Kaelyth parted the tall grass with slow steps. By now, the charred skeleton of her village would be overgrown with vines and spreading weeds. But she was compelled to see it again. The memory called her back every so often.
After so much time spent on the ground, living in the canopy of the forest seemed foreign to her. Years of a nomadic life made her home seem so small. To remember having a home at all was unsettling now. The girl who had lived here in the trees was a different person altogether. Kaelyth was nearly ashamed to think of herself so naive, but deep down she thought she might miss it too.
It’s a human’s world, these days.
Her eyes wandered over the ground ahead of her as they had for miles. A whispering breeze pulled at the hair in her face and prickled her skin. It made the grass rustle and sway around her. Insects buzzed at her ears. She glanced up into the sunlight trying to focus on its warmth, but a passing cloud took it away. A column of smoke arched ahead.
Kaelyth stopped dead. She squeezed her eyes shut and refocused, but the scene remained unchanged. Her mind raced. Nothing was left of the village for a traveller to take shelter. No one would risk a fire that could be seen from any direction. And no one else was left who knew what this place was. Crouched in the rippling grass, she waited. She could turn back, unnoticed. She could risk her curiosity too. And waiting could very well be futile.
The heart of what would have been the village stood just inside the tree line. She crept toward it, following a wide perimeter. Kaelyth stifled a shiver in the humid chill of the forest’s shadow. She couldn’t help thinking she’d done this before.
Kaelyth could smell the burning before the alarm was raised. Her eyes adjusted slowly with only the faint light of dawn peering through the trees. She glided to the doorway of the little house suspended in the canopy of the forest. The ground below was still dark though the village began to stir into panic. Ash drifted down toward her and she winced when a cinder caught her. She glanced upward to find the fire blazing across the tops of the trees. Flames jumped from tree to tree following vines and canopy walkways.
She dashed back inside to rouse the house, though it wasn’t hers. A fervent wish for her mother circled in her head. A small company had left the village just a few days ago on a trek Kaelyth had not been allowed to question and so she’d been left behind.
In the dark, she slid from room to room to find them all empty. Ailla and her parents had vanished, leaving her forgotten. Kaelyth wished harder. At the window, shadows flickered in the light of the spreading fire. It was all wrong.
Fires were not uncommon in an old forest like this, but the living green shouldn’t take to flame so easily. The blaze was spreading outward, raining ash and forcing her people downward to the ground. It kept to the upper branches feeding on the dead wood and thatched roofs along the way.
Her name echoed through the doorway as she ran toward it. The village had stirred to a panic. She spotted Ailla calling up to her, but the air was filled with shouts and echoes from others desperate to reassemble their families.
And from the shadows crept the Kolrav. Silent knives sent her people sprawling on the forest floor. Ailla was caught from behind as Kaelyth ducked back into the house frantic for a place to hide.
Nestled against a low shrub, Kaelyth peered toward the source of the smoke. A hand fell onto her shoulder, tipping her backward. Knife already in hand, she whipped it toward her assailant. Dark hair and iridescent markings on his pale skin betrayed him as an enemy. She plunged her knife into his ribcage, immediately ripping out the blade and turning to his companion. Trying to advantage the distraction, he had circled behind. This one stepped over his crumpled partner without taking his eyes from her.
Kaelyth watched him cautiously, joining his slow circle. She felt for a twig under her foot and snapped it, hoping to trigger a move once she glanced away. Acting on the opportunity, he lunged for her. She feigned to brace herself against the attack, but opted to dodge instead, forcing him to readjust his landing.
He whirled around, still off balance, but missed the knife she sent after him. Massive forearms kept her from connecting when she launched toward him, whipping another knife from her belt. He shoved her backward and they both recalculated.
The flash of a blade caught her attention as it sailed between them. The brute clutched the hilt embedded squarely into his chest, but before Kaelyth could turn to her savior, she was restrained from behind. She wrenched an elbow into her attacker’s face and glimpsed blood. Unfazed, he twisted the knife from her hand while struggling to subdue her. He raised the edge of the blade to her neck. Stock-still, they both caught their heaving breaths.
Kolrav. War-mongerers and barbarians. Abhorrent creatures, pillagers that raided from the south for sport in their warrior-culture. She could feel his smug air washing over her while her hatred just dripped.
He whistled in her ear, prompting another Kolrav to appear. He pulled a horse toward them and unslung a length of rope. The beast stood over them passively taking in the scene. Kaelyth leaned as she could away from the creature. She’d seen them only once before, all those years ago, hysterical in the orange blaze.
The Kolrav bound her hands and tied the end to the horse. She watched a pouch of coin sail toward him. He snatched it from the air and instantly turned to fade back into the trees. The knife left her throat. She glanced back to the woods before being yanked forward at a hurried pace. Behind her, the smoke still billowed into the sky.