She Who Swallowed the Moon

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Chapter 5

Zahirana followed the familiar trails northward. The wilds were teeming with noise as the early morning sunlight skirted through the canopy. She was just about to reach the meeting point when she heard the noisy movements of something thrashing through the underbrush. People, she considered before ducking behind a tree and crouching down.

She hoped it was her clan. But when she saw the human craftsmanship of leather gear through the foliage, she knew they were bandits. She watched them march past her towards the north, towards the clan’s meeting point. She had to warn her people but most importantly she needed to lead the bandits away.

She reached into one of her belt’s pouches and brought the bone whistle to her lips. She blew a long sound followed by a series of shorter ones. It was the same noise as one of the forest’s birds when it was alerting the others. The bandits hardly even noticed. She made the call again just to be safe. Then she rolled out of the bush, notched an arrow into her bow and shot it into the back of one of the armed humans.

Her instincts told her to run but she forced herself to stand. She planted her feet and met the eyes of the bandits as they turned towards her. There were ten of them, at least from what she could tell.

“Zulin ar,” she spat, the same curse she threw at the monster. She notched another arrow and fired it at whoever was closest. She spun around before the arrow even hit the man’s chest. And she knew it planted. The bandit screamed and his comrades started shouting orders.

She ran but not too quickly. She needed to edge on the chase. So long as the bandits were chasing her, they wouldn’t be chasing her clan. Her chest was burning. Her breathing grew ragged in her ears. The strange battle from last night and then the lonely trek north had left her tired. But no matter how tired she was, she couldn’t give up. Not yet.

Her feet drummed against the skin of the earth. She leapt onto a fallen log and spun around. More had joined the group, she could hear them trampling loudly through the trees like elephants. Between her next breath, her bow was notched and she aimed another air. She left the soft feather slip through her fingers and fly across the expanse of forest. It wasn’t until after the man dropped to the ground before the others knew what had happened.

Zahirana spun away sharply. She rushed forward, following the familiar stream towards the abandoned temple ruins. If she kept close to the river then her pursuers would have little chance of cutting her off. Not that they could. She would bet her life that they hadn’t grown up in the wilds. Not like she had. She spent her whole chidhood thriving among its groves and waterfalls. She survived the intense rainy seasons, floods that rolled through and cleansed the earth.

The temple was drawing near. She raced harder, faster. But Keepers of Fate be damned, she forgot about the cavern that opened up in the middle of the courtyard. She skidded to a stop as the sinkhole came into view. Her feet slipped against the edge, the soil too soft to hold her weight. Zahirana fell into the darkness. She clawed at the soil but to no avail. Her body began rolling, rocks stabbing into her ribs, the air knockeed from her lungs. Her leg swung out and cracked against the edge of something sharp. A scream leapt from her throat as the pain in her leg exploded with heat.

She presseed her hands over her mouth then burried her forehead into the dirt. She had to swallow her pain. If she were quiet enough, she might be able to hide in the shadows of the crypt.

Zahirana clenched her fists. She glanced around the dim tombs for her bow, her vision adjusting quickly to the darkness. Rows of stone sarcophagus filled the room. They were the graves of her long forgotten ancestors, their names erased from history.

Above, she could hear them closing in. They were poor hunters. She hoped they would move past the sinkhole in their unskilled search for her.

She sat up with trembling arms. She crawled through the dirt, her broken leg limply dragging against the rough earth. She clenched her teeth and clamped her lips around the painful groans. But with each shove into the darkness of the tomb, the pain grew agonizingly worse. Her lips pulled back in a taut grimace until she hauled herself far enough out of the crevice’s light.

She could hear Athenaya’s chastising voice, “Medila ar’tu. Stop and think, child.”

The pain in her leg was nothing compared to the sorrow that tightened around her heart. She rolled onto her back and pounded a fist into her chest. They were dead. They were all probably dead and it was all because of her. Their chosen champion had disappointed them all.

Not now, she commanded herself. This wasn’t the time to cry. She could cry afterwards, when the bandits were long gone and the remainder of her clan was safe again. For now, she would be the strong leader that her people needed her to be.

She breathed deep, holding the dusty breath in her lungs.

Tree branches snapped. Boots crunched against the dirt. There was more than ten now. There was too much noise for it to be the same small group from earlier. And she didn’t have to strength to fight them. The fight from last night had drained most of energy. Running through the wilds with the bandit took the rest of it.

One of the men shouted, “Down there! Get searching.”

A few bandits slid down the side of the crevice, far more elegantly than she had managed. She could hear them cursing under their breaths. They were uneager to enter an old elven ruin.

Smile, letting the smirk consume her expression. A cocky smile was better than fear. There was no room for fear now. All that was left in her was the wild, ruthless nature of survival. Not necessariy survival for herself. It wasn’t like she had much to offer her clan if she made it out alive. She was too foolish. She never paid attention to her lessons.

No, only her clan’s survival mattered now.

“Oriana’s tits,” one cursed under his breath, glancing about the tomb with hesitancy.

The man next to him looked up through the sinkhole. “Toss me the torch. Can’t see a damn thing down here.” He watched as the torch whirled down into the hole with them.

Another in the group scooped it up and held it out. “Let’s hurry this along. These tombs are cursed.” He swung it around in a different direction to chase back the shadows. With another swing, he revealed her hiding place in the corner.

“Found her,” one of them sneered, the bravest of the three.

“Grab her and let’s go.”

He scoffed, swaggering out of the sunlight towards her. “She ain’t going anywhere.” He reached down and gathered the cloth around her throat into his firm grip. “Our little friend here’s wounded.” He had enjoyed the hunt, the chase, probably more than he would enjoy killing her.

Her smile remained unfaltered. “Ma’tu zulin ar.”

His expression distorted, disgusted by her people’s language. He jerked her up onto her feet and snarled. “Elf savage.” He threw her back against the temple wall.

She screamed in pain as something pierced her shoulder, shattering her bone in a loud crack. Her scrreams echoed through the abandoned crypt. The resting place of her acenstors tainted by human malic. It only fueled her rage.

“Stop wasting time,” someone hissed, likely the coward from earlier.

He dragged her, choking and screaming to the surface. He hardly broke a sweat as he hauled her struggling figure up the slope and onto the coutyard soft moss. “Fucking elves. More trouble than she’s worth, boss.”

She shuddered in the warmth of the sun. The intense pain that racked her body was overwhelming her. She tried to stay strong even as their leader approached. She eyed him, calculating how much energy she might need to kill him in that moment.

Their boss kneeled down by here. He was a large brute, larger than the others in his crew. “You’re a pretty flower… out here all by your lonesome.” He brushed back the dark strands of her hair. “A flower like yourself can’t stay in the world on her own like that. Too many dangers.”

She smacked his hand away.

“Spirited thing,” he chuckled. “Killed quite a few of my men back there.”

Her hatred boiled, magic rolling across her skin.

“They want revenge, little savage.” He looked around at the men as they circled around like wolves to a meal. “It’s a shame ’cause I might’ve even hired you.”

She gathered power behind her fingertips. The lifeblood of the wilds rode across her. The spirits that had been guarding the courtyard’s ancient trees began to waken. They heard her call, her prayer. She tightened the spell into the grip of her fist.

“I suppose I’ll have to make you my whore to keep you alive.” He leaned in, ready to straddle her thinner frame with a laugh. His men laughed as well.

A growl broke past her clenched teeth. She released every bit of linger magic she had combined with what the woods offered her. She threw her open palm into his chest.

He gasped. He sucked down a series of short breaths.

Hot blood spilled between her fingers and down her elbow.

Their laughter curdled. His gawking followers stiffened as they watched their leader weaken.

“Ma asa’raezun,” she rasped.

Blood trickled between his lips as he fell sideways into the earth.

The sounds of arrows whistling through the air stole everyone’s attention. She smirked as they bandits scattered in a frenzy.

Perhaps her clan had found her, fools that they were to seek her out. Ris-Loresa wouldn’t have allowed her to disappear without getting answers. But why would they endanger the little ones? There were too many children to be searching for her. For a moment she thought it might have even been Sarlen. That perhaps they were still alive. She ran into the temple ruins in such a hurry that she hadn’t caught sight of undead or the corpses of her clan.

She watched her saviors as they sauntered out into the courtyard. To her disappointment it wasn’t Sarlen or Athenaya. It wasn’t her clan either. In fact, they were nothing like anything she had ever seen before. Their armor was elvish in design but the closer she looked, she realized they were too tall and broad-shouldered to elves. Too tall to be humans as well. Their ears were pointed but not quite as prominent as elves.

They moved like an army of humans, scouring the area for enemies. Their archers made quick work of the bandits. The few brigands that still lived were cut down with elegant slashes of swords and daggers. As they moved closer she could see now that their armor wasn’t elvish. It’s design was similar but the material shimmered between shades of emerald and gold.

One of them approached. He moved through the short battle unhindered and without raising a blade. They were protecting him. They were his army to command. He looked over the corpses and then tilted his head at her.

She sucked down a choking gasp, her vision bleary with pain. “La’misha arlen.”

“Alateraz.” One of the others approached, his attention also briefly taking her in with disinterest. “Shalll we keep moving?”

Zahirana trembled. The pain was too much but she needed their attention. “My clan. Leave me. Find my clan…” Her vision darkened even more. There was so little strength left in her. “Backtrack…” She rolled her eyes towards the path the bandits had burrowed into the underbrush. “I beg you.”

Another raced over. She threw back a hood of soft, plush fur and kneeled beside Zahirana. “I can heal her.” She leaned closer, her curly hair like a mane about her round face. “Rest.”

“It would waste our time,” stated their leader.

She flaashed her eyes at him in protest. “Are we going somewhere in a hurry?”

He held his gaze firm with hers, a silent battle of some kind. “Do as you wish.” He turned and joined the others as they searched the corpses for supplies.

The woman looked gently down at Zahirana. “I am Atisha.”

“Zahirana.”

“Zahirana,” she cooed. “I can heal your wounds.”

“My clan…”

“Rest.” she muttered, passing her fingers across Zahirana’s eyes. “Just rest.”

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