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Let It Rain: The Marked Ones
A flash of light penetrates the night sky, slicing through the choking blanket of black clouds. The lightning strikes the earth, leaving the image of a spine in its wake. Screaming thunder shrieks across the heavens, but it barely fazes me. The lightning strikes again, allowing a glimpse of the sudden flash of steel behind me. I turn, ready for an encounter, and find his face just inches from mine. Who’d ever thought I’d die in a graveyard? I suppose it’s a fitting end for me.
With the speed of a striking viper, he clamps a hand over my throat and raises his arm. I feel his muscles barely tense as my feet leave the ground. He is strong and I realize my capture is all too easy. My vision clouds as his grip tightens around my windpipe. But in the next flash of light I can make out the sword held precariously over my head.
It’s a beautiful weapon, one I have never seen before, baring a thin width and short length that only just stood to his waist. It would seem, to the untrained eye, a pathetically weak weapon. But I observe the delicate craftsmanship in its smooth and rounded blade. It is a sword developed for an instant and swift killing, leaving the victim’s severed head blinking in surprise. With its light-weight stature, movement is easy for one so fast as he.
My gaze shifts involuntarily to his black eyes. I stare into their empty depths, the lack of emotion unsurprising to me. Why would I expect any? He is an assassin, I know this, yet I feel paralyzed against the fingers wrapped around my throat. I am not so cowardly to feel fear. I knew this day would come, but what stops me from twisting away?
We simply stare at each other, eye to eye, as the storm continues to strengthen. It’s a battle of wills, who would make the first move? Being unarmed, I am at a disadvantage, but only slightly. This is the only conclusion I can come to. It’s an unusual feeling for me, to lack a plan, especially since I can tell that he’s calculating with, different scenarios racing through his head. What is he waiting for?
I’m starting to feel groggy, thanks to my ingenious idea to skip sleep in my haste to escape. The lack of oxygen intake probably doesn’t help either; it’s getting harder to inhale with each breath. I know that if this continues for much longer I’ll be rendered unconscious. I’d rather die in a fair battle, but clearly that’s not going to happen. A mere girl means nothing to him. He is an assassin. Born and trained in killing anyone and all emotions. My anger suddenly flares to life. What right does he have to remove my dignity?! I may be unable to fight, but that doesn’t mean I can’t show my defiance! For my last stand I glare at him coldly as his sword arcs toward my neck.
The dead Spine-Backed Mountains trail off into the beyond. Their granite teeth enshrouded by mist are the pale, lifeless color of a corpse. With the sun’s birth, bloody colors force the mountains to blush a scarred pink. The gory light floods the valley below, bathing the small farms and cottages in a latent promise.
The cackling of roosters is heard as the sun climbs its way into the sky. Gazing out the open window, I breathe in the dew encrusted air. It had rained during the night. I love the rain and its cool, sweet scent. Turning from the window, I glance around the cabin. There is very few furniture, all of it being carved from several different species of wood. The entire cabin is one room with the exception of the fabric “walls” separating my brother’s room and mine. I know that within each “room” lies a sleeping sack for each of us.
In the center lies a small fire pit encircled with stones and nestled comfortably in the dirt floor. A rather short table, barley reaching my knees, stands beside the pit allowing us to sit and eat near the warmth.
Much like the furniture, the entire structure of the cabin is also built with several varying species of wood. As I gaze at the surrounding walls, I remember a rainbow my brother had once shown me. With the many colors of the wood’s grain stacked upon each other in logs, the walls resemble the feathery wings of a moth.
But the ceiling is the true marvel of our home. My brother, Zahir, devised and built the roof with sliding panels to allow the fire’s smoke to escape. The panels are set in a sliding puzzle, so that on clear nights each may slide into another, allowing the ceiling to open entirely and reveal the veil of stars.
I admire my brother and love our life here in Iris. He often tells tales of the long journey he made with our parents from Juno. They died not long after the hard trek over the Mountains. He was thirteen at the time and had to work our farm alone after mother died during my birth and father from sickness soon after. He built our home with his own two hands: hauled the logs, strung them together, and patched the holes, all the while looking after me.
A knock on the door wakens me from my thoughts. Quickly, I duck below the window and sprint across the cabin to my “room.” I pull back the cloth curtain and kneel down to retrieve my dagger from under the bedroll. Then, I station myself beside the door so that it would swing open and leave me behind it. I glance out the window to my left, but no one is in my view. Silently, I pull back the wooden bolt and brace myself as the door is thrown open. Luckily, I’m skinny enough for the handle to stop the door from hitting me.
I hold my breath as a dark hooded figure enters the cabin. His boots barely make a sound on the packed earth floor. Slowly the door swings closed as I tense my muscles to leap. The door shuts with soft click and as he goes to turn, I launch myself at him.
Being hardly fourteen and with my small build I am no match for this man. But I keep my arms tight around his neck as he throws himself back to try and shake me off. Adrenaline is pumping through my system now, giving me strength I didn’t even know I had. I fumble for a tighter grip with my arm and raise my other hand with the dagger. Suddenly, he yanks me over his back by wrenching my dagger arm forward. I land hard on my back, the air forced from my lungs. Gasping for breath, I roll away from him and come up on my feet. Then, realizing my hand is empty, I glance around for my weapon to find it in his grasp. Fear hits me, but I force myself to back away slowly. I manage to get behind the small table near our fire pit. Good, I think, that puts some distance between us. But my small sense of security is quickly diminished. I watch paralyzed as he leaps over the table and, faster than my eyes can follow, pins me under his knees with the dagger pressed against my throat.
“Terrible.” He pulls back his hood to reveal a young man in his late twenties with dark tanned skin and night black hair. I glare into his clear blue eyes and try to shove him off me, but he only chuckles.
“Zahir,” I hiss, “get off!”
Chuckling again, he sits up and stands, offering a hand to me. I refuse his help and move to stand on my own, only to fall as my knees buckle from weariness. Clearly my adrenaline induced strength doesn’t last long. He catches me, and then carries me to the fire pit. He sets me down and works to light the fire, all the while humming to himself. Annoyed with myself and my failure I simply sit and continue to glare at him. The fire catches, leaving him to jump atop the table and slide open the ceiling to reveal the morning sky. The sweet air rushes in to greet me and I can’t help smiling from its quelling scent. I start as Zahir jumps down from the table and flashes me his teasing grin.
I refuse to acknowledge his greeting, but displaying his stubborn side, Zahir, leans down toward me and offers the handle of my dagger. Knowing that if I didn’t accept it he’d pin me to the floor again and willing to avoid more humiliation, I swiftly seize the dagger from his grasp with careful ease and precision. He flashes me another despised grin as I quickly stand and cross the room to replace the dagger under my bedroll. When I return the enticing aroma of roasting venison conjures my disregarded hunger. My stomach betrays my famished state as I approach and to my increasing annoyance, Zahir, presents one of his smug expressions.
“I shot this one just before dawn. The meat will be done soon, so go dress.”
I frown in concern as he turns his attention back to the food. The mention of dawn discomforts me. Suddenly, I’m thrust into memories that flash by at an uncontrollable rate: Zahir…the blood…a scream… I nearly fall to my knees as the wave of nausea hits. I lean against the stout table, determined to keep my composure, when I hear his voice distantly.
“I was careful, stop worrying. Now go get ready.”
His back is still facing me and if it weren’t for my heaving insides, I’d have almost sighed in relief. I needed air, fresh air. The open ceiling isn’t enough, as I realize that I’m almost hyperventilating. I rush to the door and fling it open in utter desperation. A wall of light blinds me in my panic as I stumble outside and land in the soft grass.
I just lie there, shaking uncontrollably. My breathing steadily slows as I swallow the nausea and my body stills. The gentle, frigid breeze caresses my skin comfortingly as I force myself to inhale and indulge in the feeling of my freezing lungs. What was that? The simple mention of dawn and I’m thrown into a panic attack?! Angry with my lack of self control I push myself to stand. It’s no wonder he took me down so easily, since I can’t even control my own emotions.
I try to distract my relentless thoughts and gaze at the frosted grasses of the field. Our cabin occupies a rather flat hill, while the farm begins at the end of its gentle slope to the north. I fix my gaze on the sturdy, log fence that encloses the horses, cows, and sheep in one giant pen. The fence surrounds about two acres and a small barn stands close by. I turn to face the west, my eyes following the dirt road that begins at our front door and leads down to the lake. On this hill I feel as if I can see everything from the mile and half trek to the lake to the vast Spine-Backed Mountains in the distance.
The sun has finally ascended from the clutches of the sinister mountains’ grasp. Its’ diminishing bloody scars announce the apparent mid-morning. I turn and make my way south back behind the cabin, annoyed with the time I’ve wasted. I stop in front of a small shack, and gazing over the familiar structure, I take in the wooden walls similar to that of the cabin’s. There is no roof and it stands about as high and wide as two horses. I step inside the sunlit room, latching the door behind me. Glancing around the small space, I observe the filled water trough and the small shelf protruding from the far wall. Moving to the water trough, I find my hunting garments, a wooden bucket, and a fresh homemade bar of soap. Despite my lingering misery, a small smile of gratitude for Zahir’s thoughtfulness shapes my lips. Sensing someone watching, I glance down and meet the gaze of my reflection.
The moon’s blue tinted face stares back. Sharp, bone angles are softened by the smooth, deathly pale skin, creating the effect of a more rounded structure. Dark lips stained crimson blood contrast the small angular nose and ultimately pale complexion. But the eyes reflect the latent character of such small meaningless features. An expression of an ageless knowing emanates from the soft gray irises, concealing my actual young age.
My nimble fingers work to unbraid my silky black hair. I watch my reflection as it cascades down to the small of my back, when it’s finally released from confinement. I untie the knot at the neck of my tunic and the waist of my leggings. I slide out of the sleep garments and shivering, fill the bucket from the trough. A gasp escapes from my lips as the icy water envelopes my body, benumbing my entire being and cleansing me of all nagging thoughts. My shivering intensifies as the frigid morning breeze kisses my skin. I shakily grab the handmade soap from the shelf and begin to scrub away the dirt and grime.
After my wash, I return to the cabin clothed in my earthy camouflaged hunting garments, my wet hair pulled tightly back in its usual braid. I take pleasure in the feeling of the well worn clothing and how it easily mimics my body’s movements. I continue around to the front of the cabin and step inside, feeling refreshed and energized. Zahir glances up at me from his kneeling position beside the fire.
“You’re right on time,” he announces, turning the spit loaded with chunks of venison.
I move to sit on the packed earth floor at the short table. Either he didn’t notice my episode or he’s refrained from annoying me further. No matter which, little escapes his notice. My stomach protests and I groan inwardly as the juices sizzle on the tongues of the flames. I glare at them in envy.
At last, Zahir plops the tender meat onto a wooden plate.
“I’ll have to ask you to restrain that beast from eating me too,” he chuckles.
Feeling a bit embarrassed, I pointedly ignore him and wrench the plate of heavenly morsels from his sinful clutches. He only chuckles louder as he serves himself and joins me at the table. Grasping my knife, I make an effort to slowly cut the meat and avoid giving him the satisfaction of witnessing the sight of me gorging myself. As I pop the first chunk from my hand and into my mouth, all ideas of restraint are immediately forgotten. I devour the food in a few short minutes. I watch him grin knowingly and groan inwardly again at my second defeat of the morning.
“Clearly this chef is a masterful god,” he boasts.
I scoff at his claim, but find myself desiring more of the meager portions.
“Should that have been poisoned you’d have been dead in less than a minute,” he retorts.
Feeling stung, I glare at him wrathfully. “Oh yes, hail his Excellency for presenting the finest food to this so lowly servant. Bless him that he may put me out of my misery with such a blissful end.” I roll my eyes to enhance the effect.
“It would seem that you’ve learned nothing.” The humor has evaporated from his expression and the tone of his voice has turned to one of authority. I regret my disrespect and drop my gaze.
“I’ve trained you to use caution in the most comfortable situation. Never forget these lessons.”
Daring to meet his gaze, “But what do I need all these lessons for? We live in the middle of the forest! A day’s ride from town! Surely this isn’t just to improve my hunting skills.”
I watch in distress as Zahir simply sighs, turning his gaze to the window and the picture it frames of the outside world. He whispers something almost inaudibly.
“If only that were true.”