“Athenaya,” she rasped, chest heaving with each breath. “Sarlen. Temple. Demons.”
The old woman raised her chin, scowl hard pressed and hands clenched. “I already sent some scouts ahead. Hunters. You’re with me. Anyone who can fight, grab your gear.”
The clan scurried. They were used to packing up camp with quickness in case humans or bandits tried to attack them. They were prepared for nearly any emergency.
Athenaya’s voice lowered, raspy with age, “You disappoint me, riselu. Guide the clan away from danger.”
“I can fight.”
She retorted bitterly, “You are chosen to lead.” Her eyes softened for a moment. She tried to soften her tone as well, “Protect the clan with your life. Promise me, riselu.”
“Yes, Ris-Asala Athenaya.” She bowed her head in submission. “I promise.”
Without a second glance, the old elf marched to join the others as they left the clan’s encampment.
One of the elves rushed over with a robe and draped it over Zahirana’s naked form.
“Ris-Asala,” she pleaded. “Can I help you with anything?”
She shook her head. “Prepare the caravans.” She slid into the robes then marched towards hers and Sarlen’s caravan. She threw open the chest outside and grabbed one of the leather cuirasses. She strapped it over her vestments and watched as some of her clan got the first elk harnessed. It let out a high-pitch cry; it could feel the danger in the air.
Zahirana felt it too. She wanted to race back to the temple to find Sarlen but she couldn’t disobey Ris-Asala’s orders. Not again. She entered into the organized frenzy of the clan to help steer the children into a caravan together. She helped the craftsmen haul their supplies and materials into a caravan. Every scrap was precious.
When the elk herders finished with the harnesses, they took their seats and sounded off their movements with whistles and clicks. The elk stomped forward. The wheels groaned, wood clattering against wood. Everyone grew quiet. Their ears strained to hear any sounds that hinted to danger.
Zahirana looked around the abandoned clearing to ensure nothing valuable was left behind. Then she raced after the clan as they snaked through the narrow trails of the wilds. She looked at their faces as she hurried to the head of the group. The children were wide-eyed and stiff. Even the rowdy, snarky ones were quiet. The elders in the clan glowered at her.
“What is it this time?” they likely wondered. “What did she do?”
She could feel their disappointment burrowing down in her chest.
She reached the first caravan where Ris-Loresa, the clan’s storyteller, stood at attention on the back step. He was an old man and usually quite gentle with Zahirana. But she found that even he was glowering.
“What happened, riselu?”
She opened her mouth to speak but her gaze trickled down. “We found a temple. O’fyon’s temple.”
“The one we passed yesterday?”
Her head bobbed.
“I’ve been there many times.” His gaze trailed to the line of caravans, each one handmade and carved by the clan’s craftsmen. Some were hundreds of years old, passed down through the generations. And when Zahirana looked them over she could feel the weight of her clan’s gaze on her.
Ris-Loresa sighed. “Was it bandits?”
She shook her head sharply. “No. It was...” She searched for a word but there wasn’t any way to describe it. She walked closer with the caravan, her voice low so that no one else might hear, “Elves. Undead elves. They came out of the ground. Are there stories like that?”
He jolted. His eyes were wide and then he hid his fear behind a mask. “There are, yes. Was there anything else?”
Zahirana squeezed her hands in front of her. “A monster. It was large. There was a mural in a tunnel. The sun...”
“The sun will rip open the sky.” His jaw clenched. “I had no idea...” He looked past her into a memory as if he were searching for details. “There’s a legend, riselu, but it was not O’fyon’s temple... It was O’hira’s.”
“O’hira, the sun goddess.”
He nodded solemnly. “It is strange that such a curse could be here in these wilds in a wind god’s temple.”
“Curse?” Her voice rose and she had to hold her breath to calm herself. “Is that what the mural was?”
“Let us talk more when we are a safe distance.” He nudged his head to the front of the caravan. “Scout ahead, riselu. Lead us to the meeting point.”