Sleep had found Nora for a couple of hours before her pained mumbling and ruffled, sharp movements could be heard breaking the silence of the late morning hour. The surrounding woods held an eerie silence, save the panicked movements against the forest duff.
Nora’s brow was damp with sweat as it beaded up on her forehead and ran off into her hair, dampening it. Her eyes shifted beneath her eyelids as vivid images were unconsciously conjured in harsh detail. Dreams such as these became routine, nevertheless unwelcome in any regards, in her nightmares. She hoped such dreams would have left her at the passing of the boundary, but she had little hope now.
Her head twitched as the nightmare took shape with stark lucidity. She resided in her throne room, surrounded by her knights, guards, governor, and a chained prisoner being forced toward the throne by two armored guards. Their twisted and blackened faces looked toward her, unseeing and still. Movements exaggerated and slow – restrained, as the scene unfolded. She raised her hand and it responded sluggishly. It was similar to those dreams where she needed to run, to get away, but her legs either refused or moved so slowly her nightmare consumed her. Snippets of the dream lasted for only a few moments before her throne morphed into a black abyss and then sucked her through.
Her screams woke herself as she sat up disoriented. She clutched at her tightening chest as her heart beat viciously and her breathing became erratic. A large black tree in her peripheral startled her, causing her body more stress. She looked around frantically and realized she was alone. Her mind raced as she remembered the memory her dream triggered.
It had taken place a few months after she had been crowned Empress of the Black. Impressions had to have been made with haste if she expected to retain order and peace, especially those living outside the palace gates.
The guard on the left had slung the accused man forward. His feet slipped beneath him as he spilled to the floor. Chains clanged loudly against the stone as his bound hands caught himself. He had remained bowing on all fours before one of the guards gripped his left shoulder and pulled him right up to face the Empress.
“Your Majesty,” the first guard had begun. “We caught this man red handed stealing from the infirmary bins. We recovered these pills, a jar of perry, and some dry cakes,” he’d stated as he approached the Queen and showed her the items.
She had pursed her lips as she surveyed the confiscated items and the thief who had taken them. His head remained bowed. He had known better than to make eye contact with her.
Her fingers tapped out a staccato rhythm against the wooden arm of her throne. “Are you at such a low point in life, peasant, you must feed your substance abuse by robbing my infirmary? I don’t take kindly to thieves … or impulses driven by over indulgence,” she had stated and regarded the man with contempt. Her voice had been even and calm. “Do you deny these claims made forth by the Guards and Court of The Black?”
“Yes,” the man had mumbled.
“You do?” she asked, eyes wide and disbelieving. “Then how, pray tell, do you explain how these items came on your being? You did not take them?”
“I did take them, Majesty, but me wife and son are gravely ill. I only have enough medicine for one. I didn’t think anyone would miss a few pills bein’ taken for the sick an’ needy.”
Nora had reclined back on her throne as she contemplated her next move. She had heard her mother’s sickening voice within her mind. Even in death, her mother had still controlled her. Make an example of him, the voice had taunted. They’ll see you as weak if you allow him to be released without punishment. Are you truly going to believe his sob story, dear? Nora had tried to blink and shake away the poisonous words her mother’s voice had dripped.
“A thief is a thief, regardless of intention. Your wife and son should have visited the infirmary themselves–”
“We couldn’t afford it–”
“Hold your tongue, ingrate,” a guard had growled before he struck the side of the man’s face with his armored hand.
You’re weak … pathetic. Her mother’s voice had continued to taunt. How could I have raised such an incompetent child? I prayed to the Gods above and below every second that I looked at you that you would have been the one to die within my womb instead of your brother. I felt fight and fire within him. You? You were lifeless, content to just exist. You were a parasite growing within my womb. But Gods damn it all, I tried. But you disappointed me countless times.
“I must not allow thieves and convicted criminals to walk through my streets on my orders,” she had begun. “You have confessed to the crime, and you shall see punishment for such crime … given your history and prior apprehensions concerning thievery, I order punishment as the removal of both hands at the wrist. You will then spend thirty suns and nights in the dungeon at half rations. At which point you are released, you are to receive ten lashings or until you reach unconsciousness.”
“No,” he had graveled. “Not my hands, Majesty, please!”
“Let’s see how well you can provide for your family now. Greed will only get you so far in life, peasant. You wanted them both to live. Instead of being content with one life left, it’s very likely both will suffer and die because of your selfishness. Place his markers on his wrist. Release him to the dungeons once you’re finished.”
She had risen from her throne as the room had filled with simultaneous noise of shifting armor and clothing as the people within kneeled to her stance.
That’s my girl. His punishment was far to gracious, though. Next time, make the low life’s pay with their lives. They obviously don’t value them, her mother had voiced.
“Darcy, I’m going to retire to my chambers. I wish to be left alone and not bothered.” Nora stated as she rose from her throne.
“Of course, My Lady.”
“And please see that the family is taken care of. I ask for your discretion with this, Darcy. No one must know. Fabricate what lies you must, but no one is to know, understand?”
“I’ll see it done, My Lady.
She had walked to her chambers in silence. “Have I really become just like my mother?” she had asked herself as she closed the large, heavy doors, once again sealing herself away in the dark confines of her loneliness and despair.
Nora’s memory flickered after that to several uncoordinated recollections.
Rushing footsteps and the snapping and crunching of twigs drew her attention away from her inner monologue. The steps, hurried and frantic, neared closer as Emri came into view.
Nora wrenched her head away from Emri’s sight as she wiped the tear stains from her face. Her body shook in anger. Why, she didn’t know, but it pumped through her being with every heartbeat. Gods, she remembered everything. Every image, every sound, every second, from her past, and they often revisited her when she needed to be reminded, as if it was ever needed. It wasn’t entities or apparitions that haunted her, no, her past haunted her, and it would forever live with her.
“Nora … Nora! What’s wrong! What happened?” Emri called in a panic as she ran to the woman, sword in hand and at the ready. Her eyes scanned the area, but after seeing no initial threat, she looked to Nora and saw a very agitated fallen queen staring at her. “Sorry,” Emri apologized hesitantly. Nora sat still and looked away. With no apparent danger, Emri fumbled with sheathing her sword. It would take her some time to get used to the larger weapon. She still preferred her dagger over the clumsy and large sword. “I just … you were screaming. What was I supposed to do? I thought something was wrong!”
“My apologies,” she said as she attempted to restore some of her dignity.
“You needn’t be sorry,” Emri spoke as she fought the urge to brush a few erratic strands of dark hair from Nora’s face. “I was just worried. I stepped away for a minute.”
Nora didn’t even regard her as she spoke. “No need for your worry. I experience this every day, Miss Dyer. Every time I close my eyes. But thank you, for your concern,” she stated in a manner that meant the discussion was over, and she stood.
Still kneeling, she looked up at Nora. “You know,” Emri began. “If you ever want to talk about it—”
“I won’t, now get up. Make yourself useful and get the horses ready. We ride out as soon as possible.” She dusted off her jodhpurs and rearranged her heavy wool and fur cloak.
Her screams might have alerted someone or something of their whereabouts. It would be best for them to distant themselves from the vicinity as quickly as permitted.
Tension filled the space between both women as they trekked across the woodlands. Neither uttered a single word as they rode, the methodical motion leaving them in somewhat of a trance.
Emri stared off in the horizon as her mind raced. Her jaw and body were taut as she released heavy breaths full of disgust and irritation. Sharp, unrelenting eyes pierced to the figure several yards in front of her. Since their encounter earlier that morning, Nora seemed more cold and distant than Emri ever recalled. Nora’s impassiveness angered Emri to the extent her jaw and fingers ached from their constant flexing. It would not be like this for the foreseeable future. The thought of sidestepping and living in a state of nervous anticipation, unknowing whether some innocent remark could send her friend back into the cold depths of her inner being, frustrated her.
Something had to give.
Knowledge and understanding had to be gained.
“How many people did you kill?” Her voice shattered the stillness of the afternoon as it reached unsuspecting ears. Nora, nor her horse, showed any type of recognition, not even to the edge in her words.
Nora shrugged her shoulders in nonchalance. “Does it matter? Perhaps the more prudent question would be how many lives have you, yourself, taken?”
Emri bristled. “You’re deflecting. Answer the damn question.” Emri saw her shoulders rise and fall.
“Directly or indirectly?”
“Is there a difference?”
“I suppose not, no. Death is death. By my hand … a dozen or so. But through orders … hundreds, maybe even a few thousand.”
Emri balked at the number. Why? “Why?” she voiced.
“Asking me why I did what I did is like asking a vagrant why he or she stole a loaf of bread,” she stated with verity.
“Are you saying you were forced into it?” Emri asked, giving an incredulous huff. “Cause how does that work exactly?”
By then, the space between them had diminished to only a few feet separating their gates.
“You knew my mother. Should not that be enough of an answer?”
“You’re placing blame on her, when you were fully aware and cable of your actions … of knowing the outcome and the consequences.”
“I suppose so, yes. But you do not know the full story. The stories I refused to tell you so many times as a child. My mother conditioned me to be exactly who she wanted me to be, and she did so through the most basic human instinct … fear.”
“So this is where you blame your childhood. Once again placing blame on anyone and anything but yourself? Raven’s calling, Nora! You weren’t the only one who had a fucked up childhood. I lost my family, my best friend in this damned place. I saw humans at their worst, and yet I didn’t turn into a murderous—” she was silenced as Nora abruptly turned, Uajo squealing at the sudden change of pace and direction. For a split second, Emri wondered what had caused the rapid shift in the surrounding air. But then she remembered her last words, and the direction they were headed. Emri had gone from one extreme in emotion to another, from anger to guilt to sadness. What she implied was almost unforgivable, at least in her mind, and by the myriad of emotions flashing across Nora’s face, hurt and fury being the prominent of those, she knew Nora was about to confirm that.
“What? A monster? A murderous monster!” she seethed as Uajo fidgeted under her grip.
Emri fought for words to make everything right again, to rescind her previous insinuation, but one thing she understood about words was they often cut and injured more than the sharpest or pointiest of weapons. Their damage might not be seen like those injuries of a weapon, but they were just as crippling, and not often treatable. Wounds left open to fester. “Nor—”
An accusatory finger stopped Emri as Nora unleashed years of unvented fury. “Do not—do not for a second think you and I are too far misplaced, Miss Dyer,” she began. “I saw your reaction down in the dungeons. I saw the hate and rage within those very eyes that, at one point, were not too different from my own. Do you think me stupid?” Her face was red and a few veins that ran under the skin at her temple and forehead strained against her flesh. Her glare was baleful. “That I wouldn’t have known what you were doing when you left? What about the guard? They could not identify him by anything more than a ring on his wretched finger. I even see it building now,” she spoke as her eyes searched Emri’s face. “A storm forming as we speak.”
Emri could feel it. The throbbing in her head that started as a dull ache and now radiated to the bands at her wrist. How Nora could see it was unfathomable, but it never once occurred to her that Nora might see such emotion because she herself had experienced it firsthand. Who better to read such things than someone privy to such occurrences? Emri at least had the decency to turn her head in remorse.
“Like it or not, we are one and the same, Miss Dyer. The only difference is how we have coped … managed. You were always far stronger than I. More determined to see the good in people. It is no surprise you have turned into the person you have. But myself? I was weak and dispensable, even as a child. So that is why I am here, and you there. You had the strength, the determination to fight it, and I simply had no desire or strength, and no one to fight for.”
To her dismay, her voice began to break. She stopped, turned her head to the side, and took a few calming breaths before she continued, but much more poised this time. “Out of everyone, you were the one person I hoped would not see me as everyone else. I had wished, foolishly, you would have found the good in me, and helped me see it myself. But now I see I must truly be lost. Thank you, Miss Dyer, for allowing me to see this so clearly.”
They locked their gazes and Emri felt an unseen force slam into her chest, stealing the breath right from her lungs. Nora’s eyes reflected the sheer amount of grief and insurmountable pain within her being, her eyes glassy from unspent tears. But the contact was broken as Nora turned and began walking once again, her pace steady. Emri didn’t immediately follow.
Damn her! Nora thought as the distance between them grew steadily without her awareness or care. Damn her for making her think she had a chance! Damn her for making her feel! DAMN HER for making her believe there was something still inside her worth saving!
Her eyes burned as salty liquid built inside her eyes and flowed into her nose. She would not cry. She absolutely would not cry. She would not allow Emri to see just how hurtful her words had been. How much weight her words had carried in the first place. How her very words shaped and filled her from the inside out with disgusting hope. Hope that indeed she might have been more than what everyone else saw in her.
Nora suffered a constant struggle. A battle fought, with no apparent victors, with who she wanted to be, what her heart wanted her to be, and what actions proved necessary for her survival. Because in truth, most times life does not allow both to occur. Who someone wanted to be not always coincided with what life chose for them. That was just the unfair truth.
What made it all so tragic lay in the simple fact that even monarchs and patriarchs of the light kingdoms killed and used brutality to maintain order. They just utilized methods far more discreetly. All kingdoms ran on two ideologies: fear and respect. Anyone who voiced otherwise were optimistic fools. True, people could love their kings and queens, but they also needed to have fear and respect. Kingdoms had to contain order, and through those methods order was established.
But why was Nora seen in such a drastic and different light? Simple, she killed and gained control openly. No discretion. People saw what consequences might befall them should they deviate from the laws. The methods of punishment ventured on torture, whereas the White or Gray might have used more humane sentencing. But this was just the way of The Black. Kali had made such treatment viable, and witnessed the control it gave her, as opposed to other rulers who dominated with less authority, and less success. So, naturally, her first born heir, her daughter, would be raised and expected to maintain such practices.
Nora did, and was now faced with the repercussions of her actions, actions that would forever taint and mar her soul, a fact which had been thrust into her heart in the most brutal of ways. A spear wielded by the one person who could inflict the most harm.