The blood rushing to her head made her skull ache. She could feel the throb of her heart, flowing through her limbs, bringing spasms of pain to her ribcage. Dizzy with dread, she glanced back and saw it—not far now—a blur of crimson. The halfman was still following.
Dapples of sunlight percolated from the treetops. The leaves were wet and slick with dew and stuck to her soles. Soft dirt came up between her toes, slowing, weakening her grip on the earth. Arrows jostled in her quiver, eager to fly in every direction. A bow of twine and oak smacked her backside at every rock and ravine impeding her passage. Without slowing pace, she fumbled at the harness between her breasts, discarding the bundle of arrows, and the bow, which followed in the dirt. She kept on, free of everything but muscle and skin—a true Ilmarin born of Nature—her auburn braid swaying like a banner caught in a storm.
She could hear the arrows snapping like twigs with heavy, inhuman footfalls, and knew the halfman was close behind. Strengthened by fear, she kept momentum as brambles reached for her ankles and river rocks cut into her soles. She would never tire, or waver. After all, she was not like other humans. Her sense of touch was as keen as her vision. She could feel the Goddess everywhere, in the rain, in the wind, as part of the wood and part of her.
But she was far from the wood she knew.
An immense camphor tree stood in a depression of leaves like a parent over the forest. Her fingers and toes were still covered in sap from sleeping in the branches. The stickiness helped her dig into the brittle bark, scurry up the sheer trunk with little effort. She came up through the foliage into the open sky where she squatted along a bed of swaying twigs.
Certain the halfman could not follow, she placed a hand to her breast, feeling her heart grow calm, her breathing settle into rhythm. No more running. She had lost him in the high places like so many other predators that had stalked her in the past.
Shades of green stretched below, split by a deep, waterfall-studded gorge, which fed into the azure ribbon that was the Potamis River. The river spilled into the turquoise moon that filled the horizon. The smaller moon swam like a purple fish across the face of the greater, marking the passings till nightfall.
In quiet moments when she was in hiding, she doted on the ilm her father had given her, now lost in the quiver with her arrows. The scent of the flower conjured memories of home, and she would never think to eat it or make it into a tea, unless gravely injured. Jagged rocks punished her soles often, when she neglected to watch where she was running, and the branches of some trees left scrape marks across her shoulders and forearms and sometimes her cheeks, but these were mild discomforts she learned to ignore and did not warrant use of the ilm’s healing properties. When she was confident that the halfman was gone, she would go down and look for the flower, and when she had it in her palm again she would try and recall the orange and purple that colored the hills of her homeland.
How many eclipses had come and gone since leaving home? For cycles, she followed the Potamis, maintaining a southerly course, keeping the greater moon to her left. The river served as a guide on her journey, but also a source for drink and bathing. When the waterway dipped through barren valleys, her sustenance consisted of grubs and beetles, but in the wood she drank dew from leaves and relied on her marksmanship to sate her hunger. Despite their efforts, her parents could not have prepared her for the vast, nameless stretches of Aenya. They could not have known of the unfamiliar and ever-changing flora, of the fruits their daughter could only guess the relative safety of, fruit which could either soothe the hollowness in her belly or leave her aching and vomiting. The farther from home, the harsher the touch of the world. Days were scorching and nights made her shudder. Dragon-mosquitoes found her blood sweet as she slept in the trees, and even the flowers had thorns. But she refused to mask her body in the protective covering her mother had given her. Even the occasional thorn was preferable to the constant grating, the heaviness and sultriness and numbness, brought on by clothing. The outside world was unlike Ilmarinen, but every new sensation—even the painful ones—heightened her awareness of life, of the Goddess that resided in all things.
The darkness that came with the fully eclipsed sun, the depth of night, seemed to belong to other gods. In Ilmarinen, she had lain down on the roof of her father’s house under a universe of twinkling fires, her eleven siblings slumbering below before a warm hearth. But here, lonesome but for the surrounding trees, she shut her eyes and willed sleep to come, fitfully separating the harmless noises from invisible things that hunted in the dark.
Leaves whispered and branches crackled, rousing her from her thoughts. Her foundation began to sway violently, threatening to fling her hundreds of feet to the ground. Something was making its way up towards her. As it burst through the foliage, she caught a glimpse of howling teeth and fur like the color of blood.
She scurried away like a four-legged animal. Without realizing it, she was in the adjoining tree. He was in the other, growling in his guttural language, shaking the bone talisman in his fist. Careful to watch his footing, he moved uneasily across the makeshift bridge of touching branches. She reached for her bow only to realize she’d thrown it away. The limbs of the trees groaned in protest as she pulled herself to the twig-like fringes of the camphor’s height. The wind gushed fiercely about her, testing her balance. Being twice her size, she was certain that the halfman could not follow, that the branches would snap under his weight. But he could still reach—she could feel him, clawing her heels, drawing blood with his nails. She navigated through the maze of branches, finally evading him and locating a way in which she could move down and backwards, blindly reaching for anything to hold onto, clutching at twigs no thicker than her fingers. When she could no longer see his red hide, she allowed herself a moment to breathe, and then the halfman dropped from above. She slunk away again, her feet kicking empty air, and suddenly her stomach lurched into her ribcage as the sound of splintering timber rounded in her ears.
She broke through the branches as she fell. The ground was strewn with leaves, but hit harder than dirt. Lifting herself carefully, she tested her body for pain, for broken bones—and was off again, her feet slapping against a flat unyielding surface. In a blur of stone and iron, she could feel the strangeness of her surroundings, the runes etched into the floor, the obelisks and massive rings, tall as trees, teasing her curiosity as she gasped for air. Vague human shapes towered over her, faceless giants lining the path. Golems, her people called the statues—they were everywhere, even in Ilmarinen, masquerading as boulders. But she’d never seen so many, standing upright like sentinels. The place was old beyond memory—a great city from aeons ago, from before the greater moon. Every stone in every courtyard echoed with the memories of the dead. But the forest was reclaiming it. Grasses sprouted between tiles. Roots cut through walls without doors or rooftops. Yet, she had no time to wonder at it all—she could not hope to lose the halfman here, in the open.
Turning toward a broken archway, beyond the watchful faces of stone, she flew deep into the thick of the wood, hoping to be concealed by the fan-shaped leaves. She moved with the grace of a hunted treer, navigating streams and slopes and thickets as though she had run through them a hundred times before. But the halfman was not giving up the chase. Any moment, her legs would give out, and he would be on top of her. Hiding had failed her and running no longer seemed the wisest course. If there was any chance to fight, it could not happen with her back to it. But there was no hope of turning. Even now, its monstrous breathing was raising the hairs of her neck. The shock of its raking claws threw her off balance and she collapsed hard, repeatedly punished as she rolled across the uneven, volcanic terrain.
She could feel the heat of his growl, smell the undigested meat between his oversized molars. The halfman overshadowed her, beating his muscled breast with arms thicker than her waist. But she did not show fear. With equal ferocity she returned his glare, with eyes of green fire, giving the monster pause. But her fists would not be enough. She frantically searched her surroundings, looking for anything she could use to do harm—a rock, a branch, anything at all. She was touching it before her eyes could follow. Spreading beneath her feet were hundreds of volcanic shards. Never having worn shoes, her soles were tough as aurochs’ leather, but she could still feel the jagged pieces prickling her instep. She groped for the largest fragment. The obsidian edge cut into her palm as she lifted her arm to the moon and down again, the shimmering blade plunging between the halfman’s eye and nostril. His howl stung her ears, and she stumbled away, mesmerized by the horror of it, by the black glass jutting from the mutilated face.
You should be running.
Before she could see it happen, his meaty fingers closed about her wrist and yanked hard, snapping her body like a doll. Tendrils of pain shot through her shoulder. She could not hope to wrestle free, even with two good arms. The halfman roared, pounding his chest again. She winced as it flexed for the killing blow. Her final thoughts were of home, of the brothers and sisters she would never see again. But the blow never came.
The halfman’s grip died away, and her arm flopped lifelessly. His ape face, she could now see, was contorted in a mix of rage and confusion. An arrowhead jutted from its throat.
She blinked through the pain at the shapes emerging from the haze, hardly recognizing them for what they were. Human bodies were supple and hairy and did not gleam in the sunlight—at least not the kind of human bodies she was familiar with.
“The rumors appear to be true, Captain Dantes,” one of the men said to the other. “Halfmen,” he added, nudging the lifeless mass of fur with his boot, “and so close to camp.”
“Aye,” said the man on the right, tilting his faceplate open, “but what of this one?” He fixed his shaggy brows on her, astonishment showing through his age-sunken eyes.
She felt suddenly very young, lost and vulnerable, her gaze wandering with intense curiosity over the leather and bronze of their armor, over their belts and boots and gloves, as if never having seen clothing before. But outsiders were not entirely unknown to her people. It was what had brought her so far from home.
“Why, she’s bare as a newborn!” the older man exclaimed. “It’s a wood nymph if ever I saw one!”
“Her grace kindles the heart, indeed, Torgin,” the Captain replied, “but she’s just a girl, a feral child, perhaps, lost to the wood when the bogrens came to her village. And she’s hurt.”
She felt their stares, and though she could see they were branding her every curve to memory, she did not know to feel shame any more than a fish can know what it means to be wet. She simply stood, awaiting her next move, focused on holding herself still as a morning dewdrop, her right arm limp against her side.
The man called Captain pulled off his helmet. He had dark eyes and an ebony beard and was pleasing to look at, and did not seem capable of hating her, despite her parents’ warning. Her instinct was to dash into the wood, but she did not flinch as he unhinged his cloak and stepped closer, wrapping her in it. She tugged at the hem, finding the fabric richer and more finely worked than her mother’s tunic. He pulled a jeweled dagger from his belt, the finest blade she had ever seen, and with a single stroke cut a long strip from the edge of his cloak to fasten about her palm, staunching the flow of blood.
“Do you have a name?”
My name is Thelana.
“Can you speak?”
Words did not leave her mouth and she did not know why. She understood most of what was spoken to her. It was a dialect similar to the one used by Aola, the outsider who taught her the way of the bow. But it’d been so long since speaking with anyone. Perhaps she’d forgotten how.
What happens next? Find out in Ages of Aenya! Get it NOW on paperback directly from www.nickalimonos.com!