Eirene collapsed on the ground, exhausted at last from her excursions. Morning now broke into the afternoon and she knew that the next day, she would be sore, for she felt this way already in her bones and muscles. Cendril was a fair teacher, attentive to where she needed most instruction. But he was also tenacious and strict. He would not let her go until he was satisfied she had properly learnt her footing at least.
Not even needing to wipe sweat from his forehead, Cendril heaved a breath and huffed, “I think we may check for your armour now.”
Ah yes, the custom made armour for the smallest girl the tribe had ever trained for combat. Eirene groaned a little. No doubt M’mfudi would exercise his humour once more when she would reach his hut, sluggish. But better that I learn and bear some mockery, if it will lead to becoming proficient in combat, She thought.
Pulling herself to her feet, Eileen dusted herself down and spared a hand to rub the slight cramp in her left leg. Cendril raised an eyebrow at her, questioning if she was ready to leave. When she nodded that she was ready, he led her back to M’mfudi’s hut in silence. The walk was slow and hindered, but Eirene had to push herself. Cendril said it wasn’t going to be a soft process and the aftermath of a long, introductory morning training was part of that. She would find no sympathy with him.
M’mfudi took one look at Eirene’s flushed face and dishevelled hair as she entered his hut and then let forth a rumble of laughter.
“I thought Tupha here woulda made mince meat of ya, maybe. But like I suspected, you have the mettle as well as bite. You were a good find, indeed.” He said with a twinkle in his eyes.
Not sure how to receive such praises, Eirene merely smiled wearily. She was keen to leave and take some rest from the business around her.
“Is my armour ready?” She asked.
“Aye, it is ready, yer ladyship. An especially quick craft for a young one so little as yourself.” M’mfudi replied, holding out a hard leather brigandine. Eirene stared at it a little, wondering truly if men’s eyes could work out her shape enough beneath the robes she wore. Then she took the armour from him and observed it.
It was fine craftsmanship, indeed. The armour felt sturdy, despite being light in weight compared to the steel hanging around the hut. It would serve her well, she concluded.
“Thank you M’mfudi.” Eirene said, bowing a little.
M’mfudi, not used to praise from pretty foreign girls, shook his he’d and shooed Eirene out. She went with no complaint or offence taken, and found Cendril patiently waiting outside for her.
“Have you tried it on?” He asked. Eirene shook her head.
“I do not know how armour would be made, let alone to clothe myself in some.” She confessed.
With a gentle hand on her back, Cendril guided her back to the part of the Hoaeda encampment where the wise women resided, which Eirene learned was called the Ish-Szaid. Upon their arrival, the women clucked their greetings, showering their greatest warrior with praise and questions of how they could be of assistance.
“Mistress Nielaa needs to try on her armour and then take sup from her morning of training.” Cendril said to the women. Eirene noticed he was less reserved with the other women of the tribe, perhaps even prideful, protective. She could only deduce that there was still some trust to be built between them, or that maybe he preferred these women so extravagantly gave him. Whichever reason this could be, she couldn’t help feeling as though she were being scrutinised.
Gausi, the wise woman that Eirene recognised from the nigh before, stepped forward and replied to Cendril eagerly. “But go course, we would all be honoured to assist Eirene with her new attire.”
Before Eirene could register the potential meaning of what had been said, the wise women almost instantly surrounded her and began to undress her. Horrified that she was being so brazenly exposed, especially before Cendril, who seemed to be making no move to leave, Eirene began to protest and struggle. These hands and eyes on her body felt strange and intrusive. Sensing the young girl’s distress, Gausi put what was meant to be a comforting hand on Eirene’s shoulder.
“Hush now, little one, this is our way. You should be pleased.” The wise woman whispered in Eirene’s ear.
“At least let me be naked without him present.” Eirene hissed angrily, putting her hands to her breasts when her dress came away from her chest.
Gausi merely smiled. “Nakedness, particularly that of a woman’s, is a welcome practice in Hoaeda, little one. You see, a young woman’s common goal in Hoaeda is to find a worthy mate, to find a man who will worship her body and soul as well as protect it. Perhaps it was not custom in your home land, but here, womanhood is celebrated when we can all see how one has flourished and can continue the legacy of the tribe.”
A puzzling concept for a girl raised in a fairly conservative environment. Eirene did not dare question or disagree with the custom; in fact, she saw much truth in how man and woman could partner this way. But all the same, her want to cover up in the presence of Cendril was habit.
And to the heart of the issue was Cendril. He still hadn’t left. He had made himself comfortable in a nearby chair and was watching her intently. This unnerved Eirene greatly. Was he still watching to assess if she was an enemy still? Or was that desire she could make out in those intensely dark violet eyes of his? If he had not left yet, perhaps what Gausi said was true: he saw she was all but a woman now, and very much liked what he saw.
The wise women suddenly left Eirene’s intimate space and she was in full view of Cendril, as they for their part prattled and made about finding some spare clothes to go with her armour. Eirene could not take her eyes off Cendril and he could not take his eyes off her. Then he rose from his seat to make his way to her. She swallowed into her already dry throat.
When he reached her, Cendril gently took her arms away from her breasts and observed her more closely. Eirene looked up into his face and his eyes focussed in on hers.
“So tiny.” Cendril murmured absentmindedly, tucking one of Eirene’s curls behind her ear. He turned to Gausi. “Do we have suitable sized linen for her?”
“Only if she would wear a dress with her armour, which simply will not do. We would need to fashion some breeches and a shirt for her. She is such a small thing, really.” Gausi confirmed what Cendril and Eirene had suspected, that there was nothing for the new arrival to wear and that like her armour, more clothing had to be made customary.
Looking down at Eirene again, Cendril saw she was trembling. It was endearing to him, to see how vulnerable she was naked. He for his part could not understand his fascination with this tiny girl, only able to reason somewhat that she was something different, a little exotic. That to any man was intriguing, but there was more than that to which Cendril could not outline for definite yet. Next time he would find her naked however, he wasn’t sure if he would be able to show the same restraint he had demonstrated now. He was already having difficulty blocking thoughts from his mind upon seeing the pertness of her small breasts and well curved buttocks.
Cendril took off his own armour first. Eirene raised an eyebrow, about to ask what he was doing, then forgot her question entirely when he took off his own linen shirt and bore his muscular chest for all the women to see.
The wise women once again clucked their praises, while Eirene merely looked upon his body with what Cendril thought was mild interest. If only he could feel what she was feeling, to know that her pulse raced and burned her inside in a way that shocked her into complete silence. Eirene dared not take a breath, nor breathe one in case that gave away what was truly going on inside.
Then the linen shirt was dropped over her head. Fumbling her arms through the sleeves that seemed overly large compared to her, Eirene held onto the material tightly as Cendril looked upon her with amusement.
“Another dress for the lady.” He teased lightly. When Eirene said nothing, her eyes uncertain, he then said, “I will collect you in a while to meet the chief. She is expecting you for her own lessons. In the meantime, sup well.”
Still perplexed with the whole experience, Eirene merely nodded and turned away to speak to one of the wise women about her measurements needed to make her clothes. Smiling only a little at the back of her head, Cendril thanked Gausi and the surrounding women and left the hut.
“What do you remember from your lessons regarding the twelve kingdoms?” Denyy asked Eirene when the young girl was brought to the Ish-Br later that day. The elder sorcerer was pleased to see the priestess dressed in the garb of the tribespeople and integrating with their culture. Not that Denyy had any doubts however; while Eldwin had left Eirene lacking in knowledge of the world outside of Astrum, at the very least he had taught Eirene a good sense of willingness to learn from others.
“Precious little, I am sorry to say, your Grace.” Eirene replied, head bowed slightly in shame at her admission.
“You may address me as Chief or Denyy, I am no lady or princess worth any title.” Denyy said gruffly. “Come. This shall be your first lesson of the day.”
With a crooked finger, Denyy beckoned Eirene to the table in the centre of the room. Once again, Eirene bestowed her eyes upon the map she had seen the nigh before, still covered with markings, crystals, flags and various trinkets, all of which signified each kingdom and the relevant cities they had.
“We shall start with remembering the kingdoms, of which there are twelve, and what they are famed for.” The old witch sat down on a seat. Eirene obediently followed suit and looked upon the map, searching her memories for Eldwin’s gentle voice and his teachings. She first pointed to the centre of the map.
“The first, Iokim, land of warriors and dragons.” She said, at first certain, but then with seeing Denyy’s impassive face, began to doubt herself.
Finding Eirene’s nervousness endearing, Denyy smiled a little, nodded and made a gesture to continue. Her confidence partially restored, Eirene took her finger and began to trail it across the map to the east. In the back of her mind, the faint echoes of the ‘Ode to the Twelve’ rang in her mind, giving her an order to follow of the lands alluded to in the ancient rhyme. Her finger then went from far east to far west.
“The second is the land of builders and mammoths, Maco, followed by the third, Paxima, the land of traders and the ibis.” She continued.
Eirene’s finger then lifted to the north, where the winter lands lay.
“The fourth is Tieore, the watcher’s land guarded by golems.”
Then her finger went far south the the desert lands.
“Fifth is the home of thespians and panthers, Kalida.”
Next her trail took her a just north of Kalida, before drawing a semi-circle downwards then up.
“Daimfir, the sixth, is the keeper’s land where the white stag is sacred. Then comes Mursi, seventh, famed for diplomats and ravens, before leading us here to Syvina, the eighth. Here sorcerers and phoenixes reign.”
Nodding again, this time looking very pleased with Syvina’s description, Denny said, “And then?”
“Farrji, the ninth.” Eirene moved her finger just north of Syvina, pointing the mountainous terrain. “The most famous adventurers come from there, as well as griffins.”
She looked a little north west to an island in the ocean, around the size of her homeland.
“The tenth is Elbira. There you would find the judges that maintain the law, and the elder owls.”
The trail now took her to the land just east.
“Eleventh is Vertil, land of philosophers and wolves.”
Last came her homeland. As her finger trailed to there, she felt a pang in her heart, her grief still fresh with each time anything remotely related to her home and her family were mentioned.
“The Isles of Astrum, the twelfth land of the Twelve Kingdoms, home to healers and horses, founded by the Grey Lady on the Ootoe beach. A balmy spring climate the south, surrounded by the Loi Sea -“ Eirene stopped abruptly when she realised she was letting her feelings carry her away on a tangent. She did not need to preach to Denyy of the culture she had grown up with, for there was no doubt that the witch was a well travelled and learned woman, nor would listing everything that Eirene had loved about Astrum change anything that had happened.
Despite the young girl’s slight outburst of emotion, Denyy was pleasantly surprised to find that at least Eirene had the basics to hand and silently, the old woman thanked Eldwin for at least making sure that part of the girl’s schooling was complete. Had she known nothing, her work would be a lot harder. But still, in Eirene’s own words, there was still much to learn and it was time to move the lesson on.
“Very good, child. You know of the Twelve Kingdoms, of each one’s patron and sigil.” Denyy started, making sure that Eirene was now focussed back on the task at hand. “How is your knowledge of the kingdoms’ capitals?”
Eirene shook her head in mute silence.
“Very well. Observe.” Denyy commanded, stretching her hand out to start in the centre with Iokim. “Dryce Cestr, the mountain city. No man or beast has ever brought it to ruin, for it was forged in dragon fire and within the mountain itself. Should you ever wish to become a great warrior, you can pursue the Path of Dragons. But heed my warning, child: many do not pass. Only the very worthy prevail.”
When Eirene said nothing still and continued to pay attention, Denyy moved on.
“Ixi in Maco, the city of grand architecture, made only by the finest builders from the hard rock in the ground and the tough wood from trees hardened by the autumn lands. Great wealth is also said to be stored beneath the city.”
“Paxima’s capital is Byr-Machea. You will not find buildings here, only acres and acres of caravans from which you will find traders of every sort. Any trader worth his salt is often encouraged to sell his wares at Byr-Machea at least once, for if their day is fruitful, they are rewarded with the Stamp of Byr-Nael, an honour that will last them a lifetime.”
“Sounds colourful. Byr-Machea must receive many from Paxima and beyond.” Eirene commented, her mind wondering a little, trying to imagine the business that would undoubtedly be the feeling that Byr-Machea would give to any residents or visitors.
Denyy snorted. “Chaotic would be how many would describe it. Now back to your lesson…where were we?”
She traced herself back to Paxima first and then looked north east.
“Ah yes, the watery city of Aluvedet in Tieore. No building there sits on the ground, everything is raised on stilts. You would have to mind the people there as well. Most are not very welcoming to strangers.”
“Understandable, they are the watchers after all. They likely see enemies in many places.” Eirene reasoned. What she didn’t voice was the already she saw similarities in Hoaeda - so as not to insult the Chieftain sat across from her - and even in the Eistr Mariskh. Outsiders were treated with cold politeness, but how much of that was because the residents of these kingdoms were too insular, or because the outsiders coming in showed little interest in learning about other kingdom’s customs, Eirene could not decide.
“That they do. Their jobs in watching out for the realm has oft left them suspicious of everything and everyone. At the very least the golems are quite extraordinary to watch.” Denyy agreed with a wry look on her face. “Next we have Daimfir in Heorzuri. Like Hoaeda, Heorzuri is more of a settlement than a city, but nevertheless, it is considered sacred ground. The trees there are said to be full of magic, for they grow very tall and never lose their leaves no matter which season.”
“Fiet-Kuva is the capital of Mursi. Now pay attention, child, this is a city which is very important to make note of. All diplomatic matters which concerns dealings between different lands in the Twelve Kingdoms are resolved here.”
Eirene raised an eyebrow, not quite believing the sheer political power one city could have. “All diplomatic matters?”
“I do not jest, child.” Denyy said severely, not used to seeing questions of her knowledge in her pupils. “In the Great Poppili, the diplomats help to resolve many crises. A decision from this ancient council is worth more weight than all the coin in the world.”
Understanding, Eirene nodded. Denyy then continued.
“Farrji’s capital Vernasalu, like Iokim, is a city wrought in stone. However, this city sits high on a great mound of rock and the mountains surround it in a circle. The most legendary adventurers, whether they be from Farrji or beyond will have their name enshrined on the Jernan Stone.”
Truthfully, Eirene found this tradition to be most appealing so far, apart from perhaps visiting the magical woods of Daimfir. What a thrill it must be for the brazen adventurers, to trek the mountains and lands afar! And to be remembered throughout the ages after for such great deeds.
“Isolmin in Elbira is another important capital of note. While Fiet-Kuva decides on matters of diplomatic incline, the judges of Isolmin are not to be trifled with either. Should you find yourself before them, you had better hope it is to serve them in truth, and not to avoid any guilt.” Denyy’s voice brought Eirene’s attention back to the lesson.
“They sound severe.” Eirene commented thoughtfully.
“You will find no truer servants of the truth in Isolmin. They are severe in any matters for which one might be innocent or guilty, but one can be sure they will see fair trial.”
Denyy tapped the map suddenly, beginning to feel her patience waning. She was not used to so many questions and discussion in her lessons.
“Let us proceed. I have some tasks for you at the end and I am trusting that you are a quick learner.”
“Of course.” Eirene replied quietly. It was not lost on her that Denyy was a teacher who was sharp and to the point, very unlike Eldwin, who used to take his time to make sure Eirene understood the content which she was learning. She had to admit that with respect to her former mentor, Denny’s fast paced approach was refreshing. She hadn’t felt challenged so in years; having to keep up with her new teacher gave the young girl a strange sense if exhilaration.
“Very well. I shall not school you on the Isles of Astrum, for you should be familiar with customs from your homeland.” Denyy said pointedly, taking note of Eirene’s more composed response to the mention of her homeland this time. “So let us move to Zitalyss, the capital of Vertil. Although the wolves of Vertil are said to be ferocious, they have formed a bond with the philosophers and guard them in their wintry homes built into the hills. In Zitalyss especially, one can only gain access to the philosophers if the wolves deem you to pass. It is said that the wolves can sniff out friend from foe, so enemies best beware.”
Seeming relieved to have finished versing on the other kingdoms, Denyy laid a loving hand on Syvina and then bestowed Eirene with small smirk and wicked twinkle in her eye, as though she had some playful trick up her sleeve.
“What have you learned of our home here in Hoaeda?” She asked.
Eirene knew she was being tested now and was eager to show the Chieftain that she was a worthy student.
“As you stated before, Hoaeda is a settlement to the greatest tribe in the kingdom. Although you are famed for your fierce warriors, it is the sorceries of the mind and body that is inherent to Hoaeda’s existence. One such tradition is the Trial of Muuya.” She started. When Denyy made no intervention again and appeared to be listening intently still, Eirene knew she was on the right track.
“Ah, the wise women have no doubt informed you of this. I will only applaud you of your attentiveness, however, if you can tell me what this trial entails.”
Biting her lip, Eirene thought of what the wise women told her. The Trial of Muuya was a brutal one indeed, one which all residents of Hoaeda must endure, a test of true strength and endurance, more so than the path one must take to become a Hoaeda warrior. She hoped that Cendril’s training would make her fit for this day. While many survive the trial, plenty also do not, and she did not want to be part of that proportion.
“In sorcery, the four elements of our world are paramount. Each test is to see if we can withstand fire, earth, air and water when applied through sorcery.
“The first trial, fire, one must cross hot coals before standing on a burning pyre until the fire dies. The second trial, earth, a boulder is to be lifted from the ground to a high up ledge. The third trial, air, a feather from a phoenix must be successfully procured so one can transform into a phoenix and successfully take flight around the Epelaii volcano. The fourth and final trial, water, one must cast an air bubble so they can remain successfully under the ocean for an hour to seek the skull of Hyuma, the great phoenix belonging to the first socerer Iasae.”
Eirene then gulped at what she was about to say next.
“If the correct incantations are made, along with a sacrifice of blood and a blessing to your patron the sorcerer, you shall pass each trial. If any of the three preparations are not made, you shall surely fail.”
A moment of silence fell between the two women. Eirene waited with baited breath to see if she had indeed won any praise from the old witch. Then just as her heart was beginning to sink, thinking that she had disappointed her mentor, Denyy raised her hands and clapped gently yet firmly. A smile was now on her lips.
“A promising start, child. I believe I was right when I said those ears could listen well. You shall surely find much success with us here in Hoaeda.” Denyy concluded magnanimously, raising herself from her seat. Eirene followed suit and curtseyed.
Shaking her head in mirth, Denyy murmured, “Such a strange little thing you are.”
Not quite understanding what the old witch meant, Eirene stood up straight, waiting for further instruction. Denyy then clicked her fingers and not a moment later, Gausi entered the room.
“Take Mistress Nielaa for supper. I shall join you later.” Denyy commanded, waving the wise woman and the young girl away.
As Eirene and Gausi left the Ish-Br, the wise woman bent down and whispered, “You are a special one, child. The Chieftain does not give praise generously, especially less so to her students. Well done.”
Keeping her smile contained, yet her head held high, Eirene followed Gausi in silent triumph.
Much later, Denyy sat in the Ish-Br and waited for Cendril. While she was impressed with Eirene’s attention in the classroom, she wanted to know if the same efforts were being made in combat. Soon enough, Cendril wandered in shirtless, glistening with sweat from his training excursions. Denyy raised an eyebrow at him.
“Training so late?” She asked.
“I needed some idea of what to do with the girl tomorrow.” Cendril replied irritably, taking a spare rag from the table and wiping his face with it.
Denyy wrinkled her nose a little before saying, “I find it hard to believe that you might have run out of ideas by now. She is only a beginner.”
“I have not trained beginners in a while. That job I usually leave to the Fledgings and the Seasoned.”
“Then it is any wonder you chose to train her.” Denyy remarked dryly. “Seeing her nakedness undoubtedly makes your decision all the clearer, at least I am sure the wise women will agree with me.”
Even though she was right, Cendril still bristled at what Denyy was insinuating, and he refused to confirm or deny it. It was futile anyway. The old witch knew him better than most and after all these years of her proving that she could read him almost like a book, it still vexed him that she could.
There was also the irritation of the sudden lust he felt for this young girl. Even though she was ten years his junior and possessed no knowledge of how to seduce a man, she drove him mad. He could not make out her character entirely, nor did she give him the attention he was so used to receiving. When she treated him cordially, the desire to demonstrate what he could do, especially to her, increased tenfold.
So the training he engaged in tonight was a distraction, but only temporarily. Denyy could see it all from a mile away. It wouldn’t be long before the warrior would make a move on the priestess.
“I am warning you, Cendril, you will not find her to be an easy conquest.” She began, not even flinching when Cendril’s blazing violet eyes came upon her.
“She is a slip of a girl who is perchance exceptional at scrolls. Soon she will fit into the tribe and she will be just like the others.”
“Appearances are deceiving, my dear boy. You see, this ‘slip of a girl’ harbours quite the temper, if the letters from my dear friend Eldwin are to be believed.”
Cendril let out a harsh bark of laughter. “A temper, aye? Then she will fit in here nicely. Plenty a girls here could use their hot bloodedness to bring her to heel.”
“You fool.” Denyy spat at him, suddenly on her feet full of her own fury that he was not listening to her. “Go on then. Continue to train her, push her. Then see what comes of it.”
“You seem determined to keep her from me, my Chief. Am I suddenly not worthy enough?” Cendril demanded, determination set in his jaw.
“I told you before, if you were content to be her equal, you might find happiness with her.” Denyy’s voice went back to cool again as she regained control of her own temper. “Your worth is not what I question, my boy. It is your lust and your judgment because of your lust that I give caution to.”
“I can control my lust well enough, my Chief.” Cendril argued a little less aggressively now also when he saw the old witch had calmed.
Shaking her head in an almost pitying fashion, Denyy turned away from him and watched the fire in the fireplace.
“But I know your character, Cendril.” She said softly this time. Then she turned back to Cendril with a serious expression on her face. I have seen glimmers of your future, of hers. Your lust is not just to know her body and soul. You desire power and she will not give that to you, at least not over her.”
Cendril pursed his lips in determination, still not able to see the truth in what Denyy was telling him.
“Is it so difficult for you to allow me one thing I want?” He asked. “Are you so determined to see any efforts I make trying to find peace thwarted.”
Denyy’s lips went thin also. She had been down this road with him once before and it ended badly. Yet if he could not see reason, she was powerless to stop his pursuit of the young priestess.
“I would never stop you finding peace, Cendril, if you found any other way than Eirene.” She replied sincerely, walking towards him. “If it is in my power to do so, tell me, and I will give you the peace you desire.”
“I want her.”
“You cannot have her.”
“I know she and I share a destiny together.” Cendril insisted.
“Not one that will end well.” Denyy exclaimed in exasperation.
“Then so be it.”
Just as Cendril was turning to leave, Denyy thundered, “Why? Why must you drive yourself so willingly to destruction?”
Puzzled, Cendril turned to face Denyy and saw in her face a very rare emotion for her to display: distress.
“I have treated you like a son, granted you privileges that many in this tribe would dream of having. You are our protector Cendril, our greatest defence against everything outside of Hoaeda. Why her?” Denyy continued in a slight frenzy.
The silence that came was enough that the Chief and the warrior could hear everyone dining and celebrating outside. Then after deep thought, Cendril murmured, “You denied me Kaithe.”
Denyy went pale.
“It was for your own good.” She whispered, though it seemed she was trying to convince herself.
“To make me a warrior? Oh yes, that has worked, for I have wanted for nothing since and served you well.” Cendril continued in a bitter tone. “Destruction has been written in our future from the moment you took Kaithe from me. At least if I must wander ever closer to it, I can do so in some content knowing I have had one thing of my own.”
Shaking from his words, Denyy found the table and leant on it for support. When she could not speak or look at him, Cendril took that as his cue to leave. The decision was made in his eyes and Denyy could not stop him, not anymore, not now. After he was gone, Denyy recovered herself and took a crystal in her palm. As she channelled all of her pain and distress into her sorcery, the crystal began to glow red and pulse in her hand. When her thoughts reached their peak, the crystal shattered in her hand, some shards falling to the floor, others cutting her hand.
She looked to the floor and saw the blood mixed among the remnants of the crystal. Then her eyes rolled to the back of her head and she saw the fires of the Epelaii volcano, heard the cry of a phoenix, smelt burning flesh. Then there was a rumble followed by the rush of water and suddenly she was overwhelmed, losing her breath, slowly but surely dying…
As her vision came to an end, she gasped and doubled over.
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