No one knew where the girl had come from. She was found on the road, half-starved, cloaked in dirt, unable to utter a single word. There was only one other person who knew the story, and she didn’t speak of it until much later, when the events that would change the land forever began to unfold. This is the tale that was forgotten, as it is still told in the story houses of Allembach:
Once upon a time, there was a mother and her child, who loved each other dearly. They lived together in a small cottage in the rolling green hills of a faraway land, surrounded by sheep, whose wool was the means of the small family’s survival. One day, the mother fell gravely ill and had to lie in bed for months and months. The child, not yet a woman, but strong and healthy, tended to her mother in the most caring way, but there was little change in the woman’s condition. Time passed, and the cottage grew dusty and unclean, for the girl did not have the strength to care for both her mother and the little farm. The sheep were no longer sheared, and there was no money left to spend for food. The girl knew that they needed medicine to cure her mother, but they had neither the coin nor the means to get it. So they lived together in the cottage, which slowly fell apart, and the hills behind it no longer seemed green, but dark and unfriendly.
One day, the girl went to the market to buy food with her last few coins. She was half-starved, having given all the food she could spare to her sick mother. But at the market they laughed at her and told her she did not have enough money to buy anything. So she walked home, with hanging shoulders, thinking that now she would surely starve.
On the road she met a man, whose face was hidden under the hood of his long, black cloak. He asked her for the way into the village, and because she was a dear and friendly girl, she told him without hesitation. He thanked her and asked her if he could do something in return. At first, she shook her head, but the man persisted until she told him of her sick mother and the empty coin box. The man seemed to think, and said: “I know of a remedy that would cure your mother fully, and I have it here, in my pocket.” With that, he pulled a small vial from his cloak and held it high up into the sun. The girl was overjoyed and wanted to reach for the vial when the man put it back into his pocket and asked what she was prepared to pay for it, as giving directions into the village was not nearly enough for such a powerful remedy. The girl thought hard, but could not come up with anything valuable she or her mother possessed. When she told the man, he laughed, and said: “You have something that is worth more to me than any coin you could ever have in your pouch.” Without thinking, the girl cried that he could have it, anything, if he would only give her the vial of medicine. But then he grabbed her and stretched a clawed hand towards her chest. He sank his hand into her flesh and pulled out her beating heart, dripping with blood. “This is what I want as a payment, your heart, all loving and fresh and innocent. You will not die, little girl, for I do not want you to. You will live, your mother will be cured, but I have your heart. If we meet again, tell me if it was worth it.” And with a chuckle, he walked off, leaving the girl kneeling in the middle of the road, clutching her chest.
When the girl came home, she fed her mother the medicine, and colour came back in the mother’s cheeks, and for the first time in half a year she stood up from her bed. But the girl could not rejoice over her mother’s cure, for she no longer had a heart, and she could no longer feel for others.
The girl became a woman, but she didn’t notice it. She walked through her life empty and unaware, but only her mother noticed the change, for all the intimacy and love between them had gone, and they lived their lives next to each other, not together. And the mother was very upset by this, for she did not know that her daughter had traded her heart away.
The girl felt no love for anything, not for the sheep she had cared for so lovingly before, not for the green hills, which she had walked on all her childhood years, not for her mother, not even for herself. She did not feel anything, only once when she had to kill a sheep that had broken its legs she felt something, something terrible, stirring within her. And because she yearned to feel again, she sought out this feeling. In time, she noticed that the suffering and death of others would bring her a moment of release from the emptiness within her chest. So she began to kill bugs and spiders first, then mice the cat had brought in, a new-born lamb, and later even the cat. And it became an addiction, for even though she no longer had a heart, she remembered how it had felt. But her mother never noticed any of the cruelties her daughter committed in secret.
After several winters had passed, a young man rode by the cottage, who was sent by his father to find a suitable girl for marriage. When he saw the young woman standing with the sheep, he was struck by her beauty. In that moment he knew that he could have no other wife than her. And so he asked her, and she agreed to marry him, because she did not know what else to do. The mother was happy, for she hoped that her daughter would find happiness with the young man, who was well spoken and seemed to care a great deal for her daughter. And even though the man noticed that there was no love between him and his chosen wife, he thought to himself that love might grow with time.
And they lived together for some time, and even though there was no love between them, he was happy. One day the woman fell pregnant. Her husband was overwrought with joy, but in her, the deep dark feeling stirred whenever she looked at her swollen belly. When the child, a girl, was born, the husband often caught his wife looking at the baby with a dreadful look, but he pushed these thoughts aside, for he could not believe that his wife was evil. But she was tempted every time she saw her child, and in time the pressure in her became too much. So one day, she took a knife and went to the crib in which her daughter was lying. When she raised the knife high over her child, the husband, who had entered the room unnoticed, threw himself in front of his daughter. The knife pierced his heart, and with a final breath, he sank to the floor. Trembling, his wife let fall the weapon and fled the house. She ran as fast as she could, never looking back, and was never seen again in this part of the country.
Her mother, who had heard of the events, came and took in her granddaughter, and cared for her lovingly. But she was growing old, and with every day more of her former strength left her.
Then, one day the grandmother died, and the girl, old enough to walk but too young to survive on her own, left the house, for there was no one to care for her. She walked through woods, over hills and small streams, until she came to a road, where she lay down, for she had not eaten in many days. There she was found by some travelling folk, who took pity on her and took her in. With them she travelled far and wide, forgetting the place she had come from and the people she had known as a child. She became part of the travelling folk, never knowing how different she was from everyone else.
In the village she was born in, they never heard of her again, and they did not care, until later, much later, when the elders regretted not taking care of what had happened in the little cottage in the rolling hills.
And this is how the story begins…
Even though the Fifth War undoubtedly complies with the definition of war - ‘a state of armed conflict between different nations or states’ - some scholars argue that it cannot be called a war, as that term implies that both sides have an equal chance of winning. In the case of the so-called Fifth War, invaders from the Western Counties took over the former Elasia, now the Kingdom of Fer, and conquered and wiped out the unprepared Elasian people in such a way, that some scholars prefer to call the Fifth War the ‘First Obliteration’ instead. However, this term is unheard of in the present-day Kingdom of Fer as it is seen as treason against the current King Gynt of Fer.
- A Guide to Military History
The creaking and groaning of the vardo was my lullaby. It carried me forth from the endless journey atop the wagon, soothing my mind and caressing my senses. From time to time, the vardo shivered when it reached yet another pothole, but Old Mare Lily dragged it along without pause. Her musky smell tingled my nose before the soft wind carried it off again. Birds warned each other of our passing through their territory, their song loud, but beautiful.
The sun warmed my entire body, and its strong rays sank through my eyelids. I squinted them shut further. There was a light breeze that tousled my hair, but I didn’t mind. All I wanted was for this moment to last forever.
I rarely got peace and quiet like this. There was always something to do, or someone to talk to. But today, I had the warm roof of the vardo for myself, and Mara had taken over the reins. I was so relaxed that my mind lingered in that fuzzy place between sleep and consciousness. When was the last time that I had some time for myself? Usually, even if there was no work to do, there was always someone who would disturb my thoughts. Cino was so full of questions that I rarely had the time to answer one before he came up with the next. Mara always fussed about me, asking how I felt or what I planned to do that day. Sometimes, I liked how she cared, but on other days, her mothering felt crushing. Although it was better to be around people than to be alone. I had been very alone once, so I shouldn’t complain about being among caring and happy people now. Still, I enjoyed this moment of peace and quiet.
Suddenly, someone knocked against the wagon roof, pulling me back into the presence. “Eee, come down”, Cino shouted from below. Not again. Ever since he had seen Mara use a broomstick to knock at the ceiling, he had been doing the same thing. I was tempted to just continue lying here, but I knew that he wouldn’t leave me in peace any longer. I rolled over, opening my eyes to the beautiful day. We were traversing the high plains that would lead us to the town of Hawkfair, where we would meet with other travelling families for the autumn equinox celebrations, before making our way to our winter quarters in the Free Cities.
There were no trees in this area, only windswept bushes and heather fields, divided into large islands by small streams. Still, the landscape radiated a strange beauty. In the distance, low hills formed a natural end to the plains. On their other side, the Eternal River flowed, never ending in either direction, cutting through the fertile land around it. I couldn’t see the river yet, but in my mind, I pictured it, the water dark blue with a hint of green, a short stretch of sand where the river meets the land, then lush green vegetation on the side. In the middle of the river, the water flows wild and fast, with droplets of white steam shimmering in the sunshine. River gulls sing to each other, and in the evening, once the birds have retreated to their nests, small crickets chirp in the brush.
As children, we would walk along the river banks, looking for treasure such as river glass and smooth skipping stones, or build castles out of the thick sand. Even though I was older now, I was still looking forward to sunbathing and relaxing to the soothing sounds of the water.
Sometimes, there were small rainbows over the river, spanning it in a way that bridges could not. There is only one stone bridge over the Eternal River, at the place where the river is narrowest, near the village of Ashenfields. In the spring, when the river swells and takes over the flat lands around it, not even this bridge is traversable. Then, the only safe way to cross it is the Old Ferry, hundreds of miles to the north. But in all the time I had travelled with the Ghorres family, we had never crossed the river. We never had a reason to do so, as the people on the other side are not as welcoming to travelling folk as they are on the Plains and the Free Cities. Old Mara said she once crossed the river long ago, to seek out new audiences and new tunes, but turned back after only a few days, having been turned away from inns and threatened by people in the villages. And anyway, there are enough places to visit on our side of the river.
“EEE!”, Cino shouted again. “Come down!”
I sighed when I heard Mara’s chuckle. I liked the boy, the youngest member of the Ghorres family, but sometimes he got on my nerves. I sat up and climbed down through the open window. It was warm inside the vardo, even hotter than outside. The air clung to the small room. All four windows were wide open, their red curtains gently swinging in the breeze. There was a fresh cake sitting on the shelf next to the kitchenette, baked with cherries that we had plucked from a tree by the road earlier that day. I was tempted to cut myself a piece, but I knew that Mara wanted to keep it for dinner. Instead, I slid onto the bench next to Cino, stretching my legs under the table.
He had cleaned his slate and set it out in front of him, next to a selection of chalk and charcoal pieces, carefully sorted by size. Not many travelling people would spend money on such items, but Luca had always been a little different from his kin. Back when I was Cino’s age, he had taught me to read and write, and now I was passing that knowledge on to his son. Even though right now I would have preferred to lie in the sun and do nothing, I still felt honoured that Luca had the confidence in me to teach Cino what he needed to know.
My student was looking at me expectantly. For a moment, I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to teach him today. My mind was still half asleep. Well, there was always a solution to that problem. I cleared my throat, and asked him, “Let’s see if you have done your homework. Which letter did we learn last time?”
Cino smiled and started to draw a large, shaky M onto the slate. The chalk made a rasping noise; he was still pressing it down too hard. Once he had finished the writing, he took his chalk-covered hand and wiped his blond hair out of his face. His pale blue eyes were looking straight at me; his stern glance reminded me of his father’s. One day, Cino would surely look like Luca does now, and like his father, he would be besieged by girls and women of all ages. At the moment, his face was caught up somewhere between childhood and adolescence. Over the last few months, his cheekbones had become more pronounced, but his lips still had a childish look to them.
“Try it again, and see that the last line is a little straighter.”
Again, he drew the letter M, this time a little quicker and with less pressure on the piece of chalk. He turned the slate towards me, proudly presenting his work. I envied his enthusiasm. Cino could rejoice over anything, even if it was nothing but repeating the same letter over and over again.
“Can you give me five words that start with an M?”, I asked him and watched him crinkling his brow as he pondered the task.
“My. Meat. Music. Mood. And … mother.” The last word he spoke under his breath. Then he looked at me, his firm glance holding a challenge. I smiled at him, ignoring his expression.
“Well done. Let’s see if you can write down any of those words. You should be able to spell at least two of them.”
While he turned to his task, his whispered “mother” echoed in my mind. It was pretty simple: Neither of us had one. I never had, at least I didn’t remember having one. My grandmother was my mum, she looked after me, she was the one I mourned. I never knew my mother, so why should I mourn her. But Cino, he knew his ma, he was loved by her in a way I never was. He used to be a mummy’s darling, always showing off when she was looking at him, always snuggling to her breast when they were sitting at the campfire at night. She had spoiled him a little, but as the youngest member of the Ghorres family, everyone had looked at them with both joy and pride. It should have been his mother teaching him his letters, not me, a stray they picked up on the road. But his mother was here for him no longer, having been bitten by a wild dog last winter, and succumbing to her writhing madness weeks later.
I wondered what was better, never having known your own mother, or being loved by one but then losing her. From the outside, Cino seemed to be doing fine, but sometimes, when he thought no one was looking at him, I could see the sadness in his eyes. By hiding his grief, he tried to be older than he was. I wondered if I was not doing the same.
“Please welcome with great applause, the fastest girl alive!”, Luca shouted and the crowd clapped and cheered dutifully. I’d been waiting for hours, or so it seemed, and now my time had finally come. I straightened the folds of my simple blue dress one last time and took a deep breath. Almost time for me to enter. Luca had turned on his feet and now walked towards me, grinning widely. He winked at me, took a mock bow and walked past me, whistling softly.
I decided that I had waited long enough and entered the arena, waving and smiling at the audience. The tent was almost full. It was our first performance ever in Ashenfields, and the villagers seemed to have come with their whole families. I could see that some had brought baskets filled with beer and food, and many of the people watching me were in the process of eating noisily. I reached the middle of the tent, here I stopped and bowed in all directions. The sand under my bare feet gave me something to keep me grounded as I blinked into the bright lights directed at me. Slowly, and with as much drama as I could conjure, I walked towards the long rope ladder on the other side of the ring. Here, I made a show of testing the stability of the ladder, before swiftly climbing it. I was used to its swing and kept my body close to the ropes, without looking down on the audience. If they were looking up my dress, they would be disappointed - I was wearing tight breeches underneath.
Once I’d reached the small wooden platform, I bowed once again to the crowd. Then, I reached for the single red rose that I’d kept hidden below my dress’s neckline. I’d removed its thorns earlier that night so that I could grasp it with my full hand. The stem, not much longer than my hand is wide, was still wet from the water it had stood in and a little slippery to hold. Slowly, I increased my hold on it and closed my eyes. Centring myself, I started to focus on my own breathing. I could feel the air go in through the nose, feel the little hairs move in my nostrils, the coolness when it passed through my pharynx. I was riding my breath, no longer aware of my surroundings. The coolness spread when the air entered my lungs and my ribcage expanded in one fluid movement. Here, I left the breath and flowed on as nothingness, towards my beating heart, then up the aorta, running with the blood into my right arm, down all the way until the skin on my fingertips stopped my progress. I waited until all of myself had gathered there, then focussed on my index finger. I made myself sharp and long like a needle, and slowly forced myself out of my body, into the rose. It took some time to adjust before I could let my consciousness feel the shape of the rose, and fill it up completely.
Suddenly, I began to feel the loss of my thorns, the first sign of withering in my petals, the intake of air where there should be water. I felt it all, and with one practised movement, I made myself round and small and even smaller, pulling the essence of the rose with me, back through the tiny opening in my index finger. I expanded, filling up my human body once more, until I was back again where I started, except that I now I had the link down to the rose that was still in my hand. I opened my eyes, and suddenly the noise of the crowds reached my ears. I know I had only been standing on the platform for some seconds, but it felt like I had been up there for hours. I breathed in deeply, clutched the rose to my side and focussed on the task ahead.
I made the first step, and time slowed down. Seconds, molten into syrup, slowly floated by like leaves on a river. I concentrated, and the river slowed down to a gentle trickle. Time was slackened. Every second stretched like a rubber band, becoming longer and longer until it encompassed a full minute. Here, I stopped, and let the slow syrup wrap me in its flow. It built a comforting blanket that prevented me from falling off the rope I had just stepped on. The time-syrup around me was warm and pressed softly against my exposed skin. Walking through it took a lot of energy, but it was worth it - otherwise, I would never be able to walk on the rope. My sense of balance wasn’t very well developed.
Step by step, I crossed the rope. My bare feet ached from the rough core rope, so I tried to get it over with as quickly as possible. I didn’t need to spread my arms for balance, the time blanket holding me securely in place. I wished I could stay in this moment, relax in the warming timelessness, but the energy that I was sapping from the rose in my hand was quickly draining away. Stopping time was no easy task, and I didn’t want to use too much of my own energy while still on the rope. I might have fainted and I still had the scar on my leg from the last time that happened.
After thirty or so ells, I arrived on the platform on the other side of the tent. The cool wood under my feet felt refreshing, and I rested for a moment, before taking a deep breath and concentrating on releasing the time stream. I pictured a large golden clock in my mind, like the one on the town hall tower in Port Royal, its delicate hands being restrained by the shackles I put on them when I first stepped on the rope. Now, I removed them, starting with the smallest hand, and time began to flow more quickly again, accelerating, taking up speed until it was back to normal. The warming blanket was taken away from me, and I could feel a cold draft on my skin.
When I opened my eyes, a wave of exhaustion crashed into me, and I staggered backwards, leaning heavily on one of the tent poles. Below, there was a collective gasp from the audience. For them, I had just raced across the rope in a matter of one or two seconds. They would have seen nothing but a running girl traversing the tent quicker than they had ever seen anyone move. There were shouts and pointing fingers, as some children saw me on the other side. It took a while for the clapping to start, and even so, it was a cautious noise. I could feel the closeness to the Fer’an border in the wariness of the applause. Normally, the crowd cheered and clapped raucously, but here the worry of how their wonder would be interpreted dimmed the people’s enthusiasm. Well, nothing I could change about that. It would be different in the next place we stop, once we were further away from Fer and its backward beliefs.
I opened my hands and let the dust that once was a rose trickle down from between my fingers. She had served her purpose well, but still, I had used more of my own energy than planned.
Without looking down, I stepped onto the rope ladder that led to the ground and began to climb. In the background, music started to play and the three dwarves marched into the tent (they weren’t actual dwarves, just very short humans). The audience was glad to forget my questionable act and clapped loudly as the dwarves began to juggle their axes.
But I couldn’t have cared less. Why should they enjoy something that so obviously looked like magic, especially in a place like Ashenfields? We were too close to the Fer’an border here, too close to the Blue Militia and their everlasting hatred. With a sigh, I slipped out of the tent, leaving the laughter and the noise behind me.
“I told you so,” I told Luca accusingly, who was standing outside looking at the night sky. “You should know better than to have me do this here. Did you see their faces?”
“There were some who laughed.”
“And there were some who looked like they would run to the Militia as soon as the show has ended,” I retorted. Luca didn’t understand. He wasn’t the one who had to fear for his life in a place like this.
“You are overreacting,” he told me. “It’s still at least a day’s ride to the Eternal River, and another one to get to the bridge to Fer. We’re amongst friends here, especially in a place like this. They will not have forgotten the Fifth War, and all the sorrow it brought to the people in the Plains. Don’t worry, nothing is going to happen to you or any one of us. Go, get yourself some food from Mara and then go to bed. You look tired.”
That’s was so typically Luca. He was as calm as a deep pool in the mountains, nothing could stir him, nothing could move him. Sometimes I liked him for it, but today I wanted to slap him and tell him to wake up.
Instead, I walked away into the dark, towards the closest vardo. Light shone through the small windows of the wagon, and the smell of pea soup was getting stronger the closer I get. Before I could knock on the vardo’s door, Mara opened it, smiling.
“You look like you can use some food,” she said, beaming away, ignoring my grumpy expression. Even though Mara must had seen at least eighty winters, she had the energy of a young child. She ushered me inside, sat me down on the comfortable bench near the rear window, and put a bowl of soup in front of me. Its delicious smell made my mouth water. Mara’s cooking was one of the reasons why I still travelled with the Ghorres.
“How was the performance?”, she asked while cutting a large slice of bread for me.
“Dreadful. I’m sure some people noticed that it wasn’t just some trick. Luca is too reckless, having me do this in Ashenfields. It’s too dangerous.”
Mara smiled. “Weird, this coming from you. Normally you’re the one who’s reckless, sweetheart, not Luca.”
“But this time it’s not about walking on a rope or falling from some tree, this time it’s about the Blue Militia. They say they’re quite active here, even though this isn’t yet Gynt’s land. Doesn’t he care about what could happen if they find out?”
“I’m sure he does, child, but maybe you’re seeing the whole thing a bit too bleak. Nothing has ever happened after one of your performances, has it. So why should it today? Now stop worrying and eat your soup. You’ve lost weight again.”
I wanted to answer back, but I know it’s useless. When arguing with Mara, she always made me feel like a child that didn’t know any better. Frustrating. Instead, I turned to my bowl of pea soup. Maybe I was just hurt by the lack of response from the audience. Usually, in other places, I got a lot of applause, even standing ovations. Never had the audience been so quiet. Maybe I was confusing a lack of interest with caution. I supposed the success of my little act had made me vain.
With that thought in mind, I got up and bid Mara goodnight. Some days, I was so exhausted after the show that I went straight to bed, but tonight I felt like I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway. When I opened the door, warm air pushed against me. The moon shone as a thin crescent, with stars twinkling beside it. In the distance, in the hedges that surrounded our camp, I could see the flickering light of hundreds of fireflies. They blended easily into the night sky; it was almost impossible to see where the shimmering insects ended and the stars began.
I walked towards the lights of the village, leaving vardos and circus tent behind me.
The only inn in Ashenfields was brightly lit, with flickering candles poked in flower pots outside of it, inviting both villagers and visitors inside. It was the tallest building in the village, towering over the other houses that lacked the inn’s second storey. The noise of people talking drifted outside and added to the welcoming atmosphere. Just when I was about to enter, two large men spilt out of the inn, arguing loudly over something. I stepped around them and their stink of stale beer and quickly squeezed inside before the heavy wooden door closed behind me. The noise and smell of dozens of people pressed against me, and I swayed slightly, needing a moment to adapt.
“Come on in, princess”, an old man sitting by the door bellowed with a boozy breath. “Come and sit by me.” I smiled at him innocently, then turned away from him and walked towards the counter that sat proudly in the middle of the crowded room. Behind it, a plump man with a soiled apron that had probably not seen any soap in weeks, served the guests. With his red nose and bloated cheeks, he looked like he enjoyed drinking a pint or two himself. I squeezed myself through the crowd that the counter drew in like moths are drawn to a flame. In front of me, one man slipped from a bar stool and turned to the door, and I gratefully slid onto his vacated seat. The chair was still warm and slightly sticky.
I signalled the innkeeper and ordered a pint of the local beer, putting two copper coins on the counter. A moment later, he put a large clay mug filled with frothy ale in front of me. I took a large sip, enjoying the froth tickling the insides of my mouth. It wasn’t the best beer I’d ever tasted, but it wasn’t too bad either. The salty pea soup at Mara’s had made me thirsty, and sooner than I’d thought, I could see the bottom of my earthen mug. Once again, I beckoned the innkeeper to refill my mug. He smiled at me with yellowed teeth glistening between his pouting thick lips and exchanged my emptied mug for a full one. The beer was making me more relaxed. I leant back and listened to bits and pieces of conversation that floated through the air towards me, while still leaning over my mug. One man close by was complaining loudly about the continuing drought, while another was bragging about the girl he was courting in a neighbouring village. I was straining my ears to hear anything besides the usual tavern talk, but without success. There was no discussion of politics here, no news of the world outside this village. I turned back to my mug and slowly sipped the lukewarm drink and let my thoughts wander off.
“Why is a lovely young lady such as yourself sitting here all on her own? Want some company?” A raspy voice pulled me from my thoughts. A young man slid onto the bar stool next to me. I hadn’t even noticed its former occupant leaving. He was dressed all in black, his tight shirt showcased his broad shoulders and muscular arms. His face was made up of fine features, only his nose seemed a little out of place, long and pointed as it was. He wore a short dark blue cape over his shirt, more for decoration than for warmth. The man looked lost in this village inn; his clothes were made of finer materials than any of the patrons here possessed. His shoes were made from black leather, and they were strikingly clean. He couldn’t have travelled far in them.
“No, I’m quite alright on my own”, I replied, but he had already settled on the stool on my left. The innkeeper put a mug of ale in front of him, which he took without nodding thanks to the landlord.
“Have you noticed that you are the only lady in this place?”, he asked with a slight smirk. “If I were you, I’d be a little worried by that fact. You never know what might befall single women on their travels.”
My good mood vanished immediately. I didn’t like this man, and even though he did not seem too dangerous, I disliked sitting next to him. He took a big gulp from his mug, then looked me in the eyes. They were as dark as his attire, which made the white around the pupils as bright as starlight. His glance bore a challenge that I refused to take.