Dawn of a Dynasty
Written By Mae Rennox
Published by Mae Rennox at Smashwords
Copyright 2015 Mae Rennox
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Other Titles By Mae Rennox:
Ballerina & Boy
The Ravennean Empire:
At the Boundary of Snow and Sand
The Shadow King
I clutch at my throat the way he did so many times. Free, I am free. I don’t feel free. More than ever it feels like I am in a cage, locked up and on display so that the tribe can watch my suffering.
The night air is calm; quiet. A storm approaches and both people and animals have taken cover. Fat snowflakes fall and the soft powder of them mute my footsteps. Before me the Western Mountains rise up in silent witness. They are calling me again, calling me away from the sorrow and emptiness that lie in the east. Tonight my feet heed the call the way they have every night for the past two moon-turns. The Gods want me to leave this place, perhaps tonight I will not come back.
My skin begins to prickle as I walk towards those mountains. Unbidden, a memory of him springs forth. He always used to tell me that I made his skin crawl with the feeling of hundreds of spider legs on his body. Someone is out there, someone like me. My feet carry me with purpose now and as my strides lengthen across the snow, I keep to the shadows of the towering trees as much as possible.
Her voice, when she speaks, comes from behind me. “Do you walk to? Or from?”
The woman I turn to is wrapped in heavy white furs and bleached white boots embroidered with a pale pattern of glistening flames. Her blond hair hangs in many thick, rope-like braids, and her eyes are the deep blue of the great river. Power exudes from her, I can feel it. It is her that I’ve been sensing.
“I was looking for you.” I answer honestly.
Surprise crosses her features, and then she smiles. “I was not expecting that.”
“I could feel you, and I knew you were like me, so I started looking for you.”
“Why?” She looks curious.
My existence these last two months has alternated between numbness and grief. Now both recede in the wake of an urgency I don’t understand.
“I wished to meet you.”
“Why?” She asks again.
“Because I have never met another like myself.”
That brief smile flutters across her lips again, a smile that gentles the lethality of her stare. She raises a gloved hand before her, palm to the moon, and as I watch a globe of fire materializes in the air above her hand. It is bright red but gradually flickers through the other colours of the rainbow until it becomes blue.
“Is that what you can do?” Her eyes dance playfully.
I shake my head and my lips threaten their first smile in months. At a wave from my hand a rush of powdery ground snow flows towards her. It rises, spiralling and weaving in a column as tall as the woman herself. Slowly the flittering flakes form a mirror visage of the other young woman and cool into solid ice. She looks me over and then strokes the creation before her.
“You are a rare and beautiful creature, snow girl.”
Her soft words are the key to the lock that has been holding my smile at bay.
“Where did you come from?”
The word reminds me of my tribe, not an hour east, and steals the smile from my mouth.
“You have no love for the East.” She observes.
I shake my head and the silence of the forest steals over us.
“My companions have their own… special talents. I know they would welcome another. Especially one with a gift such as yours.”
“And what of your men?” I ask.
“We have no men. Only boys, too young to be without the care of their Mothers.”
Urgency fills me again, “And you would take me with you?”
“Why?” It is my turn to ask.
Her answer is long in coming. “Our kind are not safe among our brothers and fathers. They see our abilities as a curse and not the gift from the Gods that they are, and we are spread too thin to protect ourselves or each other.”
“You would bring us together. You would… liberate us.” The words taste dangerous on my tongue.
“I would see a day when our safety is no longer threatened by the ignorance of our men.”
“If I go with you, my tribe will come for me.”
“Let them come.” The woman smiles, only this time, her smile enhances the danger burning in her blue eyes.
I glance over her shoulder, in the direction of my tribe. “If we go now the storm will cover our tracks.”
“Let us go home then.” She says and turns us west once more.
Silence overtakes us again and we walk toward the lines of mountains that stretch west from the great sea all the way to the desert in the South. We walk with purpose and put distance behind us quickly, but I don’t worry about discovery. The snow on the ground swirls in our wake, covering our tracks at my will. Everyone in my tribe has taken cover; the storm will hit by morning and buy several days to place distance between us.
“You leave nothing of importance behind?” My companion asks suddenly. “No husband or children?”
“My husband has been gone for two moon-turns.” I answer quietly. “My son also.”
“I hear steel in your voice.” The woman says. “But very little sorrow.”
“I gave my son to the God’s during his third month. My husband was gone to another tribe, looking for a second wife.”
“You sacrificed your son?”
“Better to place him in the hands of the Gods than the hands of my husband.”
The woman falls silent again for several moments. Her words, when they come, are soft and filled with pain.
“The winters have grown shorter in my home territory. Many years the snow no longer stretches out to cover the river.”
I sense where this is going and have to force my thoughts away from the memory of my husband.
“My father turned me over to the elders. They thought to bring the long winters back by giving me to the Gods. The fire was ready, my body was painted, but I escaped and brought death on them. During the fight I lost my closest friend.”
Her eyes are haunted, as mine surely are. “Men do terrible things when they are afraid.”
Her eyes flick to mine, and her mouth stretches into half of a bitter smile. “Perhaps it is time we give them something to truly fear.”
“I would like that.” I tell her.
Her eyes are hungry and flicker like blue sparks. “Can you fight? Or hunt?”
I shake my head, “I can preserve food, or the dead. And I can tame wild animals. I can fish, and build shelter.”
She nods. “You will learn to hunt, and when we get through these mountains you will teach the others your skills. In the meantime you can help us build shelters.”
“I will set to work at camp. I may be able to keep the worst of the storm at bay.” I answer.
She regards me curiously. “How will you do that?”
Another unexpected smile stretches my face, “You will have to wait and see.”
“I look forward to it.” She says with an answering grin.
The rest of our walk to her camp is quiet, yet pleasant. I find her presence comforting. For the first time in months I truly absorb what my senses bring to me, the soft glow from the snow-covered forest floor, the cold crisp air, the wetness of snowflakes on my cheek. The numbness that has smothered me for months is receding slightly. I feel alive again.
A faint green glow colours the snow as we near the encampment. There is a central fire pit where emerald flames burn on nothing but snow and leap high into the air. Women sit around the fire, talking quietly. Each has a bow or spear at her side. They appear neither surprised nor alarmed by our arrival.
One of them, a woman about my age with flaming hair looks up from the spearhead she is sharpening. Her hard eyes rake over me for several moments before she speaks.
“I see you’ve found another stray. What can this one do?”
The woman who led me here raises an eyebrow at me. “Should I tell her? Or would you prefer to show them yourself?”
I can’t hold back from another grin, and neither can the fire woman. It takes only a moment to trace the outline of a snake in the soft snow before my feet. A moment more and the snow takes form to slither across the frozen ground toward the red-haired woman in the likeness of a snake. She stares at it with an expression between fear and awe as it rises and dances before her like the hooded snakes of the South.
The woman at her side, an older woman with white-blond hair, chuckles. “Welcome to our camp little one, I am Naja and this is Evania.”
Her smile warms the empty hollowness of my soul, so I smile back. Then I wave my hand to release the snow from my command and the hooded snow-snake falls to powder at the red-haired woman’s feet. She pushes her boot through the small pile, and grins a menacing grin.
“What is your name snow-girl?”
“Kaeta.” I tell her.
“Kaeta.” She repeats.
The wind is howling, and it threatens to shake our tent from its pegs. Chesna and the children are piled on me for warmth. I lift them off one by one and pull the extra furs from the trunk. Chesna helps me tuck the children in without question, she’s used to me leaving in the night, but she frowns when I put out the fire.
“In case the tent blows down so you won’t catch fire.” I whisper.
Outside, I am blasted with snow and ice. All of the torches around camp have gone out and the storm hammers our tribe oblivious to Kaeta’s sentries. I can’t see a fire in her tent, and I can’t feel her I probe for her mind. She is either so far from camp that her spells that protect us from the storm aren’t working, or… I don’t want to think of that.
I push into my sister’s tent and my guts knot up, everything is in its place except for Kaeta. She’s gone, with no provisions or protection. Did she stay out in the woods too late and get caught in the storm? I saw Koja burrowing with the other dogs so I know he hasn’t gone with her. What if she was down to the river and got swept under the ice?
Sharp pain stabs through my head and there’s bile in my throat from pushing my power too far. Drefan will try to flatten me but I have to tell him, we need to get her back.
It’s been weeks since I left my tribe and joined the women. So far we have evaded my tribe’s attempts to find me because I’ve been using my power to erase our tracks, but despite my efforts the dogs will have caught my scent and soon I know we will have to fight them.
I am a woman who commands snow and as such I am my tribe’s weapon; the elders’ leverage as they jockey for power over other tribes within the clan. In the wake of my husband’s death my brothers quickly arranged another marriage with a chief of one of the higher tribes of our clan. They are fierce, ambitious men, good hunters and better fighters who have no intention of leading a tribe that resides near the bottom of the hierarchy of tribes within our clan. My first marriage gained them a spot at the political fire pit and my second would have elevated them to the first rung of the ladder. Hell, one of my brothers probably orchestrated my husband’s death just so they could marry me off to someone better.
The white-haired woman, Naja, looks at me from under raised eyebrows. I don’t offer her any information about my thoughts. We continue in silence for several moments.
“Are you going to share the cause of your humour or must I use my gift?”
“I was thinking about my brothers.”
“Brothers?” she probes.
“Yes, it occurred to me that they might have been responsible for my husband’s death.”
“Ah. To free you.”
I feel my face turn cynical. “Yes. My freedom would be a convenient thing to have if they had found a more suitable man to take his place.”
“Suitable?” She probes again.
I glance at her from the corner of my eyes, “Higher ranking. They are ambitious, and my child proved I can bear healthy sons.”
“Ah,” She says. And then after a moment, “Was it they or your husband that caused you to wake screaming the night before last?”
I respond with only stony silence for several moments. These women are often boisterous and the threat of violence lurks beneath each pair of eyes, but they are also painfully honest and affectionate. Each of them has a story like mine or worse, and they accept me without question.
“When I sleep I still feel his hands around my throat, and I see my brothers’ eyes watching impassively.”
She smiles at me with hard eyes and says, “I look forward to being caught.”
“The Gods are thirsty for blood and they’ve given that thirst to us so that we will have the strength to punish those who have transgressed against them and their daughters.”
“And what of their sons?” I ask quietly, thinking of the one person I left behind who I will miss.
She looks at me from under raised eyebrows again.
“One of my brothers can heal. They keep him with the women so that he will stay safe and prolong their lives a bit.”
“How does he feel about being treated like a woman?”
“It amuses him,” a smile pulls at my lips. “He can fight as well as any of them, and he hunts better.”
“You would protect him?”
“He didn’t protect you.”
I laugh without mirth. “He delayed my marriage by three years. Our eldest brother tried to beat him when he discovered the deception. Rafe told him to continue his attempts and see the family made smaller.”
“Rafe is the healer?”
“Could he have done it?”
I nod again. “Could and would have.”
“And your other brothers? Do you carry fondness for them?”
I steel myself. “When the time comes Rafe and I will send them down the river ourselves.”
“Why are you so sure Rafe will join us?”
“Because he lives half his life through the eyes of a woman. He knows how the world looks through mine.”
She nods approvingly and relaxes. “We will be sure to take Rafe alive then.”
I groan, “If you kill the men and take Rafe the other women will want to come also.”
“We will lead them over the mountains with the others. Our home will be there, between the mountains and the sea.”
“Those we go to join.” She explains with conviction. “We have our own tribe now. Soon we will have a clan.”
I’m shaken awake so roughly and abruptly that I half expect to see my husband back from the dead. Evania’s face looms over me in the dark with fierce black eyes. To the east I hear the faint sound of dogs yapping. My brother’s have come.
Evania gives me another shake. “Get up and dress. Meet Nuria by the fire where she can protect you.”
And then as abruptly as she woke me she is gone. Our camp is eerily silent so I scramble up and do as I was bid. Nuria sits sharpening a spear with the central fire at her back. Her face is strangely serene given the rapidly approaching dogs and imminent fight.
“You look frightened.” She says quietly.
She shakes her head. “There’s nothing to fear from them.”
“They could kill you.”
A ball of flame materializes above her palm and she smiles at me and puffs on the flame which stretches hungry tendrils towards me. “Only if they can touch me.”
Her sure smile and the dangerous glint to her eyes reminds me of Rafe. Is he out there now? Fear curdles in my gut.
“You shouldn’t be frightened. We can protect you.” She tells me.
“But who will protect my brother?”
“The one you call Rafe.”
“Naja spoke of him. He has the gift also?”
“Yes. He is good and kind. I would not see him hurt.”
“You think he will join us after we kill his brothers.”
“I know it. We will send our brothers down the river together. Even if I have to protect Rafe from you myself.”
Nuria sits silent and considers my challenge a moment, surprisingly it doesn’t anger her.
“Can you get him to identify himself so the others know what he looks like?”
I laugh. “If he is among the men approaching he will be the only man there who gives a damn about me. Tell them to use their gifts.”
She smiles. “Then we will do what we can to take him unharmed.”
“Thank you.” The dogs are close now, minutes away, if that. I wish I’d turned the snow in the forest to crust so we could better hear their approach.
“Hold yourself strait.” Nuria says suddenly, “Letting them sense your fear is like leaking blood into the eastern part of the river.”
I pull in a deep breath and do as she says. Then I drop my cloak and it falls away, showing the newly embroidered patterns on my furs. Nuria nods her approval from her seat by the fire. Gone are the beaded symbols of my tribe. Now my furs are emblazoned solely with the symbols of the Sun and motherhood. This is the patterning of our tribe.
Shouts cry out from the shadows beyond camp and three yapping hounds come streaking past only to skid to a stop and swarm me. A hoard of men appear hot on their heels. There are well over two dozen and they brought my husband-to-be.
“Kaeta!” Rafe exclaims.
“Rafe.” I answer quietly.
He steps to the front of the group and glances around warily before whispering, “What have you done Kaeta?”
“Take off your hood.”
“Kaeta.” His voice is all warning.
I look squarely into the recesses of his cowl. “Take off your hood.”
He must be inside my head because he pushes back the cowl and stares at me with wary eyes. Normally I would feel the tingle of his power; but here, in this camp surrounded by gifted the sensation is more like the stinging of limbs that have fallen asleep.
My eldest brother steps forward, impatience creasing his face. “What is this Kaeta? Why have you run off? We should be preparing to move north not chasing you through the forest!”
“You should not have come after her at all.” Nuria answers from her seat.
“Who are you? Where are your men? We won’t tolerate another tribe stealing our women.”
“You should leave.” Rafe says suddenly, his eyes are boring into Nuria’s. “Leave while she will let you.”
“What are you nattering about?” One of our other brothers growls.
Rafe’s eyes stay locked on Nuria’s while he answers. “This woman has all the fiery rage of the Sun at her command. If you don’t leave now she will burn you all to dust.”
Our eldest snorts. “I’m not afraid of a witch. What will she do? Blow snow at me? Scratch at my eyes and then heal them? Make pretty lights?”
A gleeful grin pulls at Nuria’s lips, her eyes are bright and wild.
“I mean it Drefan. Go while you can.” Rafe’s voice is urgent.
“No. I don’t think I will. I’d rather see what’s under those furs. I could enjoy a wife with pretty yellow hair.”
The other men snicker and chuckle. Nuria’s grin doesn’t waver as my brother approaches her. She doesn’t move either, just sits there toying with the beads on her spear.
Rafe speaks again, eyes still on Nuria, and now his voice has hardened. “Their feet Kaeta, it will be a more merciful end. Leave the young ones though, they don’t have stone hearts like the rest.”
“Now where’s the honour in that?” Nuria asks, no doubt guessing his plan. She ignores Drefan’s approach.
“I’ve been in their heads for 26 years. They don’t deserve an honourable end. Tell your friends to leave the young ones be.”
“Always nattering.” One of our brothers says, giving Rafe a small shove.
Rafe doesn’t answer, he only watches as Drefan grabs Nuria’s spear from her and drags her roughly to her feet. She smiles at him with wide, deceptively innocent-looking blue eyes. She even reaches up to stroke the side of his face. He grins a sickening grin.
“Drefan!” several of the others call out his name.
Fire from the central pit is slowly crawling towards him and Nuria from either side. Rafe’s eyes turn wildly to mine. I smile, take a deep breath and pull my hands palm up in the air. The snow follows. It creeps up the boots and legs of the men in camp, including Drefan’s. Nuria’s flames have the men’s attention so they don’t notice the movement of the snow and by the time Drefan sees the flames it is too late for him because they are already climbing his furs.
He yells and beats at the flames but he can’t escape. His legs are trapped in ice, as are those of the other men. Nuria is encircled in flames but none of them touch her. Drefan screams and flails at the fire but Nuria is calm as she pulls out a knife and slits his throat.
What follows next can only be described as a slaughter. It is unsettling to watch Rafe turn and slam his spear through another man’s chest. At the end only the youngest men are alive, both are barely healed from their coming of age ceremonies, just 13 years old. Their eyes dart around wildly although they’ve since stopped struggling against the snow that encases their legs.
Rafe approaches them slowly. “If you want to live you’ll do exactly as I say.”
They nod vehemently but don’t speak. Rafe is not only dangerous, but also their chief now. He is our tribe’s best tracker and hunter so they know he can follow through with any threat he makes.
“When my sister releases you, you will take water skins and go to our tribe. You will tell the elders that everyone else was slaughtered and bring the tribe to me. You will tell them that I am preparing a safe place for them.”
They nod vigorously again.
“If you come across the Running Red Wolves you will tell them the same thing and that the arrangement with Kaeta is still on if they will escort our tribe to me unharmed. If you tell anyone the truth I will send you to Elysium in the same manner as our brothers. Do you understand?”
“Good. Give them water and let them go.”
“And if we don’t agree?” Evania practically snarls.
His eyes meet hers in a level gaze. “They will bring you enemies and allies in one fell swoop. Wouldn’t you rather they come to you than have to go chasing after them?”
Naja snorts. “The boy is smart. It was wise to keep him. Let’s get these bodies seen to. I’ll not have the camp smelling of rot.”
“It’s too cold for rot.” Evania growls and stalks away.
Rafe turns back to the boys. “Take the dogs with you for protection.”
In the end it takes two hours for Kaeta to free their feet. She isn’t great at undoing her spells yet. The boys are freezing so we feed and warm them by the fire before sending them off. The fire witch is still restless, her power is sentient and hunger pours from her in waves. She is actively restraining her fiery gift. A violent shiver runs through me at the knowledge.
I lean in close and whisper to Kaeta. “Her power is like a sentient thing that wants out of her. Restraining it is like trying to keep a wolf in a cage.”
“You mean it could snap the bars and escape at any time.”
A soft breeze ruffles my furs tonight. It doesn’t have its usual bite and the snow beneath my feet is wet enough to stick to my boots. Bats and a hound are my only companions. It is soothing, I am more at peace than I have been since before my betrothal ceremony. I relish in the silence of the vacant forest around me.
Koja snorts snow out of his nose abruptly and jerks his head back toward camp. A soft cry reaches us, Rafe’s wife. I bolt for camp and Koja outdistances me in a heartbeat. The wet snow clings to my boots and hinders every step.
In camp I find Rafe on his knees in the snow, Koja snuffles at him and his wife wipes vomit from his mouth. Shrieking erupts from a tent on the other side of the fire pit. One of the newer girls sleeps there and women flock to her aid. Rafe was trapped in one of her dreams.
As far back as I can remember Rafe has had nightmares like these. His gift takes him into the heads of others while he sleeps and only waking can release him. He shakes from cold and shock, his arms will barely hold him off the snow.
“What’s wrong with him?” Evania asks as she approaches.
“He was trapped in her dream.” I answer, nodding to the girl they’re pulling from the tent across the fire.
I shrug off my cloak and throw it over his hunched form. He’s got only a blanket wrapped around his waist, not even boots. Chesna rubs his back steadily. In their tent one of the children is crying.
I nod towards the sound. “Go to them, I will look after him.”
“Thank you Kaeta.” She says and jogs back to their tent.
I kneel before him and shove Koja out of his face. His forehead is sweaty when I press a kiss to it. He needs to be warmed and dried else he’ll catch the cold sickness.
“Come to the fire brother. I’ll get you water.”
I hitch an arm beneath his shoulder and pull him up, he leans into me on unsteady feet. His face is so pale, the expression more vulnerable than I’ve ever seen it. Tears trail down his face unheeded as he gulps air. I have to pry his fingers away to wrap him more tightly in my cloak and seat him. Evania has some waiting when I am finished with eyes that are unexpectedly compassionate.
“It’s not an easy thing, to live in another’s mind.” She answers before returning to her post on the edge of camp.
I hold the bowl to Rafe’s lips and he drinks slowly. Across the fire the girl, younger than I, shudders within her blanket. Her blank eyes stare into the fire unblinking. She’s only been with us for half of a moon turn. Nuria and the other fighters with my brother liberated her tribe days after the boys returned to us with the remainder of ours. Rafe had to heal several of our women after. It was a bloody fight that only the women, children, and a few young men survived.
The girl doesn’t speak yet, and Rafe told the other males in camp not to approach her. I gathered from the mumblings that she was shared with another tribe during a trade agreement. She wakes up this way often, with screams and sobs lifting us out of bed. It wears on Rafe heavily, so many ghosts of anguish haunting the camp and his gift won’t allow him to escape their pain.
“This has to stop.” He mutters.
His face is still pale but no longer ashen.
“We can’t keep living like this.” He says hoarsely, with tired eyes on the girl.
“We have no choice.” I answer. “We chose this path.”
“There is a choice.” He answers, “I won’t watch her waste away, not when I can give her just enough healing to shed some light in the darkness.”
He stands carefully and rounds the fire slowly. Women close in with drawn blades and the girl stares at him with terrified eyes. He lifts his hands out to the sides but doesn’t address the women surrounding us.
“I won’t hurt you.” He says gently, softly. “I won’t even touch you.”
He kneels slowly, hands together and palms up. She flinches back and Naja growls his name in warning.
An orb of red light forms in his cupped palms. It shines softly next to Nuria’s brilliant emerald fire. Slowly it fades to orange, then yellow, then green.
“Stay still,” he whispers to her as he stares into her wide eyes.
Softly he blows on the orb and it floats up a handspan. Finally her eyes rip from his to the hovering light, it drifts towards her and drops into the limp hands resting on her lap. Then it turns a beautiful sky blue and absorbs into her skin. She jerks away, chest heaving in panic.
Rafe hushes her gently. “It won’t hurt you, it is healing, like I did for the women who rescued you. It will take some of your pain, you will sleep well the rest of tonight.”
“You shouldn’t have done that. You’ll only frighten her more.” Evania says.
“She needs to sleep and so do I.” He answers firmly if still weak. “If you’re going into battle again I must be strong enough to fight and heal you. I can do neither if I am weak from sleep deprivation.”
“You speak as though this battle isn’t your own. I thought your loyalty was with us.” Nuria challenges.
“You were mistaken then. My only loyalty is to my kin.”
I’m shaken awake by Rafe, it’s the dead of night. Leaning over me he is a dark shadow against muted moonlight.
“Cybele has begun to labour.” His voice comes soft and firm, “I need your help.”
I scramble up and pull a shaved hide of wooly horse fur over my linens. I’m getting far too used to functioning on only a couple hours sleep.
The woman’s tent is quiet when I approach, she’s still sleeping. Her labour must have barely begun. My own labour started just so, with Rafe creeping into my tent and shaking me awake.
Blessedly, he kicked out my husband, but then he made me get up and walk around. He’s going to do it to this woman too, it will make her pains come faster, and she will be less likely to have problems.
“You have to walk.” He says, pulling her from the tent in nothing but a light shift. “Kaeta keep her moving.”
I link my arm through hers and steady her while he helps her put on boots and wraps her in a fur.
“I don’t want to walk,” she whimpers.
“You have to. It’s your first birth, you don’t want to make it harder. He made me walk too.”
She frowns and freezes as pain rolls through her. We’ve a while yet to go.
“But you don’t have a child.”
I stare into the darkness of the trees. “I gave him to the Gods. My husband didn’t deserve a son.”
“Your husband was like mine then.”
Her breath hitches on another contraction, “Were you afraid he would become like your husband?”
“No. I was afraid my husband would hurt him.”
“Worse then,” she says.
“I don’t know about worse,” her eyes are as haunted as my own. “Just different.”
Another pain, and I steady her. She will stress herself out with this conversation but she is afraid, and answering her questions is the only way I now how to sooth her.
“Why did you wake me up? I might have slept a bit longer, now I must feel every second of it.”
“You need to walk, and you need to stay calm. It’s going to get a lot worse than this.”
“How am I supposed to stay calm when you tell me something like that?”
Her whole body tenses on the next contraction. I tighten my grip on her and steer her forward, one slow step at a time.
“Don’t focus on that, look at how beautiful and quiet the forest is at night.” I am using the same words my brother spoke to me during my labour.
“The forest?” She asks incredulous.
“Yes, the forest. It’s beautiful, serene. Let it calm you, if you are upset the baby will know and the birth will be harder and longer.”
“How would you know?”
“Because Rafe told me so and he has helped deliver dozens of babies. Do what you’re told and everything will be all right.”
“But I don’t want this.” She whispers.
I steady her through another wave of pain.
“I don’t want it.” There are tears in her eyes.
I take her by the shoulders firmly, “We will deal with that when the time comes, but first we must get it out of you. So walk and calm yourself until my brother says otherwise.”
“Brace her Naja,”
Cybele refused to let me leave her, even when Naja rose and joined us. Now I kneel behind the labouring woman, lending support to her exhausted crouching form. Naja keeps water hot and takes turns supporting Cybele with me. Rafe kneels on the floor before us, watching the baby’s progress with both eyes and mind.
Cybele protests when Naja takes my place.
“Hush, I’m right here. Naja can better help you right now, but I am still here.”
The words offer little comfort. She clutches at me blindly, lost in her battle. I hold her hand and wipe her face and chest with a wet rag until the baby howls its way into the world.
Rafe is quick to take it away. ‘A girl?’ I ask in my mind. We’ve all been hoping for a girl these past hours so that Cybele need not be haunted by the fears a boy-child would bring. Naja slowly shakes her head.
“What is it?” Cybele echoes.
I hush her quickly, “Never mind that, you aren’t finished yet.”
“But nothing, I told you we would cross that path when we came to it and we aren’t there yet.”
I’m stern enough that she listens, and eventually we have the afterbirth delivered and she is safely past the danger of bleeding out. She is exhausted, Naja and I bath her and put her to bed, we are hoping she will go to sleep and forget about the child for today.
“The baby,” she mumbles, already half asleep.
“My brother’s wife is caring for it,” I tell her.
Her sleepy eyes are wells of sadness, “It’s not a girl is it?”
“Your next one will be.” Naja assures her.
Her face crumples, and in Naja’s face is the overwhelmed look I have seen on Rafe’s so many times. He needs to get out of the girl’s head. Thank the Gods I don’t have this gift.
“Go.” I tell Naja, “I will stay.”
Her expression eases and she gives my shoulder a squeeze before leaving.
“Can you do it?” Cybele asks quietly.
“No.” I answer, “If you want YOUR son, rather than your husband’s, waiting on the other side you must do it yourself. You must send him down the river yourself with warmth in your heart for him.”
She cries then, so I hold her hand while the sun crosses high overhead, until finally she falls asleep. Naja returns to relieve me after noon and I go strait to my own bed.
Just after nightfall I wake. I’m ravenous and alert enough that I know sleep won’t be attainable anytime before sunrise, so I pull a bed fur around my shoulders and leave the tent. Outside, a heavy pot of stew hangs over the fire pit. My sister-in-law sits there nursing Cybele’s child.
Jealousy stirs first, then sadness. I push them both back and fill a bowl with stew, I never hated or feared my son like Cybele. He was beautiful, and perfect, and mine. I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing bruises on him, or of watching him turn hard and cold like the other men in our tribe.
These thoughts put a damper on my appetite so I head through the woods to the river. The water is quiet here, and the current flows soft where the ice has been chopped away. I wonder if he’ll be waiting for me on the other side, or if he joined his Father instead. Will the new little one wait for his Mother? Or is she sending him straight to the man who so terrorized her?
It’s too much to dwell on tonight. The sky is clear, the air and water calmly illuminated by moonlight, and I want to feel closer to my son. I shrug off my fur and linen and ease in. The water has warmed with spring’s approach but still it is cold enough to steal my breath.
I dip beneath the surface carefully so as not to get pulled beneath the ice. When I emerge Nuria is sitting by the hole with a ball of fire in a variety of flickering colours that float before her in the air above her hand.
Comfortable silence lapses over us for a few minutes, until the cold creeps into my limbs and forces me out of the water. She helps me out with a firm grip.
“They tell me the birth went well.”
“Your brother was there.”
I smile, “Yes. He was our tribe’s midwife.”
“That’s odd, usually men only help when there are no women around.”
“He’s well suited to it. He can see and feel the progression of the birth, and he can often heal them enough that they don’t bleed out and die when there are complications.”
“Full of talents your brother is.”
“What is she going to do with her baby?”
I shrug, “She wanted a girl, she cried when we told her it was a boy.”
“The river then.”
“Should I persuade her to keep it?”
“You tell me, if his Mother fears him will he be better off here or in Elysium?”
The question hits her too close for comfort and her eyes harden. “I will tell the others not to interfere.”
“We will let the decision be hers.” I answer softly.
There was much dissent when Cybele’s choice about the baby was revealed. Nuria had Naja and Kaeta gather all the dissenters into the main camp circle and calmly told them to support their sister or return to their previous homes. She also made it clear that wether or not they still had homes to return to is of no consequence to her. My gift and Naja’s tight lipped expression tell me that her opinion is one with the dissenters but she says nothing. She may disagree with Cybele’s decision but she understands why it was made and respects the choice. Out of all of them I expect the young men in camp to take it the hardest, sometimes it feels like we are at war with men rather than the oppression within our culture. Nuria is balancing a tenuous line.
We are all gathered at a shallow sandy edge of the river. This little cove is sheltered from the bitter wind but that does little to ease the bite of the cold. Another storm is almost upon us.
Naja and I painted the infant and now she relinquishes him to my hold. The boy is wrapped loosely in a thick fur, beneath his Mother’s heavy cloak is a thin shift than can be discarded after her sacrifice. The only sounds come from the distant wind and the water lapping in shallow waves against the shore; everyone stands somber, waiting. Cybele pulls a knife from her boot and tries to give it to me but I stop her.
“No, you must be the one to do this.”
“Me?” She is both timid and horrified.
“Yes, you. He is your son, your blood, not some nameless stranger. If you are to do this you must do it yourself or else keep him and nurture him as you would a daughter.”
“Don’t you think she’s suffered enough?” Evania snaps.
“Yes, but sparing her this will not end her suffering. The longer she lives the harder the choices she has to make will be.”
Cybele looks from Evania to me and then to Nuria who watches impassively. Finding only agreement with me in Nuria’s silence Cybele sinks in on herself and meets my gaze with sad, fearful eyes.
I place her son in her arms, “Look at him and decide.”
The pools in her eyes overflow as she looks at him, but her voice is steady when she asks, “How did you do it?”
“In the water, with a dagger to his heart. Swift and strong.”
She nods and steps out of her boots, so Nuria takes her cloak from her and hangs it over a forearm. I also remove my cloak and boots and the snowy sand bites at my tender feet cruelly. This far south we are lucky, our limbs will ache and go numb before they freeze. In the High North of my home you freeze before you know you’ve frozen and this venture would be impossible. Here in the South the humid air will tell me how much time we safely have to be exposed.
We wade out to our knees in the river and she sinks down until she is gasping for air as the water closes around her waist. Nuria hands me a wooden basin and a green-glowing torch. The baby cries once as the icy air hits his skin, and then his cries are forever silent. I settle the basin in the water and Cybele lays him in it; her slumped shoulders shake with sobs. The winter air makes my tears burn their way down my cheeks. I take the knife from her and slice a shallow cut on her palm before placing her hand over the baby’s chest.
After their blood has had a moment to mingle I pull her to her feet and set the tiny pyre alight. Nuria is waiting with our furs as I strip Cybele of her shift and tuck it in around the baby, careful of the flames, before ushering the distraught Mother into Naja’s waiting arms.
We follow him out into the woods surrounding camp as we have every night since his arrival. We keep our distance, sticking to the shadows and avoiding areas of crunchy snow. Every night he walks a circle around our camp and stops in 8 places: north, east, south, west, and the midpoint between each. There he will crouch or stand for anywhere between several moments to an hour. He never hunts, never even draws his weapons. He always begins and ends on the eastern point. Tonight is no different. After several minutes crouching, face pointed east, he speaks quietly but clearly.
“If you’re going to follow me out here every night you might as well keep me company.”
A smile pulls at my face and I step forward until I am standing just behind his right shoulder, but the rest in my company hold their positions.
“Your sister never told us the range of your gift.”
“Is that why you let me live?” He asks.
I sigh and crouch. “In part. When she demanded we take you unharmed it was the first time she showed any real spark of life. I wanted to see what kind of flames would spring forth if I tended it.”
“So you kept me to keep her.”
“I did. But then you already knew that.”
He smiles, never taking his eyes off the East. “Thank you.”
He shakes his head. “No, not for letting me join, for taking my sister away.”
“It didn’t worry you when she disappeared?”
“I thought the worst,” he answered quietly. “I never expected to find her safe. I never thought there was a place she could be happy.”
“She does not seem happy.” I answer skeptically.
“In time.” His smile is gentle, and pained. “I watched her become more distant and withdrawn. She started trying to shut me out, started shutting down. And then she gave up the baby…”
“When she told me you would kill your own brothers I didn’t believe her.”
His expression turns dark and menacing. “I did not like living behind their eyes. They did not see as they should.”
“But you do.”
Finally he looks at me and his eyes are hard. “Don’t forget it.”
I nod east and switch topics. “What are you doing?”
“The others. We are in a different clan’s territory now. Hunters will come. I want to know how many, and from what direction.”
“You can do that?”
“Yes. I didn’t join in the your fight so I could be caught and slaughtered unawares.”
The recent battle is over. Naja is overseeing the incorporation of the survivors into our tribe, she has become a mother hen magnified. There are so many who aren’t Sun Children; women, elders, children. All of them are angry and grieving. Somehow Nuria has organized the others with gifts similar to hers so that they can help each new group transition.
A commotion draws my attention to the injured. Kaeta’s brother insisted on tending the worst of the injured and healed many who would otherwise have died or become crippled. None in our ranks have his skill with power. He is kneeling in the midst of the commotion over Nadette’s feet. She is propped up against her mother and Ettore has bullied his way to her, he has thrown all discretion for his feelings towards her aside. Green light emanates from Rafe’s hands. It flares painfully bright for a moment and then goes out. From the side Kaeta strides towards the group with purpose and shushes them with an authority she’s never shown before. They make way for me when I approach. Rafe’s hands rest gently on Nadette’s broken foot with his head bowed low. When he looks up the brown orbs are sorrowful pools of water.
“It’s shattered. It won’t heal properly and some of the shards have sliced her inside.” He swallows hard. “I have to take the foot and some of the leg.”
“No!” Her mother protests.
“Then you can watch her bleed to death from the inside out.” He answers.
Nadette’s breath hitches on a sob.
“You can live missing part of your leg but not with a foot in this condition. My power can’t heal that kind of damage.” He tells her.
“Then send me down the river.” Nadette says.
Her face is blank, hollow, as if she’s already left her body behind. It’s a feeling I know all too well.
“What?” Rafe asks?
Her eyes bore into mine, “Send me down the river. I will wait there. Send me and send our enemies to me. Send them screaming.”
Yes, the words feed my power. It stirs, awake and hungry.
Her mother is sobbing a refusal but Ettore stirs. “Send me also.”
“You?” I ask.
“Yes,” His voice is firm. “How many here have sacrificed their firstborn to ensure our favour with the Gods?”
“Ettore” His mother says quietly.
He turns to her and takes Nadette by the hand. “Send me. I am your firstborn. Nadette and I will be waiting at the end of the river.”
Rafe and the other males lead our procession to the river. In the centre of the group Nadette is carried in a sling with Ettore at her side. His face is unreadable, his eyes focused on the river. At the edges of our procession the women carry torches that flicker in a multitude of colours. We are surrounded by flames in reds, oranges, yellows, and that eerie green.
Nuria and Naja are waiting at the river’s edge with two pallets and a giant, tiered pyre. There are four tiers; on the bottom the flames are vermillion, above them a vibrant orange, next the Sun’s own yellow-gold, and highest of all her infamous brilliant emerald flames.
The raft is lowered in the river and we take our places as the funeral begins. Pots of dye line both pallets and the men and boys take up their drums. Everyone is in various states of undress with their best furs slung over their shoulders or across their arms. Tonight isn’t just about the sacrifice, its also about bringing our people together and creating one clan from the many.
Naja and the other elders take seats around the fire with bowls of dye. Tonight everyone will be painted with the symbols of their former tribe interwoven with Nuria’s chosen symbols of the Sun and Femininity to create a pattern specific to our group. After tonight we will be bound as tightly with each other as we were with our kin.
Nadette is unwrapped and laid out on a pallet ever so carefully. Ettore shrugs off his robe and stretches out on the pallet next to hers. They will be painted head to toe before we send them down the river. The atmosphere tonight is a strange mix of somber and celebratory.
The people are finally painted. They sing and dance to the drumming. To any outsider this probably looks more like a wedding than a funeral. That’s the beauty of life alongside the river, no one is afraid of death; unlike those in the Deep South who live too far, in too much heat to bring their dead to the river. Some fear being left behind, or the pain that death might bring, but not of death itself. We know the river will take us to the afterlife, our gods, and our ancestors. So we celebrate for those we sacrifice and even their Mothers are stoic.
When Nuria stands the drummers change their beat. Everyone quiets and Naja wraps Nadette in an embroidered linen while Ettore ties another piece around his hips. He takes the broken girl ever so carefully in his arms and starts for the raft.
All around people take up the torches and Rafe’s dark eyes are solemn as he slides a gleaming green one into my hand. We surround and walk the young couple to the river. The others draw back from me until there is a clear area around the pair with Nuria and I flanking them. Somehow I have been allotted the same rank as Nuria. I glance back at Rafe and his glittering dark eyes are hard but he gives me a small nod confirming my thought. A chill runs through my body.
At the river’s edge Rafe and Evania climb into the waist-deep water and secure a torch to each end of the raft’s four corners, then they hold it steady and the people around us begin to chant. Ettore eases into the water with Nadette still cradled in his arms.
He sucks in a deep breath as the frigid water swirls around his waist and with gentle hands he stretches her out atop the raft. Working with Rafe and Evania he eases up on it as carefully as possible to save Nadette the pain of being jostled. Nuria steps forward then, right into the water, headless of her carefully dyed and embroidered linens. The chanters fall silent to hear her speak.
She hands Ettore a dagger, “So you will bleed out before the fire takes you.”
Ettore nods and slices a long opening down the inside of each forearm. He does the same for Nadette and lays back with his arms around her. I watch her nestle into his chest and he buries his face in her hair. Nuria, Rafe, and Evania push the raft out away from the shore to where the slow moving current takes it. The torches shine on the water and illuminate red blood on white skin and gold paint. Together the couple floats down the river towards Elysium. How many of us will ever experience an affection that simple and pure?
The forest is far from silent today. Our hounds yap, voices call out, and beneath that there is the ever present sound of feet and sleds breaking through snow. Since the rest of my tribe joined us the weather has turned. Spring’s approach has weakened the snow crust and made for damp slushy conditions. It’s hard going when every other step you break through the crust and into mud that sucks and pulls at your ankles.
We have been lucky in our travels since the funeral and met with no other conflict. A week ago we joined the larger group of women who had been waiting for us near the mountain pass. I fear it is only a matter of time before there is more fighting. Rafe says we are nearing the territory of one of the most aggressive clans. Apparently one of the tribe leaders has been working his way to the top of his clan one fallen chief at a time. We aren’t ready for that kind of fight. Nuria’s powers may be well enough developed but mine are not and they rely on the snow and water. With spring’s approach and our increasing distance from the great river my powers have a definite time limit that is fast approaching.
Normally by this time I would have moved beyond the mountains to the Tundra of the High North with my tribe while the spring flood is in the force. As Nuria leads us west towards the river mouth and the mountains the flood will begin to push us into deadly terrain. In places where the river is still and formed ice over the winter we can hear the sharp echoing sounds of cracks beginning. I fear we will end up trapped between the rivers flood and the mountain cliffs. I gather from Rafe’s dark gaze toward the mountains that he shares similar fears.
“What do you think?”
He stops and lowers his gear to the ground. “Why is she bringing us this way?”
“I don’t know.” I answer.
“It is a fool’s errand,” he says, “she can’t take us through those mountains. Nobody has ever gone in and come out again.”
“How will we fight when they come?”
He shakes his head. “Unless she knows of a place where we can fortify ourselves…”
“She’s from the East.” I tell him.
He shakes his head again, “Her mind is wild, hard to read. Only her feelings come clear.”
“What does she feel?”
“Anger, grief, loneliness, and strongest of all, hunger.”
He is solemn when he answers, “She will bring our world to its knees before she is through.”
There is unrest in the camp. The people don’t trust me. They think I can’t protect them. That they will wash away in the flood waters.
My power grows ever stronger. The smell of cinders and burnt flesh feed it. It’s hungry and only visions from my Grandmother’s tales settle it. Sometimes it feels like the essence of who I am is becoming lost to the force of power and my struggle to contain it.
Though I’ve never seen them I yearn for those sharp grey cliffs, the rhythmic slap of water, and soft rolling slopes of green. There is warmth in my visions. It’s the only time I feel warm. Even the bite of a talon against my forearm is but a distant sting now.
They crept toward the edge of camp like a fox into a rabbit pen only to realize they were in the maw of a larger predator when the jaws snapped shut. A number of the women have taken to tattooing or branding the symbols of warriors and motherhood onto their faces and it was this fearsome vision that drug two scouts from the bordering clan into camp our centre camp.
“Where’s Nuria?” Evania demands.
“Resting, she’s not to be disturbed.” I answer.
“She’ll want to see these men.”
“I doubt it, take them to the edge of the forest and leave them.”
“Leave them?” Evania asks.
“If we let them go they will lead their clan right to us.” Naja argues.
“Oh, I’m sorry” I say, turning back to her. “I meant leave the bodies with a raft and a torch of Nuria’s fire. The head’s should each get their own post.”
Evania smiles a sadistic smile and the two men begin to struggle.
“That will anger the clan.” Naja says.
“We will have to fight them, and we can’t fight those numbers.”
“We’ll have to fight them anyway. We can’t hide so many people, and there is nowhere left to run.” I look to Evania, “I’m not going to say it twice.”
She grins and with the other women drag the two scouts away.
The scouts’ bodies wait at the edge if the forest on Kaeta’s orders. She stand over them now, using her gift to freeze them so that they will stay preserved until their clan finds them. Their heads are on stakes, already frozen, and we are leaving a raft to send them down the river on. I work a torch with green flame into the ground, it’s the only fire that can release her spell without her consent. We didn’t give the men dignified deaths, but these provisions will wait with them so that their clan can send them to Elysium respectably. It is a good way to mark the territory we have claimed without seeming overly hostile. I hope it will give the large clan pause enough to send messengers rather than warriors.
She stops on a snow covered beach at the mouth of the river. A couple of feet away drift wood and weeds from the ocean mark the tide line. We are in a sheltered cove that blocks our view of the ocean though we can still hear it. Here the river crashes against the rocks in waves. There are more rocks, boulders, sand, and mossy outcroppings higher up near the tree-line. It would be pretty if I weren’t up to my ankles in river clay.
“What now?” Evania asks.
“We’re home.” Nuria answers. She draws a line in the snow. “Don’t cross this.”
I glance to Rafe and Evania and see bemusement on their faces.
She walks several feet away and starts a fire in the snow at her feet which quickly spreads out in a great rolling puff that melts the snow and ice but stops just shy of the tree line before dissipating.
Hidden beneath the snow are the markings of one very obvious flood line, and the much subtler markings of a second flood line higher up.
“Mark this second line with stakes so it can’t be missed. We are safe to set camp anywhere above it.” She orders.
Evania walks into camp carrying a lumpy sack and drops it in my lap. Then she pulls a rabbit from her belt, sits beside me, and starts hacking it into tiny pieces.
“Why are you ruining perfectly good meat?”
“Look in the bag.” She says mischievously.
Fully expecting someone’s body parts I open it warily. What I find are two weak and bony bundles of black fur.
“Yes. Their Mother was killed by hunters, I thought you’d like one for yourself.”
Ravennii, the great feline of the mountains that grows as large as a horse. They feed on wolves, horses, bears, and they are vicious. That these kits lay calmly in my lap tells me how weak and malnourished they are.
“Do you think we can keep them alive?” I ask.
“I was hoping your brother would help after we feed them.” She answers.
“I will ask him.”
Feeding them turns out to be a messy job, I am soon covered in freshly killed rabbit bits and since the little beasts already have teeth I’m sliced open in a number of places. Rate is none to happy about it and shows his disapproval by healing only the kittens. He is gruff and not very gentle when he cleans and bandages my hands. By the time he finishes Evania has begun moving her things into my tent for the night so I groom the kittens until they fall asleep in my lap.
I am high on the cliffs as he approaches. The chief of the Westernmost clan. This clan had taken over the entire sea wall as their territory and are ferocious in their defence of it. A band of their warriors came to oust my companions and I from our new home. So I sent one warrior back with the heads of the rest in a sack.
Their chief sent us a woman as messenger, a gifted woman. He wanted to meet with me, a private meeting, and it was for me to name the place. I told the woman to bring him to the mouth of the river where I now wait.
The land is beautiful this far west, more so than the mountainous tundra of my home. Away from the trees are cliffs of grass and herbs that towered high over the crashing waves. I often roam here, abandoning my boots for the feel of grass and rock against my skin. The air is clean and salty, the breeze refreshing compared to the dry frigid air on the other side of the mountains. The vistas, beautiful in summer, will be breathtaking once they’re covered in the winter snows. Resentment stirs as I watch the figure approach. This Western Chief’s presence mars the landscape of sloping green grass and grey jutting rock.
He holds himself with confidence, tall and strong as he approaches. Fiery hair cascades around his shoulders with coloured wooden beads threaded through the multitude of braids. He is younger than I’d expected, much younger. Perhaps in his third decade. He wears more weapons than clothes. A heavy axe is strapped across one shoulder, quiver and bow on the other, a series of daggers across his chest, and a spear in one hand. An embroidered hide hip wrap hangs to his knees and heavy seal-skin boots are all that cover his tanned bulk. This man is a prize, and not afraid of the notorious fire-witch. I like that.
“Are you the chief?”
“Aye. My witch woman said you are the one who speaks to the fire.”
“You’re young to be a chief.”
“Aye.” He repeats, “The other tribe leaders had no vision. They were superstitious fools.”
“Well, I am not a fool, nor will I leave.”
He smiles and gestures to the grass around us. “Sit, share the meat I’ve brought. I would speak with you a while.”
He untied a sack from his belt. “Superstition and ambition.”
I call a fire in the grass between us and sit. He shows intrigue, but no discomfort.
“What is your name witch?”
“Tell me yours first.”
Nuria has reached an agreement with the ruling chief of the Western clans, the notorious killer Rafe spoke of on our journey here. He has accepted the range of territory that we occupy as ours, and agreed not to fight us or interfere with our lives. He will also provide a number of men to guard us and in exchange we must use our gifts to help his people in spiritual and healing matters… and Nuria must marry him.
“You cannot be serious!” Evania blurts, outraged, “The man’s a barbarian.”
“And what happens if this is a ruse? Perhaps he means to subdue you and subjugate the rest of us.” Naja says anxiously.
A laugh bursts from me, loud and uncontainable. Rafe retains his composure but a wry grin stretches across his lips and his eyes twinkle.
“That’s funny to you?” Evania growls.
“Well how exactly would he subdue her? She creates fire with her mind.”
Nuria lets out a small chuckle herself, “It is a good offer, and we need the warriors. The Eastern clans will not remain in their home for long. We may choose the warriors we like to ensure they are decent men.”
“You’ll have to get used to having men around again sooner or later because the boys are all growing up fast and soon the girls will be women and will want babies of their own.” Rafe says casually.
Evania glares at him and stomps off, Naja just sighs tiredly.
“Don’t let on to them that you can get inside their heads,” Nuria cautions Rafe, “they may show a different side in your company than in ours.”
“I have no intention of it.” He assures her.
Tonight the forest is not a gentle place of quiet solitude, it is the still malevolence of hidden dangers. I shiver, ready to turn back, there is no welcome amongst the trees tonight. Above me my new pet slinks from tree to tree on ahead of me. Perhaps he senses something to hunt. Reluctantly I follow, and I haven’t gotten far before I hear twigs snapping and scuffling.
Too late, I realize what I’ve stumbled upon. Reaching the top of a wooded knoll I see two of Konam’s men trying to move one of our women. Her name is lost in the face of her limp and brutalized body. I turn and bolt, screaming out for Evania. One of the men slams into me from behind and we crash toward the ground. Something else smashes into us from the side that simultaneously steals my wind and tears away the crushing weight of the man. I scramble to my knees and release my power in a violent rush to try and marshal what is left of the snow to my command. A vicious scream of a snarl grabs my attention, and my powers grasp on the snow slips away. The Ravennii is postured on the body of the man who tackled me; he’s missing half of his face and the cat is poised for more violence.
The remaining man grips his spear and flees, it is the wrong decision to make in the presence of a predator like a Ravennii. The cat takes a huge leap off of the body she is crouched on and hits the ground running, smooth and silent like an eagle in the air. My heart is hammering in my chest and I scramble to my feet because I hear more people approaching, are they mine or Konam’s?
“Kaeta!” The shout comes from Evania.
I whip around to see her, Nuria, and a host of our other fighters. They take in the scene, some asking questions, others giving orders. Evania grabs me in a tight hug before slinking off into the shadows. Nuria crouches beside the woman on the ground with her cloak draped over the body. I realize then that a few of Konam’s men had come with the party and they stand now with hands tied and emptied of weapons.
A commotion comes from the shadows in the direction the cat went, dragging and snapping and rustling sounds approach. The rest of the women reemerge from the darkness and they are followed by the inky feline. She’s dragging the other man along the ground, her teeth firmly sunk into his shoulder.
“We tried to carry him for her but she wouldn’t let us near him.” Evania explains at my side.
“They are protective of their kills.” I answer.
“Neither of them are dead yet,” Evania says.
“Good.” Nuria’s voice is hard and her eyes glitter dangerously, “Bring them all back to camp, we will see what Konam has to say of this.”
“As long as there are men around there will be danger to us.” Evania sneers, “You can order them all you like, it didn’t make a difference this time and it won’t next.”
“They will be punished for their disobedience.” Konam growls, clearly tired with the fighting.
“It’s not enough. We cannot have them around our people without assurances that they won’t harm us, and you cannot give us that assurance.” Nuria says.
“Isn’t that what your witchery is for? To tell you who is safe and who isn’t?”
“Yes,” She sighs, “but people are unpredictable, their whims and wishes change on a moment’s notice. Even if we burn these men, it won’t keep us safe from the others.”
“I know a way.” I interject.
“And what way is that?” Nuria asks me.
Instead of answering her I ask Konam, “What would you do to them if they had done this to one of your women?”
“I’d kill them, and I’d make it slow,” he answers.
“What if you needed them alive and wanted them to suffer, but wanted to be sure they’d never do it again?”
The man raises an eyebrow, “You can’t be serious.”
“It would solve the problem.”
“I am not going to geld my men for the sake of protecting women who fight me at every turn.”
“I think it’s a good idea.” Evania says with too much glee.
“You would,” he tosses back.
“Ask them, if they are truly loyal they’ll do it.” Nuria says.
One of Konam’s men speaks up then. “Of course you would suggest that, you with your mind-reading. You’ve been living behind a woman’s eyes for too long.”
“I would do it too.” I answer him.
My sister’s gasp is the loudest, “Rafe you can’t!”
“Why not? I already have my children, let the other men who have children go first. I can teach them how to do it so that there is no death and as little injury as necessary and once the men have learned I will volunteer as well.” I look around to several sets of uneasy eyes and a very few decisive ones.
It is decided. We will have our own men as warriors, loyal only to us. Konam isn’t happy about it but there is little he can do about the men who volunteered. He was firm in his decision that we would have to make do with volunteers, with the exception of the youngest boys of all the fallen clan leaders once they come of age.
He approaches the riverbank now with a hoard of people in tow. It’s time to execute the remaining man who killed Amber. Everyone expects an execution by fire but I had a better idea. Kaeta will do it.
The two men are tied to posts, one is already dead from the injuries to his face. The other cannot move any part of his body below where Kaeta’s beast bit into his back. Kona looks to me, and I look to Kaeta.
She turns to face the men and the river with arms outstretched, and then she slowly pulls her arms inward and upward against the invisible force of her power. The water begins to crawl out of the river in a shallow wave and climbs the bodies of the men, freezing as it touches them. The people gasp, cry out, or cower silently as the men become encased in frozen water.
When she released her hold on the water it falls away and soaks the ground once more, but the men stand frozen, preserved. Rafe and Evania step forward and cut the ropes away, then chop the posts from their base so that they can remove them. The frozen men stay standing, and Konam is staring at Kaeta as if she is a mythical creature.
Nuria has summoned me, but we are not alone when I push through the door flap of her tent. Konam is crouched before the fire and Rafe stands just off to the side with wary eyes locked on Nuria. She is tucked amongst a pile of heavy furs. It is the first time I have seen her with a normal fire instead of one glowing green or in a myriad of colours.
“Kaeta.” she greets.
“Are you well?” I ask, glancing from the men to her.
“Yes, thank you. But there is something I would speak to you about and your Brother assures me that I can no longer put it off.”
Though her tone is formal I sit before her and pull one of her furs across my lap so she may speak with me at eye level.
“Her power is a problem.” Rafe says behind me.
“It draws on the life energy available to my body,” Nuria answers.
“My baby’s life energy is part of my body too.”
“So your gift will harm the child.”
“I must use it as little as possible.” She answers.
But you can barely control it. The words hang unspoken between us in the presence of her husband.
“I must retreat and rest, so that when the Eastern Clans come I might safely use my powers.”
But to use her gift for a battle of that magnitude, the energy that would require… She’s lying. She’ll kill the baby before it even leaves her body. One by one we are all of us sacrificing our firstborns. Is this how it must be? Is this the price the Gods demand for our safety?
“Someone must take Nuria’s place at Konam’s side as leader. Our people won’t follow him.” Rafe says.
“Yes they will, you just don’t want your people to follow me. Neither you nor her.”
Nuria grins unrepentantly and Konam scowls back.
“So what would you have me do?” I ask her.
“I want you to stand at his side and defend our interests, and I want you to keep order among our people. I need to know that you can be ruthless if you need to be. I need to know that you can command them and have them follow your orders.”
“Haven’t I already been doing that?” I ask.
She raises her eyebrows at my snide tone but I press on anyway. It seems like Rafe and I are the only ones willing to speak bluntly to her. Everyone else is too afraid. Perhaps that’s why she likes us.
“Nuria you were forced to suppress your power for too long and now that you’ve let it out it doesn’t want to be confined any longer. You might be our greatest defence and source of encouragement but you are not a leader outside of danger and battle. Many of us had to step up to fill the holes in your leadership. Give credit where credit is due.”
She isn’t even angry, and she gives me a wry smile before speaking, “They’re calling us Priestesses you know. They’ve watched Evania ferrying the dead and your Brother healing the sick, or you with your water and snow spells, and they’re calling us Priestesses. Some of them have even begun to condemn the Eastern Clans.”
“And those that call you witches have taken to fighting with those that would embrace you. If we don’t turn their aggression toward the east soon they will begin tearing each other apart. When that happens none of you will be safe.” Konam growls.
“Then we will make sure that doesn’t happen.” I answer cooly, “I will make sure my clan keeps to itself, and you do whatever needs to be done to control your people.”
“I can’t win their respect while I’m allied with you. The only other way is to make them fear me too much to revolt.”
“Do that then. You slaughtered most of the tribe leaders in your own clan, and then took out the other clan leaders one by one. Don’t tell me you are afraid of getting blood on your hands now.”
He glares at me with a ferocious light in his eyes. A barely tamed beast coveting a fire witch. No wonder Nuria likes him, he reminds her of her lizard.
“How much blood is on your hands?” He sneers.
I lock eyes with him, “I killed my infant son so that his Father wouldn’t beat him every day.”
His posture eases and he relents. If he has a soft spot, it is for children.
“Perhaps it was only the blood of one person, but he was my son, my first baby, and that is worth 50 nameless strangers.”
Nuria ignores the exchange, “They are calling us Priestesses. So I name you first Priestess.”
In the end it was a bloodbath. Konam achieved the submission of all the Western clans but it was a bloodbath, and he used us to do it. His words still echo in my mind. ‘You must show them what you can do. You are the only one of your people aside from Nuria who can bend something physical to your will. Later, when we have gained peace you and your people can earn their respect, but for now you must earn their fear.’
I have made the water crawl up out of the great river and turn men into frozen corpses; silent sentries along the way to Elysium. I have ordered my sisters to use their mind walking powers to ferret out our enemies and to trespass in people’s minds in a man-hunt they cannot possibly hide from. At first it nearly brought the clans people to revolt, but as the death toll continued to climb and both Konam’s loyalists and mine showed our mercilessness, the fear settled and the clan leaders began to submit, one by one by one. We even used Nuria’s fire. The emerald fire is sentient, so it sensed my wishes and acted of its own accord. I have heard too many men burning.
In a few cases entire kin lines were eliminated, tribes gone, clans decimated. Every time it happens we incorporate their symbols into ours so that they won’t be forgotten. For now our goal is achieved, we are untouchable. But we are also feared and hated. The clansmen are broken and subdued, but they are ferocious and determined. They will bide their time and wait for us to show weakness again. We are only safe while they are afraid.
I’m standing on a precipice. Konam gathered his warriors and together with Nuria and all of us who have power or fighting skill we have travelled to the Eastern Mountains that Konam deems the edges of his territory to meet what remains of the warriors and chiefs of the Eastern clans.
Leather, fur, and metal surround my body; my mind is engulfed in the snapping sparks of power. Below us the clans fight, Eastern versus Western; the Eastern warriors don’t stand a chance against the onslaught of power we are unleashing.
Nuria has let loose every bit of the fiery rage at her command and it blasts toward the fighters. Ahead of it runs a stampede of snowy stallions pulling Nuria’s spell onward like a fiery chariot. This is single handedly the greatest show of power either of us have ever created and it obliterates everything in its way. It is beautiful and terrifying and it makes me long for the days with my tribe, despite the anguish in the memories, because I know now that I will never get the stench of burning flesh out of my nostrils.
Beside me Konam leans forward eagerly. There is no fear in his eyes. Instead there is awe, and hunger. Hunger for power, for dominance, for us. He knows that having one of us is the closest he will ever come to holding that power in his own hands.
Our alliance is about to crumble like the burnt embers of a log. I know when Nuria’s energy begins to dwindle dangerously low because Rafe steps forward to place a blue-glowing hand between her shoulder blades. She’s begun to draw on her daughter’s energy now and once her and her baby are dead there is nothing to maintain our alliance with Konam. Except me. I’ve felt his eyes on me often, he wants me with the driving want that all the men before him have. He wants me for my power. Only Nuria’s death can make me attainable because he is smart enough to know it would be unwise to insult the fire-witch by coveting someone other than her.
“You’ve made your decision.” Rafe says quietly to my left.
‘Yes,’ I think. ‘Nuria’s will is what holds us together. She is our protection, our leverage. Soon she will be gone.’
“You have us.” He answers.
‘You aren’t enough. Not yet.’ I press my hand to my stomach. This time when I bear a son I will keep him. My eyes are still on the fiery spectacle before us but I can almost hear my brother’s smile.
“She knew.” He says darkly.
We stay silent, and as he looks around his grief takes the last steps into rage.
“You all knew didn’t you? You knew she was going to kill my baby!”
“She didn’t trust you. She would never have put a child in your hands.” Kaeta says quietly, “But I will.”
He stills. “You would?”
She holds his gaze surely. “I would.”
“Why?” He asks, some of the lethal tension draining from his body at last.
It took one painstaking night to paint Nuria and her daughter. The symbols are so detailed and complex that five people participated in the painting, three on Nuria and two on her infant. On Nuria is the pattern of our order, created with the symbols of the Gods, fire, motherhood, and each of the clans including those that were wiped out in the fighting. While Nuria is covered in gold and silver, her daughter has black intertwining to highlight the symbols of her Father’s clan.
Naja oversaw the painting, I organized the others in preparation for the funeral, and Konam led his closest men in felling a great darkwood tree and carving out a boat and prayer bowls. The atmosphere is more somber than most funerals, beneath our grief is another feeling that dampens the celebrations. Fear, we fear how long we will be safe without the threat of Nuria’s power to keep the clansmen in check. We need to build up our army of Guardians and we need to do it fast.
Tonight my brother will become a Guardian, but both he and his wife seem unruffled by it. When someone asks either of them how they feel they give the same answer, that they already have three healthy children so everything is fine. Rafe has given his permission for her to be with other men so long as he meets and approves of them first, and Chesna seems pleased with her new independence. A shallow independence to be sure, but one in which she has the freedom to pursue her own desires while still retaining the support of her kin and community in protecting her and raising the children. As for Rafe, he tells me that he doesn’t want her to be lonesome and that he will never be lonesome as long as he has me and his children.
Konam steps up beside me, a dark shadow in black fur. The torches glint off of his red hair and grey eyes that stare toward the river where his men are lowering the boat into the water. One of the Guardians walks past us with a covered wooden bowl that he lights afire and sends drifting downstream. I can’t help but flinch and my shudder draws Konam’s attention.
“Your Brother’s initiation is done then.”
The Guardian gives me a nod to let me know it went well. I hope there are no complications, I couldn’t bare it if he were to die. After the funeral I will send a prayer for him before I go to sit by his side.
“The cloak looks good on you,” Konam tries to distract me.
‘Black fur and blue beads, to match your hair and eyes’ he’d told me when he gave it to me this morning. His sisters stayed up all night sewing it so that I could wear my wedding gift to the funeral. Traditionally he would have gifted me with the furs to demonstrate his hunting and provisional abilities, and I would have sewn the furs to demonstrate mine. Instead, he had his sisters do the sewing to demonstrate the kinship and support system I will gain with the marriage. I was busy embroidering the linens that Nuria and her baby will be wrapped in.
Our closest people are gathering around us now. At my back the Guardians and Konam’s men have formed a wall of weapons and leather, and beyond them hundreds are gathered. Instead of the excited frenzied drumming of the last funeral the men play a steady throbbing beat. Konam’s kinswomen walk toward the river with stacks of darkwood bowls, prayer bowls for us to send to Elysium. There are only enough for those of us who were closest to Nuria, but the others will wade into the river and let it wash away their blood after the boat has been released.
As one, Evania, Naja, Konam, and I walk down to the river where we each take a bowl and fill it with blood from shallow slices in our palms. Once we settle our bowls in the river and the Guardians light them on fire with Nuria’s torches. Others take our places as we step back, and still more their places, until all of Nuria and Konam’s closest have given their prayers to the river. The little flaming bowls spin and sway and knock against each other as the tide pushes them toward Elysium.
The Guardians bring Nuria and her daughter out, each painted and wrapped in beautifully embroidered linen that glistens gold and silver in the torch light. They are rested gently in black and white striped wolf fur that lines the boat. A gentle shove sends fire witch and child down the river, surrounded by our prayers.
The wall of Guardians at our backs parts once the boat is safely away from shore and people begin wading into the water and slicing their palms so that the river may carry their prayers with Nuria and the child. I stand there watching for hours until finally the riverbank is empty save myself and my guards. Konam and his people have long since retreated. I untuck another of the little bowls from inside my cloak and wade into the river once more. This time I make the shallow slice on the inside of my forearm and add a thin braid of my Brother’s hair before setting them on fire.
“You said your prayers earlier.” Konam’s voice says from behind.
“This one is for my Brother.” I answer, watching the bowl spin and drift amongst the small waves.
“Nuria said you had other brothers once.” He probes.
“Rafe and I sent them to Elysium together.” I answer vaguely.
He sighs and wades in the water beside me with a strip of linen in one hand. “If you’re going to stand here and freeze in the river at least let me bandage your arm.”
I don’t answer and he binds up the wound in silence. He doesn’t speak again until my prayer for Rafe is out of sight.
“You are so hard to read, your face is like a mask. Are you anxious about the marriage?”
“No.” I answer, “I’ve been married before.”
“And you still wander in the woods at night instead of sleeping even though your husband has been gone for months.”
“So I thought perhaps you might be apprehensive.”
“I don’t sleep for many reasons, my dead husband is the least of them.”
“Perhaps you will tell them to me.”
“Because our marriage will bind two people, if it is going to work the two groups will have to integrate and that must begin with us.”
“I thought that was what the marriage is for.”
“It is, but our marriage won’t be as hasty as the one with Nuria. Our main threat is no longer outside of us. We need to make sure the Western Clans under our heal don’t disintegrate into civil war. The celebrations of a large marriage ceremony will help bind our groups and that takes time to prepare for. So we might as well start getting to know one another now.”
“I don’t suppose that could wait until tomorrow? I’d like to sit with my Brother tonight.”
“Of course, I’ll walk you there, and have a light stew sent for both of you.”
A woman with a bundle approaches as we walk to Rafe’s tent. She looks sad and anxious and urgent all at once, and she won’t meet Konam’s eyes.
“Sara?” he speaks to her.
“Priestess, I wish to join you. My husband was killed in the fighting and I do not wish to remarry. Please let me join you.”
“Join her?” Kona asks.
“Please Priestess. I have the gift, and I’ve already made my sacrifice.”
My heart drops into my stomach when the cloth falls away from the bundle. A baby; this is the third time. Someone has been telling these women that they must sacrifice their firstborns to become a Priestess. Konam is horror struck, no doubt thinking again of his still-born daughter.
My spirit feels so heavy, so tired, I almost long for the empty numbness that I used to feel. Anything so I don’t have to feel and see the cycling images of burning men and dead children. The woman waits, terrified of being turned away; that her sacrifice will have been for nothing.
“Yes,” I force myself to answer, “You may join us.”
DAWN OF A DYNASTY
For several moments she watched me without moving. A heavy blanket of black fur was draped around her and created a striking contrast against her skin. There was no warmth in her gaze, but neither was there animosity.
‘Can you speak the common tongue?’ I’d asked.
She shook her head, and answered in her native language. ‘No. But I understand it. When do I meet the King?’
One of the maids gasped. ‘My lady-’
‘Your Grace.’ I’d cut the girl off, a warning heavy in my voice. ‘She is your Queen now.’
My wife hadn’t been looking when I came in, so she hadn’t seen the maids bow to me, but now her eyes widened and she jumped to her feet. The heavy blanket crumpled to the floor unheeded as she knelt. That was one thing about Night Landers, they liked their women obedient.
‘You may rise.’
She stood uncertainly and gazed at me with wary eyes. The punishment for such ignorance in her home is swift and painful, but I knew I could afford to show her kindness in the face of her unintended slight. After all, she belonged to me now, and had no allies here. A bit of gentleness now would likely pay off in the long run.
‘I am Varen Ravennea, King of Eagle Shores, and now your husband.’ I told her and took her by the hand.
Her eyes fell first to my hand and just as quickly rose to meet my eyes again. She didn’t try to pull her hand away, and I remember marvelling at how white and slim it was in mine.
‘My apologies Majesty, I didn’t know…’ She trailed off, waiting to see how I would react.
I drew her closer and tucked her hand into my elbow. ‘Come, I’ll show you around while we wait for the Priestess. It won’t be long now.’
That had been a little over three years ago. Since then we have lived in relative peace. We aren’t estranged, but neither is our companionship a close one. And now, as I near home, that memory and a conversation with my physician jockey for position in my thoughts. I’d been gone for almost 5 months exercising troops and meeting with the council of Farmers that governed Pastor Landing.
After two years of marriage to JiLeezza no child had come. So I’d sent my physician to her. I remembered how insistent the Obsidian King had been about giving me this beautiful youngest daughter for a wife and had found himself questioning the decision more and more as the months passed with no sign of a pregnancy. The fear that she might the barren had gradually settled into my stomach in a cold knot, and one heard all sorts of rumours about these half-breed people. Perhaps some of them were true, perhaps they couldn’t conceive.
I’d paced my suite for what felt like hours while I waited for the physician to return. The man’s face was relaxed when he entered the rooms at last but I was too impatient to wait for the answer I needed.
‘What have you learned?’ I demanded before the man had completed his bow.
‘Nothing Majesty.’ He answered calmly.
‘Sire your wife is healthy and she bleeds regularly. I found no indication that she is barren, but she is young. I would council you to be patient yet a while longer. Some women need a bit more maturing than others before they can conceive.’
‘So you don’t think anything is wrong.’
‘I do not. You are both young and healthy, there is yet plenty of time for her to produce a son.’
On the threshold of the castle grounds I consider what I’ve learned during my absence. While I hold no great love for my wife I’ve come to realize that I missed her quiet, steady presence. She soothes my ever-present restlessness. When we’d married JiLeezza had been a little stick of a girl but in the last months before my departure she had begun to gain weight and take on a more rounded, womanly shape that I greatly appreciated. I’m eager to feel her under my hands again.
The first heavy snows of winter cover the lands around my castle in a heavy blanket that brings a peaceful silence over the countryside. When I enter the castle, snowy and cold and sluggish, several people are awaiting my return. JiLeezza is not among them. Always before she had awaited my arrival and I feel her absence keenly.
The castle steward steps forward with a deep bow. “I am pleased to see you returned well and in good time your Majesty.”
The lack of my wife’s presence stirs up my temper. “Where is my wife?”
The demand is rude and ill-tempered but my staff has long grown used to my temperamental ways. The steward straightens from his bow and smiles.
“The Queen apologizes for her absence. She asks that you visit her in her rooms at your leisure for she has a gift for you.”
My wife’s actions irritate me despite the attempt to be obedient and polite. I am a King, I won’t be ordered about by a slip of a woman who can’t even give me a child. I stomp my way to her tower and up the long winding staircase to her suite, my anger building with each step. By the time I cross the threshold of her rooms I’m like a volcano ready to erupt.
“Where is she?” I snap at the maid that meets me in the doorway.
“The bedroom Sire.”
And she is, JiLeezza is propped up on pillows in her bed. Swaddled in fur blankets. The one she favours most, a blanket made of the thick white fur of a sea bear is draped across her shoulders.
“What is this?” I demand. “I come home after months on the march and my wife cannot be bothered to get out of bed on my return but instead orders me to her side as if I were a servant!”
The last word is twisted into a sneer, but my wife remains unperturbed by the outburst. She meets my eyes firmly, with a surety she hasn’t had before. Something has changed while I was away.
“I did not order you to do anything my husband, I asked you to visit me at your leisure. Now would you like to see what I have for you or are you going to continue to yell and stomp about over imagined slights?”
She has never spoken to me in this manner before, I don’t like it. But her confidence is curious, she must be positive in her gift’s ability to please me. So I cross the room to stand beside her.
“Very well. What is this gift?”
JiLeezza smiles; it is a sly, mischievous smile. Then she pulls away the blanket that rested across her shoulders. A silent, surprise filled moment passes while I realize what I’m looking at. Cradled in my wife’s arms is an infant nursing. The swell of it is more prominent than I remember. Sometime in my absence she rounded out into a well-curved woman.
Foolishly, I started counting back the days. As if she could have conceived, carried, and given birth to a child in my five month absence. That grin is still on her face, she is very pleased with herself.
“Meet your son husband. He arrived four days ago and the healer says he is strong and healthy.”
I stare at her, both thoughts and anger draining away at the sight before me. A son, a strong healthy son — and I hadn’t even known she was pregnant.
“Why wasn’t I told?”
“I didn’t want to tell you too early after you’d waited so long. And when I was ready to tell you, you were leaving. So I decided to let it be a surprise for your return.”
“And you are well I trust?” I finally ask.
She nods. “Just not strong enough to be taking the stairs yet.”
“The birth went well then.”
“It took ages. The boy didn’t want to be parted from his mother.” She croons, more to the child than me.
Her face appears more happy and peaceful than it has since I’ve met her, and the warmth in it when she looks at the baby surprises me. I hadn’t realized she was capable of it, but she obviously takes well to Motherhood. Not all women do. She strokes a pale finger softly over the barest hint of dark down on the boy’s head. Both of his eyes were pinched shut while he nurses.
“What do his eyes look like?”
A wry smile accompanies her answer. “Thunderclouds.”
So the boy will look like him, and that is a bit of a relief. One pair of ghostly blue eyes on me is more than enough. When I glance up from my son, JiLeezza is gazing at him expectantly.
“What is it?”
“Well?” She asks, rather demandingly. “I have worked hard to give you this gift husband. Aren’t you pleased with me?”
I smile at her impatience. “Very. You’ve done well. But you made me wait a long time.”
She ignores my reproach. “I did as I was advised. Mother said that mixed women do not carry as well and lose their babies more often. She said to wait until I was older and I would be less likely to miscarry my first.”
So it took her that long to conceive by design, and I couldn’t fault her logic. Women knew best how to take care of their own matters. I can’t deny it was worth the wait. So now I’ll find her a gift in return, perhaps a sea bear to make her a cloak with black and blue patterned threading. The winters are cold and she will enjoy wrapping up in a heavy cloak as white as her hair.
“How did you keep from getting pregnant?” I blurt as the thought comes.
“There are herbs to take. Mother gave them to me, and when I ran out a midwife helped me get more. She understood why I wanted them. But the healer is a man and would have been suspicious so we kept it from him. Men don’t understand the proper way to do these things.”
She sounds so sure of herself. There seems no point to contradict her though, after all, there is a healthy boy in her arms now. Her hand rests on my face unexpectedly.
“I’ve never seen your face so pleasant.” She says.
I grin wider, answering her soft smile.
“What will you name him?”
I consider it for a moment and a name comes to me. “Konam.”
“Konam.” She repeats, “It sounds like a strong name.”
“It is.” I answer. “It was the name of the man who built this Kingdom.”
Since decimating her own tribe Nuria has spent the winter working her way west, up the river, ravaging any tribe that opposes her. One of these tribes is home to Kaeta, a girl who has resigned herself to life as a pawn. With each confrontation Nuriaâ€™s gift grows and her greatest danger now is not from the opposing warriors or weapons, but from her own gift. Can she harness it and liberate the Sun Children? Or will she be consumed by her fiery power?