There was a problem. Reaylah did not know where she was going. In her anger at the man, she had stalked off without bothering to look where she was heading. And now she was lost. But she would die before admit it.
The man sighed. “You have no idea where you’re going, do you?” He asked. He left a very obvious trail of bootprints while Reaylah walked with the grace of a dandelion floating in the breeze.
She glared at him over her shoulder. “No, I know perfectly well where we are going,” she said, and she turned her head back around. But the truth was that he was right. And she did not like him being right. Though fear crept through her at the thought that it would soon become very transparent that she had not the slightest clue where she was going, an ember of anger also ignited in her. Who was this man? Who did he think he was? Why was it that whatever higher power decided to push her through this river of humiliation?
“Well, since you clearly know where we are, I won’t bother you about it anymore,” he said, sarcasm dripping off his words. The trees bristled as they marched on, the cool air starting to sting their cheeks and nose. Owls hooted as they prepared for flight and frogs croaked like people who had not tasted water in a while. The sounds bled into one another, mixing together to become one colorful background.
The man, accepting that he was not going to get a reply from her, started idle talk. “My name is Rihad, thanks for asking. Turned twenty approximately 2 weeks go.” He spoke in a playful tone and sported his easiest grin, the one that always won over the ladies.
He assumes he is handsome. The little-
She shot a withering glare at him that silenced him.
As Reaylah’s feet started to drag, she inhaled deeply through her nose. I know where I am going. And even if I don’t, I will find my way. When lost, seek the wind for guidance.
The man, Rihad, snorted. “That’s a very silly prayer if you ask me,” he said. Reaylah realized she had been muttering aloud. Now he was sure to know she was lost. Certainly.
She could beg the wind for guidance. But she did not want to, not in front of Rihad. At she thought that, a memory floated to the front of her mind.
A girl of 17 sat at a table in front of a man with a jagged scar cutting across his face from the tip of his eyebrow to the bottom of his nose. Part of his right eye was also missing, because of that same scar. Patalias.
“The most powerful weapons one can use against you are your own words and actions, Rea,” he said. “If you wish to win the battle, do not give away your secrets. Do not let the other see how it is you have power over them. Be as quiet as the wind, as swift as the cheetah, as fierce as the blade. Cut your opponent’s old wounds open, and when they bleed, observe them. If they bear through it like a soldier, you will know you have their greatest weakness of all. For it is the most hurtful pains that we cover, that we try our hardest to conceal. So you open that old wound again and again, for then they will succumb. Plead for mercy. Beg you to stop. But what do you do then?”
“You submit to nothing and no one. You trudge on and never look back,” the girl replied, her voice full of seething anger, her eyes gone hard and cold.
“Yes Rea, but do not say ‘you’.” The man said. “Say ‘I’. ‘I will submit to nothing and no one. I will trudge on and never look back.’”
“Bahayah?” A voice interrupted her thoughts. As if waking from a daze, Reaylah came back to reality and looked up. She had stopped walking. Rihad had too. Her face felt hot. She lifted her hands to her cheek and saw with shock that her fingers came back wet. She had let her guard down. She had let herself drown in her past. Her guilt surrounded her like a shark waiting to attack. Her shame slithered through the shadows. But her fate stood tall and strong. As always.
Reaylah cleared her throat, shaking her hands. “It’s nothing. Something caught in my eye.” She opened her eye wide and used her finger to take out the fake piece of dust. “There, all better,” she declared. And with that she walked on, not waiting to see if he followed, discreetly wiping her eyes one-handed.
Rihad stood there, stunned into silence.
This fearsome creature, crying?
Shaking his head, he followed.
Only to be charged at by a group of men, armed to the teeth. Masterns.
Reaylah stopped, rooted to the ground, letting the moon blaze brilliantly over her unblemished face. Her long dark locks grew red, the color starting to spread from the roots and finishing at her tips. Red meant danger was near. Very near.
With a deep sigh, Reaylah gripped her sword tight and whirled around, her white dress billowing in the breeze. She stalked off to where Rihad stood, fighting off six masterns at once, parrying one’s blow only to be lunged for by another. He was a pretty decent fighter, she had to admit. The way he deflected eager swipes with his sword and fatally struck some in the side to draw thick rivulets of blood was impressing. But she smelled sweat already. He wouldn’t be able to keep this up for long.
With another sigh, this one longer than the last, she stepped out of the shadows, letting them fall back from her effortlessly. She waited, but no one noticed her presence. Starting to get annoyed, she cleared her throat very loudly, making sure each ear heard her. Slowly, each and all of the seven faces turned to face her, six of them sneering and one of them looking worrisome. Afraid. Reaylah was confused about that expression.
Afraid for what?
She leaped up onto a rock twice her height with an unnatural grace. She then crossed her arms awkwardly with the sword in one hand and her remaining dignity slowly falling through the other. The tips of her hair started to slowly lose color, fading back to her shockingly dark hair. Reaylah picked herself up and began to speak.
“Masterns, why are you here? Did your wives kick you out of the house again?” Seeing their sneers deepen, she added, “Oh wait, I almost forgot. Today your wife actually disowned you, didn’t she, Hatam?” The man in question stopped mid-sneer. His eyes widened and a look of pure astonishment crossed his face. It soon turned into embarrassment and then receded back into a look of seething rage.
“No woman owns me, Bahayah. And you should not be tro-”
He cut off mid-sentence, his hands flying to his throat, eyes widening. He dropped his sword as Reaylah slowly pulled him up into the air with a flick of two fingers. She held him there, suspended in mid-air, his comrades all staring at him in fear. But not one had the courage to save him. And that was why fear was not something Reaylah despised in herself, but welcomed. Because if used correctly, fear could be sharpened into anger. Forged into a deadly weapon. And angry she was right now.
“Now now, let’s not jump to conclusions. I want you to tell me something. Why is it that all men think of women as lesser? If we were thought of as equals, I’d consider, because we are certainly greater than this pathetic species of men, are we not?” Her voice was distant and cold, her eyes a frozen swirl of defiance and hatred, turning a deeper shade of purple than Rihad had ever seen before.
“Are we not?” She repeated twisting her fingers even tighter, cutting off the man’s air supply with more force. He clawed at the air, gasping for breath.
“You-” He gasped, fingers going to his neck once more, looking as if the one thing he wanted most in the world was to rip his own throat out. Reaylah considered. It would be entertaining, but the blood would be too much. The man’s peers stood rooted to the ground out of fear and shock.
Reaylah tsked. “Pathetic. Won’t even try. Now see, that’s the difference between people like you and me, Hatam,” she whispered, her voice gone deadly quiet. “There are some that cower as you do now, when faced with decisions that are meant to be taken by people other than them, people with an ounce of bravery. And then there are people like me, who do not wait to decide, but take action right away. See I haven’t forgotten all you’ve done, Hatam. I remember those girls.” At seeing his face twist in astonishment once again, she lost control. Her face pulled back in disgust and revulsion. She snapped her fingers, taking his breath and cutting his soul. He dropped to the ground with a loud thud that renovated throughout the eerie forest, sending clouds of dirt flying up. As much fun as it would’ve been to take apart his soul piece by piece, to break his mind, this simply was not the time for that.
She clapped her hands together as if shaking dirt off. She grinned and looked down at the remaining five men who looked at her with mixed emotions spiraling through their minds. She saw as one decided that his life was more precious than his duty, as he ran back the way he came through the forest’s trees that stretched like arms to conceal its inhabitants from view of the wonders above.
“I rather was looking forward to that one,” she said, looking down and out of spirits with her hands placed on her hips and her eyes gazing through the trees as if she could track the deserter from where she stood. All the other men, Rihad included, looked worried. Reaylah gazed down at the four remaining masterns, head tilted in thought and wonderment. She pouted her lips.
“Won’t any of you stay? Show yourself as the big bad wolves you think you are?” She asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm. She grinned all of a sudden. “I give points for those who stay. We can play a game. Oh, how I love games. Any suggestions?” She looked around hopefully.
The men talked in low, hushed voices, weighing their options while Rihad stood to the side, watching the scene unfold while leaning against a tree, his arms crossed against his chest.
He snorted. “A game, really? You do know Bahayah, that I plan to find my brother before he’s past saving. And anyways, you shouldn’t have said that. You don’t know what they’ll offer. I say we leave and run while they’re talking.”
“Oh, but Rihad, where’s the fun in that?” She frowned. “You still underestimate me, don’t you?”
Rihad was shocked to hear his name from her mouth for the first time. It sounded like a melody from far off, a sound as soothing as the waves that rolled along the ocean. Focus, he reminded himself. He looked back at her.
“I never said that. I simply said that we should avoid all this lost time,” he argued.
That wicked grin of hers that lifted her lips into a perfect semi-circle formed again. “It’ll take but a few minutes. I promise.” She winked at him.
Reaylah turned back to the men who were just about done conspiring. She stamped her foot as she leaned on one hip. “Well then, have the kids finally come up with an answer? Or do you need more time? Considering the stupid looks you all have on, I’d guess it’s the latter. Oh but wait, I almost forgot,” she said, feigning shock, even though amusement glimmered in her eyes. “You all can’t help looking like a baboon’s bottom. It’s not changeable,” she mused, her eyes twinkling. She heard a laugh poorly disguised as a cough and turned her head to see Rihad coughing into the top of his fist, trying to hold back a smile.
She turned back to the men, a smug look on her face, to see them all staring at her with uncontrolled anger. She bathed in the satisfaction of knowing that they knew they couldn’t call for help or abandon their mission, for fear of becoming known as a coward. Again, fear was the seed in their decisions. And it was not embraced, but rather despised. Not turned into rage but shrunk into doubt. Feelings of hopelessness, of thinking that the battle was already lost, when it could still be won.
“We have come to a decision,” the first man spat, who seemed to be the leader judging by how he held himself compared to the others, with an air of pride and betterness than his peers. The sad thing was that no one defied him, even when they clearly did not agree with his idea of what he suggested. It was made clear to Reaylah that the furtive glances the other three men each gave each other when they assumed no one was looking were full of defiance. Yet they did nothing. Did not act on it. Which led Reaylah to believe one thing about the leader: he held power over the other three. Influential power. That was interesting.
“That you propose one man to fight me. The winner decides what happens,” Reaylah said in her best indifferent tone. Assessing their looks, she narrowed her eyes to slits. “You really thought I would not hear you?” She threw her head back and laughed. “Fools, all of them,” she said simply, quiet yet loud enough for her voice to carry. The man in front looked even more outraged.
“Fine then. Who is it? Whom did we choose?” He asked, his eyes rising to hers in a silent challenge.
Games. She liked games.
When she was in control.
She hopped down from the rock and landed without a sound while she walked toward them, her arms crossed over her chest, her sword lying where she had stood seconds before. It winked in the moonlight, as if in encouragement.
“Hmm, let’s see, shall we?” She walked behind the leader, her dress grazing his uniform from the bottom. Even he stood still as a statue while she raked her gaze over him, thinking.
“Stubborn, yes, but not nearly man enough to endanger himself for others when he could easily put someone else up for the slaughter,” she murmured. The man’s face grew pink with embarrassment.
She reached the next man who stood a bit shorter than the others. She peered at his face. “Courage is there, but he’s not very good at fighting.” She laid the truth bare, and when he looked up at her with a scowl on his face, she added: “Oh, but he’s good at playing chess, everybody. Don’t worry, there’s still some use in him,” she smirked. “I bet you you’d be real handy at chucking those pieces around, at least.” Reaylah clasped her hands behind her back, smiling to herself as the man’s jaw tightened.
Still not brave enough to move, though, she thought.
She walked on and skipped the third man with long hair tied back at his nape. “Nice hair,” she said in passing. “Do me a favor, will you?” She didn’t wait for a response. “Next time we meet, I mean, if you’re alive when we meet again, tell me if Farah has decided between her husband or you. It fascinates me, your life,” she said, dangling the bait in front of him. When she got to the fourth and last man, she called out, “I’d pick neither. The husband or the whore, the whore or the husband. Not a big difference, if you know what I mean.” She winked at him, dropping her voice to a whisper. “Here’s a secret, or a few: Farah’s husband is cheating on her. She’s cheating on him with you. Oh, but do you know the juiciest part yet? You’re cheating on her with another person. And the most bewitched part of it all is that your secret lover, or should I say side whore, is none other than Farah’s sister!” She laughed. “The lies that surround each and every one of you,” she mused, while said man turned beet red, glaring daggers at her while his comrades all looked at him in surprise and disgust.
She smiled. Reaylah liked games.
The fourth man with blonde hair and green eyes was very still. He stood staring straight ahead at the trees, his gaze unmoving. Reaylah narrowed her eyes and followed his line of sight to see him looking at a raven, perched atop an old tree. Their eyes bored into each other, looking as though a feeling of understanding was between them.
Reaylah peered into his mind. Images of a young girl of fifteen or sixteen appeared. She collected information. His little sister was the only family he had left. He loved her. He would do anything to protect her. She found what she was looking for.
Reaylah turned and walked in front of all four men, staring them down like a commander to her soldiers.
“You’ve chosen the man whore,” she pronounced. Once again the man looked as if he wanted nothing more than to strangle her.
That is probably true, she thought.
“But I will not fight him.” The men all turned to look at one another worriedly, afraid of being chosen. Except one.
“I choose Amir,” she said, and turned on her heel, her skirts swishing around her ankles as she stalked off to the side. With her hands, she used her magic to clear the area, pushing trees back and lifting rocks to make space. She then lifted a finger and drew a perfect circle into the dirt.
She spun to face them. “Amir, step forward,” she commanded, with all the lethal grace of a sly fox. The man with the sister pushed forward, leaving his comrades to stare in confusion on why Reaylah had picked him when he was the scrawniest of all of them.
Amir’s gaze was unflinching as he trudged forward. She caught him by the sleeve of his arm, stopping him, and whispered in a voice so quiet, it could only be heard by whom she wanted. “Choose: honor or your sister.” He finally lifted his eyes to her, shocked, but he replied nonetheless.
“My sister,” he spoke, his voice quiet but undeterred. “Always.”
“I thought so,” she said, but in her face wasn’t mockery. It was understanding. Rihad watched from afar, straining his ears to hear anything, but it was impossible. He furrowed his brows in confusion when the Bahayah let go of the lean man, if he could be called one, judging by his appearance of age. They both stepped inside the circle. And then Rihad stared in fascination.
The boy was good. He was quick and deadly. He attacked with strong will and deflected with accuracy. But the Bahayah was better. With otherworldly grace, she parried with him, swinging powerful punches that sometimes struck home. She attacked at odd spots. Her blows were not meant to kill but to injure. Rihad saw her thin arms flex with corded muscle when she struck at Amir. They went on for a while, blocking and attacking, until the Bahayah crouched down and swung out her leg faster than the blink of an eye, knocking Amir down on his back. She precariously stepped over him while he grunted and grabbed his collar, dragging him into the shadows and out of sight. He fought the whole way, struggling to loosen her grip on him, but she wouldn’t budge. Will as strong as iron.
Amir’s peers watched with fear. But not for their comrade. For themselves.
She was right, Rihad thought. Cowards, every single one of them.
The Bahayah vanished into the shadows. Raw, brutal screams pierced the air as Rihad shifted uncomfortably. The pain and agony was clear in the voice, as well as the pleading and desperation. The screeching stopped abruptly, as if the boy’s life had went out like a flame snuffed out by the air. Rihad lowered his gaze to the forest floor. He would at least bury the boy.
The Bahayah returned just as quickly as she had vanished, this time with no one clutched in her hands. Instead, Rihad saw as his stomach jumped into his throat, her hands were covered in blood. Thick, scarlet blood, that dripped onto her white dress, staining the brown dirt floor.
With hesitation, he saw the Bahayah wipe her hands on her dress, flinching as the dress absorbed the red color quicker than a stone dropping into water.
She looked at the remaining three men. “I’ve put up wards to cover sound to those others than us. I will leave you all unharmed, so long as you leave and not bother me or anyone with me again.” She then added, “Oh, and feel free to tell what you’ve seen. I like fear in others. It’s comforting.” She smiled slowly and stared at the men, waiting. The masterns’ faces were wide with terror as they scrambled back and ran out of sight.
Rihad’s anger burst all of a sudden. He cut a glare to the Bahayah. “Why did you do that? You killed him in cold blood! What hundred year vengeance did he deserve?” He shouted as the moon finally reappeared from behind the clouds as if it hadn’t been able to bear the horrors beneath.
Reaylah’s brows pulled together in shock at Rihad’s sudden outburst. That quickly turned into fury. “You men are all so judgemental! You really think I would’ve done that? I may be hundreds of years old, but I still know logic! In fact, better than you do!” She shouted. Rihad inwardly cringed at her voice.
At that, her features softened the slightest bit. She sighed. “Amir, come out now, it’s safe,” she said.
Rihad stared in utmost confusion as Amir, the boy who he had heard being murdered a few minutes ago, stepped out from the shadows with red hands almost identical to the Bahayah’s. A few dirt stains covered his black uniform occasionally. Rihad whipped his head to the Bahayah as Amir walked up to her and stood by her side. He saw the Bahayah’s eyes widen when Amir did this, amazed how he did not fear her. But there was not a challenge in her eyes as usual. There was thankfulness.
No wonder, Rihad thought. Poor girl’s never probably had a casual acquaintance. She’s either been feared, hated, or intimidated. Never looked upon with such ease and trust.
He shook his head from these thoughts and looked at her for an explanation.
She sighed. Using her fingers, she projected a screen out of thin air. But the scenes playing out in it were not from any angle, they were specifically from her eyes.
I guess the purple eyes make a bit more sense now. When they darken, her focus is crystal clear. When they lighten, her concentration is lost, Rihad thought. Like when she had cried her eyes turned the lightest shade of lilac.
Rihad stored these thoughts for later as he fixed his eyes on the screen while the sky above lightened, preparing for a new day.
Reaylah’s hands were sweaty from gripping Amir’s collar. With all her willpower, she dragged him into the folds of darkness that concealed them from prying eyes. Once they were fully enclosed, she released him.
She screamed for her ab and um. She yelled for the friends she had lost. She screeched for the terrors she had endured. She shouted for the blood sister that had kept a secret darker than any one could dream of. And so the Bahayah screamed and screamed until her voice broke and the familiar pressure lodged in the back of her throat.
Then she stopped. As quickly as she had started, she stopped.
She looked down to see Amir watching her, his eyes widened in shock. But his rigid posture soon relaxed and he gazed at her with understanding.
This human, no more than 18, understands my pains that I’ve harbored for so long.
And the most astounding part was, that he didn’t know what agony I suffered. What had happened to cause my face twist in anguish. All he saw was a pained girl, and that was all he needed to know. That was enough for him to care and to understand that we shared a troubled life. My powers tell me that he is safe to trust, to share my burdens with. To let him lean on me while I lean on him.
It was enough. It was more care than any had shown for her, even if it was just a look of understanding. It counted. It mattered.
“Neen?” The Bahayah asked, her voice surprisingly soft.
Amir looked shocked at first.
This ancient creature wants me as her neen? She is in pain, that much I can tell from her screams of agony, but still. I’m just an ordinary mortal. I’ll die and she’ll move on, looking for a new neen. But she needs help. She needs someone who she can look to when she’s drowning in her past, in her pains. She needs a shoulder to lighten the weight. And I cannot turn that down for her. I’ve never had a neen, partly because I don’t trust many people.
With a slow nod, as if he were assuring himself, Amir carefully brought up his hand and sliced through it with a jagged stone nearby, and the Bahayah stuck her hand out for him to do the same to her. When both of their hands had a red line running across them, they each clasped their own hands, smearing the blood onto both palms. Then they enclosed both of their hands together, a golden light flowing from the four connected promises. Both of them then took turns speaking oaths that had been long ago established:
“I live to protect with my right. I breathe to love with my left. I vow under the heavens above, taking the promise of sisterhood. I, Reaylah Mughal, swear on the honesty I have, that these oaths will be kept. If one of these vows shall break, from the death of my other or from the failure of me, I shall find another to assist me until I meet my end.” The Bahayah spoke calmly, as if this was an everyday thing to sign off half of herself to another man that she had met mere minutes ago.
Amir repeated the oaths, staring straight into Reaylah’s eyes, filling in ‘sisterhood’ with ‘brotherhood’ and her name with his; Amir Nahil.
Amir spoke the last word and tightened his grasp on her thin, fragile hands. The first morning light broke, the sun filtering down through the gaps in the clearing above to illuminate the ritual happening below. With the golden light already issuing from their hands, the sunlight added an even more angelic look to the whole scene. Tiny blue mockingjays chirped in the trees, constantly landing and then taking off, the fluttering of wings the only trail of proof left behind.
The two both shared an unflinching gaze, oblivious to all but the new bond of blood sister and brother brewing in both of them. At last, Reaylah slowly pulled her hands out of his clasp and let down the time ward. What had passed in a rough estimate of thirty minutes now was something that had occurred in five minutes for the masterns and Rihad.
With a deep inhale, she stepped in view and slowly wiped her blood covered hands on her very much treasured dress, a gift from the Zeley prince. She stared at it a second longer, her eyes full of regret, before she turned to look at the masterns. She spoke.
The world was ruled not as a whole, but as parts. Parts that were kingdoms. And in such a kingdom, the last family member Amir had, wasted away into the grasps of evil, plunging so far that retrieving her was not possible.