Chapter 1: Eohla
35th Day of Summer, 1370 – Chromand Cycle
Gharri would burn in the Low, a final insult to a woman High Clan born.
Cuiun marched alongside her husband as he led the procession of mourners through the ruins of old Eohla. They halted at the end of a narrow street in an abandoned courtyard. Here, nature worked to reclaim ancient stone stolen from the earth centuries earlier. Crumbled walls and ragweed. Doorless doorways and cracked shutters. Fragments of homes, dry well, broken pottery, the stench of urine and feces. Everywhere Cuiun looked was ruin, ruin, ruin.
The hoods of the few mourners were soaked through. Tears melded with rain on the faces of the women. Their eyes all gaped at the slender red trench across Gharri’s throat. None could see past the wound to the woman that once was. Cuiun wondered if they cried for the dead or, like her, their own fates.
The soldiers dropped Gharri’s corpse onto the rough cobblestone and worked to build the pyre from wood seized from nearby homes. An old woman stripped the body of clothing and jewelry as the men built the pyre. There would be no offerings. Gharri would present herself to Bas, Lord of the Dead, in the nude and without treasure to barter. Bas would force her to beg for the salvation of eternal life amongst the blissful dead. Cuiun knew those pleas would go unanswered and mocked. For Gharri, death would be final and absolute. Her soul would end. That is not such a dreadful curse, Cuiun thought.
Two soldiers lifted Gharri’s frail, nude body and tossed it atop the pile. The old woman carried a small, tightly wrapped bundle and placed it gently upon the corpse’s chest. It was the unnamed baby, murdered days earlier by its father. Cuiun covered her mouth to stifle a cry.
A soldier strode from beneath an overhanging eave carrying a blazing torch. The flame hissed in protest as the rain fell upon it, but still the fire burned bright. There were no words of reverence or hymns of praise, like those voiced at the funerals of men. The soldier simply bent low and pushed the torch into the heart of the pile. The fire grew to consume the lower logs.
“Eyes are on you, thus on me,” her husband Haralas said. Cuiun stifled a scream as he squeezed her forearm, fingers digging past muscle until they found bone. “Mirror my strength. Gaze fixed. Head up. No weeping.” Cuiun wiped her eyes, but still the tears came.
She watched the flame grow, trying not to think about how heavy her eyelids felt. Her mind felt addled, as if the world whole was veiled by a gossamer curtain. Even in the cold, gray city, everything seemed too bright. She hoped the bodies would burn quickly, so she could steal away a few moments of sleep before her husband brought her to bed for the night.
The funeral was an unexpected change in Cuiun’s regimented life. It was the first time she had journeyed beyond the family’s walls since their arrival in the conquered city of Eohla four months earlier. Haralas woke at dawn, ripping the blanket from her body and tearing open the curtains. She had just fallen under the spell of a rather pleasant dream in which she was rowing with her children across calm waters to a haven on a distant shore. When daylight washed the scene from her eyes, she remained unmoved in the hopes of reaching sanctuary. He barked once for her to rise. She obeyed.
Six years of war broke Haralas. Once charming and full of humor, he was now cold and withdrawn. He was only thirty-five, nine years her senior, yet deep wrinkles and scars etched his battle-worn face. His hair hung long over his neck, his graying beard cut close to his chin. A stump at the shoulder was all that remained of his left arm, lost in battle against the Slaugh. Haralas’s words were sharp, spoken in the cadence of the Aithairian legions. She felt hatred and anger in his distant stare.
Cuiun gagged as the caustic aroma of burning hair reached her nostrils. She covered her mouth and nose with the sleeve of her dress, but it did little to block the stench. She turned her head away, but Haralas tightened his grip on her delicate forearm. She winced. He jerked her body closer to his. “Watch,” he said.
The flames blackened flesh and burnt away hair from Gharri’s corpse. A bile taste filled Cuiun’s mouth. It was the first time she witnessed the Suiri custom of funeral pyres, and her stomach churned. In Aithair, the bodies of the dead rested alongside their ancestors in great stone tombs. But the ground in southern Suir was too rocky to dig deep enough to bury a corpse. Cuiun preferred the idea of eternal slumber with her children, rather than burning without them.
Haralas’s aged advisor Goed caught up with the procession as the fire reached its apex, holding his hood to keep the rain from his blistered and pox-marked face. His wispy white hair lay plastered over his eyes. Snot dripped from his nose and over his gray lips.
Goed stood at Haralas’s side and observed the fire. “Lhanic is in the jailhouse. He still insists it was by her own hand, that Gharri’s throat was slit.”
Haralas simply nodded.
“We have no reason to believe he is strong enough to lie, to me,” Goed said. “If you like, we could have him punished for killing the babe. He admits to throwing the girl down the stairs.”
“Why?” Cuiun asked. “Why did he—?”
A sharp tug on her arm from her husband cut her words short. Haralas had no reply for the grotesque advisor. He merely glared at the flame.
“Gharri was of the High.” Goed said after a long silence. “Lhanic is only Middle Clan.”
“But he did not kill Gharri.” Haralas was in a foul mood.
“No. But he fears her birth clan may seek justice for the loss of the—”
“They won’t,” Haralas interrupted. “It was a daughter child. They gave Gharri to Lhanic with the promise that she would provide a son of High Blood to ascend to Clan Rua, thus elevating his clan. She failed by killing herself. Her birth clan will surely have to repay their bride price. Her Rua will not be pleased. This is an ugly situation, for all.”
“In that ugliness, we could prosper. Think on the possibilities.” The old man coughed up something into a handkerchief and examined it. Cuiun thought she saw a look of fear on his face, but it was fleeting.
Haralas thought for a long moment before speaking. “Make him believe he is to be punished for killing the baby. Make him fear for his life and beg me to overlook his actions. Then, release him from punishment if he agrees to withdraw his clan’s right to recoup their bride price. Their power has been growing since the discovery of silver under their hills. Her birth clan has long been a political ally of my father’s. We can secure the favor of both. Father would be pleased.”
Goed nodded his assent. “Deft.”
The swaddling burned and exposed the tiny corpse of the baby on the mother’s chest. Cuiun stared through the fire to a vacant doorway on the opposite end of the courtyard, trying not to see the child burn. The wind shifted and smoke filled her eyes, yet she did not turn her head.
The men fell silent for a long time, watching the fire. Then Haralas squeezed Cuiun’s arm tight and pulled her to his chest. She stood on tiptoes to kiss his bearded cheek but hesitated. Haralas leaned away and released her with a shove that nearly toppled her. She would not sleep tonight.
“Goed, escort my wife directly home after the bodies are consumed.”
Goed nodded his head. Haralas stormed away with his troops.
Cuiun looked away from the fire after her husband disappeared into the city. She spied four young Suiri girls clustered together in a doorway, the youngest crying. The other three, teenage girls with slender hips and wide eyes, stood fearful as they watched the corpses char. All four shivered, clothed in threadbare rags that were no match for the chilled air. They fretted over the smoldering ruins of the fire, wanting the warmth but fearing the dead. Their faces were gaunt, bodies thin. They were starving.
“Why do our people not feed or clothe them?” Cuiun asked. “What purpose does their suffering accomplish for Aithair and the High?”
The fire dimmed and the courtyard emptied. Goed turned and beckoned with a gnarled finger, ignoring her question. Cuiun remained for a long moment watching the girls as they hurriedly stole embers from the fire. Then she followed.
Cuiun and Goed moved slowly through the ancient coastal city. They paused every few blocks for Goed to regain his breath and will away the pain in his back and knees.
The Siuri called Eohla the ‘Watchful City’. For centuries its high, thick stone walls served as guardian over their lands from Aithairian might to the south. What war could not win, disease would. The burning chill left over half the city’s population dead. Aithair’s armies marched in unopposed once the plague passed. Clan Harnabr bargained successfully with the Ceithre Comhairle clan assembly for rule of the city. Haralas was given command by his father, the clan’s Rua.
The few remaining Suiri Cuiun spied were penned in the ancient walls of the central district, whose stone buildings crumbled from neglect. Human waste flowed openly in the gutters until running into the great river that crossed the city and poured into the sea. Cuiun thought Eohla a wretched prison and longed for the famed gardens of Uisce.
When they reached the old trestle bridge over the Landic River, a Suiri native approached with a small baby hidden beneath a thread-bare blanket and attached to the teat. The woman was squeezing her breast tight, trying in vain to force out milk that would never come. Cuiun realized the child did not cry, its tiny half-starved body too weak. Still it attempted to suckle in hope for nourishment. The woman seemed at ease approaching the two Aithairians. Haralas would find her arrogant. Cuiun thought her proud.
“Una,” Goed whispered. He took the woman into an embrace. There was a familiarity in the hug, affection. The two spoke a few words in the guttural Siuri tongue, but it was clear that Goed was not comfortable speaking the language.
“I have it here.” Goed spoke in Aithairian.
Cuiun startled when Una showed understanding. She was learned, a rarity in Aithairian and Suiri women alike, save for those of the elite. Una was once a woman of standing.
Goed reached into his robe, pulled out a small packet, and handed it to the Suiri woman. “This is a deadly poison,” he said. “So be sure not to allow your child to ingest it. Merely rub it on your bodies and into your clothes. It will burn, but not harm. Not even the baby, though keep it away from her hands. After half a day, you may launder your clothes and wash your body. The fleas will be dead.”
Goed pulled the baby from the mother’s breast and examined its eyes. Finally, he handed her a bundle of dried meat. Una looked thankful and bowed her head before disappearing back into the Suiri district.
The two continued walking through the conquered city in silence. They bypassed the merchant quarter, passing instead through the modest homes claimed by Aithairian Middle Clan families. A group of children ran past. They were playing a rather violent-looking game with a long pole and a strip of leather. A woman in one of the homes called a name that sounded like Ugana. A young toe-headed girl, smaller than the others, rushed from the pack. The girl was not as pretty, yet reminded Cuiun of her twins, always rushing after the other children in the hopes of playing but not quite catching up or fitting in. The woman said something harsh to the girl and boxed her ears before pulling her inside the home. Cuiun’s heart ached for the child.
The Clan Harnabr palatial estate was near the great iron portcullis of Eohla’s northern walls atop the town’s bluff. When they reached the gates of the family’s home, Goed berated a few guards, who seemed to be lazing about. With a bow and apologies, they continued their patrol of the grounds.
Cuiun and Goed traversed the length of the marbled courtyard. Here the clan’s private soldiers marched, their footfalls echoing off the stone. The estate was once the property of the Siuri king, who now lived in a windowless prison in the Aithairian capital city of Uisce. Haralas claimed the main palace for use by his clan. Cuiun thought it a gilded cage.
They climbed the famed Hundred Steps to the entrance of the palace, pausing several times for Goed to rest. The old man struggled to open the heavy iron door of the main suite. Cuiun helped. Once inside, the old man removed his wet cloak and hung it on a rack on the wall. He walked slowly to Haralas’s wine room, bidding Cuiun to follow. She hesitated. Fear held her back, a fear of her husband’s wrath should she not return immediately to her private apartment and a fear of his anger should she ignore his most trusted advisor. Goed called to her. She shook off her terror and followed down the hallway.
“This. This is a fine vintage.” Goed held up a bottle of red wine. His smile was at once leering and warm, his face both sickly and captivating. Cuiun felt revulsion and pity for the man. “They say it was grown from grapes planted by Yaryl the One, first Siuri king, himself. I struggle with believing that, but it makes for a fine story.”
He poured with a shaking hand.
“I knew King Valora, did you know that? I served as ambassador to Siur under orders of Uach Linnock, before disease and war destroyed the city. I spent many days in these very halls, drinking wine with the King and speaking peace. He was, is, a fine man.”
“Why do you allow his people to suffer now?” Cuiun asked.
“These people mean nothing to the High Clans, save as labor. Those that cannot forage, hunt or farm are worthless to our vaults. Your husband and his father spoke of slaughtering the old and infirm, the young and the weak. But. We feared it would cause revolt amongst the Siuri. Instead, we merely ignore them and keep them corralled in the city core. Their strong feed our armies as we train and prepare to claim more of their land. The beautiful entertain our men. Una and her child will starve, unless her husband returns with excess after paying his quota of meat from the hunt. It is the curse of the conquered, to spend their dismal lives toiling to feed their new masters. The Old World is drained; there is not enough for all. The weak go without.”
He handed Cuiun a glass, which she took but did not drink. “Yet you aided Una.”
Goed sipped his wine. A rivulet of red dripped from the corner of his cracked lips and over his chin. He laughed. Cuiun chilled. “War is a mongrel, borne healthy into poverty to gnaw on its own testicles.”
“I don’t understand that.”
“It is something I was told once, long ago. I find it apt.” He laid down his wine and sat in a thick wooden chair at the head of the table. A long sigh slipped from his lips. “I am advisor for Clan Harnabr’s First Son, Commander of the Northern Legion. There is no place for pity in my work.”
“Then why did you help her?”
“If disease were again to ravage the Siuri, it would threaten us. Their men would die, we would starve.”
Cuiun shook her head. “We could get food from home.”
“Ah, my sheltered child. The Middle Clans, who run the plantations and large farms in the outer districts, are bleeding population through war and migration to the Farwaeld. Aithair struggles to feed her armies and keep them properly equipped. The Lower Clans in our own home struggle to survive. The unclanned Salach starve.”
“There is more to your actions. You hugged her, she knew you.”
Goed’s eyes grew heavy, and Cuiun wondered if she saw fear behind them. He was quiet for a long time. “Our people are at war, the Siuri and Aithairians. That does not mean that we should lose ourselves to hate.”
Cuiun could mutter no reply other than to ask, “Why not?”
Goed’s hand reached for his chest and he gripped his shirt. A thin gold chain dipped beneath his collar. When he spoke, he did so in a whisper. “What can a man of my employ ever hope for in life? I have wealth, power. I want for nothing, save company in my bed that will not slander or attack me in an effort to win my position. When I was here, as ambassador, I found that person in a cousin to the King. I began trusting enough to even share my own fears and concerns. The relationship became precious to me. I never wanted it to disappear.”
She took her first sip. The wine was full-bodied, almost as heavy as cream. Normally she possessed a nose for fine wines, and could identify the subtlest of flavors and aromas. Now, even with this ancient and luxurious vintage, she could taste nothing but tannins and acid. “Una was this person?” Cuiun asked.
“No. Her father was.”
Goed gave Cuiun a long look, as if baring some dark secret. She had the impression that the old man slipped into an ancient memory, but then he raised his head and stared into her eyes. “I want you to understand something. These people do not trust me, and will never trust you. Nor should they. For we are their enemy. If your husband commands it, I will poison them all without hesitation. Even Una and her child. However, though they are our people’s foe, they are not mine. So under the guise of protecting Aithairians in the city from disease, I will give them what aid I can offer.”
“I wish I could help you.”
“But you cannot. For you must devote your attention to Fomhar.” Goed finished his wine and corked the bottle. “Your husband’s father, your Rua, will arrive with his advisor soon. They will want to hear plans for autumn’s Fomhar festival. This year’s event is vital to your family’s hold on Eohla. The Middle Clans settling in the orchards of southern Siur hope to make use of the mills. If they are happy, they will not protest your family’s occupation of the city to the Ceithre Comhairle. Your clan’s coffers are nearly drained. The income from Eohla will go a great way into solving the crisis. You must prepare a grand welcome for the various clan Ruas to curry their favor.”
Cuiun sipped at her wine again. As a girl, she helped her mother annually plan their clan’s Fomhar events. It was, then, her favorite time of the year, a celebration of autumn in which the High Clans opened their mills and kitchens to the Low and Middle. While the lower clans waited their turn at the grindstone or oven, they celebrated. Musicians performed, children played, Ruas bartered their daughters and nieces, tradesman and artisans hawked goods. Fomhar was a time for merriment before the long isolation of winter. Old rivalries were forgotten. Friendships were renewed. For the festival to be successful, the High Clan Mhatra must plan for every contingency. With Mhatra Cuhywn residing across the border, the responsibility naturally fell to her daughter-in-law Cuiun.
“How can I prepare, from a locked room?”
“You must find a way.” Goed pointed his gnarled finger in her direction. “You have not given your husband other sons. He wishes for boys to send to war, to further his clan’s honor. The Rua is most displeased in your inattentiveness to proprieties. You do not serve your husband well, as hostess to his guests. I have seen in their eyes weariness when they speak your name.”
“Haralas has only returned from war this spring. And is no longer the man he once was.”
“Yet now he is here, the man he is. He grows, impatient, and has begun considering other women to aid his political ambitions and offer him more sons.”
“What am I to do? I cannot will a child into my womb.”
“Be the wife he seeks. Serve as hostess. Ensure the happiness of his home. Stop losing yourself in fantasy and dreams. Behave.” Goed stood and returned the bottle to its place.
“Behave? He has extinguished my joy, burnt my books, keeps me from my children, and even stolen away my very dreams by promising nightly to kill me in my sleep. He has turned cruel since his return from war. This is not the life my parents and clan promised when I was given to Haralas. What woman could bear a life like this?” Tears formed in her eyes. She turned her head and wiped them away.
“You must bear it,” Goed said. “I will instruct the kitchen staff to come to you this afternoon. I will endeavor to find you an aide, to go where you cannot.” Goed took her arm and led her towards the staircase leading to her apartment. “Haralas brought you to the pyre as a warning. For the consequences of your continued failures will be too much for you to bear. You have no other option but become the wife your husband desires.”
Cuiun felt a shadow wash over her. She had felt the threat all day, though Haralas never spoke a word of warning. Gharri was forgotten, even before she burned. Forgotten by her birth clan, by the clan of her husband, by her husband himself. For Gharri, living was more painful than dying, so she slit her own throat. Goed was wrong. Cuiun had another option, for she shared Gharri’s pain.
“Throw,” the boy called. He picked up a rock in the muddy field and tossed it towards a stump nearly twenty feet away. Kiri found him to be a striking youth, tall and fit with a thick head of dirty blond hair lying perfectly straight on his brow.
Kiri thought he was the one Kiln needed to impress, if he were to make friends. He was the oldest, she guessed about twelve, and head boy of his gang. He was the son of a High Clan merchant, cousin to his clan’s Rua. Kiri thought him the sort that other children looked to for direction and tried to please. The twins’ tutor would say he was handsome, and probably tease Kiri that he was her new boyfriend. But Kiri did not like boys, other than Kiln, and she guessed she never would. They never took anything seriously, always trying to make each other laugh or prove they were the strongest. Everything with boys was a competition and if they lost, they brooded and sulked.
The eight-year-old twins had spent the morning waiting on the stoop of an unused shop. They used their secret way to slip out of the family’s estate while Mhata and Fha were gone to see a burning. It was cold and rainy, so they huddled together to keep warm. When the gang arrived and started tossing rocks, Kiln stood.
“He’ll know,” Kiri said. “Fha will know we left if you get muddy.”
Kiln found a stone. “Fha has too m…many rules.” Kiln watched the children throw. Kiri knew he was trying to muster the confidence to approach. “I don’t r…really know why he has so m…many rules. I liked it b…better in Uisce, when he was at w…war.”
“I hate it here. I hate him. The way he shouts and calls Mhata names.”
“Mhata is w…weak,” Kiln said. “Fha hates weak.”
“That’s because her demons are dead.”
Kiln huffed. He used to be proud of the stories their mother told them about the planting of their Bearla ancestors, whose blood were corrupted by the dying breath of slain demons. Fha called the story a myth, meant to explain their red hair and fiery emotions. Kiln believed him now. But Kiri knew the demons were real. She felt their breath boil in her heart whenever she grew angry or upset.
In Uisce, Mhata’s demons burned radiantly. Their flame danced in her eyes then, especially when Mhata lay beneath the willows reading. Now that fire was doused. Mhata merely stared out her bedroom window into the gardens, never leaving her room.
Kiri thought she saw her mother’s demons shine two mornings ago, as they sampled local fruits. They laughed and joked. Mhata told Kiri nonsense rhymes from her youth. But when Kiri asked why she never read anymore, Mhata stopped smiling and returned to watching the gardens. Kiri thought that perhaps Fha killed the demons in Mhata’s blood. Kiln said she just had grown weak in the presence of strong men. He sounded like their father.
Mustering his courage, Kiln approached the pack. Kiri followed.
The other boys took turns tossing rocks. When a throw was off target, the boys catcalled and teased. When near there was a round of ‘Oh…so close’. One boy struck the side of the stump, but it hit with such force that it ricocheted past those nearer. A lanky eleven-year old with his toe-headed hair tied back in an ox-tail shot closest, landing just a few inches from the target. Kiln lobbed his stone over the heads of the pack. It fell three yards shy of the mark, a respectable throw but not nearest.
“Good toss,” Kiri said.
The children turned to stare. They laughed.
“I know him,” a heavyset boy said. He nudged the head boy in the arm and pointed. “Jonar look. Red hair. Thin as a walking stick. His mouth always following behind his ass.” The kid jutted a fat finger in Kiri’s direction. Peals of laughter erupted in the others.
“His name is Kiln,” Kiri said. “And he can speak for himself, when inclined.”
“Kiln? Well you can’t play,” Jonar said. He ignored Kiri as boys were apt to do. “You’re too little for baileball.”
“He is not!” Kiri stepped in front of her brother, hands on her hips in a show of defiance born of her ancestral demon blood.
“He’s too young,” Jonar said. “Rules say you have to be at least ten.”
“Everyone’s. He’ll get hurt.”
“He will not! But he might be apt to hurt others!”
“He ain’t playing!”
Kiri reached down and picked up the large leather lump serving as a ball. It was heavier than she imagined and as hard as a hog’s head. She slammed it into her brother’s arms, who cradled it. “Speak up,” she whispered.
“Bet I c…c…can score on you,” Kiln said in a shy stutter that elicited gut wrenching laughter in the boys.
Kiri clenched her fist tight and scanned the crowd for the weakest. She found him in a tall, slender boy with wispy brown hair and a deep scar across his face. She watched him.
Jonar reached for the ball, but Kiln pulled out of the way. The other kids hooted, prodding the elder boy to deal harshly with Kiln. The head boy spat at Kiln’s feet. “The girls and dainties are playing graces down the road in Mallick’s green.”
The other kids laughed and slung a horde of insults in Kiln’s direction. One sang, ‘Diivvvyyyyyyy,’ in a whiny voice. The pack roared in laugher, though Kiri failed to see the humor in the word.
“Looks like someone threw shit at him, through a strainer,” a boy said.
Kiri was not surprised he flung insults about her brother’s Bearla appearance, their red hair and freckles were a rarity in the northern Aithairian contaes where all of the boys claimed their ancestral homes. Kiri clenched her fist tight while watching her marked boy.
“His brain is rusting and staining his hair.”
“Red headed, like the pecker of a hound.”
“And that st…st…st…stutter,” the weak boy said, doing his best to impersonate Kiln. “It’s no wonder his father don’t let him—.”
The boy’s words ended in a low ‘umph’ and he doubled over, Kiri’s fist crashing hard into his junk. The boy tried his best not to cry, but failed.
“You wanna finish that comment?” Kiri stood over the boy with fists clenched and jaw locked.
The boy shook his head and the others hooted again, turning on him for a moment before teasing Kiln once more. They all kept an arm’s length away from Kiri as she strode away from her victim. Through it all, Kiln stood stubborn and quiet.
The pack of boys grew impatient, their finest war words not eliciting any tears. “Scat Divy,” Jonar said. He reached for the ball again but found only air as Kiln leapt backwards.
“I p…play. Or the b…ball goes in the r…river,” Kiln said. Kiri heard heartache in her brother’s voice and knew he would not be able to handle much more of the foul treatment. She would have to end this, and she knew how.
“I’ll just tell our Fha that you were picking on us,” Kiri said in a stern voice. She jerked her finger towards the head boy. “Your name is Jonar. Our father’s men would easily learn the rest of your names.”
The boys stood silent. Kiri knew their fathers would beat them raw, if their clan suffered because of their bullying behavior. The twins’ father was Commander of the Northern Legion and oversaw all business within the city. It was a true threat, borne of ancient clan custom.
“W…we won’t t…tell,” Kiln said. He stepped in front of Kiri. “I w…won’t let her tell. I j…just want to p…play.”
One of the kids in the back hollered, “Just beat him so we can play already!”
“Fine,” Jonar said. “But you better not cry to your Fha when you get a bone snapped in half!”
“Same to you,” Kiri cried out over Kiln’s shoulder.
Jonar jogged to one end of the pitch to guard his barrel. Kiln ran to the opposite side with the ball tight in his hands. Kiri stood away from the other boys, who continued throwing slurs at her brother. All except one. Kiri smiled knowing she shut him up, and could probably end the hooting of all if she had it in her mind to do so.
“Rule is simple,” Jonar said. “You get the ball in the barrel, you get to play. I get it in yours, you don’t. Go when you are—”
Kiln put his head down and charged before the older, larger boy could finish.
“Don’t kill ‘em,” one of the boys called. “We don’t want the game banned again!”
Jonar looked over with a playful grin.
Kiln was in a full sprint and closing quickly. Jonar lowered his shoulder and squared himself against the charging boy. “Taste leather,” Kiln shouted. He ran within a few feet and pulled the ball tight to his chest. Before Jonar could react, Kiln heaved the leather lump with all of his might at the larger boy’s face. Kiri winced when she heard the low thud of the ball striking flesh.
“Owww!” Jonar collapsed onto the pitch, grabbing his bloody nose. Kiln stopped running and slowly bent down to pick up the ball. He took four long, exaggerated steps towards the barrel and slammed home the point.
“I get to play!” Kiln jumped around the pitch, arms waving in the air.
The rest of the children ran to Jonar’s side, who was now crying so loudly that several passing adults turned to appraise the scene.
“Foul,” one of the kids shouted. “You can’t do that!”
Kiln stopped jumping.
Kiri felt her demon blood boil. “Who says he can’t?”
“He can’t purposely hurt someone! He might have broken his nose,” the fat boy said. Kiri thought him whiny.
“Ain’t Kiln’s fault he’s a cailly cunt!” Kiri yelled.
The other children gasped at hearing the daughter of Clan Harnabr’s First Son use language that would have earned a swatting, had an adult heard.
“He said he wasn’t going to cry.”
Kiln leaned into the barrel to fish out the ball. His legs kicked wildly in the air as he called out in an echo, “B…b…ball’s in the b…barrel! That’s the only rule. Get the b…b…b…ball in the b…barrel!”
“You still can’t play,” Jonar said through tears. He wiped blood onto his sleeve and stood. “You cheated. You’ll never play here!”
Kiln approached and threw the ball in the boy’s face once more.
Kiln ran off, Kiri followed.
She wept with her brother as they ran past the Middle Clan homes and along the sandy riverbank toward their secret way.
“Maybe they’ll let you play next time,” Kiri whispered.
Kiln never answered and, when she tried to hold his hand, he slapped her away.
“You beat him. They should let you play. I bet you’re better than any of them. It isn’t fair.”
“You sh…shouldn’t talk so m…much,” Kiln said through tears. “Why can’t you ever stop f…fluttering your lips and learn to be quiet like Fha demands?”
Kiri shut up.
When they came to a short wall under the Bridge of Tears, Kiln bent low and disappeared into a square hole about half as tall as a man. Kiri followed.
Kiln had found the tunnel when the twins explored the bowels of the estate. He was curious about a short hole in the wall and chose to crawl through. Kiri, as always, had followed. When they discovered the dry drainage ditch led into the city, she hoped it would provide him an escape from the monotony of High Clan life. In truth, it only teased him with a joy he could never possess.
The dark stone tunnel rose straight, always climbing at varying angles. Kiri’s back burned and, about half-way, she decided to crawl. Kiln pushed forward in a rush.
“Wait,” Kiri cried when she could no longer hear the gentle snorts of his crying. There was no answer.
“Kiln! Stop! I don’t like being alone!”
“Kiln!” She froze. The tunnel seemed to crash in on her. Her heart clenched and she thought it stopped beating. He was away from her, and she felt as if his disappearance tore her body in two. “Kiln!”
Her stomach cramped up and her arms shook. She sat in the tunnel and hugged her legs tight to her chest. Her body shivered, her dress soaked through from the morning mist.
Kiri trembled. It was hard to breath and the darkness enveloped not only her sight, but her heart and mind. I will never find my way out. Mhata will never hunt me, Fha won’t care. This is where I will die.
“Hurry up,” he called from afar in the black. She crawled as quickly as she could, climbing the sloped floor until her head crashed into his bottom. A few moments later, they exited the tunnel into the drainage cellar of the estate. Her knees were scrapped and bleeding, but she was safe at Kiln’s side.
“Don’t leave me,” she shouted. She slapped at his arms and chest. “You promised to never leave me.” He did not flinch and accepted the beating.
When they entered their apartment, they found Mhata occupied in the main room with four women from the kitchen staff. One held a large book and was reading off a list of ingredients. Mhata focused her attention on the gardens just outside the window, her gaze distant even as the staff talked around her. The woman with the book asked for Mhata’s opinion on the main course. She answered without turning her head. “You would know better. Just ensure it is perfect.”
Kiln ignored the crowd and stormed off towards their bedroom. Kiri followed behind, wiping the dried trail of tears from her cheek as she wound around the adults milling about.
Mhata caught Kiln’s arm as he passed, looking at him as if seeing him for the first time. When her gaze fell on Kiri, Mhata pulled them both into an embrace on her lap. “What is wrong my charmings?”
Kiln would never tell. Nor would Kiri. If Mhata knew they were sneaking out of the estate, she would have the tunnel sealed. Yet Mhata never stopped prying until she received an answer, an answer that rang true.
“He heard the children outside the wall playing,” Kiri said. “He wants to go and play and have friends.” It was only sort of a lie.
Mhata was silent for a long time, just holding them. Kiln wept, Mhata joined him. That made Kiri cry too.
The staff busied themselves with discussions about sauces, clearly uncomfortable with the emotional display. Noticing their unease, Mhata said, “I finally have time with my charmings, and wish to shower them with affection. You have everything you need. Please prepare a strawberry tort for desert, though the Rua prefers shortbread to sweet cake. Ensure everything is ready so we can have the feast within moments of the Rua’s arrival. Go.”
The kitchen staff obeyed. Plates and bowls were snatched up, feet scurried across the floor.
The three spoke little, they merely cuddled on Mhata’s chair. Kiri searched for the fire in her mother’s eyes, but saw only a deep sadness. She felt, for the first time, that something much more terrifying troubled her mother than the death of her demons. Each time one of the twins moved to stand, she would grip them tighter and say in a whisper, “Not yet.”
As the sun set, Fha returned home. Kiri watched her mother. Mhata’s head drooped low and her shoulders sunk into her chest. Kiri thought she looked like a dog expecting a beating for stealing food off the table. When she spoke, her voice was soft and distant. “Hello Haralas. We were just sharing some—”
“Why does my son nestle at his mother’s teat like a babe, instead of train with my soldiers?” Fha’s voice echoed off the walls, though he did not shout.
Kiri looked to Kiln, who cradled tighter. Mhata opened her mouth to speak, but father held up a finger to quiet her.
“I take it from your silence that you are comfortable, being a cunt son.”
“Mhata is sad,” Kiri said before Kiln could answer. “He is just trying to show her affection.”
“I did not ask for my cock-sure daughter to speak.” Fha snapped his fingers and pointed to the ground at his feet. “I wish to hear from my weak son.”
Kiln climbed slowly from Mhata’s lap. Kiri knew he was fighting back tears, trying not to show any further weakness. His hands shook as he stood before their father, his gaze at Fha’s feet.
“You are still spending too much time with your mother. I will discuss living arraignments at the barracks with the guard oifi. Do you wish to be passed over as Rua upon my death, for a cousin with meat between his legs?”
Kiln shook his head.
“Speak!” Fha pulled Kiln into the air by the collar of his shirt and shook him. “You are Harnabr!”
“Release him,” Mhata said in a short, but not unpleasant, tone. “Please.”
Fha dropped Kiln, who landed on his bottom with a dull thud. “You voice orders to me? It is your fault your son thinks himself a girl and your daughter acts the boy. Six years I was gone at war. I wonder if you forgot that you are a mother during that time.”
“I had them tutored in the things that my brothers and I learned,” Mhata whispered. She stared at Fha’s hands.
“No! You lost yourself in books and dreams. You taught them nothing! Harnabr blood does not cower when confronted. Your son has the weakness of Rile. I will purge your clan’s poison from his heart and see him reborn stalwart.”
Mhata kissed Kiri’s head before standing. “You rage,” Mhata whispered. She stepped close to Fha and laid her hands on his chest. “He is trying, to be the son you desire, but is still young. Give him time. How may I calm you?”
Fha smacked her hands away. He grabbed her hair, twisting so her head bent at an odd angle. Mhata screamed in surprise.
Kiri shouted, “You are hurting her!”
Fha dropped his hand lower, causing Mhata to bend at the side. She was trembling. Her hands reached up to his forearm, but she did not try to pull her hair free.
“This is the weakness of Rile,” Fha said. He jerked Mhata’s head towards Kiln, who sat at their feet. “Look upon the feeble blood of your mother’s clan. Is this the man you wish to be?”
Kiln shook his head.
“Children to your room,” Mhata said in a shaky voice.
Kiln crawled out Fha’s way, before standing and moving towards their door. Kiri did not follow.
“Go children,” Fha said in as soft a voice as Kiri ever heard him use. It surprised them all and Mhata seemed particularly confused. He released her hair, causing her to fall hard onto her side. Kiri moved to help her, but Mhata waved her off.
Fha pointed to the door. Mhata stood and obeyed without complaint, walking with head down into their bedroom. Fha followed. He slammed the door behind them.
Kiri rushed to the door, laying her ear against the wood.
“If he hears you, you’ll get in tr…trouble,” Kiln whispered even though the door was too thick for his voice to carry through.
“Kiri. G…Get away. We’re supposed to go to our r…room.”
“Silence your tongue.”
“Kiri. I don’t w…want to get in—” Kiln’s words were cut short by their Mhata’s muffled cry. It was a cry of surprise and horror, of pain and terror. Kiri grabbed the door handle and pulled, but it was locked from the inside.
“What is he doing to her?” Kiri cried.
She continued to pull. The screams went on through the night. Kiln fell asleep on the couch crying. Kiri never left the door, nor slept.
In a luxurious bed, on the second floor of Clan Harnabr’s Eohla estate, Cuiun pretended to sleep, afraid even to breathe.
Haralas curled against her back, cradling his leg over hers. His embrace felt unnatural, like her body was no longer shaped to be held just so. His arm was wedged tight between her neck and pillow. It caused her head to tilt at an odd and uncomfortable angle. They were nude, save the sheer sheet around their legs. She could feel the heat from his body, even though a crisp breeze wafted through the slit window on the far wall. The room stunk of sex and sweat. Her arm tingled and grew numb. She wished to roll over, or to even scratch an itch on her arm. Her eyes were so very heavy, but she was afraid to sleep.
Cuiun stared out the window, willing morning to arrive. There was no moonlight, yet the stars shone bright through the cracks in the clouds. In the distance a guard called out the watch, it was just past midnight. Haralas began to snore and his body went lax, still she breathed lightly in fear of waking him. Her breast ached, her anus burned, and a dull pain throbbed where he slammed the side of her head several times against the marbled floor.
He was never angry and never yelled. That was what terrified her the most. He had merely beat and fucked her, in the most uncomfortable and painful ways. He was never irate, but calm.
She willed her muscles still, save the trembling of her hands, which never stopped shaking. She thought that if she could remain motionless until he rolled over, she could sneak to her own room and find a little peace. Cuiun slowly pulled her legs close to her body and stifled a cry.
Though she struggled to stay awake, her body rebelled and she slipped in and out of sleep. Soon, she dreamed of being old and raising grandchildren on a small farm with a man that both loved and adored her. They grew wheat and rye. She had a small floral garden that attracted butterflies. Two grandsons with long red hair and an eye for mischief sprinted past, the mirror of Cuiun when she was that age. Her daughter Kiri was happy, finding her own work as a vintner. Her son Kiln owned a mill. It was a perfect life, and the perfection felt false.
No. I cannot sleep, Cuiun reminded herself in the dream. Wake up!
But she could not wake. Her body resisted her mind. She tried to speak but there was no sound. She jerked her head upright but it would not move. Her body was frozen and her mind clouded. She felt a weight on her chest, heard the heavy breath of a man. It was Haralas, and he was on her. She felt him penetrate her. Panic set into her heart and she thrashed, kicking her legs and swinging her arms. There was no movement, her body disobeyed. He gripped her throat between his hands and growled, “You are asleep. It is time.” She grew terrified, her chest clenched and her heart beat such an odd rhythm that she thought it would burst free of her breast. She struggled to breathe and he gripped tighter. The world slowly slipped away behind a light fog. She began to relax and willed death to find her. Haralas grunted and she felt his seed fill her as the world faded away.
No! Wake up!
Her eyes snapped open as the sound of her voice echoed in the chamber. She knew it was simply a dream, though she remained motionless as her heart failed to calm. Haralas shot a hard elbow into her side, “Shut up,” and then continued snoring. She moved her arm and felt only the sheet, draped loose over her body. Haralas was lying on his side with his back to her. She turned and let her bare feet fall to the marble floor.
There was light. The warm radiance of morning shone in the room from the slit window. Outside, the clouds dressed gaily in bright pink and purple gowns. Birds woke, chirping their morning hymns as they danced and played in the gardens below. The air was damp; a mist covered the world. The din of townsfolk echoed through the room, as locals started their mornings. She could hear a soldier’s wife beneath the window, wishing her husband a peaceful return.
As Cuiun stood, the world spun beneath her. Nausea erupted from deep in her stomach and she reached out for the oaken dressing table. It took a moment for the sickness to pass and, when she could breathe more regularly, she lifted her head slowly to look into the mirror.
Cuiun gasped at her reflection. Red welts the shape of fingers covered her shoulders. A deep purple bruise consumed half her right breast. Her red hair was twisted and matted around a shallow gash on the side of her head. Usually he was careful never to leave a mark when he beat her. Last night was different. He kept muttering in a calm voice, “I will kill you when you sleep,” as he drove hard into her ass and slit. She reached behind her, her anus burned and was wet. She pulled back her fingers. There was blood.
Haralas stirred, but soon drifted back to sleep. Cuiun looked down at the table, and spied his long knife. It was an elegant weapon, trimmed in gold and lined with runes detailing the rich history of Clan Harnabr. Haralas banned her and the children from touching the blade, any blade. Perhaps he feared her turning it on him. More likely, he thought weapons the provenience of men.
Peeking briefly over her shoulder to ensure he still slept, she picked up the knife. It felt awkward in her hand, heavy. She ran a finger down the blade and pressed her thumb against the tip. It was sharp and well cared for. Hardly the ornamental weapon she believed it to be.
Cuiun pressed the flat of the blade against her wrist. It was cool. Would it be such an unpleasant thing, she thought to herself. She lifted the knife and held the sharp side across her neck. One stroke, and then finally I can sleep. She willed herself to slice, but her trembling hand disobeyed. Cuiun lowered the knife to her breast and pressed the tip to the flesh covering her heart. One thrust. Use the wall to push the blade deep.
As quickly as the thought occurred to her, she forgot it. She stared at a ribbon of dried flowers hanging on the mirror, a gift from Kiri. Eternal sleep would be no comfort, if her children were unsafe. After they were free from fear, then she would welcome death.
The safety of her children consumed her thoughts. Haralas never beat the twins, not yet. Cuiun was always able to shield them by turning her husband’s anger onto her. What would happen to them, if she died? She gripped the blade tighter and turned to the bed. A wicked thought entered her mind. If I cannot kill myself, perhaps—
The strike caught her quickly, like a lightning bolt against the cheek. He twisted her wrist and the knife fell with a loud clang.
“You mean to kill me?!”
He punched her in the stomach as she opened her mouth to protest. She struggled to breathe. An open-handed slap sent her to the marble floor. She felt his hand in her hair. She could hear him say something, but the words were not clear. She was still reeling from the attack.
Haralas lifted her by the hair and then she felt his rough hand close tight on her throat. She could never know where he got the strength, but he threw her to the wall and lifted her into the air with his one arm. Her feet kicked wildly in the vain search for the floor.
“Can’t…breathe…,” she choked.
He released her but leaned his armless shoulder into her breast. She was pinned. He dipped down and picked up his knife. He pressed it against her cheek.
“For whom do you mistake me?” He raged. “Am I a weak-willed cunt son, unable to protect myself from a ruined whore?”
Cuiun could not speak.
He dragged the tip of the blade down her cheek and the side of her neck, scraping away the outer layer of skin but not drawing blood. His face calmed as he watched her and he flashed a wicked smile.
The knife ran down over her breast, leaving a scratched trail. Cuiun held her breath. When the blade reached her heart, she closed her eyes. She wished he would stab into her chest, ending her pain. She hoped to find the agony brief.
Haralas never paused. Slowly he dragged the knife down over her stomach and the triangular mound below. She gasped when she felt the cold metal against her lips, down there. He slid the sharp edge along her slit, slicing her flesh. The pain was unbearable, yet she remained still and silent. Cuiun was too terrified even to breathe.
His shoulder pressed her tighter against the cold, smooth marble wall. He turned the knife and pushed the butt-end of the handle against her sex until it penetrated.
Cuiun wanted to flee, to rush from the room screaming for help from any that would listen. Instead, she forced herself to think calmly. She sought any words that would save her from the assault. Laying her palms on his bare chest, she looked up into his eyes.
“Please,” she whispered. “I only picked it up because I wanted to ask about a gift. A gift for your father.”
Haralas remained unmoved and slid the handle in even further. Cuiun felt blood gush down her leg. She shifted her weight, trying to loosen her walls in an effort to ease the pressure.
“What if we commissioned an axe, commemorating his rule over these lands? We could have it done—”
He pushed further. The leather handle was coarse and rubbed harshly against the delicate flesh inside her sex. She swallowed twice and fought back tears.
“We could have it done by the one year anniversary of the Ceithre Comhairle’s gift of these lands to your…our…our clan.”
He remained unmoved for a long time. Finally, he whispered in warning, “If you ever, ever, touch this blade again, I’ll turn it around and fuck you with it until I carve one large hole where your cunt and ass used to be.”
She nodded. Slowly he pulled the knife free and tossed it onto the bed. “Commission the axe.” He spat on her and turned away.
Cuiun remained still as he dressed. When he finally left, she collapsed in a heap against the wall. She wept. She wept for the pain. She wept for the humiliation. Mostly she wept because she was too afraid to end her agony.