Liora couldn’t believe her eyes.
The trees in the North were monstrous in size. They towered over the tall rampart that made up the defense of the Fortress of Demor. The people looked like ants as they glided over the city. They passed the main square to the inner sanctum of the fortress where a castle stood defended by a second rampart.
Those guarding the wall saluted them as they flew towards an upper landing where a wooden stable was built.
Liora didn’t wait for the gryphon to fully land before untying herself and jumping off the bird-lion’s back to hurry down the stairs leading to the courtyard. The steps were cold on her feet, but the sweet smell of chrysanthemums and heleniums drew her attention.
Her mouth fell open at the sight of the garden lined with rocks and tended with great care by Chijin that knelt in the dirt with their tools. This place outshone the garden back in Morza. The stonework alone was a masterpiece. An image of the noble gryphon and the rising sun was lain across the ground, twisting its way around the small patches of flowers and trees.
That’s when she noticed the mountain in the distance. It loomed over the western valley like a high steel wall. This was the farthest she’d been from Morza and the mountains.
“Morza is that way,” Caldor pointed towards the ancient oaks, “of course, you will not see it from here.”
Liora went to stand by the railing that lined the garden. Guards marched passed with their halberds and spears, which she paid no mind to. There would be a lot of new things she would have to get use to, and armed men weren’t going to be the strangest.
“Yah leapt from my beast like a natural,” Foe called, running his hands through his knotted hair. “Yah sure yah never rode one before?”
“No,” she squeaked, looking back out towards the trees. The smell of pine and cedar danced in the air with the cool breeze.
Leaning over the railing, she peered down to see a training ground below. Young men hacked away at straw figures. What was the point of that? They weren’t going to fight back.
“Caldor! Yah decided to show,” a booming voice echoed from the far side of the garden, as Liora jumped. Foe had been right. There were larger people in the North.
The flame-haired giant was a head taller than Foe, and had to have been three people wide. How such a person could exist was beyond her. The tales her iznata had told her couldn’t have prepared her for this.
“My King,” the old sage bowed his head, “I am sorry if my disappearance concerned you. I assure you, my reasons for leaving were in your son’s best interest.”
King? Liora stared up at the large man. He could have eaten the small man in one bite.
“’Ight, and this brat, was more important than me son?”
He pointed at her. His fingers thick as sausages, as he jabbed the air the same way one would with a sword. Liora didn’t like him much, not since he chose to call her a brat. King or no, that was rude and he had no right to call people names just because he believed he was better.
“I’m no brat,” Liora snapped, stepping in front of Caldor. “Shezamest found me to translate the book to help the prince.”
Liora jabbed her finger back towards him, seeing his brow crease at hearing her.
“Sheza… what? Yah hear this bull?” the King turned to Foe. “Does she ’ave no respect for those of power?”
“It’s shezamest and no, I don’t when those of power treat those around them so rudely,” Liora snapped back, feeling the heavy hand of the Steward on her shoulder pull her backwards to stand beside him.
“I’ll watch her, my King,” Foe muttered, giving her shoulder a squeeze.
“Get yar wife to clean her mouth out while ya’re at it,” Charn ordered, turning his attention back to Caldor. “We waste time. Check me son. We’ll speak about this brat later.”
Liora stuck out her tongue just before the King turned back towards the entrance to the garden. Sure he was King, but he wasn’t her king.
“What in seven hells, girl?” Caldor shouted, throwing his arms up in the air. “Does your life mean so little to you?”
“Caldor,” the Steward sighed, “go to the prince. Leave me to lil Li.”
The old man didn’t argue, although he didn’t leave without making a fuss. His walk to the entrance was filled with explicit words while he threw his hands up in the air. Caldor had reacted to the situation worse than Foe.
The Steward knelt before her as she felt him stare at her, forcing her to look directly into his eyes.
“What yah did wasn’t the smartest. Even if he started cursin’ my name, I would have never shouted back at him. He’s the King,” Foe explained.
“But he was being rude,” Liora said, holding her breath.
“Rude or no, a King’s a king. They’re to be respected,” Foe stated, as the girl shook her head.
“But what if he’s wrong about something… is he then right?” Liora had a point.
“No, if he’s wrong I find a clever way to change his mind - or the council convinces him. No choice he makes goes straight to plan unless it’s checked. We just handle it in a roundabout way,” Foe noticed the girl tilt her head.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to just tell him he’s wrong?” this process of going around in circles didn’t sound like it got anything done.
“The best thing one can do is let him make mistakes,” Foe smirked, standing back up. “It’ll take time, but ya’ll get used to thin’s here. Now, we should take yah to me wife. I’m sure she’ll love to meet yah.”
Liora felt him pull her to his side. Foe had been scary at first, but the more she was getting to know him, the more she could see he was just a big blond teddy bear. It was when she had met Marcia though, that she understood why Foe hadn’t stopped smiling since arriving back in Demor. The woman held her child on her hip, and her smile alone lit the room.
Marcia didn’t ask the girl many questions. The questions the woman did ask were about her name and her injuries. Liora didn’t want to answer the last part and the woman didn’t mind dropping the questions when she noticed the girl’s discomfort.
After Marcia handed off her son to her husband, the woman took Liora by the hand and walked her down the halls of the castle. This was the woman’s home. The people who scurried around called her Lady, or Detress - the title for woman land holders, or in this case one who married into wealth.
“Have yah ever seen a bathing tub?” Marcia asked.
“No,” Liora replied, looking up at the brightly coloured windows. She hadn’t seen much of what the world outside her village looked like.
The wall that surrounded her village was not high enough to compare to the walls in Demor. The garden hadn’t been as extravagant as the ones here, and the houses in Morza were made of wood, not brick and mortar like the ones in this city.
“I guess yah aren’t used to big places either,” Marcia stated.
“No,” Liora answered. Her talk with Foe made her want to stay silent to avoid saying anything that could be mistaken as being rude.
In Morza, her iznata had prompted her to speak her mind. Honesty was important for those planning to become a shazamest, especially one from such a promising line. From all the corrections and cautious warnings about how to speak to those in Derm so far, she wouldn’t be able to be herself with these strangers.
The people of her village had told stories on how rude and loud the Northerners were. The merchants that visited her village would drink and swear; they were rowdy and disruptive. That’s what she had expected this place to be, but to her pleasant surprise, they were not like those she had heard of or experienced. These people were closer to how her people were, except with how they treated their leader.
Rebin - the Mor of Morza - had treated everyone as an equal and welcomed the honest words of his people. No one would come to harm if they spoke their mind. The man knew that not everyone would like his choices, and he understood that everyone had different opinions on subjects regarding their village. If he was wrong, he wanted to hear about it. Not like how the King was here. His word was law, except if he was overruled by the council? The whole process still confused her, and she knew she would have to find someone to explain it better to her later.
“If yah find this place big, yah should see the castle in Derlin,” Marcia added, giving Liora’s hand a squeeze.
Liora nodded. She wouldn’t have been surprised if the capital of Derm was much larger than this castle. Derlin was known as the City of Kings, the place where the first of the Dermite gathered and built the first fortress in the Northern Mountains.
“There are lots of big things,” Liora squeaked, tucking her hair behind her ear.
Marcia smiled before the woman reached for Liora’s ear.
“That’s a very pretty earring,” Marcia marveled.
Liora lifted her hand to her right ear, feeling the cool pewter charm that dangled between her fingers. Beneath her fingers she could feel the beveled metal of the clematis against the circular plate. Clematises were star shaped flowers commonly found growing their way around the mouths of the caves in her homeland. Their deep purple, soft pink and royal blue petals always made the mountains a pleasant sight and were why they had been her nata’s favourite plant.
“It was my nata’s - mama’s earring,” Liora sighed, lowering her hand to clutch the side of her dress. “I only got one… the other one is missing.”
A twinge went through her heart at the same time her stomach began to flutter. She didn’t know where she had lost it. It could have been in Morza, or somewhere in the forest between Morza and Irbet. She only noticed it was gone in Downrow. It was the only piece of her nata she had.
“I’m sure she’s glad you still have one of them,” Marcia patted the girl on the back of the head.
Liora could see Marcia was trying to distract her with conversation, but all she could think about was how this place wasn’t her home. The walls were cold and undecorated. The people had been friendly thus far, but were still strangers. The smells weren’t the same as the crisp hay and incense of her iznata’s house, or the smoked dragon meat and merchant shouts of her village streets.
Everything loomed over her, making her feel trapped inside a stone box. The more she thought of how trapped she was, the more she realized that she wasn’t able to go home. Morza was gone. Her people were gone. Everything and everyone she ever knew was gone. How could she have survived when everyone else hadn’t? Why her?
Why me? She bit the inside of her mouth before feeling her attention be yanked back to the hallway when she heard a familiar, haunting noise.
It was a scream: a blood-curdling scream that froze her to her core. The sound made her stop. She turned her head in the direction it was coming from. Such pain was in those screams, but nobody in the hall took notice.
Was she hearing things? Was this one of her strange visions?
“Pay no mind; it’s only the prince,” Marcia’s voice was calming as the woman pulled Liora to stand under her arm. “He does this once in a while.”
“What’s causing it?” Liora asked, looking up to see the indigo gaze of the woman. “What’s making him sick?”
“I don’ know,” Marcia shook her head, “no one knows.”
“So you let him suffer?” Liora spouted.
“Caldor and the others are trying to lessen the prince’s pain until a cure can be found,” Marcia answered, giving the girl a reassuring smile; as if a smile could solve everything.
And what if there isn’t a cure? Liora bit her tongue, keeping that thought inside as much as it wanted to escape her lips.
If the boy had been in her village, her iznata would have given him medicine to make him sleep. If there was still nothing the old woman could do, Naygu would ask the permission of the family and of the patient what they wished to do next.
Sometimes the patients wanted to suffer until the end; other’s wandered into the caves or forests never to be heard from again, but others chose a different path to the Eternal. If asked, Naygu would assist those suffering from incurable aliments a pain-free passage into the Eternal. Her mother had chosen that path. It allowed the person to say their goodbyes and leave the world with whatever dignity they had left. What they were doing to the prince was inhumane, but again - this wasn’t Morza. These people weren’t the same as hers.
“Come now, yar bath should be nice and hot,” Marcia chimed, pushing open the door to one of the many rooms in the long hallway.
The bath was nice.
The dark room was lit by the cast-iron candelabras that lined the wall on the left. The long navy velvet was drawn across the tall window behind her. Styled carpets lined the floor in varying colours and patterns. A pile of fluffy cotton towels were piled along a wooden bench a meter from the porcelain tub.
Satin and silk material draped across the ceiling, glistening in the yellow light of the candles. The warm water steamed in the cool air while it wrapped around her skin like a cozy blanket. Marcia washed her back with a cloth, while lavender and hazelnut oil glistened in Liora’s hair.
Morza didn’t have such things as tubs. Most people bathed in basins and the river. This, though, was a comfortable experience.
Liora could feel the tingles on her scalp and back from where the woman touched her. The sound of the cloth on her skin gave her shivers in her ears as she closed her eyes to enjoy the moment of pampering. This wasn’t where she had expected to be when she had escaped Morza.
“How’s the water?” Marcia hummed.
“Good,” Liora moved her hands over the water before her.
Did everyone in Derm have a tub, or was it a luxury of the large castle? Liora didn’t know what to expect outside the walls of the fortress, but she was curious.
There came the harrowing cries of the prince again, this time muffled by the thick door to the room. Whatever Caldor was giving the boy didn’t sound like it was working. Liora wanted to see the boy. Maybe she could identify what he was suffering from, or possibly something in her iznata’s almanac that could help him.
“I came from a small village like yah,” Marcia muttered. The Detress began to wash the oil out of Liora’s hair. The water dripped in a basin outside of the bath to avoid making the rest of her oily. “It was a Chijin village called Mispick. It’s in the middle of Easterly on a small lake. There are lush green fields and old trees.”
“Sounds nice,” Liora didn’t know what else to say as she wiggled her toes in the bath, causing small ripples on the water’s surface. It was awkward hearing about the woman’s childhood home, when she didn’t wish to talk about her own. There were nice things to share about Morza but they were all muddled in her mind; hidden by the memories of that horrible night.
“Yes, it is,” the Detress sighed, “what do yah remember about Morza?”
Liora wrapped her arms tightly around her legs, moving to rest her chin on her knees. Why was everyone asking her that? She didn’t want to talk. All she wanted to do was forget and move on.
“Nothing,” Liora forced out.
That was a lie. She remembered almost everything that had happened, except how she had ended up alive and unharmed when she had been in the middle of the massacre. Her hand went to her throat remembering how sore it had been when she had first awoke from that horrific evening. A flash of images darted through her mind.
Yellow eyes and a wolf like grin.
Burning pain in her throat, as she gasped for breath.
The taste of metal in her mouth, unable to shout for help.
A boy shouting her name, shouting for her to stay with him.
“Are yah all right?” Marcia rested a hand on the girl’s cheek.
“No,” Liora covered her face with her hands, forcing herself not to cry, “I’m not.”
It had been her fault. She shouldn’t have spoken to the man, but he had approached her and she had been told to be kind to the guests.
“What’s wrong, my dear?” Marcia’s hand rested on her shoulder.
Liora turned around in the tub, facing the woman. There was so much going through her mind. The prince’s screams were bringing back so many horrifying images.
“They’re dead because of me,” Liora croaked. “They were killed because he didn’t like what I said.”
“Who?” Marcia whispered.
“Dimkon - a southern priest,” Liora felt a chill go through her body when she had spoken his name. Those yellow eyes filled with disgust; that twisted grin that was plastered across his bloodied face when he shouted his religious preaching. “He told me that I should stop being friends with Revris… that I was no more than a stain seeping into the fabric of Sydrin with each moment I spent with him.”
The girl didn’t think refusing the crazy man’s orders would lead to such horror. If she only knew how far he would go when she refused him…
“Yah said no?” Marcia asked; the girl nodded. “And he killed yar people because yah said no?”
Liora nodded again.
“He went away. I thought that was that… then the fires started and the screams. The soldiers started shouting horrible things. They chased people down. Killed them like animals. Dimkon caught me and…” she lifted her hands to her throat. The same images darted through her mind as before.
Pulling her hands down, she splashed the water before running her fingers through her hair. They wouldn’t go away. No matter how long she had it, that scar would continuously remind her of that night.
“But yah got away - yah survived,” Marcia noticed the child was upset, though the girl didn’t cry.
“I don’t know why - or how?” Liora’s hands floated in the warm water, as she moved her fingers. The feeling was similar to what she had felt before awaking in the middle of the city. She had been so confused to be alive. Everything looked like a twisted nightmare of what it had been. She had wandered; looking for her friend and his family, only to be met with piles of Morzi with throats cut or bodies torn to pieces and eaten by the dragons.
Even her iznata hadn’t escaped. The old woman had been buried under her tapestry and books. Liora had unburied her and rolled her over to make sure she was all right, only to discover the stab wounds in her chest. Naygu’s death had been the first of the images she had seen.
The three soldiers that tore through their home. One held the old woman, one defaced the house, while the last tortured Naygu until her last breath.
It had been the sound of flapping wings that brought Liora back and had made her run to hide in the forest. She had been certain it was the Southerners returning to finish off whoever remained.
Liora had climbed over the wall that had trapped her people, and had landed in the trenches that were made to hide the bodies of the remaining Morzi. This had been the second place she had seen images. The Sydi soldiers threw the bodies over the walls into these crude ditches. Some of the people had still been alive, screaming as they were being buried beneath the dead that were thrown on top of them. Their screams haunted her mind.
The screams faded, but she hadn’t stopped, not until she saw light through the trees. It was the village of Irbet, where she had found cleaner clothes and a place to rest for a couple of hours. The woolen dress had kept her warm. The dress had filled her mind with wonderful pictures of playing in the fields and singing songs. Those weren’t her memories but she was grateful to have something in her mind other than the nightmarish accounts of her previous evening events.
Tired enough to sleep, she awoke before the sun and found her way through the woods. Her hunger and thirst had gotten the better of her. Her feet had dragged along the path until she had fainted in the underbrush. That’s where Pellar had found her, taking her to his place in Downrow where he nursed her back to health. There wasn’t a lot of food, but what he had, he had given to her.
Looking up from the water, Liora noticed Marcia rested her chin on her folded arms along the edge of the tub. Had the woman been staring at her the whole time?
The water was cool now, and from what she could tell, the prince had stopped screaming. The smell of lavender was strong, and water dripped from her hair and down her chest. Rings of oil floated on the surface of the water.
“Maybe I’m alive because I can see things,” Liora shrugged, “I mean… that’s the only difference from before…”
“What do yah mean by see things?” Marcia lifted her head.
The girl was quiet for a few minutes, hunched over in the water. That concerned Marcia, but she didn’t want to move the girl in case the water was keeping her calm.
Foe had told her about Morza and the chance there was a survivor. Marcia hadn’t thought the survivor would be a child, although there had been plenty orphaned over the years from the conflicts between the North and South. Dimkon’s killing of Liora’s people wasn’t caused by the conflict between Derm and Sydrin. What the girl had shared with her was about a reason completely different from Marcia’s knowledge regarding the West and South relationship.
“I saw things I couldn’t possibly have known… and then I saw answers to questions people asked me,” Liora muttered. “I would touch their hand or something belonging to them and I would see whatever I wanted.”
“So, people believe ya’re a seer?” Marcia inquired, as the girl nodded.
“They call me that. I don’t call me that. I don’t know what to call me,” Liora said, wrapping her arms around her knees. “It’s true. I’m no liar.”
“Of course not,” Marcia chimed, grabbing a towel to wrap the girl in, “stand up, and I’ll show yah I believe yah.”
Marcia could understand that the girl wanted control over what had happened, in that sense believing in a power like seeing was a possible way of gaining control. She believed the girl believed she had the power, but Marcia also knew it was important for the girl to realize that it was just her imagination.
Rubbing the soft towel to dry the girl’s hair, Marcia wrapped the towel around the girl’s chest before taking both the girl’s hands in hers. She knelt down, looking into the girl’s eyes.
“I want yah to answer a question for me,” Marcia breathed, feeling the girl’s hands tighten in her grip. “Will yah do that for me?”
“What’s the question?” Liora asked.
“Tell me about my old pet, Gil. What was she, and why did she get that name?”
Liora glanced up at the woman before her. Marcia’s dark blonde curls framed her face, while Liora stared deeper into the dark pupils of the woman’s eyes. She saw past the indigo and the world around her faded into black.
Images darted past her like people in a crowd. Her mind would find the answer for her. There was no reason to stop.
One image shot through her. She found herself in a field.
A much younger Marcia stood by a pond tugging at a rope, as if to pull something out of the water. Liora approached. This was the woman’s memory. The woman wouldn’t see her wandering about.
The rope was tied to a little black goat that munched on the tall grass that grew along the edge of the pond. The water covered its back. The only part not covered by the silty water was its head.
“Come on, yah lil beast,” the young Marcia shouted, digging her heels into the muddy edge. “Yah no fish, yah have no gills.”
Liora giggled when the child slipped, landing with her butt in the mud. The goat continued to ignore the girl. It didn’t look to mind the cool water in the hot sun of summer.
Liora closed her eyes, taking a step back before opening them again. The smell of lavender filled her nose. She felt the warmth of the woman’s hands wrapped around her fingers.
“Gil was a little black goat that ate the reeds in the pond near your home,” Liora answered, giving the woman a smile as Marcia’s eyes widened. “She didn’t swim, and the only thing you would see was her head. You’d fall in the mud trying to pull her out with a rope, but she was too stubborn to listen to anyone.”
Liora giggled at the memory. She felt the woman let go of her hands suddenly. Marcia stood, turning to grab a clean cotton dress from the bench by the wall. There was no expression on her face aside from her wide eyes.
Marcia hadn’t reacted like Liora had believed she would. Most people were thankful, or smiled at her for hearing her answers. Marcia fair brows were knitted, creasing her forehead as her eyes narrowed.
“Come now,” the woman slipped the cotton dress over the girl’s head, “I’ll take yah to yar room.”
Liora could feel the woman’s hand hover behind her back. Marcia wasn’t touching her like she had before. The woman hurried down the hall to a room on the farthest side of the walkway, near the doors, which led to the courtyard.
The small room had a bed against the left wall facing the fireplace that divided four bookshelves lining the right wall. A window with a wide green slate sill was directly across from the doorway where she stood, with a wide mahogany desk in the middle.
All the fabric in the room was blueberry in colour, trimmed with silver. The chest at the end of her four post bed was where her clothes were likely kept. She turned her attention back to the bookshelves. There were only a dozen books scattered across the four shelves. None of which looked like they were going to pique her interest.
This was going to be her room.
This room was the same size as her iznata’s yurt. The furniture was large, and she had never slept in an actual bed; a rolled mattress did just fine. Was everyone’s room so big? Did everyone have such large pieces cluttering their space?
“Someone’ll be by with something to eat later on,” Marcia muttered, almost garbling her words with how fast she had spoke before closing the door behind.
Liora turned back, looking at the door.
She was alone, again.
What was she supposed to do now?