A Gift from The Great Lady
Dark stars floated across the black water. The moon reflected back on herself, as if the sea were nothing more than a vanity mirror for her eyes only. What shock she would have seen were she to glimpse down upon the world below and see that her children – the stars – had climbed down from the heavens, to swim in the forbidden waters of the world.
Luckily for the moon, she was not in a vain mood tonight.
Cetilla, however, could look at nothing else but the twinkling lights of the ships sailing towards her. The hollow volcano she called home towered over the sea like a lighthouse with no soul. A pillar of the worlds dried blood; it had taken the Ceryns and their kin an age to carve it into a palace for the people.
‘The vast stomach within had been fed well by these wretched stars,’ Cetilla thought to herself angrily. ‘Greedy old thing.’
Moving loose strands of dark hair from her eyes, she stood proudly on her balcony, forcing back a violent urge to weep and wail as she could hear plenty other children doing right now. Like ghosts howling in the forests, their cries echoed and shook throughout the palace.
‘Only serving to make the night even more unpleasant,’ she thought bitterly.
Her father had insisted that she not leave her room under any circumstances. Two aging guards stood watch over her door, their own fear seeping through the thick wood and giving the air a chill. They had taught Cetilla how to climb the powerful trees of the jungle that layered most of the tiny island nation. She didn’t bother to think of the irony as she deftly jumped from the balcony and let the air whip around her cheeks.
And then, with only a moment of leeway to get it right. She stuck out her hand and caught the vine that laced the grand windows of the Shaman’s quarters, stopping her from becoming a bloody puddle to be drunk by the sand. She knew that it would have enough to sup on shortly.
The window wasn’t a window at all, but a large archway that lead into a cavernous room filled with shelves and cupboards bursting with salves and potions made by the Shaman. Even though it was dark, Cetilla had been in this room often enough to know that the soothing paste she needed was only a short distance inside.
“You should be in your room,” Shaman Shehani said while lighting up the gloom with the orange burn of his tobacco pipe. “Not creeping around my stores like a thief.”
Cetilla wasn’t concerned by his harsh and angry tone. She knew her uncle had been a sailor once, and many said he had sailed beyond the reach of the Til-Till Horde that had consumed the continent of Karotho and was now sailing towards them. The Five Ports was the ultimate goal of any sailor. Those captains who managed to sail to each and retrieve a trinket to prove it, were considered the mightiest of all those who rode the waves. Shehani had visited three and got so bored, he ventured out onto the oceans beyond the sea.
“I can’t stay trapped up there,” she countered as she rubbed the minty cream on the red burns that marred her palms. “Not if this is to be my last night on the island.”
“You’re too eager to jump to defeat,” her uncle stood from the matt he had sat cross legged upon. His great hair was braided and fell across his face as Cetilla’s did on hers. Two large gouges had scarred down his right cheek and the little sparkling ribbons woven into each braid, lit them up like canyons. “This volcano has saved us more than once before, young goat. And we have provisions to last for many moons.”
“They have horses!” Cetilla was sure this would flank her wiser uncles argument.
“Whether its a bear, a lion, a beast or a horse,” his eyes glinted green. “No animal may pass through stone.”
“Yes, uncle,” she nodded. “But many animals can stroll through holes.”
The old Shaman looked ready to cry, as if the very core of him had just fallen from his nieces mouth.
“Why the Great Lady would send such a prize to destroy us, I’ll never know,” he put his hands to his eyes, swiped away the tears of betrayal and turned towards his own quarter’s door.
Three heavy knocks came in quick succession. Cetilla had always been struck by wonder when her uncle had done small things that showed he knew the future. Moving potion bottles before they could be knocked over, planting seeds amongst the flowers that blossomed on his balcony when he sensed a great rain coming and when he would warn Cetilla that she would hurt herself on one of her expeditions into the jungle. He was always waiting where he knew she would emerge because, despite the warning, Cetilla still went on her adventures, injuries be damned.
But he hadn’t seen the stars coming across the water.
So maybe he wasn’t all that spectacular after all.
“Come in,” he bellowed, the voice of the trees within him, as Cetilla dashed to hide behind a stack of books that had been delivered two days past from the Great Port of Garuni.
“Your excellence,” the guards bowed reverently before their Shaman. Cetilla was able to peek at what was going on if she craned her neck around a particularly large tome about a land she had never heard of. The Land of the Vile. “They have landed on the beach. Their vanguard makes for the breach in the palace. This is no random act of war. They know.”
“May the Great Lady give back what she is so relentless in taking,” the Shaman said as saliva filled his mouth, ready to be spat in disgust.
“They come for the-“
“Yes, yes, I can glean that for myself, thank you,” he clenched his fists around the yellow garb of his plainly decorated robes. “Tell the Chief I will be with him momentarily.”
“He’s asked for you at once,” the guard said sheepishly. The Ceryns were not used to the burden of metal, preferring instead the natural armour or sheer dumb luck – but the Til-Till Horde were fearsome marksman, and armour was the only chance any soldier would have.
And even those were slim.
With a cold, hard look Shaman Shehani sent the guard scuttling from the room, armour clinking with the sudden, jerky movements.
“Cetilla, come,” he turned towards the books. “You must leave at once. There is no time to protect you. Go, go, my girl. You must turn to the forest, as your mother did all those years ago. The terrors that lurk in there are less likely to hurt a little girl.”
Lies, Cetilla knew. Nowhere was safe for little girls or boys. Nowhere.
Grabbing together handfuls of potion bottles and dried roots. The Shaman created a hasty survival pack of sorts, in a small hand woven satchel. The clinking noise between the bottles was as loud as the cannon fire beginning to erupt along the beach and Cetilla knew she would rather face the dangers of the jungle alone, than draw attention to herself with that knapsack.
“I’ll tell your father,” he nodded solemnly as he ushered her back towards the balcony she had climbed in on. “You can make the jump I’m sure.”
The Shaman’s quarters were not as high from the ground as they were beneath Cetilla’s own room, that was true, but there was nothing to stymy her fall, except for a small wagon of banana leaves.
Desperation tinted the Shaman’s emerald eyes. Tears were welling up once more as he looked down on the niece that he had raised as much as his brother.
“You are the future of our people. This tree is all but dead now. You must be safe, little acorn. To rebuild our strength once again,” Shehani’s words were interrupted by a flaming piece of shrapnel that plunged with such ferocity through the air, that it lodged itself into the mountainside. “Go, go, go. Fly, you beautiful creature you. Fly and you’ll be free.”
Cetilla wished she could fly. She was adventurous, of that there was no doubt. But in a calculated way. The odds were usually always in her favour. But this night, they were not. They were only in favour of the men pouring freely from the bellies of large warships, all beached across the sand in the high tide.
She cursed the Great Lady in the sky. Cursed her and her kin for sending that buggering gift to her people.
The night had shone with a great orange glow as a phoenix came to roost on the volcano just one moon past. Eighty people had lost their souls to the Great Lady by dawn. It was the size of a ship, that glistened with gems and jewels only the gods could smith. Dark grey flakes fell from the stone, like the shedding of a snakes scales. Cetilla’s father, Chief Ceryn, had been the first to enter the crash site. Through smoke that still smouldered hours after its coming to our world, the Chief had emerged from the fog with his face ashen white.
“War is coming,” he whispered to the Shaman.
They had all known it, but hearing their great leader say it, turned the Ceryn tribe’s blood to ice.
“Go!” the Shaman exclaimed as he began to run towards his chamber door.
Cetilla breathed in the night. Wood was burning. Gunpowder salted the air with its metallic tinge. The smell of death began to slink its way across the sand as a company, no more than twenty strong, of the broad shouldered, dark haired savages came barrelling towards the palace, like a bullet from their ships guns. An arrow of boiled leather and sharp swords.
The young princess inhaled the stink that was her country under siege once more, and then stepped form the balcony. She didn’t even bother to count her coconuts as there was nothing she could do. There was no vine to catch. No plan to help her survive. She had to put all her faith in the Great Lady who had already forsaken Cetilla so much that, as she fell, she decided the goddess in the sky owed her one.
A chance to survive.
She landed with a sickening crash on the banana leaves. Splintered wood now stained with blood coddled the princess as she sat amongst the rubble, dazed by the shock of having the wind taken from her so violently. She felt out through her body, no stranger to the odd tumble, and made sure there was nothing broken. She trusted her uncle so implicitly that it was a shock when she realised what she had done. Could she not have went out through one of the many tunnels burrowing outwards through the palace?
No, probably not. If she was seen, she would have been taken back to her room in an instant.
“Clever old goat,” she muttered to herself as she stood from her crash site.
With fortune, she rooted around the knapsack her uncle had given her and saw that none of the potions had smashed in the descent.
“You’re giving me all the gifts tonight, aren’t you My Great Lady?” she said sarcastically to the sky.
More falling balls of cannon fire were launched from the ship and down on the small array of guards that and been sent to defend the gaping hole in the volcano. They held themselves well for men more used to laying under the hot sun and drinking by massive bonfires that lit up the beaches during festivals, like beacons of beautiful, flickering flame. Armed only with spears, Cetilla watched as they danced and spun, darted and jabbed with their rough made weapons. They had no shields and the armour seemed only to hinder their fluid movements, making them slower and more vulnerable targets for the great long swords and heavy styles employed by the savage horde.
A war horn called out high over the steady beat of drums. A ship, twice as large as any other in the attacking fleet, was gracefully making its way towards the bloodied beach. A storm had begun in the fighting. Large lashings of lightening came pouring from the sky, pillars of terrifying light that made the black clouds of their moorings shine and the rain they accompanied, sparkle. Thunder followed their more flashy friend and drowned out the sound of steel clanging against steel.
Some of the more astute guards had picked up the weapons of their defeated adversaries. Unskilled in their use, they gave themselves a better chance of piercing the unholy skin of whatever beast had been culled to fashion their armour.
Smaller boats descended from their mother on the near horizon. The drum beats steadily reclaimed the air that the thunder had stolen from them and the war horn called like a frightened mule once more. The attackers, plainly winning the foray, pulled back. In stunned gratitude the guards of Ceryn fell to their knees and thanked the moon, who was only staring at herself, so vainly above.
“Stupid men,” Cetilla was cruel. But a fifteen foot drop would do that to a girl.
She slid like a shadow along the mountains base, keeping to the darkness and blending herself into the stone. She was thankful that she had changed from her usual pink attire, into a more neutral and camouflaged pale blue. She didn’t for a second think that the battle was over. But she knew she must get to her father and leave this awful island as soon as they could.
She wanted to trust her old goat of an uncle, but the thought of not seeing her father’s kind smile again made her heart begin to tear at the seams. Short of breath and still unseen, she slipped behind a group of archers who, for a reason Cetilla could not fathom, were standing outside the main doors to the dormant volcano, and closer towards her father.
She had not the talent of her uncle to guess the future, but she trusted her instinct no matter what and she knew that her father would be with the Totem Stone, as the locals had begun to call it, and so that’s where she would go too.
Fuck the horde.
She saw a large shade stepping from one of the small rowing boats. It jumped as soon as it was free of his mighty weight and seven other, not as large yet still fearsome, men grouped around him. The soldiers who had been in the attack’s vanguard, now lined up with the other men that had been forming in front of their large warships.
Cetilla was disappointed, as only a young girl can be when faced with such danger. She had heard stories and tales all her life of the magnificent horses that the horde used to flank the powerful armies that had once ruled Karotho. But they hadn’t bothered to bring any to this little rock so far from anywhere truly important.
“The blooming cheek,” Cetilla couldn’t help herself from saying aloud, offended they hadn’t considered her home worthy enough.
Little did she know that the large shade that had stepped forth from the water was the Horde-King himself.
Khaturk the Patient.