As Vira waits outside her village, four men, set on malice, lurk in the fog around her.
|My name is Vira and I have a story to tell. It wouldn’t be fair to call it my story. There were others, much greater than I, who along the way played a more important part. Together, they changed who I am. And by the end of our struggle, they changed the world forever. This story is theirs.
Like a wave, the fog rolled in. A week later, it had still refused to move along. And now I was stuck out in it. Waiting. Wondering where Cusio might be. He was late. He's never late, I thought. He had asked to meet me here, in the meadow outside our village, but I had so far seen no sign of him. Only fog. Thankfully, I still knew my way around--where the pint-sized streams trickled through knee-high grass, where the tall cliffs trapped you like a bowl you could never quite climb out of, and where the scant forest slept silently in the distance. I just couldn't see any of them.
Something was wrong and I decided to head home. Or at least in the direction I thought home was. And that's when I heard the soft footfall of someone else nearby. I froze, straining my ears, but the meadow fell silent.
"Cusio?" I called. "Is that you?" But only my echo answered.
I crept a few steps farther, quieter than a mouse. Again the footsteps followed. And when I heard deep, icy breaths circle around and surround me, I knew trouble had come my way.
With nowhere to run, I bowed my head and knelt. Short chestnut hair fell over my face. My fingertips gently grazed the coarse ends of the tall grass around me. I said a quick word to Concil, reminding him to watch over me, then took a deep steadying breath and reached for the leather-bound handles of the two swords hanging from my waist. Drawing both, I stood. Ready.
Four faceless shadows approached me. One in front, one behind, one on each side. The fog, still masking their faces, did little to hide their wicked purpose. They inched closer, materializing through the misty veil, each drawing a long jagged blade of his own. Their demon-like eyes flashed red; their lips curled; they snarled like starving dogs.
I stared back, peering into their souls, and I saw fear....
The first attack came from the man behind me. He charged, his sword high above his head. I felt him coming, whipped around, and met his blade with my own. The clang of our swords rattled my ear, but I stepped past him, and with a sweep of my leg, kicked his feet out from under him; he fell, hitting his head on the nearly frozen ground, and I kicked him out of the way then turned to face the others.
The men to the left and right attacked as one. The first thrust for my stomach. I twisted to the side. The second raised his sword. I dropped to a knee, and as he swung down, I parried the blow just inches above my head. Pushing myself up, I drove my heel into the first man's stomach. He doubled over and fell to the ground. The second man was next and I swung with all my might. He parried, but the force sent his sword flying end-over-end from his hand. He turned to watch it soar, and when I buried my fist into the side of his head, he crumbled to the ground.
As I turned my attention to the last man standing, panic consumed his face. Quicker than he expected, and much quicker than he could react, I charged, relentlessly swinging my swords. He struggled to keep up, parrying and dodging as he backed away. I pushed harder. A large boulder lay in the grass just a few paces behind him. I steered him toward it. A swing from the right, one from the left, one more left. He never saw it coming, tripping right over it and tumbling to the ground. I stood above him, hearing victory call my name, and as the other three attackers squirmed and moaned at my feet, I pointed my blade straight at his heart....
Suddenly, a pair of strong arms grabbed me from behind, pinning my own arms to my sides. I struggled against his grip, trying to free myself until I saw the quick flash of a dagger as my captor raised the blade to my throat. I bit my lip and cursed, furious at myself for being so careless.
"It's always the one you never even knew was there," Cusio breathed into my ear. "Most don't see death sneak up on them."
I squeezed my eyes shut. "I'm better than that," I said sternly, much more to myself than to Cusio.
"Come on...you did well, Vira." He lowered his dagger and released me.
"I can do better," I grumbled, still fuming. I turned to face him and glared into his smug grin.
"Of course you can," he said. His smiling brown eyes cut straight through me and I had to look away. "We can always do better--but don't be so hard on yourself. You're still the best warrior I have."
My anger slowly drifted away. Something about him. I just couldn't stay mad. "Thank you, Commander," I eventually said. "I knew you were behind it all along. And I knew you were somewhere out there, in the grass, waiting for me to slip up. I got too aggressive...too...caught in the moment. I lost my place."
"You did. You had victory in your grasp and you neglected your surroundings. You must learn to control your emotions, Vira...even the good ones--but it's not so bad. There were five of us, after all. No one expects you to take on the world alone."
"I do," I said, shaking my head. I sheathed my swords then helped up the man at my feet. "You know--" I added as the other three men slowly came to, "this is great practice and all, but you really should find a better way to go about it. You're going to get someone killed one of these days."
"As long as it's not you," said Cusio, grinning. "The rest of these rats are expendable."
I frowned as I turned to the four men now standing around me and said, "He doesn't really mean that."
"Yes--" one of them said, "he really does." And the rest laughed.
I couldn't help but laugh along. "Well," I said once the joking had stopped, "I'll be off now. Thank you...all of you. I'm sorry if I hurt anyone. Just...blame Cusio."
"Until next time," said Cusio, bowing low.
I waved goodbye and hurried across the meadow toward home. After a few hundred feet, a pair of tall bluffs sprang up from the fog. Through the gap between them, a lazy river and a narrow dirt road ran side-by-side. This was the only way in or out of Imputa, the hidden village high in the Obex Mountains, which the existence of had been kept secret from all but those who lived there.
I stepped onto the road and walked between the bluffs into a deep, green valley. To the north, a roaring waterfall fell into a wide pool then snaked through endless grasslands before meeting the main road. To the south, wheat fields and farmland stretched as far as the eye could see. And just in front of me, a stone fort guarded the only way in. Actually, it was two forts, one on each side of the road and river, and an elevated walkway with thin vertical slits--perfect for archers defending the pass--in each of its walls spanning between them.
As I neared the fort, I waved to the guard leaning against a pair of wide doors. "Good Morning, Sino!" I called.
He jumped as if I had woken him. Daydreaming again? I thought, shaking my head. You're lucky it's only me.
"Oh...morning, Vira. How--" he yawned "--how are you?" Sino was just a few years older than me, with a thick mop of curly hair and sleepy brown eyes.
"I'm well, thanks," I said. "How crazy is this fog? I can't believe it's still here."
"It's strange, for sure. I thought it was still a little early in the year for weather like this. I'm not ready for winter yet....Hey," he said, suddenly looking up, "what were you doing out in the meadow?"
"Oh, just a meeting...with Cusio."
"Ah--" he nodded "--another ambush, eh?"
"Another ambush...you'd think I'd expect them by now."
"You'd think....How did this one go?"
"Oh, they've had better days." For obvious reasons, I decided not to mention my little slip-up. "Cusio brought along four this time--but they seemed a little slow. Maybe it's the weather--" I shrugged "--or maybe they're just not morning people."
"Oh, well....There's always next time," he said. "Maybe they'll do better."
"I sure hope not. Anyway, I'll talk to you later." And I pushed through the doors and walked into the armory.
We--and by we I mean Imputa's standing guard, which I had been a proud member since my coming-of-age two years earlier--stored all our weapons in the armory. The smell of oiled leather and polished steel rushed to greet me. I took the deepest breath I could and a euphoria like none other left me covered in goosebumps as it rushed across my skin.
A lone candle burned just inside the door, and wrapping around the walls, a wood staircase wound its way to the roof. Swords, bows, and shields of all shapes and sizes were stacked in neat rows; staffs leaned against the wall to the left; great spears, longer than any two men, lined the wall to the right. I strode past them and made for the far corner, where a small rack held most of my prized possessions; a tall bow and a quiver full of arrows were already leaning against it as I hung up my swords.
I then pulled my most prized possession of all--a thin-handled silver dagger, with a glowing, blood red stripe coursing through the blade--from the sheath on my ankle. I had owned it for as long as I could remember and no one knew how I had come by it. Far too important to leave laying around, the dagger stayed with me at all times. I ran my fingers along the glinting blade, saw my reflection smiling right back at me, then tucked it back into its sheath. After savoring the smell of the room one last time, I said goodbye to my swords and walked out the back door into the fog once more.
The love of my life spent most of his time lounging around the village's stables. So I of course spent as much of my day there as I possibly could. We would play, we would laugh, we would step outside and run through the fields. Or on a cold day we might just curl up against each other, share our warmth, and whisper back and forth; this was one of those days, so I huddled beneath my cloak, nuzzled into him, and lost myself in his caring brown eyes. I could write a book about what I saw within them. But he suddenly looked away.
"I know, Gaeus," I said. "I'm so sorry." I ran my fingers through the long strip of soft hair stretching up his neck, stroked his mane all the way to the top of his proud head, and gently scratched behind his pointed ears. "This weather must be terrible with you locked away in these cold stables all night. It's only September. Winter shouldn't be here yet. I can't remember it ever being so cold so early. I'll talk to Father tonight and get you moved inside."
He nudged me with his long nose, his way of saying thank you. Gaeus was more than my horse; he was my best friend. By my side through thick and thin. I remember the day we met as if it happened just last week. It was my tenth birthday. Father blindfolded me then led me to this very spot. And Gaeus--the best present a girl could find--was here waiting. Father ran alongside us and helped me hold the reigns as I rode him for the first time; I had never imagined such freedom, let alone felt it. And on that first ride, I realized Gaeus would never belong to me. We would forever belong to each other.
"He's just a dumb, smelly horse, Sis," Danus said, sitting atop a stack of crates in the corner, rolling his mischievous blue eyes at me. Danus always teased me about Gaeus, but I never let it bother me. Jealousy makes people say some pretty crazy things.
"He's not dumb," I snapped, glaring at Danus, "and don't you ever let him hear you say that! But you do smell, Gaeus," I added, wrinkling my nose. "You need a bath."
"You talk to your horse like I hear other girls in the village talk to their boyfriends."
"He's my friend," I said, feeling slightly hurt. "Don't worry, Gaeus. Danus doesn't know what he's saying." I shook my head. "You're not a dumb horse....He's just a lost, confused, little boy. Besides," I added, turning toward my little brother and pointing angrily at him with one hand on my hip, "what does a little boy like you know about what the girls in the village say?"
"I know they don't spend their time playing with swords and kissing smelly horses," he said, rolling so completely in laughter he failed to notice the blood rushing to my face.
"That's it!" My annoyance won over and I darted after him.
He sprang from the crates, which toppled over and crashed to the ground. I grabbed for him, but he spun away and I stumbled past him. He then turned down the main aisle and ran for the door, but before he could reach freedom, he slipped on a patch of loose dirt and crashed to the ground.
I easily caught up to him, picked him up, tossed him onto a nearby haystack, and pounced, pinning him down and tickling him mercilessly.
"Stop! I'm sor--I'm sorry! Vira! VIRA--ST--STOP!" he shrieked between uncontrollable laughter and gasping for air.
"What, Danus?" I asked, grinning as I dug my fingers even deeper into his ribs. "What are you trying to say? I can't understand you, Danus!"
"VI--RA!" he screamed, his face turning purple. "SOR--SORRY!" But I was enjoying this way too much.
"Oh, now you're sorry, are you?" I asked. "It's too late to be sorry, Danus....IT'S TOO LATE!" And I kept right on tickling him, but from the doorway behind me, a long, slender shadow crept across the floor.
"Vira," said a familiar voice, startling me just long enough for Danus to squirm away. I turned toward the intruder and instantly recognized the tall, slender silhouette of Augus. His subtle smile softened his weather-hardened face. He was very handsome. Everyone else thought so, too. But he was a lot older than me, and was one of Lord Talso's most devoted aides. "I am terribly sorry to interrupt," he said.
"Oh, it's all right, Augus," I said, wiping my hands on my pants and smiling as I stood. "You didn't interrupt much. I was just giving my brat of a little brother an overdue lesson in manners. Apparently Mother and Father never bothered to teach him any."
"I see....Well, let us hope the lesson finally sticks," he replied with a wink toward Danus.
"I doubt it will--but I still have to try," I hopelessly said, shaking my head.
"You are most likely right, but as I was about to say, I have an urgent message. Lord Talso has requested your presence at once. He awaits you in his chamber."
"Can I come?" asked Danus, springing to his feet and looking up at Augus with pleading eyes. The blood drained from his face and he slowly began to look like himself again.
"I'm afraid not, my boy. Lord Talso requested Vira, and Vira alone. Not even I know what he requires of her. If I know Vira, though, she will tell you all about it, anyway. Why...you'll most likely know before I do."
"How come I never get to do anything fun?" Danus whined.
"Trust me, Danus," I said, patting his shoulder, "it won't be fun. I'm sure it's something boring--most likely about preparing for an early winter."
"Yeah, yeah..." Danus turned away.
"Very good," said Augus. "I shall inform the Lord that you will be along shortly."
"Thank you, Augus," I said. "I'll try not to keep him waiting."
Augus gave a short bow, smiled, and retreated from the stables as quietly as he had entered.
"Do you really think it's nothing?" Danus asked after he had left.
"I'm pretty sure--" Inside, however, I was anything but sure. "I promise I'll tell you all about it, anyway...just in case," I added.
Danus smiled brightly. I smiled back before walking to where Gaeus still stood and stroking his side one last time. After promising once more to talk to Father about having him moved inside, I said goodbye--first to him, then to Danus--and walked outside into the cold mountain air.
The main road wound deeper into the valley, through rice paddies and wheat fields, and I quickly followed it. My parents worked those fields each day from sunup to sundown. I pitied them deep down. Of course I loved them, but I could never imagine following in their footsteps; I was a warrior and a plow in my hands felt every bit as foreign as a cooking pot.
The road eventually turned from dirt to stone and the village square burst through the fog. Rain or shine, the square was packed with people. At its heart was the market, where we sold, bought, and traded all our homemade goods. The sweet smell of the bakery filled the air each morning; for a price, Impetus and his wife would bake the most delicious breads and pastries Imputa had to offer. Next-door to that, Geno the blacksmith and his shop full of apprentices worked endless days. And though the village hadn't had a visitor in sixteen years, the inn across the way kept a steady flow of thirsty patrons coming back for more ale, and more gossip, too. And on the far side of the square, a temple rose high above it all. Twice each Saturday, the whole village would gather to hear the tales and give thanks to the father of our land, Concil the Great, our first King.
As I raced through the market knowing Talso was waiting on the other side, I turned a corner and bumped into two girls I knew all too well.
"Oh look--it's Vira," said the short and very plump Gracila. As always, the tall and much too skinny Enerva was by her side. They were both around my age. Chasing boys and cracking jokes at my expense were two of their favorite ways to kill time.
"What do you want?" I asked, sighing. I really didn't have time for whatever they had planned, but I knew they wouldn't just let me pass.
"You're the one who bumped into us," said Enerva. "We were just walking along, minding our own business..."
"--You can apologize any time," said Gracila.
"I'm so sorry," I said, making no attempt to hide the sarcasm in my voice as I tried to slip past them.
"Hold on a minute--where are you off to in such a hurry?" Enerva asked. They shuffled back in front of me and once more stood in my way, shoulder-to-shoulder like a wall of ugly.
"Please--just leave me alone," I begged. "Someone wants to see me and I'm already running late."
"They must not like their own eyesight if they want to see you," said Gracila, snorting as she laughed.
"Yeah--who in the world would want to see you?" Enerva asked with a sneer across her twisted face.
"Surely not a boy," replied Gracila.
"I can't see how it's any of your business," I said, my patience running thin. And it was starting to show.
"Careful, Gracie," Enerva said. She placed a restraining hand on her friend's shoulder. "They say she's pretty tough."
"You're right....She might beat up our boyfriends," Gracila replied, rolling her eyes.
I took a deep breath and looked for a way past that didn't involve seriously hurting them both. I could have if I wanted to. I could have hurt them both real bad.
"Look! Are those tears, Gracie? I think she's about to cry."
"You know what? I think you're right," Gracila said. "She is starting to cry. Please, Vira--don't cry!"
"I am not crying," I said, gritting my teeth. I balled my hands into fists and started counting backwards. Putting Gracila and Enerva in their place began to seem more and more like a good idea, but shallow, dim-witted girls like these two weren't the reason I spent so much time training. The real dangers were outside the village.
"Maybe we should leave her alone, Gracie," said Enerva, clearly recognizing just how close they were to pushing me too far. She turned to walk away, but glanced back over her shoulder and said, "She probably just got dumped by her boyfriend."
"Vira doesn't have a boyfriend--"
"--Sure she does," said Enerva, stopping to turn around. "He has brown hair...lives down in the stables...four legs...smells bad..."
"That's not a boy," said Gracila. "That's a horse!"
"Have you seen Vira's face lately?" Enerva asked as her eyes widened. "A horse is a pretty good catch for her!"
And they both cackled like hens.
"See you later, Horse-maiden!" Gracila yelled over her shoulder and she and Enerva walked away laughing.
I took another deep breath. Most girls in the village picked on me. None of them could use a sword the way I could--none of the boys could either, for that matter--and they all made fun of me for being different. It was usually fairly easy to ignore them, but there was something about these two that really got under my skin. They were forever at each other's side. Inseparable, as if they shared a mind, while aside from Gaeus I never had any real friends growing up. I just never had anything in common with the other kids.
As I walked past Concil's temple, I pushed them out of my mind. The Mountain suddenly rose before me. When my people first arrived in the valley sixteen years earlier, Lord Talso, the Earth Mover, carved our homes into the Mountain's side. For ten stories straight up, rows of houses climbed above the square. Talso even dug his own chamber deep within the Mountain's heart, with its entrance guarded by the pair of heavy stone doors on the ground level. I quickly covered the short distance between the square and the doors having no idea what the Lord might want, but knowing all along that making him wait any longer than I already had would be unwise.
Through the doors, a downward sloping corridor lined with countless tiny candles led me deeper underground. As I inched past each of the slender flames, my many shadows danced around me and my soft footsteps echoed off the walls.
I reached the heavily engraved door at the end of the hall and the dread I had earlier felt quickly resurfaced. In the two years since I joined Imputa's guard, I had been beyond the door a few times, but I had never before received a personal summons. That Augus had delivered it only added to my worries. This was serious. Something was wrong.
My heart pounded; my hands shook. I leaned into the door and heard the faint murmur of conversation on the other side. I considered knocking, but decided against it; Talso was expecting me, after all, so I grabbed the large round handle, eased open the door, and peeked into the chamber. The candlelight illuminated me from behind, casting long shadows across the floor of the long, narrow room. I stepped inside and gently closed the door behind me, but a gust of wind rushed down the tunnel and ripped it from my hand, announcing my arrival with an earth-shaking slam. The hushed conversation immediately quieted and I stood awkwardly in the dark, waiting for my eyes to adjust.
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