Copyright 2020 Andrea Gibb / All Rights Reserved
“Tayeh of Kitarra, what are you doing in my forest?”
“And a good day to you, Lulanan of the Forest,” Tayeh said without looking up. He continued the slow, meticulous preservation of his blade, running the soft leather rag over the bright steel. It would irritate the Forest Guardian, but Tayeh could not resist irking the fickle creature. He felt a smile grow across his face.
“There is a girl in Jullayah. You know her. You have watched her parents. You have watched her as a babe,” Tayeh told the other Guardian. “She is important to us.”
“‘Us’?” The statement was punctuated with reluctance and a chill like hoarfrost on a midwinter dawn.
“We must work together, you and I,” Tayeh raised his eyes to meet hers. Her fair face was reminiscent of someone eating - and then spitting out - sour prickle-berries. The Forest Guardian was a velidar, but no one remembered the old word anymore. For the moment she looked like a young, human woman. Mostly. Her hair was red as autumn leaves and nearly as tangled. Not a speck of clothing covered her moon-pale skin. But it was her eyes that betrayed her true nature. They were orange and wild, filled with a luminous glow no living thing possessed. Tayeh knew his own pointed irises would reflect the same unearthly glint.
“Why would a human girl be important to us, Warrior?”
“I don’t know exactly. Yet. I just know that she is important.” Tayeh would not lie to her; there was too much at stake. Suddenly he felt impossibly old and impossibly tired for an immortal.
“You came all the way out here, abandoning your people, without knowing why?”
“You must have a little faith, Lulanan.”
“Faith!” The word was bitter. “Sometimes it is hard to remember why we are here,” Lulanan said settling on the moss, looking rather small. She exhaled long and slow. “I have sensed something troubling. The feeling grows stronger with every turning of leaf and wind, but I can hardly credit myself these days, everything is so clouded.”
“I know.” Tayeh’s voice sounded sad even to his ears. “Something dangerous approaches. A poison I cannot see. The Allmakers have gone deep - I feel their fear. The cendari trees blossomed in winter. Their blooms withered in the frost. I fear unless we intervene, your realm, and mine, will be lost.”
“This girl - this human - is the key?”
Tayeh nodded. “One of them.” It was an ambiguous answer, but his companion didn’t seem to mind.
“Crea will not like it, not at all.”
“Crea is not one of us, not really.” Tayeh stopped his careful movements across his blade, turning his attention to the intense little woman. “The Crow cannot reach the Forest. That is why we must bring the girl here.”
Lula looked dismayed. “How will we do that, Cat-man?”
Tayeh smiled. “We must reveal ourselves to her. Show her the secret way into the Forest,” Tayeh said fingering the cendari-leaf pendant hanging around his neck. Lula watched him with a frown.
“The Crow really will not like that.” But she smiled wickedly.
~ Nine years later ~
Something was unsettling about the village. Nothing in its outward appearance struck her as alarming. The provincial houses and barns were unimposing and exactly what Eva would have expected, and the people were friendly, genuinely honored to welcome Lady Clarette of Ullian and her niece, a favorite of the king, betrothed to the prince. No, the strangeness was a taste in the air, a feeling in the trees, a sharpness along the edge of her nerves making her skin prickle. She could not identify the cause, but it made her want to watch her back. That was it - she felt watched, like prey, like something was slavering, crouched, waiting for her to dart.
But then she stepped inside the inn and felt the warmth on her face. The kitchen-y smells greeted her like lost friends and the innkeep put a steaming cup of tea in her hands, making her incapable of thinking beyond the drink heating her from within and the warm fire thawing her without. Eva looked down at her fingers to make sure they had not melted.
Her journey had been thoroughly miserable so far. Wretched weather. Muddy roads. Flooded bridges. Five years Eva had made the journey from the Keep to the king’s city with her aunt, and in those five years, she could not remember a spring so cold. Riding had been tolerable, but her hands and toes were numb from it. Sleeping in a tent had not been so tolerable, with the cold penetrating her bones, even with all her furs. It felt… disturbingly ominous. She pushed the dismal thoughts away, leaning over her tea, allowing the steam to fill her mind instead. Maybe its warmth would reach her heart.
By all accounts, they should have arrived in Caer Andri a few days ago. They should be settling into their court chambers, the ills of the cold melting away by warm fires, lavish blankets, and soft beds. But the winter snows had turned into spring floods, and along with chilly spring rains, the bridge at Barrowsby had flooded, forcing them to turn north, hedge along the Great Forest until Dweller's Knoll. Only then could they redirect back to the south to the king’s city.
Part of Eva was thankful for the delay. With Clarette’s news, Eva was hesitant about arriving in Caer Andri, afraid of the changes she would find there.
Eva would have enjoyed the detour if it weren’t for her worries and the damp, biting cold turning her into a whiny, spoiled brat and therefore a hypocrite - she had promised herself she would never become that kind of noblewoman. She had never been north along the border of the Great Forest, and usually traveling by horse and tenting at night was not as discomforting. But the rain, oh the rain, was so cold it was almost snow. Arriving in Dweller's Knoll was a relief.
“There you go, my Lady, are you warmer now?” The innkeep was a sturdy sort of woman with a round face and round eyes and a round tummy all of which added to her motherly demeanor. The arrogant merchants and shopkeeps of Caer Andri could learn a thing from the kindly peasant.
“I am. Thank you so much,” Eva replied, smelling the hot pot pie placed before her. Her stomach had been moaning for hours. Clarette was in her room, changing out of her traveling clothes, but Eva had decided to eat first. She could change and bathe later. An excellent decision based on the plate steaming before her.
The small common room was empty. Clarette’s men were out seeing to the horses and wagons. Eva guessed not many traveled the northern road along the Forest. Jullayans were too superstitious. Besides the doting matron, Tarek was Eva’s only companion for the moment. And he stood silent and still, her perpetual shadow, always ready to leap between Eva and whatever danger might present itself to a young noblewoman.
“Please, bring some food for my guard,” Eva asked the matron. “He may look as impenetrable as an oak, but I can see the hungry glint in his eyes.”
The woman eyed the tall, imposing guard with a sullen, uncharacteristic wariness. Tarek instilled mistrust in people. It was his job to glower and look menacing, to keep nosy lordlings away from Eva as she grew from an impressionable young girl to an eligible young woman. Eva knew it was not an act. He was a deadly weapon, a skilled fighter hired by Clarette to guard a then eleven-year-old Eva. For five years Tarek and Mahone had been a constant presence, watching over Eva day and night. The matron gave an unconvincing smile and headed back to the kitchen.
The room was too quiet. Usually Eva wore quiet like a soft, warm blanket on a winter night, but the air stirred uncomfortably, reminding Eva of her unease as they approached the village, the off-ness of the tall woods and the drab stone buildings cowering under the heavy clouds. The awareness was still there, still watching her. She looked around instinctively, but it was just a simple room. The shadows held no warnings, the gray daylight tried to penetrate the shuttered windows, but failed. The fire crackled amiably, an ignorant beast. Tarek looked unperturbed, but Eva was the first to admit she was lousy at reading her impassive guard. Eva tried to shake off the feeling. Likely, it was just her dour mood exaggerating her fears. Maybe all she needed was rest after the long ride.
“Tarek, stop glowering and come sit with me. You must be as cold as I am,” Eva observed, taking a bite of her pie. “And this is as delicious as it smells.”
The energy in the room shifted as Tarek came over and sat with her at the small table. He still glanced at the door, to the corners of the room, as was his habit.
“Mahone will not forgive me for eating without him,” Tarek said. Mahone had obviously drawn the short straw. He was out in the cold with the horses, unloading Eva’s things into the inn room. Tarek smiled as the innkeep brought him his own pie. The woman tried not to stare at Tarek’s face. Even with his cordial smile, the crisscross of old scars on Tarek’s once-handsome features gave him a nightmarish appearance. “This is divine,” Tarek mused, ignoring the woman’s shifty stare.
Eva looked up to see her aunt step into the common room, freshly dressed, prim, poised. Clarette glanced at Tarek sitting at Eva’s table, her eyes narrowing, but only for a moment. Eva marveled, not for the first time and surely not for the last, how her aunt looked fit to dine with the king in such a short amount of time. Her dress was immaculate, detailed, the embellishments and deep red color only enhancing the older woman’s beauty. Once, Eva would have felt like a slug in comparison, wearing her dirty riding clothes, her cloak hemmed in mud and her boots scuffed, a dress the furthest thing from her mind. But she no longer cared. And neither did her aunt. Clarette had long ago accepted that Eva could look and act like the perfect young noblewoman when needed, but only when required. Eva was more comfortable in leggings and a tunic with a dagger attached to her belt and her riding boots on her feet. Clarette dressed with such opulence because she loved it.
Tarek rose and saluted the lady and went back to his watching. Clarette took Tarek’s place. She took his fork and began to eat Tarek’s leftovers without a moment’s thought in a most unladylike fashion.
“Maybe we should stay here until real spring arrives. This dish is amazing,” Clarette stated. “This cold is atrocious. Never have I been happier to be in an inn!”
“I don’t know about staying too long, my lady,” Darys said coming in, hanging up his wet cloak, his grizzled face red from the chilled air. “I was talking with the stable boy. He says there have been some odd happenings of late. Bandits, they think. Not a place I want to linger with you fair womenfolk,” he added with a wink. “I then spoke to the village elder and told him when we reach Caer Andri, we will tell the king - or rather the prince - of their local troubles.”
“Great. Bandits. That is just what we need,” Clarette moaned.
“Raiding bandits?” Eva asked calmly. Her intuition was screaming at her.
“Something of the sort. Raids. Attacks. The people are scared and uneasy.”
Bandits were uncommon in Jullayah. Thieving was a rare occurrence beyond the slums of Caer Andri, and rarely accompanied by violence. Sometimes the border towns between Jullayah and the Midlands saw raiders from that lawless place, but Dweller's Knoll was far away from the Midlands. King Rhais kept a peaceful realm. Harvests were plentiful, food and wealth were not hard to come by. The peasants were happy. Maybe news of King Rhais’s failing health was already causing trouble. Eva’s food suddenly tasted like ash in her mouth.
The little round matron had come back with more food. More meat pies and bread, cheese, ale. Wine for the lady. Overhearing Darys, she said, “Not bandits. Forest Folk.” Her voice was stern with controlled emotion. The woman was afraid too, Eva could see it now.
“Forest Folk? That is impossible,” Eva scoffed.
“Not impossible, begging the lady’s pardon,” The innkeep continued. “I have seen them with my own eyes. When I was a child, I saw a woman turn into a wolf.”
“A wolf?” Clarette gave a patient laugh. “Eva, you have lived under the shadow of the Great Forest all your life, have you ever seen the Forest Folk?” It was a measure of Lady Clarette’s practiced air that the innkeep did not hear the derision in the noblewoman’s voice.
“Of course not,” Eva lied. Lying was not one of Eva’s strengths. However, Clarette, who was good at sniffing out lies, was so sure of the ludicrousness of the woman’s statement that she did not sense it. “And besides, if there were Forest Folk, why would they attack Jullayans? Those stories are centuries old.”
“The woman who turned into a wolf was sent to the Black Goddess. No one ever heard from her again. Maybe they want revenge?”
Something about her tale unnerved Eva. Perhaps it was merely the mention of the Black Goddess.
“Well, I am not concerned. My men are the best trained in all of Jullayah. Eh, Darys?” Clarette turned to her captain. Darys raised his ale and took a sip.
“Not to worry, my lady,” Darys said. “But I will post extra watches. But by the Black Goddess, it will feel good to sleep indoors tonight!” He turned his roguish grin to Clarette.
The ale went to Eva’s toes. The fire was hot on her face, melting her resistance to the fatigue that pleaded for sleep. So when the door opened with a blast of cold air and shouts, she jolted from her daze feeling irritated.
“Captain, something is afoot.” It was Mahone, his graying black hair whipping around his face adding to the frenzied look in his gray eyes. Tarek was at Eva’s side in an instant. There were shouts from the street outside. The shouts turned to screams. The sounds of blades and fighting broke out.
“What-?” Darys shushed Clarette, taking her by the arm, guiding her forcefully into the back of the inn and relative safety. Mahone, on the other hand, did not usher Eva into the depths of the inn. He tossed Eva a sword. She caught it easily. It was not her sword, and it was heavy and short, not her ideal weapon, but it would do. She gritted her teeth. She had been forced to leave her sword at the Keep because women were not supposed to know how to defend themselves, and Clarette, who suffered her niece’s unsuitable hobbies tolerably, did not want the court to find out exactly how eccentric the daughter of the late Lord Finnan really was.
“She should stay back with Clarette-” Tarek growled at his partner.
“No. I can fight,” Eva interrupted Tarek.
“We need her. Eva is as good as any of us. And half of Clarette’s men are down already,” Mahone hissed, his eyes wild. Eva had never seen him in such a state.
“Shh. They are coming,” Mahone said in an urgent whisper.
Eva shifted the sword in her hand, trying to sort through Mahone’s ambiguous warnings. Bandits couldn’t make quick work of Clarette’s men. And Forest Folk would never attack Jullayans.
She hardly had time to think when the heavy wooden door to the inn was hit hard by something, someone. Someones. Plural. Eva felt the pounding of it in her ears, rattling her nerves. She could fight, and fight well, but it was all in practice. Countless winter days spent with Tarek and Mahone in the great hall or her father’s abandoned council room, sparring and practicing. She had never killed a man.
Even with Mahone and Tarek pressed against it, the door was forced open. The wood broke and splintered, the latch bent. Writhing bodies poured inside, but Eva was not sure she could call them men. There was a bestial madness about them that seemed unreal. The violence and malice were palpable. Spit flew from their mouths. Their hands were bloody to the elbow, like they had ripped apart their adversaries with their bare hands. They were wounded, some limping obviously, and yet didn’t seem to register pain. They came in like the plague, a hoard with nightmarish intensity, their eyes glazed but intent, shouting incoherent, inhuman noises. Their hands held crude weapons, kitchen knives, clubs. Mahone was dazed, knocked aside when the door burst, bleeding from a long splinter that cut his scalp. Tarek struck man after man, limb after limb.
Somewhere behind the fray, Eva heard the innkeep shrieking. Eva lunged and swung, hitting bone and flesh, feeling hot blood on her skin, the smell of iron in her nose. She concentrated on each thrust, not the death that came at the end of her blade. She thought only of her guards, her friends. She saw Tarek take a hard hit as he deflected a man from coming at her. The man went down, but another took his place. Mahone had recovered from his daze and was attacking with equal madness, but it was focused madness. The efficiency of his blade was a force.
Within moments, Eva was able to drop her sword arm. No more were coming. The foe had not been a cohort of warrior. Their strength had been in their madness and their numbers, and in the end they fell easily to the superior skill of Eva and her guards.
The room was transformed into a mass grave. Eva counted twenty men and then gave up. There was so much blood. Eva felt sick, unable to tear her eyes from the scene of violence. She knelt beside a man who died with his eyes wide, his mouth open in a scream of defiance or madness, she could not tell. Something drew her to his face, his eyes glazed and dead. She touched his skin and felt - magic. But it was not like her magic. It was bitter and rotten and empty like a starless night, but alive, writhing within the death-encapsulated body. It reached for her. She withdrew her hand like she had been stung, backing away from the dead men.
Mahone had gone out into the street, coming back after a moment with several battered Ullian guards, reporting that the threat was over. No more bandits.
Bandits. The men they had killed could not be bandits. They had been too crazed, drunk on blood-lust and violence. They had been touched by magic. But a magic unlike any she had known existed.
Eva blinked. She felt unsteady, like she had slipped into a long-forgotten tale. Her memories twisted awkwardly around what she knew about magic, about dark magic. She couldn’t remember anything that made sense or connected to the dead men before her.
The world became instantly upright when she saw Tarek slumped in a chair, his breathing ragged. She flew to his side, ripping his shirt to see the extent of his wound. His head was red with blood from the contusion he had suffered, but worse was the gash in his stomach. Blood bubbled out of his mouth indicating that he was bleeding internally. A mortal wound.
“Eva. No, you can’t,” Tarek said in a weak, wet voice, correctly reading the determined look in her eye. “Your secret-”
“Secret be damned, I will not let my friend die!” Eva said, putting her hands on his skin, the blood on her hands mixing with his. She hadn’t been able to help the king, but, by the Guardians, she was going to save Tarek. She reached for her sanarii magic, for the river within her, within every living creature, and touched it, drawing its strength, pouring it into her friend, mending his hurts, knitting his skin together, healing the bruised flesh. Tarek was a strong man. He did not scream, even when the pain of Eva’s healing magic on top of his wounds must’ve been almost unbearable.
“Eva,” Mahone’s voice was loud in her ear. Her eyesight blurred. She could no longer feel Tarek’s body beneath her hands. Her connection to her magic was weakening. The simul rami was leaving her. She could feel the precipice beside her that warned she had almost gone too far. She couldn’t focus her eyes or her mind. She sank into darkness, unable to contemplate the consequences of what she had just done.
Those who were strong are now weak,
With healing hands, the babes will speak
Those who were defenders are lost
With stalwart heart, the coward's last accost,
Watch for the child of two thrones,
Born with magic in his bones,
A child lit by the stars,
Watch for him, for he shall be ours
~ Tayeh's Prophecy
The simul rami was leaving her. Eva could feel the precipice beside her that warned she had almost gone too far. She couldn’t focus her eyes or her mind. She sank into darkness, unable to contemplate the consequences of what she had just done.
Book Two: Defender of Kitarra*
Book Three: Prince of Kitarra*