The long strand of crimson silk slithered in the currents pulling it downriver. Mara studied the last drops of dye escaping from the fabric as they bled into the undercurrents of the water.
She scrambled over the slick surface of the wooden platform which spanned the river’s width. A dozen women laboured alongside her, jostling each other as they moved from strand to strand, ensuring each one was firmly anchored. The consequences would be swift and dire if the precious silk was claimed by the currents.
Once hers was fully rinsed, Mara began the laborious task of tugging in the twelve-foot long strand and inviting it to land in soggy folds at her feet. Her wrinkled fingers and scab encrusted palms stung but she fought on knowing she would receive no food until she was finished.
Five minutes later, Mara finished pulling the last few yards of silk onto the platform. It shone a deep crimson and seemed to suck away the remaining colour from the land around her, leaving the river grey the hills beyond an inky black.
Mara wiped the sweat from her brow and carefully rinsed her chapped hands in the frigid water. She watched transfixed as blood flowed freely from the open sores, floating down water in rivulets of red, the marks of her suffering far more vivid than the dye in the Noble’s silk.
The only colour of this land. She thought, looking beside her at the dozens of piles of crimson. We bleed for their luxury. She held her bloodied hands high in the air to dry as the chapel bells began to toll, calling them in for evening meal.
The other girls rose, the whispering of their damp skirts sounding like a chant. Mara was too tired to move so she rocked back on her heels and listened, closing her heavy eyes. All light and feeling disappeared, leaving her floating in a void of distant tinny sounds.
The chanting grew louder and consumed her.
Two men bartered by the riverside, arguing in hushed tones, brimming with anger. A horse snorted beside them, the gravel shifting as the animal shied. Up-river the drying silk caught the breeze, cracking in the air. The horse’s feet scraped across the ground as it tried to flee.
“Control that animal!” There was a metallic wrench and the horse’s leather reins creaked. Air streaked through the animal’s mane as it tossed it’s head up. A gust of wind whipped up and the drying silk cracked through the air.
The horse leapt, gravel splashing into the water as it galloped down the river towards the sound of children laughing and playing.
“Tommy!” A familiar woman screamed. The ground shifted as the boy let out a started cry that was cut short by the sound of the horse’s hooves on gravel and flesh. There was a splash and all was silent.
Mara let out a strangled cry, clutching her ears. What was that noise? She threw up into the water until she was empty.
“Mara? Come on, girl! Food is ready.” Someone yelled. “Come and get it before the mist comes in.”
She rose, unsteady on her feet. The world wobbled then righted itself. Rubbing her ears, Mara looked up the river and froze.
Two men stood on the riverside, arguing in hushed tones. One led a horse, which was shying away from the flapping silk. Downriver, a boy played by the water, skipping stones.
Nausea overcame her and Mara almost tumbled into the river. She recognised the boy. Her brother.
“Tommy,” She gurgled. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Tommy!”
The boy looked up. Seeing Mara, he waved, then went back to his playing. Mara glanced upstream. A breeze was stirring, and the horse’s eyes were locked onto the silk…
“TOMMY!” Mara screamed, running down the platform. “RUN! The horse will kill you!”
People looked up at her claim, their gazes fixing on a horse that appeared perfectly controlled by her master. Moments later, a large gust of wind unsettled the silk. The horse whirled and fled. Mara ran faster.
“TOMMY!” Mara yelled, running as fast as she could on the rickety platform. Tommy’s eyes, wide in fear, locked on her as the horse crashed over him, striking him in the head with its hooves. His limp little body tumbled into the river and the currents claimed him.
People screamed and Mara collapsed onto her knees by the river bank. She was too cold and numb to cry, so she looked down at her hands. They were still bleeding.
A group of men took off downriver, chasing Tommy’s body. The merchant who had been in control of the horse fled. The women around Mara mumbled.
“Tommy is dead!”
“How could she know?”
“She saw the future!”
“Do you think it might-”
“Nonsense! Surely not!”
Her father strode towards her, propelled by the current of accusations, his face ragged with grief and fury.
“You did this!” He murmured, his eyes and voice empty.
“Papa,” She whispered. “No. Never-” He hit her on the back of the head and she cried.
“Witch! Blood mage! You killed my son!” Mara screamed in terror as her father picked her up by the arm. She fought as hard as she could, flailing her arms and legs.
“Please, no!” She whimpered. He began to drag her forwards towards the water. “No!” She screamed louder, digging her feet into the earth. “Gods, save me!” She pleaded. Her feet slid across the gravel as her father dragged her towards the rolling grey water. It tumbled over itself in anticipation, whispering a bloody welcome.
“Kill the witch! Kill the blood mage!” The people chanted as one.
Mara’s haunted screams echoed across the bleak hills, cut off as her father pushed her under the water. He held her there until she was no more.
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Up next: And so The Blood Hymn begins. Watch your step and never forget; Gardara is a dangerous place to show signs of blood magery…