West of the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya lies the Empire of Yrstanla, the Motherland. The Empire has lived at peace with Anuskaya for generations, but with political turmoil brewing and the wasting disease still rampant, opportunists from the mainland have begun to set their sights on the Grand Duchy, seeking to expand their empire. Five years have passed since Prince Nikandr, heir to the scepter of Khalakovo, was tasked with finding Nasim, the child prodigy behind a deadly summoning that led to a grand clash between the armies of man and elder elemental spirits. Today, that boy has grown into a young man driven to understand his past - and the darkness from which Nikandr awakened him. Nikandr's lover, Atiana, has become a Matra, casting her spirit forth to explore, influence, and protect the Grand Duchy. But when the Al-Aqim, long thought lost to the past, return to the islands and threaten to bring about indaraqiram - a change that means certain destruction for both the Landed and the Landless - bitter enemies must become allies and stand against their horrific plans. From Bradley P. Beaulieu, author of the critically acclaimed debut novel The Winds of Khalakovo, comes Book Two of The Lays of Anuskaya, The Straits of Galahesh.
Nikandr stood at the gunwales of the Chaika, staring at the horizon. It could barely be seen, but it was there—the island of Rafsuhan. Closer, less than a league from the Chaika’s position, was a small island—little more than an inhospitable piece of rock that refused to yield to the sea’s incessant waves.
These waters had been difficult to reach. As distant as the nearest spires on Rhavanki were, the ley lines were weak, and they succumbed all too often to random currents of aether, sending the ship twisting in the wind, or worse, dropping dangerously toward the sea. Still, it was better than open sea. There were still shallows that led eastward from Mirkotsk and the Northern Sea to the islands controlled by the Maharraht.
To the southwest, a silhouette against the bright yellow sunset, was the Strovya. Nikandr had ordered them to run as a decoy, hopefully pulling any ships away that might be watching. But so far the Strovya had not been approached. In fact, they’d not found any resistance at all, and so, as had been agreed, the Strovya would continue west to Mirkotsk and finally head south, toward Khalakovo, toward home.
“It isn’t too late to reconsider.”
Nikandr turned and found Jahalan approaching. His right leg ended in a wooden peg. The bottom of it was wrapped in triple-thick goat hide, and Jahalan had become quite accustomed to it, but even the small thump it made as Jahalan made his way across the deck reminded him of Ghayavand, where Jahalan’s leg had been wounded by the serpents and they’d been forced to amputate in order to save his life.
Nikandr forced himself to focus on the winds. Jahalan had long become used to the wound. Why couldn’t he?
“I cannot turn back,” Nikandr said when Jahalan finally reached his side. The winds were in their favor, so there was no need for Jahalan to guide them.
“You can. You just won’t admit it to yourself. Soroush will never turn, and neither will anyone else on the island.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“About the Maharraht?”
“About Soroush. He is a hard man, but above all he is loyal to his people.”
“Nyet. He would sacrifice every last one of them if he could rid the islands of the Grand Duchy.”
“This is my point. He is no closer to that than he was when he joined them, and if he loses more of his people, his goals are even further away, perhaps even unattainable. As much as he hates me, as much as he loathes the notion of helping one of the Landed, he will join us.”
The ship was beginning to lower. Nikandr studied the smaller island they approached. It was still several leagues out from Rafsuhan, and it was an excellent place to hide the Chaika for the time they’d be on the island. It was craggy, with several small inlets where they could moor the ship.
“Even if you’re right,” Nikandr continued, “we cannot ignore the chance to learn more about the rift.”
“Small chance of doing that if you’re dead.”
“You don’t long for a chance to speak with them?”
“To what end? I don’t approve of the Maharraht or their methods, and given the chance, I will admit that I yearn to learn more of them, but I’m a realist. It may be that none of them will learn in this life, or even the next. A dozen cycles may pass before they’ve undone the damage they’re doing in this life.”
“So you’ve said, but is it ever too late to start?”
“I see,” Jahalan said. “You wish to be considered noble before you die.”
“I merely wish to do what I can.” Nikandr turned, trying to read his old friend’s mood. “If you’re so convinced this is the wrong path to take, why did you agree to come?”
Jahalan merely stared out toward Rafsuhan, a coal black rock against the indigo horizon.
He turned then and looked Nikandr in the eye. “When one knows someone as well as I know you, and they see how the winds of fate swirl around them, they wish to watch, and perhaps learn.”
“The winds of fate care not about me.”
Jahalan smiled. “There you are wrong, son of Iaros.” He turned and walked back to ward the starward mainmast, his leg thumping against the deck. “Come, we have work to do.”
The small island was much closer now. “Pull in the topsails,” Nikandr said to the boatswain, “and prepare to moor.”
* * *
The following morning, under a gray and cheerless sky, Nikandr sat near the bow of the skiff as it bucked in the bitterly cold wind. They flew low to the water—so low that they were often struck by the salty spray. Nikandr refused to order them higher, though. He would not give the Maharraht warning if he could avoid it. Of the Maharraht, though, there had been no sign.
Jahalan and Anahid, one of Jahalan’s distant cousins, guided the skiff. Neither seemed on edge, but the streltsi that had come were watching the island with something akin to horror in their eyes. He didn’t much blame them. These were seasoned men, handpicked by Nikandr himself, and they had all seen battle, but it was one thing to fight the Maharraht in the shallows of home or another friendly duchy; it was quite another to search the Maharraht out on their own island, where they would defend it with a brutality and fierceness rarely seen, even among such ruthless folk.
Soroush sat aft, his hands tied to the thwart he was sitting upon. He wore a turban—something Nikandr saw no need to deny him—in the style of the Maharraht, the cloth ragged, the tail hanging down along his chest. His long black beard was more ragged than it had been after Mirashadal, and Nikandr wondered if he had been growing it in self-imposed penance. Perhaps he thought Nikandr’s arrival, and his subsequent release, had been the fates shining upon him once more. That was fine with Nikandr so long as it didn’t embolden him overly much. Nikandr watched him for some time, but not once did he look up. Instead, he kept his gaze locked on the island with an intensity that made Nikandr nervous.
They reached the rocky shores of Rafsuhan an hour after launching from the Chaika. They moored the skiff in a vale with a stream running down from the stark highlands. It was as good a place as any to begin their trek eastward toward Siafyan. It was one of two outposts on the island. Ashdi en Ghat was the larger of the two, but it was also the more militant. It was said that the leadership of the Maharraht were housed there. Those in Siafyan were still dedicated to the Maharraht cause, but they had come to realize that it may take years, generations, for them to reach their goal, and in that light they had forged from this cold, rocky island a village where they could raise their young, grow crops, and learn while they waited for their leaders to push the Landed from the islands once and for all.
Nikandr levered himself over the gunwales and down to the uneven terrain, watching himself carefully lest he twist an ankle on the sharp rocks. The beach, and much of the land leading uphill toward the peaks of Rafsuhan, was bleak and gray. It looked as if a host of drakhen had clawed their way up, the stone yielding and fracturing until all that remained was a sharp and deadly slope.
Soroush stared dispassionately as Nikandr approached the rear of the skiff. “Release him,” Nikandr said to Styophan, his most trusted man and the sotnik of the streltsi.
Styophan, a tall, well-muscled man, reached inside and began untying the ropes around Soroush’s wrists. With the cold wind gusting against the gray fur of his kolpak hat, Styophan worked at the knots. He did it casually while staring at Soroush, as if he wanted him to attack. Styophan’s father and brother had both been murdered in the same week, in two separate and largely unrelated attacks, one in the shipping lanes north of Khalakovo, the other in the shallow fishing grounds east of Ishal. Styophan had eagerly accepted the post when Nikandr had offered it to him, and Nikandr had nearly withdrawn it—he needed clear-thinking men on this mission, not those whose only goal was to taste the blood of the Maharraht—but in the end he’d decided to keep him. Styophan was too good of a soldier to leave behind.
While Styophan was somehow eager and calm, the five other streltsi were tense. They held pistols at the ready, alternating glances between Soroush and the boulders that loomed on the hillside above, as if at any moment the whole of the Maharraht would storm down to retrieve their leader.
“Easy,” Nikandr said to them.
The expressions on their faces softened, and their shoulders lost some of their pent-up tension, but it was clear they were still wound tightly.
Soroush waited to be untied, and then he looked to Nikandr.
“Please,” Nikandr said, “come.”
He swung himself over the gunwales and down to the stones, steadying himself before facing Nikandr. It was strange to see him with no stone in his turban. It made him seem impotent, somehow, unmanned, yet when Nikandr looked him in the eyes, there was a completely different story to behold. Gone was the man who had seemed out of balance during their conversation on the Strovya. In his place was a man who seemed sure of himself, as if he had been the one who had summoned Nikandr to these shores.
“I have not changed my mind,” Soroush said.
“I know,” Nikandr replied.
Soroush blew several times into his cupped hands, warming them. “Then why? Why bring me here where I’m so close to those who would kill you at but a word from me?”
“Because I must.” Nikandr turned and made his way toward the others, but when he heard no sounds of movement behind him, he turned. “Are you coming?”
Soroush stared, glancing toward the other skiff and then toward the harsh peaks above them. “I will not help.”
“As you’ve said.” Nikandr wanted Soroush to come, he was desperate for it, but in the end he could not force him. Soroush would come or he would not. Either way, there were many things to do while here, and he would prefer to be about it, one way or the other.
A moment later, he heard the sound of the rocks shifting behind him over the rush of the surf. He did not smile—the day was too grim for such things—but he was glad.
Nikandr ordered three streltsi and Anahid to remain with the skiff. After preparing shoulder packs with several days’ worth of food, they were off. Styophan led the way. Two streltsi brought up the rear with Soroush, leaving Jahalan and Nikandr at the middle of the line.
They wound their way up through the treacherous rocks. There was no trail. Styophan had a good eye for climbing, yet there were still many places where it took them long minutes of careful navigation. Nikandr was apt to look after Jahalan, but he found that despite any reservations he might have of the man’s climbing abilities, he was more than capable, wooden leg or no.
Soon the sounds of the surf were replaced with the sigh of the wind and the occasional call of the whistle thrush. Past midday, it began to snow. It was light, but after a while it made the going even more treacherous. One of the streltsi twisted his ankle, though thankfully it wasn’t bad. Too much more of this, Nikandr thought, and they would be forced to stop until the snow abated.
But soon the snow had reduced to only flurries, and an hour later they reached a shallow stretch of land that would take them to the foot of the nearest peaks. If his information was correct, Siafyan lay in a valley between the nearest of them.
Along a ridge line above them, Nikandr noticed what appeared to be a convenient hole in a pile of rocks, and the closer he looked, the more unnatural the formation looked.
He pulled his pistol and grabbed Styophan’s arm and pointed. A moment later, Styophan’s gaze hardened, and he waved the two streltsi at the rear of the line forward. Together, the three of them climbed in lockstep, one of them always at the ready, pistol drawn, watching the rocks, while the other two climbed, quickly but quietly.
Nikandr stood to one side of the nominal trail they’d been following. He held his pistol at the ready, but left the hammer uncocked.
Jahalan watched all of this impassively, while Soroush fixated on the rocks as if he was sure that any moment a horde of Maharraht would begin firing down on them.
The streltsi finally gained the ridge and were lost from sight. Several minutes passed, and Nikandr grew nervous, but then Styophan emerged above the rocks and waved his hand.
“Come,” Nikandr said, pointing Soroush to go on ahead.
After a brief pause, he complied, climbing ahead, and soon all of them had reached a narrow plateau that offered little in the way of protection except for the outcropping of rocks. Nikandr made his way there. It was certainly an outpost. The rocks, perhaps from some ancient fall, had positioned themselves in such a way that a small clearing had been created, as large as the interior of a skiff. The west-facing wall appeared to have been built by the hand of a vanaqiram, however. Stones had been fitted and fixed such that it offered good protection from the elements while providing an excellent view of the slope they’d just scaled.
There was evidence of a fire pit—caked soot and the charred remains of wood—and in a hole built into the wall they found several old apples, now shriveled and dark.
“Why wasn’t it manned?” Nikandr asked Styophan after checking to make sure Soroush was out of earshot.
Styophan appeared as confused as Nikandr. “I know not, My Lord Prince. Perhaps they did see us and left for reinforcements.”
Nikandr frowned and stared up at the two tall peaks, which now seemed much closer. “Perhaps, though they could have summoned any number of reinforcements by now. I imagine we’ll find another, larger outpost not far ahead.”
“As you say, My Lord.”
“Come,” Nikandr said, putting his pistol away. “Best we get moving.”
Less than an hour later they came upon a tower made from the same gray rock as was found on the climb up. It was nestled behind a copse of larch, and was well hidden, but the top of the rounded and elegant structure had a clear view of the narrow canyon they were about to enter.
Nikandr called a halt, and for a time they merely watched for signs of movement. When there were none, he called for everyone to move together.
When they approached the tower, they saw that the door at the lowest level was open. It swung lightly in the breeze, knocking softly against the jam.
Styophan looked back to Nikandr, confused.
Nikandr shrugged and motioned for the three streltsi at the rear to remain with Soroush, then he continued on, bringing Styophan and Jahalan with him.
It felt as though eyes were upon them, from the nearby trees, from the darkened windows of the tower, from the rocky slope above. They reached the door and stepped inside, and a sour stench assaulted them. Nikandr knew what it was immediately—he’d smelled it many times before. It was the smell of the dead.
There was no one on this lowest level, but there were several bunks and a table with chairs, all of them disheveled or overturned. A curving set of stairs hugged the inside of the tower to their left. They went up slowly, carefully, pistols drawn.
The second level had a store of goods and munitions—baskets of potatoes and more shriveled apples, several serviceable muskets and a few pistols, all of them mismatched.
It was on the third level where the smell became markedly worse. Nikandr hid his nose in the crook of his elbow, which did little to mask the smell but made it somewhat bearable. Styophan and even the stoic Jahalan were forced to do the same.
On the far side of the room, just below a shuttered window, were two bodies. One looked like he’d died from a wound to his gut. He looked to be in his mid-twenties. He was still propped up against the wall, his dusty, rose-colored robes stained dark with blood around his midsection and groin. His arms were wrapped loosely around his wound, as though he’d lost the energy at the very end to stem the pain and had finally relaxed, allowing death to take him.
The other body was hidden in shadow further from the window. But when Nikandr approached, he sucked in his breath, unable to come closer. It was a woman. Her body was desiccated, blackened, shriveled like the apples still sitting in their baskets two stories down. Her arms were curled up near her head, and though Nikandr knew he could tell little from their dying postures, it appeared as though she’d died in much more pain than the man had.
These were not the most alarming, however. Near them, curled up into a ball, was the figure of a girl, perhaps ten or eleven years old. Her body was naked, and her skin was pale and sickly, but it was her face that drew the eye. She had no eyes to speak of. The skin had grown over, leaving her eyeless. Her jaw was elongated, and it was cast open, like the maw of a deep and dangerous cave.
“Ancients preserve us,” Nikandr whispered.
He’d seen the like before. He and Nasim and Ashan had been chased through the streets of Alayazhar by creatures such as this. Akhoz, Ashan had named them. They had lived there, he’d said, since the early days of the sundering, ever tortured, ever hungry.
For long moments he could only stare. How in the name of the mothers and fathers had these abominations reached these shores?
* * *
“Go,” Nikandr said to Styophan, “and bring Soroush.”
The officer’s gaze darted to Nikandr, then back to the bodies. He blinked, his eyes hard but conflicted, as if this had been exactly what he’d been hoping to see, but now that he’d come face-to-face with it he wasn’t so sure.
And then he caught Nikandr watching him, and he nodded and left.
As the footsteps upon the stairs faded, Jahalan approached the akhoz—his right leg thumping softly over the wooden flooring. He kneeled down by her side and leaned close, examining her face, her neck, her exposed hands.
“Are they the same as you saw on Ghayavand?” Jahalan asked. They had discussed his time on that island in detail many times. Jahalan remembered very little of that time, as feverish as he’d been after he’d lost his leg to the serpents, but by now he had a good understanding, at least of Nikandr’s view of those events.
“Very much the same. But how?”
“The rift, of course.”
“But even if it’s wider than the others we’ve seen, how could there be such a drastic change? We’ve seen only the wasting, never something like this.”
Jahalan leaned forward and sniffed the skin of the akhoz. “I cannot but think it has something to do with our heritage.”
“Or the way you commune with spirits.”
“And what of her?” Nikandr asked as he squatted next to the woman. “It looks like the wasting, only much, much worse.” He couldn’t help but think of the gnawing feeling in his gut when he’d had the wasting before the ritual with Nasim had saved him. He wondered what might have happened to him—or Victania—had the rift been wider. Would he have ended up like this?
“It worries me greatly,” Jahalan said. “I only hope we can discover more.”
He meant, discover more without interference from the Maharraht, of course. “I’ll be back,” Nikandr said.
With a vicious chill overtaking him, Nikandr took the stone rungs of the ladder that led up to the roof. He slid open the wooden door and stepped out to open air. After pulling his soulstone out and kissing it, he spread his arms wide and opened himself to the elements. He could feel the havahezhan immediately. It rarely took long to summon, but here it was especially close—as near as it had ever been.
“Do you feel it too?” he asked the wind as it whipped his hair and his heavy woolen cherkesska.
He had never felt the aether, never experienced it directly, but at the moment he felt as though he knew the boundaries of it: as a blind man senses a tree, not by the sound of the wind running through its branches but by the feel of the wind as it coursed over the bark. He felt, in fact, as though he could reach out his hand and touch the world of Adhiya, as if he could part the veil and draw the hezhan forth—something only the most gifted of arqesh should be able to do.
Despite the harrowing ramifications, it was exhilarating.
Would someone like Ashan feel the same? Or would he be horrified?
He nearly asked Jahalan to come up to speak to him of it, but just then he saw Styophan leading Soroush and the streltsi toward the tower. He took the ladder down again, and soon Soroush was coming up the stairs. Styophan followed behind, bearing his pistol.
“Leave us,” Nikandr said.
Styophan paused, glancing at Soroush. He opened his mouth to protest, but Nikandr talked over him.
Styophan nodded and complied, his eyes hard as they bored into Soroush.
When he’d gone, Nikandr beckoned Soroush closer. Soroush did so, staring down at the body of the akhoz, not with horror, but with morbid fascination. He was transfixed. His jaw worked. His nostrils flared. “How long—” He composed himself before trying once more. “How long has the rift been here?”
“Over a year.”
He looked out to the window, which happened to be facing southeast, toward Siafyan. Then his attention was caught by Nikandr’s soulstone, which glowed softly in the relative darkness. He set his jaw, and a tear slipped slowly down one cheek.
“What would you have me do?”
Nikandr had thought he would feel relief if Soroush ever decided to help him, and yet he felt as though he’d lost something today—he and Soroush both—and he couldn’t manage to feel anything more than a profound sadness at the things that had come to pass, both here and elsewhere.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said, motioning with one hand toward the dead.
Soroush did not reply, but the look in his tear-filled eyes hardened, as if Nikandr was somehow to blame.
“Come,” Nikandr said, motioning toward the stairs. “We’ll talk along the way.”
* * *
The sky was still overcast, and daylight was beginning to wane when they came across a defile that would lead them to the valley that housed Siafyan. There was still no sign of resistance. The wind poured through the defile with no mercy, pulling all the warmth from their bones. Even Nikandr was forced to pull his cherkesska tighter.
When they came to a bend, Nikandr heard sounds from above, from the top of the defile. He thought surely the Maharraht were there, ready to fire down upon them, but as they waited, pistols drawn, staring up at the cloudy sky while the walls of the defile seemed to close in on them, they heard nothing more.
At last, when the mouth of the defile was clear before them, they saw movement above. A boy, small and thin of frame, stared down at them, but as soon as the boy saw them look up, he retreated.
“Wait!” Soroush called in Mahndi.
But the boy did not return.
They moved faster after that, hoping to catch him if he was headed toward the village. Ahead, the defile was coming to an end. Nikandr could see the gray skies beyond and the heavily shadowed valley.
And then he saw smoke.
Soroush did too. As he walked, a look of concern came over him. He picked up his pace. Then, before Nikandr could stop him, he slipped past Styophan and began to run.
“Halt!” Styophan called, drawing his pistol.
But Soroush didn’t listen.
Styophan fired his pistol, rock spraying to the right of Soroush as he took a bend in the defile.
The other streltsi swung their muskets around.
“Hold fire!” Nikandr shouted as he ran forward.
Soroush, already well ahead, reached the mouth of the defile and darted to his right. Nikandr reached the mouth soon after. It was here that the valley opened up. It was dominated by a thick covering of larch that could easily hide those who wished to remain hidden. The trail out of the defile was little more than a switchbacked path that led down to the valley floor, and Soroush was already two turns of the trail lower.
“Soroush, stop!” Nikandr shouted.
Soroush continued, refusing to look up.
Nikandr ran after him, taking care lest he slip over the edge of the narrow path. He could see the edge of the village now. The buildings, most of them wood, not stone, were less than a half-league ahead, but the fire was not coming from there. It was coming from a clearing in the forest not far from the base of the path.
By the time Nikandr reached level ground, Soroush was already lost in the woods. Nikandr pulled his pistol and watched as he ran, his breath huffing, his thighs burning. He pushed harder, hoping to reach the fire before Soroush.
As he approached, a scent came to him from the woods. It was the smell of burning flesh, and it was accompanied by the heartbroken sound of a grown man moaning and weeping.
When he reached the clearing, he stopped and was again forced to cover his nose and mouth. In the center of the clearing was a charred pile of bodies, all of them shriveled and blackened nearly beyond recognition. Soroush was on his knees before the horrific scene, his hands lifted to the sky, shaking, quivering. He though Soroush was simply crying from the pain of facing such tragedy, but he realized it was much more. This was a dirge for his people, an appeal for the dead. A lamentation.
Nikandr stood there, helpless, as this hardened man, this murderer of Landed men and women, cried for his people. Nikandr found himself filled with sympathy, but also with satisfaction. Satisfaction that Soroush now felt what he had felt, what so many of the Landed had felt for those who had fallen to attacks from the Maharraht.
He cursed himself a moment later for being so heartless. Whatever Soroush might have done, whatever the Maharraht had done to the Landed, women and children did not deserve to burn.
It seemed at first as if the entire village lay within this pile of charred remains, but then Nikandr forced himself to estimate their numbers and realized that there were only thirty, perhaps forty bodies. This village was one that could house three or four hundred. So where had they gone?
His men reached the clearing behind him. They had clearly been running, but they slowed as they came near, staring wide-eyed at the horror before them.
Nikandr went to Soroush. “Come,” he said.
When he did not, Nikandr laid a hand on his shoulder.
Soroush stood, slapping Nikandr’s hand away. He stood face-to-face with Nikandr, anger in his eyes—hatred and revulsion—and for a moment Nikandr thought Soroush might reach for his throat, but then he cleared the tears from his cheeks, took several deep breaths.
And trudged toward Siafyan without saying a word.
* * *
They reached the edge of the village near nightfall. The structures Nikandr had seen from the defile towered over him. They were not so much built as grown from the forest around them. The larch had been coaxed, bent and shaped by gifted dhoshaqiram into towers that interlaced with one another. Walkways crossed high above them, leading to empty archways that yawned in the coming darkness. The smell of the larch was strong here, but also floral, and pleasant, as if this too had been coaxed from the trees by the hand of the Maharraht. The wind was the only thing to be heard. No people, no children. No sounds of cooking or laughter or quarrels. Nothing save an exhalation as Siafyan and the forest around it prepared for the coming night.
They came to what Nikandr took as the central square. A fountain stood there—as was common in nearly all Landless villages—though no water emerged from it.
Perhaps he was respectful, or perhaps fear was preventing him, but Soroush seemed hesitant to approach—much less enter—the towers. Nikandr, however, thought it foolish to wait. There was no telling what might befall them during the night; better to investigate now than allow something to come upon them while they slept.
“May I enter?” he asked Soroush.
Soroush stared at the fountain. He pulled his attention from it—regretfully, it seemed—and met Nikandr’s gaze. After a moment of thought, he gave a motion of his hand, as if Nikandr were a child who had asked for a sweet.
Nikandr sent one of the streltsi and Jahalan to searching the lower levels of the village, and then he took to the towers himself, moving from room to room, which all seemed molded from the stuff of the trees themselves. The beautiful grain of the larch was revealed everywhere. Sculptures of stone and wood sat on shelves and mantles. Beds, chairs, blankets. All of it pristine.
All except the bark of the trees.
Nikandr almost didn’t notice, but as he was taking a winding pathway down from a tower to head back for the fountain, he steadied himself against the bark. It powdered beneath his touch. He stopped and stared, brushed more of the bark away. There was solid wood beneath, but it was clear that the trees themselves were beginning to desiccate.
He thought back to his time on Ghayavand. His ship, the Gorovna, had withered beneath his touch. It was a similar effect to this, though there were differences. This wood was still living, where the windwood of the ship was dead wood. Still, Nikandr was sure it had more to do with the nature of Ghayavand—the rifts it contained and the hezhan it housed—than anything else.
Nikandr caught movement from the corner of his eye.
Turning casually, he saw a form hidden behind one of the towers some distance away. He wasn’t sure, but he suspected it was the boy they’d caught watching them from the top of the defile.
He pretended as if he hadn’t noticed as he strode toward another of the massive towers.
But the boy sensed his intent. He ducked behind the tree and ran, his footsteps crunching softly against the cold ground.
“Stop! I won’t hurt you!” Nikandr ran after him, darting around the tree, losing him for a moment. But then he found him again, heading toward one of the tallest towers in the village. If he were to gain any height he could lose himself in the village for days.
Nikandr quickened his pace, but soon found that it wasn’t necessary. The boy was already losing speed. He was weak, perhaps from lack of food, perhaps from sickness. He paused as he gained the walkway circling up and around the tower, and then he collapsed.
By the time Nikandr came near, the boy had turned onto his back and was scrabbling away, fear plain on his face.
“Please,” Nikandr said, holding up his hands for the child to see. “I only wish to know what happened. Why are you—”
With night coming on, light was scarce, but Nikandr could see that he’d been mistaken. This was no boy at all; it was a girl. She wore a boy’s clothes, and her hair was wrapped up into a dark turban, but the set of her eyes, her lips, the line of her jaw. It was unmistakable now.
“Why are you here?” Nikandr asked.
She spoke in Mahndi. Nikandr knew the language well, but she was speaking so quickly, and her accent was thick enough that he couldn’t understand her.
He held up his hands to stop her. “Slower,” he said in Mahndi.
“I left when they began burning...” She waved toward the scene in the woods, the pile of smoking bodies. “They’d taken memma.”
“Why?” Nikandr asked. “Why were so many burned?”
“They’d been marked.”
“Marked by what?”
“By the taint. They said those who had been touched would die.”
“So they forced everyone there so they could burn them?”
She was already shaking her head. “Neh. They went—”
She’d spoken so quickly he couldn’t understand her last word. “They what?”
“They went willingly.”
Nikandr stared, confused, but then her words settled over him like a thick blanket of snow.
Willingly, she’d said. They’d gone willingly.
By the ancients, what was happening on this island?