1,045th turn under the Veil, 1st night of the Harvest Moon waxing
It was to be exile or execution. The accused, a blackened pinecone scrounged from the ash pit of the hearth, stood on a small block of wood, surrounded by a congregation of stick dolls wrapped in scraps of cloth. A bright spot of sunlight on the floor of Aod’s bedroom served as the perimeter of her pretend settlement.
The little girl edged a stick doll dressed in red wool forward to address the pinecone in a high, imperious voice. “Blackpine, you have been found guilty of treason by the settlement council of Sunspot! Do you deny it?”
“Yes!” Aod cried back, switching to a rough, gravelly voice for Blackpine. “I’m not the traitor—she’s the traitor!” She tipped the pinecone toward a stick doll garbed in blue silk.
Aod scooped up the blue stick doll and assumed a haughty tone. “And you, sir, are a liar!”
She used her other hand to make the rest of the stick dolls jump up and down. “Hang the liar! Hang the liar!”
“Wait,” the blue stick doll commanded. “Bright Mother Tergel teaches us to have mercy on those who have lost their way. Blackpine, your punishment is banishment! Begone from Sunspot!”
Aod used the stick doll to swat the pinecone off the woodblock, supplying a muted, “Nooooo!” as the treacherous Blackpine went clattering across the floor.
Aod turned at the sound of her mother’s voice. “Mamae?”
“Come here, would you, darling? I have something to show you.”
Abandoning her dolls, the little girl left her room and padded down the hall, wooden floorboards creaking. The light of the morning sun spilling in from the rounded windows of the cottage made bright pools on the floor. Aod hopped from one to the other as she made her way into the common room.
Her mother, Dalei, stood by the hearth, an elegant woman clad in a rich blue shawl, her long brown hair braided and wound into a loose bun. The shawl marked her as the odijya of White Creek, responsible for protecting the settlement from fiendish spirits that liked to bedevil the devout followers of Bright Mother Tergel with disease and destruction. Aod had rarely seen her mother without it.
Dalei turned to her daughter with a bright smile and held up her hand. “Look!” From her fist dangled a teardrop of amber strung upon a simple leather cord. Mysterious flecks housed within the orange stone flickered like embers as they caught the light.
Aod gasped, enchanted. “It’s for me?”
“Just for you,” her mother agreed, slipping the pendant around her neck. “But you must promise to look after it, always.”
“I will,” she promised solemnly, cupping the stone in her hands. It felt warm to the touch.
The front door flew open with a bang. Aod jumped, clutching the pendant tightly in her fist. Her father burst into the cottage, chest heaving, his short brown hair windswept and wild.
Dalei hurried to him. “Eloi, what’s wrong? Why aren’t you out in the fields? Has there been an accident?”
Eloi shook his head. “High Guards, Dalei,” he gasped. “Brindyll’s swayed the council with gold. They’ve called the High Guards to seize you!”
Aod watched the blood drain from her mother’s face. “Are you certain?”
“I saw them, Dalei,” he insisted. “They’re riding this way!”
Dalei covered her mouth with her hand. “Bright Mother save us,” she whispered through her fingers.
Uneasy, Aod shuffled over and tugged on her mother’s shawl. “Mamae, what’s going on?”
Dropping to her knees, Dalei tucked the amber pendant into the neck of Aod’s shirt. “Keep this hidden, always! Now, run to Nanae Iona and stay with her until Papae or I come to get you.” She squeezed Aod in a tight embrace before ushering her to the kitchen door.
She hesitated on the threshold, confused. “But—”
“Quickly now,” Dalei commanded, pushing her through the doorway. “No delays!”
Shooting one last bewildered look at her mother before the kitchen door slammed shut, Aod trotted away from the cottage and cut across the apple orchard that grew beside it. She did not get very far before a noise reached her ears, the canter of horse hooves. She turned. Four men in filigreed plates of armor strapped over scarlet vestments were riding up the dirt road that spanned the length of White Creek.
Aod grew still. It was just as her father said; the High Guards of White Creek were riding right up to their house. She did not understand why that upset her parents or why they meant to seize her mother.
High Guards were not commonplace soldiers; they were knights ordained by the Holy Order of Tergel to protect settlements from every manner of evil, be it ordinary brigands or maleficent fiends. The four that oversaw White Creek often worked side by side with Dalei.
Powerfully curious, but mindful of her mother’s ire, the girl secreted herself behind the trunk of a tree to watch the High Guards’ approach. After dismounting in unison, they marched purposefully up the dirt path that led to the front door. Not one of them saw her.
She flinched, scraping her cheek against the bark of the tree, when the Guards did not knock upon the door but kicked it in. The tumult of screams that followed nearly sent Aod running until two of the Guards reappeared a moment later, one dragging her mother by her hair—now loose and disheveled—as the other gripped her by the arm. Blood trickled from the corner of Dalei’s mouth and her eyelids fluttered rapidly, as though she was fighting sleep.
The other High Guards followed closely behind, holding Eloi at bay with their crossbows.
“You cannot take her!” her father yelled. “She’s done no wrong! Do you hear me? She’s done no wrong!”
Aod pressed herself flat to the tree, her breath hitching.
“No wrong?” she heard one of the High Guards growl. “This filth is guilty of treason of the worst kind. She has allied herself with evil! She is a bokora—she consorts with fiends!”
Aod jumped as her father lunged forward, roaring. There was the chaos of a quick, frenzied brawl and then a dull, dark thrum caused all struggling to cease. Her father crumpled to the ground, his hands curling around a quivering crossbow quarrel protruding from his chest. Blood began to foam on his lips as he gasped soundlessly for air.
A terrible, keening wail erupted from Dalei, cut short as one of the High Guards brought the butt of his crossbow down upon her head before slinging her over the back of one of their horses. Aod remained pressed to the tree, frozen with fear.
She did not move when storm clouds gathered overhead and speared the ground with lightning. She did not turn when wildfires began to lick the settlement walls, or when the forest beyond them burst into a mountain of flame and black ash rained down from the sky.
Dimly, she heard someone calling her.
“Aod … Aod …”
Aod started awake at the sound of her full name. No one called her that unless she was in trouble. Straightening up in her cross-legged position, she glanced around and saw Odijya Svo staring down at her with a severe frown, her arms folded beneath her long blue shawl.
Smothered snickers issued from either side of Aod, making her face and ears burn with deplorable heat. She scrambled to recall at what point her attention had begun to wander. Svo had taken Aod and the others outside, to the orchard behind the cottage.
The cottage had been her home once. The place where, not so many turns ago (or so it seemed), her father had died trying to defend her mother from the settlement’s High Guards. It was also no doubt the inspiration for her all-too-real nightmare, though there had been no storm or mountain of fire that awful day.
It was now the place where her mother’s successor, Svo, lived and trained promising youths in the ways of the odijya. Svo had been instructing them on the importance of the harvest season, a time for collecting rare herbs and creating tinctures for the coming winter. The unusually warm autumn afternoon had made Aod drowsy, and she had rested her head on her arms for a moment while listening to the odijya lecture on. And on and on …
Aod tried her best to remain attentive to her mentor, but she found it increasingly tedious as time passed. Indeed, it had become a constant battle with herself to continue attending Svo’s lessons. She was already half-convinced that come next spring, Svo would not ask her back. Failing that, she might quit her apprenticeship herself.
But guilt would not allow her the quick and clean cut she secretly craved. This was to be her inheritance, her calling. This is what she had fought for when the settlement council had tried to prohibit her from taking up her mother’s profession.
As far back as could be recalled, every woman in her mother’s line had taken up the odijya’s shawl at some point in her life. Even her doddering old Nanae, who had sided with the council against her, had worn the shawl in her youth. It was on the basis of Aod’s lineage that Svo had willingly argued with the council on her behalf, insisting that she be allowed to study. Aod did not want to be the pitiable end of that legacy. It was all she had left of her mother besides a few well-faded memories and the amber pendant she kept hidden beneath the folds of her apprenticing robes.
It was also the only lucrative skill she possessed. Much to her grandmother’s bitter disappointment, she was woefully clumsy with both loom and needle—a woman’s rightful work, so said Nanae—and her plain looks were not likely to capture the attention of a wealthy suitor. Not that she had much interest in suitors, or weaving for that matter. She intended to reclaim her mother’s house on her own merits, even if that meant taking on a role for which she had long since lost enthusiasm.
Yet in spite of all her anxieties and convictions, Aod had dozed right through the last five minutes of the odijya’s discourse.
An apologetic grimace frozen to her face, Aod glanced up at Odijya Svo. “Yes, madam?”
Svo closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, apparently struck by a sudden headache. “Aod, please tell the others the significance of the color black.”
“Black is the signifier of Sokar, god of death and corruption,” she replied haltingly, puzzled by the simplicity of the question. Color associations were something they had learned their first spring. “It is important when identifying and protecting against fiends.”
Another sprinkling of titters issued from her peers, and Aod felt her ears grow hotter.
A heavy sigh slid past Svo’s lips. “Aod, the significance of black when found in the coloration of lichen.”
The odijya waited a beat longer to see if the answer she desired was forthcoming, but Aod offered no other reply. Around her, the others chortled heartily at her failure.
“Well, no matter,” Svo went on crisply. “This is as good a time as any to conclude our discussion for today. However, I expect your notes to show a competent knowledge of the plants surrounding White Creek when we meet next. I will leave word with the watchmen today and will be checking the gatehouse log over the Harvest to make certain all of you conduct at least one study out in the fields before our next meeting. May the Bright Mother smile upon you all. You may take your leave.”
She shot a dour look Aod’s way over the rims of her spectacles as the other apprentices departed. “I will have a word with you before you go.”
Aod tried not to scowl as she gathered up her materials and deposited her slim leather-bound notebook, inkpot, and pen into the satchel tied to her belt. “Yes, madam?”
Odijya Svo did not reply immediately. Her hands were busy uncoiling the bun that kept her long walnut hair under control. Once free, it tumbled down her shoulders and arranged itself around her face. The sudden transformation made Svo look younger, more like her real age. In truth, Svo was scarcely nine turns Aod’s elder and owed her position to the lack of a more eligible candidate following Odijya Dalei’s abrupt removal ten summers ago.
Svo offered Aod a sympathetic, sisterly smile. “Aod, what is it? Is it a suitor?”
The question took Aod so off guard she actually guffawed.
In accordance with tradition, apprentices were forbidden from accepting the advances of a suitor until their training had come to an end, a test of dedication intended to cull the herd of hopefuls. By the time the odijya came to her last moon of training, it was expected the number of her apprentices would be whittled down to one or two, three at most. As it was, Svo had only four apprentices left, all told.
Until this past spring when an inexplicable and bitter surge of disillusionment had swept her ambition away like leaves caught in a gale, Aod had always assumed she would be the one who earned the shawl.
“Aod,” Svo began. “For as long as you have been studying under me, I have been able to rely on you to set the standard high. Lately though … Lately your thoughts seem to be elsewhere. Your inattention baffles me and has become a distraction to my lessons. So out with it. Tell me what has you so preoccupied. Please,” she pleaded with such earnestness that Aod was forced to confront the issue head-on for the first time. “You can trust me, whatever it is.”
What was it, indeed? “It’s not a suitor,” Aod offered.
Aod looked down at her feet. How could she possibly explain it? A nameless, faceless shadow had descended over her, leeching the pleasure and the poignancy from her life. In its place it left a vague, haunting sense of foreboding. When she slept, it filled her dreams with terror.
And they always ended the same way. Night after night, the ground under the Stryx—the vast woodland to the south of White Creek—opened up, swallowing the forest and spewing up fiery blood that filled the sky with boiling black clouds. Clouds that rained ash, blood, and lightning in equal measure.
When she awoke, she could think of nothing else for long after and could not help but glance often at the Stryx, half expecting to see the fiery chasm of her nightmares erupting just beyond the settlement wall. Yet nothing ever came of it. Life in White Creek continued on its docile, plodding way, unharmed, undisturbed. Aod herself could not clearly recall any storm, much less a wildfire, threatening White Creek in all her turns, but that only troubled her more. Why then were her dreams haunted by such improbable, vaguely remembered terrors? She did not know.
“What is it?” Svo repeated. “You can tell me.”
“Have you ever wondered if there was more than this?” Aod asked abruptly.
She did not dare mention her dreams. She had tried to tell Nanae about them once, only to be accused of being deliberately morbid. She could not imagine what Svo would say after sleeping through her lesson.
“More? Beyond being an odijya, you mean?”
Aod checked a sigh. She simply could not tell her. As kindly as Odijya Svo was predisposed to be to her—she, the progeny of Svo’s mentor—Aod still could not bring herself to confide in her. There were times, as it was now, when she glimpsed flashes of cold, even annoyed, indifference beneath Svo’s otherwise amiable manner. It made all her doting concern ring unequivocally false in the ears of her apprentice.
False, like the lazy, contented calm that has befallen White Creek, Aod thought sourly, looking toward the Stryx.
Her breath caught in her throat. For a wild moment, she believed her nightmares had somehow breached the waking world until she realized it was only the autumn-flecked canopy billowing in the breeze, the crackle of dry leaves imitating the crackle of fire. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Svo watching her with a quizzical expression.
“Something like that,” she lied.
“Oh, Aod,” Svo sighed, fitting her spectacles back on her face. “If you no longer wish to wear the odijya’s shawl, then you only waste time by continuing your apprenticeship under me, yours and mine. I suggest you take time over the Harvest to reflect upon your commitment to this path and I would have your answer when we meet next.”
“Yes, madam,” the girl responded dully.
“Off with you then. Bright Mother smile on you.” Svo waved her away.
“And you,” Aod mumbled, shuffling off in the direction of the dwelling she shared with her grandparents on the other side of the settlement.
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Genre – Fantasy
Rating – PG13
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