She walked the long line, surveying the hundreds who stood before her. They varied in size, occupation, age, experience and wealth. A medley of men ready to do her bidding. Lord Tyron walked by her side, pleased with himself for gathering such a robust group. Kali saw it on his face, and yearned to wipe the pleased grin from it.
She scoffed as she stared at one man in particular. He was blind in one eye as well as a mute, a result from having his tongue cut out. His ratty and stained clothes looked several sizes too large, a true testament considering his stout stature. Yet beside him stood a scrawny, lanky little thing, barely fit to carry her wine yet alone a steel sword.
The bright early spring sun shined down on the courtyard. It was mid-afternoon, and the rays accentuated their grimy appearances, their greasy hair glistened in the light. She grimaced while continuing her appraisal.
She pulled a clean cloth from her belt and proceeded to wipe imagined filth from her hands. “These were all the men you could rally to our cause?” she asked, seeming indifferent. Her heeled boots muffled by the emerging grass and moist dirt.
“Yes, My Lady. One thousand able-bodied men, just as you requested.”
“Youngest is sixteen, oldest is thirty-eight.”
She considered his words as she glanced around, moving strands of wayward hair from her face. The wind was fluid this day. “And are they capable of holding a sword?”
“They are our finest laborers, My Lady. Blacksmiths, farmers, carpenters, thatchers, masons, farriers. Their arms are strong.”
“That is not what I asked.” Impatience colored her words.
He swallowed; his former satisfaction now in question.
“Never matter. I’m looking for numbers more than capabilities,” Kali said as she continued her walk, stopping often to examine her forces. “If they are too inept to hold and swing a sword, then they deserve whatever fate they meet. I’m in need of a distraction,” she said, turning to Tyron and signaling to move to a more private conversation. They left leaving the hundreds of men to the guards appointed to their care.
Kali and Tyron walked to a nearby shade tree which was just being to get its spring growth. “Neither realm is expecting this move,” she began. “They’ll be blindsided. My dolt of a first love expects us to rule side-by-side. Our kingdoms separate while we alone hold all the power. But you see, I do not desire to share. I will take all that’s mine. The kingdoms will fall. They all will bow to me—The Empress of Thrice. Light, dark, and gray will be no more. We will all be equal under my reign. These men here will enter each of the two realms, five hundred at a time. Plenty enough to overwhelm the inhabitants, and while they are plaguing the cities with chaos, I will make my move. I will have my daughter, and she will serve her purpose. Then the demigod will play her part. At each and every moment, a leader will fall. Arturo will die, along with everyone else who oppose me. My daughter will be sacrificed, the demigod will perish, and I will stand on my throne and watch the realms burn. But life always rises from the ashes. It will be glorious.”
“A true sight, Majesty.”
“And will you stand by me, Tyron, Lord of the Dark?”
“For as long as you reign, Majesty.”
“Then you shall have a place by my side.”
“Your Majesties!” Someone calls to them. Whoever it is, they are drawing closer. Kali looks off to her right and finds a young boy, no older than thirteen, racing toward them, his face red and covered in sweat.
Kali’s mouth gaped in repugnance at the undignified behavior. “What in the—”
The boy interrupted her, speaking through labored breaths. “A body has been brought back from the boundaries.”
“What?” Her eyes narrowed and lips thinned as she stared the poor boy down.
“A body, Majesty. It was found—”
“I heard you the first time! You incompetent fool!” she said with a snarl, her lips upturned in disgust. “Just announce it to the whole realm next time. You are lucky I’m feeling generous today, if I weren’t your tongue would be in my hand. Now leave and keep your mouth shut.”
The boy bowed, tripping over his own feet with eyes wide as he sprinted off.
Kali smirked as she watched the boy retreat in fear. “You think I’m a monster,” she stated to Tryon.
“Course not, Majesty”
“You would be correct, you know. Power and control does not come from generosity and kindness. When people have no reason to fear you that is when you truly lose,” she finished, pulling on her black silk gloves that she had removed earlier during their encounter. “Bring me the body. I want to see who crossed, and silence that boy … permanently, for the dead do not speak.”
“Might I suggest, Majesty, instead of disposing of someone young and able-bodied, why not we add him to this lot here? A boy so young might fight as well as a drunken villein, but perchance, he could take down a few foes. Be of use to us?”
Kali glared at him with contempt. Not many questioned her authority, yet here stood a man who did so repeatedly; undermining her word. No matter.
“Your lack of intelligence astounds me, but I will humor you. Put a blade in his hand, but if one words escapes his mouth about what he saw, I’ll put a blade through your belly.”
“Emri?” she called, her frazzled and dirty hand cupping an unresponsive cheek. They had been traveling for days. Emri steadily got worse; infection bubbling up within her skin and blood. Yet their travel, at the request of Emri, never halted even traveling at night to make up lost time. Dangers lurked at such notions, but Nora willed herself to continue on, leading Trysu along the way.
Her feet were blistered to the point of being one piece of raw flesh. Her dark her matted and frayed, hands dirty and calloused, lips chapped and cracked. She wanted to fall over into the soft cushioning of the ground and never wake from her sleep. Her legs ached for it, her feet screamed for it. The pulsating ache which thrummed through her whole body demanded it with ferocity. She was thirsty, hungry, and fatigued.
But the sound of a loud thump behind her drew her waning attention from the horizon set in front of her.
In a haze, she looked back, and her stomach bottomed out. Emri had fallen from her saddle. She came close several times, exhaustion and injury getting the better of her, but she merely shrugged it off, and secured herself to the seat with leather straps. It held as long as the full weight of her body didn’t strain against it. “Emri, look at me! Emri? Please,” Nora begged as tears began to settle within her eyes. She moved her to a nearby tree and then went back to tied Trysu in place. Emri was still unresponsive, her skin pale and lips blue. She looked like death was about to take her. “Please, don’t leave me.” Her bottom lip trembled as moisture gathered within her eyes. Nora brushed back damp and matted strands of brown hair from an ashen face. She looked so peaceful at the moment.
She looked around franticly, not knowing what to do. She was about out of options. Perhaps their journey wasn’t meant to continue. Maybe their destiny would be concluded here. “I don’t know what to do,” she whispered to herself.
“I will be back, love. I would never leave you.”
She left in search of anything—something that could help Emri. But she found nothing.
Dejected, she walked back to where Emri rested and was about to make camp for day when a loud snap grabbed her attention. Without thought, and in one fluid motion, she reached behind her and drew her bow and arrow. It was drawn and at the ready when she finally spotted what caused the noise. She paled upon her discovery.
“Do not move!” Nora shouted as she stood protectively over Emri’s prone body; her bow ready to strike the threat down. It was strange and unnerving to see a human of such nature in this part of the world. They hadn’t seen an actual person for several weeks. That thought alone made Nora’s draw tighten. “Do not tweak a muscle or so help me Gods I will send this arrow straight into your skull,” she threatened harshly as her cold and intent eyes settled on timid, yet curious gray. The woman looked impossibly young. Her face was fresh despite her well worn clothing and shoes. Her jerkin was tattered and torn with various holes and burns and her breeches were fairing no better. Her ashen hair was pulled back into a loose tie, exposing her bright eyes. She must have been no older than twenty years.
The girl lifted her arms in surrender and in a move of peace. “I mean neither you nor lady any harm,” she said gently. Her voice even, not showing an ounce of fear. “I’ve been following you both for days,” she continued.
Nora’s scowl hardened at the young woman’s words. They had been tracked—stalked this whole time. What if it had been a person with ill intent? They could have been ambushed on the spot, no way to defend themselves until it was too late. They had been sitting ducks. “Why? What is your intention with us? Kill us, then loot our warm corpses?” Nora growled. The grip on the bow never lessened.
“No, we never see strangers cross these lands. You and your lady’s movements caught our attention many days back. My people and I were just simply curious,” she spoke as if it were the most obvious answer. She actually seemed halfway offended at the idea of Nora accusing her of horrendous schemes.
However, Nora was most concerned with one word—people. “Your people?” she asked as if looking for confirmation. “There are more of you?”
“Of course—” The young woman began but was interrupted by yet another question.
“Hundreds or so. We’re all scattered about the lands, some in separate tribes that span dozens of leagues apart.”
“Should I be expecting a knife in my back at any given time?” Nora demanded. The bow was still taut at aimed at the young woman’s head.
She shook her head, and then slowly lowered her arms down to her side, carefully noting to keep her hands away from her body and fingers spread with palms out. “No, as long as you leave me unharmed, no harm will come to either of you.”
After those words were spoken Nora lowered her bow and lessened the tension.
“She’s sick, isn’t she?” the ashen haired woman asked as she motioned to Nora’s still form.
The young girl walked over to Emri; her movements slow and easy as to not alarm or spook Nora into fear of Emri’s safety. She knelt and observed the pale and clammy skin. Emri’s lips were chapped and had a white ring around them. “I haven’t seen her stir much in these days I’ve been following you.” She stood and walked the few paces back to Nora. “There’s a tribal village not but a day’s ride from here. They could treat her.”
“We simply do not have time,” Nora said to her. “We have to get to the Gray and as quickly as possible.”
“You’re here because of that, aren’t you?” she asked as she pointed to a large black speak far out in the horizon.
Nora looked hard at the ominous cloud in the distance. She couldn’t say if she had even noticed the dark spot before that moment. She had been engrossed and caught up in her and Emri’s travels that she missed it.
“And what if she dies?”
Nora flinched, the question catching her off guard.
“Will you be able to stop it if she does? Because I don’t think she’d last the remaining voyage. And you were lookin’ to stay here, until either she died, or you found some way to heal her, whichever came first.”
“I knew naught what to do. She was too heavy to lift back onto the saddle, and I’m exhausted. Caring for a horse, an unconscious woman, and yourself, as well as setting up and taking down camp became too much.”
“Well, I’m here now. I can surely help. We should head out as soon as possible, though.”
“Why should I trust you? A complete stranger who’s been stalking us for days?”
“Do you have anything other options? Besides leaving her behind or staying here until she dies? Because she will, without our medicine, she will die.
“Can I trust your people not to harm us? Or hinder us from our task?”
“Despite what you may believe and what you’ve been told, my people are not the ones you need to concern yourself with. We are good people that were fortunate to escape our bounds. We live freely with ill-will toward no one.”
“Will they truly be able to heal her?”
The young girl knelt and placed a rough and calloused palm over her head. She continued to examine her, removing her now soiled wrappings and inspecting her festered wounds. “A ravencat?” she asked. Her suspicions were confirmed at Nora’s nod. “Ravencats have a toxic bite. The venom is in their saliva. It prevents one from healing thus causing infections, fever. But it always seems to take several days to show. I’m surprised she’s lasted this long. Either she’s a fortunate fool, or you know your herbs. She has a strong fever. Easily treatable with the right medicine, but deadly in a place like this. She needs some antibiotics, rest, and some of our best herbal medicine. She’ll be fine once we get into the village.”
“I will do anything it takes to help her. Take us to your village. Make her well again.”
The young girl nodded. A pleased smile brightened her soiled face.
“My name’s Kaleisha,” the young woman spoke as she paused and outstretched her hand as a form of greeting.
Nora happily took the offered hand. “Nora, and her name is Emri.”
Kaleisha left to retrieve her horse which she had tied a short distance from the makeshift camp. Nora began gathering what supplies they had while Kaleisha went to work constructing a travois. It would greatly aid in transporting Emri across the land. She had built so many, it came as second nature to her.
They disassembled the camp and packed up their supplies in silence.
“Where are you from?” Nora finally asked as she tightened the straps holding their items in place.
“I’m from the Prospect Tribe. We’re on the lands between the western and southern edge.”
“I meant Realm. What Realm are you from?”
“I have no Realm. I was born here, on these lands. My mother was of White, though, and my father of Gray.”
“How long have you and your people lived here in these lands?”
“Since I was born; nearly seventeen years ago. My parents had lived here for two years before my birth. Before that, I not naught about our heritage or history here … just simply this is home.”
“How much further?” Nora asked as she twisted less than gracefully in the saddle, trying to alleviate the tension in her back as several loud ‘pops’ and ‘cracks’ were heard, and also trying to wake the painful numbness in her legs. Her body ached from the long days of walking and now the unrelenting time in the saddle. Her entire being was worn down and fatigued.
As Nora attempted to discreetly fidget within her saddle, she failed to notice Kaleisha, who was a few paces in front of her, stop dead at the top of the incline. Nora brushed a few wayward strands of hair from out of her eyes and urged Trysu to move quicker. Within a few seconds, she stood beside her young guide and soon understood why she had stopped. “Oh my,” she breathed as her eyes took in the sights before her, “Gods it is beautiful.”
Kaleisha hummed in approval as her eyes brightened and a gleeful smile spread across her face. She took a deep breath as the winds from the valley below whipped up, and teasingly beckoned them forward into the lush green below. “We call it the red forest. This village is known as the city within the trees.”
“Why the red forest?”
“We build our homes against the giant red cedar trees. They provide so much for us. This was one of the founding tribes, you know. Everything we know now started from here. The trees provided us shelter and materials and the land gave us water and food. What better place to start.”
The entrance to the village was lined with giant cedar trees that seemed to stretch for miles. They were still just over a league from the village, so close Nora yearned to cry in relief because this was as least something—a goal. An end to one part of their journey—hopefully the worst, and the beginning of yet another simpler prospect.
Nora inhaled the fresh, warm revitalizing scent of the evergreen forest. Life—that was the first thought that came to mind as the smells wafted against her face and filtered through her nose. This forest thrived with glorious life.
The sound of Kaleisha clicking her tongue as she urged her horse forward broke Nora from her trance. She took one last glimpse of the new world she would soon discover. A new world in her mind at least. A world not of the realms.
The young girl had already started her decent, Nora just a few paces behind when a horrendous noise sounded off in the distance behind them. Kaleisha jerked in her saddle and peered off into the darkened shroud of the forest. Her gaze flitted across the horizon.
“Nightwalkers,” she whispered. Apparently, their name held no significance to their waking hours. She dismounted with frantic haste as she ran over to Trysu and began untying Emri from her support, eventually cutting the ties with a blade. “You’ll have to hold her the rest of the way,” she said as she helped Nora lift her into the saddle. “They’ll gain on us too fast if this is trailing behind you. No matter what happens, keep on the path between the trees and don’t stop until you pass the entrance of the village.” She turned back around and withdrew a peculiar yet familiar arrow from her arrow bag. “Go!”
And Nora went, as fast as she dared travel with an unconscious woman in her arms. When she chanced a glance back, she spotted Kaleisha trailing a good distance back with a group of nightwalkers at her haunches. And both friend and foe gained on Nora quickly.
She finally reached the line of trees and they passed in a blur as she rode closer and closer to the clearing ahead. But as she drew nearer, the pack behind her did too. The snarls and screeches turn her blood cold and she heard an occasional scream and thump from where Kaleisha shot one with her bow. Then, the screams became more frequent and she realized the archers posted up within the trees themselves, covered expertly by their natural camouflage.
After what felt like ages had passed, both she and Emri broke the line, and soon followed by their young guide.
To Nora’s surprise and relief, the people greeted them without hesitation. She knew Kaleisha’s presence made the utmost difference, but she couldn’t help to be thankful. Kaleisha called for the village doctor, and soon several people stood at Emri’s side as they hoisted her to a spare blanket and whisked her off to small wooden house.
The commotion was unsettling to Nora who hadn’t been around so many people in many, many years. She felt her heartbeat quicken and her breathing along with it. Her gaze darted every which way, trying to find an escape route. A cold sweat gathered at her brow, and just as she considered fleeing the chaos, a warm hand grasped her own. Kaleisha smiled at her in reassurance as she led her through the small gathering and into a small hut.
“Gram is lookin’ after her right now,” the young girl said as she pulled two chairs from under the table. Nora sat and watched as Kaleisha milled through a couple draws and cabinets until she pulled out two tankards, a dented flask, and a basket of something that resembled bread. “She’ll be all right, but she was as close to death as I’ve ever seen. Gram said the same.”
“But she will live?” Nora asked as a Kaleisha filled her tankard with honeymint.
“By morning she’ll be a new person. I’ll take you over there as soon as they’re done. The room can get cramped, and Gram gets cranky when that happens.”
Kaleisha sat down in front of Nora at the small table and plucked a piece of bread from the basket offering the older woman some in return. It was old and stale, but tasted delicious.
“So, you asked me where I was from … but the whole trip you ignored my one question. What about you?”
Nora chewed slowly, contemplating her words with care. “I am from the Black.”
Kaleisha just smiled, like the answer didn’t faze her at all. She took a sip of honeymint before she then asked, “Were you born there or …” The question left open, because only two possibilities honestly existed, and Kaleisha had quickly learned that one was more painful than the other. To be born exhibited one thing, but to be accused, tried, and banished, well, that was something entirely different.
“Yes.” Nora answered quickly. “My mother was banished from the White during her pregnancy with me. I have lived there since.”
The young girl’s brows furrowed. “Why? I mean … why not ask for a pardon? The unbanished are generally granted more clemency—understanding. I mean—I’ve heard it’s still difficult, but … why not vie for the Gray or even the White?”
Nora released a mirthless laugh. “I was never welcomed at the other realms.”
She took a deep breath fully realizing her next words could cause more damage than good. These people left their realms for many reasons, and Nora was positive she was to blame for the vast majority of them. What group of free people would house one of the very people who oppressed them? Bound them to unlivable conditions and harsh realities? No sound person would allow her to remain under the same roof let alone the same village. She knew nothing of their life. For all she knew, her words could land both her and Emri at the mercy of these people. They could easily be hanged or bludgeoned to death.
“Because I was the daughter of Kali, and at her death, became Empress myself.”
Kaleisha was thunderstruck; her eyes wide and mouth agape. “Your—you’re Nora Blackheart, fallen Empress of the Black.”
“That is correct.”
“You were imprisoned, were you not?”
“I was, yes. For eight years. Serving a life sentence.”
“Rest assured, you and your people are in no danger from me. I simply wish to right this wrong that I had a hand in creating. After that, I do not know what will become of me … but I am not a threat. That time has long since passed.”
“What about the young woman with you … Emri?”
“I have known Emri since she was a child. We were the best of friends before my duties took priority. She moved to the Gray and I stayed behind in the Black—became Empress. It seems as if our lives are intertwined—destined to remain connected. I fear to her detriment.”
“She would not stand for them to harm you, you know.”
“She may not have a choice in the matter I’m afraid. I am left to their mercy … and for people like me there is no justice grand enough to pardon my crimes.”
“Well, they must trust you enough to venture out here … to help them. You’re an ally.”
“They are using me to save lives, dear. Once that task is completed, I’ll still be labeled a dangerous threat. A threat no one will want to contend with. I’ll either be imprisoned yet again, or killed. It is as simple as that. And Miss Dyer—Emri will have no authority over that decision.”
“You should have faith in your people. They recognize those who do a great service for them.”
“That might be true here, but injustice is just as prominent as justice in the three.”
“Well, perhaps you might consider an offer to live here. You’d be free. Emri too. A refuge, if you will.”
Nora stared, flabbergasted at the implication. Someone was offering her amity. A place—a home to live freely, to live happily. The thought seemed outlandish; something she never considered to be a viable option before. Her heart swelled with the prospect.
She felt something tickle her cheek, but to her surprise, discovered a tear. Wiping it away with haste, she turned her head to peer outside one of the small window cutouts; a move of deflection. Too few souls ever saw her cry. It was a personal moment, and a part of her wished the young girl was not there to witness it.
Instead, her eyes drifted across the minuscule glimpse the window provided of the world outside. The window faced out into the forest. Not much was seen, not like it would have had she looked out a front facing window. There she would have seen just who full of life this little community was. But instead of seeing emptiness, she saw life within the trees, leaves, wildlife, even the moving air. But above all, she saw freedom. Uninhibited life. A chance to live out her dreams.
It was all too good to be true.
“Why are you so quick to offer aid to a stranger known for her misdeeds? What makes you think your people share your enthusiasm?” she asked, trying her best to mask her heavy voice.
Kaleisha smiled, and to a degree it was unnerving. “I’ll show you,” she whispered.
She rose from her seat and left the hut, leaving Nora with a sense of dread yet anticipation.
Only a few moments passed before an older woman and a young boy no more than ten walked through the open door. They bowed to her and Nora stood immediately, caught off guard with the action. She didn’t recognize them, but something told her their presence held significance. She studied them in silence, waiting for them to make some type of move.
“Kaleisha told us who you were—that you were here. We were residents of the Black. Made our home in the Alley of Fue … not too far from your infirmary.”
Nora’s eyes narrowed as she tried to put meaning to the woman’s words. “My husband … my son and I came down with a deathly illness. We needed medicine but couldn’t afford any. H—he never returned with our medicine that night. Yet somehow, my son and I both lived. I never knew why, until I heard an unbelievable rumor that you had sent help. The feared and heartless Empress of Black helped a peasant family live. We left shortly after your sentencing and have never returned. You saved us, Majesty, and everyone here knows of your deed.”
The fallen queen remained silent as she stared at her visitors. “I—” she began, recollection of the event coming back to her in pieces. She had never kept track of her sentences or people the in which suffered her punishments. But a face, vague as it seemed, slowly began to form. Sadly, she couldn’t even recall the man’s eventually fate. He probably died within her cells, almost a guarantee. “Your husband?” she asked, hoping for clarification.
“He died as we were escaping. He always mourned the loss of his hands, but once it was told that the medicine he looked to bring back never would have fully cured us, it was a loss he gladly bared until his death.”
They spoke for awhile as the woman told Nora of their struggles within the Black and their journey across the forbidden lands fraught with dangers. She spoke of their community and the other villages scattered throughout the hollows. The young boy even told tales of his adventures. Nora didn’t know how long they had talked, until Kaleisha returned with news of Emri.
After her visitors left, she felt both emotionally and physically spent. What an eventful and chaotic day it had proved to be. So much had been revealed, most shocking and incomprehensible. Her mind raced as it tried to process it all. In a way, she felt betrayed, dumbstruck. All of this was happening right under her nose—everyone’s nose. An underground operation. And it had been happening for at least nineteen years, but she knew it had been longer than that.
She shook her head in agony. If she had known—if Emri had known. They could have fled the Black together—all of them: Emri, Helen, Danny, and herself. She closed her eyes as tears began to form. Oh, how her life might have been different. Better. Happy. She almost couldn’t even imagine such joy. The thought of having a true family, if they would have allowed her stay, that is, felt overwhelming. But alas, it fell in the past, and it would never be, and as dangerous as it was to dwell on such things, she couldn’t help it. It was human nature.
She finally stood and walked to the small home in which Emri resided. The homes—buildings themselves were breathtaking. Small, quaint, and built of the same trees they thrived on. Thatched roofs completed the rustic look. Nature and humans coexisting in the most magnificence of ways; residing harmoniously, only taking what land and nature provided. The homes themselves were small and built in a spiraling motion with wooden planks leading to each level. Rope bridges connected the upper levels to other trees or houses. It really was a community within the trees.
But the sight and air enveloping her did little in easing her active mind. She entered through a heavy cloth door and her gaze immediately landed on the prone figure nestled under the covers of a straw mattress. Color filled her once pale face and the few wounds she could see were now cleaned and rewrapped. She sighed in relief and closed her eyes while grasping a cool hand within her own. She sat down on a nearby stool and her fingers began to trace the various sized scars that rose from her skin, the most prominent on her palm and back of her hand.
Exhaustion weighed heavily on her as she leaned over, hand still clasping its mate, and rested her head on the extra space beside Emri. Maybe she could have a peaceful rest for once in many a night.