Six-year-old Dritta ran around the camp laying flowers before Yosef and Talieh, as was her duty as Talieh’s flower girl. On the day of your wedding, your feet should not touch the ground, or so the idea went. Yosef noticed they touched plenty of ground as they made their way from Drogla wagon to Drogla, ceremonially announcing their wedding to each family and explaining that the ceremony would take place at high C’iel under the Fareval canopy erected for their nuptials. Everyone already knew they were marrying today and could plainly see the canopy in the center of camp. Yosef chuckled to himself as he thought everyone had known they would marry for the last 10 years, or since they were as old as little Dritta.
Yosef thought about Talieh’s flower girl and watched her frolic and dance before them wherever they went. She was doing well as a flower girl. He had never seen better.
He thought back to earlier this morning as Talieh had bent down to give Dritta this solemn honor.
“Dritta,” Talieh said, “today Yosef and I are getting married. Your job, my Little Sister, is to spread flowers before us and sow cheer throughout the day with dance and song. Now go.”
“Little Sister” was one of the dearest nicknames one could give a girl who was not, in fact, your sister. Dritta swelled upon hearing it as if she had been cooked and plumped. She took to her duties with a fire to match the heat of this fine summer day.
While she and Talieh were not sisters, that is to say, they did not live in the same Drogla or wagon, they were growing as close as. Dritta had taken a liking to Talieh two winters ago and Talieh would have no one else to be her herald throughout their Fareval celebration.
For the last year and two seasons, Dritta was at Talieh and her father’s wagon as much as her own. Dritta’s mother didn’t mind. She had taken to calling her Talieh’s shadow in teasing. As Yosef was constantly around, he saw her as often as he saw Talieh. Yet, far from being annoyed by the girl, Yosef found it comforting to watch Talieh with a small one. Humans rarely bore children of their own, true, but to them, the caravan was their family and each one in it their brother, sister, father, or mother. One day Yosef and Talieh too would be given care of a child, Beryl willing.
As the hot day wore on, the endless rituals of the Fareval exhausted Yosef. As the various meals and customary visits were completed, Talieh and Yosef were showered with gifts. Most of these were made from the land around them, but some were heirlooms from other families, some were good luck tokens, and some were utilitarian items for their own newly established Drogla.
Yosef was very much relieved when night fell and the last ceremonial fire was lit, encouraging friends and family to come up and share their history about the bride or the groom.
Of course, Talieh’s Papa started the toasts, as was tradition. He walked with a stick and stumped up the stairs of the Drogla that was acting as center stage for the festivities. He stood for a moment. The crowd naturally silenced, and he smiled in appreciation, “As you all know, I am not one of you.”
To this, there was instant hissing and Djivan Tosks called out, “You are one of us, Papa, you were just lost for a while!”
Everyone laughed and Papa laughed, too. “Perhaps, Perhaps. But I am Saravedaz, there is no denying that. I came to you with my Talieh and I have never regretted that decision for one instant. I will keep this short so that I do not embarrass myself or you, but I have some words for Yosef. My new son, Talieh may seem like a soft breeze through the trees, but she does have a storm inside her. Watch out for those. Bar up your Drogla if you see that storm coming.”
The gathering laughed and made ominous warning sounds.
“I will say this, also, with all of you as my witness. I stood by my daughter 16 years ago and I will stand by her 16 years from now or 60. That pledge now includes you, Yosef, as I give you her hand.” He did not wait for applause ,but immediately started down the steps to sit.
There was clapping and cheering as Papa left the stairs and a clamoring of people to replace him and speak their peace.
All had good things to say, although with the wine and liquor pouring, the toasts were getting more ribald as the evening wore on. Music played after each toast to cue the crowd as much as the next speaker.
Finally, the twin brothers Nuzi and Nicu, staggered to the wagon steps. Nuzi clapped to call attention, and the musicians slowed their bows, breath and fingers as all eyes looked up at the brothers with their goblets raised.
Nuzi spoke first, being the oldest by three minutes, or so he was told, “Tonight we are gathered to celebrate the union of Talieh and Yosef. And I’d like to talk about our Yosef for a moment.”
“Yes,” Nicu chimed in, “because tonight is the last time he’ll ever be the center of attention and this will pain him greatly!”
Laughter and jeering fanned the flames of the brothers and they continued, emboldened.
Nuzi yelled out, the slur in his words barely perceptible, “As the son of Abraam, our own Caravan Master, Yosef is very talented. Very talented indeed. He’s a gifted swordsman, an excellent camp finder, he has good instincts, and he is a regular champion at the games of Grestaval.”
Nicu blared in, “He is so talented, in fact, that he can fake all of that and make you believe him!”
More roars of laughter and high cat calls.
Nuzi smiled and the liquor took him to a place of genuine love and solemnity, bordering on tears. “But more than any of that, he is the luckiest son of a Sari we’ve ever met. And, there is no more proof needed than to look at his beautiful bride, Talieh.”
Nicu had the final say, of course, rising to the top step as Nuzi, stepped down, “And I will list the rest of Yosef’s fine qualities before we sit down.” Nicu stood there, looking the very image of poetic tribute for a heartbeat. “That about covers it.” He hopped down the steps to the sound of gradually building laughter as the crowd slowly understood his clever barb.
Yosef shook his head and grinned despite himself. The twins were as good of friends as one could ask for and the teasing was funny, he had to admit. Talieh clearly did not have to admit it. She clinched his hand tightly, not amused by the idiot brothers’, as she often called them, and their so called tribute. A sudden gust of wind whirled up behind the twins as they stepped down. Nicu tripped with the extra push at his back, falling onto Nuzi’s back, mounting him like a drunken horse and rider. Nuzi, stunned and off balance, spun and fell forward, landing them both in the dirt.
The gathering erupted into guffaws of laughter and some even clapped.
Talieh’s hand loosened on his to a loving caress and a small crooked smile found her generous mouth.
He knew she had done it. He knew most her tricks by now. Or did he? Looking at Talieh, Yosef flushed with excitement at her pure beauty and felt sudden anxiety at the realization that she was now his bride. Bride! By the blood, veins, bones and eyes of Azreal, he had married Talieh and she was now a … what? A druidess?! He wasn’t even sure he knew what that was, exactly.
Yosef shrugged. That didn’t matter. None of it mattered. They knew they had been meant for each other since they both could remember. Their childhoods were filled with stories beyond counting of the two of them. All the children of the caravan, of a certain age, were family by association, if rarely by blood and different groups would form and mingle as the children grew. Yosef and Talieh were always in the same gangs and always together. They were more like right and left feet. There was never one without the other if they were going somewhere.
The feast of their Fareval celebration honoring their marriage and the acceptance of their own wagon, the first Drogla, was one that the entire caravan had looked forward to for years. The last two years were frustrating for the caravan as they waiting for the bride-price to be paid by Abraam. After all, Yosef and Talieh were sixteen. Plenty old enough to get married. In fact, people had started worrying that they did not. Many of their cousins were married at fifteen and even fourteen. Past seventeen was a scandal if the girl was pretty and not an imbecile.
Talieh was definitely the first, anything but the second, and her reasons for delaying their wedding were well known. Talieh had just finished training as the first druid initiate in the Drogla that anyone could remember.
While Talieh had been busy with her studies, meditations and practice, Yosef was grinding out the duties and responsibilities of a promising Apprentice Caravan Master. His father was the current Caravan Master, and passing the post from father to son was not unusual. Yosef thought of this as his opportunity for something more and he didn’t want to miss this chance or any other, for that matter.
The Gyinatay, or The Travelers, as the ‘enlightened’ races of the world called the People, were the cast offs, the embarrassments, the broken vows, or broken hearts of two Sari from different castes who, for whatever reason, had coupled and produced an abomination, a living mistake, a human being.
This is how the world saw them and so, after so many uncounted years, it was how they often saw themselves. Even ‘abominations’ feel love, however, and so too did each Gyinatay for their Drogla-family, caravan and, indeed, their People’s history and heritage. And they were a People, despite their various birth parents. Being cast off was being brought into the fold, not thrown out. Truthfully, wasn’t it more merciful to put the inferior humans together to scrabble whatever living they could rather than inevitably suffer at the feet of their betters?
These were the lesson emblazoned on Yosef from his father, mother, and from the elders in the caravan. It all made him burn with rage and a shame that he felt he did not deserve to bear. This fire was stoked hotter by the meager means on which his people lived. Pain is the well of humor, some say, and so it was with Yosef. While his spirit glowed hot with the injustices done to his race, that fire brought warmth to those around him. He was always quick with a joke, a smile, or an embrace. Yosef stalked the caravan looking for ways to help any of the family, or for chores that needed doing or for wrongs that needed righting. His outrage was securely chained behind a fence of charm and laughter, and to the caravan, he was a good boy upon whom they rely. While he did not have the presence of his father or the gravitas of a Caravan Master quite yet, he did what he could to make the lives in the caravan more bearable, even as he sought the drought that would quench his own heartburn about the unfairness of it all.
Yosef was an endless source of exuberance for his people, as if he could keep from burning up through constant action. This was one of the reasons for his passion for his father’s work, his diligence to memorize even the most minute caravan paths on their maps, his obsession regarding the qualities of horseflesh they bought, his detail in learning the trade languages of Illantum, and the enthusiasm with which he did most everything. As his father’s apprentice, it was his charge to find defensible campsites for the night, make sure there was wild game for the stew pots, and generally secure the next sunrise for his race, or so he felt. He did it with a pride and a panache that filled the people’s hearts with cheer. This he also learned from his father, who was the most beloved Caravan Master of recent memory.
This fire inside Yosef burned hottest in sword and whip practice. He could wield both weapons at once which was difficult in the extreme. In battle drills, Yosef was able to open the furnace of his fury and burn as hot as the eye of C’iel. The hotter he burned, the more he forgot about his anger. Combat became a joyous release for him. He would often find himself laughing in the midst of back breaking sword forms and combat drills and even more so if he were hit too hard as the students often were in practice. The teachers wanted them to know the pain of combat, not just the dance.
The only thing that made his heart beat faster than sword and whip was beautiful Talieh. He had memorized her every feature to such an extent that it was as familiar as his own. Her eyes, one sky blue and the other radiant amber, were the sun and the moon to his heart. He woke to her greeting in the yard every morning and went to sleep with her memory shining down on him every night. In between, when they were together, they both burned hotter. If he was hot flame, she was directing wind. Together, he knew, they could burn up the world.
Often times, when Sari of different elements conceive a child, The Travelers are the beneficiaries. The Sari are usually all too happy to part with the aftermath of their indiscretions as there is no respectable place for humans among the civilized lands. Talieh took this as it was. Fact and nothing to be done about it, she thought, when she thought of it, at all.
Talieh and Yosef were destined for each other in many ways. For one, both born from the union of a fiery Sarikitig and a free spirited Sarivedaz. Yosef only knew of his parents from his father who met them as they gave the baby away. Abraam did not talk about it but the silences, when the subject did come up, spoke volumes to Talieh. To the best of her ability, Talieh figured his parents were all to glad to be rid of him and it made her heart hurt as she knew he thought the same. Yosef had narrated various fanciful versions of his abandonment to her and she also watched sympathetically as it eroded his usually façade and left him in clenched fists angry tears. This made her love him all the more. No one saw that side of him. Only her. She kept his secrets as he kept hers. He did not think about it often but, sometimes, when they would walk in the woods to the glow of a Shard of Sartite and look up at the dim, yellow eye of Gaira, it would creep up on him like an assassin and cruelly slit the psychic straps of his mask, leaving her to watch his abandonment and sadness bleed out on his face.
Talieh’s experience could not have been more different and for one very critical reason. Her father has done the unthinkable. He gave up his life to come with her. She had never not known the story of her birth. Papa recited it often and fondly. She would tell it to Yosef as a balm to heal the angry wounds of his own imagined desertion.
Talieh had come into this world with a smile on her face. She was placed in her mother’s arms for mere seconds before she was rushed away. Before they could take her, she kissed Talieh’s sweet head and whispered, “May peace be with you, Talieh, and may you be the bearer of peace to your people.”
Papa never let her forget her mother. When he spoke about her, he was young again, laughing and still madly in love with the mother she would never know. Still, she felt like she knew her. Through his stories of their time together. She imagined she knew her and loved her and that was enough.
On Talieh’s wedding eve, Papa hugged her tight and whispered in her ear, “She loves you, Talieh. I love you. And I will be with you for both of us.”
Their bodies and minds were as different as their births, and many claimed they were perfect compliments to one another. Talieh stood 5’ 6” with a slight frame and long, wavy chestnut hair. She would be just a pretty girl were it not for her exquisite eyes. By the time she reached three months, her right eye had darkened to a golden brown with flecks of orange, while her left eye turned to an icy blue. They remained that way her whole life.
Yosef was taller by six inches and had a lean body that belied his strength. His greatest assets were his reflexes and coordination. He could do amazing twists and turns in the air and across the ground and he used these often in his sword forms. His body was well muscled and fairly twitched with constant movement, like a hawk threatening to take to wing. His hair was a reddish blonde compared to her darker, and his skin paler in contrast to Talieh’s bronze complexion.
It was obvious to many in the caravan that there was something special about Talieh. The elders watched her carefully as she grew and played among the wagons. When she came of age, Talieh learned she could make the winds come and blow at her asking. Papa could do similar things and helped her train this small talent. When the elders discovered this, it was agreed with Papa that she would learn The Craft. Only those with obvious gifts were allowed to study with the secretive Gyinatay-witches and the process was kept discreet. No one who was not in training knew who the witches were, although some claimed to know. The source of the Gyinatay magical teachings was a deep secret that was jealously guarded.
Talieh entered formal study with the witches when she was 13 years. As they began teaching her the basics of The Craft, it was obvious that Talieh had a natural affinity for animals and the land. They started her with a spell that was in alignment with her strengths. It was a ritual to call out to a natural spirit to be, what the witches called, ‘a familiar.’ To her frustration, Talieh was only a fair student of magic theory. Conjuring the wind was a feeling or a … conversation … with an unnamed force that had been a part of her her entire life and magic was work! Despite that, she took to the animal spirit ritual with delight. Practicing magic took Sartite which was precious, but she was allowed just enough to complete her final test. The Gyinatay-witches called it a 14th birthday present. Her spirit came to her and coalesced into a snowy owl. She was thrilled. It wasn’t a day later when the spell also summoned something else.
As the women were waking up in the early dawn to stoke the fires to life and prepare the men’s breakfast and pipes, a small child, dressed in elaborate and garish clothing, walked into camp. The guard dogs were not barking. In fact, they were lolling their tongues at her heels.
The women look at the child, who wore an innocent smile, and she waved at them. She made her way through the camp as if listening to a song and trying to find the singer. Slowly, she made her way to Talieh.
Talieh looked at her and smiled.
Without pretense, she said, “You have to learn the ways of the Lidani, child.”
Talieh was taken aback but fascinated. Papa was less than pleased and he leapt to insert himself between Talieh and the girl. At the sound of Papa raising his voice, Yosef spilled out of his father’s wagon and staggered toward them, sword in hand and sleep in his eyes.
The small girl began to laugh with full throated howls of delight. “Oh, I forget how adorably you Gyinatay protect your young. It is beautiful to see but I bring no danger. In fact, she brought me here,” she said, pointing at Talieh.
As the conversation progressed, more Gyinatay gathered round. The little girl wasn’t a girl at all, but one of the immortal Lidani Thola, the caretakers of the land and the creatures that inhabit them. Eventually, the elders announced the Lidani as a guest and food, shade and water were brought to her.
The caravan gathered to hear the Lidani’s tale as if she were a famous bard. She told them simply that Talieh called to the land and the land replied with her presence. Her name was unpronounceable in the human tongue but they could all call her Peaseblossom.
Talieh blushed to the roots of her hair as everyone stared at her as if she were a stranger. It was that moment, of course, that her owl chose to come and land on her arm, as if announcing her status as something else now. She was not just another member of the family anymore.
Peaseblossom stayed with the caravan for over a year teaching Talieh about the natural order of things, and the balance of Illantum. Peaseblossom taught her that the Sari were once united, and their fracture has left the natural world in disarray. Humans were a part of that natural order too, and needed to regain their place in it. Eventually. She talked about microcosms and macrocosms, and how the ecosystem of an ailing copse of trees reflected the wellness of the entire forest. And she taught Talieh the ways of the druids and how to speak to the land and the elements. Talieh discovered she had been doing this already in a crude way, like a child cries for milk. Peaseblossom taught her the full language of the land and the ways of Rafael, the patron of the earth, sky and water.
As Talieh spent more time in the wilds, she began to see the connect of all things. She learned that nature was full of portents and signs that reverberated through the state of everything. As opposed to the perfection of the natural world, she began to see the discrimination and hatred that infected the mortal races and how it offended the natural order. Sadly, she began to sense how the natural order was out of balance and that things were not right in the world.
Then, one day, as simply as she appeared, Peaseblossom was gone without a word, leaving Talieh to determine her own path.
The attack came at night. Yosef’s eyes flew open as a scream was cut short from across the camp. Furtive movement rustled outside the Drogla and hoarse whispers came in through the wagon’s front. He heard an ever so slight rattle at their door. Yosef and Talieh had been in the habit of barring their door at night. As newlyweds, they wanted the illusion of uninterrupted privacy even if they were next to the other Droglas. The Gyinatay did not lock their wagons at night. The dogs in the camp would warn of any intrusion bigger than a fox, but there were no dog barks tonight. No sounds at all.
He shook Talieh awake with a gentle finger to her lips. She woke startled. He whispered in her ear. “Something is happening. Prepare yourself.”
Quiet as rabbits, Yosef and Talieh rose and quickly pulled on their discarded clothes. Yosef grabbed his weapon’s belt and Talieh took her scimitar. Their door rattled once more, then was silent. There were other sounds in the camp, other wagons in danger! Yosef cursed his sleepy reflexes for being so slow.
He turned to Talieh, “Follow close and do … what you must.” He knew she had power and he hoped she had not exhausted it all during the day’s chores.
Talieh put out an arm and said, “Wait.”
She closed her eyes and cocked her head. Yosef knew what she was doing. Her owl was outside and the link between them let her see through his eyes and hear through his ears.
“There is one outside, walking away from our wagon,” she whispered.
Slipping the bar as quietly as he could, Yosef held the door in a tight grip to keep it from squeaking. As the door opened, he saw dull motes of Sartite glowing in the hands of men carefully creeping through the camp approaching all the Droglas.
Yosef moved up behind the one Talieh had seen. He was standing looking around the camp and completely unaware of him. Yosef slid his sword through the man’s liver. He collapsed instantly. He might live but he was not doing anything more tonight. Unfortunately, the assassin managed to let out a sharp cry from the ground. Every Sartite mote stopped moving.
“Well, so much for a stealthy victory,” he said loudly, “To arms! To arms! Intruders in the camp! Wake up, goddesses blast you! To arms!” Yosef ran forward, in a low shuttle, toward the nearest of the thieves. Lamps flared and blazed through Drogla shutters, stout doors flew open, confused male voices grunted alarm, high pitched screams filled the black night and the wail of frightened children completed the horrible chorus.
The black night blossomed with white lights magically strung through the air on invisible strings. The witches, Yosef thought, and to confirm he heard Talieh behind him say, “That wasn’t me.”
The lights illuminating the wagon circle showed three hands of men with spears, scythes, hay forks, and whatever was handy, it appeared. This was not a fighting force but a lynching mob. With a sickening twist, Yosef stabbed one of the intruders through the vitals. As the man died on his sword, he came close to Yosef. This murderous mob was human. The furnace of his heart opened wide and fire choked his vision.
Theft was one thing but to execute a caravan of Gyinatay? They had done nothing to these men! Reason fled from from him as two stout men approached, weapons raised to fight.
Yosef took first stance and said, “How would you like to die? Throat slit or strike to the heart?” He punctuated with an exaggerated smile and cocked brow. The two men slowed, giving Talieh time to summon a powerful wind that blew one of the pair backward. Yosef took the opening and leapt toward the other. The fight was short and ugly. Yosef parried a blow meant for his head. The force drew his weapon to the ground and pinned it there by the larger man who gave him a toothy smile of his own. Yosef nodded politely, as if saying well done, drew his second blade from behind him, and stabbed the grinning thief through the heart.
As he fell, Yosef remarked, “Wise choice. Throat slashes get on everything.” The other assassin picked up and ran for easier pickings or to get more friends.
Talieh hissed at Yosef, smacking him on the back of the head, “Stop trying to be funny and get in there!”
They both scanned the camp and moved cautiously. Neither had ever been in a real life or death battle before. Yosef recognized the same thrill he got in practice and it drew an excited grin to his face.
The camp was chaos. There were bodies on the ground. People they recognized the instant the saw them splayed out in their own blood and gore. Yosef’s thrill lasted but a moment as he saw to mutilated corpses. Nausea battled the fire burning through him, threatening to gutter it out. Then they saw Papa.
Talieh’s father didn’t seem the same man. He had his long staff in hand and his hands and feet were a blur of motion. Men ran at him with spears. He side stepped them, almost lazily, and planted fists in their faces, or feet in their bellies. Regardless of the choice, the assassins flew back as if hit with a forge hammer.
“Yosef! Here!” It was the voice of his father from across the camp. A bustling group had gathered and Abraam had four on him. Yosef and Talieh sprinted over. Without breaking stride, Yosef executed a deft somersault, crossing between two of their ranks. As he rolled up, he spun on a knee and thrust out at two of the men as he did. Abraam did not miss a beat. As Yosef’s distracting move did its job, two quick slashing cuts caught the other two, one across the neck, the other opening up a torso. The four men fell almost as one. Abraam and Yosef tapped swords with a grunt of satisfaction.
As the men fell, Talieh was revealed behind them. As she looked them over, relieved there were not injured, they looked behind her and saw a large man come out of the darkness with a raised cleaver.
“Talieh, behind you!” Yosef and Abraam cried together. Yosef dropped one sword and drew his whip.
Talieh spun, her hands already forming into the familiar shapes and her whispered words were pleading. This is how she had always brought the wind to aid her. The man was too close and coming too fast. As she glanced at Yosef, she could see it in his eyes. His whip drew back, almost in slow motion. He would be too late to save her.
In desperation, Talieh’s words spit out in frustration and anger. Her face twisted into a fierce snarl as her hands shot forward in defiance of the cleaver and the man. Fire, not wind, spit from her hands in a sputtering bolt. The bolt hit the thief square in the chest, surprising him as much as it had her. He scuttled to a stop as the fire burned away his shirt and chest hair. He stepped back, beating the flames and roaring in panic.
Yosef’s lash was late but true. The black leather shot out, whipping across the assassin’s face, spraying blood through the air. His roars turned to screams of anguish. In that heartbeat, her beloved leapt in front of her, stabbed the man through the heart. Talieh was glad the man was silenced. More to put him out of his misery than to end his life.
Yosef turned to her, almost casually, “That fire … that’s new?”
Talieh looked down at her hands, unmarked from the searing flame. Her mind started working and she looked around for another target, another test. The pale glow of Sartite marked a marauder chasing a wide eyed Mirella across the open field. Talieh thought about it happened. She performed the same gestures and spoke commandingly, demanding the flame come, instead of pleading, as she did with the wind. The flame darted from her outstretched fingers, streaked across the camp and struck the man in the side, sending him sprawling and lighting his dark cloak aflame.
She looked up at Yosef and smiled, “You like it?”
He grabbed her around the waist and pulled her close, “I love it.”
The three of them, Yosef, Talieh and Abraam moved through the camp toward Papa’s Drogla. He was holding his own but the fists were not blurs anymore and the feet were firmly planted. Fire flew from her hands with amazing accuracy, striking the assassins as Yosef and Abraam fought any who came too near. She saw no other magic flaring from the witch’s wagon. Only the open door. She feared the worse but they moved steadily toward Papa. The rest of the Gyinatay, men and women were fighting for their lives. Many lay moaning or still. The tide of the battle had turned, however, and it appeared the caravan, as a whole, would live to see another sunrise.
As the last of the thieves ran for the woods, families were running toward each other and embracing feverishly, parents checking their children for injury, children simply holding on as tight as they could. Relieved tears and confessions of love filled the camp.
As they approached Papa, he had trapped a marauder who hadn’t seen his companions flee. Papa looked up to see his daughter and an involuntary sigh of relief escaped him. In that moment, the thief scrambled out of his grasp. Desperate to escape, he backed right into little Dritta who was running toward Talieh, arms outstretched, tears running down her dirt streaked face. The thief turned, surprised and paused. In that moment, Talieh saw the decision before he made it.
“No,” Talieh said.
He grabbed Dritta and ran for the woods. Dritta was looking back at Talieh, her arms still out, screaming.
“No!” Talieh cried, her voice hoarse with terror.
The assassin was moving fast. He was almost at the tree line. She had one chance to save her. One.
“Please Rafael, please.” She lashed out hoping her fire could make him stumble or fall. Anything to slow him. The dart roared through the air, streaking true toward the kidnapper.
Looking over his shoulder, the thief’s eyes went wide. He spun, instinctively, throwing up Dritta between him and the flaming bolt.
Talieh’s fire struck Dritta dead center and engulfed the child in flame. Dritta went instantly limp and quiet.
“Nooooo!” Talieh’s cry was beyond anguish, beyond pain. She felt like she was on fire. Her knees buckled.
The assassin discarded Dritta’s burning body like a rag doll and disappeared into the dark woods.
Talieh rose and scrambled over to the burning child’s body.
“Noooo! Oh no, no, no, no. Please, nooooo….” Talieh fell over the small body and smothered the flames with her own, uncaring if the fire took her or not.
It didn’t matter. Dritta was dead. Burned by her fire. Killed by her hand. They saved the camp, but the victory was hollow. Yosef went to pull Talieh away as Dritta’s mother came forward. Talieh watched her and felt ill, lost, sick and unclean.
The mother was the soul of anguish as she ran toward her child. Her hands framed her face and trembling as she wailed like a lost banshee never to feel anything but this pain forever.
Talieh felt like her soul was consumed by the fire along with her little sister.
It hit her, again and again like a knife. Dritta was dead. Talieh had killed her. That it was an accident didn’t matter.
Yosef carried her back to their Drogla. She didn’t move or speak. He laid with her and held her. Sometime in early morning, cries burst out of her and wouldn’t stop. Awful cries. Ugly cries. Jagged things that took her breath. Yosef held onto her, smoothing her hair. She wailed until she slept.
In her prison of sleep, Talieh looked for something that had been taken. It was so special. She knew that it was gone forever but she couldn’t stop looking. As she searched, she realized without it, she would never be worthy of love or affection or anything but this pain. What was this pain?
When she woke, she felt numb, as if her soul had left her body. She looked up and saw Yosef watching her. Oh gods, the pain in his eyes. A pain that she was causing. She knew him better than he knew himself. He smiled warmly. He would hide his pain behind adoring smiles. He would feel selfish for feeling it when he could not even console his inconsolable wife. This too, was her vile work and she felt ashamed.
The Guruval, or the farewells to the departed, lasted a week. There were so many things to be done, Yosef was engulfed with the duties of his position. Abraam and Papa were among the few who did not lose a son or daughter and they took on making all the arrangements for Guruval. There were eighteen dead. Seventeen sons, husbands, wives and mothers. And one child. A large center pavilion was constructed, using the blankets, sheets and shawls of the departed. They would be burned afterwards, of course, in case the dead came back to claim their possessions.
The living walked through and cried with the dead, asking forgiveness for anything they might have done to them in life. The living kept a constant vigil over the bodies, lighting candles to keep them here while a contingent was sent to dig the many graves.
In the evening, Talieh worked up the courage to approach Dritta’s body. She would not talk but instead she sat in front of the sheet covering Dritta’s burned body and held the child’s cold hand, weeping softly. The bonfires kept the dead warm through the first night.
On day two, the dead were taken one by one, dressed in their finest attire and laid to rest. Favorite foods and special items that the dead had been fond of, in life, were placed with them to comfort them on their journey. The elders, those who were left, were asked to say a few words. The Gyinatay witches had been slain in the raid. This much Talieh knew. The only spell that was used in defense was illumination and that probably saved the entire family. In their absence, Talieh was asked to speak as a sort of clergy, but she deferred. How could she? She wasn’t worthy to be buried alive with them, much less speak to them. She wished they would bury her, beat her, burn her as she burned Dritta. They were crueller than that. They wrapped their arms around her and said they loved her and they were sorry. How could they bear to touch her? How could they stand to look at her? She could not be forgiven. She was lost, and the only consolation was hoping she could truly lose herself and never face their loving concern for her lost soul, if she even still had one.
The dirt was solemnly laid over the bodies. Those who could afford it, tossed in a Shard or a Thik to help pay the price of passing on the other side. Talieh had a few coins and considered shedding them, she would have given them all, but thought her Sartite would do more harm than good in the afterlife.
The rest of the Guruval was a grim affair. Never had the Gyinatay lost so many in one night. It was almost beyond belief. Families grieved and many went into the woods during the day to find what wild flowers there were. Soon the graves looked more like a flower garden. The families gathered to comfort one another and sing the favorite songs of those who passed on. The Guruval was a celebration and a good bye. The Gyinatay knew all too well that the spirits of those gone could return for a number of reasons. Even just saying their name and thinking of them was known to bring back ghosts. After Guruval, they would not be spoken of again.
Yosef arrived each night exhausted. He did not remember what relaxation felt like. When he entered the wagon at night, Talieh was there. Always there. She smiled and hugged him and he tried to make her laugh like she used to, but she just smiled weakly and told him she loved him. He never doubted that, no matter what. There love would be the last thing seared from their souls before their light was extinguished.
It was the last night of Guruval and the camp almost felt like it had. Almost. The songs were more dancing and less dirge. The soulful talks were becoming laughter and argument. Things would get back to normal for most of them.
Yet Yosef thought, maybe not for Talieh. It was a hurtful thought to his soul as much as hers. How could he think that? She would be fine, he said to himself, but he knew it to be a lie as he said it. With a cold wind that whipped through his chufa, he wondered if she would ever be fine.
The one thing he did know is, he would do anything for her and from that day, he pledged to bring her back. The journey might be long or short or never ending. It did not matter. All that mattered is that she laugh again and smack him again and live again. That was his great task and once Yosef took on a great task, he never quit until it was finished.
With that in place, he started to feel the heaviness of despair leave him. Talieh was hurt, that was true, but she would get better, because he had pledged to help her. With that in his mind, he kissed her forehead and headed out to check the fires.
When he stepped out of the wagon he heard a voice that struck him as somehow familiar, although it was a foreign voice. He walked to the center of the camp. The pavilion made of the dead’s belonging had been burned earlier that day and in the flickering light of the last of the bonfire stood a man. He was a fire Sarakitig, perhaps some sort of aristocrat by his manner, but there was something magnetic, even hopeful, about that voice. Maybe he could help Talieh. It made Yosef laugh that he might turn to an outside, a noble born Sarakitig even, to help Talieh. That didn’t matter. In fact, when it came to Talieh, there was nothing he wouldn’t do, no shame he wouldn’t bear, and no crime he would not commit if he could only bring her back to him.