The creature twisted and turned inside the basket, hissing loudly as its coils struggled against the rough fibers. Its jaws snapped at the thick brown cords, ripping and tearing in their fury; venom soaked the thick reeds and dripped from razor sharp fangs.
Vaelea listened as the regaro snake raged inside the basket strapped to her back. She lifted the etched walking stick and smacked the side of the basket sharply. The creature hissed loudly once more and then grew still. Vaelea shifted her weight and drew the course fabric of her traveling cloak tighter around herself. She pulled the long hood up to conceal her face in a deep shadow.
It was dark work that she was about today, and she could not risk being seen by any passersby on her way into the city. Tales of what she did this day would explode across the plains and far beyond, perhaps even into the ice mountains where the eyeless white cannibals lived. No one must recall her face when they recalled the events of this day.
As Valea rounded the corner, her mind full of dark thoughts, the city of Maeloro rose suddenly from the banks of the Kaal River only a few hundred yards ahead of her. Even from this distance, she could feel the sullen energy of the city as it squatted over the horizon.
Once upon a distant time, this now grey and dying city had been the gem of the plains clans. Here, their great King Mahani had led his people in peace and prosperity, uniting all the fragmented tribes and creating a golden age that had lasted for more than fifty summers. In the time of Mahani, this city had been a thriving and shining beacon of ancient elegance and grace, dappled here and there with the fluted columns of white tusk-tusk bone and the shimmering, almost translucent domes of the Great Grass Temples. The streets had been graced with the greatest minds and most beautiful women from all across the plains, to the very edge of the Orinoan forests. There was not a soul alive in those days that did not seek to bask in the cool shade of the great Ivory Wall, listening to music and gorging themselves on sweet plums beside the tranquil River Kaal.
Now, this was a city dying of greying grit and grim. Vaelea could see the caving domes of the great temples, and smell the stink of man and beast alike. The once languid river that had snaked along the eastern side of the city in beautiful ribbon of crystalline silver, now surged in a murky rush of brown and black, its waters chocked full of waste and debris that crumbled from the rotting city’s walls. Vaelea turned away as a body, purple and swollen in the sun, rushed past her. Its stink was only barely masked by the smell that emanated from the city ahead.
There was no storybook city, anymore. Here was only death.
The heat from hot sun beat down upon Vaelea’s back, forcing a cool bead of sweat to fall between her breasts. She trudged along the muddy road, burying her fatigue deep down inside. The heat, combined with the rain of a few mornings earlier, created an air that was thick and damp. The smell of warm corruption almost choked her.
Along the roadside, the humidity had forced most of the heartiest travelers to discard their heavy cloaks like Valea’s and don the traditional light, brown leather vests and soft kirtle breeches of the plains clans.
Vaelea watched each one of the travelers, cloaked in her shadow, and realised that she must appear a madwoman in her thick brown cloak and heavy black boots. She shrugged inwardly to herself. As long as they did not see her face, it made no matter.
A short time later, Vaelea found herself at a standstill frozen in a queue before the main gates of the city. All the travelers and passersby converged here, each one bearing odd goods. Here could be found the plains people in all their grand assortment. From the southern plains’ peasants in rags to the hearty central plains’ farmers with their heavy carts. Vaelea spied a particular cart laden heavy with turnips and oxtail, a gruff old man and a broke-backed old mule standing silently at its front.
In front of her, a small girl sat in a cart piled high with valley potatoes. She dangled dirty brown feet while she stared at Vaelea inquisitively, her big dark eyes scraping over every inch of the hidden woman’s strange attire. The basket on Vaelea’s back broke out in sudden movement, and snapped the awkward reverie. Her nerves on edge already, she breathed a sigh of relief when there was a loud creak, and the cart began to roll slowly forward, pulling the young girl on and away from Vaelea.
The line moved slowly beneath the shadow of the Great Ivory Wall. Valea noticed as she drew closer that the wall no longer held the sheen of sacred ivory, but a soot and pollution stained grey-wash. Eventually, Vaelea found herself before two large, scruffy guards, bedecked in all the leather and grass-mail finery of the plains capital. One of them was much larger than the other, with the typical rusted hair and burnt features of these southern plains people. Opposite him, stood a smaller, fatter man with black hair and a broad scar across one cheek. He had the look of one of the rougher plains’ people. Across his chest was woven a great grass spear, the symbol of the Mahani house, whose ancient lord Mahani the 17th now ruled here. Not men looked Vaelea over sharply and crossed their spears in front of her, blocking her entrance into the city.
“What business have you here,” the big one asked gruffly. Vaelea kept her face to the ground, keeping her features concealed in shadow.
“I am but a weary traveller, cast out from his home in the hills and thrown onto the wondering dirt roads of the plainsmen. I seek only to trade with the great merchants of Maeloro and make my fortunes so that I may move on to better fortunes.”
The dark one eyed her suspiciously. She would have to be very careful.
“What do you seek to offer the great merchants of Maeloro,” he barked gruffly. He took a step forward, as if to look inside the heavy basket.
“Simple turnips and carrots,” she responded in little more than a whisper. Vaelea pulled herself back only a bit. It was imperceptible. “I happened upon them in the wood of the Orinoah, and ran before they could catch me and enslave me as their thrall.”
The red guard laughed, “I doubt any of the Beautiful Sisters would have you as a thrall, peasant, you stink more than the city!” Vaelea folded inward, as if in shame, but could hardly conceal her crooked smile.
More fool them.
The dark man looked her over again, his face frozen unlike the broad smiling face of the plainsman across from him.
“Show us what’s in the basket then, if you’ve no more than turnips and carrots,” he barked.
Vaelea’s heart sank, and a panic spread in her chest. She paused for only a heart beat as the red guard spoke again.
“There’s no need for that now, Rorsh. If this one’s got more than turnips and carrots, you’d be hard pressed to find them. And look at the size of him, besides. You may enter, stranger, but let it be known that we will tolerate no mischief from you. We don’t take kindly to mountain dwellers, even those that have been cast out. Do your business and be away by the time the sun rises. Else wise, you may not find such a kind reception on the morrow.”
Vaelea bobbed her head in understanding and began to move forward as the two men withdrew their spears. She noticed the hesitation in the black guard as he withdrew his own weapon. Something about that man smelled the corruption on her. The overwhelming feeling that she would see him again washed over her.
It was forgotten in an instant, however.
As Vaelea stepped through the cool shadow of the Ivory Gate, the city rose exploded before her in a sudden sprawl.
Her mother had told her stories of this city when she had been a small child growing up in the great tree-city of Orinois. The tales of the great temple domes and streets of white marble had enthralled her. It had been a city of elegance of prosperity, her mother said, where the men were both chivalrous and bold and the women beautiful and buxom.
The city she saw before her now was not even the shade of that city. Before her was a city ripe with refuse and corruption.
The streets, once paved with delicate cobbles, was now a sea of mud and excrement. In one alleyway, she saw a mass of corpses completely blanketed in flies. Beside them, a pile of manure that reached clear to the second story of the building it leaned against. Overhead, men emptied chamber pots into the streets, while naked toddlers wheedled in and out of the gutters, heedless of the filth. Women washed rags in the fountains and hung the tattered bits upon the faces and limbs of long forgotten heroes and demigods.
Instead of the exciting hum of a thriving metropolis, this was the death wheeze of a failing empire. Whores dressed in cheap silks, fanned themselves with ornately painted papers and leaned in the cool shade of filthy doorways. One of them spied Vaelea’s cloaked figure and flashed her a provocative wink. Ignoring her, Vaelea made her way slowly up the main street before turning down a tiny alleyway to avoid the choking masses that thronged the narrow streets.
The lane was covered in the shade of the crooked buildings that towered on either side. As crooked as the buildings above, the alleyway widened and narrowed at seeming random. More than once, Valea had to turn to the side, brushing against dirty vagrants, prostitutes and alley rats all the same. She stayed alert and weary of the pickpockets she knew would be watching her even now.
After what seemed like an eternity of twisting and turning in the shadows of the tiny alleyway, Vaelea came upon a small battered looking inn tucked into the corner of a dark alcove. It stood off to one side of the crooked, cobbled path and would have been easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it.
Above the door hung a dirty wooden sign that was as old and battered as the public house beneath it. Age and elements alike had not been kind to sign, or the building for that matter, but in the flickering light cast from the open door, Vaelea could just make out the faint shape of a goat kneeling upon its front legs. Noise dinned from inside and even in the dirty haze of the lightly-paned window, she could make out the shape of dozens of men squeezed around small round tables scattered throughout the main room.
The sun was beginning to set as Vaelea made her way into the old inn. Her first thought? This was a den of low-lives and scum. That was clear to see.
As she looked around her she saw big men and little men, all dressed in rags and tatters, some with scars and some without. Most of the men were old enough to be her father, she realised. Another darker realization came to her as well. Most of the men in here had killed without ever thinking twice. You could feel it in the air. All eyes turned toward Vaelea’s heavily cloaked and shadowed figure as she walked in. Ignoring them, she made her way to a small table in the corner still stood empty. She placed the basket on the ground beside her and sank back into the shadows. Never once did she reveal her face to the curious eyes that followed her.
There would be no questions here. However curious these men might be, this was the kind of establishment that operated on the “ask no questions, tell no tales” memorandum.
A few moments later, a sallow, blonde-haired and buxom barmaid appeared at her table. She looked like a woman that had seen far too much of life, but Vaelea put that tragedy out of her mind. Across the right side of the barmaid’s face a massive black and purple bruise was swelling up, threatening to fold her eye shut completely. Her nose was busted on the same side where the hand had hit her, and Vaelea noticed that her lip too bore the familiar swell and scabbing of an agitated hand. No doubt some drunken patron had given that to her upon her refusal of him — or perhaps something even worse. Vaelea’s heart sank for the girl, but she buried it deep and focused on the task at hand. This is what it is to be a woman, Vaelea thought, this is what it means to be a part of this world.
The girl’s eyes darted to the floor as Vaelea ordered a large tankard of ale. She threw a few golden ornari on the table. Admittedly, it was a few more than she normally would have for such a common drink. When the girl was gone, Vaelea slunk back into the shadows. She hoped those coins could make a difference to the young girl, but somehow doubted that even a single one would find its way into her terrified and shaking palm.
A few minutes later, the girl returned with the tankard. A thick white foam spilled over the sides in a frothy waterfall as she plopped the tankard down before Vaelea gracelessly. She then made a quick, apologetic bow, scurrying away before Vaelea could give her any word of thanks or otherwise. This was the world that her mothers had fought so hard to spare her from, she realised with a sad smile. Thanks to their tireless efforts, as well as the bravery of their Goddess, Orinoah, she had been spared a world in which women lived enslaved, enthralled and in terror of men. But not all women were so lucky.
Those things would change.
Vaelea lifted the heavy mug to her mouth, and grimaced as the thick, bitter liquid made its way over her tongue down her throat. This was nothing like the ale that was brewed back in her forest home. The plains people, while having ample access to the grains and barleys needed for the making of ale, had little access to the fruits of the earth that could make it sweeter and more complex. All of the trees that bore fruits were found a hundred leagues or more away, across the entire width of the great Naruah Plains. There among those trees were also the sacred luso bees, which made the honey that the Beautiful Sisters used to craft the rich wines and ales of the forest people.
Vaelea’s grimace widened as she thought of home. She could not even count the days now since she had returned home.
She longed for the cool, sweet air of Orinois.
There, among the trees of the great Orinoan Forest, her city stood. Graced by her beautiful mothers, aunts and sisters, though the smallest of the Orinoan cities, it held a special grace that none could compare with. Some of the greatest members of the ancient and revered Geioosm Syseil, or The Tribe of the Beautiful Sisters as it was known by the Modern Tongue, called the small city home. There soared their beautiful domes of oak, maple, pine, magnolia and teak. Their graceful bridges rose into the canopies of the tallest trees, and stood sentinel in one of the deepest parts of the Orinoan forest.
If the tales were to be believed, Orinois stood as testament to time and the determination of her people, and peace, prosperity and security reigned supreme. For a thousand years it had stood, they said, and there was nothing and no-one in the world that could destroy it.
As Vaelea sat in the noisy din of the inn’s poorly lit common room, she could almost hear the tinkle of the beautiful fountains and smell the rich and heady musk of the forest air. She wiggled her toes, cramped and damp in the black leather boots, but felt only the earth smooth and slick between her toes.
A sudden disturbance stirred her from her reverie, and she snapped from her dream state to see a dark shape standing over her.
He was a mountainer by the looks of him.
Short, with distinct odor all his own, he was no taller than she was by the looks of it. His body was bare save for a patched and dirty set of breeches that hung loosely about his waist and a hairy woolen vest. He had no hair atop his head, but she could tell by the stubble that covered his pate that he had once boasted a head of this black hair. A massive scar spread wide from one side of his face to the other. It had been a vicious slash that had cut him from ear to ear. Of conflict this man was familiar, but as to the sort, Vaelea could not say.
His skin was taught and brawny, boasting an array of fresh cuts, bruises and scars that dotted the canvas of his body like blemishes on an old map. He stank of alcohol, and swayed as he looked down at her with raging contempt.
“We don’t like those who don’t show their faces,” the man slurred loudly. The smell of ale rolled off of of him in clouds. “This is a good, local establishment, only good, local men can drink here. Isn’t that so Luzda?”
Vaelea saw a flash as the little blond-haired bar maid, who had been serving ales obediently if not silently, disappeared quickly around a corner.
Vaelea looked up at the man, her thick cowl still falling just low enough to conceal her eyes.
If they saw her eyes, they would know.
It would be better if she settled this quickly. But judging by the way the man swayed before her, Vaelea doubted that would be a problem.
“I mean you no harm, stranger. I only wish to drink in peace.”
“In peace? Hah!” barked the drunken mountain man. “It’s peace he says he wants, boys. What do we think? I have a mind to give it to him, once he shows his face and gives us a name to go with our new drinking comrade.”
He swayed again, throwing down a big, brown hand and steadying himself on the worn and dirty wood of the little table. He looked around the room, and threw a single, wobbling hand in the air as if to gesture for agreement from the drunken men.
A few eyes were watching the scene now, but the vast majority seemed to be doing everything in their power to avoid looking at the drunk man and the new victim he had picked. Vaelea suddenly envisioned this man performing this song-and-dance routine on a nightly basis; each night selecting a new victim to isolate and intimidate.
He would not find a willing victim in Vaelea.
The stinking drunk man placed both hands on the table to steady himself and leaned down low so that his breath was warm in Vaelea’s face. The stink of him turned her stomach. There was more than just alcohol in there. There was rot.
“What you got to hide under there, little stranger? What could be under that hood that you don’t want us to see, eh?” He reached up a hand and grabbed the hood of her thick, brown cloak.
Quick as a flash, the slender silver knife that she wore at her waist was in her hand, and the stranger was turned back flush against the front of her body. She twisted one of his arms tightly between them. The slender blade bit into the scared brown folds of his throat.
The noise in the common room vanished. It was now so quiet that you could hear the creaking of the old, varnished chairs as they struggled beneath the weight of their biggest patrons. All eyes were on the pair now, and she felt a sudden warmth as the man loosed himself upon the floor, a great yellow puddle blossoming beneath them both. It was almost comical, the two of them embraced that way against the backdrop of the inn.
“No, no please, I never meant no harm, only playing a game with you, I was!”
The man was shaking now, crying like an infant and pleading for his life.
A single drop of red swelled under the point of her blade as Vaelea slid it slowly down his neck. It came to rest in the tiny dent where his shoulder and collarbone met. She pulled him tighter.
“Do you always presume to lay hands on those you do not know, brave man? Do you enjoy terrorizing those smaller than you?”
The man trembled again in her arms, and the weight of him suddenly grew immense. He was going to faint. His cowardice amused her.
“No! No!” the man screamed. “I never meant it. It was only a game. I haven’t never hurt anyone, honest I haven’t. Ask anyone here and see if I have. Have I boys? I ain’t never hurt anyone? I was just playing games, I was. I only ever play games with the boys. See if I don’t. Please, please, stranger. Don’t kill me! I have a wife at home…a wife…and…and children. They’ll wonder where I am, they will. They’ll starve without me there to feed them.”
The stink of the lie was worse than any smell she had encountered in the city so far.
Hiding behind the skirts of an anonymous woman and child made her tremble with an unexpected rage. This was not a man with a family. This was a man who had done as he pleased and taken what he wanted all his life. She had met countless men like him, she knew exactly what he was — what he’d done — and what he would do in the future. She pressed the delicate dagger into his throat harder and watched as the red bloomed brighter and larger on his skin. He wriggled like a fish caught on the line as the blade bit deeper in his skin. She could feel his heart racing through the pulse in his arm.
“Yes,” a tiny voice suddenly roared from the back of the room. “You do hurt people. You kill them and you torture them and you do bad things to them!”
The fury in the little blonde’s voice was unmistakable. Her skin had turned from a sallow yellow to a violent shade of red. She was trembling from head to toe and her hands were clutched anxiously into fists. She curled and uncurled her slender fingers in time with some invisible beat.
“You hurt them! Just like you hurt me. Just like you hurt my mother!” the girl screamed.
Suddenly, from a room in the back, a man large in girth but short in stature wobbled out from the darkness. Even at this distance and in this light, Vaelea could not mistake the limp and the horrible bruises that covered his face.
His right cheek bone had been shattered, from the looks of it, and the back of his head was swollen and misshapen in a shape that she had never seen before. His right arm was heavily bandaged and hung from a dirty white sling that was tied carelessly behind his thick, red neck. Valea could see the veins bulging beneath his skin.
He grabbed the young girl by the arm and tried to pull her back into the darkness. His efforts were in vain.
“Kill him!” screamed the little barmaid. “Kill him and be done with it!”
Vaelea stared at the girl for a long moment, never releasing the sharp blade from the throat of the stinking mountain man. The urge to kill him was coursing through her like a bolt of lightening across the sky. This man was every bit the piece of scum she knew him to be. He was dangerous, and if she let him live he would only strike again, finding someone who could not stand up for themselves.
The man took her silence for doubt and surged forward as if to escape.
Vaelea could feel the bones and sinews of his shoulder cracking long before she heard it. As he pulled desperately towards his freedom, she pulled his arm even tighter to her and wrenched it upward and forward, never loosing her knife from his throat. He screamed, and a slight wave of revulsion washed over her as she felt the strange angle of his shoulder. He remembered the knife at his throat and went limp. His weight was becoming enormous against her. Though not quite as tall as she was, he was much more muscular. She would have to act soon.
In a strange turn, the evil man began to sob.
“Tell me your name, monster,” Vaelea said, her voice barely louder than a whisper. The man could not hear her between his violent sobs, and did not answer her. She jerked his injured arm upward, and felt another pop as he screamed.
“I will not ask you again,” she growled dangerously. “What is your name?”
Two more loud and violent sobs wracked the man’s body. “Harka, sir. It’s Harka. Please, please spare me. I promise I won’t do no more harm. Just let me go!”
He was sober now, and waking up to the reality of what was happening to him. There were only two ways this could go now, and neither one guaranteed a happy ending. Vaelea looked up at the young girl’s face again, however, and found herself suddenly out of mercy.
“Listen to me, Harka,” Vaelea murmured, her mouth pressed against his ear.
His skin was coated in a cool, thin layer of sweat. The stink of fear mixed and mingled with the stale smells of wine, ale and piss.
“I am going to release you in just a moment,” she began.
The man’s muscles tensed, as if he would bolt again, but the sudden pain in his arm drew him back into her with a scream. She took the blade and raised it to the side of his face, drawing it downward until it opened a deep, narrow wound. Blood poured down his face and he screamed again.
“Ah, ah, ah,” she whispered, this time in a mocking tone. “Not until I say so. Now, let’s start again. Do you think you can listen this time without interrupting me? I wouldn’t want to be forced to cut you again.”
She placed the dagger back to the thick knot in his throat as he nodded his ascent.
“Good,” Vaelea replied. “Now, I’m going to release you in just a moment, and when I do, I want you to run for the door…as quickly as you can! Do you understand that?” He nodded quickly.
“Good. You are a smart one, aren’t you? Now, when you reach the door, I want you to open it, and I want you to run out into the street. Once you’re in the street, I want you to pick a direction. Any direction. It doesn’t really matter to me which way you go. I want you to pick a direction and I want you to run. I want you to run, and I don’t want you to stop running until you are a hundred leagues from these city walls, do you understand me?” There was a long pause before the man nodded his ascent.
There was not an eye that was not on them now and a chill silence had fallen heavier than ever before. Vaelea could feel the eyes upon her, the hearts beating as they waited for the resolution they knew had to come.
“Do not misunderstand me,” Vaelea whispered into the man’s ear. “If you stop, I will be there, just behind you. If you even think about stopping, I will emerge, cloaked in some shadow, wreathed in your worst nightmares, and I will eviscerate you. I will cut out your insides while you watch, and I will feed them to wild dogs as you seize and bleed out into the mud and the horse shit. Are we clear?”
This time the eager nod came without pause.
“I am glad that we’ve come to an understanding,” Vaelea whispered to the dead man. “Now…Run!”
She pulled the dagger away from his throat and shoved him forward with the bent and broken arm hung awkwardly to his side. As soon as her prisoner felt the release, he flew across the crowded room, making for the door. Patrons and prostitutes alike scattered as he flashed towards his last chance of freedom. He was violent in his last pursuit at life, knocking tables and stools aside in his haste. He never once looked behind or from side to side.
As he entered the cool darkness of the open doorway, he froze. His one good hand flew up to his throat.
His scarred and pockmarked back faced the stunned crowd who looked on in frozen terror. There was nothing but a violent heave as the man collapsed onto the ground. His body lay there, half in the cool darkness of freedom and half in the warm and dirty glow of the shocked room. From his throat sprouted a long, delicate dagger — identical to her own. A well of blood was spurting from the wound, and fanning about the dead Harka in a darkening pool. With one final seizure and he stopped still upon the ground. His eyes stared blankly at the darkness above him.
Over the corpse stepped a tall, lean figure, covered from head to toe in thick, dark traveling clothes, much like Valea’s own.
The cloaked presence stopped over the corpse of the man for only a second; just long enough to withdraw the pretty silver blade that protruded from the man’s throat. The stranger wiped it lazily across the front of thick leather riding breeches before sliding it deftly back within the folds of the long, dark robes that concealed all features. The fear was palpable in the presence of the onlookers. Some stared hard, as if they would sort out whether they looked on now at man or beast.
The ominous phantom ignored the terrified crowd and strode across the floor of the common room, seeming to float as it approached the shadowed corner where Valea still stood. All eyes followed the long, lean frame as it stopped only feet from Valea’s table.
She could smell the blood and the smoke and the dirt on them. All the smells of a long and perilous voyage. Her heart began to thrum in anxious anticipation.
A sharp, white smile gleamed beneath the shadow of the thick, brown hood.
“Why, sister,” that familiar voice gloated, “have you gone and had all the fun without me? How rude of you!”