Kirea burst from the treeline laughing, her eyes burning with the brightness of the midday sun. She glanced back at the sound of rustling leaves and snapping branches, then laughed again at the sight of Tulio fighting his way through the undergrowth to reach her.
‘You’ll never catch the Lady Tayla,’ she told him gleefully, waving her wooden sword over her head. ‘The first sword of Jova bends the knee to no man!’
‘You’ll bend the knee to me!’ Finally breaking free from the undergrowth, Tulio staggered forward, one hand shielding his eyes from the sun, the other bringing his own wooden sword to bear. Kirea only grinned. Big and strong as her brother was – and he was big and strong, a true Danaran as the saying went – Kirea was faster. A little closer this time, she thought. So he can almost touch you… then run!
Yet, before he could close the gap at all, Tulio staggered to a halt, his soft blue eyes gazing past Kirea and into the distance.
‘I’m not falling for that!’ she snorted with laughter. She expected him to come on then, to drop the ruse and charge at her, but he never. He just stood there staring. ‘What is it?’ Kirea turned to see what he was looking at, still half expecting him to attack.
Then she saw them too, down from their high vantage point in the hills near the banks of the Rubicon, out over the fields of wheat and barley. Three riders were moving along the gravel path towards the farmstead their father had built.
Two were young and pretty, their long flaxen hair and flowing white robes rippling out behind them, caught high in the cool morning breeze. They rode stallions of pure black, trotting gracefully down the path. The other was old and hunched, the hood of her grey robes drawn up, riding a donkey half the size of her companions’ mounts.
Tulio grabbed Kirea’s shirt and dragged her back to the tree line, where he fell with her into the underbrush. Kirea hit his arm away, freeing herself from his grip, face flushed with anger. ‘What are you doing?’
‘They’re here for you,’ hissed Tulio, scuttling back to the edge of the woods so he could look down at the distant riders. ‘Don’t let them see you.’
‘What are you talking about? Why would they want me?’
‘They’re from the Temple of Osisi,’ said Tulio, as though that answered everything. ‘That’s Mother Blessing down there. The old one, in the middle.’
Crawling on her hands and knees, Kirea joined her brother at the forest edge, where they gazed out from their hiding place in the shadows of the trees, down over the fields, and watched the three riders draw rein outside the farmhouse.
‘Who is she?’ Kirea heard herself whisper.
‘She leads the temple at Mount Dana.’ Tulio paused for a moment, frowning. ‘Though she may as well be Osisi herself, for how much weight her words carry.’
‘What does she want with me?’
As they watched, the door to the farmhouse swung open and their father stepped out into the sunlight. He was an impressive figure, tall and broad shouldered, and he stepped before the riders with his chin held high. Then, in the shadows of the doorway, a glimpse of their mother. Even at such a distance, Kirea thought she could see tears down there.
‘Tulio?’ she asked, suddenly terrified. ‘What does she want?’
‘They were girls too once,’ said Tulio, nodding at the flaxen-haired riders. ‘Until, I suppose, the day Mother Blessing rode down to their home. That’s what she wants, little sister: new daughters of Osisi. I’m safe, as are the twins. They have no interest in boys. We’re meant for wielding the sword and nothing more. And little Ria can barely crawl yet.’ His gaze met Kirea’s and he shrugged apologetically. ‘That leaves you.’
‘That’s stupid.’ Kirea shook her head at the nonsense of it. I can wield a sword as good as any of you! Better even!’
‘You don’t have to tell me,’ said Tulio, rubbing at his bruised arm. ‘But those are the laws of Osisi, Kirea. The men fight, while the women create. You heal, and you birth, and…’ he nodded again toward the riders, ‘…serve.’
‘No,’ Kirea said simply. ‘I’ll not serve. Father won’t let them…’
…take me, she was going to say, but her voice trailed off. Far below, Cordus Redhand was pointing toward the hills, to the very trees where his children were hiding. The three riders turned their heads in Kirea’s direction and she threw herself backwards, as though the old woman’s gaze might burn her if it touched.
Tulio shook his head sadly. ‘It’s the law, Ki. No one can fight it, not even papa. Now run!’ he urged, waving her away. ‘I’ll do what I can to slow them.’
Kirea gazed into his eyes searchingly, fear starting to gnaw at her. ‘You’re not making fun of me, are you, Tul?’
Tulio looked wounded at the suggestion. ‘Not in this. Never in this. Please, Kirea… run. Head to the moon cave. Hopefully, they’ll give up when they cant’ find you. Then maybe they’ll go find some other poor wretch. Now run!’
The urgency in that last plea pushed Kirea over the edge. Surging to her feet, she turned on her heels and fled.
Why are you running, she asked herself? Papa would never let them take you.
But Tulio was right. Cordus Redhand was one of the last remaining true Danarans; a man who had earned his sword the old way, back before the Lucian Empire changed it all. He had even fought the Lucians on the walls of Danara, the day the Unbreakable fell. By rights, he should have died on those walls, fighting side by side with his king. Instead, he had survived, a relic of a golden time, weighed down by thoughts of duty and honour and glory…
Kirea sighed. If anyone was going to obey the laws of the old gods, it was her papa.
And so she ran. She ran as fast as her legs could carry her, ducking and weaving through the trees, wincing as branches clawed at her face.
The woods hid a steep incline up the flanks of the Ederran Mountains, and in some places Kirea found herself on hands and knees as she climbed, scrabbling through scree and rock slide. She knew the mountainside better than most, and she followed the deer trails and ancient paths that wound their way upwards, knowing it would build her distance quickly.
The moon cave lay on the other side of the mountains, overlooking the deep sapphire blue expanse of the Glass Sea. Small and well hidden, you could only reach it through a narrow fissure in the rock, which even Kirea struggled to squeeze through. Inside, the cave itself was round and domed, carved out by a waterfall that once seeped in through an opening in the rock high above. Though the falls had long since ran their course, you could still hear water trickling down from somewhere, could still feel the dampness in the rock. By day, sunlight poured in through the opening above, cutting through the darkness like a blade of light. And by night, at the right time and the right angle, you could watch the moon drift across the window above, like a silver ship sailing on an ocean of shadow.
Kirea could see the cave in her mind’s eye, the slick walls glistening in the shaft of sunlight, the cool air taking the edge off the heat outside. Her secret place, shared only with Tulio. I’ll be safe there, she thought. So long as I can make it…
Then her foot snagged on a tree root and she stumbled. She stayed on her feet for a few more strides, before she finally toppled, sprawling face first in the dirt. Kirea bit her tongue against the pain, refusing to cry out, even when she saw how grazed her hands and knees were, the blood and flapping skin followed by a wave of flaming agony.
You are Danaran, she told herself, pushing the pain away. That’s what her father always said whenever she hurt herself. Rise again, girl. There is no better balm for wounds than the taste of glory. Not for a Danaran.
Pushing herself to her feet, Kirea brushed the dirt from her wounds as best she could, and a moment later she was running again. She would find glory in the moon cave, she knew, once she was safe from those who meant to take her.
By the time she crested the mountain’s western flank, Kirea’s legs were aching, her lungs fit to bursting, yet still she ran. The trees grew sparser as she climbed, the earth and undergrowth giving way to rock and gravel. And still she climbed.
She lost a sandal somewhere along the way, though she hadn’t felt the strap give way, nor the sandal fly off. It was only now, with jagged stones digging into her heels, that she realised. She winced and stumbled as a large piece of rock dug itself into her flesh, but she kept running. For one horrifying moment she thought about the trail of bloody footsteps left in her wake, and how easy they would be to follow. It doesn’t matter, she told herself firmly. Once I reach the moon cave, they’ll never…
A weight of force struck Kirea in the midriff, sweeping her from her feet. It sent her tumbling through the air, locked in the vice-like grip of two powerful arms. She landed heavily, air exploding from her lungs in a great whoosh, though it was her captor who took the brunt of the fall. They had spun in the air, turning just enough so that he landed on his back to spare her. And it was a he, Kirea could feel that in the power of his arms and the hardness of his heaving chest. More than that though, she could smell it. The musty odour of stale sweat and sawdust was powerfully familiar.
‘Papa?’ she asked.
Cordus Redhand lifted his daughter high enough from his chest so they were looking eye to eye. ‘Where are you going, child?’ he asked softly, his voice lacking the usual edge of steel.
‘They came for me, papa. I have to run.’
He smiled sadly. ‘You can’t run, Ki. Not from them.’
‘But… they want to take me!’
Pulling herself free from his grip, Kirea pushed herself to her feet. ‘You can’t let them,’ she told him, her own voice glinting with steel. Then she looked into his pale grey eyes and the fear returned, the steel wilting. ‘Please, papa.’
Reaching out, Cordus gently caressed Kirea’s face. ‘We are Danaran, my sweet. Father and daughter, aye, but Danaran first. When the goddess of war calls, we are the ones who answer. That is our duty. Do you understand?’
‘No,’ Kirea replied glumly. ‘I don’t care about the gods.’
Cordus smiled. ‘My sweet child! Nor do I.’ He pushed himself up from the floor until he knelt on one knee before Kirea, taking her hands in his. ‘When it comes to my little girl, I don’t give two shits about the gods.’ He brushed a tangle of hair back behind Kirea’s ear. ‘Some do though. Some love the gods more than they love their own family… and they would tear ours apart if we denied them what they want. Better to yield now than die fighting it. You’ll be safe at the temple. They’ll give you everything you need.’
There were tears in Kirea’s eyes. Rather than let them flow, she did what her father had taught. She wiped them away before he could see, swallowed down the emotions threatening to overwhelm her, and focused on the anger. Tears were weakness, she knew. And there was no place for weakness in Danara.
‘We never surrender,’ she told him, her voice unsteady despite her best efforts. ‘Danarans never surrender.’
‘Yet we do, child,’ said Cordus, his voice gentle. Taking Kirea by the shoulders, he fixed his gaze to hers. ‘You’re too young to remember it, but we bent the knee as soon as the city fell. That’s how we survived. We bent the knee and gave the Lucians everything they wanted. Now the gods are all that remain of the old ways, and if we fail to honour them… what makes us Danaran at all?’
Kirea said nothing. Young though she was, she knew the truth her father spoke. Danara had been a member of the Empire for no more than three years, yet Cordus spent most of his days ranting about the Danaran laws being written or overturned by their foreign overlords. Even the Earning, the process by which Danaran boys earned their sword along the road to manhood, was banned, deemed too violent for a civilised society. Those who had already earned their sword were stripped of the right to wear them, and even the army, once the pride of Pelonia’s city states, had been dismantled, so that only the royal guard remained.
For a race of soldiers, it was all too much to bear. Everything that made Danarans who they were was gone, save for the Temple of Osisi.
Swallowing hard, Kirea raised her chin and met her father’s gaze. ‘What must I do?’
Cordus’s face twisted strangely, caught somewhere between grief and pride. ‘Meet with her,’ he said. ‘Meet with Mother Blessing. Hear what she has to say. After that, if you still wish to stay here with us… well, I’ll tell her you’re staying. Will you do that, Ki?’
‘For you, papa,’ said Kirea, her heart breaking even as she spoke. ‘I’ll do it for you.’
© Anthony Mitchell 2019
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19th October 2019