Pilgrimage



Chapter One

The country of Weydin was known for its beautiful forests. Every season had its glories. In summer, the spreading limbs gave shade to the many creatures living in the woods. The glades rang with shouts and merry laughter, as the village people celebrated Midsummer's Eve; and elsewhere, alluring music was heard as the wood-sprites went about their mysterious business. In autumn the leaves turned from green to a breathtaking riot of colors and noblemen came from far and wide to hunt. Winter cast its own spell over the woodlands, clothing the majestic trees in white and encasing the finest twigs in glittering layers of ice. But spring was a time of rejoicing. It has been said that the forest was its highest peak of beauty at this time of year. Soft green leaves veiled the twigs and branches of the trees, small buds awakened to life and young animals began to stir. The first few weeks of March were heavenly, as the dark and frozen world melted away to reveal a new beginning.

Sirraphe closed her eyes and inhaled the fresh air deeply. The smell made her heart lurch again at the thought of leaving home. But do so she must, just like every sixteen-year-old. Of course, she might be back. Heaving a sigh, she opened her eyes just in time to see the tree root that was in her way. Too late! She tripped and fell straight into the muddy puddle before her.

Anyone else would have been annoyed or angry, surely nobody would have done as Sirraphe did; she laughed.

"Here I am, feeling melancholy and romantically homesick and then I land in a mud puddle!" Raising her eyes to the tall boughs of trees overhead, she smiled again and shook her head. Continuing her monologue, she picked herself up and shook out her dress. Distastefully holding the mud-plastered folds of her skirt out in front of her, she began to walk.

"Well, I suppose I must be getting on. Naturally this would happen to me in the first week of my journey. Oh well, nothing I can do about it now. But it certainly does feel awful!" she remarked to an oak tree by the path, startling a squirrel, which began to scold and throw nutshells at her. She chuckled again and continued onwards, holding the bedraggled skirt as far way from her legs as possible, as it had become cold and clammy by now.

Rounding a bend, she came to a split in the path. Luckily, the signposts didn't look older than a decade or so and were quite legible.

"The right path leads to Leggandir, so that's the one for me! But the left leads to . . . the Aglaraelin. Now what's that?" Sirraphe squeezed her eyes shut in an effort to remember where she'd heard that name before. "Of course!" Her eyes flew open again as she snapped her fingers. "First that way, I need to wash and a lake is just the thing for me. A good thing the sun is shining and it's relatively warm. Off we go!"

Having made her decision, she shouldered her bag and marched down the left pathway. Soon she glimpsed the shimmer of water through the trees. The path led straight onto a small beach of pebbles and grainy sand. After laying her pack of spare clothes and food carefully on the ground, Sirraphe just stared. The Aglaraelin lay in a small clearing of short, new grass like a sparkling jewel pinned on green silk. The water of the mere was deep but clear, and water lilies mingled with rushes by the edges. The lake was almost a perfect circle, fed by three streams, with one gurgling brook running out of it. It was named the Aglaraelinnen, and it flowed by Sirraphe's village.

"No wonder the name means brilliant lake." The awestruck whispered. Laying down her pack, untying her somewhat faded crimson girdle, she slowly stepped to the water's edge. Hesitantly she waded out into the water. She caught her breath. It was cold as ice, but she seldom went back on a decision, so in she plunged. In a frenzy of motion to keep warm, she swam directly into the middle of the lake and tried to float on her back.

"This old dress keeps weighing me down. I'll get rid of it. Wait here, I'll be right back!" Laughing delightedly, she waved to an inquisitive duck which had paddled up to her and was eyeing her warily. "Don't worry, I won't grab your precious eggs, if you have any round here."

Sirraphe splashed to the shore and, making sure nobody was near, she stripped off the waterlogged dress and spread it out to dry on a large rock. Next she rapidly unbraided her already damp hair and hung it around her so that in case anyone was watching, they wouldn't see much. She had wavy red hair that curled at the tips, which reached to below her hips. Usually she wore a braid round her head or a few smaller braids like a crown across her forehead.

"Whoo, it's cold in the shade! Back into the water, my . At least that's a temperature you're used to!" Splash, and all any onlooker would have seen was a white and red-gold streak in the water. Sirraphe swam across to the other bank and found one of the streams. She let it wash her hair clean and reveled in the feel of it washing round her, so soft and caressing.

"Not often I get a chance to be alone like this. Just nature and me, together." She sighed and turned to stand up. She waited a short time for the water in her hair to run off a bit before she stepped up to the shore and laid down. The moss was dry and warmed by the sun, and she arranged her hair around her in a sort of halo for it to dry in the light. Squinting at the position of the sun, she murmured, "I still have time, it's only noon. I'll wait till my hair's dry and then go on."

The sound of voices woke her. Grumbling, she turned on her side, then woke sufficiently to realize she wasn't at home in bed. Sirraphe sat up straight and as she did so, felt something on her head slip over one ear and something silky slide off her chest into her lap. Putting her hand up, she encountered a coronet of some kind of flower. She looked down and saw she had been covered with a green cloak. Puzzled, she glanced around, but could see no one. Then the voices that had roused her came across the pool again. Sirraphe stood up and, parting the rushes, beheld three figures on the beach who were examining her dress and pack. One of them, a fair young man who looked to be about her age, straightened and scanned the edges of the Aglaraelin. Sirraphe jumped back and let go of the rushes. She lifted the cloak from the ground and swung it around her shoulders, then stooped to put the crown of flowers back on her head. The thought of someone stealing her things drove everything else out of her mind, including the mystery of the cloak. However, she was not about to leave it behind.

She stopped only to twist her long hair into a bun at the top of her head. Silently slipping into the water, Sirraphe glided through the shallows towards her goal, the beach. Surprisingly, the cloak didn't weigh her down at all, in fact it seemed even lighter than her hair, which had come undone and weighed her down considerably. She had almost reached her destination when one of the strangers noticed her. It was a tall, dark haired , and she called out to the two young men, who hurried to the edge of the water. Sirraphe pulled her new cloak around her and slowly waded to shore. She had no idea what she'd do if these three turned out to be robbers, but she wasn't going to give up her things without a fight. Even though they didn't look dangerous, she was wary. She knew from experience that people often weren't what they seemed.

Sirraphe swiftly examined each one with a trained eye. The boy she had first seen had an open and honest face, and even though he was staring at her with astonishment, she felt that he was not dangerous. He was only a bit taller than Sirraphe herself, was compactly built and well muscled. Just brushing his broad shoulders, his fair hair was in desperate need of a cut. The other boy was leaner and much taller than the first, with dark, shaggy hair. His expression also registered surprise, and though his eyes were guarded, Sirraphe decided he could be trusted. One glance at their clothes told her they were city-folk, and as the tall one moved his right hand to his hip, she saw he wore a tairee. Slowly he drew out a small hunting knife. It looked as if it had never been used before and from the way he held it, Sirraphe was fairly certain that he didn't know how to handle it at all. When she saw the knife, she was sure she'd have to say something to reassure them. They now looked more frightened than surprised. So she smiled hesitantly and took another small step forward.

"Why have you drawn your knife as if I were an enemy?"

"How do we know you are not, sprite? We know nothing of your people, and since these things," he gestured to Sirraphe's dress and pack behind him, "are without their owner, we assume you have the poor . Where is she?" His voice was hard, but Sirraphe caught the undertone of fear in it. The fair boy also had his knife in his hands by now, and the stood behind the two, her expression watchful. Sirraphe gasped. No wonder they were afraid if they thought she was a woodsprite! Laughing with relief, she held out her hands and then quickly clutched at the cloak again with one, as it threatened to fall open.

"I'm not a woodsprite! I am just human, those things belong to me! My name is Sirraphe and I am from the village Arrata. Who are you and why do you think I'm a sprite?"

The dark-haired youth hesitated, then answered slowly. "Your cloak." He relaxed a bit, but his knife was still out. The youth glanced at his friend and lowered his knife, but did not put it back in its sheath, while the suddenly smiled and stepped closer.

Puzzled, Sirraphe glanced down at herself and saw that her cloak wasn't wet, not even damp! Her hair from her shoulders down was dripping, but the cape wasn't absorbing the water at all, it just ran off in beads, then dripped to the lake below her. Startled, she fingered the fabric. Her skin was wet, but the cloak was bone dry, and even felt warm, as if it had never been in the icy cold water of the Aglaraelin. Slowly it dawned on her what must have happened. The people of the wood had come across her while she was sleeping and covered her with one of their own mantles. The flowers were another gift. She didn't know why they had done it, they were not known for their generosity, but she was very thankful. The silence was becoming unpleasant, so she looked up again and tried to explain.

"I understand now! I had swum in the lake and lay down in the sun to dry. I suppose i fell asleep, since the next thing I remember are your voices waking me up. The sprites must have come across me and given me this cloak and this wreath as a gift. Don't ask me why." She shrugged helplessly and shook her head. "Do you believe me now? Would you let me come out of the water, please? My feet are becoming numb." She smiled, waiting while the three conferred in whispers. It seemed as if the two boys were still not sure and the was trying to persuade them.

Sirraphe stepped onto the shore and buried her feet in the sun-heated sand to warm them. While they were arguing, the tall dark looked up and winked at Sirraphe over the shoulders of the boys. Sirraphe grinned in reply and took the time to study her new friend. She had long black hair which she wore in two braids hanging over her shoulders and one braid with a red ribbon in it wound around her head like a crown, and she also wore a tairee on her arm. She was tall and her movements were graceful and flowing, signs of having been taught at a early age to act like a lady. She was taller than the fair boy, almost as tall as the one with the knife. Sirraphe had never seen a of her age who was so tall. She herself was quite short, so she was used to having other people tower over her. But to see a who was a good head taller than a young man was new to her.

After more hurried consultation, the two slowly nodded their heads and said something which made the laugh and hug them. She then quickly walked to where Sirraphe was standing and held out her right hand, palm up, in the sign of greeting.

"Hthweh, of the city Casalthe. This is my brother and his friend. They have finally decided to trust you. Sorry it took so long, but believe me, after they've made up their mind, it's hard to convince them to change it." Sirraphe laughed and covered Hthweh's hand with her own. The young men greeted Sirraphe as well and stated their names. The fair one was Gwathir and Hthweh's brother was named Tarik.

"Very good manners you have there. That shows you're not robbers, which is what I first thought when I saw you poking round my things. Now let me see if I got your names right; Hthweh, Tarik and, umm, ah yes, Gwathir! If you two boys would show your good manners once again and turn around while I get properly dressed, I'd be much obliged. I really can't go on holding this cloak shut with one hand. I'm getting a cramp!" Sirraphe smiled engagingly and raised her eyebrows. Gwathir and Tarik looked at each other, shrugged and wandered off so that a clump of rushes hid Sirraphe from their view.

Sirraphe ran to check on her dress, which was dry and moderately clean. Letting her new mantle slip to the ground, she pulled the gown over her head and stepped into her underclothes. While she was struggling to get the masses of wet hair out from her dress, she felt gentle hands helping her. Turning, she saw Hthweh smiling and holding the red sash ready to tie round Sirraphe's waist. Sirraphe grinned back and thanked her new friend. When she was dressed properly, Sirraphe called to the other two, who were at the water's edge, skipping stones.

"Tarik and Gwathir! You may come back now. Hurry up and let's get acquainted." She turned to Hthweh as the two young men sauntered up. "I assume you three are also pilgrims? You look about the right age. Why did you come to the Aglaraelin? Have you seen any temples yet?"

"Not so fast, Sirraphe, is it? We can't answer all those at once! Let's sit down here and have a bite to eat. Then we can talk." Gwathir had reached the s first and now he waved his hand in the direction of some mossy stumps, where three packs were lying. Sirraphe grinned at him happily.

"I like you already, first eat, then talk. But isn't it rather early to eat?" She examined the sky and was astonished to see the sun was about two hours from setting. "Of course, how silly of me! I should have realized I slept the whole afternoon away." Picking up her pack and slinging it over her shoulder, she continued talking. "How long has it been since your breakfast? Sorry, answer the other questions first, please." She laughed and ran to the stumps, the others followed.

After seating themselves and unpacking their ration for that day, there were many exclamations over the food. Sirraphe was astonished to hear that Hthweh, her brother and Gwathir had never tasted bread before, which was the main staple of her diet at home. She was also delighted to try Hthweh's little drops of minty candy which melted on her tongue. The small group decided to pool their resources and made a wonderful meal of Sirraphe's whey bread, home-smoked meat and goat's cheese, which was supplemented by the fine soft cheese, rolls of white bread with sesame seeds on top and dried fish of the city kids. This they washed down with fresh water from one of the streams nearby and a few sips of the wine that Gwathir had smuggled out of his home for the trip. Sirraphe loved the round, sweet wine, as it was completely different from the sharp, dry drink she was used to. Eating together breaks the ice between strangers very quickly and soon even Tarik was talking animatedly.

The meal couldn't be called lunch anymore, as it was late afternoon, and the sun was going to set in an hour. The general consensus was that since they were all on the same journey, they should travel together. The young men especially were adamant about not letting Sirraphe go on alone. Gwathir suggested camping by the pond that night and going on to Leggandir the next day, to which everyone agreed. The nights were still quite cool and they decided to sleep close together for warmth, Sirraphe on one end, then Hthweh and Tarik and finally Gwathir. After cleaning up their "dining room," as Tarik called it, the four set out to find a sheltered spot for their camp. Sirraphe remembered that there was a sort of cave made by overhanging bushes close to where she had fallen asleep that day. Underneath it was dry and soft new grasscovered the ground. Instead of swimming across the water, they walked on the banks with Sirraphe in the lead. She found the place and soon the four had laid down the ground sheet, which Tarik had brought, and snuggled down in their ronenavs with their rolled up clothes as pillows.

Before she settled down with the rest of them, Sirraphe wandered back to the edge of the stream by which she had rested. She sat and dreamed of the woodsprites and what they had said to each other when they had found her. She blushed to remember she was , but then shrugged it off and chuckled. Maybe the sprites were shocked. She wondered what a shocked sprite would look like. She didn't even know if sprites had a taboo. Anyway, she'd never see them again, so it didn't really matter.

She reached up and softly brought the crown of flowers into her lap. It was as fresh as when she'd received it and the flowers were a kind she'd never seen before. After spending her whole life in a village in the heart of the woods, she knew every flower that grew in her region by name. These she didn't. They were tiny and had six round white petals each. The center was golden and shimmered in the dusky evening light. Lightly she touched one of the flowers and the pollen that came off onto her finger shone brightly on her finger for a moment, then faded. Examining the way the wreath was woven, she saw the plant was a sort of vine, very thin, but quite strong and the flowers and leaves grew on it. The leaves were dark green and glossy, only slightly larger than the flowers. After putting the coronet on the grass beside her, she took the cloak from her shoulders and spread it over her lap. Now that she was alone she wanted to see what it was that the wood people had given her. The material was soft to the touch and somewhat silky, but it was thicker than silk and when she held it up, she saw that it wasn't wrinkled at all. Now the sun had set, so it was hard for her to see the proper color, but she knew it was green. It had a hood, which was lined double. While she was looking for a way to fasten the mantle, her fingers encountered something hard. Peering at it in the twilight, she recognized a brooch shaped like three flowers, the same kind as in her coronet. The jewels sparkled in the evening dim. Sirraphe felt awed and very honored to have received such gifts. She stood up and fastened her cloak with the brooch. Before she left, she bowed in the direction of the forest and whispered, "Thank you, folk of the woods. I thank you."

***Explanation: A tairee is a long leather thong wound around the right forearm. It signifies the wearer to be from a wealthy family. The tairee can be dyed and decorated with the family colors and emblems, but this is usually only done by people who wish to show off their family's position.

 

***A ronenav is a kind of sleeping bag, made of two blankets sown together, with one end open. It can be made of heavy woolen blankets or lightweight sheets, depending on the season. Many village people use them every night, sleeping on a mat on the floor instead of normal bedclothes in a bed.

 

 

Chapter Two

"There's something magical about sleeping out of doors. If you ignore the little things like being stiff in the morning and having creepy-crawly creatures in your hair, then you can enjoy the beauty of the morning sun and being close to nature." Sirraphe announced cheerfully the next morning.

"Too close to nature." Hthweh grumbled and snuggled further into her ronenav.

"I say, is that a spider on your nose?" Tarik asked, leaning forward. Craaack! Hthweh's forehead hit him squarely on the jaw as his sister screamed and shot up. This commotion woke Gwathir.

"Honestly, with a new travel companion I can't get any sleep." He grunted, but the twinkle in his eyes denied his grumpiness.

"Well, your new travel companion has breakfast all ready. So if you want to keep complaining, do it after you have a full stomach. The world will seem a lot more friendly, and I doubt you'll even need to grumble." Sirraphe chirped as she carefully turned an egg on the pan she had over a small fire. Her speech woke everyone sufficiently to find Sirraphe was true to her word and really had a meal ready. There was an egg apiece, broth flavored with wild herbs and some bread from their provisions. Some very tasty tea had been prepared in a potbellied jug, which Sirraphe proudly handed round.

After their first hunger had been stilled, Hthweh began questioning Sirraphe about the food.

"What mushrooms are these? I didn't know mushrooms grew so early in spring! Where did you find them?"

"This kind grows on rotten wood, even over the winter. It's called tnthn."

Gwathir laughed and slapped his knee. "Tnthn! That sounds like a bell. Doesn't it mean sparkling tree?" He chuckled.

"Almost. You should learn your native language better. It actually means sparkle on a pine tree. They're bright yellow before you cook them, you know."

"And this tea, what's it made of?" Hthweh persisted.

"Lemonbalm with a touch of mint. Found them both growing right over there." Sirraphe gestured over her shoulder.

"What bird laid these eggs?"

"They're snake eggs." Sirraphe grinned wickedly.

"What! You're not serious, are you?" All three clapped their hands to their mouths.

"Yes, I am. And they tasted just fine so don't get all squidgy. I'm surprised at you boys. Haven't you ever been camping?"

"We're from the city, in case you've forgotten. We don't keep up that tradition anymore."**

"My brother went on his trip when he was only twelve... You haven't ever done this before?" Sirraphe was astonished.

"No, never." Gwathir shrugged. "So it's a good thing we met you!"

"Yes, it is. But I have a question." put in Tarik. "Not that I don't appreciate your making us this great breakfast and all, but why didn't you just use the food in the packs?"

"Tarik, we'll be in Leggandir soon and there won't be any fresh food. I don't know about you, but I don't have enough money for food as well as lodgings. I leave my provisions for the cities. That's how my older sister did it and it worked very well for her."

"Well, actually, we do have enough money for both." Tarik frowned at her.

"Oh, sorry." Sirraphe blushed uncomfortably, mentally kicking herself for not remembering the tairees.

"But it's a grand idea, this way we'll have more to eat than if we only ate out of the provisions, plus our money will reach farther." Gwathir hurried to reassure the girl and poked his friend in the side with his elbow.

"Look at the two, Sirraphe. They're always happy when they have lots to eat!" Hthweh grinned, while Sirraphe laughed and got over her embarrassment

"So am I! Well, we should be getting on our way now if we want to reach Leggandir by midday." Sirraphe stood up, stretched and began to pack up her things. The others followed suit and soon they were on the road again, joking and laughing. Gwathir told Sirraphe about his two friends and how they'd always gotten into trouble when young, she entertained them with tales of village life, while brother and sister teased Gwathir about his early escapades.

"There, see that sign? Only two relegs*** till Leggandir. That means we'll be there before noon." Sirraphe's news cheered everyone up. The three city kids were looking forward to real beds, or at least mattresses at some hospitable family's house. They weren't used to camping. But nobody had complained about sleeping on the ground, which pleased Sirraphe. That meant they weren't as spoiled as some pilgrims she'd known. Shuddering, she remembered the who had passed through her village last year. Sirraphe's family had given her shelter, but she had complained about everything. If you gave credit to all she had said, she'd been used to silken bed sheets every night, flowing water in every room of her house, hot and cold, and sumptuous fare throughout the day, whenever she felt hungry. Not to mention a hot, perfumed bath when she felt like it and clothes and jewels fit for a princess. Sirraphe had had to listen to her guest's yammering, since she was the youngest of the family and it had been her duty to take care of the pilgrims. She'd wondered why the had even set out on the pilgrimage, since she was obviously unaccustomed with the ways of the servants of the Most High.

A strange uneasiness awoke her from her memories. Something was very wrong. She listened intensely ... The birds! They weren't singing, and she hadn't seen any of the usual woodland creatures for some time now. The air had become thicker, it smelled strange. She stopped suddenly to glance around warily, making Gwathir bump into her from behind. He opened his mouth to complain, but she cut him short by grabbing his arm and a quick shake of her head. Startled, he frowned at her.

"Back! Hide in the woods, now! Hide as fast as you can!" She hissed. Tarik had heard her too and the boys obeyed without question. The urgency in her voice made it clear no questions were to be asked.

Hthweh had walked on, lost in the beauty of the springtime. She didn't hear Sirraphe softly calling her back, nor did she hear the tramp of many feet coming towards her around the bend. She ran straight into the arms of the roughest, most evil-looking man she had ever seen. He held her fast and called out to those behind him.

"Here's a beauty! Look what I found!" Hthweh struggled and fought as hard as she could, but was quickly surrounded. Sirraphe, hiding behind a bush, shook her head sadly. Hthweh had obviously never learned how to defend herself. Sirraphe herself probably wouldn't have been able to avoid being captured, but she would at least have left her mark on some of the ruffians. She wondered wildly where they were from and what they planned to do to Hthweh. Glancing over to where the boys were hiding and seeing they had chosen a large beech tree, she frowned, hoping the men would not look in that direction, as her friends were fully visible.

"What'll we do to er? Put er wi' th'rest? Or mebbe I could larn her some fun." The man holding Hthweh leered evilly at her, and winked at his comrades. Sirraphe gripped her knife hilt. If they were going to Hthweh, she couldn't just watch, even if she landed beside her friend on the road. But Hthweh raised her knee sharply, getting her captor straight in the groin, who doubled up and let go of her momentarily. She darted away, but was surrounded by his fellows and had nowhere to go.

"Let's see if you can have fun' now." Sirraphe chuckled delightedly. Someone had at least shown Hthweh the best way to incapacitate a man for a while. But all too soon, he recovered and ordered the rest to take her to the others'.

"I've no use for such a wench." Still clutching his wounded self, he aimed a blow at Hthweh's face. Sirraphe winced and quickly turned to the beech tree, where Gwathir was having trouble holding back Tarik. He soon subsided though, and Sirraphe turned to watch what was happening to Hthweh. She had ducked the first, but the second blow caught her full in the face. She slowly straightened and stood bravely with closed eyes, but no more came. The men roughly tore off her pack containing her fine food and clothes and dragged her to a long line of chained people, which Sirraphe noticed for the first time. Hthweh was chained up and her pack thrown onto a large wagon full of goods. Sirraphe watched as her friend proudly raised her head to glare at her captors, ignoring the which ran from her nose. The procession began moving again and Sirraphe's eyes widened in her pale face as she watched. She recognized some people in the chained line! Sirraphe's cousin, Jaddera, and her husband lived in Leggandir. Now they were chained up, shuffling along slowly. Jaddera was bent under the load of her one-year-old son, who was clinging to her back. Her husband was hurt seriously on his arm and he had a patch over his right eye. The whole city of Leggandir seemed to be marching by, at the best, tired and dirty, at the worst, injured and bleeding. Sirraphe shuddered to think what the town looked like. She was sure it was burning and ransacked, and the people who had opposed their conquerors too fiercely ... Sirraphe abruptly broke off that thought and blanked out her mind as she watched the terrible train pass.

Finally the whole group had disappeared and the last wagon rolled out of sight. Cautiously, lest there were a few straggling soldiers, Sirraphe stood up. She met the boys in the road. Tarik looked haggard and Gwathir didn't look much better. Sirraphe realized her appearance probably wasn't any different.

"Who were they? What were they doing? Why did they take Hthweh? Let's go after them!" Tarik cried wildly. Sirraphe laid a restraining hand on his arm.

"No, Tarik, we can't follow them. It's too dangerous. We should go to Leggandir and see what the people there know about them.. I'm sure some escaped and hid. Maybe we can help them."

"But - but Hthweh, my sister! What will happen to her? Someone has to help her!"

"I know. I know." She took a deep breath and looked at Gwathir for support. "We have to go to Leggandir, or what's left of it. It's our duty to help the people there as fast as possible. Shhh, Tarik, then we find out as much as we can about these men who took your sister and go after her."

"But we'll lose so much time that way! We must go now!" Gwathir turned to Tarik and tried to explain.

"Don't you see? Think a moment, Tarik! If we don't go to Leggandir and do what we can to help, people will die. We have to do something to help, it's written! Give what you want to receive.' It's in the Holy Scrolls, Tarik." This argument did not seem to have much effect on Tarik, so Gwathir tried another tack. "Look, if we go, someone will surely know who those s were. We'll spend the day there, doing what we can and finding as much information as possible, then we'll follow their trail. Shouldn't be too hard, huh, Sirraphe?" He glanced at her for corroboration, and she nodded emphatically. "Plus, we might find some people who are willing to come with us for revenge. We'll have more of a chance that way." Gwathir stopped and he and Sirraphe stared tensely at Tarik, who stood with arms crossed in the dusty road. Finally he nodded shortly.

"Agreed. But one thing. Swear to me that we will not go home without Hthweh, Gwathir." He held out his hand, palm down. Gwathir solemnly covered it with his, also palm down.

"I swear it. You know she's like a sister to me."

They both looked up, startled, when Sirraphe's soft, feminine hand clasped the two men's hands and her low voice added, "I swear it, too." As their mouths opened to protest, she continued quickly. "I know how to fight, I'm good at tracking and I don't give up. I know these woods like the back of my hand. And if it hadn't been for me, you'd be there with Hthweh." After another strained silence, they nodded grimly and concluded the process by repeating the age-old oath together.

"This promise is made before you, o Mahaleth, Father of All. If it is broken, may your wrath come down upon our heads. Give us your strength and endurance to finish the task before us. So be it."

Without another word, the three turned and continued onwards to the ransacked city of Leggandir, each determined to keep their pledge.

** Tradition dictates that young men from the age of 13 to 15 must spend one month in the wilderness on their own. They live off the land and spend their time in seeking guidance from Mahaleth, the Father of All. Still practiced widely in the country, the city folk have forsaken they ways of their old God and have turned to other gods.

*** A releg is about two and a half kilometers.

 

Chapter Three

Leggandir, when they reached it, was far from the proud, beautiful city it had once been. The city walls were breached in many places, the smoke from the charred remains of the gates mingled with the smoke rising from inside the walls. Cautiously, they approached a smaller hole in the walls. This had been Sirraphe's suggestion, as she said they could not be sure that the soldiers had not left a small contingent behind. It would be dangerous to go in by the main gate. They climbed over the rubble carefully, glancing away quickly when they saw the mangled body of a guard.

With tears in her eyes, Sirraphe stood and took in the ruin of the city. The houses' roofs were burning, doors were broken in and stores had been looted. Blood mingled with the filth of the streets, and wherever she looked, there were bodies. Gwathir was on her left and Tarik on her right. Before they knew what she was doing, she had knelt down.

"Father, give us your strength and endurance for the time ahead. Lead us and use us to aid your children, we are willing." When she stood up, the young men saw a new peace in her face as she turned to them. "Well? We don't have all day, do we? Let's see what needs to be done."

They picked their way carefully along the streets, Sirraphe ahead, leading the way. For their own safety, they kept to the alleys which had been less damaged, where no fire was raging. Whenever they came upon a body, Sirraphe bent over it to see if there was any chance of the person being alive. Too often, she straightened with pain in her face, shaking her head. The first time it happened, Gwathir hastened to her side and stayed there, watching what she did intently. Soon he was working alongside her, holding wrists, looking at eyes and listening for a heart beat. So great was his desire to help that he hurried ahead, moving away from the other two. Tarik followed more slowly. Sirraphe, glancing up at him after folding the arms of a young her age with a cut throat, said in a strained voice, "Tarik, it's no use for you to stand to one side. Please help us, that way we'll be done quicker and will be free to follow your sister." She held out her hand, not noticing how caked with blood and filth it was.

Hesitantly, Tarik took it and helped her to her feet. Looking up at him, she saw his distress.

"I'm sorry, I would help, but I - don't know anything. I'd be a hindrance!" He stammered, trying not to stare at the dead body behind Sirraphe. She understood his feeling of helplessness, it was exactly how she felt, but she took his hand again and pulled him over to the next body. Down she went again, telling him to watch what she did. It was a young man this time, lying face down in the street, his arm cut off at the elbow.

"You see, it's still bleeding slightly. He might be alive!" Quickly but gently, she turned him around and listened for a heart beat. She jerked her head up, grinning exultantly. "He is! We have to work quickly, open my pack and take out some clothes." Tarik did what she asked, but the first things he pulled out were Sirraphe's undergarments. Before he could stuff them back in, she snatched them and began ripping them into long strips. "Now get me the package wrapped in the blue cloth, squarish... Yes, thanks. Now water." When she had everything, she began mixing a yellowish powder with a little water in a small bowl, still giving Tarik orders. "Give him some water to drink. Just a few drops, he's unconscious, we don't want to drown him. That's right." As Tarik administered water from his own waterskin, Sirraphe shifted round to the other side of the man, to get at his arm. Tenderly, she peeled away the caked-caked tatters of his sleeve and hissed as more blood began to spurt from the newly opened wound. "Tarik! Get over here and hold the veins shut! Put your hands there and there and squeeze it shut... good work, hold on." She tied a strip of cloth just above Tarik's hands. "Let go, but gently, slowly... good." She worked on, cleaning the wound, slathering the yellow salve she'd mixed on it, and binding it up. She ripped her second dress up for the bandage. When she was done, she peered at the man's face anxiously.

"He should be conscious by now. Father, don't take him yet!" She looked up at the dark, smoky sky, briefly, then turned her attention to her patient. As she bent her head, her wreath fell off, right onto the man's face.

"Oops!" She snatched it off, and as she did so, some of the pollen was shaken off onto the man's forehead. It glowed there slightly, then faded. He stirred, forming his cracked lips to mouth the word water. Sirraphe gasped and fumbled for the water skin. Tarik handed it to her.

"That was the flowers! Sirraphe..."

"Hush, Tarik! Go help the others. You know what to do now. If you find anyone still alive, call me." She broke him off and sent him away, not once taking her eyes off her task. He reluctantly left her, glancing over his shoulder to see her cradling the man's head in her lap, talking to him softly. He wondered where she'd learned to nurse this well, she was still so young, and yet experienced in more things than he'd expected. He couldn't forget the flowers either. That wreath, the cloak, they were very strange. The flowers hadn't faded since yesterday, and the way the mantle had stayed dry in the water!

"Something not quite right about those things..." He muttered to himself. He continued to search for living among the dead in the street. He found one, an old woman kneeling by what must have been her husband's body, clutching his hand to her breast and weeping silently. She rocked back and forth in silent, dazed grief, her eyes never leaving the man's face. When Tarik's shadow fell over her, she jerked her head up in terror and cringed back.

"Don't ee urt me, I ain't got nuthin'!"

Tarik took a step towards her, but she scuttled away from him, to the other side of the man's body.

"My lady, I've come to help. Is there anything..."

"Help!" She turned aside scornfully. "Jest like those soldiers came to help. You be gone now. There ain't nuthin' for ye here. Nuthin' at all..."

Tarik knelt down and reached out a hand to her.

"Can't you see? I don't have much, but I want to help... May I see if he's alive? There's still hope, my friend knows how to heal."

"And what friend be that?" Her shrill voice revealed her desperate fear.

"She's from Arrata. Her name is Sirraphe." The woman started and lifted wary eyes to his face.

"Sirra! She be here? Ye be tellin' the truth?"

"You know her?" He could hardly believe it. She must be confused and half-crazed with fear. Never mind, I'll find Sirraphe anyway. Maybe she can make more headway than I.

"Know her! She be my godchild. And aye, she has the healing gift. I taught her all she knows. Of the herbs and the potions... Aye, aye...." She continued to mumble, as Tarik hurried off to find Sirraphe. She was where he'd left her, with the young man's head in her lap. He paused a moment, taking in the scene. All around her was destruction and death, yet instead of despairing as he had done, Sirraphe was intent on easing another's pain. She smoothed the man's hair out of his eyes, speaking words of encouragement and hope.

"It won't be long now and you can get up. Mahaleth be praised, you will live! How do you feel? Is the burning sensation still strong?" She bent close to catch his low voice.

"Still burns ... But I feel strength returning - my head is clear now ... Thank you so much."

"Don't thank me. I did nothing, it was Mahaleth who saved you from 's door. I was merely his willing tool." She replied gently.

"Sirraphe..." At her name, the girl lifted her eyes to meet Tarik's. "I've found a woman who needs your help. She won't let me come near her, but when I mentioned your name, she said she was your godmother."

"Meiana! Where is she? Is she alright? What about Bried? Is he with her?" She exclaimed, making as if to get up. The young man's moan reminded her of her patient and she motioned to Tarik. He knelt down at her side, relieved that he needn't tell her of the old man's death.

"Get something to prop his head with. Stay with him until I'm back." In a lower tone, she added, "Tell him something, keep his mind off the pain. If you can, move him into the shade."

He nodded and quickly described how she would find the woman. She sped off and Tarik was left to stare at this stranger who needed his help. Slowly, he took off his shirt and rolled it up to form a pillow.

"I'm Tarik." He began awkwardly, then paused.

"Miquen..." The man rasped.

"Meiana ... Meiana. Shhhh, don't worry. He is with Mahaleth now."

"If only I were too. What be the reason in things? Why I be alive and my husband dead?" The old woman moaned. Sirraphe continued to rock her godmother's frail body in her arms.

"I don't know. I don't know why some live and others die. I don't know why we meet new friends and they are taken away at the next moment..." The tears Sirraphe had held back for so long stung her eyes and she finally let them flow. The old woman and the young one clung to each other, letting their tears mingle, drawing strength from their shared burden.

This is how Gwathir found them. He slowly drew back, but Sirraphe caught sight of him and beckoned him close. She disengaged herself from Meiana and held out her hands to her new friend. He approached and drew her to her feet. Together they helped the old woman up.

"Meiana, this is Gwathir. We met at the Aglaraelin. He and his two friends are on pilgrimage as well."

"Good to see young people who be holding to the old traditions." Meiana had calmed herself and held out a hand to Gwathir with all the grace of a queen, though he shuddered at the pain he saw in her eyes.

"It is an honor to meet you, madam." He said, bowing over her hand before turning to Sirraphe. "I've found more in need of your care. They're beyond what I know, which is next to nothing. And there are people who are unhurt beginning to stir." Sirraphe turned to the old woman.

"Meiana, we have to go. Our time for grief is over at present. Will you help?"

"What question be that? Get my things, girl, ye be knowing where they are. No time to lose." She gestured behind her at the house. When Sirraphe had entered it, the old woman turned away from the young man next to her. "I be ashamed of myself. Wailin' an' weepin' fer my man while others lose their own lives." She hid her face with a wrinkled hand.

"No need to be ashamed, my lady. I would have done no different had I been in your place." Gwathir placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

"Thank ye." The old woman gazed at him, searching his very soul, it seemed to him. Finally, she nodded, as if pleased with what she'd found. "You be a good young man. Promise me one thing." She stared at him intently, waiting for his nod before continuing. "Promise me you'll take care of my Sirra. She be too headstrong at times. She run herself ragged fer others and not be thinkin' of her own needs." Gwathir smiled, glad it was something she asked which he found himself gladly willing to fulfill.

"I give you my word that I'll do my best to help her."

"That be enough fer me." They both turned as Sirraphe appeared, carrying a basket in one hand and a bedraggled sheet in the other. She handed the basket to Meiana and explained. "The herbs and potions were scattered. Some flasks were broken. I gathered up what I could, but I'm afraid some things ... I simply couldn't find them, we'll have to make do without... Now, one thing remains..." She handed the sheet to Meiana, who sadly turned to the still form on the ground. Kneeling, she covered up the man she'd known and loved all her life. Sirraphe knelt down beside her and Gwathir followed their example, though he did not know what they were about to do. Surprised, he felt Sirraphe fumbling for his hand as Meiana began to speak. Her voice trembled and faltered at first, but grew in strength as she continued.

"Oh Father, we thank you for Bried, my husband of many years. We praise you for his long life and worship you for giving him to us. Now, as his time here has ended, we ask you to receive his spirit. He was a good and faithful servant to you, we thank you for remembering his love for you. Offering up our sorrow to you, we receive your peace in its stead. Praise be to you, Most Holy One, we worship your name."

After a few moments more of silence, Sirraphe let go of Gwathir's hand. He looked at her as she knelt beside him, gazing at the dead body. Yet he felt that her wild grief had been replaced with a deep peace, and he wondered at this.

Standing up, Meiana squared her shoulders and picked up the basket. "Well? Let's go."

 

Chapter Four

"It's been a long day." Sirraphe sighed, sagging against the wall. The three pilgrims, Meiana, Miquen and other survivors had set up a camp in the part of the city which was the least destroyed. In other areas fire was still raging, but they were safe from that danger for the moment.

"Aye, my child, that it has." Meiana looked lovingly at the girl she almost considered a daughter.

"Should say so." Gwathir spoke up from where he was sprawled on a dirty blanket at Sirraphe's feet.

"But you were such a help. Without you many more would have died on this black day." Miquen's voice was heard from the shadows. "Including myself."

Sirraphe flung herself down next to Gwathir and rolled onto her back. Staring into the murky night, she wondered aloud, "Who were they? Who could do such a thing? Could they possibly be our fellow men? It seems that they must be demons sent to torment the land..."

"Not so far from the truth, little lady." Miquen stepped towards the little group and slid down into a sitting position, resting his tired body against the wall Sirraphe had just abandoned.

"What do you mean?" Tarik frowned at the newcomer from where he squatted near Meiana. "Don't start some stupid old wives' tale. Demons don't exist. They were men, we saw them."

"So did we all." His flat tone reminded each one that he had definitely seen them closer than he'd wanted to. "Yes, they are men. But no ordinary men. They are the Sordukh..." His voice dropped to a hushed whisper. "Raiding the land, bringing and destruction wherever they go. This is what I have heard, and I am not ill inclined to believe it."

"Pshaw! The Sordukh are nothing but a legend to frighten small children into behaving themselves. I shall listen to no more of your nonsense." Tarik jumped to his feet. "Gwathir, come, let us plan how to rescue my sister." However, despite his friend's imperious gesture, Gwathir remained where he was.

"Tarik... I don't know. Do you remember what we heard in Casalthe? The rumors of a black band raiding the North? The whispers that they bore the mark of the Evil One? I am not so sure that Mequin is not telling the truth."

"Surely you don't believe him! I dare say they were soldiers from Preingall, sent to invade us. Or perhaps merely a raiding band of thieves."

"Thieves don't burn down a whole city, nor do they slaughter its inhabitants as brutally as these men did. Invaders from Preingall would have occupied the city, not destroyed it and moved on, as these have done. No, they are the Sordukh, I am convinced of it." Mequin shook his head ruefully.

"Tarik, you can't deny that they were nothing like the soldiers we've seen in Casalthe. I am inclined to believe Mequin."

Sirraphe listened to the men argue with half her mind. She was so exhausted she couldn't concentrate on the exact words. What did it matter if they were the Sordukh or not? What mattered was that they had Hthweh, Jaddera and so many more in chains. The buzz of the words in her ears grew slowly in volume, until she seemed to hear many voices of men, women and children. They were screaming, moaning and crying out in agony. Over the din, Sirraphe heard cruel commands cutting the air. It seemed she was overlooking a plain, and with a start she recognized Hegnore Basin on the coast, a full week's travel to the northwest. To her left she saw the ocean, four mighty ships with black sails were anchored in the bay. Before her was a camp, full of soldiers like those she had seen that morning. To her right was where the noise was coming from, so she turned to see what she could. A large throng of people were crowded into a hurriedly erected enclosure, fenced in on three sides by stacked logs. On the one side left, it seemed that the soldiers were forcing the prisoners to build a stonewall. If someone slackened his pace, he was whipped until he fell, screaming. Inside, mothers tried to comfort their children, or begged the impassive guards for food. Sirraphe looked across the land and saw darkness spreading from the Basin, covering and consuming all. A strong trumpet blast called her attention back to the plain. gripped her as she caught sight of a large figure striding towards her. Cloaked in black, with a cruel-looking sword at its side, it approached. Sirraphe glimpsed a crude skull etched into the breastplate, smeared with what seemed to be , long since dried. Suddenly, five small figures rose up from the ground and ran to meet the terrible one. Just when it seemed that they must be stamped out by the monster, the scene froze. One of the five turned to Sirraphe and cried in a loud voice,

Evil stalks the land. Death smites the hand

of the righteous aside.The pure run to hide.

Seven arms fight well, two more of them fell

prey to the Evil One. The war has begun.

Casalthe, Kelydd, come, Child of the Wood!

In seeking the Most High, you answer Weydin's cry.

Sirraphe shot up from where she'd been lying and sat there, trembling. Mequin abruptly broke off speaking, while the rest of the party stared at Sirraphe, who was still fighting for breath. Gwathir reached out a hand to touch her shoulder but she jerked away.

"Don't touch me!" She cried, then abruptly crumpled up into his arms and began sobbing. He held her awkwardly, relieved to shift her into Meiana's willing arms when she hurried to them. He then returned the shocked stares of Mequin and Tarik. They had been discussing the possibilities which lay before them with Mequin when Sirraphe had interrupted them with a scream, followed by three verses.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Halt! Sit down!" The harsh command pierced the fog in Hthweh`s mind. Groaning, she stopped her stumbling gait and sank gratefully to the ground. She wondered numbly if it had truly been only a day since her capture. She'd marched endlessly, plodding along, until it had taken all her concentration just to lift one foot and place it ahead of the other. Someone nudged her in the side and handed her a piece of bread. It was stale and hard, but Hthweh tore into it as never before. She had had nothing to eat since the breakfast Sirraphe had prepared and was grateful for anything with which to fill her stomach. She had barely finished when the same nudge announced her ration of water.

After having drunk as much as was allowed, she felt better and raised her head. She was beside a young woman with a mop of curly brown hair, though now it was matted with dirt. She had a child in her lap, and Hthweh watched her give the boy her share of bread. Guiltily, Hthweh thought of how she'd wolfed down hers without thinking of anyone else. She decided to give up her next ration, so that the woman next to her could eat hers. The child met her eyes and crowed happily, reaching out a still chubby hand. The mother ed it back and glanced fearfully at Hthweh.

"Forgive him, ma'am."

Hthweh looked over her shoulder. Who was the woman speaking to? Could it be herself? Why the fear?

"Excuse me, but are you talking to me?" The woman nodded. "Why do you call me ma'am? And you needn't ask for forgiveness for your son!"

"I'm sorry ... It's just that you are wearing a tairee. You come from a good family. My son and I are of a lowly family... I didn't think you wanted him to touch you, to soil you..." The woman's explanations trailed off into silence.

"I love children! Besides, I can hardly get more dirty than I am." She fingered her torn and muddy skirt. She had sat down exactly into a mud puddle, because she had not cared where, as long as she could get off of her aching feet. Lifting her eyes again, she smiled at the woman. "You don't truly think I would have minded, do you?" She received her answer when seeing the mixture of fear and pride in the other's eyes. "Oh dear, you do!" Hthweh frowned and tried to get to the knot which held the leather bands of the tairee in place, but her chains prevented her. "I hate the thing ... actually I would love to take it off, but I forgot about it till now. Would you help?" She turned to the woman and held out her arm.

"Are you sure?" She hesitated.

"Yes. In fact, it would be better for me that people don't know I am from the Runel family. Please, can you manage it?"

After some tries, the woman was able to maneuver her fingers into the right position and untied the knot.

"What should I do with it?" She sat there, holding the narrow strip of leather uncertainly. Suddenly, baby fingers grabbed it and threw it into the air. Before either of the women could react, it was gone.

"Nothing." Hthweh laughed for the first time since her capture. Seeing the child was about to receive a scolding, she began to say it didn't matter, but the of a whip interrupted her. She froze.

"Don't worry. He's not aiming at you, that's the signal to continue." The struggled to stand up, but couldn't seem to manage with her son in her lap. Hthweh, who had shot to her feet, bent down again and lifted the child awkwardly into her arms. Gratefully, its mother rose and thanked Hthweh.

"That's no problem." She glanced at the woman's drawn, pale face and smiled reassuringly. "I'll carry him for a while."

Another of the whip set the long chain of prisoners in motion and the mother accepted gratefully. Hthweh shifted the little boy around so she could balance him on her hip and began the slow shuffling march to an unknown destination.

 

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