"I don't know," she said, grabbing the fabric of her dress in her hands. Her skin tingled as she rubbed furiously.
“That’s a shame, then. Your shoddy life might have been spared.”
“What do you mean? I don’t know where my husband is!”
The captain snorted.
“Of course.” Turning to his partners in the doorway, he tipped his chin. “Set fire to this village.”
The woman, graying hair fluttering as her head flew up, gasped.
“No! No, you can’t! I’m sure he will be back soon, please just wait a while longer, I beg—“
“Don’t touch me!”
Rearing back, he struck her face with the back of his hand. She fell back with a cry, cupping her reddening cheek and staring up at them with wide eyes. Her cheeks glistened with tears. No, she thought. Where has he gone?
“Where did he keep the tax? In this chest here? Under the boards? Where is it?”
“Yes! Under the boards, beneath the bed! He put it in a box!”
Two soldiers came through the door and grabbed the side of the bed, pushing it across the room. It bumped as it caught on the edges of the boards and hit the opposite wall. The long haired soldier kicked at the ground, pausing when a board rattled beneath his hard-soled boot. The other kneeled and lifted it away from the floor, peering into the shadows. He stuck his hand in, moving around in the hole before standing up with a curse.
“Nothing’s there but dirt.”
The captain grabbed a fistful of her thin hair, pulling her up. She screamed, hands grasping at his as she gasped in pain. Face flushed and scowling, he shook her.
“You dare to lie to me! I can have everyone in this village whipped until dusk and allow my men to collect some extra rewarding! Now tell me—where is it!”
“He always put it there, I saw him! I don’t know where it is now, I promise! I can get enough by the next collection time—I’ll gather twice as much as penance!”
Clay bowls shattered on the ground as the men tore them from chests, clothes ripped from drawers. She jerked in his grip and winced, weeping as she clutched her head. With a sneer, he tossed her to the floor. Shards crunched beneath her hands and she cradled them to her chest, trails of blood dripping thin cuts. The two soldiers joined the captain by the door and stood silently.
"This place is a sore to the Lord Emperor's sight. Your husband has left you, and you have no payment; your sacrifice will be ample compensation."
Sweeping dark eyes around the room, he turned on his heel and strode through the door. The last two men walked out and the taller of them took the hissing torch extended from outside by another, grinning. Facing the woman, his eyes gazed into hers; tears sparkled on her cheeks, voice a mere whisper.
"I'll do anything."
His lips curled, eyes clouded over.
“Don’t scream while you burn."
Tossing the torch onto the bed, he left and shut the door. A small wagon filled with burning hay was wheeled in front of it; the heat of it rippled across his face. All around him, soldiers pitched hay into and around houses, torches following. When the soldiers left the village an hour later, the cries and screams of its people rose above the roaring of flames.
Clouds brewed overhead, the promise of rain making Tera shiver. She pulled the edge of her cloak back over her shoulder, cheeks warming as a stiff breeze blew by. With a glance up the road, she placed a cold palm over her mouth. Sweat prickled at her brow. A patrol of soldiers was coming her way. As the distance closed, she paused in her walking and bowed over, coughing loudly into her hand. Her hands trembled and peeking up, she saw them further themselves from her.
From beneath her hood, Tera saw the men at the head of the column walk towards her. She bent over and coughed again, pressing the back of her hand to her mouth. Quickly, she bit into the red berries she held in her mouth, allowing the juice to dribble down her chin.
“Where are you traveling to with that cart? Do you have permission from your governor?”
Tera lifted her head and gently wiped a hand over her mouth. The man was grim faced, but his dark eyes widened when she gasped.
“I’m going to a healer, sir.”
He stepped back, eyes calculating.
“Be on your way then.”
Tera smiled, letting her eyelids droop.
“Thank you. May you live joyously a—”
A hoarse cough shook her, raking its claws down her throat and the man strode away, beckoning to his men. In moments, they turned around the bend in the road. Tera straightened and spat the berries into the forest. Their bitter taste curled her tongue, and she spat once more to rid it. Perhaps it is luck that autumn is approaching, she thought. Many people became ill with the cooler season, for that reason it would not seem strange for a sick person to be traveling for a healer; however, with how far apart they can be, it is common for travelers to die along the way if their condition is severe. It is luck that I am not ill, yet.
After all, she had been traveling for a few days. The only good rest she had gotten was the handful of hours at the farming village ten miles from her own, two days ago. The village of her birth had been just seven miles east, but she could not bring herself to burden her father and sister. He had gotten worse with each passing year, what a physician had called arthritis setting into his bones.
Nearing fifty years of age, he had lived long and well. Him and his wife had three children together, the fourth adopted from his deceased brother’s wife. The brother died in a wagon accident, and his wife disappeared after giving her child to her former brother-in-law. For years, the youngest child lived with parents who were not her own. After that years’ harvest, the wife’s complexion turned ashen, and she died by morning. She had always had a weak constitution, but overtaxing herself during the harvest weakened her further. With his wife gone and children grown, the father had no one in his house to care for. He moved into his eldest daughter’s house with their family, and just weeks later, Tera moved to another farming village to be their healer. Even though I was not his child, he still loved me like his own, Tera thought. My birth-father’s hands are all I share with him, save for our kindred blood.
Truth be told, her adoptive father told her many times that she had a stunning resemblance to her birth-mother. With a tall, broad stature, blue eyes and golden hair, she looked just like people from the highlands, in the land over the strait westward. Tera could not remember her mother’s face, even though she had already been six when her uncle adopted her. All she could remember was thin, cool lips that would touch her forehead, and her warm chest that she had been held to.
The rumble of wooden wheels over rocks caught her attention and she craned her head to look behind her, hearing a horse snort. On the driver’s seat there were two men, one in his last years of adolescence and the other at least twenty years his senior. The elder man had streaks of gray in his hair, stubble covering his jaw and chin. The younger man—who still had a boyish look to him, perhaps the elder’s son—had thick black hair, the ends brushing his neck and ears. Both wore cloaks, hoods pushed back and a pale cloth was thrown over their supplies. Spotting her, the father flicked the reins to their one horse and pulled to a stop beside her. The young man bit his lip and watched his father, who wore a concerned expression.
“Miss, what town’re you going to? It’ll be raining soon.”
Tera smiled and pulled her cart closer.
“You’ve business in Nadeton? You can get a ride on back, then. It’s another eight miles yet, and you look like you’ve traveled quite some ways. That cart doesn’t look too light either.”
Tera bowed her head, eyes towards the ground as she thanked him and lifted her head when he spoke again.
“Fajo, put that cart in the back, it’s a little small to lead behind us.”
Hopping off, Fajo lifted the cover and pushed a few crates forward, creating ample space for Tera and her cart. She brought it towards the back, and threw her hood back, grabbing one side of the cart. The young man stared at her for a moment, before she looked up and grinned.
“It’s a bit heavy for one person to lift.”
His neck and ears flushed, eyes dropping to the ground.
“Sorry, I’ll help.”
He got his hands beneath it and they lifted it onto the wagon, securing it with a length of rope to one of the crates. Thunder boomed in the distance, making the young man jump.
“Here’s the rain,” the father said.
Looking up, a cold drop of water hit her cheek and she blinked, lifting her hood. As Fajo finished, Tera bowed her head in thanks and bit back a grin when he mumbled a reply. He walked back to the front, climbing onto the seat as she got in beside her cart. With a delicate whisper, the rain fell in a light drizzle on top of them.
“Off we go, make sure you’re settled, miss.”
Tera flipped the covering over her lap, pulling the cloak tight around her throat. It was surprisingly warm beneath the wax cloth, water standing on it. She pulled it up to her chest, keeping her head downcast against the rain. As it fell, the soft tap of each drop lulled her into a soft haze, eyes drooping. Strands of hair brushed her cheeks and she jerked herself upright, blinking at the pale cloth. After a moment of thinking, she sighed and grabbed the sides of her hood as she looked skyward.
Cold water made her lips part in surprise, but she sighed when it trickled down her neck and back, cooling her overly-warm flesh. When the passing breeze made her shiver, she turned her gaze to the road behind them; the horse’s hoof prints were slowly biting deeper into the dirt. If this continues for the night, the roads will be a mess to travel on in the morning. She watched the father bump shoulders with his son, the two sharing a quiet laugh. It’ll mean trouble for them if they plan on traveling too much further than Nadeton.
She sat back and laid her arms atop the cloth, letting the rain chill them. Deep in the forest, a fog could be seen hovering around the trunks low near the ground. Leaves rustled as rain struck them, creating a soft hiss that mingled with the creak of turning wheels. Fajo scratched the edge of his jaw, glancing past the side of his hood. She sat there, with her head down and nose peeking out; water ran down the valleys in her hood, clinging to the end of the fabric before falling onto her hand. He watched the finger-wide lock of hair that coiled down her front, a gleaming dull gold—even in the gray light, it stood out against her nearly black cloak. With a swallow, he remembered how tall she stood, at least a hand span more than his own height. He was taller than some of his older friends, and having to look up into her eyes had made his chest tighten.
“We’ll get you there in no time, miss. Nadeton can’t be more than a mile along this road ‘ere. If you don’t mind me asking, what are you doing out on the road alone? You look like you would be married by now.”
She started and looked at the father’s cloaked back.
“Thank you. I’m a healer looking for better work closer to the city; I haven’t come across any trouble yet, and you’ve saved me the trouble of walking in the rain. I appreciate it.”
“No trouble, none at all. Well, sit tight, it won’t be long now.”
The silence was comfortable on the cart with the sound of the rain around them. She swayed with the roll of the wheels, eyelids drooping with sleep. With a grit of her teeth, she stayed awake, holding herself from giving into the creeping exhaustion. It would only be a mile until she could find an inn to rest at. Glancing from under the hood, she stared at the pale gray sheets that fell from thick clouds overhead.
In the passing hours, the rain slowed and waned until died quietly. Sunlight brightened gray clouds, and the cart lurched as it rolled onto stone blocks. She turned in place and set her eyes on the buildings they were approaching, sighing in relief. Peering into the town, she spotted a sign with a smile.
Once they had rolled to a stop in front of it, Tera slid off the back and pulled her hand cart onto the ground just as Fajo had come towards the back. With a shy smile, he stepped back up to his father. She shook herself, shivering as water ran down her back and straightened her cloak. The father nodded his head when she circled around to face him.
“Thank you so much for allowing me to ride! It was very kind of you.”
The father grinned, clapping his son on the shoulder and nodding.
“Our pleasure. You get a warm bed and meal from the inn, it’d do you well.”
Tera’s lips widened and she waved gently before grabbing the handle of her cart, walking towards the stable behind the large inn. A portly woman almost collided with her, arms filled with a pot.
“Oh! You’re here for a room, aren’t you? The mistress’s son in the stable will lock that up for you, we get peddlers here on occasion that have small carts like yours. Dorun, out here!”
Wood creaked and a shaggy haired man came running out from the stable. He pushed his hair back from his forehead, drawing Tera’s eye to a scar that cut through one of his brows.
“I’ll take that to the back for you, miss.”
Glancing down at the hand, and then back up into his eyes, she paused.
“Yes, thank you. May I get some things first?”
“Yes, of course.” He said, hand dropping.
She turned and flipped her small cover, snatching a brown satchel. After a brief pause, she snapped the cover back over and stepped towards the woman. Dorun took it by the handle, and after a small nod, he walked back into the stable. Tera’s cheeks burned when she realized she forgot to bow in her moment of hesitation.
“Well, now that’s settled, why don’t you go around front and get a room for yourself? I know we have plenty of space for you, don’t worry. You can ask for your things in the morning, whenever you’ll be wanting to leave. Have a good night, miss.”
Alone, Tera swallowed down the knot of anxiety rising in her throat and traced her steps back to the front, opening the door. Light poured out from within, loud voices and laughing greeting her warmly. A couple young women walked between the tables, serving men drinks and food. To her relief, they seemed to be a polite crowd and the women seemingly comfortable in their presence. She held her bag over her shoulder with a hand, her skirt with the other and swiftly made her way to the long counter.
A broad, thick man stood behind it, chestnut hair brushing his shoulders. He looked up and tilted his chin, eyes on her bag.
“Do you want a room for the night?”
“Yes, and a meal please,” Tera said, smile wavering.
He bent down, bringing out a scroll and quill. Hand poised above it, he glanced up.
“Twenty dujo then, miss.”
Tera pulled out her small money pouch and retrieved the payment, handing it to him. He nodded, making a few marks on the paper before looking back up at her.
“Your room will be upstairs, ninth on the right hand side. Sit down over there and one of the young ladies will bring your meal.”
“Thank you,” she said, bowing her head briefly. A smaller table near the left wall was empty, save for one older man with a trim gray speckled beard. He was nursing a small glass of sweet cider—the lack of froth giving it away—and watching the musicians taking their place on the wooden platform against the right wall. Stopping before the table, Tera shifted her hold on the bag and straightened her heavy cloak.
“May I sit here, sir?”
Green eyes met hers, unguarded and friendly; a grin feathered the fine lines at the corners of them, and gave them a gleam that soothed her.
“I wouldn’t pass up a chance to dine beside a lovely young woman. Make yourself comfortable.” He said, gesturing towards one of the chairs. A withheld giggle curled the corner of her mouth into a sweet smile.
“Thank you very much.”
Straightening from her bow, Tera took a seat, and placing her bag in her lap, leaned back against the chair with a content sigh. Bones settled and popped into place, a delicate shiver raising the hair on her neck. Leaning forward, she untied her cloak and let it fall around her waist.
“Now, what might your name be, if you don’t mind me asking?”
She stirred, catching his eyes and with a second glance, noticing his extended hand. Warming her throat, she placed her hand into his.
“Don’t worry, I don’t mind. My name’s Tera.”
“Ah,” he said with a private smile, brushing the back of her hand with dry lips. “Would your name perhaps be derived from the word sunlight?”
“You’re very good! Most don’t know the language of the highlands well enough to know better. My family name means water, but you’re the first to know that.”
“It’s rather poetic—fitting for a young lady.”
“Thank you.” She peered at him, wearing a smirk. “You flatter shamelessly.”
The man’s laugh was warm and inviting. He took a sip from his cup, tipping his head.
“Please, call me Kakov.”
“Kakov? Are you a foreigner as well?”
Kakov chuckled into his glass, rubbing his jaw as he set it down.
“I suppose mine is more obvious, then? Indeed, my family hails from the south, in the mainland. What about yourself? If I were to guess from your name and beauty, I would say that you hail from the lands west of the strait.”
Tera sobered, brushing a lock of hair forward from behind her ear.
“Yes, I do. I was adopted by my uncle here, though, when I was young.”
“And now you’re ready to start anew here?”
“Oh, no! Nothing like that, well, not for that reason, no. I came because—”
Fear gripped her, squeezing her chest and stealing her breath. A trio of soldiers, closed the door behind them. She hadn’t even noticed the sudden silence that overcame a few of the men. Kakov leaned across the table, grabbing her hand in his, a warm comfort.
“Tera? Are you alright?”
Swallowing, she rested both arms on the table, leaning forward.
“I came because Imperial soldiers burnt down my village.”
His gaze shuttered, eyes keen. With a nod, he sat back and grinned at a dark haired young woman behind Tera.
“Kind lady, can you bring us a pot of warm tea? This young woman was caught in the rain.”
“Right away, mister Basrav.”
After she had left, Tera looked inquiringly at him. He leaned back in his seat.
“Family name. And the mistress’s tea is quite good.”
He grinned when her lips twitched.
“See? The lovely lady does like to have her tea. Ah! Lor’ein, there you are. Have you finished your errands?”
Tera turned in her seat, peering up at their guest. He was tall, more than she, and had striking gray eyes that caught her. Large hands pulled out a chair, and he gave a small smile, looking at Kakov.
“Yes, uncle Kakov.”
“Tera, this is my nephew, Lor’ein. It’s a misfortune he doesn’t have any resemblance to me, though, I admit.”
A laugh bubbled up from her tight throat, sudden and light.
“Yes, it is a shame.”
“Lor’ein,” Kakov continued, “this is Tera, a delightful young woman I’ve met.”
Tera glanced at Lor’ein, and placed her hand in his with a small smile. His eyes rose to meet hers over their hands, bright and intense.
“A pleasure to meet you, miss Tera.”
“Thank you, it’s nice to meet you. Tera is enough.”
He released her hand, sitting down and allowing a sigh. Blood pounded in her ears, loud and deafening as she crossed her legs, his silence uncomfortable. Kakov met eyes with the same serving girl, bowing his head in appreciation. The smell of cooked meat hung on the air, and a deep bowl of hefty stew was set before Tera. A wrought iron pot and stand followed, steaming from the spout. She leaned over and placed a few cups beside them, turning to Lor’ein.
“Is there anything in particular you would like, sir?”
He looked up, lips spread in a small smile.
“A meal as well?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Tera began eating her meal, eyes moving between the rest of the room and the silent Lor’ein. The room was rowdy and lively around their table, conflicting with the aching fatigue in her body. When she glanced up, she noticed Kakov’s gaze on her and sat a little straighter, self-conscious about her appearance in front of them.
“What are you two doing in this town? Do you live here, or are you traveling?”
Kakov leaned over the table, elbows beneath him.
“We’re traveling, but we stopped here for a few days to get a bit of rest. A cozy little town to take a break in, don’t you think?”
“Yes, it is quite nice, but I have yet to see all of it.”
“The food here is some of the best I’ve had in a town far from the city. The tea and bread never get old for a man like me.”
“Isn’t it the same for all old men?”
Tera blinked at Lor’ein, who looked at his uncle with a subtle smirk. Surprised, she glanced at Kakov’s expression of stunned amusement.
“Do you hear this, Tera? This mouthy disrespect?” When she giggled behind close lips, he gestured towards Lor’ein. “This one doesn’t think I can still turn him out on his back in a little roughing about.”
She laughed and covered her mouth with a warm hand as she leaned against the table. Lor’ein snorted and sat back in his seat.
“I call it honesty. You complain about your joints during cold nights.”
“I’d toss you about for that later, but mind that we are in the presence of a lady! Don’t you think he’s too unkind?”
“Maybe you should forgive him this once. After all, I’d hate to be the start of a brawl between family.”
Kakov managed to look hurt, and pressed a large hand to his chest.
“You wound me! A brawl would suggest that the boy could actually put up a good fight against me; he’s a kitten where I’m a great mountain cat!”
Tera laughed again, glancing at Lor’ein.
“I don’t think he’s exactly a kitten, Kakov. Maybe your eyesight is going in your old age?”
He shook his head, lifting his cider to his lips.
“To think I thought you a kind lady. You wound me with your barbed tongue, miss.”
She grinned and to a drink, looking at the table beneath her hand. For a while, she was able to peacefully listen to the music played by the musicians on the long wooden box and hum softly to herself as she ate. Tera gazed out a far window at the burnished sky with a pensive expression, trying to ignore the urge she felt to speak. Her two table-mates were very different—true gentleman, the both of them—but the one was lacking in conversation and social decorum. She fancied though that it wasn’t so much his lack of words that was stifling, but perhaps she needed to find a greater measure of peace in companionable silence. When she looked at him, she was startled to find his gaze on her as well.
“I’ve never seen eyes like yours before, with various shades of gray. Are they common in your family?”
“No,” Lor’ein said. He blinked as though surprised by his reply, Kakov seeming equally as vexed. “Strange birth defect. I’m the only one.”
Tera nodded, leaning forward over her bowl with her tea cupped between her hands. Lor’ein leaned back in kind, watching her intently as she fought the giddy smile that itched to surface. He looked positively uncomfortable that she noticed his unique trait.
“Do many people ask you about them? I’d think everyone would notice how different they are. They are very striking.”
“They stare, but never comment.”
She nodded, pausing to sip at her tea. Outside there was a clamor of metal and shouting men, making several turn to peer out the front windows. Tera merely glanced before turning back to her companions.
“I will stay for a while, but I’m curious how much longer you both will stay—for another week perhaps? I admit it would be nice to have people around that I’m familiar with.”
“Only another day or two, we are ready to move to our next destination soon now that our business is wrapped up here.” Kakov shrugged in apology, and glanced towards the front as the ruckus outside grew louder.
“Time to go, Kakov,” Lor’ein said, standing up. Kakov rose and extended a hand towards Tera, smile polite.
“Would you care to accompany us a little longer, miss Tera? It’d be a shame to end our meeting here.”
Shouts came from outside, turning several heads in the tavern. When a horse with a burning tail ran past the window, several stood and left for their rooms with harsh whispers. Tera swallowed past a thick throat and turned back to Kakov; somber eyes startled her, his mouth set in a grim line.
“Is something wrong?” She asked.
“Yes, this tavern has been frequented by a group of rowdy soldiers. Most of us know to leave when they come, since brawls are always in their wake.”
Alarm swept through her and she immediately got to her feet, grabbing her cloak.
“I’ll join you. Let’s be going then.”
Lor’ein pursed his lips and took place in front of them, pushing them into a quick pace. Kakov wrapped his arm around hers, hand on hers. They continued into a hall, but when they passed the stairs leading to the rooms, she could feel alarm sharpen her senses.
Night engulfed them, dark and cool. The smell of manure and dirt filling their noses, Lor’ein disappeared into the stable. The man on her arm leaned down, drawing her towards a dappled mare. It snickered, but quieted with a touch from Kakov.
“Why are we outside? Surely we would be safe in our rooms?”
He hummed, touching his forehead to the mare’s nose.
“We would,” he said, “but we had planned to leave this night. It wouldn’t be wise for us to stay much longer.”
“Why is that? It’s just a group of drunken soldiers.”
Glass shattered in the night, and a woman screamed. Tera jumped, eyes wide as someone ran out into the street, screaming about a fire.
“Fire?” She asked, staring past the inn towards the bright orange glow.
“Yes, we need to leave now.”
Tera stared at Kakov, dread fisting around her chest and throat.
“Why? Where are you going?”
Lor’ein stepped forward with another horse laden with bags, hand on the hilt of a knife at his hip. Blood pounded in her ears.
“The soldiers are locking down the town; they’re looking for the one who set their stables on fire. We plan to be gone before they do.”
“Did you…do this? Is that why you’re leaving?”
Kakov looked over her shoulder, lips thin.
“Yes, Tera. However, we have no ill intentions towards you. This was planned out weeks ago, and I’d rather take you from all this than leave you to them, since they’re likely to be suspicious of any recent travelers. If you’d allow it, I want you to come with us.”
Men began shouting in the street, a horse running into the forest. Soldiers left the tavern, walking out with swords drawn. Tera nodded, hands in fists.
“I’ll come with you, but I need to get some of my things from my cart. The stable boy locked it up somewhere.”
Lor’ein growled, shrugging a bag over his shoulder.
“We can’t, we don’t have the time.”
“I need my medicines! It should only take a moment.”
Kakov nodded and Lor’ein sighed, mouth pert. Beside her, Kakov touched her arm.
“I’ll retrieve your things, start out with Lor’ein.”
He slipped from the stable silently, blending with the night. The silence was tense as Lor’ein unlatched the mare’s stall door, leading her out and towards Tera. Watching him closely, she realized he was anxious, his limbs taut as bowstrings and eyes moving with every sound. She could scarcely stop herself from looking around herself, the crackle of distant flames making her skin tingle with memory.
He quickly assembled the bags on the horses’ backs, securing everything with leather straps and buckles that clinked with each of their steps. After a final once-over, he handed her the reigns to Kakov’s mare and gestured towards the forest stretching northward, away from town.
“Follow me in the forest, and be careful with your footing. Make too much noise and we might be caught, understand?”
She muttered a reply, walking beside her horse as they began their stealthy escape into the dark woods. The black night became like pitch around her, the sounds of the horses’ breathing and their hooves on wet leaves a small comfort in the silence. She breathed with them, soaking up the heat the mare exuded with a weary sigh that left her feeling worse for wear. It felt impossible to her that she should be caught up in a crime, if not the rebellion of two strangers. Stranger yet, she wanted to follow them, to have the comfort of companionship that she had missed since leaving behind her village as it burned. Kakov felt genuine, and his nephew filled with a strong presence and impressive decisiveness. She wondered if they had ever killed a man.
“We need to hurry, stay close.”
His voice barely carried enough for her to hear, but the mare seemed to understand as it broke into a canter. She kept a strong grip on the reins, running behind Lor’ein and his stallion as they blended against the darkness of the forest, staying low and quiet. The horses seemed accustomed to the routine, as they never made a sound.
They both turned to look back many times, but never stopping as they followed the forest back near the main road northward. Rocks and dips in the ground made her stumble, catching herself on nearby trees or the mare. It caught her attention that Lor’ein appeared suited for the night escape, silent as a trained assassin and quick as a rabbit; it was a wonder the horse wasn’t being pushed into a gallop. A sudden whistle shot through the air, piercing Tera’s awareness with a start. When a heavy hand fell on her shoulder, another clamped over her mouth as a shriek rose up.
“I have your things; we can leave on the horses now. It’s far enough from town that they won’t hear the hooves.”
Tera breathed a sigh and handed the reins over to Kakov, fingers stiff from the force she held them with. Both men swung up into their saddles, while Kakov swung a sling around to his front, glass clinking from within. My medicines, praise the gods. They’re the only thing of value I brought with me. Kakov extended a hand down to her and using the stirrup, sat behind him. The mare shifted beneath them and Tera’s arms shot around his waist at the notion of falling
“You won’t fall, I promise.”
When Lor’ein barely disguised his snort, she sighed and leaned around Kakov with a dull glare settled on her face.
“Oh, I trust you, Kakov. I just wouldn’t want to injure myself and make myself a burden on either of you. You’re both being complete gentlemen.”
“Well, then let’s get to a quieter town, hm? Ready, Lor’ein?”
“Yes, let’s go.” He said, taking off with a flick of his reins. Tera huffed and hugged Kakov’s waist, relishing in the heat of his back as they slipped into the cold night.
Hours later, under the dreary gray of pre-dawn, they traveled on the main road towards the closest town when a thick, putrid stench filled their senses. It was heavy with the smell of blood and bodily fluids, enough to make the unaccustomed faint. Lor’ein’s shoulders boxed up, as though he was ready to attack an opponent.
“A demon.” He said, glancing towards the forest on their right. Kakov grunted. It quickly became overwhelming, enough that they slowed their horses and watched the trees for a moment. Tera slid off, fingering the cloth of her cloak before she draped it over the mare’s back.
“I want to see what it is, I’ll be back in a moment.”
When Kakov raised his voice in protest, she ran. Blood pounded in her ears, a roar in sync with her thundering heart as she dug her nails into her palms. Branches flew past her and her foot slid on a slick patch of ground that almost landed her on her back. With a gasp she straightened and stared at the ground. It was splattered with small pools of blood. Narrow stripes lined the trunks of the trees like whip marks. Even in low light, she knew it was blood. The iron in the air was cloying on her tongue, closed as it were.
A body lay to the side, upper body rent beyond recognition and belly torn open by a gaping wound. Jagged cuts lined exposed legs and arms, glittering with stagnant blood.
She heard growling behind her and spun to face a deranged, monstrous wolf lying on its belly, teeth bared. Blood had stained the fur around its mouth and down its neck, a gruesome trail to the pile of innards that lay on the ground. The creature’s three eyes were large and pale, skin raw around them. Looking past the patches of missing fur and mottled skin, Tera saw everything around it stir as though by a breeze.
It rose onto its legs, growing louder and agitated. She reached beneath the corset at her waist, sliding out her dajora. The leather handle was worn, cut in places and cool in her palm. A pearly grey blade glistened below it, smooth and beautiful. The wind picked up as her hand tightened.
It leapt forward, air whistling between the trees. Tera dodged towards the victim, missing its teeth by inches. The demon landed behind her, spinning around with saliva dripping from its mouth. A strong gust grabbed at her hair, throwing it about her face. Desperate to clear her vision, she pushed it away. With her distraction, it swiped at her with a great paw and caught her arm. Pain burned below her right elbow, sharp and acute. The wind strung her blood through the air like red ribbons.
The demon manifested its power in the wind, she realized. It explained how the dead woman’s blood reached the trees’ lower branches.
She dodged time and time again, condition deteriorating as they danced around one another. The lower half of her dress was torn, blood on the edges of some and dripping into her boots. The pain was slowing her down, flaring at inopportune moments. Her own blood was in her hair, drawn across her face and clothes. It gleamed on the wolf’s claws, bright and haunting.
The wolf leapt, wind making the trees creak, and she stood in its path. Her heartbeat throbbed in her head, burned in her chest. The blade was clutched in her slippery grip. Reaching forward, she thrust the blade into its deep chest, falling onto her back beneath its weight. The breath was knocked from her lungs, hard and sudden. The blade pommel bruised her chest, agony for breath making her vision gray.
Tera gasped, rolling the demon’s body off her chest. She turned onto her side and pressed her cheek into the dirt, breathing in its comforting scent; her sense of balance roiled, head spinning and light. She closed her eyes, pressing slick hands to her temples and forehead. With practiced breathing and pressure, her stomach settled. The headache lingered, but abated enough for her to stand with her hand against a tree. The dajora gleamed beside the demon, blade glistening with thick blood.
From afar, Lor’ein watched her kneel down, picking up her dagger. His jaw flexed as she wiped it clean on the demon’s fur, hands smeared with blood. Swallowing, he stepped forward through a strangely hot gust of wind. The woman’s eyes met his, wide and bright. The wind blew around them again, stirring the smell of blood and decaying flesh. It made his stomach clench instinctively.
“Lor’ein! Why did you come?”
His attention snapped back to her, startled when she leapt towards him, bladed extended. Lor’ein’s legs carried him back, hand groping for his own knife.
Heat electrified his arm as something other brushed past him, fast and close. Tera snapped her arm forward, catching phantom flesh with her dagger. A pained howl grated past their ears as it spun to Tera. Gray and shadows, the wolf leapt at her with a gapping mouth. Even as she twisted away, claws tore the scarf about her waist, only nicking the skin. Her hands shook, grip slipping on the handle. With a yell she spun to strike.
To her dismay, it blew past her and fell upon Lor’ein with a snarl. He swiped at it uselessly with his blade and fist. He jerked with a yell as it sank its teeth into his knife hand. The opportunity there, she plunged her dajora deep into its neck with a loud cry. Twisting shadows shuddered and folded inwards and exploded like a clap of dust.
The air still and rank, she fell to her hands and knees with a tremor. Both too the moment to breathe and recollect, touching wounds and closing eyes. Lor’ein blinked, staring at her bloodied hands and wounded arm. Her hands suddenly chilled, Tera wiped them off in a patch of dirt. She swallowed, and lifting her head, studied his face with anxious feelings turning inside her.
“…I’m a Dajorane. It’s a matriarchal power that’s been passed down by mothers for thousands of years.”
“Only among the Toranis.” The people of the highlands, yes.
Tera peered at him, slowly sheathing the knife under her corset.
“It doesn’t bother you?”
“It does. However, not in the way you would think; I do not hate you, and I will not hurt you.”
Dry lips lifted in a slight smile, eyes sad and downcast.
“That’s good. It’d be a real shame to be cast off now.”
Pushing up, she stood on her feet and touched her side, peering at the uncut skin mottled red and black beneath. He cast his gaze up at her when she made a small sound, mouth sour. Rising, he scrutinized the savage cuts on her arm and wounds on her side.
“The demon did this?”
“Yes, it’s quite deep. I have medicines in my belongings that will cleanse it. I’ll treat yours as well.”
Lor’ein flexed his hand, the coin-shaped spots of dark red and black burning like frostbite. She must have seen the gesture as curious, for she spoke up suddenly.
“When the demon’s spirit attacks you, it cannot pierce your skin, only ruin the flesh beneath.” He nodded, fisting the hand. “Let’s go back. I’ll need to change if I want to get a room in an inn.”
When they returned to the horses, Kakov merely raised a thick eyebrow at the sight they made, woman covered in cut and blood, the man spotless save for a spotted hand. Lor’ein turned his eyes towards Tera pointedly, who rolled her eyes and sighed.
“I’m a Dajorane, a sacred slayer from a long line of Toranis women. I killed the demon that took the woman’s life, but Lor’ein got caught in the middle while I destroyed its remaining spirit.” When he only blinked, she went to the single bag that was hers. “I’m going to change so we’ll be permitted into a town; I promise I’ll be near and quick.”
Snatching a clean dress, she disappeared into the forest again until she was confident they couldn’t see her, even if they tried. She stripped and scrubbed at her skin with the ruined garment, wincing as wounds wept fresh trails of blood; torn scarf became strips of bandage to conceal the blood until she could treat it properly. Tera peered around a tree at the waiting men and dressed, concealing her hair beneath a handkerchief taken from the spare fabric.
Satisfied, she returned and took the hand extended to her, swinging up onto the mare. Without a word, they set off again down the road. They all thought about the same thing, each from different perspectives but equally engaging to their own minds.
As Lor’ein kept at a trot, he turned over the image of Tera stabbing at a blood-lusting demon, and wiping the blade clean on the ground like she had successfully killed a hunt animal. In a well-to-do dress, she slew it with practiced ease and destroyed the spirit like it was tangible again. How many had she killed? One, five? Had she ever killed a man? With her displayed skill, quite possibly. Was she truly who she claimed to be? It could be the truth, or just as well could be a lie.
He clenched an aching jaw, staring at the dirt in front of him. Neither him nor Kakov could have expected such an nondescript girl to be as troublesome as she was. Kakov was intrigued with the girl at his back, silent as the land around them. She appeared to be a woman with an ordinary life, and a regular situation; only to prove to be quite the opposite. If her mind is in the right place, she could be of great help to them, give them added cover and assist with plans; if it isn’t…
She shifted behind him, and adjusted her grip around his waist with a small sigh. The third option: she was a simple woman who wanted a simple life. He found himself praying to the gods it was the first; besides, having her with them made it all seem a little less lonely. And he was sure Lor’ein felt it too.
Luckily, a few more hours of the morning passed uneventfully, taking them through two larger towns until they reached the province’s capital, Lenua. The guards at the gate had given them bland looks as they passed through, looking to all the world like drunken wanderers. They followed the main road toward the center of town, passing homeless, drunkards and shop owners preparing their stands for the day. The sky was bright with the early morning sun having risen, a light din beginning as the people arose.
Kakov found an inn away from the center of the market district, and was arranging rooms for them when Tera finally spoke again.
“Kakov? Do you want me to stay?”
He handed the innkeeper the due coin and turned to Tera with the keys in hand. How to word it in the right way…
“I believe I enjoy your company and wit, young lady. If you choose to stay, it would be nice to have more company than just my nephew, but only if you wish to. You can choose the way you want to live your life.”
He pressed one of the keys into a lock, and, with a flourish, opened the door; handing her the key, he said:
“Think on it.”
In the next moment, he disappeared to retrieve the rest of the bags. Tera hoisted hers over a shoulder and entered the room, eyeing the furniture. A bed was in the corner as well as a table and single chair by the window. It was clean, and the bedding looked fresh, tempting her to rest. Turning away, she put the bags on the table and began removing vials and small rolls of cloth. She stripped her dress to her waist, and cleaned the wounds on her arm with muffled curses, comfortable only after it was dressed in clean bandages.
Tera adjusted the sleeve of her dress over them, and when someone knocked on the door, she called the visitor in. Kakov stepped in, taking in the room before meeting her eyes.
“Lor’ein and I were about to step out to look for a morning meal in town. Would you care to join us?”
“I appreciate the offer, but I think I’ll stay here to rest.”
Kakov nodded, and went to the door. He could understand her decision; it had been a long day for them all.
“Rest well, then.”
Gently shutting the door, he joined Lor’ein at the top of the stairs and followed him down. They got onto the street and began to stroll down the market district, people brushing past when Lor’ein bumped Kakov’s shoulder.
“Anxious at the prospect of female company?”
Lor’ein snorted, looking him in the eye.
“That’s hardly my concern.”
Kakov sighed, scrubbing the stubble along his jaw with a thick hand.
“I see no harm in having her around. She’s running away from soldiers who burnt her home to ash—I highly doubt she would betray us to them or anything of the like. She might even turn out to be a great help to us.”
“Or, she might kill me with that knife,” Lor’ein said, leaning in to murmur quietly in Kakov’s ear. “I would imagine that killing the only soul inside me would kill me as well. All it would take is a nick with that blade, and I’m reduced to a limp corpse.”
“Would you have a little more faith in her? A bit more in my judgment would be appreciated as well.”
Lor’ein scoffed, tossing a hand into the air.
“Can you blame me for being cautious? This is my life we’re talking about, not hopes for better weather.”
“Remember that you have survived the past nine years.”
“I’m aware of that!”
“What do you worry about, then? Is a mere woman all it takes to make you nervous?”
“Not her, the blade, Uncle.”
“She is in possession of it; the blade will not nick you on its own.”
“Either way, don’t you think it’s strange that this is the first time we’ve come across such a weapon? The number of demon attacks has been increasing every year. Aren’t there people to the west, beyond the strait, that have weapons that destroy demons? Shouldn’t we see more of them?”
“We can discuss it elsewhere, but yes, they do have such weapons. It has been years since there were more in this kingdom, however. I suspect she is the only one.”
“If they have them, why don’t merchants or weapon masters purchase more from them?”
“Elsewhere, nephew.” Kakov said, his glance cutting.
Grabbing his arm, he pulled Lor’ein into a small shop, the air thick with heat. He released him and pushed forward to the wooden counter, beckoning to the short woman dressed in an apron.
“I need three of your honeyed nut loaves, if you would.”
She turned away with a short nod, disappearing into the kitchen. Lor’ein leaned against the wall, folding his arms over his chest as he glanced at the people walking past the open door.
“What do you plan to do when we get back?”
“A nap, I think. I like a long ride, but also enjoy my sleep. I won’t get much done the way I am now.”
He paused for a moment, his forehead wrinkling with thought.
“That’s what I wanted to ask you earlier. What are your plans for our stay here?”
“I’ll explain in a moment. Thank you, miss.”
Kakov nudged him towards the door, a sweet-smelling cloth bundle in the crook of his elbow.