of sugar-coating the truth, she blurted it out quickly.
“It’s Perlak, Enkarini.” She didn’t need to say anymore. The sisters held each other for a long time, silently coming to terms with their brother’s death.
Kandrina walked quickly, her feet finding their own way without her conscious guidance. She knew the way from her father’s smithy to her mentor’s house with her eyes shut, having taken refuge there often after arguments with her father. She had crept out the back door while her father and little sister made plans for the funeral, which according to tradition should be held within the week. She had always hated funerals; they always seemed so false to her. The death priests would give a speech about how well regarded the person had been, before going into a sermon about how their life could have been extended if they had been more devout. And most of the time the entire town would turn out for the service, even if they had never met the person who had died. She did not doubt that the gods existed, there was too much evidence for anyone to seriously doubt that, but she didn’t quite believe that they took a hand in everyday events, and concerned themselves with petty prayers. Remlik and his twin sister were beginning to open her eyes to some of the inconsistencies in the temples’ sermons and writings.
The quickest way to Remlik’s took her down a few back alleys and through the centre of the poor quarter. Her father preferred that she took a more circuitous route, but she ignored him. She had never come to harm in the poor quarter before, but Remlik had taught her a few techniques that she could use if ever she did get into trouble. Kandrina had not yet informed her father that she knew how to use a dagger, let alone carried one. Still fuming at her father’s blind, ignorant faith in the temples, she barely noticed where she was until she stopped, retching. Looking up, she saw the squat, filthy slaughterhouse up ahead. A beggar man saw her pause, and took the opportunity to approach her.
“Spare a few coins for a poor old man?” he croaked, rattling a rusty can under her nose. “Pretty lady, rich lady, pity an old beggar?” He looked up at her from the hunch his aging spine had forced him into, pleading in his eyes.
Kandrina, always a sucker for those worse off than she, dug a few coppers and one silver coin from her pocket and dropped them into his can. They clanked loudly against the bottom. “I’m sorry, I don’t have any more with me,” she said, turning her pockets inside out.
The grubby, unkempt beggar man grinned toothlessly. “Thank you kind lady!” he cried gleefully, clutching his can close. “My family will eat tonight because of your kindness. May the gods smile upon you!” He shuffled off deeper into the poor district, leaving Kandrina to regain her bearings and continue on to her tutor’s house, on the other side of town near the southern gate.
She carried on walking, breathing through her mouth to avoid the stench of blood until she was upwind of the slaughterhouse. The squalid atmosphere did not let up though; whichever way she looked she saw dirty, miserable faces and crumbling buildings. People looked back at her, some with expressions of jealousy, others with entirely blank faces. She tried not to look; not because she found them distasteful like so many people did, but because she could not bear the thought that she would have to turn them away if they came to beg for coins. Usually she was a little better prepared for her walk through the district; she would grab a handful of coppers from her moneybox and fill at least one pocket. Harndak often scolded her for ‘wasting her money on wretched beggars’, but she simply didn’t agree with his views. During one of their many arguments on the subject, Kandrina had reminded him that Meradina’s father had once been a beggar, and if a kindly stranger had not taken him in he would likely have died on the streets. Harndak had sent her to her room after that comment.
On her way out of the poor quarter, Kandrina passed a tavern called The Box, so named because it was small and square. It was, however, one of the better-maintained places in the district. The windows were all intact, and the fascia had recently been repaired. A worn brass plaque by the door informed passers by that the great Chief Morendir had been born there. Remlik had taken her there to read it for one of her history lessons a few years ago. Kandrina blinked away sudden tears; Perlak had teased her rotten about going to a tavern in the poor quarter.
Cutting through an alley between The Box and a nearby stable, Kandrina exited the poor quarter, leaving behind the filth and misery and entering a slightly more affluent part of town. Not by much, but enough to make a difference. The houses were not so crowded here; sunlight streamed down from above and warmed the cobbles beneath her feet. She took a deep breath, clearing her lungs, and focused on the house at the end of the street, where her tutor lived with his twin sister, Remlika.