Between shadows and lies
Lie the ashes
And so darkness he
The nightmares don’t come. For once, I sleep unburdened by past torments. Mara has decided to quiet the ghosts, for a while, at least. Perhaps she thinks I will need the rest for whatever is to come when I wake.
It’s not a long rest, but when I wake, I feel sudden energy pulsing through me, vibrant and alive. Dreamless sleep was the best gift I could have asked for. I remind myself to thank Mara, next time I visit her, if it was her doing at all.
I don’t speak to Chiqu as we prepare for the journey ahead. We both know we’ll make it to the sea today, and I don’t know what to expect once we do. I’m not frightened at the thought of attempting to cross the sea in whatever ship, large or small, that she owns. The worst that could happen is a mountain-sized wave capsizes the ship and we all drown. It may not be a quick death, but it would be chaotic enough that I would hardly feel anything. Just a swirl of ice water, tossed to the sea, and it would be over.
Our pace is slower than ever. Epiran hasn’t seemed to recover from his limp. I can walk slowly and still move faster than him. Finally, Chiqu, sighing in frustration, strides over to him and takes one of his arms over her shoulder. “Take the other side,” she says to me. “We can carry him. It’ll be faster that way.”
Perhaps there’s something about the cold that affects old bones. Epiran has a twisted expression of pain as I sling his stiff arm over my shoulder. Chiqu’s right; we move faster this way, even if it is causing him pain.
I’m expecting the sea to come into view any moment as the salt smell grows stronger, but it doesn’t happen. Instead, I gradually become aware of the dark figure shadowing the horizon. It’s difficult to make out anything clear in the infinite night, and I can’t quite pull out the exact shape, but I know it is there.
It is shifting, changing form before my eyes. At first hazy and writhing, with sudden erratic movements. Then it’s thick and hulking, with a slow gait, lumbering in constant jerks, closer, closer. It sees me and I see it, and we both know we can see each other, but we’re not acknowledging it because it is the hunter and I am the prey. Never stalked before but chased, and now I know what it feels like. Foreboding because I know that even if I run as far as I can, it will be there, slowly moving closer, and I will never outrun its vicious claws.
Chiqu’s voice echoes out suddenly. “Coming, Luzile?”
I hadn’t realized I had stopped. I force myself to break my gaze away from the shape and keep moving, eyes fixed on the ground ahead, all I need to focus on is each step. Don’t think about the hunter. Don’t think at all.
We’re moving uphill, and there’s a small, ice-covered ridge above us. I know this must be what was blocking my view of the sea. The slope is steepening quickly near the top, and sharp rocks, unladen with moss, jut out, encouraging us to retreat. I pause, and Chiqu follows my example. Epiran will have to be carried over the ridge, and there’s a likely chance that whoever is doing it will slip on the pale ice.
“I can take him,” offers Chiqu, and I nod. We’re both strong enough to do it, but if she’s willing to risk her life for a stranger, I’ll gladly let her if it means I won’t have to.
I help her adjust Epiran on her back. He’s thin and frail, almost a wisp, and his quivering hands can hardly close around Chiqu’s neck. I’m not sure he’ll be able to hold on the entire time, but it’s the best we can do. I begin the ascent first, strategically planning which handholds and indents in the rock will hold my weight. A few times my hands scrape stone, opening small scratches and minuscule wounds on my palms, but I ignore the prickling and keep going. I vault over the edge, grasping the jagged rock and pulling myself up. Then I bend over to help Chiqu, who’s slowly making her way up the cliff.
I reach out a hand and she grabs it, grunting with effort as she pushes off from a ledge and leans forward, between two spikes of rock. I help Epiran off her back and onto the even ground, then pull up Chiqu. Sarofa and Mehild are close behind, and soon we’re all safely at the top. Before us, there’s a small patch of deserted hills covered with pale, scrubby moss and dry brown earth. Dark clouds hang in the air, and the sharp breeze carries salt.
The roar of the sea fills my ears, and I can barely hear sounds above it. Once again, my stomach begins to churn at the vastness of the sea. I can’t tell if I’m intimidated or excited at the prospect of venturing out on those perilous waters, the only thing looming between me and Sviros. And if it fails, at least I will know I escaped. Well, not if I’m dead. But I know it now.
I’m so mesmerized by the massive waves that I don’t notice the dark figure creeping into the corner of my vision, or hear Chiqu’s sudden shout of warning. It’s a blur of motion, and I’m not ready for the hand that yanks me in, the knife that darts out, trying to rip open a hole in my chest. I grab the wrist, twist the knife around, press it flat so the blade can’t bite. My fingers close on the leather cords around her neck, yank hard and she’s caught off guard, choking and retching. But she retaliates, wrapping my hair around her fist and pulling, sharp sparks shooting into my scalp.
It’s a battle, and we’re face-to-face but unseeing, fighting for the grip of the handle, fighting for the power to determine which way the blade will point. And she’s strong but I’m stronger, my hand is curved around, blade tilting away from my chest and towards hers, it’s over now, first the point, now the blade, sinking in effortlessly.
Good, Luirlan, whispers Mara.
A hoarse gasp, her eyes wide like she wasn’t expecting it but we both knew it would happen. Her face falls as she drops to the ground, sliding off the blade still clutched in my fingers. Hands pressed to the wound between her ribs. Blood leaking from the corner of her lips. And then I recognize her. The hair, braided with beads. Angular face, now gaunt and bony from hunger.
I’ve just murdered Susaka Alfa.
Her lips are moving, trying to piece together words but failing. She tries several times and finally a sound comes out. “You…” she murmurs. “You’re…dead.”
“Worse than that,” I say, dropping my voice to a whisper. “Alive.”
I bend down beside her. No pity in my heart because all I see when I look at her face, stretched tight with pain, are the countless lives she ripped away. But I’ll listen if she can speak.
“Where is the tribe?” I demand, voice harsh. There’s a small hint of panic fluttering within me. If she dies, I’ll never know what happened. Why she is alone.
“You…will never…leave,” she croaks, barely audible over the crashing of the sea. Her eyebrows knit together as she tries to reach out a trembling hand, but I push it away to the ground and repeat my question.
“Where are they? What happened?”
“Gone,” she whispers. “You….can’t leave.”
Realization dawns on me at her words, weak but determined, resolute. She’s lost the rest of the tribe, but she’s trying to hold on to me. Keep me back. It’s not a warning. It’s an order. Susaka Alfa, blood seeping into the ground, still thinks she can control me. I feel my fingers twitch, quiver with rage, wanting to squeeze her throat and end it now. No. She’s dying, but I still have time to hurt her.
I kneel over her, raise the knife.
“I am getting away from this place.” The knife is swift, biting into her flesh once, twice. She’s too weak to cry out but her face contorts in agony as I open more holes in her, blood spurting out and spraying my clothes. “And there is nothing…nothing…you can do to stop me.”
I let her bleed for a few moments, then I hear Chiqu’s voice, tense and pained. “End it, Luzile!”
I lean close, press my arm on her throat, hand on her face, jerk quickly. There’s a sharp crack, pop of bone as her neck breaks. And it’s over.
I know I will pay for this. I always do but I can’t help it. And I don’t care. When I turn around, Mehild’s face is streaked with tears, and Chiqu has an odd expression on her face, something between shock and horror at the monster before her. Or perhaps just surprise.
“You didn’t have to kill her,” she says.
“Yes, I did,” I say. “She was trying to kill me.”
“So you killed her instead.”
“Of course,” I respond evenly, voice flat. “I was under no presumptions that I was to let her live, if we ever met again.”
Chiqu doesn’t reply, and we stare at the dead body of the chief for a long time, as if we are rooted to the ground, unable to move. They don’t seem to know what to do. I’m certain most of them have never seem a murder before. Perhaps Chiqu, but I can’t tell. Maybe they’re surprised at what I’ve just done. They shouldn’t be.
I can’t stand this anymore. First I yank the leather bands, hooked with wooden beads, from her neck. Then I take the body, soaked in blood, and heave it over my shoulder. After a few steps I’m at the cliff, flinging the body away into the sea, to the pillars of rock, and I don’t watch it fall. But it’s gone now.
I glare at every single one of them, daring them to say something, but they don’t meet my gaze. Then Chiqu speaks. “Do you usually throw your dead into the sea?”
I don’t move, don’t respond, don’t show her anything, but Sarofa gives a slight shake of her head. Silent. Silence. I hate it. Why aren’t they saying anything?
I turn away, fix my eyes on the sea, and for once, I don’t feel the thrill that usually comes with death. No fear, either. I know I will see Mara tonight, and I know she will torment me. I don’t know why. Isn’t this what she wants? I’m doing what she wants. Unless it’s not her who’s causing the nightmares.
A shiver runs down my spine. I look back at Chiqu. A tear is rolling down her cheek, escaped from her eye, her expression stony and cold. She is mourning Susaka Alfa, who she didn’t even know. I knew her and I killed her and I don’t regret it. Why does Chiqu care? Why do any of them care?
I watch as she rubs her neck with her hand and grimaces. It must be hurting her again. But she keeps her eyes fixed on the sea, watching something that isn’t there.
“Where’s your ship?” I say, and I’m surprised at the hoarseness of my voice, scraping in my throat. Chiqu looks at me for a long time, then nods to the cliff.
We follow her along the cliffside. I don’t know where we’re going, but Chiqu seems to remember the way. Her face is set, determined, and she walks at a brisk pace, not pausing or stumbling once on the precarious stones. Suddenly, she stops, kneels over the side of the cliff as if looking for something, then stands again. “It’s here.”
She leads us down a thin vein of rock that protrudes from the cliffside. As we walk down the steep decline, I hear scrabbling footsteps, a cracking sound, followed by a yelp behind me. I turn to see Epiran, dangling by his hand from the side, rock crumbled out from beneath his feet.
Mehild is directly behind me, and there’s not enough space on the ledge for me to move around her. “Get his hands!” I shout, and Mehild, panic evident in her face, frantically grabs at Epiran’s forearm, but as she moves forward her boot lands on his fingers. There’s a crunching sound and Epiran cries out weakly, toothless mouth gaping. Mehild quickly steps back, but Epiran has lost his grip and is hanging by one hand only.
Chiqu is calling out, trying to say something, but I can’t hear her over the roar. “Back up, Mehild!” I order, and she does, hopping back nervously, face streaked with silent salt tears. I lean over the cliff, reach for Epiran’s shoulders, and manage to grab him by the collar of his heavy tunic. Gripping one of his forearms in my hand, I try to pull him up, but there’s a ripping sound and I can’t hold on any longer because he’s just too far.
It’s that simple. All it takes is one move. Fingers loosening can’t grip anymore, too slippery and heavy and then he falls, plummeting to the water below, his body twirling and jerking. His hands grasp at the air, the world rushing by before the impact. A sharp rock spears him through the gut, splitting the skin and opening a spray of blood. His eyes open, glaze over as his head droops to the side. Then the waves pulse and swallow him up.