Mark of the Monsters

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People were going to die.

No. Not die. But something similar, a similar feeling of loss that had her spine straightening more than usual, senses sharp and alert as she scanned the village—from the children’s noisy playground to the other corner where the older women were huddled, chopping and salting meat to be stored for upcoming days. Across on the far side, some boys were hovering around a group of pretty, blushing girls who were collecting water from the well.

Everywhere she looked, people were chatting and laughing.

Scanning the darkening sky with squinted eyes, she pursed her lips, unease skittering under her skin. Even when she’d been washing the clothes at the river, goosebumps had dotted her flesh, and her hands had briefly quivered from the unnerving sense of ominousness, like something had shifted in the air.

But no one was reacting like her. Nothing was wrong. People laughed and went about their life like any other day. Massive torches and iron fire pits were being lit around the village already to prepare for the night.

She shook the feeling away and, with a huff, readjusted her laundry basket on one hip and moved, chin raised high, jaw sharp, shoulders perfectly squared.

Each step was precise, her grey skirt delicately fluttering at her feet. The weight of the basket dug into her right hip, and she had to repeatedly hoist it and strengthen her grip only to flex her fingers when her knuckles ached.

Her walk had been relatively silent, ears listening to the easy chatter and laughter around her. But when she neared the village square, she felt eyes settling on her like hands, slimy caresses down her neck, down her spine.

“Amane is coming,” one girl whispered to her friend before they averted their eyes.

“Have you heard what she did yesterday?” another whispered. “She punched Issa in the chin. Poor girl hasn’t been seen since yesterday afternoon.”

“I keep telling that girl to stay away from Amane!”

“I’d complain to the Chief if I were her.”

“And say what? Don’t you know what he thinks of Amane?”

Amane inhaled a soft, measured breath through her nose, eyes half-shut as she passed the bystanders with her chin raised high and her gaze fixed ahead of her, as if the rest of the world didn’t exist.

Some people didn’t whisper about her, simply parted from her way when they saw her, eyes averted or inspecting her from her black hair to her feet. She ignored those, too, and would have continued pretending the world was blank had a familiar voice not called her name from behind.

Amane didn’t stop nor turn. She pursed her lips and kept moving, her gaze hardening. The eyes on her increased, muted murmurs following wherever she went.

“Amane!” he called again, his voice growing louder.

Keeping a firm grip on her basket, Amane stopped and twisted in his direction, loose strands of her dark hair escaping from her heavy braid to frame her face. She cocked her head sideways and arched a brow, drumming a thin finger on her basket.

He marched to where she stood, brown eyes far lighter than hers trailing her frame before settling on the basket perched on her right hip.

Amane let the murmurs of the bystanders enter one ear and exit through the other, not allowing the words to register in her brain. And when he stood before her, his figure towering over her, ignoring the rest of the world became easier.

“Did you just return from the river?”

“Yes.” Short and clipped, still drumming her finger against the basket, slow and firm.

He frowned and shook his head gently, short brown hair dancing on a hushed breeze. “You know it’s not safe to go alone. Why don’t you ever go with the other women?”

Amane blinked slowly, lazily, still drumming her finger. She cast a short, subtle glance at the crowd observing them before she raised her chin, twisted on her heels and resumed her march back home.

“Amane.” He followed after her—not that she’d expected him to leave. Once he saw her, he stuck to her until someone called him for something important.

“Amane,” he repeated, and Amane continued ahead, lifting her chin higher as eyes and whispers followed them.

He reached her easily, then fell into pace with her, comfortably silent as if she’d welcomed him.

Amane heard the whispers, but this time they weren’t so much about her as they were about him. About them. Her grip on her basket tightened, steps becoming stiffer and quicker.

“What do you want, Farris?” Her tone was as sharp as her gaze.

Farris waited until the crowd thinned before he asked, “Why did you punch Issa yesterday?”

Amane sighed softly through her nose, her deep brown eyes half-shut as she readjusted the basket on her hip. The knuckles of her right hand twinged, and Amane flexed her fingers again before easing her grip with that hand.

“She was disrespectful,” she said.

“What did she say to upset you?” His voice hardened.

Amane suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. “That is none of your concern.”

“It is my concern.” He moved to stand in her path, halting her steps. Amane stiffened, narrowing her eyes at the deliberate look he gave her. “I cannot stand hearing what the people say about you.”

She scoffed. “A wolf does not lose sleep over the cries of sheep.” Then she arched a brow, giving him a bored look. “Is this truly what you sought me for?”

Farris shook his head, his light brown eyes firm on her. “My family is coming to yours tonight.”

Amane’s grip on her basket tightened a fraction, gaze hardening. “I’ve made my answer clear to you and your father many times,” she hissed, glaring as she had to crane her neck to meet his gaze. “A formal attempt will not make me change my mind.”

“Amane.” Her name was a whisper from his lips. “My father chose you for me. He made it clear that no one is to ask for your hand because you’re to be mine.” He stepped towards her, and Amane remained still, her gaze like shards of hard ice. “I chose you to be with me.”

“And I refused that more than once. Choose someone else.”

“Why do you deny me so?” His eyes roamed her face, voice softening with a touch of hurt. “Do you find me unappealing as a husband?”

Amane didn’t answer, her face flat as her deep brown eyes studied the male before her.

Farris was the Chief’s son, their next leader by right and worth, and he was the dream of every girl in their village. She’d seen the looks they gave him, recognised the longing and envy in their eyes whenever he approached her.

Her half-shut eyes took in his squared jaw, the breadth of his shoulders, the firmness of muscles lining strong and long limbs that made him tower over her and many others. Farris was a good hunter and a reasonable judge, two qualities marking a great leader. He was attractive, patient, and caring, three other qualities of a husband many desired.

But not Amane.

“I have no interest in being a Chief’s wife,” she said after a moment of heavy silence. “Nor am I interested in all the responsibilities and duties that would fall on my shoulders. My rejections are not for you personally, Farris, but I stand by them.” Amane hoisted her basket higher on her hip with a tight grip, knuckles aching again. “I will not marry you.”

Farris pursed his lips, his expression turning grim. “I’m afraid you don’t have a choice in this matter.”

Amane’s face darkened like clouds announcing a ferocious storm. Her eyes narrowed, deep brown darkening to a foreboding shade. Her skin stretched tight over her bones, tongue sharpening with the acid burning up her throat to be unleashed—

The booming of the drums silenced her.

She stilled, brows knitting as her gaze drifted to the side. Farris halted too, light brown eyes scanning the crowd that made its way to the entrance of their village. Murmurs of curiosity and confusion over what was happening or who could be visiting them drifted all around Amane, for those booming drums only beat as a warning.

Farris gave her a stern look. “Stay with me. We don’t know what it could be.”

Amane raised her chin and hoisted her basket higher on her right hip before she sidestepped him and marched to the entrance.

Farris remained close to her, and she was irked by the message that alone sent to the rest of the villagers, but no one paid them attention as they hurried ahead.

Anxious mumbles rose around her the closer they got to the entrance. The air stirred with something that had goosebumps lining her flesh, the feeling familiar—like when she was at the river earlier, or when she’d come back to the village and was struck by the gripping feeling of doom.

It was back, and it had her swallow past a sudden block in her throat. Her breath hitched, so quiet no one heard, and her stiff grip on her basket tightened further until her knuckles twinged.

“Who is he?”

“Where did he come from?”

“My goodness, what happened to him?”

“Dear God, please protect us from evil!”

Amane dropped her basket carelessly before shoving her way forward, her small frame making her irritation rise as people refused to move out of her way. She opened her mouth, demands ready on the tip of her tongue—

A boy looked at her, his curious gaze rising above her head before his eyes widened. He pushed himself out of the way, taking his friends out with him.

“Move back, Farris is here!”

“It’s Farris! Amane is with him!”

As if urged by an invisible hand, the crowd parted, and Amane took one step forward before she halted, deep brown eyes widening.

Hushed gasps echoed behind her, then a faint whisper announced their Chief and his wife arriving before she saw their leader march to the young man hunched and bleeding at their entrance.

The Chief stood before the young man, motioning for people to help him. A cloak and cool water from the well were brought to him, and the stranger gulped the drink as if he’d been deprived of it for years, thin streams dribbling down his chin to soak his bloodied shirt.

Amane took in his appearance, from his leaf-littered hair to the scratches on his face and down to his torn pants. As if he’d been running for days. As if he’d narrowly escaped death.

Her stomach twisted, and she clenched her trembling hands by her sides. Her eyes sought familiar faces listlessly, heart lifting only when she spotted her family standing nearby.

“Nazim,” she breathed before making her way to them, hands reaching for her little brother the same moment his eyes widened at the sight of her.

He clung to her waist, small hands grabbing fistfuls of her clothes to press himself close.

“Amane,” he whispered with a shaky voice, and Amane bent her head to gently shush him, resting one hand on his head while the other arm tightened around his back. She gave a nod to her mother and father who huddled around them.

“Young man,” the Chief said, voice clear amidst the simmering panic of the people. “Who are you, where did you come from, and what happened to you?”

“Monsters...” The young man’s choked voice shook, and on a closer look, so did his body.

Haunted eyes lifted from the ground, and they collided with Amane’s. She stiffened, a chill rattling her spine, the fine hair on her body rising as she clutched her little brother.

And under the darkening sky, he whispered, “The monsters are coming.”

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