Aera watched the forest march away like solemn soldiers into a dismal and deep darkness. It looked dead, with the tall legs of the trees cloaked in black and their grey fingers hooded in ash. Aera felt her ragged, sloshing steps crunch through the carpet of grey. Her brother, Aeron, wheezed at her side, his skin beaded with rivulets of sweat and his face white as milk with an opalescent gleam. The Darkness had made him ill.
The Ashwood was still and quiet in the dreary light of what seemed to be dawn. A whispering mist drifted through the thick, gnarled toes of the ancient sentinel firs, dark with blackened and damp moss. Fractured arms lay stark on the carpet of moist leaves, broken and splintered to dagger points. Aera urged Aeron forward, their pale doeskin boots trudging through the wiry brush with a rustle. A harsh bitter wind howled from the north, breathed from the Mountains of Svaerdon, tearing through their moleskin cloaks and fur-lined shoulders. It would only get worse, and Aera knew it.
North was where they were headed, onwards from the southern lands of Sheon. They were not safe for them anymore. They had left a fortnight ago, ere the Yule. Aera remembered their escape as vivid as those that stood before her. She saw the trees blazing like torches as they ran away and the city burning like a great brazier. It had been long since that night, and still they walked through the forests, looking for anything that resembled civilization. Luckily, however, it was not winter in Runir, but the turning of autumn, the days slowly growing shorter. Soon the winter would be upon them, and fast, sweeping over the land like a great wave of white. Hopefully, but then, we have reached shelter. Aera knew, if they did not find shelter by then, they would be dead, taken by the frigid claws of the brutal snows and terrible winds.
The white fingers of on old and dead soldier fern bristled along Aera’s face, the flaky ash smearing across her cheek like charcoal. Her fair, freckled face was rather thin and small, with an angular face, arcing down to her chin. Hair red as blazing fire burned on her head, and raced down her small back like crimson silk. When it churned, it flickered and altered like dancing flames, leaping around wildly, changing color from orange to yellow to red. Her thin, angled brows were a dark, bloody red, with a look of determined intensity about her. She was thin, and skinny, and small for her age, but her heart was far larger than the Mountains of Svaerdon themselves.
As she crouched under a gnarled, drooping arm, draped in black hair, Aeron
began to wheeze. His breath grew faint and his lungs tightened. He began to clutch his chest, the ribs rising and collapsing, his feeble, weak heart thumping nervously against the cage of bone. Aera steadied him, slowly bringing him down to the cool, moist earth. A limb cracked under his weight as he writhed. She brought her hands to his translucent, thin face, her warmth draining into his icy body.
“Stay with me, Aeron,” Aera urged, clouds of white curling from her mouth. “Stay with me, please. Do not die. Look at me, Aeron, look at me. It’s me, Aera. I’m here.” Her face had gone a flush pink, as if dappled with roses.
Aeron staggered, and flashed his eyes open. “I know,” he rasped, as his chest fell softly. Aera released a sigh of relief. She ran her thin, spidery fingers through her brothers wild, orange hair, the frost cracking off the fibers of red like snow. His eyes were a grey-brown, glazed with a pale film, staring back into hers. She brushed her other hand down to his chest, where she closed her eyes to the warm, but pained beating of his heart. He’s all I have left, she told herself. I must keep him alive.
As she hefted Aeron back up onto his flimsy, quaking legs her deep brown eyes flashed with the painful images of that dreadful night. The attack came when they slept, peaceful and quiet. The she heard it, a splitting shriek of terror that ripped through her dream and slapped her awake. She woke to red outside her window, licking at the paneled pane with orange vicious fingers.
The cries screeched of Ilmari troops storming in from the north, from their capital Vorr, high in the Mountains of Varrin. They had come to burn the city, and destroy the entire land of Sheon, starting with the beloved capital Ahhid. Under the orders of the Oppressive One, they thundered in, with their great torches and set the place to flame, and that fire took the lives of thousands, including the King and Queen, but not Aera or Aeron. No, the prince and the princess had escaped, leaving their home in ruins and disappearing into the Ashwoods, and abandoning their old life.
Aeron shuddered in Aera’s grasp, his yellowed teeth clattering like mail. His face had gone a ghostly pale in recent days, ever since they crossed into the cursed forests. As the dark days grew ever darker and colder, so too did Aeron’s body, with skin as cold as ice and white as milk. A day ago, Aera had stalked a wolf creeping along a black stream, its fur thick and white as snow, speckled with ash. It was large, for a wolf in these parts. Aera wondered if it had wondered south from Svaerdon, for its size was more than three times the size of those who stalked the lands around Ahhid. She shot the beast easily with her beloved elm bow, hiding herself in the dark brush. After she skinned the beast and draped it over Aeron’s shivering shoulders, she had a fire, collecting stones and timber. It was hard, but it sparked, and she cooked the great animal for them, until the meat was crispened and charred and good to eat. Aeron ate madly, engulfing the meat, until as they began to clean up, he vomited it back up, and began to shiver again. Aera saved the rest of the animal, preserving it in her roughspun, woolen satchel that she slung over he shoulder, with her virgin leather quiver, bristling with pale goose feathers.
Her father, King Dalhiv always told her she was good with a bow, better than most of the young lordlings and boys she practiced with. She knew she was good too, sometimes too well. Many of the boys found themselves in fights with the princess, jealous of her skill with the bow. However, of course, her mother, Queen Seysi, completely forbade any of this archery. She condemned it, saying that a young lady should only practice knitting and pageantry and embroidering. Aera found that boring.
She remembered vividly her wooden sword, with the dents and the punctures in the blade. She had named it, Woody, being that she was young and it was carved of wood. She was rather uninventive. Out in the courtyard, she would spar with either Aeron, who was awful, or his friend, a lordling boy named Merrik. He was much better, and very fast with his attacks. But Aera was better. She would dodge well and parry his, and counter, rapping him on his wrists or knees. When she was armed with her paper-thin wooden shield, she was even better, even though when the sword slapped the shield it hurt more than it would without it. Aeron told her she was just naturally good, and she was, but Aera knew that wasn’t just the only thing.
In the summer, when the sky wasn’t as dark, and was rather grey, she would watch the knights from across the realm practice. Most of the rebels against the Oppressive One found their way into Ahhid, and would train with the sword and the axe and the hammer. Aera loved it, perched high in an oak tree. She climbed it so much she used to challenge herself to scale up blindfolded. When she reached the top, her mother’s voice brought her back down.
Although she was good with the sword, she was better with the bow. She was given one by her uncle, Eagren, from Andrir one year, after he saw he playing with a twig in the gardens instead of planting. A year later, she had mastered the art, carving her own bows and fletching her own arrows and finding stones to shape for arrowheads. Her targets and hay-men were ripped apart by the amount of arrows she had flung at them, with the bulls-eye almost completely gone. Aera would sometimes even shoot arrow into arrow into arrow, until they all split at the bulls-eye. Then she would have to make new ones, which angered her mother, but was fine by her father, who encouraged it. She liked him a lot better.
Aera pushed Aeron along, stumbling over a rock cloaked in slick moss. Their pace had slowly dwindled each day of their trek, with their legs growing heavier and their strength waning. They stopped much more often, and rested longer than they walked. Ever since they had passed out of the barren grey hills, and into the Ashwood, it had begun to fall into decadence. The days were darker, and the air was heavier. Aeron began to wheeze normally two days ago, and his face had turned paler and thinner as well. He was ill, dangerously sick, and Aera knew it, only a fool would not.
Aera had counted the days on her fingers, the days since they had left home, escaped the sacking, the day her family burned, but her fingers had run short, so now she began to count on her toes, wriggling them around in the doeskin boots, scaled with wet, membranous leaves. A bird sang, maybe a nightingale by the way it chirped, along the roof of the forest, sweet and high in pitch. It was the first they had heard all through the Ashwood. That seemed strange to Aera.
A glade opened up around them as they hunched under a low hanging arch of wild limbs, blood red sap oozing out of their ghostly luminescent skin. The sky above was grim and eerie, shimmering with the ever-present crimson mantle of mist, shifting like the currents out at sea. Heavy, grim clouds cloaked the sky farther behind. The red, fiery moonlight sifted through the darkness like needles, fading out before even grasping the dying ground. A raspy, bitter wind screamed through the open glade, the dead, and dying trees moaning like the somber priests in the streets of Vorr, mourning all. Their cloaks of grey ash swept off with the wind, ripped of the white leaves, and fell from the sky, trickling through the darkness in flakes. One kissed Aera on the forehead lightly, and her body jolted with cold. Warmth returned soon after, and she set her woolen pack down.
Teeth clattering from the cold like mail, Aeron crouched down on the hard earth, and leaned over on a rock, laden with dismal ash, reeking of stale death. Aera threw another pelt of white wolf-fur over him, and rubbed her hand through the downy fur, warming him as best she could. His face was still ghostly pale, and his thin, bony arms seized like a flickering torch. A pale green worm of snot slunk down from his small red nose, and his eyes blinked sickly. He was young, younger than Aera, and small. He had always been small for his age, and this weather didn’t help. It bit through his fur-lined cloaks and layers, through his thin flesh and down to the raw bone. He was more than ill.
Aera brought a fire to life, the shivering red glow pulsing in the darkness of the glade. She prodded with a feeble twig at the flames, rearranging the crackling wood. It was charred like burnt ribs and black as pitch, with flakes skin cracking off like leaves, wreathed in a red inferno. The shifting fire leaped when a large stick was removed, letting the fire breathe. A loud pop shattered the silence of the glade as Aera brushed away a dry tear seeping from her shuddering eyelid, the heat intense, yet comforting. She held her frigid hands out, caressing the curling hands of silky orange flame. It was a wonder they did not burn.
After a gust of wind snagged at the dancing flames, Aera carried Aeron close of the fire, his pallid, filmy face sunken and shallow, reflecting the ruddy light like a mirror. His shivering arms crawled along the dark earth like insects of shadow, reaching for the warmth. There was a strange glint in his eyes as Aera glanced back at him as she prodded with the limb. She smacked his skeletal fingers away, and shifted up next to him. “Do not touch the fire, Aeron.” Her voice was smooth, comforting, but pained by the cold. “It is dancing now, and when people dance they do not want to be disturbed.
Neither do the flames.”
She watched her brother’s greying eyes stare blankly at the prancing fingers of red, writhing and licking off the arms of blackened wood beneath. He looks so thin, so pained. Aeron’s fingers crept back into his fur-lines sleeves, hiding under the warmth of his moleskin cloak. Aera began to stick the chunks of the wolf on sticks to cook over the fire for dinner when a raven shrieked overhead. The sudden quock startled Aera, and she jumped, her stick shoving a broken limb in the fire over with a spray of gilded embers, fluttering up into the darkness like fairies. Only there were no fairies anymore. Aera knew that.
The raven perched on a gnarled fir, the contorted arm of scaled wood twisting like a rope. Pale, snowy vines drifted in the faint hisses of wind like the long tendrils of an elder’s hair. The bird was rather large, with a single glossy black marble for an eye that glowed a stark and ominous white. The flickering red firelight slipped off the raven’s sleek, sable body, its wings streaked with fibers of white. Aera watched as it twitched, cocking its head and spitting out a piercing shriek from its deep purple, hooked beak. Another raven landed on the arcing tree from out of the veil of darkness, its single white eye like the very essence of a ghost. It was then, Aera recognized the birds for what they truly were. These were no ravens, or al least not anymore. They were ashens, ravens of which had become cursed when the world was plunged into the
Darkness at the height of the Ascension so long ago. Those that remain have fled into the Ashwoods, the only remaining forests in the land, and scarce.
A third ashen shrieked like the grinding of steel against steel, and at the same time, Aeron grunted in a weak and feeble strain. Aera flashed her pale, freckled face towards her brother, who shivered with a long thin arrow protruding like a lance from his thigh. It drove deep, barely missing bone, but eating through flesh. The fletching were of an ashen, glossy and oily, glinting darkling the dancing flames. A second arrow skimmed her moleskin sleeve, licking at the heavy cloth with the stony teeth of the arrowhead. Another came from the murky darkness around the glade, clattering against the rock Aeron had laid on.
Aera stifled the fire with a roughspun cloth, drowning out the seething flames so that the great blackness consumed them. The glade went dark as pitch in a stark flash, the crimson mists in the sky showering a pale, uncanny light upon the glade. Aera drew her elmwood bow, the curving, pliant wood soft and smooth as silk in her grasp. Fast as a fox, she notched an arrow, the goose-feathers prickling her index and middle finger as she fingered the fletching, holding, waiting.
Her face was a sickly red in the mist as she heard a rustle of leaves just before her and she sprang from behind the rock and drew back, the arms of the bow moaning, and loosed as quickly as she had drawn, the arrow sliding off her fingers and licked her thumb as it left the string. She knew it had hit when it left her fingers, and the muffled scream indicated she was right. She drew another arrow from her leather quiver, and notched, until an arrow kissed her cheek, snagging slightly. The cool, icy tear of red glistened like a ruby as it raced down her fair, glassy skin. She loosed in the direction that arrow had come, to the sudden satisfaction of a guttural grunt as the arrowhead chumped through the throat of another enemy.
As another wooden arrow drove into the soft black earth silently, she crept back over the shielding stone and stalked the man cloaked in shadow. Her fingers found the bristled fletching of an arrow and notched it, as quietly as she could. Peeking over the rock, she saw only darkness, hazed in a red film. She moved closer, hunched low, sneaking through the dark brush underfoot. Her bow rested like a crossbow, her arms drawn back, poised and ready to fire. Aera’s heart beat like the bells on the Grey Tower in Ahhid, thumping with her footsteps. The memory made her shudder.
A faint bristle made her jolt and she let the arrow fly, sailing through the darkness and into the face of a tree, quivering like Aeron would on the bitter nights in the forest. She pushed the thought out of her mind, and drew out another arrow, still crouched, searching for her enemy. Her flaming red hair churned before her face in shifting colors of red, orange and yellow as a screech of wind barreled in from the north that creaked the pines.
An ashen screeched from behind her, heart jumping like the flames of the fire, and before she could turn, a cool steely kiss was upon her neck.
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