Authors: Thea Atkinson
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General, #Paranormal, #Romance, #Historical, #Ancient World, #Coming of Age
one of the Elemental Magic Series
2012 Thea Atkinson
by Thea Atkinson
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The call of a vulture was the sound that
brought Alaysha back.
It was always the shriek of the carrion
bird that brought her around afterwards, like the sacred minerals the tribal
shamans used to bring a dream-walker back to reality. It wasn't as though she
fainted during battle -- would to the Deities she could -- but rather, she sort
of went into herself and hid there somewhere inside while the deed was done.
After all these years, she supposed her psyche had trained itself to recover
only when it heard the sure signs of scavenge and she could know it was over.
She dreaded the sound of the vulture like a
dying man would, except for different reasons: while the dying dreaded the
sound of imminent death, it reminded her that she still lived.
With a sort of reluctant dread she opened
her eyes and let go a gust of breath. Without thinking, she turned in the
direction of the bird's call. It was off to the left, circling over a copse of
trees. She kept her gaze on the bird, knowing it would circle ever closer to
her, bringing with it a brood of others to worry fruitlessly at the bodies
littered across the now arid land in front of her. Still, watching the
scavenger was far better than facing what she knew was in front of her.
Infinitely better, too, than turning to what would wait behind her.
They would be coming soon.
She let her gaze travel from the broad
wings of the carrion bird to the grove of trees beneath that were still lush
and vibrant. Strange, how a small oasis of vegetation could be left at all, but
there it was. She judged the distance to be at least one hundred horse strides
away. So, the power still had its limits then. She did some quick calculations:
a few hundred paces short of a leagua? Could that be right? If she remembered
accurately, the last time she'd done battle, the line of growth had started
just short of a kubit. She'd ridden it afterwards and counted the beats of her
mount's hooves to be certain: five hundred horse strides at full gallop, so
yes, a kubit if anything, but three times that much?
She measured the breadth of the distance
with her eyes, imagining herself atop Barruch's back, his mane in her face as
he galloped, measuring with breathless counts, one stride, two strides, three.
This time the line seemed pressed back, almost a blur on the horizon. So it
seemed that although the power had limits, it was growing.
How long would it be before she couldn't see
vegetation at all?
Best not to think about it. They would be
here soon, inspecting her work, making sure each enemy and each child,
grandchild, and friend of the enemy was gone. And the price of that
annihilation was the loss of the very fluid that lent life to the area before
She sighed and scanned the few hundred
mount strides before her. Nothing but arid sand and crackled, dried out soil.
The trees had become tinder on vertical stalks. It wasn't a desert by any
stretch, but the vegetation had crinkled to dust and creatures of all sorts had
fallen like apples from the trees to their bases. What grass or moss or
shrubberies that had padded her bare feet when she'd climbed down from her
mount and sent him with a slap back towards her camp, was now dust beneath her
soles and dried husks of fiber beside her.
She knew without checking that the
destruction went beneath her feet as well. If it stretched out for a leagua in
all directions, it certainly went at least a quarter as deep into the ground.
The only thing belying the dryness was the
cloud cover. So dense and broodingly heavy with water, it darkened the sky. The
rain would come soon; the clouds wouldn't be able to hold themselves together
under the weight of the water that fattened them. The lightning, too. Sparking
the tinder of trees and shrubs, lighting the area with a blaze fierce but
temporary at best in the face of the inevitable downpour.
And then it would seem as if nothing had
It didn't matter she'd been doing this
since she'd been old enough to sit in a basket hanging from the side of her
father's mount, she could never get over the sense of desolation left in her
Water witch. It was a bastardized term that
came from her mother's old tongue that she had learned somewhere along the way
had originated as: temptress of the life blood. She much preferred the original
form to the bastardized phrase her father's people had begun to use long before
her sixth birthday. That version, and the way they spat it out was filled with
contempt. And fear. So much fear, even she began to understand why they
ostracized her so.
At first, she'd thought it was because of
her mother. Then she thought it was because of her father. Only when she gained
her moon's blood in her twelfth season did she realize that both of those
things were the most true.
The sound of horse's hooves behind her
stole her attention from the wasteland and from the memories of a childhood she
didn't want to remember. Three riders abreast, one leading her own mount, trotted
closer. Scouts, of course, come to see if she'd done her job.
"Ho," She called out, and the
rider leading her stallion dropped the reins. The horse picked up speed and
cleared the distance to her in the time it took for her to take two steps
toward him. She reached out for his nose so she could feel the wet. She was
starved for fluid, to feel it on her skin, in her lungs. It felt good to have
the snot and sweat against her palm. It felt real and grounding. Reins slapped
against her other hand as he nuzzled against her, and with a deft movement she
had looped them around her wrist so he would stay close.
Without looking at the other rider as he
trotted closer, she reached into her saddle bag to feel for her tunic. She knew
it was still there. It was a leather thing with sewn-in chips of garnet, a
garment lovingly sun bleached by her nurse so many years ago in anticipation of
her wedding. Now, just over a decade later, it was the only thing left that
would fit her, and she'd worn it so long the chips of garnet had long
disappeared and the calf suede had softened even more to a nearly decadent
linen feel against her skin. Even so, it was also grimy with her sweat. It had
been a long trek finding these people.
She'd taken the tunic off, knowing the rain
would come as she finished her task, making the leather difficult to wear in
the torrent, later drying on her into a hard shell. She always took it off
before battle then stood naked as she did her father's bidding, because it
seemed the most respectful thing to do when you took the lives of others: to
show your own vulnerability. Even still, for some reason this time, she was
loathe for the leader to see her undressed. He had a way of looking through her
as though she didn't stand in front of him, but at the same time, of making her
feel as though her nakedness was something abhorrent.
There were times she refused to get dressed
just to make him pay for that look. She decided to leave her tunic where it
was; he would never see her as a woman anyway. None of them ever did. Ever
would. The other riders came up just as the clouds released the first drops of
the surge. They kept their distance, but surveyed the battleground with some
respect, if not deference.
She held tight to Barruch's rein and he
sent a sulking pout her way, wanting his freedom; still, she didn't want to
mount just yet. She needed to at least feel her feet on the ground when the
rain came, wanted to feel it puddle upon, and then soak into, the gasping
Drahl grunted and nodded at the prostrate
form of a man a short distance away. "Was he the first?"
They rarely spoke to her, and she knew his
question wasn't idle chitchat. He wanted to know if they'd charged her, if
she'd slain them as they ran toward her, or if she'd gotten them from the back
as they traveled towards them unawares. Her father would want to know these
things. He always wanted to know these things.
"He was the first," she said, and
because she knew her father would want even more, added, "they didn't look
as though they knew we were coming."
He nodded but didn't seem surprised.
She studied him. "But then, you knew
that, didn't you?" She couldn't help the note of accusation she heard in
Instead of denying it or showing chagrin,
he spat a thick globe of mucus that landed just next to his horse's hoof.
"It's not for a witch to question --
only to serve."
She sucked in her bottom lip. Serve. Oh
yes. She had served. She knew well her value to the tribe. She leveled him with
a direct stare that she kept despite his narrowed gaze and threatening brow.
"I'm still thirsty," she told him
and was rewarded with a quick, but just as quickly recovered expression of
The sense of pleasure left when she saw it
had been replaced with the usual loathing. No matter. She'd gotten as used to
the hatred of her father's people as she'd grown of killing.
"Leave me while I collect the
seeds," she said, waving him away. She knew this time there would be no
herding of slaves; this time, like the last time, and the time before that, it
was all about killing.
The rain had become a pelting blanket by
now and she would need to collect the dried eyes so her father could count the
number of vanquished before the rain washed them away and into the crevices of
caked earth as it split apart from itself.
She flipped open the hemp sack hanging from
the side of Barruch's saddle and pulled out a leather pouch to tie to the
pommel, this she would use to dump in the dried raisins that had once been the
fleshy, seeing eyes of the living.
Barruch had been with her long enough to
follow without being led as she crossed the cracked earth. He'd grown with her
and was the only present her father had ever given her. She'd been thrilled to
find the midnight colored foal tied to a stake on her sixth season just outside
her nurse's hut outside the confines of the village walls. She'd been less
thrilled when she discovered it was only because her father had tired of taking
her to war on the back of his horse.
Barruch had been with her when she'd
deliberately killed her first man. And he gained a sort of language with her
that was entirely delivered through his body language. During his first battle,
he'd walked sideways away from each fallen man, trying to get away without
The first man from this battlefield lay
face down, and she had to push him with her foot to roll him over. Barruch high
stepped around him, showing a dainty disdain for death. Even in the flash of
water coming down Alaysha could see the blackened bits of the dead's eyes lying
an inch apart on the soil. For some reason, every eye her power contacted dried
them so badly they snapped from the brittle stems that were once connecting
fibers. When she was little, she'd thought of them as the seeds of their souls
and worried they'd fall into the cracks of earth she'd created, there to lay
down roots as the rain engulfed and nurtured them.
At first, she worried about it enough she
suffered terrifying night visions as she slept, but as the years passed and no
newly sprouted man came to take his vengeance, she stopped worrying at all and
began instead to pray for it.
Now, a dozen years past that time, she
merely stooped to retrieve the seeds and tried not to look at the man when she
rose to throw his eyes into the basket. No use. Before she could amble onto the
next, a dozen paces away, she had glanced down at the shriveled face and gaping
mouth and the sight of it held her gaze captive for long, regretful moments.