She swore she could hear the distant sounds of the tribe’s caravans. It was the comforting creak of wood, the grinding beams of joints, and the rapping of cloth as the wind whistled through the wilds. She could almost hear Sarlen laughing, shouting that he would hunt without her. Ris-Asala would sigh in exasperation, muttering that they had studies to continue.
But then she remembered it all. The screams of the elk, high pitched and terrified. Ris-Asala Athenaya as she admitted how disappointed she was just before she left camp. She remembered most of all the look in Sarlen’s eyes as he shouted at her to run, to protect the clan. She was certain he was crying. The grief and guilt was plain in his downturned frown.
Zahirana opened her eyes. She could see the star dusted heavens through the open canopy above. But they felt distant, cold as they glowered down at her. In that moment she felt as if the gods were just as disappointed in her as Athenaya.
She rolled her head and looked out across the temple’s courtyard. Scattered throughout were dim campfires. Sitting around them were the same people who had helped her earlier. She couldn’t make out too much of their features. They all seemed to be covering their heads with either a hood or a mask.
Beyond the fires were and along the courtyard’s outerwalls were countless tents. Her elven eyes adjusted to the darkness, casting everything into a muted haze of gray but the details were still there. She could make out the furs and the people sitting alone as they tended to their finely carved armor. She could only imagine how much care went into keeping the metal in pique condition.
Her clan was made up of hunters. She wore leather greaves and wristguards. Even her cuirass, as long as her knees, had been created from the skin of a ram. The rest of her armor had been weaved by hand, taking only what the wilds offered the clan. Only the cloth around her neck had been created by humans.
With a strangled breath, Zahirana forced herself to sit up. As she glanced down at her bandages, she realized she wouldn’t be doing much hunting for a while. Her leg looked the worst of it. The bandage went from her ankle well above her knee.
She surveyed the damage to her cuirass. It had been mostly ruined. If it weren’t for the bandages, her chest might be half exposed. Their clan’s healer must have worked well into the night tryi to put her bones back together.
“You should take it easy.” She approached, her steps soft and methodical like a young fawn through a meadow. Her eyes glinted in the glow of the distant campfires.
“Atisha, was it?” She forced her gaze to the bandages. “Thank you for helping me.”
She softly nodded, the curls of her hair rolling out passed her hood. Her skin was absent of Ris-Amethan, the sacred tattoos gifted during annual ceremonies. Zahirana could only assume it was a unique tradition to their clan. As unique as their expensive armor.
“It will take more healing,” she admitted. “You should rest more to recover sooner.”
“My arm,” she added meekly. It throbbed with pain, the herbs likely masking its true agony.
Her attention averted across the camp. “It was badly damaged. The bones were completely shattered.”
A huff of air fell from her lips. “I see. I guess using a bow anytime soon is out of the question?”
“It will take time for the muscle to build up again.” Atisha returned her attention back to her. “It’s better if you don’t do anything strenuous.”
Zahirana groaned. She didn’t have time to rest.
His voice broke the silence, the same monotone bitterness as before, “Be pleased she healed you at all.” Alateraz stalked over with tightly folded arms.
“Ma nesi,” Zahirana apologized. “I did not mean to offend. I am grateful.”
Atisha threw him a scowl.
“I’m worried about my clan.” She rolled her weight sideways up onto her stronger knee then shuffled to stand. “I need to find them.” She gasped suddenly at the remembrance. She was at the temple where the undead were, where she was forced to leave Sarlen.
Atisha drew closer. “What is it?”
“Did you see any other elves in the area?” Zahirana searched around her but even with elven eyes she couldn’t see where the battle might have been.
“Only you,” she admitted with a glance around as well. “The men who attacked you were dragged into the forest for the animals to eat.”
Her brows pinched at the strange statement then she shook her head. “Did you see any--anything else?”
Alateraz and Atisha exchanged glances in mild confusion.
Nothing, she considered. Where was Sarlen? Where were the undead that crawled out of the ground? And the others who went to help, where were they? None of it made any sense. How could she be the only one at the temple?
“I have to go. I’m sorry.”
“Idiot,” he growled. “Do not waste our efforts with your ignorance.”
“With a walking stick, I can handle the journey just fine.”
“You just barely healed,” he retorted as his gaze roved over her bandaged leg. “Have elves always been this stupid or is it you alone?”
Her brows rose up but she rolled her lips into her mouth to keep back the insult on her tongue. She would not offend the people who saved her life. Even if he was as grouchy and foul as a boar.
“I will only slow you down,” Zahirana reasoned. “There’s no reason for me to stay and take up more of your healer’s energy.”
He shifted his weight between his feet, the fiery hues of his armors glinting more prominent in the camp’s fires. She was so focused on his armor that she wasn’t listening to the rest of his complaints. It was strange to see elves with armor. Most clans barely scraped together hunting tools let alone enough armor to fit an army. And they were an army, she realized, glancing at the others.
Atisha linked her arm with Zahirana’s and spoke softly, “Forgive his rudeness.”
“Her debt to us is great,” he snapped. “We spent cherished supplies healing her.” His gaze flicked to Zahirana, voice deepening with irritation. “You took away time devoted to our journey. There are others who need Atisha’s attention.”
Zahirana bowed deeply with Atisha’s assistance. “Ma areth for your kindness. My clan and I will repay you with more supplies than I took.”
He clicked his tongue and she swore he might have growled at her like a beast. “You’re going to hobble your way to your clan then? In the dark?”
She stood upright and raised her chin. Her tongue felt sharp, her impatience sharper, “My people need my help. Now more than ever. If I have to crawl there then I will.”
“Zahirana.” Atisha’s motherly voice soothed her rage. There was sweetness in her gaze and it settled Zahirana’s fear in a strange sort of way. “I plead with you to wait for morning’s light. I can heal you one last time before you leave.”
Her eyes rolled shut. They burned against her eyelids. A swollen heat had hardened there between her eyes. She wanted so desperately to find them and ease her fears. Their numbers were so few. Worst of all, she wasn’t sure how many people had died since her foolish mistake of entering the temple.
Another thought began to creep into her mind. Her clan was better off without her. Wouldn’t it be better if she disappeared and never returned?
The night air suddenly felt cold, unreasonably cold for a summer night in the Wilds. She was surrounded by strangers in a home that almost felt like it was shunning her. The trees, the animals, the earth... they all knew the horrors she had brought upon her people. They had seen her sin.
“It’s settled then.” Atisha clapped her hands with a smile. “Let me get you a staff to help you walk.” She glided across the camp towards a slate slab where weapons had been laid out carefully.
When she returned and held the staff out to Zahirana, she peered over at Alateraz with a teasing grin. “Zahirana needs food. As do you.”
They exchanged cold stares, expressions unwavering.
“You’re not a god,” she added sharply.
“Very well. Atisha.” His lips thinned. He turned sharply and flicked a finger. “Come with me, quickling.”
Quickling? Her nose scrunched up at the strange word. Was it an insult of some kind?
She squeezed the wooden staff and gritted her teeth. “Ma areth, Alateraz. Lead the way.”