The animal roared painfully as Ona’s arrow pierced its body, severing its muscles. Tiyan thought that this roar would never end, but when he plunged his dagger into the flesh, the creature fell silent – the dagger reached its heart. The wounded beast let out its last breath and a groan that, as always, moved Tiyan deeply. These animals had no life, and their death was both a salvation for them and a conclusion to their painful existence.
They both pulled their weapons from its body, blood began to flow, staining the ground red.
Tiyan sat down in the snow, knowing his pants would get wet, but he couldn’t stay on his feet.
“I hate killing,” he said in a hollow voice. He saw that the blood had also reached his clothes. The ichor took on a strange shape on his jacket.
Immediately, involuntarily, he thought of the pendant. He slipped his hand under his blouse to check if he still had it. It was there. Strangely warm, as if it was pulsing in his hand.
“Don’t touch yourself, just help me cut it,” he heard Ona, who was wiping cold sweat from her forehead.
Tiyan immediately left the pendant alone, for fear that Ona would discover it and start asking questions.
And the questions about the Fae were terrifying.
Tiyan knew how hard it was to prepare korhal’s meat. Their skin was thick, their fur even thicker. But these beasts were usually beyond his reach, and it was rare for any hunter to kill the creature alone. Moreover, they were very aggressive, and their claws were so long that if it had not been for Ona’s distraction, he would not have dared to stab it with a dagger, even from behind.
This particular one… was strangely calm though, like something bothered it more than hunters who aimed to kill it.
They began to laboriously peel off the rotting skin of their victim.
“Me too,” Ona suddenly said.
Tiyan turned towards her, not fully understanding her.
“You said you didn’t like killing,” she replied, making another cut. “Me too. I can’t stand it. I can feel their pain, the animals’ pain.”
Tiyan opened his mouth to say something, but then closed it. He felt like he was going to say something idiotic.
He carefully pushed his knife straight through the wound in the animal’s heart.
The chest was open, like a gate to the underworld. There was nothing to protect the heart except tissue and skin. No bones, they protruded from sides, like shattered glass.
She glanced, frowning. It wasn’t natural.
The heart was large, fleshy, one might even say fat. Ona seemed to know what she was looking at and what she was looking for, but…
“It’s magic,” she said, eventually. “Magic seeps through its body. Probably… it was just too much for it, and the body changed… even more.”
That made him sad, even if he just killed it. Maybe even more. The magic which appeared in Avras was of darkest kind, taking away the will to live. He loathed that.
“There’s never too little of it,” Tiyan gritted his teeth.
“For some, it’s the other way around” Ona sat back down, cutting the flesh again. “Some gloat with it.” her eyes darted at him, like she wanted to see him agree.
Oh yes. For the Fae. For the children of the night and rot and winter. And for their servants.
At home he once heard a story. By chance. It wasn’t a nice or uplifting story. In a way, it terrified him, and yet he had never seen a faery before. However, the story was different from anything he had heard.
In the houses of the Vennklans, people often gathered to listen to stories. Even after the war, residents continued the custom, wanting to feel unity and community. And they told stories, often inappropriate for children. Therefore, when people were gathering in Gravir;s home, Tiyan and Mina had to leave the main room. They didn’t have to go to sleep. They were just supposed to not disturb them.
Before his first and last battle, Tiyan was cautious but curious about the world. Therefore, several times, hiding in shadowy places, he pretended that he was not there and listened to the stories. He usually came across hunting tales. But then, as he hid in the shadows and darkness, he heard something that kept him awake at night.
It was the story of Nayarala, a woman who was more of a storyteller than a hunter, although she dabbled in both. To Tiyan, she was impenetrable, a little scary, and a little admirable. A bit of everything.
When Nayarala was talking, no one interrupted, no one laughed. They were dark and old stories. Told in a tone that might as well be the sound of an approaching storm.
Oh yes, Tiyan admired Nayarala. She was what he wanted to become in the future.
Perhaps Tiyan remembered it now because he dreamed of Noyd and his childhood on the first day. And Nayarala’s story, which he heard long after the talk with Noyd, was very similar to the conversation he had dreamed about back then.
“Ona” he plunged the knife into the flesh again, carving out the healthy red meat.
“Mhm…” Ona looked like a fierce warrior. With a sharp knife. And a bow, she put against a rock.
“Have you heard the ballad about the fox?”
She shook her head. There was already a large portion of meat lying next to her.
“We will have provisions for a few days. This korhal had a lot of healthy tissue.”
Tiyan sadly saw the meager results of his efforts.
“Your thoughts were elsewhere,” Ona immediately excused him, and Tiyan felt grateful. “For example, among foxes.”
“You really didn’t hear? I thought theater troupes performed it often when they were travelling from town to town?”
Only now did he realize that she couldn’t have known any theater troupes. Her adaptation to the road and her skills still made him think of her as much older than she actually was.
She looked at him with certain amusement.
“I think I should one day tell you few things about myself. You can tell me about the fox, though, if you’re so tempted. We still have to salt it all and cook some of it.”
“Salt from a bottomless backpack.”
“Just like that.”
When the meat was cooking over the fire, and Ona and Tiyan again built a makeshift shelter from the snow, Tiyan stared into the flames, memories rushing at him. Noyd. Noyd loved dangerous stories, dark fairy tales. He loved hearing about knights. It may have been simpler, but it was certainly more rational. Certainly nowadays.
They never agreed on, he and Noyd, what stories were the best. Now they both knew, that those in which the teller doesn’t die.
“I can’t help but feel like you’re thinking hard.” Ona glanced at him curiously. The setting sun gave her white hair a glow that made the paint on her face even blacker.
“It happens to me sometimes,” Tiyan smiled.
She shook her head. With amusement. Tiyan suddenly thought about how often they smiled. And he felt strange. He didn’t know what Mina was doing now, but she definitely wasn’t smiling. Perhaps screamed. He hated imagining her in pain, with monsters feeding on her fear.
You are too slow. You must hurry. Faster. Just… be fast.
But there was something… stable about Ona, something that made you feel safe. She didn’t panic, she took matters into her own hands. Something Tiyan avoided.
He didn’t want to break the mood… but something tempted him to ask. A suspicion had been brewing in him since his sleep in the barn.
“There’s a story,” he said suddenly. She didn’t silence him, just looked at him curiously. “About the fox. Fae.”
She didn’t answer, but she still didn’t interrupt him. He didn’t know if talking about the Fae would summon an enemy, but he doubted it. His brain was no longer open to them,
“Supposedly, he tempted young women, those who lost their way in the forest. He was able to charm them with his glamour so that they followed him to his palace. And traces of them disappeared.”
“Very Fae, I guess.”
“Yes. But I remembered something. Apparently the fox commanded the shadows. They followed him like dark children of the night of which he was a part. And ravens. Black ravens followed him, whispering to his victims, his—”
Tiyan had never seen a face change so quickly. In one moment she went from curious to stunned, almost terrified. No. Not terrified. Full of hate. Yes, hate. Very strong.
“These are just fairy tales,” she said through clenched teeth. Tiyan wasn’t sure how to take this.
He didn’t think he said anything wrong.
“So you know—”
“No” She abruptly picked up the piece of meat she was roasting and pressed the stick into his hands. “Eat.”
“And you? Aren’t you hungry?” he accepted the meat reluctantly.
“Not like I could be.”
She looked not angry… more sad, like his words brushed her skin with something harsh. He wondered why. He didn’t want to push though.
He somehow know she will tell him one day. And if not… he started to suspect already.
Slowly eating the not-so-bad meat, Tiyan watched as Ona settled down for the night in their shelter. The first guard was his. After eating a solid portion, he no longer felt so tired. The rest of the meat, salted, lay nearby, wrapped in the same strange material that served as their blanket.
Ona knew the story about the fox.
She has heard of the night and shadows. Something he started to associate with the Shadow that seemingly had Mina. Who needed him so much, that he killed his family, to… motivate him to go. To tear everything from him, so he was alone… and scared.
And somehow, Ona knew them. And hated them.