She couldn’t tell if the screams she heard were real or imagined.
She sat in the centre of the wide room, just below the opening in the heavy stone roof, waiting for the sun to peak above her. Waiting for the unrelenting sun to ripple her flesh as the wind ripples the water. She needed to feel what he had felt, chained up on the outer wall, frying like an egg, his screams mingling with those of the carrion birds. Out in the far southern reaches of the realm of Loranya, the carrion birds are not dainty little crows or gulls; out in the desert they are near as big as men, hunters as well as scavengers.
Like Elenarka, the third of her name, and like her people.
Now the sun came a little at a time. It peaked over the edge of the opening in the roof, cast its golden rays upon the floor before her. She watched the blinding light crawl nearer, watched until all she could see was that golden glow, whether or not her eyes were open.
She stood up. She was no longer in the crumbling ziggurat, she was not in the desert, she was not in Loranya. She stood in a wide expanse of golden light that stretched off in every direction as far as she could see. Under her feet she could feel a smooth and solid warmth, though when she looked down she could not see anything solid upon which she could be standing. Her breath came to her calm and gentle and yet she wondered if she took a step would she simply fall forever into golden nothing? Where was she? How had she arrived here?
“Maravan,” she said to herself. If only just to know that she still had a voice. Could this really be that golden afterlife that the priests spoke of? If she walked would she stumble upon the great holds of the gods themselves? She lifted one foot and took a step forward. And then another.
She walked. There was nothing to indicate that she gained any progress. She left no footprints. She might have been moving forward or backward or up or down, she did not know. She carried on and grew warmer as she walked. The tone of the light changed before her, paled from rich golden to whitish. She walked faster. The light continued to pale until she came upon a figure surrounded by white light. It was a female figure, wrapped head to toe in white bandages, almost twice the height of Elenarka. She walked until she stood at the top of the figure’s shadow as it lay upon the un-ground.
“Dreamer,” she said. The figure turned and many arms seemed to unfold from her form, bandaged to the tips of each finger. Each hand held a long strip of white cloth, and the arms moved and wove the cloth together into a net and cast it over Elenarka. As the net settled over her it flared up, the cloth kindled and burnt until it was but many wisps of smoke. Still the figure wove the cloth, with greater speed and intricacy, but every strand that touched Elenarka burnt to nothing.
The White Lady stopped, folded her many arms back into herself.
You are mine. A voice said without words or sound. But I cannot touch you. By all rights you are mine. The voice grew petulant, disturbed. Elenarka did not know what to say and so she said nothing. She moved her hands to her chest and discovered a pendant hanging around her neck. An orange-red stone rotated gently in a cage of delicate threel lines. She had seen this before, but it was not hers. It belonged to another, more dangerous creature. The White Lady bent forward until her head, nearly the size of Elenarka’s entire torso, was level with the pendant. Her wrappings covered her face so that there was only a gentle depression to indicate eyes, a small rise of a nose.
Sha. Hissed the voice that was no voice. Sha!
Elenarka’s blood ran cold with that name in her head. She knew it, she had heard it before but she could not remember what it was, who it was. She clutched at the pendant, felt warmth radiate from it, felt the stone spinning faster and faster.
She is mine, Sha! The un-voice bellowed, a wailing, rasping cry like the wind screaming through cracks in stone. The mad are always mine!
Elenarka took a step back, fearful, but there was a body behind her. A warm, furred chest pressed against her back. She turned her head to see the eyes of her lord set in his black wolf face above her. And now she remembered who Sha was, though he had told her to call him Eno.
You are wrong, Oro. His deep voice announced. Those words were a hammer striking an anvil. The white-gold air shivered. The bandaged head, still level with Elenarka’s chest, turned slowly until the eye depressions were turned to her face. And then the head split open at the mouth, the top tipped back and a black void opened up, fringed with glass-shard teeth. With the speed of a viper the void-mouth came at Elenarka. She screamed and found she could not stop screaming. The stone in the pendant was a whirling blur of colour that took up her scream and spread it over the white-gold landscape. Eno, the dog headed giant behind her, the dead desert god, opened himself like a door and Elenarka stepped into him. The jaws of the lady of dreams closed around nothing, and a fierce battle ensued. Elenarka could see through her god’s eyes as if she were him. She watched as Dreamer unfolded her many hands and struck at Eno. He moved too quickly, snapping at her many hands. But for every hand that he caught between his fierce jaws there were three that struck at him with blows like a war hammer. Until one struck so hard it seemed to hit Elenarka as she sheltered within.
It felt like a storm struck her. Her body flew back, hit the ground hard.
She opened her eyes. The sun shone above her, paling the blue of the sky to white. She was on her back in a field of grain. She sat up. There were trees in the distance. She was not in Thrain. She was not in her desert home. So where was she?
There was a figure moving toward her so she got to her feet. A young woman was running, leaping through the field with a net on a stick over her shoulder. She wore a dress of gold decorated haphazardly with flowers, and a strange head wrap of a similar colour. She came to Elenarka and stopped.
“Good day, your grace,” the stranger said with a curtsy. “Have you come to join the hunt?”
“What hunt?” Elenarka asked.
“The hopper hunt. Hopper’s a delicacy. Lady Psil will pay almost anything for hoppers.”
“Lady Psil?” Elenarka asked. “Hoppers?”
The girl grinned and cast her net down upon the ground. With an elaborate and well practised twist she had the net closed in her fist with a large bug trapped inside. She showed Elenarka.
“Hopper.” It was a long grain-coloured bug with powerful hind legs. Built for leaping from grain stalk to grain stalk, to feast. They had been problematic in Elenarka’s own hold.
“Yup,” the girl said, dumping the hopper into a box which was strapped around her waist and tied shut. Elenarka opened her mouth to speak but water was pouring down her throat.
She sputtered as she woke. Her skin was hot and dusty, she lay beneath the hole in the roof. The sun had fallen below the horizon.
“Drink, your grace,” Noli urged, pouring more water upon her lips. “You cannot do this to yourself. You cannot kill yourself because of him.” Elenarka opened her parched mouth, her lips cracked and split and blood mingled with the water that flowed down her throat. She had sat too long without moving and her body was numb. The feeling was coming back accompanied by pain and her skin was burnt a deep red from the sun. She drank and felt life flowing into her. As it did, she lost something. There had been a dream. A vision. Golden light...a mouth....a net...but it was fading from her memory.
It was fading and she could not remember.
There was a long moment of silence in the roadhouse. Barleyman had never seen a thing like that, not in his Roadhouse, not anywhere. Sure there was often spilt mead and broken crockery, but it was a rare day when blood mixed with the two. The outlander, what had he said his name was? Tanis, a false name if ever Barleyman had heard one. Only an outlander would think nothing of using the name of a dead war hero as his own. Tanis Atholine had been the King’s-Own-Blade, back before the war, back when things were, well, maybe not sweeter, but certainly less sour.
Barleyman shook his head as old Jauni started to cackle. The wiry old farmer could hardly contain himself, near to choking with the humour of the situation, wiping tears from his eyes and pounding his fist upon the table. It broke the silence, and a few others chuckled along with him. When the one Queen’s Man who still had his consciousness growled and attempted to get up, old Jauni stumbled over and spit upon him.
“Bella’s servants are looking for you,” Jauni cursed the man.
“She’ll see you first, old man,” the guard retorted.
“Yes, but I will be smiling.” Jauni smiled then, a crooked smile that was shy a good few teeth. He kicked as much straw and dust up as he could as he passed the injured Talon and made for the door.
“You’re not going out in this weather,” Barleyman called to the old man. Jauni stopped.
“I am,” Jauni stated. “If that man finds his feet, you can be sure this roadhouse will burn before morning.” Barleyman groaned. Why did Jauni have to go and say that? Now half the patrons in the place would leave before the night was out, and those who’d paid for rooms would want their coin back. Jauni stepped closer, put his hand up to his mouth to feint secrecy.
“If I were you, I’d be sure to have my knife slip when I was helping the man out.”
“Get out of here, Jauni,” Barleyman sneered. “I haven’t got enough trouble on my hands?”
The wind blew the door out of Jauni’s hands to smack against the table there. So the storm had yet to pass, that was good for business. Outlanders and Red Talons on the other hand...
When the door smacked shut behind the old man there were a few others who scurried up to their rooms or hastened to find their cloaks but for the most part the patrons remained where they had been before the fight began. The minstrels struck up a tune and talk began, quiet at first but soon regained an appropriate level. One of the girl’s had picked up the pieces of the broken cup and spread some fresh straw to soak up the spill. Barleyman stepped over to the guard and helped him to his feet. His knee had been injured and he could only stand on one foot.
“Drinks are on the house for you and your mates,” Barleyman offered.
“You’re going to have to do better than that, Barleyman,” the guard snarled. It was strange how quickly injury led to sobriety.
“I’ve got a lovely quiet room for you to rest in for the night, quite secure, and free of charge, of course. How could I charge the Queen’s guard? For you fine men do us all a great service, keeping Our Lady safe and what have you. And I’ve got this lovely pouch of coin for you as well. I know how you care so for my Roadhouse and would never allow any harm to befall it or those as shelter within, isn’t that right?”
The guard grumbled but took the pouch of coin and allowed himself to be led away. The serving girl’s helped haul the other two to the room. Barleyman was pondering what to do with the outlander when the man groaned and pushed himself up. He sat on his knees, one hand on the table beside him, his face a mess of blood. He wiped his face with his hand and seemed surprised when he saw the blood.
“Gods,” he sighed and pushed himself into a chair. The room clattered on, though many eyes were upon him.
“That’s a good way to get yourself killed, Outlander,” Barleyman said. “And others besides.”
“Those men are no Talons,” he snarled, wiping the blood off onto his sleeve. “Disgraceful.” Once the blood was gone it was easy to see that the man had taken little injury.
“None will stand against this disgrace,” he continued. “And so it deepens. It sinks into our lives in a slow methodical way, until our children are frightened of the very men meant to protect them.
“It is a short drop from there to Bella’s waiting arms.”
One cup of Barley wine leads to another and the room was near empty, the night full and the man who called himself Tanis sat near the fire and called for another.
“You’ve had plenty,” the serving girl said, wiping a nearby table. “Get to bed or begone before your brothers wake to finish you off.” She meant the Queen’s guard, safely tucked away in the best room, with extra coin in their pockets. She knew it would not stop them wrecking havoc upon the roadhouse. But perhaps they would let it stand and break only a little of the furnishings. And perhaps she was the Warrior Queen of Lauklann.
“They’re no brothers of mine,” Tanis slurred. He stood up and lost his balance, the room spun and he fell against the hearth.
“Dreamer,” she exclaimed, tossing the rag down on the table and moving to his side. “Not accustomed to barley wine?” She laughed as he shook his head and pushed away from the hearth, only to stumble into her.
“Ouf,” she exclaimed, letting him lean on her. “You’re a big one. Are you sure you’re not a guardsman?”
“Not a guardsman,” he said, leaning heavily. “Woodsman.”
“Well, woodsman, off to bed now,” she said leading him out of the common room. She was a lithe girl, thin and delicate in appearance, but wiry-strong from her work. This was not the first time she had to haul a man twice her size somewhere. Most times it was out the door, but this man struck her somehow.
“Folks as stand up to Red Talons are dead men,” she said. “No one does it.”
He laughed. “It’s a good thing I am no one then.”
“Just because you’re an outlander don’t mean you’re safe. They’ll hunt you down like a rebel. Bella’s on their side.”
“Bella loves no man,” he responded, he stopped in the doorway, though she tried to guide him on. It was like trying to move a mountain.
“Rebel?” he asked.
“Come on,” she said, urging him. He looked down at her. She had big eyes though the rest of her was small, big blue eyes, like Rora’s. Everything else about her almost faded away, except her kindness. She was dragging him away that the guards might not wake and kill him. Perhaps it was only because she didn’t want to clean up a dead body, but that was kindness enough for he who had seen little of that virtue.
“What rebels?” he asked, his head ached and his movements were unsteady, but his mind was still sharp.
“Mornwor,” she said quietly. He growled at the name.
“They are dead.”
She smiled. “Sissy told me, and she heard from a travelling minstrel who come straight from Thrain. They been quiet there, buildin’ up an army. Could march on the city any day now.”
“Faugh!” he scoffed. “Bilge! The Mornwors are years dead.”
“Well, whatever they call themselves, the word comes from Thrain, and they’re all barbarians, those Thrainishmen. Big as giants, like you, easy enough to think you’re one. ’Cept for your accent.”
“To think I’m a rebel?”
“Well, who else is gonna stand against the Queen’s men? No good Andresei would, none has. Like I said, folks as do are Bella’s servants. Had enough talk then?”
He had turned away from her words and now nodded his head, glancing back at the unconscious guardsmen. Could it be true? Could some Mornwor have survived, hidden away in Thrain for centuries, biding their time, waiting for a weakness? If he remembered his history lessons it had happened before.
She helped him navigate the steps, there was nothing to lean on but her, and the cellar was dark, cold and a little damp. Straw was strewn across the floor, and the space was filled with casks and barrels and boxes of goods.
“The cellar?” he asked.
“They won’t find you down here. I’ll say you left in the night.” She tried to ease him onto the straw strewn floor but he was heavy and strong and pulled her down with him.
“You’re not afraid of the dark?” she started to tease, his only response was to cover her mouth with his. His hands were gentle yet firm, she was used to the drunkards trying to rip her skirts and force themselves upon her. Used to men shuddering at the sight of the scar on her cheek. He only held her face in his hands, as if they were longtime lovers.
“Who are you?” she asked as his mouth moved slowly along her cheek and down her neck.
“I am no one,” he mumbled.
“No, really,” she whispered, pushing the coarse dark hair away from his face. “You seem so familiar.”
“I am a ghost,” he said, sitting up.
“You’ve come from Bella?” she joked. “Come to restore Andrese to her former glory?”
“Something like that,” he laughed and kissed her. It was closer to the truth than he wanted it to be.