Part I: Ynas
~ 1.1: Vaye. Year 1318, Mid Winter. ~
The girl was fast asleep, yet far from peaceful. Her chest heaved with each breath and Vaye watched her fight for air as her wound swelled and collapsed…
“Vaye, the potion.”
She reached into her satchel for the deadly fluid and a memory flashed through her mind: young Nossië, lithesome and brave, racing toward freedom as an arrow plunged into her back. The savages paid dearly, but Nossië would not survive the night.
Vaye collected herself and returned to the present. Five young children lay across the marble table, fast asleep under the spell of Vaye’s soporific herbs, and the smallest one had a gash in her gut that boded imminent death. Shadows floated across her ivory skin in the torchlight as its flame swelled and retracted in concert with each breath, dancing to the rhythm of the child’s fragile body.
The two men waited for Vaye to act, impatient with her delay. Their minds were occupied with procedures and results, too busy to notice to the resonance between the fire and the girl, or even to ponder why the flame should sway at all when they were enclosed in an underground sanctum with no windows. Neither noticed nor grasped the implications of events that unfolded before them, yet they believed their concerns constituted reality. Vaye knew much more than she was willing to reveal, and said simply, “She has a strong constitution.”
Nurin and Dinad exchanged a look. “Pardon my intrusion,” Dinad said, “but she is wasted and frail.”
“She was gravely wounded, yet she breathes well. She will heal.”
Nurin furrowed his brow and spoke in his most severe tone. “The child is almost dead,” he said. “Allow her to pass in peace.”
Vaye positioned herself between the two men and the girl, touched her and felt a rapid pulse. There wasn’t much time. To end the discussion, she intoned, “Please let me do my work.”
“Blast!” Dinad interjected. “First the slave-boy and now this?”
Nurin aimed his chin in the air to reclaim some authority and inquired, “What of the slave?”
Vaye turned to the vault. The giant metal door was locked, but could not shroud the powerful presence of the boy just beyond. Solemnly, she said, “He resisted the procedure.”
“Use your potion,” Dinad insisted. “His mind is too strong and he is too old to integrate.”
Ignoring Dinad, Nurin turned to Vaye and commanded, “Continue your work on the slave after you finish the others. If the girl does survive, she must never learn who she is.”
~ 1.2: Aera. Year 1319, Early Summer. ~
Aera was alone, aligned with the world, exactly where she belonged. Everything was familiar and even in the darkest reaches of night, her feet knew where to go. She was finally home.
The forest was alive, spilling with music, breathing along with the beat of her heart. A choir of insects crooned while an expanse of white trees danced in the mist, and Aera swirled through them, her long hair billowing. She looked around to admire the scenery and realized the trees had no leaves at all. White birds lined every branch as far as the eye could see, their feathers shimmering in the moonlight.
Aera imagined she also might take flight. She moved her arms like wings and pranced about, pretending to fly, leaving trails in the low mist until it became so dense that she could no longer see her legs. Fog tumbled around itself and morphed into faces that surrounded her from all sides. Their hollow eye sockets stared Aera down as a chill fell upon the forest.
She swatted at the faces and slashed them away, but more formed instantly. Faces appeared between faces until she was engulfed by a mob dissolving and reforming around her. She thrust at the invaders with increasing force, but it was never enough. They continued to multiply until everything was a blur.
The air itself compressed and pushed against Aera. Her ears rang and her head throbbed; she feared she might implode. Just when she thought she could bear no more, the faces opened their mouths and hissed in high pitches that congealed in distorted unison. Aera screamed in terror and the birds echoed with a shriek and flew off, shrouding the sky as the trees were laid bare. The collective bedlam of wings reverberated like a storm and faded into the distance, leaving Aera alone with the howling fog.
The faces enclosed her with their collective screech, and one pair of foul lips swirled out of synch with the rest. In a ghastly low pitch, it cackled: “Filén na erë lëoryán assë të yo-fayanta i nalanna hyánië votheldë. Në Laimandil ë i namanya, sinë veskénto i suínanya më Onórnëan.”
She pressed her hands against her ears, desperate to silence the scathing screech. “Sinë veskénto i suínanya më Onórnëan. Sinë veskénto i suínanya më…”
“Wake up, Samies! Time to do your duty… we are all the same!”
Aera jolted awake, heart racing and head pounding. Voices and footsteps shuffled about, and the terrible drone rang in her mind: Sinë veskénto i suínanya më Onórnëan.
“Move it! Let’s go, girls. Follow your group!”
The Samies jumped up from their mats, scurrying to ready themselves. Aera arranged her hair in front of her to shield the scar on her stomach, then grabbed clothes from the cubby and dressed. When she finished, she reached for her sandals, but they were missing and she could not find them anywhere. The other girls lined up by the door and chattered in shrill tones that swirled into a shriek. Sinë veskénto i suínanya më Onórnëan…
“What’s the problem, kid?” boomed Officer Onus. Aera repeated the question to herself. What’s the problem… Sandals. She needed her sandals. Where were they?
“Ey-ruh lost her sandals!” Doriline squealed. “Maybe they’re stuck in her hair!”
Laughter exploded in piercing tones and all eyes leered at Aera. “Pooooor Ey-ruh! Skinny little Ey-ruh…”
Cheery faces blurred together as Doriline beamed with pleasure. Aera wanted to smash her toothy smile, but the room spun too fast and her head pounded the nightmare chorus: Sinë veskénto i suínanya më Onórnëan…
“Samie Eh-ruh!” bellowed Onus. “By Riva’s Trees, who do you think you are?”
Aera froze in place, stunned. The room became quiet but for the groan of floorboards beneath Onus as he stomped toward her. He parked his giant belly beside Aera’s face, bent with difficulty, and picked up her sandals… right behind her.
“Hegh,” Onus snorted. “Oblivious. Next time, take your hair out of your eyes.”
The Samies roared with laughter, and Aera stared at the ground, trying to remain upright.
“Get in line,” Onus snarled. He dropped her sandals, glanced at the timepiece on his wrist and demanded, “You think you’re so ghaadi important, we should all wait for you?”
Aera dragged herself to the back of the line. As she joined the ritual walk over The Hill to the Dining Hall, she buried herself so deeply in her hair that all she saw was the grass beneath her. She dug her sandals into the dirt, one step after the other, crushing the world as hard as she could.
The Group filed into the Dining Hall and Aera was consumed by a whirl of echoing chatter. Doriline was near the front of the line, surrounded by people, gabbing into the noise. Sinë veskénto i suínanya më Onórnëan…
Aera gritted her teeth, straining to hold herself together. After an eternity, she reached the food, filled her mug and looked for a table, but the clamor was unbearable. She made her way out the door, carried her meal up The Hill and sat by a large boulder at the top, finally alone.
Birds sang everywhere and the breeze carried an aroma of summer grass, but Aera’s ears still rang with Doriline’s shriek and the nightmare voices. Where did those bizarre words come from? Did the phrases have meaning, or were they just random nonsense? The white forest was familiar, but Aera did not know why. She could not remember white trees anywhere. As she ate, she gazed down at Southside Forest, looking for any white branches, wishing she could run into the shadows…
Gong-gong. Gong-gong. The bi-hourly bell clanged across the river and, momentarily, a nearby whistle crashed its shrill thunder. Children poured into the field and Aera headed down The Hill to join one of many lines. Officer Luce stood at rigid alert before the crowd and announced, “Five to Six Group, proceed to Art Class!”