She felt dizzy, but Eirene came to quickly after the blow. She looked up to see Haru’s silver eyes gazing down upon her. She rushed to get up, the shock and fright overcoming her slightly, but Haru held her gently down.
“Steady, steady.” He uttered soothingly, bringing a gentle hand to her back as she forced herself to stand. Ahead of her, she could see Ket lifting Cendril from the ground, and then their other companion, Liulf, he was struggling to his feet. Immediately she rushed over, only stopping when she met the glare of his aqua eyes.
“What is the wound?” Eirene asked, finding her courage.
“You should not concern yourself with my well-being. You would have been killed were it not for our intervention.” Liulf replied shortly, suddenly finding the energy to rise to his feet. Still, Eirene would not back down and now she looked aggravated.
“You are right, sir, and I am more than grateful for your intervention, as you call it. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be of some use. I am a healer, I can tend to your wound.”
Liulf’s scowl lessened slightly. So the girl did have some fire in her belly. Good. “A healer, you say?”
“Yes. If you would let me look.” Eirene indicated towards his arm, which was bleeding but instead of having a pure red hue, the liquid was blackened. Liulf held out the injured arm, still determined to remain hesitant in trusting this girl.
Once she had taken his arm gently into her hands, Eirene examined the wound and quickly thought of which healing art to perform. There wasn’t a chance that she would ingest the poison herself, so placing her hands over the infected area should be safe, as far as she could determine. She began to put slight pressure on the wound, eliciting a hiss from the warrior in her grip.
“Is this your idea of healing?” Liulf snarled, before almost instantly quietening to watch her magic work. A faint tingling followed by a slight glow from her hands and the wound began to stop suppurating. Eirene then ripped a strip of cloth from her robes to bind the wound tightly. When she was done, she looked up to the awe-struck Liulf and released his arm.
“The poison is not gone, but it should be a lot lessened. I expect you might have some fever in the days to come, but you will survive it.” She explained tersely, still ruffled by Liulf’s rudeness. When she turned away, she heard the faintest ‘thank you’ from behind her.
“Where are you going?” Cendril called after Eirene when he saw her storming off into the forest. When she did not respond, he ran after her, ignoring the aches in his legs.
“You would not do well out there alone, you do not know what else is out there.”
“I am aware.”
“Then where are you going?”
“And what good will thinking do for you now? We need to get to safety.”
Suddenly Eirene came to halt. Cendril saw the tears gliding down her cheeks when she turned to look at him and he wondered what tragedy had driven her to the misery wallowing in her eyes.
“I wish to be alone.” Said Eirene in the most dignified manner she could manage and continued her way into somewhere where she would not be disturbed.
Cendril returned to his comrades, all of whom were afoot and waiting their orders. Their horses had been recovered, the body of the manticore mounted and ready to be taken back as a prize to their tribe. But what of the girl? Would the men consent to taking her back? In fact, would he, Cendril, leader of the warriors of the Hoeada tribe, allow himself to trust this stranger and keep her safe?
“We will keep a safe distance from the girl and keep an eye on her.” He announced, not looking at the men as he took his horse by the bridle.
Haru and Ket had the sense to follow suit, but Liulf was not as willing. Aibe, never too far away from his master, reflected his master’s discontent and began growling again.
“We cannot trust that wench.”
“Can we not?” Cendril replied to the wolf warrior frostily. His horse began to twitch nervously underneath his temper.
“She brought down a fucking lightning bolt. If she can conjure up that kind of force, who knows what she could be capable of. Who is to say she is here not to harm us, or our tribe?”
“She saved our lives.” Haru protested. “What could a small slip of a girl do to us? We are the warriors of Hoeada. She could not lay a finger on us.”
“Of course you would want to keep her, if not to swive her into bed with you, as you have with many of our tribeswomen and counting.” Liulf snapped. “And even if she is safe, what use is she to us anyway?”
“She healed you.”
“A witch she is then.”
“Would you call our Chieftain a witch?”
“She declares that she is, she is fucking proud of it.”
Nearing his boiling point, Cendril got down from his horse and marched over to Liulf, his violet eyes alight. “We will watch the girl. We will bring her back to Hoeada. And as for her…usefulness as you so described, perhaps you might remember we were about to become prey to a manticore before her sorcery killed it.”
Liulf’s eyes continued to narrow and Aibe’s growls grew louder as Cendril came in close. “Another Kaithe? You grow soft, Cendril.”
A screech of steel sounded, yet Liulf did not flinch as Cendril’s sword came to his throat. Ket and Haru remained silent. It was a moment they had seen long coming away, and perhaps Liulf had as well, so he was either blind with anger, or he knew where the provocation would lead anyway.
“Do not test me.” Cendril threatened quietly, staring down Liulf until his aqua eyes looked downwards. “We will watch the girl, and we will bring her back to camp. Shall I make myself clearer?”
Finally assenting, Liulf took Cendril’s sword arm and pushed it away, storming over to his horse. With everything settled, Cendril nodded to the other two men and they all set off to trail Eirene.
If the forest had not been so murky, Eirene could imagine that it once used to be beautiful. She had never seen much of forests on Astrum, her mother and High Priest Eldwin never let her venture far without them, or too far from the temple in any case. In fact, she had not seen any of the world outside of Astrum. Distracting herself from her tears, she imagined what it might be like to explore the kingdoms she knew little about, aside from what she had read in her scrolls. It would help if she knew where she was now, but it was no use guessing. Perhaps if the warriors she had encountered were kind enough, they would explain their home to her.
There is always much to learn, Eirene remembered her mother’s soothing voice, coming to a stand still and closing her eyes. If only her mother was here. She had always known what to do, she had always known what was right. Eirene needed that direction now more than ever, but all she had now were those words. Her fingernails dug into her skin painfully, yet it helped her to ground herself.
Onwards she continued to walk, her daydreaming causing her to forget that maybe she should stay close to the warriors who might keep her safer for longer. Luckily, unbeknownst to her, her protectors were not too far behind, always with a pair of eyes on her at any one time.
Eirene’s thoughts were eventually broken by the sound of a songbird tweeting, and a name, so sweet and so familiar, came to her thoughts. Linne. She turned to the tree on her right and there she was, the dear little bird she used to play with all those years ago.
A long time, sweet Eirene, such a long time.
I am so far away from home, Linne. It is strange to think you are all that is left of my childhood memories now.
Fear not, we are both children in the wilderness now. Sitara will come to you soon.
Sitara? Who or what is Sitara?
You already know.
A soft nicker came from Eirene’s left and when her head whipped around, there was the blue-gray horse.
“Sitara…it was you who saved me from the beach.” Eirene uttered softly, approaching the creature slowly. Sitara nickered again, extending her neck forward until her soft nose met Eirene’s hand.
I will take you wherever you need to go, my lady Eirene.
How did you know to find me?
I was sent to you.
Who sent you?
All will be clear in time. Until then, tell me where you wish to go and I will carry you. I will never leave your side if you need me.
Eirene couldn’t help a smile. She knew her powers to be able to communicate with nature were very unusual in this world, but how she wished they weren’t! If only humanity could know the love and the loyalty of the creatures they preside over. Although Linne was a dear friend to her, Sitara was something even more special. Eirene felt connected to her, as though they were one mind and body. She was an ally, a comfort, a guide.
Meanwhile, Cendril and his comrades were perplexed to see the blue-gray horse they had all but ignored earlier. They had seen it approach Eirene without any fear or nervousness, a very unusual trait in most horses. Then almost instantly as they appeared from the trees to approach Eirene, the creature pinned back its ears and backed away skittishly.
Do these men mean to harm? Eirene could hear Sitara ask warily, keeping her eyes fixed on the horse as it pawed the ground and shook its head in all directions.
Peace, they are my protectors.
Forgive my doubt, lady Eirene. We creatures of the earth fear many things, but the greatest is the steel of man.
This was true, Eirene knew. Mankind could be cruel and animals were just as disposable as warriors. Perhaps this was why she was blessed by the stars with the gift to hear these voices of nature, to remind mankind not to be cruel.
Eirene turned to Cendril and his men. “You are frightening her.”
Raising an eyebrow, Cendril dismounted his horse and approached with care. Sitara’s ears raised a little, her pawing on the ground ceasing, yet she remained nervous still. When he was only a foot or two from her, Cendril put out a hand and waited patiently. Eirene, Liulf, Haru and Ket watched in awe as Sitara finally padded to Cendril and let her nose be caressed by his gentle hand.
“She is a beauty.” Cendril said, releasing Sitara after a moment. Eirene walked to stand by the horse’s shoulder and ran a hand through her fine mane.
“Her name is Sitara.”
“You named her?”
“She told me her name.”
Cendril wasn’t sure whether he could believe that. He had heard of people with the ability to communicate with nature as though one were conversing with another human, but according to his Chieftain, it was the most unusual of all abilities the stars could bless upon mankind.
“She also knows of a sanctuary not far from here where we can rest.” Eirene continued. “I do not know where I will go thereafter, however.”
“A sanctuary you say?”
“West of here.”
“If it is not far, we can make camp.” Cendril concluded, gathering his cloak and walking back to his horse.
“Can you ride?” Haru asked Eirene, determined to remain kind despite the glares from Liulf sent in his direction.
“Well enough.” She said, clambering carefully onto Sitara’s back.
“We should have time before nightfall also. We need supplies.” Ket suggested to Cendril.
“You and Haru can search for firewood. Myself and Liulf will check perimeters.” When he was finally mounted on his own horse, Cendril turned to Eirene. “Lead the way.”
Nodding, Eirene let Sitara steer and lead her and the men through the forest. She had up until then underestimated the tiredness within her body and as her feet were relieved of walking, she thanked Sitara for bearing her burden for a short while. The pains in her limbs came upon on her and even though she knew she would not have a proper bed to lay her head, she could not wait until nightfall to bring about her slumber.
Midday turned into the afternoon and onwards the company plodded through the dreary forest. Each tree looked the same, yet they had to trust that Sitara knew the way.
We are moments away, lady Eirene. Try to overcome your weariness a little longer.
I will try.
Eirene stretched as much as she could manage to try and ease her muscles. Pitying the young girl, Sitara suddenly broke into a trot.
“Wait!” Haru cried after them, alerting the weary warriors who had taken a moment to gaze elsewhere than ahead of them. They geared their horses to canter and followed the blue-gray horse into the distance. They did not have to travel long before they found Sitara and Eirene motionless just before a clearing. Cendril moved forward to scold Eirene for going out of sight, but let the words die on his tongue when he saw what she was gaping at.
The clearing led out to an enclosed pasture with a river running through it, and unlike the forest they just come from, everything looked natural, healthy, almost magical in the glow of sunlight. Long rushes of green grass were lush and blowing in the wind. The water of the river sparkled, surely promising some fresh fish to eat if there was nothing else worthy of meat in the forest. It was more than a sanctuary to Eirene. It was near paradise, a faint reminder of home. It was peaceful.
“I will fish for some supper.” Eirene stated quietly, urging Sitara forward towards the river. Ket and Haru thought this was a suitable idea, glad to have an opportunity to create some space from the tension Liulf had caused earlier, and set about their tasks without another word. Liulf went his way and left Cendril staring after Eirene, who had now dismounted and was wading through the river to uproot some reeds.
Cendril decided that Liulf could manage for a little while without him and sent his own horse forward in the direction Eirene took. Sitara quietly grazed nearby, only raising her head momentarily to see who was approaching and putting her head back down again when she saw Cendril. Eirene paid no attention as she jumped onto the river bed, a bunch of reeds in her grasp.
“I did not know that river reeds could be used to make nets for fishing.” Said Cendril as he sat on a rock nearby.
Eirene sat down on her own rock and began weaving the reeds together. “A minimal skill, admittedly. We often ate fish on Astrum.”
“A healing maiden from Astrum. I have only met one or two of your people before.”
“You know of my homeland?”
“I only know of it, I have never visited it. We often get foreign visitors passing through to get to Maco or Mursi first before anywhere else. I have only ever ventured from Syvina a few times when hunting has been scarce, or to represent our lands in disputes with other kingdoms.”
“This is Syvina?”
Eirene looked around the pasture first, before her eyes went back to the forest. Syvina was a land known for its fertile lands around the Epelaii volcano, yet the forest from which she had come looked sick, dying even.
“Forgive me, I…I thought I would have recognised the lands of Syvina. But the forest, it looks so…” She tailed off, fearing that she had spoken ill of her saviour’s homeland where she should not.
“The forest has not been well for months.” Cendril admitted. “There is a darkness that has been crawling in, depleting our bounty of fruits and game. It is the first to bear such a sickness, but all the same, our tribe is beginning to feel the strain.”
“It is a powerful darkness.”
“You sense it?”
“I sense many things around me. I can feel a storm brew long before it reaches land, I can feel a creature move even when I cannot see it. I could feel that manticore in the forest, know it by feeling before my eyes came upon it. But this murkiness in the forest?” Eirene looked back to the forest and shivered. “It is the same darkness that took me from my homeland. I felt the same tremors in my being then as I have done walking in this forest. It brought such a powerful wave to Astrum. Not even my High Priest could stop it.”
“Is this how you came upon Syvina, to be so lost?”
The grief was still too raw, Eirene unfortunately discovered, having to recall the moment that tsunami came and destroyed everything, took all that she held dear. But she would not cry in front of this stranger. He would not understand her grief, she felt.
“My home is gone. I have no one left now.” Eirene whispered to herself. Frowning, Cendril got up from his rock and went to her, still wanting an answer to his question. Almost as soon as he came close to her shoulder, she jumped away from him, clutching her woven reeds. and refusing to make eye contact with him. He then relented and returned to sitting down.
“Peace, I will ask no further if it distresses you.”
“No, I will tell you.” Eirene immediately replied, composing herself. “There was to be an inauguration – my inauguration. I was to be anointed a priestess of Eistr Mariskh, the blessed temple of Astrum.”
Eirene continued weaving the reeds together, the net coming together solidly.
“I went to the Ootoe beach near the temple that morning and what I saw…it was nothing that I had even seen my High Priest conjure up before, and he is the most powerful with sorcery than any other on Astrum. The tsunami came and ravaged my home, taking me away and leaving me on one of your beaches. Then Sitara found me and took me to the forest. I do not remember what happened once the wave hit me. I could not even tell you if there were any survivors.”
Cendril was not often moved to sadness, but he understood the great tragedy that had befallen Eirene and in that, he found a rare shred of sympathy for her plight. She was only a young girl, not a warrior or an adventurer who had intended to come to Syvina in the hope of something great. She was intended to become a priestess, live a quiet life that did not bear the troubles of the world outside Astrum. Yet here she was, expected to survive harsher lands, with no idea of where she was, or any physical training to combat it.
But Liulf’s words from earlier bothered him still. The wolf warrior was right, though Cendril would never give voice to that fact. The girl was a stranger and perhaps not to be pitied fully. If she could master sorcery well enough, she would either be a great asset, or a potential threat.
Eventually deciding he was spending too much thought on the matter, he brought himself to his feet once more.
“I can bring you back to our tribe. Perhaps we might help you home from there, but we will have to see if my Chieftain will consent.”
Mouth dropping open in shock, Eirene leapt to her feet and stuttered, “You will help me?”
“Have I not just said that I can?”
“Forgive me, sir, I am – astounded by your kindness, truly. I am but a stranger, and so unfamiliar to the customs of your land. I only know what I know from scrolls, but nothing I am sure can substitute learning from a true resident of Syvina.”
A small smile came to Cendril’s face, an expression so rare, yet Eirene was pleasantly surprised to see it change his whole being. Stern stoic warrior to just a man, and a handsome one she noticed suddenly. She dropped her gaze, embarrassed.
“Not many would be so willing learn. You are one of few that I have ever come across who does not already know so much about Syvina that I would be told of what my homeland is like for me, though I have been born and raised here.”
Eirene’s smile in reply was weak and still wary, Cendril noticed. For all that she was naïve of the world, she had a fine instinct for keeping on her guard. Impressive, he thought, for a girl so young.
“I cannot express my gratitude enough to you, sir.”
“I am Cendril Tupha, not a sir.”
“A leftover custom of my homeland, I am afraid, it might take me some time to break the habit.” Eirene finally finished her fish net made from reeds. “But now that I know your name, you should know mine. I am Eirene Nielaa.”
“Eirene.” Cendril repeated, the name rolling of his tongue in a way that reminded him of water, like the colour of her eyes he noticed. A pretty name for a pretty maiden. “I suppose I should let you fish our supper.”
“So long as the river is still generous.” Eirene stepped into the river once more, placing the fish net close to the river bed. “May I know the names of your comrades?”
“Silver hair is Haru, gold hair is Ket. Hair of fire is Liulf, though I would caution you to keep a distance from him.”
Nodding, Eirene resumed her waiting and stared out into the plain enjoying the cooling sensation of the flowing water between her legs and through her fingers. Her thoughts took over and any sense of Cendril or any other being were forced into the nether of her mind.
Cendril walked away, deciding it was now time to go and find Liulf. The perimeter would not be checked and set properly without him otherwise. As he mounted his horse, he could see Haru and Ket returning with the firewood they needed. Good. At least he knew that Eirene was safe, that she wouldn’t be able to run off anywhere without him knowing.