Year 30 of King Rhiodri’s reign
K’vahl crept towards the edge of the cliff. His bare feet made no sound in the darkness. Below him, the great road was alight with rows of torches set into the dirt at measured intervals. If K’vahl peered to the right or left, he would see the torchlights shrinking into pinpricks, converging together on the horizon. He could only imagine how the great road would look to an owl flying above: a long, sinuous, fire-lit road winding its way throughout the entirety of the kingdom; a major vein connecting all twenty domains to the King’s hilltop city.
Along the stretch of road beneath him, a caravan from the I’lon Domain bearing wool and sheep’s cheese had camped for the night, having fortified themselves against the malevolence of the night with blessed prayer sheets sewn outside their tents. Nocturnal fire-bearers paced along the perimeter of the road, tending to their fire and watching over the sleeping I’lon nobles and their entourage. One of the fire-bearers yawned and batted at a moth that had flown too close to his face. The moth evaded the hand and fluttered back to the fire, dancing around it in little loops.
Settling himself more comfortably on the stone ledge, K’vahl tried to imagine his oldest friend, Torc, sitting beside him in the dark. Recently, all he could conjure was an adolescent boy with butter-yellow hair cut across his forehead in a horrendous bowl shape. He had the common brown eyes of the lower folk and a habit of touching people too freely. But K’vahl could not remember his face.
Why do moths fly at night when they seem to love the light so? he asked the faceless boy beside him.
This again? The boy shrugged. Maybe the fire’s only pretty when it’s dark.
An older Torc waggled his brows suggestively across a bonfire where rabbit meat sizzled on a spit. Maybe the moth thinks the fire is an attractive lady-moth and he’s dancing his little courtship dance?
That’s absurd, K’vahl thought.
A movement in the shadows of the camp caught K’vahl’s attention. He leaned forward, the image of Torc dissipating, and counted the fire-bearers guarding the occupied stretch of road. All were accounted for. That meant the figure creeping in the dark was one of the Lost, like K’vahl. No one from the I’lon caravan would dare to leave the safety of their tents, not even to relieve themselves – they had bladder skins and chamber pots for that.
K’vahl watched with interest as the small, dark figure snuck past the wagonload of wool without taking anything from it. What kind of scavenger is this? The image of Torc snickered beside him. The figure seemed female; wearing a long, straight dress, the skirt hitched up in one hand at the front. When she passed by the wagon K’vahl knew contained basketfuls of cheese wrapped in oil-paper – they had distributed some of it to the fire-bearers several hours ago – without pausing to take any, K’vahl knew that something strange was at hand.
As soon as the woman disappeared into the treeline, K’vahl crept away from the cliff’s edge and made haste back down into the forest, his eyes adjusting immediately to seeing in the dark. She seemed to be heading in the direction of the stream. K’vahl needed to cut her off before she came too near his cave and decided that the spot was worth fighting him for. K’vahl had met desperate, nearly feral, Lost before and that easy slope towards savagery had seemed to touch all of their kind equally.
Leaping lightly over a root, K’vahl nearly stepped on a flower bearing six bulbous petals and a gourd-like center. He jerked back, heart skipping a beat, then continued on, giving the flower a wide berth.
Arriving on silent feet halfway between the stream and the road, the point where he had estimated she would be by now, K’vahl tried to listen for the stranger’s presence and found nothing. He stilled and listened again. There it was, coming from behind the trunk of the gigantic silverbark: a muffled tread, as if the stranger had bound their feet in furs turned inside out.
K’vahl inched towards the tree, considering again how he ought to greet the stranger. Perhaps a warning of his presence would be more considerate? He broke a twig under his bare heel as he rounded the tree trunk, the crack sounding loud in the forest. “I mean you no harm, friend,” he said.
A young girl looked up at him with large, vaguely curious eyes. A fox lay at her feet, its eyes closed. She was bent over something at the base of the tree. When she straightened to face him, K’vahl saw that her hands were filled with a bouquet of six-petaled flowers, the centers rising into a gourd-like shape.
K’vahl stumbled back in horror. “Drop it! Drop it!” he cried.
The girl jumped and flinched but did not drop the poisonous flowers. She stared back at him vacantly. The fox at her feet did not stir from its slumber.
K’vahl looked between the girl, the fox, and the flowers in her hand. “Let the flowers go, little lady,” he said finally, taking in her attire. She wore the ankle-length dress of highborn, unmarried women; the shoulders gathered together with gleaming metal clasps. She seemed to be about twelve or thirteen; young enough to be a child, but old enough to wear a woman’s garment. A thin wire of gold encircled one bare arm, the shade of it just barely visible to K’vahl’s adaptive sight. She was not one of the Lost, but an I’lon noble.
When she did not respond, he stepped closer tentatively. “May I have your name?” he said. A faint touch at his shoulder stopped K’vahl from advancing further. He turned and found the image of his grandfather standing at his elbow, tall and straight-backed, his dark beard streaked silver. It is better not to know her name, his grandfather said. You know well that there is nothing you can do for her. The poison spores have already infected her blood.
K’vahl stared at the girl as she turned around and began to pluck flowers once more. The fox at her feet had not moved an inch since K’vahl had come upon them. It is dead, was his first thought, then: it looks at peace. Beside him, a tree branch swayed in the mild breeze, the tip of it brushing his shoulder.
“What brings you here?” he asked, circling carefully around so that he was in her line of sight once more. “Will your family not come looking for you?”
She threw away a few withered flowers and moved to another spot.
“Are you not wary of the dark?” he asked again, not expecting an answer now, but he could not bring himself to leave. “The god of light is asleep; he cannot protect you from the spirits of the night. Or did your family not teach you such things?”
She paused and looked at him. “Will you harm me then, spirit?” she said
“What?” He stiffened.
She dropped her bundle of flowers and began to approach him. He backed away, step for step.
“Will you harm me, spirit?” she said again.
“I am no spirit,” he said, glancing back quickly to avoid tripping over a fallen branch.
“Are you not?” She looked him up and down, her eyes coming to life with a disconcerting mix of curiosity and delight.
K’vahl became conscious that he stood in a shaft of moonlight.
“You have one head, two arms, two legs, and your torso is very fine, however – “ She stopped abruptly and swayed.
“Sit down, little girl,” he said. “You must be tired.”
She sat down with a heavy thump, not once taking her eyes off of him. “However,” she repeated, “your hair shines white like an old man, even though the rest of you seems to be made of pretty youth.” She laughed suddenly behind her hand. “As pretty as the finest suitors my father can find!”
K’vahl felt torn between taking offense or being flattered. Pretty? “Did you have many suitors?” he asked.
“What brings you here, sir?” she said, echoing K’vahl’s earlier words. “It is dark. The god of light is asleep beyond the mountains.”
K’vahl stared at her for a long moment. Too many answers crowded his mind, waiting to be voiced. “I live in the dark,” he finally said. He swallowed, muscles tensing to run, but he stood where he was. “The god of light dislikes me.”
“Why would he?” she said. “I like you.” And then she could talk no more.
The image of Torc watched with him as she gasped soundlessly, opening her mouth like a caught fish thrown onto land. When she began to spasm, K’vahl turned and ran.
He jolted awake to the thunder of horse’s hooves outside his cave. The King’s Jackals? Heart racing, he scrambled off his bed of leaves to press an ear to the ground, the stone cool under his flushed skin. He closed his eyes and counted ten horses circling nearby. Ten meant a full company of vermin hunters combing the forest for signs of Lost. Why were they here now when they had just finished a routine check in K’vahl’s territory half a season ago and declared it clean?
You simply ran away last night without covering your tracks. Torc sat leaning against the cave wall across from him, one leg extended. I thought you were clever.
The I’lon girl! K’vahl thought. Her family must have gone in search of her around daybreak and found her body where K’vahl had left her. Some commoner versed in tracking game must have seen his tracks and known it for what it was. K’vahl had left foot marks instead of sandal marks; deeper imprints on the balls of the feet and a lack of stumbling must have indicated that he had been running and familiar with the lay of the land. Leaves and forest debris would have collected lightly on his tracks in the same amount they would have collected on the little girl’s body by the time they found her. Most of all, it would have been the lack of blood on his footprints that would have truly identified them as tracks made by one of the Lost. What other class of people developed calloused feet?
You should not have stayed to watch over a stranger’s death. His grandfather stood at the mouth of the cave, looking out at the rocks beyond. You would not have been so careless if you had not made yourself so distraught. You lost your head.
“There is no undoing what is done”, he muttered as he began to hear the soldiers themselves, exchanging muffled words to each other, getting closer and closer to his cave. He took up his only spear and rose to a crouch, listening intently. His heart slowed, and he took the long, steady breaths of a hunter. There was a reason he had chosen this shallow cave to spend the season in, beyond the comfort of being sheltered against wind, rain, and daylight in the lee of the jagged cliffside where thick moss grew in clumps and thorned vines partially covered the mouth.
The area used to be a channel where a small portion of the Kingsbath branched off westward into streams that eventually fed into a still existing pool underground that K’vahl had discovered some time ago. Now the channel was only filled with rocks and low-lying shrubbery, the incline towards the mouth of his cave descending steeply, filled with loose rocks of varying sizes. The treacherous footing meant that, should Jackals ever try to approach K’vahl in his home, they would be forced to dismount, tether their horses, and climb down slowly, leaving K’vahl enough time to scramble away through the rocks that he knew far better than they.
As long as they do not corner me in this deathtrap of a cave, he thought. Or let arrows fly from the high ground above. But Jackals never used bows, preferring the glamour of swords to utilizing a Commoner’s hunting tools. So here I am, awaiting the Jackals in what ought to be the least defensible place. All possible because they disdained the bow. K’vahl quirked his lips, feeling a strange humour take hold of him.
Of course, all strategy would be moot if they never climbed down into the dried channel to investigate. But from the way the hoofbeats had just fallen silent, K’vahl knew they were about to do so, leaving, if they had enough sense to think of it, at least one man mounted and ready to pursue. One man, he thought, hefting his spear and inching closer to the mouth of the cave, I can halt with a well-aimed throw.
And then he was staring into the eyes of a four-legged creature, its shape dark against the daylight outside. It seemed like the common fennec fox, with the same long, thin face, and dark, liquid eyes, but shorter of ear, and much, much larger. It stood at a height with K’vahl’s face as he crouched there, frozen in shock. A jackal. The King’s Jackals, employing their namesake to scent out the game the way commoners trained their foxes to do! He nearly choked on the hysterical laugh that bubbled up from his chest.
Blocking his only way out of the cave, the brindled animal opened its snout, seeming to smile at him, a long pink tongue lolling out briefly before it threw its head back and let out a high, whining call that sounded like a bard’s broken reed flute.
K’vahl broke out of his daze at the sound and rushed it, spear in hand, the shock and terror of being caught unawares flooding out all his previous calm. It snapped at him with long, sharp teeth, but K’vahl’s spear was already buried in its side, the force of his thrust propelling the jackal past the cave’s mouth.
Shouts rose up. K’vahl stared at his empty hand, realizing that he had gripped his spear like a dagger, all training forgotten, and lost his only weapon that way. Through the curtain of thorned vines, K’vahl saw the men of the company converging in haste towards his cave. For a moment he felt despair overtake him. With surprise on his side, he could have taken on a single man on a horse with a thrown spear, or two in close quarters. But all of them?
Do you see that space between you and them? Torc whispered in his ear. The image raised a brown-skinned hand to point outside. Nine Jackals advanced across the rocks towards K’vahl, clad in leather armor, naked swords gleaming in their hands. Two were closer than the others, converging on the cave mouth from either side. That space means. . .
I can still run! K’vahl thought as he burst out into blinding daylight with a shout. Let them chase this hare!
ELAINE LAY is a first-generation Canadian with a Filipino and Chinese background. She is studying Creative Writing at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, BC. and holds a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Dalhousie University. Her work has been published in Ricepaper Magazine and The Navigator. She is a recipient of the 2015 Arts Achievement Award, hosted by the Nanaimo Arts Council.