Two figures could be seen on the top of a hill; one was unconscious and one standing, surveying a devastating scene.
What had been a village lay at the foot of the hill. Now, the sun rose upon burnt frames of houses with smoke trailing to the sky. The houses had been made from wood, so easy to burst into flame.
The unconscious figure started to wake. The other figure bent to greet her.
"Are you alright?" she asked. The newly awakened girl nodded unsteadily in reply.
"Who are you?" the girl questioned.
“I’m a traveller who was staying in your village,” she said, still trying to determine how the girl was and whether she had remembered the incidents of the night.
They came at twilight. Katherien had recognised them as she sat in the shadows of the hut someone had kindly housed her in. She had not, would never have guessed what would happen next. The girl was lucky to have been alive. Katherien had found her screaming in the middle of the village. She was not moving, not running from the fire, just screaming. If Katherien had not been there... The terrifying wails showed that not everyone had got out in time. Katherien hoped that some had escaped and were hiding at the edges of the forest. She knew who had set the place alight. It meant more was on the way.
“The village is gone,” the girl said casually.
She stared at the girl. She seemed to be taking it well. She didn’t cry or break down. A sort of eerie calm had crept over the girl, which was associated with either madness or stupidity. Neither boded well.
“What do they call you?” she asked, unsure of how to deal with this girl. She was not very used to children.
“Caila,” the girl responded cheerfully. What’s yours?”
“Katherien,” she answered, surprised into giving her real name.
Caila seemed to be a strange child. The kind who would be spinning around, trying to see how long she could go without falling over. Her open face was innocent having never seen the danger outside her small, rural community, like so many village children.
“Where are the others?” Caila asked. “Where’s mum and dad?”
Katherien cringed inside. Please, Orn, may her parents be in the forest, she thought to herself. To the girl, she said, “They’re at the edge of the forest.”
Caila’s face brightened.
“Race you down!” she bounded off down the hill, the orange light spreading over her form as she ran down the hill. Katherien sighed, letting out her heavy heart and slowly walked down after her.
They arrived at the foot of the hill to the burning embers that had been Caila's hometown. A silence broken only by faint crackling lay eerily over the village. They walked through it, Caila’s footsteps got slower and slower. Katherien had to push her forward. Should have gone round the village, round the village Katherien thought to herself. However, she could not stop seeing and remembering. As they passed the hut she had occupied, Katherien felt a pang of loss. Eventually the village passed them by.
The edge of the forest rose into view. Morning mist seeped through the dark trunks. As Katherien looked among the trees, her heart sank lower and lower. There was no one. The god Orn had not answered her calls.
Wait, no. What was that figure over there? Katherien was about to call to it until she realised what is was. Please Caila, thought Katherien, don't call out.
"Wait, who's that? Oh I know, MR DOHERTY!"
The figure tuned its head towards them. It was most definitely not poor Mr Doherty. This thing had bright red eyes and was cloaked, hiding its face in a dark pointed hood. This meant something to Katherien but not to Caila.
"Have you got an eye infection Mr. Doherty?" shouted Caila, "'Cause your eyes look..."
"Caila, run,” Katherien shouted at her.
“But what about Mr Doherty?”
“Shut up and run!”
Katherien grabbed Caila’s arm and pulled her into the forest. The creature began to follow them, slowly but surely. Daylight was spilling over the horizon, but the forest was darker than night. It was difficult to see as some sort of thick fog wove through the gigantic trees. Katherien dashed through the gloomy trees, dragging Caila behind her. Glancing back, she saw five more creatures join the first. Their slow pace kept them far behind, however, Katherien knew how easily the creatures could follow them, no matter how far they went. She needed to get rid of them.
She pulled Caila to the side and ducked behind a fallen tree. The creatures were coming nearer but in random directions, all split up. They were not the smartest of creatures. Katherien picked up a handful of stones.
“Stay here,” she whispered to Caila. Hopefully, the creatures wouldn’t get this near. She sprinted off into the trees.
Katherien knew these creatures. She had dealt with them before. They were called whisperers and their slightest touch would be enough to kill someone. She had never seen one without its signature long brown cloak. Their species was a secretive one as well as destructive.
Katherien ducked down and ran to the nearest tree. There was one lonely whisperer, much further away from the rest. Big mistake. Katherien picked one of the stones she had grabbed and held it tightly in her right hand.
“Falme,” she muttered. The stone glowed and turned bright orange. Turning, she threw it at the creature. On contact, the whisperer burst into flame. It shrieked and disappeared into a pile of ash.
Its final shriek made two of the whisperers turn round. The bright firelight in their eyes danced as they saw a solitary person. Easy prey.
Katherien slowly drew her sword. The whisperers gradually glided towards her. They raised withered, black hands which clutched short swords. The edge of these swords were jagged and bloodied. The sight of them sickened Katherien. She’d seen what they could do.
Suddenly, one of the rushed forward, with a startling speed. Katherien deflected the blow aimed at her head. She threw her sword at its side but the other whisperer blocked it. As the two whisperers fought with speed and force, Katherien fought back with skill and stamina. She blocked every attack and moved quickly round to try and strike her adversities. Finally, Katherien’s experienced sword strikes struck a whisperer. It succumbed to the dust that its companion had also yielded to. This made the other whisperer more desperate. It wanted to kill. It hadn’t bargained on its prey being able to fight back. Katherien made two short jabs and then drove the sword through the centre of the whisperer. The whisperer screeched. It fell into dust.
Four more whisperers were heading this way. Katherien would not be able to fight them off this time. She had counted on there being only one or two at a time. She turned around to get Caila and flee these forsaken woods. Then she spotted a figure just behind one of the trees.
“Caila,” Katherien moaned. The stupid girl had decided to come after her. And she was in more danger than Katherien. Caila reeked of human flesh.
One of the whisperers noticed the girl. It immediately flew at her. Katherien cut it down mid flight. The other three realised they could defeat Katherien better together to get the fresh human meat. How they loved fear. It was coming off this human in a beautiful aroma.
Katherien realised what they were thinking. She ran back and grabbed Caila’s arm.
“Think of the furthest place you’ve ever been,” she said to the wide eyed and trembling girl.
Katherien pulled out a light. It shone through the gaps of her fist. With her other hand she held firmly onto Caila’s arm.
“Elpeth themisa mortem,” she said, her voice echoing with the intensity of the words.
The forest shimmered. The colours dispersed. They grew apart to form new shapes. Soon, instead of a shadowy, dangerous forest, they were looking at a wide open stretch of countryside. The sun licked the grass which were covered in the glass like droplets of dew. It looked safe. Katherien spread her mind out to check if anyone was near. Not a soul except the birds and other such animals.
Caila was still trembling. Katherien tried to calm the rush of adrenalin that was brought on by the power of the fight. She shook her head to get it away quicker. She hated the feeling fighting gave her.
“What were they?” Caila asked. Katherien sighed. She did not feel in the mood for answering awkward questions.
“Don’t worry about them.” Katherien looked up at the sky. The violent reds had turned into a brilliant blue sky. Looking around, she tried to get some bearings, but there was nothing.”
“Where are we?” she asked Caila.
“Around three days and two nights journey from Kren,” Caila managed to get the words through stuttering lips. “This is when we had to turn back because I was too sick to continue. We never went anywhere again.”
Katherien sensed the loss behind her voice. The girl wasn’t in any fit state to travel at the moment. Grudgingly, Katherien came to a decision.
“I am going to take you to Kren,” Katherien said. “But first, you need to rest. I will keep look out.”
Caila nodded and clutched her legs to her chest. Soon, she was asleep. Katherien felt that familiar lug of tiredness. She shook it off and kept her eyes wide open. The shadows grew shorter. And Katherien’s eyes slowly closed. Well, she thought before her consciousness left her, it won’t hurt to sleep for a bit.
It wasn’t until late afternoon that they began on their journey.
Kren was a fishing village, quite large, just at the mouth of the river Lorn. It was close to Katherien’s destination and Caila was likely to have relatives there. Almost everyone did around these parts.
They made slow progress. Caila skipped along, stopping to stare at anything which caught her interest. She had never travelled far outside her village and it was seriously inconveniencing them. The flowers that grow barely a mile outside the village were plucked, examined, their petals pulled out and scattered about the grass.
Katherien still couldn’t quite grasp Caila’s behaviour. The younger girl’s actions were a mystery to her. She danced along in the rosy evening light, a smile drifting over her lips. Her clothes were impractical villagers’ clothes, light blue and already damaged from running through the woods. Her bare feet made Katherien worry that she would hurt herself on some spiky plant but Katherien did not have another pair of shoes. It was, perhaps, more exciting for her to be out so far. Perhaps it didn’t seem real. But Katherien was not about to bring up the subject. She didn’t know how to deal with a weeping child.
They were walking alongside a cliff. The remains of fallen stone littered its base and fresh grass grew up in long stalks around it. The sky was a fair blue, the kind that no one wants to go because it’s so pure. There was bird song from the trees at the top of the cliff. Katherien luckily recognised this area. She didn’t feel so lost now she wasn’t relying on Caila’s directions. This particular cliff walk was called Pinith Reta, the Silver Ring, named for an event centuries ago when the queen dropped a ring down a crack in the cliff and sent a man to get it for her. As the man reached down he fell in and the crack closed up behind him. For the man was the queen’s lover and the king had hired a magician to get rid of him. So the queen went and threw herself off the cliff rather than face her husband. And instead of calling it Place of Two Deaths, it became named after the ring. That story didn’t fit the tall magnificent beauty of the cliff which probably deserved a better name than the one that had been given to it.
Katherien arched her neck up to glimpse the precociously balanced trees that stood at the top. She couldn’t understand quite why a queen would even come here. Not many queen’s travelled this far out of the capital. An excited shout brought Katherien out of her thoughts. Caila came bounding back to her. This time she held a legentus, a flower with soft blue petals and white leaves.
“Look!” The young girl was grinning from ear to ear. “What’s it called?” Caila insisted on Katherien telling her the name of everything she found.
“Legentus. And it’s extremely poisonous so you would be best to put it down.” Caila dropped the actually rather harmless flower to the ground.
“You look familiar,” Caila commented, tilting her head in a curious way. “Have I seen you before?”
“No,” Katherien said. “Not before...”
There was a stretch of silence.
“Why do you dress that way?”
“All man-like,” Caila said. “Trousers instead of skirts. I would never have thought you were a girl.”
Katherien’s clothes were different from the type usually worn by men and women. A traveller’s cloak, tough boots, trousers and shirt with a sword attached to the belt marked her, all bearing a foreign look which would stop too many trying to speak to her. She preferred it that way. Unknown to Caila, she also had a dagger concealed in her boot, two longer, curved versions under her cloak and a small sharp stick up her sleeve, in case all else failed. All her clothes bore the mark of a long journey, mud covered and worn. Only a gold hair pin, shaped like a leaf, in her dark hair was contrary to her traveller’s appearance. She had a bag around her shoulder that she had grabbed that night...
There was not much food in her bag when she checked again. As they’d been going along, she’d picked up berries and roots that she thought was edible. She didn’t know how long it would last. Katherien broke away from her train of thought to see Caila still looking at her for an answer.
“I’ve been travelling,” Katherien said, starting walking again. “These clothes are good for walking long distances.”
“Where have you been?”
“Places,” Katherien said, vaguely, hoping to disinterest the girl. It worked. Caila shrugged and skipped off. Katherien watched her, thinking of that which she had seen and the world, which was fascinating Caila at the moment, that could be so treacherous.
It is evening. After a long journey, everyone is overjoyed that they are finally nearing the end. There are smiles and laughter as they make camp in the forest. A young girl stands beside her mother, talking about the day. The girl giggles as the mother jokes.
Then the nightmare begins.
They’re everywhere. Where did they come? The cloaked figures glide out of the night. Swords are grabbed. Everyone’s shouting. The girl grabs a dagger at her belt. The mother shakes her head and tells her to go but she won’t. She stays.
The mother has a spear. She throws it at a cloaked figure. It doesn’t stop it coming. The girl runs to it. Her mother shouts at her. The dagger rips through the cloak of the creature. It dies.
But as the girl celebrates her victory, the mother rushes to her. And no one sees the one creature that has got free of the pack, that is moving with speed towards the mother...
Katherien awoke with a jolt. It was still dark but the fire she and Caila had lit earlier still glowed red. Taking deep breaths to clam herself, Katherien moved closer to the light. Caila, poor girl, was in the very depth of sleep, her childish innocence displayed so clearly upon her face. Katherien gazed intently into the flames, trying to make the dream go away. But it wouldn’t. It was stuck on the other side of her eyes, a vision that would never go away.
She didn’t fall asleep for the rest of the night. And when Caila woke, Katherien made sure they started off as quickly as possible. She couldn’t wait to get away.