Alia lay on her back watching the night sky, her hands clasped on her chest. For a moment she could pretend all that existed in the world was the cushion of flowers and leaves beneath her. The forest grew thinner as one approached the center of Aelburn. Lush forests became small groves before turning into strategic clumps of trees near villages or cities to provide shelter as travelers passed through. Alia had grown up in a large port town, and then lived in solitude until Raffi’s men had forcibly drawn her out of isolation. The cloying heat was one of many new experiences since leaving Ravensea where constant sea winds kept the town cool. Even now, laying in the shade Alia’s loose gown stuck to her skin. She twirled one of the bodice strings in idyl motions.
That day played over in her head. She’d thought the path from her hut to the river was well concealed, walking it many times without incident. The first time Alia heard footsteps behind her she dismissed them. Denhollows was two weeks away and the trees were so thick here, no one could get by unless they already knew the way. Or followed someone who did. Heavier footsteps soon followed the first and Alia knew she was being followed. She quickened her pace, letting her fingers trail against the trees as she passed. They didn’t know the words for malicious or perverse but they could sense “wrongness”. They knew the metal that broke their bodies. And that’s how Alia knew to run. She’d been gathering stones for a protection spell, but they’d do no good for her in their current form so she let the basket fall from her hands. She thought she had been well ahead of her pursuers but as she came over the last hill, she saw the clearing filled with a ragtag band of mercenaries. Young, old, thin and hulking brutes all armed to the teeth. Alia turned, intending to skirt around her hut to an almost nonexistent path which would allow her to escape. Instead she saw a man standing in her way. There was a unnatural stillness to him. No twitching hands seeking a weapon. Only an unwavering patience. He made no move towards her until Alia’s shoulders slumped.
Alia didn’t use her magic to fight. She’d left Ravensea all those years ago for that very reason. Every magic user could manipulate the elements; not all could speak their language of emotions. Most sought these witches to keep their people safe on expeditions. It was nearly impossible to sneak up on someone who could hear the wind and “see” the number of attackers. Or listen to the trees as Alia did. Raffi wanted to keep himself safe from consequences. That meant keeping his men alive, though the individual themselves was unimportant, and stealing whatever would help achieve this goal. But knowing why Raffi wanted her didn’t tell Alia who was willing to sell her out. She was considering this when she was yanked to her feet. Cuthfre wasn’t much taller than her but his small frame and hanging clothing hid wiry muscles. Alia rubbed her sore shoulder and glared at him.
“He needs you to look ahead.”
“I can’t.” Her voice wavered.
She’d already explained to Raffi that unless each oasis was connected she couldn’t learn what they knew until they reached each one. A wind witch had been sighted in Sunmount but it was a riskier venture than catching her; isolated in her woods. If anyone within the town suspected they were coming the witch could flee. If the witch fought and they drew too much attention to Sunmount, reinforcements could arrive in little over an hour from Norcourt. Which wouldn’t deter an army but could be disastrous for a band of twenty that would be down one if Alia couldn’t make herself useful. Alia’s mind desperately sought a solution as Cuthfre dragged her towards the largest of their three wagons. She’d tried sneaking away once, now everyone watched her and hoped she’d try again so they could earn an extra cut by bringing her back. Cuthfre pushed Alia forward and quickly moved away before he became the subject of Raffi’s anger.
Raffi wore a fine linen shirt that draped elegantly over wide shoulders and wider chest; stretching it to its limits. He sat on a bench with one foot up on a stool with curling feet while he carved up a statue. Alia watched each flick of that knife with her heart pounding in her ears.
“I need to know what I’m walking into.”
The only danger I’ll be warned of is you. Alia looked away, hoping he hadn’t seen defiance in her eyes. “I won’t know until we’re closer.” She was almost whispering. All of her bravado disappearing instantly.
Raffi crept closer. Alia kept her face turned away, but the space seemed suddenly tiny. She tried to keep her breath steady but it caught in her throat when he helped her to her feet.
“It will do me no good to walk into a town so large without knowing this information beforehand.” Raffi held Alia’s hands gently in his while massaging them as if it were cold.
Alia had to fight a shiver despite the heat. “If we approach as traders maybe we won’t draw suspicion.”
“And who would have anything worthy of trade?”
Raffi spoke in a casual tone. Alia almost answered him but hastily clamped her lips shut. His lips turned up briefly in a smile. Raffi tipped Alia’s head up, making her strain to not look him in the eyes. He hadn’t forbidden it but they were a blue so light they almost seemed silver. Even knowing that the hidden warmth in them was false, Alia had found herself staring more often than she should. And she needed all of her wits about her.
“They fancy themselves scholars, I say we take advantage of their soft hearts.”
Raffi finally let Alia’s hands drop and he moved over to a gilded chest. As he unlatched it, she felt the urge to curl up far away from Raffi and will him to forget her. He pulled out a small paper bird that could be mistaken as a kite.
“When you know where the witch is and how the size of their guards, send word.” Raffi handed the paper bird to Alia, who took it in shaking hands. “You have until nightfall. Now run.”
Alia stumbled and she clutched the bird to her chest. Then, fear coursing through her, checked to make sure the paper wasn’t crumpled. That would break the spell on it and the men Raffi set after her would cut her down. Without looking over her shoulder, Alia kept going though this time she moved at a slower pace. She didn’t know if the guards would let her in and after awhile she only thought of the sweat dripping into her eyes. Alia licked her lips as if that would help the dryness. She ignored the aching in her throat, hoping the city was close. The thin slippers Raffi allowed her to wear were no match for the heated sand. There was a road but Raffi had kept well away from it and Alia didn’t know in which direction it lay. She wished for the thick hide boots she’d purchased on her last trip into a small town, but Raffi had had them destroyed. How long ago had that been? Months ago? A year? Had she’d really been a captive that long? The thought made Alia want to lay down where she was. She couldn’t consign someone else to this life.
Alia chanced a glance behind her to see two men on horseback in the distance. They could easily overtake her if they suspected what she was about to do. Alia turned away and walked as quickly as she could without losing her footing. She reached out to the wind though it was voiceless to her.
Silence answered her. Alia wanted to shout it out but she didn’t. Instead pouring all her hopelessness into that word, so the wind would carry her message to the witch who could hear it.
A cool breeze blew and Alia laughed softly in relief. She’d never spoken to wind, at least not intentionally, but she took that as its answer. “Thank you.”
A harder wind pushed her forward, urging her until she began to run. This time she didn’t care about Raffi’s bird. There was shouting but it was covered by a howling gust. Alia looked to see sand blowing around her pursuers. She hesitated, wondering who she was running towards before deciding the unknown was the better option. Any way the wind pushed her, she ran; adrenaline kept her going for now. But too soon her vision wavered. When Alia saw someone running towards her she tried to run but strong hands gripped her.
“I heard you call. There’s no need to worry.”
Alia tried to fight the tears that sprang to her eyes. “No. You were supposed to run,” she croaked. She looked into a gentle face, their eyes were full of concern.
They shook their head and untied the flask at their waist. “Here, drink this. You don’t have to worry about those two anymore.”
Alia tried to explain but she was sobbing and exhausted. Her words barely made sense to herself.
“Ki!” A second person approached with his sword drawn. “Is this why you ran off into the desert? He looked Alia over, decided she was harmless, and sheathed his weapon.
“Yes, Andriet. This is why.” Ki wrapped their arm around Alia and tried to move her but she resisted.
“You have to leave.” Alia pulled away from them. “He took me. Please run.”
Andriet shared a look with Ki. “Look around. He’s not here.” His voice became softer, like she was about to break. “You got away.”
“But you need to come back into town with us.”
Alia reluctantly let Ki lead her, all the while insisting they run.
Sunmount was impressive in size if not presentation. The shops were of a practical size and pressed against one another. It passed in a blur. Though Sunmount was not far from Norcourt, it was a quiet town compared to the busier city and there wasn’t much traffic to force their way through. By now Ki and Andriet were nearly dragging Alia, arms tightly around her waist with her arms hanging around their necks. With the height difference, Ki the shortest and Andriet the tallest, it was an awkward and slow crawl to their destination. There were questions about who she was along the way but she couldn’t hold onto the words, and Ki didn’t answer.
Ki shouldered open the door to a shop . “It’s not much but it’s home.”
Alia could only let out a moan in response. Ki frowned and swung Alia into their arms. Her head lolled against their shoulder, enjoying the coolness of their linen shirt against her cheek.
“I’ll see if I can cook something up for her,” Andriet said as he made his way to the kitchen.
Ki bounded up the steps and Alia had to squeeze her eyes closed against a growing headache. She let out a gasp and held desperately onto Ki when they laid her down on something soft. She looked wildly around the room.
“Deep breaths,” Ki repeated until Alia finally relaxed. They brushed hair out her face. “Just focus on getting some rest.” They opened the shutters, gave her a sympathetic smile, and then left.
Alia ran her hands over the cotton quilts. She didn’t want to trust this. Afraid that this would disappear, some illusion, and she’d find herself back in Ranafre’s caravan. She glanced at the open window. Her breathing quickened.
You have until nightfall.
Alia shuffled backwards until her back hit the headboard. She curled into a ball, arms wrapped around her chest and forehead pressed against her knees.
When someone shook her, Alia awoke with a start. She drew in a breath. She expected a hit that never came. When she finally peeked over her hand she saw Andriet waiting patiently standing by the bed. His black hair was short but messy waves were starting to fall into his eyes.
“Kia had to close the shop, but we’ll make it up tomorrow. You don’t make enemies with one who talks to the wind,” he grinned as if they were old friends. But he moved slowly when he turned and reached for a bowl on a nearby table. “Had to learn how to cook early, so it may not be a meal fit for a noble table but it’s good.”
Alia clutched it with shaking hands. Her appetite hit with sudden force when the smell of beef stew reached her nose. She shovelled it down before Andriet could change his mind. When she finished she started to lick the spoon before remembering Andriet was there. Self conscious, Alia let the spoon drop into the bowl. “Thank you.” She took a shuddering breath. “Thank you, but I can’t stay.”
“You don’t have to stay here. You also don’t have to run, from anyone.” Before Alia could protest, he continued. “You can take my old clothing. I’ve… I’ve been trying to get rid of them.” Andriet tried to give a dismissive shrug despite his somber expression.
Alia remained quiet. She watched him closely as he moved casually to the small closet.
“My mother made these when I young, trying to get used to suddenly towering over the other children.” He pulled out more stuff than Alia thought the closet could hold. “They’ll be a little… short but it’ll do until Ki can make you a better dress.”
Andriet suddenly fell silent, pausing for such a long time Alia thought he’d reconsidered.
“This is fine! Really!” She tried ignoring the fact that her gown was so dirty its original dark green color had been long hidden and holes were patched when she could scrounge together the material.
Andriet squared his shoulders. “I never really got to wear these. The Ghosts took our town.” He turned with a pair of dresses over his arms.
In some stories the Ghosts were a group of spirits that wandered the wilds, seeking to avenge a city lost to time. In others, they left the wilds on a whim to roam the surrounding lands as corporeal spirits; rushing over cities and villages like a flood and leaving little behind.
When Andriet spoke again, it was more to himself than Alia. “One for every day, the other for celebrations.”
“I’m, so sorry.”
“I don’t know who made it or who didn’t.” A sad smile crossed his face, but he didn’t meet her gaze. “There’s a part of me that still hopes I’ll meet my parents again.”
Homesickness and disappointment warred within Alia. Her parents were safe, of that she was sure. Her mother was born into one of the wealthiest trading families. They lacked for nothing. “They wanted to use me. Just as Raffi does.” Alia stared down into the empty bowl, almost forgetting Andriet was still in the room until he gently laid the dresses on the bed. The ends would barely pass her knees and the sleeves would need to be cut off entirely. Guilt flooded Alia at the thought.
“Raffi’s the one after you?”
“He’s after Ki.” She barely suppressed the trembling threatening to overwhelm her. “If he suspects I warned you he’ll kill me.” Her voice was a harsh whisper.
Andriet only folded his arms and let out a snort. “Let him come. We’ve dealt with his kind before.”
At that moment the door opened and Ki stuck their head in. “Is she awake — Ah, there we go.” Then they noticed Andriet’s expression, growing serious. “What’s happened?”
“Someone’s after you, again.”
Ki sighed and rubbed his head as if being hunted for his powers was just another frustration to deal with. “When will they get here?”
Alia was incredulous. “But there are only two of you. You’ll be overrun!”
Ki came close enough to lay a comforting hand on Alia’s shoulder, but quickly stepped back to give her space. “We’ll be okay.”
“I’ll protect you. As usual.” Andriet rolled his eyes but a smirk tugged at his lips.
Alia looked desperately between them before finally saying, “Nightfall. Raffi has a band of twenty and they will enter the city as soon as the sun sets.”
“He’d never get that many people in without….” Andriet looked Alia over again. He sat on the stool again, his voice weary. “Who are you?”
Ki shot him a warning glare but Andriet ignored them.
So Alia told them of how she’d been used; what Raffi planned for Ki. He was prepared for a harder fight. He had a enspelled brand crafted that would bind Ki’s will and tie their spirits together. For the first time Ki looked worried but if he was panicked, he hid it well.
Andriet stood abruptly and strode from the room.
Ki gave a heavy sigh, looking towards the window. A breeze swirled around the room. They cocked their head. When the wind finally died down Ki said, “We’ll be ready.”
This is the second story in my collaborative fiction project Worlds of Zumeria. You can read the first story, Twin Fates, here. Anyone can participate and use whatever medium or language they’re most comfortable with. Just read the “rules” at the end of the post and use the hashtag #worldsofzumeria so everyone can find your work.