First went her legs, crumbling beneath her as she fell. Then her torso yanked back onto the icy plateau. A scream ripped from her throat as pain split her side and she curled into a ball. Lying among a mass of hot liquid she could feel the blood cooling against her neck and shoulders. Through her struggled breaths, she could feel the icy sting of death gripping at her heart. Its claws dug into her and she cried out, trying hard to fight back her tears—but they would not be stopped. Her pulse pounded in her ears. She was helpless against the onslaught of words as they howled in her ears. The moaning voices around blended into a haunting tune. The song of a dying soldier. The harsh wind carried a cruel companion that cut her to the bone. It nipped her ears and her nose and her lips as she gasped for breath. The air, however, was much too thin and she continued to beg silently to keep her body moving, to keep breathing. She had to keep breathing. Cressida tried to lift her arm. It wouldn’t move. Why wouldn’t it move? A spiteful blast of wind whipped over the top of her and she tensed, her expression twisted in anguish and she croaked out a final cry, but her lungs failed her. Her head pounded from lack of oxygen, and her body was on fire. Her side pulsed and the fluffy whiteness soaked up her blood like a sponge, turning a very strange shade of red. With every moment that passed, she felt weaker. Her eyes lay open, but had lost their luster as she stared off into the empty abyss above her. Her mind disoriented and her mouth dry, Water. She thought. I need water. A face lingered in her sight, then it faded. The face was empty and rippled like a pond when a rock has fallen into its depths. It was an untouchable face that sent chills down her back.
In the deepest confines of her mind she could hear the wicked chuckle of an unknown adversary. He had won. Her heart sank, shattering as it went, cutting her to the core. How could she have lost?
Despair snaked around her torso and began to pull her down, down into the darkest pit from which she would never return. She felt…somewhat sad—no, she felt much more than sorrow. More than despair. She could feel the very insides of her body slowly freezing, crystallizing with sharp pains everywhere. She was lying on a bed of daggers and the pain was distinct as she felt it puncture her heart. It was much more than the agony of sorrow; it was the bitter prison of an unjust
Cressida sat up abruptly, breathing hard. She looked at her hands, then to her humid surroundings. She rested a hand on her forehead and wiped the beads of sweat away. The dream felt so real. Shivering, she searched the canopy above her for some disturbing sign of bad luck. There was no crow and there was no phantom. It was simply a bad dream—or was it? Slowly she lay back into the thread hammock and closed her eyes. She swallowed, covering her face with her hand. “It was just a dream…” she reassured herself, “Nothing more than a dream.”
“Cressida? Are you awake?” A small voice drifted up from below. She peeked over the edge of the hammock and tucked her long ebony hair behind her ear. “Cressida! You slept in!” the voice continued.
Cressida didn’t doubt that. The sun was already filtering through the canopy of the forest, such a warm scene clashed with the cold abyss from before. “I’m awake Taga.” She said uneasily, “What hour of the day is it?”
“It’s about the third hour since the sun came up.” Taga replied. Tagalin was seven years old, going on eight in the near future.
“The third hour!?” Cressida sat up once more and slid over the edge of the hammock onto the wooden planks of the tree hut.
“Yup! Shembe was looking for you.” She smiled brightly, displaying the missing tooth in the center of her mouth.
Cressida pulled her hair up and tied it back with a leather strip. “How long has it been since she asked for me?” She was distracted and seemed to lose focus as she stared at the ground.
“Not long.” She replied, smiling harder.
“Not long as in no one could find me or she just asked for me?” she looked up at last, fiddling with her hair. At last she tossed it behind her and let out a sigh. It was only a dream. What was she worried about?
“Cre-ssaaa,” She said in exasperation, “Look!”
“What?” Cressida asked. She examined her little sister. She saw nothing. “What am I supposed to be seeing?”
“I lost my tooth!” Tagalin said triumphantly.
“Oh. I see. That’s nice Taga.” She turned to look out the small window cut into the wall and viewed something going on below. “Answer the question, please.”
“It is important Cressa! I lost my tooth!” Taga stomped her foot on the floor and turned to leave. “No one could find you. I shouldn’t have gotten you either.” She marched toward the door.
“Taga.” She called her back, “Wait!”
She stopped and looked back at Cressida with a sulky expression. “What?”
“Thank you.” She said, her expression softened and she smiled at her younger sister. “I’ll be down in a minute.”
Tagalin rolled her eyes, “whatever. Hurry up. They want to start the ritual soon.”
Cressida nodded, “Okay.” Tagalin exited the room and Cressida closed her eyes. She sat on the hammock and stared at the wall a moment longer, trying to shake the feeling from earlier. She smoothed her hair back from her tanned face and then she stood and walked out the door.
Cressida’s hut was built on the second of the eight tall redwood trees that created the center of the village. It was said that the large circle of redwoods were made this way by the powerful magic of the Shembe to protect the eight ground huts and the incantation circlet from harm. Cressida observed the people walking to and fro the eight huts on the floor of the forest, building some sort of altar in the center of the incantation circlet. It would appear that a sacrifice was about to take place.
She walked down the spiral of stairs that webbed from tree to tree. It was an intricate maze of bridges, stairs and ramps made from fresh wood that they had sealed to the tree. The people of the Reyachh lived in the tops of the cedars and used their system of synthetic pathways to get around their domain—the Reyachh Forest—and keep tabs on those who so foolishly entered onto it. It was virtually an impenetrable fortress.
She turned and walked down the pathway to the moving box. It was a cube-shaped room connected by ropes to a metal object that the knights called a ‘pulley’. The idea was to use it the same way that the metal chain pulled the drawbridge up at their castle, only this was used to transport people to different levels of the trees. It took a while to get used to the Moving box, but now that she was used to it, it wasn’t so horrible. Cressida stepped inside and turned to the guard at the pulley start. “Ground floor.” She said softly.
“Good morning Cressa.” He replied with a warm smile.
She paused, weary from her dream. “Good morning Uri.” Men were scarce in the Reyachh forest. It was not a community in which they could enter lightly. The only men who were allowed to stay were the personal guards of Either the Shembe or the captain of the Reyachh legions. Cressida was the latter.
She reached the ground floor and walked into the center of the eight huts where her gaze was drawn toward a frail woman with beads and jewels braided into her hair on golden threads. Instantly her fears of the dream were calmed, as long as the Shembe was around, there would be no trouble. “Shembe!” she called as she walked through the maze of people. “My Shembe, you have called for me?” Cressida did the traditional bow, covering her heart with her fist.
The woman looked up from the busywork, from behind one would not expect the woman to look quite so haggish. Like most women in the village she had thick, healthy black hair and tanned skin. Her face however, was scarred and scabbed and her leaf-colored eyes were now a faded jade color with the occasional white spot where she was losing sight.
The old woman gave a smile, showing off the few teeth she had left and said, “Good Morning Cressa.” She hunched over as she ground the last of the kum-kum berries into a fine paste with the inside of a watcooth tree. “Indeed. I called you for a very important matter.” She motioned toward the edge of the circle of trees. “There was a slight disturbance at the gates. Adonis and Adrienne brought back something intriguing—perhaps you should take a look?”
Cressida frowned, “Trouble at the gates? Was it Allenthos again?”
The Shembe just shook her head. “Go look, Cressa.”
Cressida nodded and swept a low bow, “I will.” She glanced behind her at Uri who had followed her off the Moving Room. Together they walked out of the protective circle created by the huts and approached the Hold, where the twins stood, guarding something.
“Twins,” she called, “What star rises in the east?”
Adonis was the first to react, he lowered himself, followed by his sister, onto one knee and covered his heart with his fist. “The guardian who sings to the forest.”
“May the Shembe bless you.” Cressida replied. “Rise, Adonis. Shembe said you had trouble earlier?”
He stood and motioned to the hold—which was a pit for intruders—“I found this one armed, with only a piece of paper as the king’s word that he was to enter.” Adonis said.
Cressida frowned, “He came armed? Is he a fool?” She looked down at the man. He was not conscious at the moment, he had a gash on his forehead but his armor was intact. Like any other prisoner, he was tied to a post, blindfolded and gagged. “Not much of a knight, is he?” She asked as she gave Adonis a sly smile. “How many men did it take to disarm him?”
“Twelve.” He replied.
The smile melted off her face and she looked violently back to the soldier. “Didn’t you use the darts?”
“Of course we did.” Adrienne interjected, then she looked away and in a softer voice, she said, “but he had means of staying awake…”
“Means?” Cressida gave him a queer look, her eyebrow raised. “What kind of means.”
Adonis spoke then, “He cut his arm, Cressida.”
“He cut his arm with a knife. The adrenaline must have overpowered our drug, we had to manually take him down.” He said.
“Who is he?” Cressida asked, looking over the edge again.
“We don’t know. What we do know is that he’s from the first legion of the Elite Task Force.” He motioned to the insignia on his chest; engraved in the breastplate was a dragon with two heads twisted around a circle of stars. In other words, he was under the jurisdiction of the Tyrant Mervin, Prince of Labron.
Cressida frowned, “The prince?”
The two nodded simultaneously.
“Good work…” she said, distracted as she looked at the young man. “I should like to speak with him.” Her eyes lingered on the soldier. She looked up at Adonis, who was staring at her. “Well?” She asked, irritably, “What are you waiting for?”
Adonis jumped, startled. He slid into the pit and walked up to him. “Soldier,” He said darkly. “Open your eyes.”
Cressida slid down after him and stood near the wall so she could observe but the soldier did not comply.
Adonis took the wooden end of his spear and jammed it against the man’s skull. At last, the man reacted. His head snapped up and a shouted in agony. He pulled at the ropes holding him to the wooden pole; his wild eyes searched desperately for who was responsible for his rude awakening. His eyes rested on Adonis and he muttered something vile under his breath.
“Zhi su whok.” Cressida spoke softly, drawing his attention to her. “Kinae hwo giddsa fuden.”
The soldier bit down on his gag in protestation, a look of disgust crossed his face. He looked away and seemed to relax.
“So you do understand,” she continued in his language. “Who are you?” Her eyes moved up to Adonis, “Remove his gag.” She ordered as she stood away from the wall and uncrossed her arms.
“Yes.” Adonis responded. He approached the soldier, who growled vehemently.
“Hold still.” She threatened.
The soldier reluctantly did what she asked. As soon as the gag was removed however, he jerked toward Adonis. Adonis leapt back and lifted his spear, point facing him this time. He bent low into a battle stance.
“The Prince will kill you when he hears how you’ve treated his ambassador.” He said, challenging his female captor with his eyes. “And he will show no mercy.”
Cressida chuckled, “We do not fear your Prince. He has no power over the Reyachh.”
“He is the only reason your pathetic village survives!” he shot back, his voice raising several notches.
An amused smile played across her lips and she folded her arms. “Is that so?” She stepped closer with the stealth of a panther. “Who do you think you are? The Reyachh have been around for centuries. And they’re not about to go anywhere.” She walked around him in a circle, assessing his strength. She caught sight of the infected wound on the side of his arm and cringed.
“What bothers you more, Lady? The incompetence of your warriors or the strength of our soldiers?” he asked, giving a sickly grin.
Cressida scowled. He seemed to have regained his composure. She stepped forward and grabbed his hair, forcing his head back against the pole. She pressed a knife to his throat, “Why are you here, soldier?” she asked, her eyes narrow.
“It doesn’t matter anymore, you’re going to kill me anyway,” he said. He grit his teeth and tried to relax his tense body. For a long moment, the two stared at one another, daring the other to look away. At last, he was the one to break their gaze.
Cressida was offended by his lack of tradition and disrespect. She released his hair and handed the dagger to Adonis. “Hold onto this.” She started up the edge of the large pit, “Wait until I am out of hearing.”
“And then?” he asked quietly, certain he knew the answer.
“Give him his wish.” She glanced back once more at the soldier to survey his defiant expression.
“I don’t understand, Cressida ,” he hesitated.
“Kill him.” She replied.
Cressida sat at the incantation circlet after the sacrifice was over. The goat’s remains were charred and the trees still hummed with the recognition of its agonized yell. In some respects, it was very inhumane. Inhumane, but necessary. A sacrifice had to be made every week or the forest would leave them to fend for themselves. Despite the vulgarity of the beast, everyone said that it was a gift from the gods. No one questioned the idea because it seemed so divine. Cressida on the other hand, knew better. She shook her head and avoided Skrenthos’ eyes. She knew he’d stolen it and then made a big scene of it the next morning. That’s how he was. He was always doing dramatic things for a laugh, even if Cressida was the only one who ever knew about his misdeeds. He wasn’t looking at her now though, and her thoughts turned inward. The day had flown by and now as she gazed into the glittering fire, she listened to it snap and crackle. Somehow it seemed to bring her back to the dream. What a horror. Something about it bothered her. It was something she’d seen near the end of it…something about the face she’d seen—no something about the person himself.
She looked up at Skrenthos and let out a sigh. “Oh, Hello Skrenthos.”
“Cressa, you tuned me out again.” Skrenthos motioned to the seat next to her, “May I?”
He sat beside her and leaned back against the rock. “You look tired, long night?”
She nodded again.
“Not very talkative today, are ya?” He looked over at her, his hand found hers. “What happened?”
Cressida made a face.
“C’mon now, don’t be like that.” He glanced around; most people had retreated to the trees or to their posts. “I won’t tell anyone. I promise.”
She looked at him for a moment, at last she said, “With last night?”
“With the Soldier from Labron.” He corrected.
“Oh. Him.” She said softly.
“Yes, him.” His smile turned to a look of concern. “It’s not like you to be so cruel Cressa. So…why don’t you tell me what happened?”
She fell silent, looking again at the fire. She adjusted herself and rested her head on his shoulder. “I don’t wish to speak of it.”
“Cressa…” from the tone of his voice, she could tell he was frowning, but he rested his head on hers nonetheless. “You killed an innocent man.”
Cressa sat upright. Their heads smacked together and they both groaned. Cressida winced, “Innocent? He was anything but innocent!”
“Why? Cressa?” He asked, irritably massaging his head with his hand. “Because he hurt your pride?”
The remaining villagers quieted and Cressida shifted uncomfortably. She lowered her voice and replied, looking into his eyes to make her point clear. “I am the head general and my actions will not be questioned.” She stood and stalked toward the forest.
“Cressida!” He shouted as he followed behind, then he lowered his voice. They were making a scene as it was. He smiled apologetically at the onlookers but hastily followed, “Cressida! Hold on!”
She walked deeper into the forest and out of hearing of the other villagers. She turned at a large tree and disappeared into the thick, untrimmed leaves of a weeping willow.
“Cressida!” he lagged briefly behind and threw the branches aside to find Cressida already up in the branches. He caught her ankle and held it fast. “Hold on a minute, Cressa.”
“Let go.” She said.
“Cressa, please. I beg you. Don’t run away. It never solves anything.”
“Let go!” she repeated, pulling at her leg.
“Why are you so…difficult!? Cressida! You’re acting like a child!”
She held her head high, snuffing his attempts to insult her. She could feel the indignation boiling within her, swelling deep inside her chest, and then she let out a slow breath. She wasn’t acting like a child.
“Jeeze, Cressa.” He muttered. Skrenthos released her ankle and sat at the base of the tree. He looked off at the branches and shut his mouth. He let out a sigh of frustration as she climbed higher into the tree. “I know you can still hear me.”
She let out a scoff, “Go home Skrenthos.”
“Oh that’s really mature.” He said, rolling his eyes. “A guy tries to comfort a beautiful young lady, and she snuffs him by telling him to go home.”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
“You’re right. I am. Then again, I’m always ridiculous. I’m beginning to think you’re complimenting me.” He closed his eyes, trying to pinpoint how high in the tree she’d gotten.
“I’m serious Skrenthos…go home.”
“And I’m telling you, you’re acting like a child! Come down so we can talk…I’m so done with groveling. It’s not good for my image.” It was silent for a few minutes. Somewhere in the darkness a cricket was chirping and he let out another sigh. After a few minutes when Cressida had calmed down, she dropped beside him, sitting a few feet away. “I’m not going to bite you.” He said in exasperation. He scooted closer to her, watching her movements apprehensively as if she was going to jump up and run away. But she didn’t. He let silence fill the space between them.
Cressida spoke first. “I was not acting like a child.” She said bitterly.
Skrenthos began to laugh, “Yes you were.”
“I was not.” She paused and then she began laughing, “I sound like Tagalin.” She shook her head and hid her face in her hands. “Ugh….”
“No.” he corrected her again, “Tagalin sounds like you.” He placed his hand on her head and playfully pushed her away. “In any case, you’re no different from anyone else.” He sighed, most of the females in the forest of the Reyachh were brave in a fight, but in a battle where their emotions were conflicting, they weren’t sure how to deal with them. In Cressida’s case, she would hide in a tree. It wasn’t so bad, but later she’d have to face the other females and he knew it was eating her up inside.
“I am different.” She said, mildly insulted.
“Oh. Well, thanks for telling me.” He paused, “Yenno, not to sound really forward, but I really like you.”
Cressa burst out laughing, “What?”
“I told you. I really like you.” He was joking of course, but that’s what made it so funny.
She rolled her eyes and leaned against the tree. “Well, that’s good. You probably should like me.” She glanced sideways, “and since we’re promised, I suppose I should like that fact…”
“There’s a but?” he asked.
“Maybe.” She said dully.
“Well in that case…” he put his arm around her waist, scooting until they were right next to one another and he kissed her cheek softly. “I’d better hear what’s eating you.” He tightened his grip, “And don’t runaway again.”
She tensed. It wasn’t unusual for Skrenthos to show affection in such a way, but she wasn’t really in the mood. “Nothing.” She said quietly. “I guess I’m just stressed.”
“The soldier.” He reminded her.
“I know.” She frowned at him. “He threatened us.” She folded her arms. “Why do you care, anyway?”
He chuckled, “Oh, I don’t know…Maybe my promised is a psycho?” He rested his chin on her shoulder. He breathed in the scent of her hair. “That might be a good reason.”
Cressida fell silent. “I’m not a psycho. If a soldier is stupid enough to challenge the Reyachh then swift punishment will—”
“He said he had a paper from the king.”
“Okay, prince then.”
“But that’s not honoring the sacred traditions.” She replied in irritation. She could feel frustration mounting and she tried to get up so she could pace, but he held her fast. “Skrenthos…”
“Cressa.” He looked at her intently, then he looked at the tree. “We’re hidden here. It’s okay to relax. You don’t have to be a warrior here…just Cressa.” He lifted his other hand and toyed with a lock of her dark hair. “Can you handle that?”
Cressida sighed with irritation and she shook her head. He wasn’t listening. She frowned, there had to be some way to get him off topic. He’d said something however, something that disturbed her. The soldier? What was it about the soldier? Was it something he had said? Perhaps Skrenthos’ annoying interrogation might help her figure out what was really bothering her. She struggled for a moment, then she let go of her anger. “I never noticed how extremely handsome you are.” She forced a smile as she turned to him.
He looked at her, alarmed now, “Huh? What brought this on?”
She rested her and on his chest as she leaned in to kiss him. “Hmm? Nothing. I just think I might be attracted to you.”
He laughed, “Well, well, I knew you’d succumb to the darkness eventually. He pulled her closer, into his arms. He returned her kiss and muttered, “I think I might love you.”
She smirked and rested her head against his chest. “Tell me Skrenthos… what crusade did you go on today.”
“Well…let me tell you,” he said, and he began to tell her the tale of his heroic rescue of the village children. He was rather childish himself.
She let him talk, returning to her thoughts. She played with her long black hair, listening to the vibrations of his voice as they moved through his chest. Something was bothering her. There was something familiar about the man from her dream. Something she’d seen a million times. At last it clicked in her mind. Now she knew why she’d issued the execution order. It hadn’t something the soldier had said, it was what the soldier was wearing. Because the man in her dream, the one standing over her, was wearing the same armor. In other words: He was also a soldier from Labron.