Part 1 – When The Wind Speaks
They say the wind once had a voice, speaking words people could understand. It spoke in verses that would reach the heart of men, singing them to sleep or calling them to battle. Glimpses of the future were given on light breezes, and the past could be heard in wind borne storms. It wove stories into dreams and back again, and from them came the prelude to legends. It would laugh with us in our times of triumph, and it would cry for us in our follies.
Then, one day, the wind abandoned us.
Where once there stood an unshakable empire now lies a desert. The sands encroach westward, chasing remnants of what was. Lost are the dreams, forgotten are the truths.
The wind no longer speaks to us, us few who remain, but still we wait for its return. We miss its howl of fury, its gentle caress. We linger in stagnant ruins, longing for a single word, a whisper, the note of a song. With our mouths shut and ears to the wind, we wait in silence for it to speak again.
Last Oracle of Iru
Dnara awoke to a gentle breeze tickling her scratched cheek. Her eyelids heavy, she struggled to put the world back together again. There had been a fire… An explosion? It all felt to her like a dream. The pain in her body told her it had been quite real.
She remembered the mud. The cold earth seeping into her skin and the hot wind breathing at her back. The lightning and the thunder. The sound. The sound of-
Dnara startled upright, a whispered word setting a chill up her spine as a fire crackled nearby. A fire? Her gaze shifted to the unexpected flames as they danced in orange and red embers from their stone-circled cage, sizzling and casting shadows to the surrounding trees. The trees themselves stood tall and proud, encircling two fallen brethren who had created a small clearing with their moss covered trunks. Dnara now rested propped up against one of those fallen trees, its bark digging into her skin and reminding her she was alive.
Blinking in the firelight, Dnara struggled to see where she was, or perhaps more importantly, how she had gotten there. Hadn’t she been face down in a mud puddle, clothes soaked and arms burning? She glanced down to her arms, expecting to see the same lightning veins crawling under her skin, but there was only caked mud and a stray leaf. Perhaps it all had been a strange dream, after all.
The fire popped beside her. Dream or not, it didn’t explain how she had come to sit in a clearing next to a campfire, nor who may have built the fire. If only her head would stop spinning so she could focus. A wave of nausea overtook her, and she relaxed back against the log, content for now to simply no longer be running. Her legs ached with the memory of it, and her eyelids once more grew heavy.
Smoke filled her dream as the campfire kept vigil. In the trees overhead, birdsong carried a tune somehow familiar. The fire snapped. She felt herself sink into the earth. The smoke grew a face with lips that smiled, and from those lips came that same word. She strained to hear it, to understand. Around her, the birdsong fell silent. The face no longer smiled. It spoke a new word, one as clear to her heart as the urgent fear which spoke it.
A roar from the darkness clawed at the wind. The trees shook to the sound of angry thunder. A hundred grey ashbirds took flight.
Gasping for air as the thunder stole her breath, Dnara awoke again, this time to a fire now burning low from hours passed. And, she was no longer alone. From across the fire came the birdsong’s tune of her dream, now played on the soft chords of a wood flute.
Unable to make out the person’s features through the fire’s haze, she sank down lower against the dead tree at her back. The darkness beyond the trees told her night had fallen some time ago. If she could perhaps sneak into the shadows and-
“Ah, you’re awake,” a man spoke, his voice as gently playful as the flute song that had gone silent. “Thank the gods. Wasn’t sure what to do with you if you died. I mean, do I just bury you out in the woods? I don’t even know what name to put on your marker.”
Dnara swallowed on a dry throat, the topic not one you think to wake up to, especially when confronted with a strange man. Still, she wasn’t dead, and he did seem relieved of that fact. He hadn’t harmed her, and could easily have left her. Unless, he meant to sell her to a blackrope. Her fingers immediately raised to her neck, only to find it naked.
“Oh, don’t worry about that thing,” he said, motioning to a nearby stone where the collar rested. “I’m no blackrope, nor a slave trading bastard.”
Her heart calmed as her eyes set on the metal collar. It looked lifeless and strange, seeing it somewhere other than where it had been for too many summers to count. Moving her fingers away from her neck, she swore she could still feel the cold weight of it.
“The starstone in it is cracked anyway,” he continued, taking a small step closer to her but stopping as she flinched. “Which is good, because I needed to take it off to put salve on your wound. Well, one of you wounds. You sure did take a tumble through those briars.”
He paused, but she had no reply. It had become nearly impossible over the years, to speak without being commanded to do so. His hand raised to the back of his neck and scratched while his hazel eyes examined her. He did look friendly, what little experience she had with such a disposition.
“Your ankle looks twisted.” He carried the conversation when it became clear she couldn’t. “Do you hurt anywhere else? I, uh, didn’t check too much, because I didn’t think it’d be appropriate…” His words trailed off and his eyes looked to the fire. “And what I could see… It-” His hand fisted around the wood flute. “It was hard to tell what injuries might be new amongst all the scars.”
Dnara instinctively hugged herself. The scars, she knew, were numerous. Most were across her back, each line representing food she had snuck from the kitchen, times she took too long with her duties, being where she shouldn’t, or getting caught with a book. Those were the most numerous, her book scars, like pages in a story. Each one had been worth the price.
“I’ve never seen scars like those before,” he said. “Most keepers lash their slaves on the back. Never seen one go after the arms. Must be a right sick bastard, your keeper.”
Her arms? Dnara glanced down at them in confusion then began wiping away the mud coating her skin. Never had she been beaten on her arms, but there beyond the flaking dirt were hundreds of tiny scars, threaded together in a pattern matching the paths of her veins. White and jagged, like lightning.
The man tilted his head at her, stepping closer. She tugged down the sleeves of her dress, the fabric torn so badly on one arm it barely covered anything at all. He took a step back, hands and flute raised.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to pry. Just curious is all, I promise.” And once again, his smile seemed friendly, almost familiar.
As if she had seen it a thousand times, or some semblance of it, at least. A hundred-thousand times in pointless wishes for freedom made by the disillusioned mind of a child fueled by an imagination that had died years ago under a keeper’s lash. Dnara closed her eyes to this man’s smile, too. It would only be a matter of time before he sold her, or took her for himself.
The fire’s crackling refrain filled in the silent space left between them as she remained unresponsive to his words. Perhaps if she remained quiet, he would grow bored and leave her alone to the woods and the wolves. The damp, dirty linen curled under her fingers. He should have left her in the mud to die.
Live. The wind tussled her hair and whispered through the leaves. She had wanted to live.
“Are you hungry?”
Dnara opened her eyes to his easy smile. He remained at a distance, now crouching to be eye level with her hunched form. His flute had been moved to a latch on his belt, and instead his hand held out a sharpened branch with a indiscernible hunk of cooked meat on the end. Without warning, her stomach growled its reply.
He let out a laugh, though not mocking nor snide, and stretched the branch closer. “Go on, then. It’s briarbear. Caught and cooked it myself. Now, I know what you’re thinking – briarbears aren’t the best meat, and truth be told, I hate to kill the cute buggers myself, but, well… the elk have been scarce this summer, what with the encroaching blight and all.”
In that moment, with the meat held out close to her nose, she didn’t consider if the small woodland mammals called briarbears were cute or not. The smell of the meat intoxicated her, and a stomach that hadn’t eaten in two days left little to be argued in the man’s choice of game. With hands covered in thicket scratches, she took the branch and sank her teeth into the flesh.
“There we go,” the man said. “A peace offering, that.”
She didn’t know anything about peace, but the meat tasted even better than it smelled. Tender and greasy with an unexpected sweetness, it far outmatched any of the rare meat scraps pilfered off used plates in the scullery. Those has been dry, sour, overcooked carcasses of overpriced fowl or young cattle bought by the mages, not that she had a palate to judge such things. What food there had been for her had always been better than none at all.
Or, so she had thought. This meat was succulent. Grease dripped down her chin with each ravenous bite until her front teeth hit bone. Even then, they scraped and tore for every last morsel the briarbear’s sacrifice would give.
“Gods, you are hungry,” the man said on the cusp of an amused laugh. “I got more, or maybe some dried fish? Also snagged some winterberries from the briar I found you in. They’re on the tart side, but good.”
Mention of the briar brought Dnara back from her stupor, and she eyed the man suspiciously over the skewered remains. He was a man, no doubt, but not old like her keeper, even perhaps younger than the apprentices that had made fun of harassing her with no end. Older than she, most likely, with shaggy, dark brown hair, bright hazel eyes, and tanned skin that spoke of time spent in the forest or tilling the land. There was a subtle strength to him, and she wagered he could move quickly if needed. Powerful but lithe, like the elk he said had been run off by the blight.
Blight? Dnara’s lips parted, curiosity forgetting the collar not even a day off her neck. Before she could produce a sound, the man spoke again.
“I’m Athan, by the way. Athan Ateiros.”
Ateiros. It sounded like a southern name to her, but what did she really know about the northern hamlets outside the small world of the Thorngrove forest and the mage tower it surrounded? Not much, if she chose to be honest with herself.
“So…” Athan drew the word out then pointed from himself to her. “Athan…?”
He wanted a name, obviously. A lie formed in her mind but quickly vanished. What good would a fake name do her now? He had the collar and knew her to be a slave found in the Thorngrove. It would take a monumental feat to not discern from where she had escaped.
Swallowing a last, savory bite, she decided to let him have the truth of it. If she could have just this night to be free and for him to put her back in the collar tomorrow to earn the price she was worth, then she would have this night of freedom with the only thing she had ever truly owned: her name. “Dnara. My name is Dnara.”
The trees rustled overhead as Athan smiled in response. His eyes said what she had not; lifelong slaves carry no last name, but he would not make an issue of it. Standing, he made a show of bowing in a noble way that belied how he had probably never known a day of great wealth or bloodborne luxury. “An honor and a pleasure to meet you, Lady Dnara of the Thorngrove. Now, how about some winterberries?”
Wiping her chin, she could not remember the last time she had smiled. But here, in this strange dream of flute song and friendly company, a smile did appear. If she was still face down in the mud and dreaming, or even dead and this be the gods’ final trick, so be it. Tonight, she would eat her fill of sweet meat and winterberries, she would let Athan have her name, and with the wind in her hair, she would smile.