Stay hidden

I place my hand over Wes’ mouth and wake him. His eyes are wide; working out what I’m doing, and where we are. My dream about the woman with flame-red hair and the talking panther who knew my name is still heavy inside, but I place my finger over my lips and shake my head. I point to the entrance to the shelter and then back to my ear.

He nods and listens. Another footstep crushes dew-drenched leaves.

My hips ache already from my crouched position. I don’t dare shift my weight.

A gruff voice breaks the twilight. ‘Yeah, but did he ever make any sense?’

‘It doesn’t matter whether he makes sense; you still have to follow him.’

I hear the sound of thick clothing being ruffled and more leaves being crushed. I feel Wes tense beneath me.

‘Yeah, but what we did last night was brutal, I mean, did you see the stage and stuff? They were having a party. Moronic sods.’

I take a deep breath. The compulsive and senseless Eva prepares to launch herself outside and slice their Achilles tendon out from beneath them like the neck of a doe. But the smart Eva wrestles to be heard. I don’t know how many men are outside; there could be more than two. Wes shakes his head beneath my hand. I tilt my head at him as if to say ‘would I?’ He glares at me. I remove my hand.

‘You heard him as well as I did, they had a thief hidden and the king wanted her arrested and brought to the castle for trial. The burn-out was what he wanted.’

‘Erikk, a burn-out for a petty thief who lives over a hundred miles from the king, who we could not find? Don’t tell me you’re that gullible?’ I hear a splash off the leaves just outside the tree. ‘Aah… God my bladder was about to burst.’

I scrunch my nose as the stench of ammonia hits me.

‘As I said, it doesn’t matter what I think. What the General says goes. Now we need to get moving, I don’t think there is anyone following.’

The stabbing from my hips has spread through my pelvis and into my lower abdomen. I shift my footing an inch to prevent the cramp I feel coming.

‘Did you hear that?’ says the voice belonging to Erikk.

‘Hear what?’

The air is heavy with silence.

‘It’s probably nothing.’

The footsteps fall away and I hear something that sends my blood aflame. ‘You’re second-in-command Erikk, if you don’t question the General, who will?’

Second-in-command, I mouth to Wes.

He shakes his head. ‘No, Eva.’

When I am sure that we are out of ear shot, I gather our things and stuff them inside Wes’ bag. ‘He could lead us to the General.’

‘And then what?’ Wes hisses.

‘Then… well, I don’t really know what.’ But I can’t just sit here.

Wes grabs my wrist. ‘Eva, stop.’

Dreams mean nothing

I’m dreaming. I stand in the corner of a room the colour of the red desert. It smells of burnt brushwood and jasmine. The room feels familiar, as though it has featured in a story somebody has told me.

It’s cavernous with a large, arched opening to my right. Humidity slicks my skin. A thin film of orange light from the opening paints every surface. The ceiling is a globe; a large, iron chandelier hangs in the centre. The walls are bare sandstone, with the exception of one which hangs a coral tapestry with star-blues and rich golden thread. On the far side is a white, wooden crib, but I cannot see inside it because I realise that I cannot move.

The ornate, double doors open and a couple fall into the room laughing. Their laughter fills the globe ceiling like water. They don’t see me. The woman is petite in every way. Her flaming hair twists into an elaborate knot on the top of her head with golden jewels intertwined. She wears leather boots, skin-tight pants and a leather jacket cut short at the shoulders. The outfit doesn’t match her hairstyle. As she turns, I see that her rusty skin is printed in black marks and tips of feathers reach across the back of her neck. The man is tall and muscular. He pulls her easily around the room as if dancing. His jaw is covered with greying hair but it’s his eyes that make me gasp: they are luminescent violet.

The air in the room blurs and hums with an invisible magnet force. In the centre of the room, high above the bed, a shape begins to dissolve into the air. It’s an eagle. My body twitches. Its form becomes solid; the orange sunset turns its feathers into polished amber. It rests on the ground and slowly folds its enormous golden wings beneath its white chest.

The couple don’t flinch. The woman approaches it and seems to communicate with it though she says nothing. The eagle snaps its magnificent head from side to side and then lowers it; its locked gaze never leaves the woman. The woman turns to the man with a sorrowful look and says, ‘he is coming.’

The room disappears and is replaced by the night-time Lysnowth forest. I stand in my clearing and the forest is aglow with the full moon. The air is crisp and the humidity from the other place evaporates from me as a mist. I glance around and my eyes stop on something in the darkness of the trees. Two small balls of blue fire float between the trees. I step closer.  The two balls move towards me through the darkness. As they reach the clearing, the moonlight bounces off their surroundings.

My heart pounds.

It’s a black panther.

I step back.

It pads forward.

Its blue eyes never leave mine. Its hair is like oil and its tail sweeps low to the ground. It stops in the centre of the clearing. The black panthers patrol the Black Mountains; they are never seen in Lysnowth. I can’t run, I can only stare. The panther lies down, rests its jaw on its front paws and speaks.

English: Black Panther. Photo taken at Rhino a...

English: Black Panther. Photo taken at Rhino and Lion Park, Gauteng, South Africa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘Hello Evangeline Vale. I’ve been waiting a long time to meet you.’

I wake in a sweat within the shade of the sequoia and hear a branch snap outside.

Who am I?

HolgerVaga - Waning Moon IV (by)

I lug Wes’ bow and arrows across my back, they are cast from iron and therefore heavier than my own; my back twinges in protest. We pick our way through the forest, following the trail of horses’ hoof prints and dung. The waning moonlight is bright enough to see by and it brightens the west sides of the sequoia.

Without me having to ask him, Wes had grabbed his collel set, kissed his parents goodbye and stepped to my side. I had insisted that he stayed behind, but he walked ahead of me before I could stop him. Wes had always been that way; the younger of us two but the most stubborn.

We had been walking for an hour, judging by the movement of the Master star cluster, when I stop.

‘What is it?’ Wes says.

A puddle lies like a pane of glass beside exposed roots. I ignore Wes’ questioning and approach it like it’s a hunting target. It shines silver in the reflection of the moonlight. I look into it and assess the girl’s face that stares back. Her rusty skin is peppered, her blazing hair twirled into a simple braid and her violet eyes appear almost translucent. I crouch beside her.

‘How could I have not known?’ I whisper.

Wes crouches beside me. ‘Nobody knew.’

‘But look at me. I resemble nothing of Lysnowth.’ I touch my puddled reflection and it blurs with the ripples. ‘I remember running home to my father once after Kale and the girl’s had teased me about the way I looked, and do you know what my father said?’ Wes shakes his head. ‘“In every generation of Lysnowth, there is born a child so beautiful that the stars bless her with gifts. You have been blessed with the gift of passion and love, which is why you are red and the rest of us are pale.” It was his way of making me feel better.’ I stand up and stamp out my reflection. ‘He could have told me then.’

‘He was trying to protect you.’

The puddle disappears and in its place is gunk and soggy moss. ‘Protect me from what? Had I known, I could have left, the king’s soldiers would never have attacked and they would still be…’ My lips tremble and my eyes sting, but I bite down hard on my lips to stop the tears from falling. I taste blood.

‘The Cuinn are not evil, Eva.’ Wes tilts my chin so that I have no choice but to look at him. He braces himself against an invisible wall and appears to have grown from a slight 17-year old boy into the man before me. ‘You are not evil.’

His brows crease when I twist from his grasp. ‘I don’t know what I am. I don’t even know if Cuinns exist.’

He steps back and his hands fall to his sides. He nods, his lips pressed, holding back whatever it is he wants to say. I stare into the darkness of the forest and my eyelids droop. For the first time that night I feel tired, but I shake the mist from my head and step over the exposed roots. ‘I may not know what I am, but I know what I’m going to do.’

After a few more hours of trekking through the forest, wading through icy streams and clambering over mossy boulders, Wes stops me. His face is pale.

‘We need to rest. We only have another two hours before twilight. Let’s sleep.’

I watch the hoof prints veer off into the dark crowd of the forest. I remove my bow and arrows and look around for the nearest shade. The gape of an ancient seqioua nearby forms a shelter large enough to fit 10 grown men; it is perfect. Wes follows me in and starts to unravel his pack.

Sequoia sempervirens

‘We’ll sleep until twilight, and then I’ll get us some breakfast,’ Wes says. I lay down next to him on the blanket. It never occurred to us to bring two.

I snigger. ‘How about I get the breakfast and you skin it?’

He pokes me in the ribs and his breath warms my cold neck. ‘What are you trying to say?’

‘That your aim is awful and you’re better use in the kitchen.’ I smile and know that his wonky grin is spreading across his face. I reach behind me and he intertwines his fingers with mine. ‘Thank you for coming with me,’ I say. And before I can hear his reply, I drift into sleep.

I can hear ‘them’

The cliché that when something disastrous happens everything moves in slow motion, that time stands so still you can see the beat of a butterfly’s wings, is no cliché. It happens.

I see the cloud of smoke ripple into the air and my home crumble into a fiery mass with my parents hidden inside. My scream rings out like the eternal howl of a hell hound. I scratch for freedom against Wes’ grapple and the others who come to help blur into moving spots of sequoia greens and icy blues. All I can see is my mother’s cloudy eyes, my father’s bloody smile and me, standing frozen in front of them, doing nothing. I should have done something.

Wes pushes me, screaming into my face to run but I don’t hear his voice. His eyes are swollen and watery, his face glistens with sweat. My shoulders are shoved backwards, but I stay rooted. Then I hear them.

I can hear the thunder of horses’ hooves across the forest floor. Branches snap, metal clangs against metal and horses grunt. The sound is as clear as though it is the only sound reaching my ears. As though it is the only sound I am meant to hear. Reins snap. Riders pant. I even hear the heavy pound of a stronger horse outpacing the others. These were the king’s soldiers, they had destroyed my village, murdered my parents and they were heading away from Lysnowth.

See Hear

See Hear (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The sounds of the burning village return to me like the invisible shield keeping them out has collapsed.

‘Eva, look at me, are you hurt?’

‘No, I don’t think so.’ I glance into the dark forest towards the sounds I heard. The white glow from the moon shines through the canopy, lighting the mossy floor.

‘How are your family,’ I say.

‘They’re okay. A little shaken but otherwise fine.’

‘And your home?’

‘Still standing.’ His eyes avoid mine, which I want to thank him for but don’t have time.

‘So you still have your hunting gear?’

‘Yes, but…’

‘Good.’

I sprint in the direction of Wes’ home. I pass Dach who whimpers into his mother’s dress and Vintora who passes out blankets to the elders, her blue hair tinged purple by the flames. My ceremony throne is smashed into pieces and lies scattered across the stage, the ribbons flutter across it like rainbow bandages. Wes catches me up.

‘What are you doing, Eva? Your parents need you.’

‘My parents are…’ I stammer over the final words. ‘I’m going after the ones that did this.’

‘Evangeline, no.’ There was that voice again.

I shake my head, ‘I’m not listening to you.’

The voice

Wes tells me that an animal mark is burning through the skin of my back. He tells me that he can’t work it out yet, but whatever it is, it’s big. That was what had struck me during my ceremony. The lightning that lit my spine was this mark, the thing that made me defenceless while my parents were being attacked, while my village was being destroyed.

It’s like having the floor open up beneath you. You don’t know that it’s coming; but your gut senses something is wrong. Those dull aches that drag you down, but which make your heart accelerate like a frightened yorgh.

The floor opens up on me and I fall. In that moment I remember spending late evenings training with my father beneath the stars of Aurora. His booming laughs bouncing off the sequoia trees. I remember the day my mother saw me play my first Lysnowth ballad on her old violin. How she had danced around the house in bare feet, twirling and prancing to every movement I made. I think of the day I first met Wes, and how he defended my unusual appearance, reached for my hand and had never really let go.

I hear Wes calling my name, my father panicking and my mother sobbing, but they sound too far away to reach. I don’t see them.

‘Eva?’ I hear another voice. ‘You must pull yourself out Eva. We need you.’ The voice is fair, like a beardtongue petal floating down a slow-moving river. It sounds like it is coming from inside my head. It’s a voice I want to curl into.

‘Evangeline, you must move. You must get out.’

I shake my head. ‘Shut up,’ I say. There is something familiar about the voice, but I’ve never heard it before. How is that possible?

The voice growls and it is no longer fair, but the voice of an earthquake. ‘Evangeline Vale, snap out of it NOW.’

A blade scores down my spine and my body arches in protest.

I hear Wes’ voice pulling me back out of the darkness. I turn to him and his eyes lock onto my face. It’s then that I hear the roar of the blaze. My hair and dress plaster my skin. Sweat beads meander down my face and chest. The room vibrates. Everything is smothered in a dirty, grey haze. My eyes stream. I can no longer focus on the pile of bloody blankets that is my parents.

fire

fire (Photo credit: matthewvenn)

I hear a crack and look up. The autumn flames dance above me.

I hear the crash and prepare myself. Something hard throws me back. Wes’ hot breath sticks to my face as he drags me out along the stone floor. I stare at the crumbling mass of stone, inferno, smoke and wood that is my home. I picture my parents inside an a curdled shriek bursts from my lips.

You are Cuinn

It seems to me that everyone goes through life with an image of themselves. This image leads one to act a particular way, to chase certain dreams and to live life as one ought to live it. I had always believed that the image I had of myself was accurate: I was the only daughter of my parents, elders of the Lysnowth forest people. I trained with my father to hunt, stalk and kill; and I trained with my mother to play the violin. I was the odd one out in our village because I had darker skin and fire-red hair. In some lights my eyes were violet, in others they were gold. My parents used to say I was their miracle child and destined for a great future. The village children used to call me koynt. The rest of the Lysnowth people had milky skin, topaz eyes and bronze hair. But after I grew into myself, I realised that I didn’t care what others thought of me. I was Evangeline Vale and I was Lysnowth.

In three words, my father smashed that image like an iron hammer through a thin pane of glass.

‘You are Cuinn,’ he told me.

How can three small words take you away from everything that you knew, about yourself and your life?

I am Cuinn.

The Cuinn didn’t even exist. They were a tribe of people the older children used to tease us about to make us cry around the fires at night. The Cuinn were a myth, barely even a legend.

While my father sat bleeding beside my mother who was crushed beneath the stone wall of our kitchen, after the king’s soldiers destroyed my home, that’s when he decided to tell me I wasn’t even his.

I had laughed in his face. I had cackled, hissed, screamed, pounded my roaring heart within my rib cage and cried.  Wes had just stood there, transfixed onto some sort of invisible disease he could see emanating from me.

‘You were given to us by an elderly Cuinn woman, almost 18 years ago,’ he had said ‘and we were told to hide and protect you. That you were the future and we couldn’t let your whereabouts be known.’

‘I am not Cuinn, I am your daughter,’ I had finally said, ‘I’m Evangeline Vale’.

‘Yes you are my daughter, but you are also Cuinn.’

‘Eva,’ Wes shouted, ‘what is that on your shoulder?’

With all of the seizures, attacks, running through the forest and ridiculous lies spat from my father’s lips, I hadn’t realised I’d ripped the top of my dress open. I looked down to my bare shoulder, to see faint, black markings across my rusty skin. The markings swirled around each other and a shape resembling an eye seemed to be dissolving through my skin.

‘Eva?’ Wes whispered, ‘the Cuinn are said to have markings across their backs when they turn 18.’

I had spun and yelled at him to look at my back.

‘It will be okay, Eva,’ my father said, though I wasn’t listening.

I held my mind blank, waiting. ‘Well? Is there anything?’

Silence.

I glanced over my shoulder at Wes, whose mouth hung open like a dead yorgh. ‘What is it?’

It’s about to change

Fantasy-Girl-With-Red-Hair-wallpaper-66199548I stand at the edge of the village square, where my ceremony had been just an hour before. Instead of happy faces, ribbons, candles and dancing, I see rolling waves of black smoke and hear the angry roar of fires. My eyes sting and I splutter out my breath. My legs weaken, as though they have been drained, so I brace myself against Wes’ shoulders until the feeling passes. Wes stares open mouthed, but he doesn’t leave my side. The air ripples with heat, but goose bumps spread across my skin. I think I can hear the sounds of horses’ hooves, but it could be something else.

‘I need to find my family,’ I say.

Wes nods.

‘And you need to find yours.’ Before he can argue, I race off through the black wall of smoke towards my home.

The roof of our dyji is on fire. Half the side wall is toppled in.

‘Mum? Dad?’ I scream, but I can barely hear my voice above the chaos which surrounds me. I kick open the gate with my bare feet, ignoring the pain in my toes, and hurl myself through the front door.

‘Mum? Dad? Are you here?’

I scan the living area; the golden flames lick at me from above and the heat pushes me into the floor. I try not to cry in pain as my lungs and throat are sliced open with every breath.

‘We’re over here.’

I look towards the sound of their voices, and the floor is piled high with blackened stone. My parents are huddled together beneath my old horse blanket.

‘What are you doing here, we need to go, let’s move.’ I crawl over and realise that I still have Wes’ collel clutched in my hand. My mother’s face is streaked with tears, her curled hair stuck to her face with blood and she shivers beneath the blanket. My father has a bloody gash across his face, but he smiles at me.

‘Eva, you need to leave,’ he says.

‘What?’ I grab at his side to help him up, but he pushes me away.

‘No,’ he bellows. ‘You need to get out now. They may come back and if they do, you need to be gone.’

‘Not without you.’

I throw the blanket off them. My mother’s legs are mangled beneath the pile of stone and my father’s stomach is spurting blood. Bile and salt rise up in my throat and I swallow back vomit.

‘Listen, Eva,’ he smiles again, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. ‘We are not going anywhere, but you need to.’

Through all of the smoke and blood, I think of the winter’s day I fell into the creek and trapped my ankle beneath the root of a tree. I had cut open my leg and couldn’t find the strength to untangle myself. As I battled the swells of the creek water, I grew cold and I grew tired. Just as I thought I would pass out, my father freed my ankle and dragged my floppy body ashore. He had always been there to save me. I was not going to leave him.

‘No,’ I say through gritted teeth. I start to lift the stones off my mother’s legs ‘I’m not leaving you.’

‘Oh Duw,’ Wes is standing next to me. I hadn’t even noticed. He starts helping me without being asked.

‘Eva, stop.’

‘It’ll be okay, we’ll get you out.’

‘Eva, I said stop.’

‘It’s fine, Dad.’

‘Evangeline Vale, lemmyn.’

I stop.

His eyes sparkle with the reflection of the flames, but my mother’s are cloudy.

‘Your mother cannot be moved, and I’m certainly not going anywhere. Besides,’ he grabs my wrist and tugs me towards the floor, ‘there is something I need to tell you and something very important that you need to do.’

Tears fill my eyes and everything goes blurry.

‘The reason the king’s soldiers were here… they were looking for a young woman…’