IN A RED
n the darkness of the night you can hear them calling, their voices riding on the night breeze, their shadows dancing like pieces of nightmares among the silvery mist over the mouldered surface.
They are the unwanted ones and the forgotten. The slain and their murderers. Abandoned by the mercurial hands of fate and by the fickle memory of the Gods.
Many are the histories spun around this place, shunned even by the animals native to the forest and the elven travelers. This is said to be the land of the foxfires, the souls of the ones that encountered Queprur’s scythe too early, those who kissed Her cold lips against their will.
Under the surface of the reeking mire and hidden by the sickly water plants, lay the cemetery. Small skulls from children drowned in the swampy waters, some of them victims of their own parents. Some of the skulls were deformed and misshapen, as if Jeyriall had forgotten how the soft head of a newborn babe should look and replaced it with something that bore little resemblance to their kin.
Here rested also the flesh stripped carcasses of those that had been found guilty of terrible crimes, their bodies thrown into the waters while they were still warm from their encounter with the gallow or the steel edge of the executioner axe.
Scattered among the babe skeletons and the bones of the murderers were also the remains of some of the victims of homicide. Strangled, stabbed, some of them with a gaping hole in their skull, where a rock or a club had broken through the protective barrier of bone to snuff out the life of the one that was reached.
Crossbow bolts protuded from ribcages where the flesh had rotten away, speaking a clear language of ambush and of sudden and violent death.
Many a ghost tale has been told about the swamp. About children voices luring hapless hunters and travellers into the murky waters, guiding them to their death. Stories about headless men and women walking by the water's edge, searching for the severed heads that lay buried, lost, somewhere inside the forest. Forever separated from their bodies.
The forest around the swamp was empty of animals, no happy birdsong ever rang over the muddy waters, no stag nor fox ever approached the edge to quench their thirst and even the Mullogs stayed far away from the marshy waters of this part of the swamp.
The only thing that thrived on these dark waters were the waterstars that floated on the surface. These stars were not like any others in the realm. Their petals, instead of being the shining white and green that they should be, were a sooty black, as if they were made from small pieces of the midnight sky. The roots of the waterstars dug themselves deeply into the muddy bottom of the swamp, feeding of the decomposing cadavers of the ones buried under the waters. The long steams filtering themselves with the crumbling bones and skulls, weaving a sinister tapestry of life and death hidden under the dark surface of the swamp.
And it was in this tapestry the souls of the ones covered by the mud were trapped. The stillborn babe and the ones drowned by their parents. The assassins and the ones slain by their hands. The hunters and travelers that had dared to defy the quagmire, drowning in its foul smelling embrace. All of them chained to this place, imprisoned by their regrets and hates, reflected in the black petals of the black flowers.
Seeking release from their eternal entrapment the souls called out to the living ones that came close enough to hear them. They called out for someone that could understand their pain and their longing for peace. Their lament had been attracting many a wanderer over the years, none of them capable to understand the cry for help, all of them perishing in the marshes, only to become part of the growing choir of calling voices that whispered and cried in the night.
Many years passed, the swamp received the bodies as they were brought to it, engulfing them without leaving any trace. The black waterstars blooming on the murky waters, feeding as always on the dead flesh of the ones thrown into the swamp. The pain and sorrow of the victims was mixed with the anger and thirst for vengeance of the victimizer, creating turmoil in the energies of the swamp. Even the air that hovered over the place was charged with a negative feeling. People that approached the swamp could almost feel as the ground and air vibrated with a heavy aura. And this made people shun the place even more. - Yet the beckoning voices that called at night continued, increasing in numbers and strength, luring people into the deep waters.
The child was running, barely avoiding to run into the many people that crowed the street. Behind her, like a pack of wild ly’caóns, was a group of children. Yelling out coarse and hard words at the fleeing girl. The road led to the town square, filled with people as it was market day, and the small fugitive managed to hide herself within the crowd and escape her pursuers, darting into a lonely and empty alley, leaving the rest of the children searching for her among the mass of people in the marketplace.
She ran until she reached a small and miserable looking cottage. Throwing herself against the closed door she forced it open and fell to her knees on the floor.
"Oh Seyella, Seyella! Why did you burden me so heavily?"
The girl curled up in a small ball on the floor, still crying.
In the darkness of the room something stirred. From under moldy bedcovers a dirty and unshaven face peered at the crying girl, trying desperately to focus on her before giving up and letting the eyes going crossed once more. A feeble hand grabbed the side of the bed and a body, trembling and flabby from many years of heavy drinking, pulled itself free from the covers. Swaying from side to side like a tree in storm, the heavy set man walked across the floor to where the weeping girl lay. Bowing down, almost loosing balance in the process, his shadow covered the crying child, as a stench of alcohol and dirty skin washed down over her. The girl immediately stopped crying and crawled to her feet, trying to wipe away the tears that were rolling down her cheeks.
"Father, you shouldn’t have gotten out of bed."
Her voice was soft as she spoke to the man. By the faint light coming from the door you could easily see the sickly yellow tint of the man’s skin. The white of his eyes also was colored yellow. Dark brown stains spotted the amber face, like rotten spots on an apple. The man, still swaying slightly, tried to speak to her. His voice was rough and coarse as he spoke, the words falling over each other, tumbling out of his mouth faster than his alcoholized brain could sort them out.
"Bu I eard me lyttle gulr cryin. Why ya cryin Ehlaina?"
Fumbling he reached for his pocket and withdrew a dirty handkerchief and tried clumsily to clean away her tears. The girl sidestepped the outstretched arm, avoiding the dirty rag to touch her face. This made the drunk man frown in anger. A large and callous hand was lifted and slammed against the side of her face. Ehlaina almost flew across the room before hitting the wall. Her eyes were shut against a new stream of tears that were stinging in her eyes. She must not cry, she must not anger him further, it would only get worse.
The man started walking towards the unmoving body of the child, his eyes still filled with anger.
"Little wench, you are nothing like your mother. She is..."
Suddenly he stopped talking and moving, as if a giant hand had grabbed him and stopped all life in his chest. A moment passed, two, and then his eyes were filled to the brim with tears.
"What am I doing? I promised Neecha to take care of you."
He started sobbing, deep and long sobs that made his shoulders shake, the whole man wobbling like a gelatin as he headed back to the bed, not without grabbing a bottle of leithe and drinking it to the last drop.
"Just a foolish old man. I am of no use. Why won’t Queprur just come and take me away with her?"
He continued crying and pitying himself under the foul smelling covers until he fell asleep. Only then Ehlaina dared to open her eyes and pick herself up from the ground, tears streaming without a sound from her eyes. She looked at the sleeping man and at the empty bottle of leithe. She sighed slightly as she realized he had just drunken it all, to the last drop. Now she would have to take another of their few possessions to the pawn shop and buy a new bottle of the beverage. If she failed to do so she knew another beating awaited her when her father awoke.
Ehlaina took a seat on a wooden box that was used as a chair and remembered times when things had not been so bad. Her father had loved her dearly, caring for her when she was but a babe. Never had she known her mother, she had been taken away by Queprur as she gave birth to her, leaving both babe and husband behind as she stepped into the realm of the dead.
Her father, she had been told, once had been one of the most handsom miners in the small town of Astran. When he returned from the mine, covered with the black coal dust, his eyes would shine like brown diamonds and his smile would seem like a string of pearls against the sooty skin. His muscles were hard and bulging after the labor in the mines, and his hips were slender and swaying like the long branches of the willow. People said that he had been desired by many a young maid but only one of them had managed to capture his heart.
Neecha was one of the many spinning maids of the city, always working close to the shearing house, where the sheep would enter, covered with warm wool and exit thin and shaven, with a look of confusion in their eyes. Neecha and her work companions would sit outside the house, spinning the thick wool into thread. Laughing and singing spinning songs, they let their agile fingers twine the thread while the spindle danced on the ground in front of them, bouncing off the rocks as it stretched out the wool and transformed it into yarn.
Day by day, the people said, Tenris would head off to the mines, passing by the place where the spinning maids sat, the spindle dancing at their feet and soft songs coming from their lips. Day by day Neecha would smile at the hansome miner, blushing as he returned her smile and winked at her.
People had told Ehlaina many times the tale of her parents. That they had been wed in the Month of the Dead Tree. Paying no heed to the warning words of the clerics, people should not wed in the month of the Bone Queen. But they were eager to start their lives as wedded folk and found a cleric willing to wed them despite the many warnings given to them by the townsfolk. And when Tenris knew that his beloved was expecting a child he could not have been happier nor prouder. So blind he was in his joy that he did not see his wife pine away as the pregnancy reached its end. Each day she seemed more translucent, more ethereal and absent.
The day of birth arrived and Tenris had called for the priestess of Jeyriall to receive the newborn. For the first time Tenris noticed how his wife was looking, hollow eyed and thin, except from the large bulge where the babe rested, waiting for its mother to bring it into light. Tenris was scared, as he had offended the Bone Queen by marrying his beloved in her time of the year. Falling to his knees he prayed to Seyella for the safety of both mother and child.
The procedure of birth started and the priestess almost had to chase Tenris out of the room where Neecha lay moaning in pain as her body tensed, trying to expel the new life from her womb. The moans turned to screams, the screams to shrieks. Tenris stood leaning against the door, crying helplessly as he heard the muttered prayers of the priestess and the painful laments of his wife. Then, all of a sudden, silence.
It was followed by a thin squeaking sound, like that of a kitten. Tenris couldn’t wait anymore and flung the door open. The priestess sat on the floor by the feet of his wife, carrying a bundle of white cloth from where the pitiful crying came from. The eyes of the woman were filled with fear, and as she handed the newborn babe to Tenris she made the sign of protection in front of her chest.
"It is a girl but... Darkwinds", she said. "She has been touched by the Darkwinds. You must take her away, far away from here. To the Silvermarches. And you must drown her, end her life there. If not thousand curses will fall upon us. Its the punishment of the Gods."
Tenris couldn’t understand what the old woman was saying, why would he drown his daughter, what was all this speak of the Darkwinds? Cautiously and carefully he looked down at the newborn. The babe cried gentöy as it squirmed in his grip. Slowly, almost fearfully, he undid the binds that held the white cloth together and uncovered his daughter. As the cloth fell away tears started to fall down his cheeks once more. For there, resting in his arms, lay his offspring, perfect in all aspects except for one thing. One of her arms was not more than a small stump, protruding from her shoulder, unlike the other that was waving around as the small babe protested against the cold air.
Tenris continued crying as he turned to look at Neecha. His wife was mortally pale, her eyes closed as if she was sleeping. Tenris touched the cheek of his beloved and her eyes fluttered open. It hurt his very soul as he showed the babe to her, yet there was only love in her eyes as she gingerly lifted a hand and slowly caressed the cheek of the newborn girl.
"Tenris... promise... you will care for her. She has... a.... mission."
Neecha had no more strength. Her eyes closed and her hand fell down, her breathing became shallow, and then stopped completely.
Blinded in tears Tenris covered the babe, looking down at his darling wife, claimed so harshly by Queprur, her features soft and at peace. He then had turned to the priestess, as if wanting an advice on what to do. The woman had walked toward him, her arms outstretched.
"I will take the child to the marshes, you may stay here and care for milady."
Tenris looked at her as if he had never seen her before, his arms holding the babe close to his chest, the newborn girl crying in protest of being squashed against him.
"No one shall touch her. She is not to be drowned in the marshes. Neecha wants me to care for her, for the little Ehlaina."
Listening to the protests from his daughter he loosened his grip.
"Find me a woman that can provide milk to my daughter. I don’t care if she is poor, just make sure she is healthy and clean."
The priestess seemed shocked, not only was he going against tradition and keeping an infant touched by the Darkwinds, he was defying Queprur once more, by taking from Her what was Hers. The priestess tried to protest but Tenris just scowled at her, making her take a step back. Such desperation was to read in his eyes, so much sorrow and regret that she had not the heart nor the courage to protest. Meekly bowing her head to his request she headed for the door, leaving the man alone with his dead wife and his newborn child.
Story written by Lucirina Telor Vevan