Original Written Work
Characters: Isokell, Maqaxha, Rannon, Karaon, Meimere
Summary: A lazy summer afternoon turns into a chaos of blood and loss when assassins attack.
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Isokell sat cross-legged on the soft pillow and let her fingers caress the velvet-smooth surface of the paper in her hand. The feel of the coarser ink against the smooth surface was tangible to her sensitive fingertips and the meaning of the words was clear to her.
Who ever said you needed eyes to read..?
A mild summer breeze from the sea found its way into the little garden confined between the walls, and threatened to tear the thin rice papers from her hand, and she held them close until it had passed. The smell of sea and the sun-warm flowers of the garden followed in its wake; soon it would be too hot to stay outside during the midday hours, and she treasured the last exquisite days of spring.
Nearby she heard the sound of children’s voices and laughter, softly accompanied by the whispering voice of panpipes. The music was simple, played note by note the way a child would play, but still strangely soothing and pleasant. She smiled to herself. The sounds represented security; all the things she treasured were close.
Small hands tugged at his sleeve as he lowered the pipes for a moment to push a few strands of hair out of his face.
The little princess’ voice was determined; a trait she had no doubt inherited from her mother. A will of steel cloaked in velvet… He smiled softly and absently straightened the black cloth that covered his ruined eyes before raising the pipes again.
“As you wish, little saya. What would you like for me to play now..?”
The young prince’s voice answered from behind his shoulder.
“Can’t you play the hymn of the Sun? It’s my favorite…”
A movement of air and the soft rustle of silk revealed the princess’ nod of agreement. He raised his face towards the sky, felt the warm rays of sunlight against his skin. Indeed, the moment was proper enough. He raised the panpipes to his lips again, soundlessly mouthing the words of the ancient prayer before he started playing.
Isokell smiled as the music came soaring on the wind again. Of all the melodies of his homeland that Maqaxha would play, the hymn of the Sun was the most ancient and heartrending. Although she had never been to Ku’naq, she almost felt as if she could feel the place with her senses, carried by the music. The presence of the two mighty twin-peaks with the steep stone stairs between them, the altar under the heavens, the sacred site of the sun… The concept was exotic and intriguingly heathen – it was only recently the ancient pagan worship of the Sun had been replaced by the lore of the five gods in Ku’Ombos; still many of the old ways lived on.
She sat quiet for a while, the papers in her hand forgotten as the murmur of the beautiful melody echoed softly between the walls, so much richer and harmonious than the tentative music before.
So absorbed was she by the quivering tune that she didn’t discover the danger until it was almost too late. A cool shadow fluttering across her face was her only warning, the absence of heard footsteps cause enough for alarm; whomever had approached was not welcome here. She fell back just before a sword plunged towards the pillows where she had been resting a moment before, tearing them in a cloud of fluttering feathers. Thrown off balance she struggled desperately to get to her feet and draw her small ceremonial curved blade. A despairing cry was torn from her lips as a second shadow freed itself from the first and disappeared towards the children.
The music suddenly fell silent.
As always, the hymn evoked mixed feelings within him, as it flew so easily from the wooden pipes he held. So many memories, so much lost forever, things seen a long time ago, before the darkness. He allowed himself to lose himself among them for a moment, remembering. Then suddenly he hesitated, the music unnaturally shrill in the silence.
Something was wrong, there was a tension in the air… When a desperate cry reached them from beyond the trees he leapt to his feet, the flute fallen and forgotten on the sun warmed marble bench.
The whistle of swords slashing through the air and the sound of approaching footfalls filled the silence, and before he could take another step to hurry to his mistress’ aid, a massive form in front of him blocked the warm sunlight. A brutal blow picked him off his feet and slammed him hard into the stone wall behind him, and he sank to the ground, dazed. The grating ominous sound of a sword leaving its sheath made him struggle desperately to get up, despite the sudden dizziness and the dull ringing in his ears.
The clang of steel against steel told him Isokell was fighting for her own life; the children were alone and helpless before the new attacker. With his hand against the wall he managed to stand up, shook his head to clear it from the stabbing pain after the blow. A nasty sound of flesh smacking into flesh told him the boy had shared his own fate, no doubt knocked out while trying to defend his sister. As the whistling sound of a blade hissed through the air towards the children he was already instinctively moving. The little girl screamed, furious and terrified, and without thinking he threw himself forward.
Her adversary was strong and fast, but not too agile. Dread made her movements jerky and uncoordinated, but he had clearly not expected any opposition and kept underestimating her. After what felt like an eternity of desperate evasions and blows, she managed to dive under a too wide swing and drive her blade home beneath his chin. He was dead before he hit the ground.
With her heart in her mouth she hurried through the trees, tripping over her torn dress, the hands holding the sword slippery with cold sweat. As she heard her daughter’s sobs her first feeling was euphoric relief; if she could cry at least she was still alive. The unfamiliar smell of bitter sweat, and the sound of grunted swearing brought her attention to the second attacker who huddled over something on the ground, struggling to retrieve his weapon. She didn’t even pause to think, just swung her blade with full force towards the source of the sound with all her strength. The hit wasn’t true, but held enough force to break his neck with an unpleasant crunching sound, and he collapsed at her feet.
She turned, searching her surroundings with her senses, the smell of blood thick and heavy in the air. A thin voice by her side made her whirl around.
“We are fine, mother, both Meimere and I… But… Maqaxha…”
The painfully throbbing heat of the sunlight, the smell of blood and unfamiliar sweat, the sound of her daughter’s subdued crying clouded her senses, and it took her a few seconds to realize what had happened. With a gasp she hurried past her fallen opponent and knelt on the ground beside his victim.
His familiar spicy scent of cinnamon and cloves was almost lost in the metallic reek of blood; his hands stiffly clenched around the hilt of the blade that had pierced him.
She didn’t even notice her voice cracking as she desperately tried to pry his grip open, wrench the cruel blade away. He let out an involuntary moan as the sword twisted inside him, but refused to let go; all but unconscious from pain and blood loss he still instinctively tried to keep an enemy from retrieving a weapon.
She laid her hands on his, tried not to think of how cool his usually so warm skin had become.
“Maqaxha! It’s me. It’s me, Isokell… Please, let go! Maqaxha!”
At first she thought he didn’t hear her, but then she felt the hands beneath her own slowly relax. Whether because he had heard her plea or because his last powers were spent she didn’t know, but she carefully pried his cramped grip open to pull out the blade that had so nearly taken her children’s lives. Warm blood stuck to her hands and she quickly let go of the tainted blade, letting it fall onto the stones with a dull clatter.
She became aware of the presence of the children nearby, felt their shock and horror as a tangible surge through the air. Her face was tight as she turned to her son, and she forced herself to keep her voice steady.
“Karaon! Call for help; send for a healer, now!”
From beyond the garden walls the everyday sounds of the palace could be heard; so close and yet so far away. No one knew yet of what had taken place. Her son’s presence left her and she heard his quick footsteps as he climbed a bench by the wall and called out to the people on the other side for help
With a quick gesture she pulled Meimere close, felt the small body tremble in her arms as she clumsily stroked her hair with her untainted hand. Despite the sunlight she felt cold, delayed shock making her hands shake.
As Karaon returned to her side she surrendered the sobbing girl to him, for the moment leaving him to give comfort and support. Her hands once again found Maqaxha’s, squeezed them hard, as if she could lend him strength through her desperate grasp alone.
“Saya..? Are you unharmed..?”
She wanted to weep as she heard how feeble and weak his voice was, how labored the quivering breathing that followed.
“I’m fine. We are all fine. Everything will be alright…”
She bit her lip, allowed herself the small lie to ease his worries, but her voice betrayed her anguish. She thought she could feel his life fade away, slip through her fingers no matter how she fought to hold him back. His fingers closed over hers, already so cold and stiff, and she wanted to hate him for the pain her own helplessness caused her.
“Don’t dare to let go!”
She was surprised at the fierceness of her own voice.
“Don’t you dare give up and leave me!”
She could feel him tremble with pain, but the fingers holding her hand squeezed it reassuringly.
“Anything you wish, saya…”
Barely a whisper, that stupid, stupid platitude. How many times hadn’t he made her want to scream with the empty subservient words when they had first met..?
She had barely finished the thought as she realized that was his deliberate intention, that he tried to distract her from the macabre situation with a feeble spark of dry humor. With endless care she pulled him into her arms and held him then; knew it most likely would worsen his injures; knew also that by now it wouldn’t make any difference. At least he’d feel her presence…
Never again the sound of simple panpipe melodies would soar through the garden. The thought was unbearable, tearing her heart in two.
Familiar footsteps hurriedly approached and made her tilt her head up towards the light again, grief mixed with relief as the children threw themselves into their father’s arms. His voice was sharp with apprehension as he spoke.
“Isokell! What happened? Are any of you hurt?”
Her own voice was severe with disbelieving anger as she replied.
“How can you ask..? The children and I are fine, but…”
Blood, blood everywhere now. The man in her arms was so still, barely seemed strong enough to breathe. She could sense Rannon’s scrutinizing gaze slide across her face and onward to Maqaxha’s broken form, felt the chill of it as he looked down upon his fallen once-enemy.
“He saved your children’s lives,” she added, meaning to be hard, but sounded tired and miserable even to her own ears. He stood silent; she knew he was cradling his weeping daughter in his arms.
“A healer is on the way.”
His voice was softer than she had anticipated.
“When they told me what had happened, they had already sent for the foremost among Chima’s own; they feared you were wounded. If he can hold on a while longer they should be in time.”
His voice was dispassionate, but she nodded gratefully, understood he was really more distressed than he seemed.
She held her First Servant close and murmured softly, empty nonsense-words as to a little child, only to convey her presence. He was shaking with pain at every agonizingly rasping breath now, clung onto life through sheer stubbornness and willpower alone, because she had asked him to.
“Just a little while longer,” she whispered, buried her face in his hair.
“Hold on just a little while longer; the healer is on the way…”
He didn’t speak, didn’t move, but she knew he had heard her.
“Stay with me…”
The sunlight burned like fire over the garden, but the hand that held hers was cold as ice. Her powerlessness made her want to scream.
Far away footfalls could be heard across the smooth marble floors of the palace corridors, they approached with disciplined haste, lost their sharp echoes as they reached the gravel path of the garden. A sensation of shadows and sea-breezes fell across her senses as he knelt beside her and softly rested his hands on the broken body in her arms.
Everything was still, even Meimere’s sobs had quieted; no one moved or spoke as the Chima priest sat immersed in healing prayer. Finally a rustle of cloth told her he looked up at her.
The words were simple, sympathetic but harbouring no sorrow.
“It was too late. There was nothing I could do. In the end, all lives are in Chima’s hands.”
She shook her head, unable to find any comprehensible meaning to his words. The hand that had held hers had let go of its firm grip, lay fragile and lifeless in her grasp.
“I’m sorry,” the healer quietly repeated, mild compassion in his voice. She still struggled against the obvious, the insight too great, too painful to accept.
Her voice was but a hoarse whisper. Surely it couldn’t be right..?
Who had ever heard such folly; that help would come only to arrive a few precious moments too late? Surely it was impossible, a misunderstanding…
She didn’t even realize she was crying until burning tears dripped from her face and fell onto her hands. She vaguely heard Rannon speaking her name, but the sound held no meaning.
She held the lifeless figure close, rocked him slowly, still unable to accept what had taken place. It had all happened so fast; in only a few moments the tranquil scene had become a nightmare, and death itself had visited the sunlit little garden.
How had she not hated him the first time she heard his name spoken along with the word ”traitor”; shunned his crimes and condemned his dark deeds? How had she not despised him when she had first met him years later; a groveling slave, so pitiful he inspired only disdain..?
But contempt had given way to aloof pity, and from compassion, sympathy and affection had slowly grown. A fragile friendship she had foolishly taken for granted.
Now as she held his body close, all she knew was that one of her truest friends had been torn from her forever.
Father Sun, welcome your son to you once more,
Mother Earth, may you devour his mortal bones
His blood flows as one with the Black River
And his soul as free as all the heavens…
– passage from the Sun’s Prayer, Ku’naq