Virha, a twelve-year-old girl of the Luidre tribe, must come to terms with losing her mother and father when her people are attacked by a neighboring tribe. The stranger who takes her in is not what he seems.
Where the Dark Peaks Meet the Golden Plain
© 2016 T.Q. Walton
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
The survivors of the Luidre tribe fled towards the mountains, with what belongings they could carry in their arms or on their backs. The dark, pitted peaks of the Cifanua range loomed ahead of them, like a row of rotten teeth.
The invaders were a neighboring tribe, the Diryli, who had betrayed the Luidre chieftain over a border dispute. They had come three days earlier as the morning sun spilled gold over the Plains of Avarrah, and then their blood had been spilled, soaking into the ground. When it was over, more than half of the Luidre lay dead on the trampled grass, including their chieftain, Hotas.
But now the tribe lived in dread of another threat, other than invaders that outnumbered them.
"Those mountains. They look like they will eat us alive," said Duras, Hotas' second-in-command. He frowned at the shadowy peaks. "And then there's the one who guards them."
"I would rather take my chances with him than stay behind and have my body be a feast for carrion birds, or for the dogs to piss on," said another warrior called Itir. He spat on the ground and made an obscene hand gesture meant to insult the Diryli.
"We must cross them; we have no other choice. Our village is burnt and our people and animals slaughtered. There is a way that may ensure safe passage," said Duras in a low voice.
"Pfft! The only way we get over them is by walking one step at a time," said Itir. "Listen to yourself; you sound like a superstitious old vhatu!"
"Watch what you say, warrior. I will be named Chieftain once we make it across them," said Duras. He cast a long glance behind him. The Plains shimmered in the summer heat. Before the sun set tomorrow, they would arrive at the foot of the mountains. And they would need to decide who else they would pick to fulfill the other duty set before them.
The grasses gave way to stonier ground, scrub brush and fir trees. No other tribes lived in this desolate region. Knots of tribespeople murmured to each other with grim looks etched upon their faces. They peered suspiciously up the slopes, as if he would send a rockslide their way any moment.
"We will make camp here for the night," said Duras.
The Luidre set about their chores, readying their temporary homestead.
Screams erupted from up the mountainside. A group of Luidre men and women dashed down the slope, their arms shielding their faces. Small, black insects swirled and buzzed around them.
A tribeswoman ran to Duras and Itir, her face and arms covered in angry, red welts.
"What happened?" shouted Duras.
"We were sent to gather mountain berries, but a hive of sloe wasps attacked us. We did not know the nest was there until one of us stepped on it!" the tribeswoman said. One of her eyes was swelled shut.
Duras grunted. "At least sloe wasp stings are not poisonous."
"No, but they are extremely painful." She left to help the others coat their stings with mud packs.
"It is already starting," sighed Duras.
"Not this again," said Itir.
"Can you not feel his dark presence?" Duras said.
"This is ridiculous!" said Itir. "Those are just stories. Are we not Luidre warriors, descended from Phasouru, the Warrior-King?"
A younger tribesman, out of breath, ran to Duras and Itir. Duras motioned for him to speak.
"One of the boys lost his footing while we were gathering firewood," the young man said, "and his leg is broken. He struck his head on some rocks. They are carrying him down now."
Duras and Itir watched the child's mother run to him crying. His bloodied head lolled as they set him down on some blankets. Some tribeswomen dressed his injuries with strips of torn clothing.
The two tribesmen looked at each other. The child's father had been numbered among the dead in the battle against the Diryli.
"He will not allow us to pass unless we give him something," said Duras. "One of us."
"The boy fell. It is not the work of some supernatural force," said Itir. "You say you will be named Chieftain. Do you think our people will take you seriously if you start spouting nonsense about a demon in the Cifanuas?"
Duras made a slashing motion into his hand. "They are already afraid of what is up there. We need to choose someone now!"
"Then take the boy. He is as good as dead anyway," shrugged Itir.
"No, his mother has already lost her husband. Go get the girl, the one who was orphaned," said Duras. "I will get things ready."
"I knew your parents well. Your father Michas fought with bravery. You should be proud," said Duras.
The girl, Virha, stood in front of him, her long hair hiding her face. She still did not know why she had been summoned.
"How many years are you?" he asked.
"Twelve." She shifted from one foot to the other. "I will be thirteen at the end of autumn."
"You will reach a milestone with the next one. You will be a woman." He handed her a clay cup, filled with a dark, pungent-smelling liquid. "Special tea, for special occasions. I wish to give you a position of honor within our tribe, because your parents gave their lives for our people. Let us drink to honor your mother, Suli, and your father, Michas," said Duras.
She peered into the cup. "What about the other people who died?"
Duras smiled. "Then we shall drink to honor them too."
The tea tasted bitter and repulsive. Virha gagged as soon as it touched her tongue but she choked it down, so he would not be offended. Duras seemed unaffected by the taste.
He told her stories about his own coming of age event. The elders gave him the task of capturing a wild Andap horse, which was better than some of the other tasks, such as bearing snakebites or lying on top of fire ant hills.
Virha's head began to feel as though it was filling up with mud. She found herself leaning on her elbow, her face squished into her hand. She had lost track of the story a little while ago; something about tying the horse's legs with rope, but after that it became confused.
"Lie down if you are tired," said Duras. "You have been through an ordeal, and we journeyed many miles today." His words got stuck in the mud and sank.
She lay on the ground and slept.
Virha awoke feeling hollow. A pall of stillness hung over the landscape, as if the sounds of the birds and the wind in the grass and the world itself had been blotted out. A veil of gray clouds shrouded the sun.
She rubbed the haze out of her eyes. Behind her was the flat expanse of Avarrah, and before her were the rocky slopes of the Cifanuas.
The Luidre tribe was gone.
"Do not get up too fast," said a voice.
A man clad in dove colored clothing knelt over her. Virha could not tell if he was young or old.
"Who are you? Where are my people?" she cried.
"My name is Ouwenen. Your tribe has moved on," he said. His voice was low and deep like dusk and blended together with the shadowy painted tones of the landscape.
Virha's insides turned to liquid. "Moved on? Where? I have to find them!" She scrambled to stand up on shaky legs.
"No," said Ouwenen. "They are far from you now. They left you here. Come with me."
Roiling anger burned away the liquid feeling in her belly. She balled her fists and stood before him in defiance.
He waited for her to speak. Even the air itself held its breath.
"Why did they leave me behind?" Her voice shuddered.
Ouwenen's face clouded. "There are many answers. You will not like any of them."
Tears stung her eyes. "I have to find them," she said again, though she knew she could not hunt well and would soon go hungry. If the weather turned quickly, as it did in the high elevations, she would probably freeze.
"Let me help you," said Ouwenen. "You have nowhere else to go."
Her dark eyes flashed from behind a curtain of gnarled, straw-colored hair. "What if I refuse?"
He shrugged. "Then you will be alone."
Ouwenen led her on quiet feet along a path only he could see. Thorny brush scratched and clawed at her bare legs.
His dwelling appeared to materialize out of the shadows and low hanging mist that threaded like wraiths among the pines.
She sat at the dark wood table in his kitchen. The fire blazing in the hearth did not warm the chill that seeped into her body, and it seemed to her a trick that did not give off heat or light.
Ouwenen wrapped her in a blanket that smelled like the charged air before a thunderstorm.
"How do you know my language?" she asked.
"I know many tongues," he said.
He offered her roasted grassland-fowl and savory roots like the ones her tribe would prepare, but she did not want food. Rage and grief were her sustenance.
She sat for hours, knees drawn up, staring out the window at the fog rising from the damp earth and settling among the crowded stands of firs. Time seemed to have no passing here.
"You sit around too much," he said to her one day. "Today I shall have you wash the window panes. If they are clean, you will have a better view when you wish to sit and sulk."
Virha's nostrils flared. Ouwenen waited in silence for her to move, which enraged her even more.
She collected the water from a brook that flowed near Ouwenen's home. The water glittered like clear jewels and made her hands ache with cold as it sloshed over the hide vessel.
Virha scrubbed the thick glass panes until her arms and shoulders burned. Her eyes blurred with tears and she tasted their wet salty bitterness on her cursing tongue.
The next morning, Ouwenen told her to empty out the fireplace.
"I cannot have you sit and feel sorry for yourself forever," he said.
Virha scowled and slid off the window seat to do as he asked. 'Why was it I who was orphaned, the one left behind? And now I am stuck with him doing chores, when it is obvious how I am suffering! Why has fate cursed me?' she wondered.
She snatched up the broom and swept the ashes out of the chilly hearth. They flitted across the plank floor, dusting her clothes and feet. The ashes were as light and insubstantial as she felt.
The morning after that, he asked her to help him gather herbs that grew on the side of the mountain.
She yanked them out of the ground and threw them into the satchel he had given her, raging to herself at the cruelty of the gods or goddesses or whoever was out there that had set this trap for her. Couldn't they see her agony?
"If I keep you busy, you will not get into trouble."
"I am just a slave to you, that's all!" she fumed.
Ouwenen watched her, his face placid.
"You will be at peace if you can let go of your anger," he said.
Virha glared at him.
"Where is the rest of your tribe?" she asked him one morning while they ate seed cakes and honey. She was in a rare, polite mood.
"I do not belong to any tribe," Ouwenen said.
Virha thought this was very odd. All she had ever known was life with her clan.
"Your ways might seem odd to others," he answered. "When we are done, polish the table and the chairs."
She made a face and muttered something under her breath.
He watched her with the same, docile expression that she hated. "When have I ever been cruel to you? All I have asked is for you to help me."
Virha looked away. 'It is not worth getting into it with him,' she thought, 'because all he does it stare at me with that blank face until I do it.'
Virha perched on a smooth stone, poking at the moist soil with a stick. She imagined the cool, rocky ground under her feet was warm, amber-green grass instead.
She dreamed of the fiery sunsets over the Plains of Avarrah. She remembered the silly antics of the kooras birds bobbing their beige, feather-crowned heads as they hid among the grass tufts.
Mostly, she thought about her mother Suli and her father Michas, and whether they were thinking about her, too.
"You are not making angry faces today," observed Ouwenen.
"Mmhm," mumbled Virha. She flicked dirt off the end of the stick.
He stood behind her. "Do not close yourself off," he said.
Virha frowned and focused on boring holes in the ground.
"Virha," he said.
She ignored him and gouged at the ground between her feet, until she accidentally stabbed herself with the pointed end of the stick. She screamed and clutched at her foot.
Ouwenen took the stick and tossed it away. "Let me look." He inspected the injury. "I need to clean it for you."
Ouwenen wrapped his gray-clad arms around her and she hobbled inside.
He dressed the wound with boiled water she had drawn from the brook mixed with the herbs she had picked. Then he bandaged it in soft woven cloth.
"Better?" he asked, smoothing her tangled hair.
"Why do you treat me with kindness when I get angry and curse at you?" she asked.
He gazed at her and said nothing. His eyes were like the slate flecked with mica she would find in the rocky outcropping near her village.
Finally, he said, "Because I understand you, ahm preilth haeln," which meant "my little one" in her language.
"I'm sorry," she said.
Ouwenen led her down the slope to the edge of the grasslands. The rising sun glowed like a crown over the horizon, its golden rays stretching across the land. Virha blinked in the dazzling light and it seemed the sun had grown larger and rounder than when she had last seen it.
"Look," he said.
Two tiny figures stood in the grassland, silhouetted against the brightness of the sun.
Virha shielded her eyes and peered across the plain. The figures beckoned to her.
"Step onto the plain, Virha," said Ouwenen, "whose name means 'She who walks in the sun's light'."
Her feet touched the grass and the golden warmth flowed into her. The sun rose higher in the sky now, and grew in brilliance.
Ouwenen pushed her a little further out onto the grass. Virha still could not see who it was. The silhouettes edged closer.
Joy welled up inside of Virha as Suli and Michas gathered their daughter in their arms. They felt more real than when they had been alive.
Virha looked behind her for Ouwenen.
He had vanished, along with the mountains and the gray mist, replaced by the growing golden light that stretched across the plain.