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PLAINS OF KHUVAKHA (SVONDA) Third day since Elleri. Year 569 of the Havoc

There, where Death rules, hence the Öiyya finds solace, and makes of the Realm of Death her own Kingdom. Regnum Mortis

The world was grey. Following the random rhythm of her steps, the dry land crunched under her feet. The sound fell upon her ears in the absolute silence that covered the plain; a silence that soaked the air like water, like blood. Grey was the land, grey the sky. Grey were the clouds that hurriedly flew over her head; as if they wanted to escape from the plain, to pass over it the faster the better. Not even the clouds would certainly ask to see that. Grey were the mountains silhouetted against the horizon, a grey so dark that seemed black. Its menacing peaks stood, overlooking the plain and dressing it with shadows that rapidly stretched as the pale sun hid behind the range. It’s getting dark. Perhaps the sun had taken pity of them and preferred to give way to darkness, to the shadows that concealed the plains like a shroud. Or maybe, like the clouds, it could not stand watching the scene either, and hid its face so nobody could see it cry. Around her, the world was covered with grey corpses. The almost extinct fires that burned here and there, scattered across the plain, could be the same that had been burning three days before, in the night of Elleri, when those that now were lying in the dust had merrily danced around bonfires, singing, drinking their fill and getting lost in the bushes with one of the women who followed the army as a swarm. How many of them would have succeeded in becoming an Elleri’ia, how many would have believed to have secured a year of prosperity and safety with a husband? Temporary, yes, but a husband, something unattainable for a prostitute… And how many of those grey corpses would have promised love and fidelity for a year, only a year, to a woman, in the night of Elleri? But Elleri’s bonfires, that celebrated the bounty of the next harvest, were completely unlike those almost extinguished, smoking fires that offered neither light nor


heat, nor comfort, nor colour. Likewise, the embers were grey, hidden by the ashes that fluttered in the air too, dimming the already cold and weak sunlight. Next to her, a wrinkled and spotted flag burned feebly, struggling, greyish, against the evening breeze. “You cannot even tell the colours apart” murmured Issi absently. And what does it matter at this point. If it had ever mattered. Svondens or thaledii, both the same: all of them were now grey dead, all of them were going to serve in a few hours as food for scavengers: vultures, crows, and the others, the two-legged ones, which also clustered at the hosts as the prostitutes but, unlike them, only proceeded when the soldiers were dead or about to die. The spears bristled the horizon as thorns in the flesh of the world. What hours before had been a forest of upright, vertical, challenging trees, now covered the plain disorderly, the end pieces sunk into the ground, masts doing odd angles, with no hands holding the spears, some of them broken, others soaked in blood, here and there the traces of a flag waving faintly, greyish. Not a blazon to be recognized. Although nobody remained alive to recognize it. Grey were the banners of Thaledia and Svonda. Both identical after the massacre, no mark of the bright colours they had proudly shown to the enemy hours before. A sticky mist coiled around her ankles, as if trying to prevent her to keep going further walking among the spears and the dead. Issi dodged a sword deeply stuck in the land, whose hilt still held the hand of a man kneeling in the grey dust, his head tilted forward. He had probably died while trying to stand leaning on the sword. Because in these times a sword is the only support a man can find, the only thing a man can trust. Or a woman. She ironically smiled, carelessly putting her hand to her own weapon as she bent to examine the corpse’s greyish face. At the feet of the dead, sticking out from below the knee that was still stuck in the ground, a torn banner made feeble attempts to free itself of the body weight, anxious to get carried away by the wind that swept the plains. Among the gray dust some spots of the blue and silver of the original fabric could still be guessed. It’s the only colour in this damn graveyard. It was the only except for the colour of blood. “And if it hadn’t been for this idiot, my blood would be now staining the ground too, mixing with his. Yuck” whispered Issi. She kicked the corpse, which trembled and slowly fell to lie in the dust, dragging the sword that was firmly held between his rigid fingers. “I guess I must thank you” she added and, carried away by a sudden fury, she kicked him again. The dead did not protest. Because you know you deserve it, you


fucking idiot, thought Issi, furious. If Dagna had not listened to you, if he had not believed, too, that my price was too high for a woman… What would have happened? Would it have changed anything? Yes, she told herself, looking up at the horizon. There would be one more corpse lying on the ground. If no one had survive, she could not expect to be the only exception. Besides, believing that no one had survived was as absurd as believing that Thaledia and Svonda were going to make peace the following day. There was always someone. Hid, fled, disgraced, condemned to death, but alive. A price too high… Issi contained a hysterical laugh. If the silence that covered the plain seemed frightening, it seemed even more fearful disturbing it. Let the dead rest, and the dead will not bother you. The only time of the year when people allowed themselves to ignore that axiom was Yeöi, the Night of the Dead. But it’s still too long until Yeöi… Suddenly terrified, she walked away from the dead lying near his sword and kept walking, trying to contain the urge to cover her nose so as to ward off the stench of blood, of death, of decomposition. A little further, collapsed over its rider, a horse lay, its legs bending like a puppet without strings. Its scattered entrails mixed with the dirt and the blood of the man trapped under its huge body. The horse’s lips were retracted to form a hideous face that showed its teeth, a grimace very similar to the dead rider, whose eyes, wide open, were fixed on the sky. The grim picture was not very different from what she could see anywhere she set her eyes on. Corpses at all imaginable positions, and the blood soaking the land and the sparse grass, flowing thickly from the very bowels of the world, slowly filling the traces Issi left in the dust… Get a grip, you idiot, she told herself, disturbed. You’ve seen things like these many times… But it was not true. She had seen dead, of course, a lot of them: tortured, torn, skinned, cut open, beheaded. But she had never seen so much death in the same place. Not even for three times as much as Dagna had offered her in the first place would she have wanted to fight this battle. Admit it; you almost owe that cretin Nix a favour. And she would have paid for it, if the fucking stupid were not already dead. She sighed, stopping in the middle of the bleak picture. For a moment she regretted not having followed the impulse that, three nights before, had forced her to ride her mare and move away from these fools until she could not longer hear their laughs and songs, until she could not longer see the glow of the Elleri’s bonfires.


Curiosity, damned curiosity. What had driven her to return where the army was fighting the battle all these idiots longed for months? Had it been the desire to take part in it? “I don’t work for free” she murmured, raising her eyes to the sky, which was rapidly darkening. And, thanks to Nix, Dagna had rectified the price they had agreed days before. “A woman cannot charge more than ten coppers. She probably will let herself be killed in the first attack!” And Dagna had lowered the price from two hundred svonden golds to ten coppers. How much did they think she spent just in feeding Lena? Not to mention feeding herself… She snorted angrily and restrained the sudden need to return to Nix’s body and kick him twice more. Over her head, sky had become an inky black lake. The clouds were hiding the stars that appeared and disappeared like candles shacked by the breeze. Not even the wind produced any sound. Although she needed the money, Issi could not afford to risk her life for ten coppers. If an army hired her for this pittance, the next would not pay much more, or even would offer her less for her sword, her arms and her mare. However, for months she and Lena had been wandering from village to village, unsuccessfully seeking an assignment that would allow them, if just for one night, not to sleep out in the open and to eat something warm and tasty, something that she had not had to kill herself. Lena was longing for some grain; she, for a soup, a spicy stew, anything but roasted unseasoned rabbit or venison. Sometimes she dreamed of the old Anyeta’s honey cakes. Just one bit, just one… Honey pouring down her chin, and Anyeta grumbling and predicting a good beating to the child who had smeared pastry and honey all over the Sprouts Day’s dress. A moan woke her from her reverie. She quickly turned, half unsheathing the sword. She did not completely remove it from the sheath hanging on her back. A few steps away, a body stirred and returned to stand still. “Shut up” she sharply snapped, angry with herself and with the dying. “You do not have much time, so relax and enjoy, lad”. He was just a boy: he could not be more than fourteen or fifteen years old, and his beardless face still had not lost the soft lines of childhood. Judging by his look he seemed to be a squire, the page of one of the many knights who had brought men to the king’s army. He clung tightly to a jagged sword. He seemed to have no injury at all: he was simply lying there, as if a nightmare had disturbed his otherwise peaceful dream. Issi approached, curious. He was not injured, but his skin tone and the wrinkles around


his eyes and lips were clearly saying that he was about to die. “Crows are already fighting for his eyes” as the old Anyeta often said concerning those with a foot beyond the border of death. The boy sighed and stood still. “See?” murmured Issi crouching beside him. There was no harm in the visible part of his body, nor in his leather armour, made up of mismatched parts, some of them too big, too little others. The leather skullcap had slipped from his head and had rolled a few feet on the bloodstained ground. “You see that it hasn’t hurt a bit?” she asked and, when the boy did not answer, she shrugged. She did not know if dying hurt because, luckily, she had never died. But she had the vague feeling that this could comfort those who come face to face with death. Something she expected not to go through in the near future. That one no longer needs much comfort, Issi. She rose and looked around without much interest. There was no doubt about how the rest of the bodies had died: in all of them she could see wounds, amputations, the cause of death so clear as death itself. But not in that boy. What the hell would have killed him? Fear? A few steps away from the boy’s remains there was another corpse. It seemed to look at him, with a hand extended to him, as if it had used its last breath in calling him for help, or in cursing him. If the lad’s body had caught her eye, that one left her speechless. She was a child. A tiny girl, about nine or ten years old. She wore a delicate blue dress stained with blood and dust, and a smooth glossy mane of blue-black hair swirled around her face. Bewildered, Issi approached and bent to study her closely. “What is a fucking child doing in a battlefield?” she exclaimed, unpleasantly surprised. The Plains of Khuvakha were far away from any village: there was not a single farm from the foot of the Lambhuari Mountains to Cidelor. There were no people in many leagues around. That girl could not have run away from home to join the army, like Issi would have wanted to do many years ago. With that dress and that hair they would have discovered and returned her home in an hour maximum. Probably less healthy and less virgin than she had left it, but at least they would have returned her with her family. They certainly would not have carried her with them to war. At most, they would have killed her after having fun with her, and her body would have ended left a few steps from her home.


Issi shrugged again. Maybe she was one of the soldier’s daughters, and the asshole had been unable to leave her and had carried her hand by hand to death. Or, most likely, she was the whim of one of those idiots that watered the plain with their blood and entrails. Maybe she was one of the army followers: at that age a girl could be into prostitution if she was accepted or forced. The scruples of the love’s professionals were as nonexistent as the scruples of the many men who risked their lives at war. And she was a beautiful girl, Issi thought as he studied her face carefully. Perhaps she had got the smooth-faced boy who lied beside her made her his Elleri’ia, the two close together in front of a bonfire, in the Night of Abundance. The child opened her eyes, and Issi jumped, startled. Idiot, idiot, she said to herself, unable to look away from that kid’s two silver lakes. Since when you take a living girl for a dead one…? She looked not very far from death too. The child gasped, opened her mouth and stirred, twisting her face in a grimace of pain. She had a horrible wound in the stomach from which blood not longer flowed. It should be all on her dress and the ground on which she trembled. Issi bowed again over her. Not knowing why, she thought it would be inappropriate trying to comfort that girl as she had comforted the boy that had died in front of her eyes moments before. “Fine” she said after a moment. The child kept watching her insistently, pleading. “Sure. Look, everything is right, ok? It’s like… like falling asleep, you know? Or so I think” she added to herself, uncertain. “You just… No, don’t do that.” She tried to move away when the girl reached out a trembling hand to touch her. One icy little hand rested on hers. “Damn” she whispered, feeling a strange disgust by the rubbing of the skin covered in blood and sweat. “Look, I don’t know if…” Issi stopped when the girl made a sudden movement with her head. She opened her mouth and said something, so quietly that Issi was unable to make out the words. Reluctantly, Issi approached a little more. “What?” she asked. The child did not speak again. She slowly raised her hand and, still staring at her, posed a finger on Issi’s forehead. Her skin was so cold that it burned. Issi tried to get away from her contact, but the girl’s finger seemed to be glued to her forehead, to be welding, skin with skin, red hot, in that very moment. She wanted to protest, she wanted to rip the child’s finger off her skin, she wanted to rip her off the world beating her to death. The girl’s gaze was still fixed on hers. And then the child spoke.


“Öi” she said. And all around Issi, the plains, the mountains, the sky and the earth, the dead, everything faded until that child’s eyes were the only thing in the world. Silver irises that pulled from her and absorbed her, relentless; pupils that became bigger and bigger until their blackness covered the world like a cold, starless mantle. Issi had the feeling that she had closed her eyes, that she was suddenly blind. She fought to open the eyelids she could not remember having closed. The darkness was inhospitable, terrifying, a nothingness in which Issi floated, incorporeal, in which the only thing that really existed was that horrible burning in her forehead. Finally, she opened her eyes. And the entire Universe exploded in her mind. Dizzily spinning in a non-sense collage, all the landscapes, all the cities, all the places she had ever seen in her life and many more she had never had imagined swirled in her head. Impossible colours, indescribable lights, images of such beauty that cut the breath off and such creepy that would kill of fear or repugnance the most courageous knight, and each one of them shining on either side of a path so luminous that she was unable to see it, so huge that on its surface would not have fit one foot, so long that its end was just there, in plain sight, inexpressibly remote, at her own feet. Issi opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came from her frozen throat. She threw her head back. A heat, light wave went through her body. Her mind could not contain an entire world, an entire universe. It was too much, it was impossible, it was overwhelming… She moaned impotently and fell into a dark, endless pit, and the world stopped spinning around her. She fainted.

© Virginia Pérez de la Puente, 2010 © Ediciones B, S.A 2010 Consell de Cent 425-427 – 08009 Barcelona (Spain)


Chosen by death first chapter