Posted on February 15, 2005 by Monica Valentinelli
in a series written for Conspiracy of Shadows
Written by Monica Valentinelli
Eyes that once spoke compassion and love glinted like twin blades in the smoke-filled night. They called her a demon. Priests, she knew and trusted from her time waddling in the lush fields of the khanate, threw stones at her. Magickal symbols drawn in fertile soil surrounded her. She wasn’t sure if they were to protect her, or to protect the mob from her. For what? The color of her hair? She tried to move her head. It was once the color of the black stones on the bottom of the riverbed. Now it resembled the embers glowing brightly in the fire her clansmen encouraged to consume her. She stood against the warmth, and felt as it reached out to her stiffened body tied taught against a dead tree. Her arms were pinned to her chest, her clansmen afraid she had the dark Gift.
In the distance she heard thunder, and prayed to Sky Father to rescue her from this madness. She knew her lover would not come. The last words he had uttered to her as he lifted her body to the angry clan were words of a man who did not know himself. Her lover told her she no longer had a name. He would take that from her as she took his child from him.
The thundering was not far from her now. She dared not open her eyes, for fear the mob would lose control and stab them out. The noises around her quieted some. She heard a horse neighing bitterly.
“What say you? Why this odd behavior?” She heard his voice grow stronger, fighting against the one voice of her people. “Clan of the Summer Hare, why do you not prepare for your hunt tomorrow?”
The mob did not allow the noble man to speak. Instead, they spit at her and threw their judgment.
“She must die! She is evil!”
The man’s voice rumbled, threatening to crush all in its path. “Clan of the Summer Hare. Heed my voice. I am Malik of the Dawn, bahadur. You will cut this woman down or I will take her myself.”
The mob grew quiet. They knew the penalty was great for disobeying a noble man. Bahadurs did not commonly live or camp in this region of the khanate. Instead, they made their rounds reporting anything of note to the noyars. They were the eyes and ears of politics and war.
In the short silence, pregnant with fear and uncertainty, she felt brave enough to speak.
“My lord Malik of the Dawn, my name is Risla of the Hearth and I give you my life for your justice.”
While Risla dared not open her eyes to look her would-be rescuer in the face, she could hear the crowd shuffling to accommodate his approach to her.
“My lord Malik, I humbly beseech you do not set this woman free. She is a demon!”
Malik turned to the voice. “Who is it that spoke those words?”
Risla’s heart felt as if it were a heavy stone within her chest. She knew the voice that spoke.
“My lord Malik, I am Gavin the True. This,” he said pointing to Risla, “was my daughter.”
“Blood ties do not mean that your words speak truth. If you are truly her father then you of all people should not wish to see her tied to this dead thing.”
“I understand your confusion, my lord.” Her father hesitated, weighing his heavy words. “Let me speak plainly with you. Risla was with child, then…one day she was not. Her lover was of this clan, a thing forbidden by our peoples. He claimed Risla took the life inside of her, because she has power over such things. At first I did not believe him—”
Malik raised an eyebrow.
“—but her appearance has taken that of a demon. Her red hair hints of blood. Her lover took to an early hunt three nights ago. All that has been found is his bow and his tunic. And what’s more—”
It was Risla’s turn to speak. “I did not know he was dead,” she whispered, her voice growing stronger with anger. “Why did you not tell me, father?”
Her father refused to speak to her directly. Instead, he lowered to one knee.
“My lord Malik, I would surely burn in the next life for condemning my own daughter. But justice must be served, and I am only a hunter who knows the ways of the chase. I aim, and I catch. I can not catch slippery words.”
“This missing man, are you sure he is dead?”
“Yes, my lord. We of Clan of the Summer Hare would give up our life if we lost our bow. Our bows sing of the hunt. It is that giver which brings us life.”
“I see,” said Malik. “Then perhaps you could grant me the dead one’s name?”
“I would give it to you my lord, but our beliefs do not allow us to name the dead until they have finished being judged. To even utter his name would be to have power over the dead for a time. It would sway justice into the hands of the living. Hands that are not worthy, my lord. Not wise.”
Much to Gavin’s surprise, Malik patted him on the head. “Well spoken, Gavin. I wish my soldiers were as honest as you.” He turned to Risla. “What would you have me do, Risla of the Hearth?”
The crowd murmured. Risla could hear their whispering voices carry fear and excitement.
“May I open my eyes, my lord?”
Malik laughed. “Certainly one as slight as you can not be so fearsome tied to a dead tree. Go ahead and open them.”
Risla opened her eyes and looked into Malik.
“See? Was that not so bad, little one?”
Risla grimaced, confused by the comment for he was not that much older than her 16 seasons. But there were more important matters to attend to. To save her clansmen from their own shame for thinking they were skilled in reading signs that were beyond their understanding.
“I would have you exile me.”
“I agree that would be wise. What about your clansmen?”
“What do you mean?”
“The Narlacchi are accustomed to taking in outsiders. I have not yet heard of the Narlacchi casting out one of their own. No other clan will take you.”
Risla felt tears burning in her eyes. His words bored deep into the pit of her stomach. “I do not know what to say.”
Malik ignored her. He turned to face the villagers. While they did not deserve his pity, he gave it to them anyway. This was some madness that would cause them to forgo their hunt and exile one of their own. Whatever it was that afflicted these people, he hoped that Risla did not carry the disease as well. She was of better use to him alive, at the moment.
“Villagers of the Clan Naltar. This I, Lord Malik of the Dawn, decree. Risla of the Hearth is to be cut down. I will take her to whereabouts unknown. Gavin of the Dawn will lead in the mourning for Risla as if she were dead. On the night of the next full moon, this village shall be moved to a new location far from here. You shall travel many nights and many days. Should others question why you travel into their territory, Gavin of the Dawn will show them this ring that I am known for.”
Gavin dropped to the earth, wringing his hands. “You are just, my lord.”
Malik dropped his ring in front of him. “A metal thing in exchange for your daughter, Gavin. I hope she is well worth the trade.”
Risla’s tears dried up. Her life was no longer hers to command. Was she to be a slave? A woman of pleasure? A priestess?
“Cut her down.”
Risla felt soft hands untie and cut loose her knots. Other hands braced her from falling. Weak from the night’s events, she stood anyway. She was tired, and she was hungry. But Risla would walk from her village on her own, two legs.
Malik strode to her and lifted her into his arms.
“Time to go, little one. We’ve overstayed our welcome.”
His armour was rough against her milky-smooth skin. Malik’s horse walked over to him, unbidden, and nodded his grand head. He put Risla on the horse.
“Do you want to say goodbye to your father?”
“I was borne from the ashes.”
Malik laughed heartily. “We’ll decide on a new name for you later. We are expected elsewhere milady. You may not realize it now, but the timing of these chance events brings the greatest of luck to me.”
He quickly climbed the horse and pulled hard on the reins.
“Be off, Challenger!”
As the horse’s hooves beat into the ground, Risla could do little else but hang on and wonder where they were going.
Malik, who appeared to read her thoughts, could only laugh. In this young girl, he had found an answer to all of his woes.
“Well little one, are you ready for the Great Bath?”
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