After hours of practice, I still hadn’t moved on from the water. But I had, at least, managed to hit it without feeling anything, and I could occasionally cause a large splash unachievable with my own natural strength. And I hadn’t broken any more fingers. I felt as though my progress was far too slow, but Ylva encouraged me.
“I actually think you’ve done quite well today. You made progress. Quite a bit, if you’d only realize it. I know you want to move as quickly as possible, but that’s not always how magery works. It’s afternoon already. Do me a favor and fill up that canteen again so we can do a little searching before daylight is lost.”
Before I knew it, we had returned to the treeless hills to resume our search. We hiked for miles as we had the day before, covering new territory that, to my untrained eyes, looked very much the same as what we’d previously seen. The only signs of life we saw were a few jackdaws and pine martens. I began to wonder just how much area we would have to cover before we would find the tribe. Or any tribe, for that matter.
We teleported back to the cave by the quiet lake that night and spoke very little for an hour or two. Our primary focus was on setting up the fire, and then we ate some bread and leftover venison the bandits had let us take on our travels. I noticed Ylva fixing her hair in a long, silvery side braid and remembered that I needed to shave. I took a shard of a looking glass that Keon had given to me out of my pack and its accompanying blade and got to work; I could already feel the stubble quite plainly that had grown in what had seemed like such a brief time. It still startled me very much to see my face. I couldn’t help but see his face in my own.
Then I thought it best to focus on my mother instead, the woman whom had given so much for me and whom I would never get a chance to meet. I decided to see if Ylva knew anything about her, though I asked in a roundabout way, of course.
“So what do you know about the history of the Dechi? Why do the tribes not get along?”
She sighed in bereavement, and I knew that I had asked the right question to get a story out of her. “That question is terribly complex and simple to answer all at once.” I dropped my blade and mirror and leaned into the fire to communicate my interest while she continued to braid meticulously. “The simple answer is they don’t get along because it’s not in their nature. And the complex answer is quite a tale, the full details of which no one knows. But I can tell you what I have of it and offer my opinion. It’s good for you to become familiar with the history of your people, after all.” She gazed into the flames and the restless flickering of their caustic fingers.
“There was a war. I should think it began perhaps 23 years ago, though it lasted several months. I know I was born not long after it ended. The Dechi, if you can believe it, were all members of a single kingdom, strong and united. But Eirethstead changed all that. Gillireth’s land was a smaller kingdom than what it is today, but it still had a chance at overtaking us for its sheer numbers. We didn’t know why they attacked; some say Gillireth was simply so obsessed with expansion of his lands that he insisted upon reaching the coast. Relentless bastard.
“There was a final battle on a midsummer morning not far from these very hills. The enemy had pushed us back nearly to our main stronghold. I suppose now I ought to tell you about our king, our Alpha. His name was Amarog, known in our history as The Black King for the color of his coat. They say his eyes were like amber flames, not unlike your own." I looked down at those words, hoping she would think it was out of nothing more than bashfulness that I averted my eyes.
"It is customary-- no, it is a matter of pride-- for the Alpha to fight in wulfen form should he have to battle. It is perhaps a bit foolish, though, since one can’t use magic in wulfen form. Two-legged form was mostly reserved for experienced mages or those who were highly skilled in weaponry, and many of our soldiers fought in wulfen form while maintaining our great secret of shapeshifting. The humans thought them mere warbeasts, of course.”
I held my tongue, though much of what she was saying I had already been told. “Our Alpha was slain not long after this last battle had begun. Some say it was Gillireth himself who did it. At any rate, it is in our nature as Dechi to fall back or surrender when the Alpha is slain. We are weakened without our leader, and we continued to prove this time and time again. The princess of our kingdom was taken as Gillireth’s wife. With all of the Alpha’s bloodline taken from us, we once again fell prey to our nature." I let my eyebrows furrow briefly at these words, though I couldn't say whether or not she had thought anything of my reaction.
"More dominant males among us began to fight each other, always in wulfen form, trying to establish themselves as the next Alpha. But without the right blood, it was hopeless. Some of the elders of my tribe would say that there was no specific cause to the crumbling of our society, but I am certain it was mostly our nature, our very essence. We try to treat our wulfen forms as if they are just another one of our magical talents, but our wulfen forms are a part of our soul, and this affects our behavior more than most would care to admit.” She paused to catch her breath.
“We can only assume that our queen died, and something about her death caused Gillireth to lose his mind altogether. I think it fair to assume that he killed her when she revealed her nature to him, though why she would commit such an act eludes me entirely." So she knew even less of Calysta than I did. Nonetheless, it was fascinating to hear the events from a Dechi woman's point of view.
“When the king’s soldiers turned on defenseless citizens in the streets, it was the end of any hope we had of staying unified as a people. The dominant males took what loyal subjects they had amassed and formed packs. Tribes. And we’ve been a broken people ever since Amarog’s line was severed.”
Chills ran down my spine despite my proximity to the fire. I remembered this supposed prophecy about me. Could there be any truth to it? I thanked Ylva, retrieved the looking glass from the ground, and was once again taken aback by my father's features. No. No, Jarrah's prediction couldn't be true. Not of the likes of me. Deep down I knew I was wrong for it, but I had begun to think that I was as much a cause of the wanton deaths of the Dechi people as Gillireth himself.