Chapter 13: Revelation
There was nothing: no world, no time and no senses. Just despair, a deep feeling of utter despair. A lonely consciousness drifting in a vast expanse of nothing, crying out its helplessness and agony in vain, for it had no voice. And even if it had, there would be nothing to carry the sound. And even if it were, no one and nothing would hear it. How much time had passed since he was drifting like that? What happened to the others? What happened to the world? Was it the end already? Was this how the end was like? The end of all things…
He felt another consciousness. And then he saw. He had no eyes, yet he saw a drop of golden light. He had no body, yet he felt warmth. He had no heart, yet he felt hope. And the black expanse of nothing brightened. Drops of golden light came into existence, scattered sparks of life converging to create distinct shapes. The world took form, but not the way he remembered it. It was supposed to be midnight, but this world was bright and all shapes were golden and distorted, all living things throbbing with light. It was as though he could see sidaar flowing through them like blood through veins. As though he were watching through someone else’s eyes? And he understood. He was awake and that was his world, but it was not him watching.
It did not matter, as long as he could see again. And he saw Val and his companions under the old oak, wrestling throbbing, distorted shapes. But he was moving away from them, rocking up and down. Someone was carrying him away. He blinked. It was a strong man, but he had no emotions.
They hid them, a voice whispered.
Of course! That was how they had tricked him. Them.
The man had thrown him over his shoulder, like a sack of potatoes, and was striding towards the forest. Kiran looked towards the camp, but the other consciousness turned his eyes downwards, as if searching for a way to escape. Ah, he was controlling his body. No matter, he had to free himself first. There, he thought, that knife on his belt. He reached under the man’s arm with his left hand, slowly, careful not to touch him, until he felt the bone handle against the open palm. In a swift move he pulled it free and drove the blade into the man’s side, close to the armpit, before the bastard even realized his load had come to his senses.
A loud cry of pain, the body shuddered and the man fell on all fours, dropping him on the ground. He spat a curse in a tongue all too familiar to Kiran. Snarling like a wounded animal, face contorted with rage and pain, he looked around in a daze, searching for his prey-turned-foe. When his eyes finally found Kiran standing just a few steps away, they focused on him with clarity and hatred. Another cry ripped his throat as he pulled the blade free. He slowly rose to his feet and, with a savage growl, he charged. Kiran stepped aside, avoiding the blow effortlessly. He pulled out his own knife and, with unnatural speed and nimbleness, he leaped behind the man, pulled his head back and slashed his throat, all in one, fluid move, like a dance. The man staggered forwards, choking with blood and gurgling horribly, then fell.
I’m sorry, whispered Kiran inside.
I’m sorry, echoed the other voice.
The choking ceased and the body went limp.
From the camp came sounds of fierce fighting. Val’s voice was desperately calling his name.
Oh, Fates, Val!
But he turned away from it and started towards the forest with long strides.
No, no! We must go back! We must help them! Kiran tried to command his own body, but it seemed he could not, unless he allowed him.
We must live, came the answer.
But they will die! cried Kiran.
Many die. Others are born. Sidaar will flow if we live. You and I must live. Cruel though it sounded, it was the truth. He, too, was in pain, as if his were a reflection of Kiran’s.
Please! How can I live if they die? pleaded Kiran. He was weeping, not just inside, but his eyes were tearing. His body still responded to his emotions, but not to his will. I need Val’s help to keep you safe. They were entering the forest. I will fight you if I have to, but I will not lose him, too!
He paused, pondering the choices.
We can save them, together, said Kiran, hopeful. And they will help us stay alive.
He felt Kiran’s love and torment, and the terrible fear of losing someone precious to him. He felt all that and more, and he relented.
They stormed back to the camp like a tempestuous wind, barely touching the ground. The cries and the clamour of blades had frightened the horses, who were trampling the grass and squealing, trying to free themselves from the tethers. Kiran saw Val’s glowing form stagger and fall. He screamed. And it came out. Loud, almost like a roar, deep and wild and wholly unknown to him. The sort of sound only an enraged beast could make. It frightened him, but the others froze in horror, friend and foe alike. Their distorted shapes, twisted and tense, throbbed with golden light, ever brighter as their emotions grew stronger.
They were staring at Kiran, transfixed. He may have looked the same as they knew him, but that voice was not his. There was fire burning in his golden eyes and he exuded a power so great, so unnatural, they felt it creeping on their skin, thick and oily, permeating their bodies, flowing through their limbs and drowning their hearts in both dread and wonder.
They fell to the knees near Val’s limp body. There was still breath in him. His golden light was weaker, but warm and throbbing. Inside, Kiran almost wept. Their eyes searched the camp, blazing with anger and pain. Another body lay tangled in the blankets—Ceri, gasped Kiran—and his light was also weak, but glowing, and yet another was spread in the grass, bloody and twisted. That one’s light had almost faded, cold and still. The others were staring at them in motionless stupor and only their brightness bespoke life.
The memory of their first meeting flared in Bran’s mind with vivid details and the sudden realization—the relief—he had not imagined, had not been mad all that time, was like a splash of cold water. It pulled him back to his senses before anyone else and he threw his stunned opponent to the ground.
They came alive all at once.
Cries and curses filled the glade anew, but now the terrified attackers seemed to have forgotten their purpose and were trying to escape. The fallen one had no time to recover, though. Bran plunged his blade in the man’s chest before he could push himself back to his feet. One attacker shoved past Bredan in blind panic, but lost his footing and tumbled. Bredan struck him hard in the back, then once more, for good measure. Another one hurled himself at a still distracted Bert and they fell together in an entanglement of shouts and limbs. He managed to stand up and take a few steps, only to find himself face to face with the beautiful daemon, staring in those ghastly, burning eyes. He shrieked and dropped his blade, and his neck snapped between Kiran’s hands like a dry twig.
In a matter of moments all was silent again.
That thing was staring at them, unmoving, and they were breathing heavily, their chests and shoulders heaving, their hearts thundering in their ears, waiting for it to fall upon them. Instead, it rushed back to Val’s side, gently turning him face up and brushing his temple with trembling fingers. The power that was so overwhelming just moments ago was turning into a warm, gentle heartbeat, and the golden eyes were filled with tears.
Thank you, whispered Kiran. He did not answer, but Kiran felt a great fondness and something akin to a smile before the other consciousness drifted into sleep, releasing the hold on his body. The golden shapes faded and the world came back to what he knew: a night with waning moons and a glade with an old oak in the middle. Val moved his hand, then moaned and opened his eyes.
“Bless me!” said Kiran, laughing through the tears. “You’re growing slow, old man.”
“Drest was right, I should have done something about that mouth,” rasped Val. And he smiled.
The glade was the same as before. Only the wind had softened, but the moons-light was just as weak and the forest noises just as unnerving in the quietness of the night. But the violent encounter had dulled their senses and, strange though it seemed, they now found the quietness comforting.
They were all in one piece, thank goodness. Both Val and Ceri were back on their feet, although Ceri was a little confused. He had been knocked unconscious and appeared to have some injured ribs. One of the attackers had jumped on him from the oak, where two of them had been lying in wait for Fates knew how long. How they had managed to come so close and climb the tree without their notice they could not understand, but it proved those had not been mere robbers. To his son’s relief, Val had no serious injuries. He had simply fainted from a blow in the chest, which had wrung the air out of his lungs. Bredan’s head was throbbing with pain and Bert had a slash on his left arm, which, according to Val, was not exceptionally deep and would heal completely before he was ready for marriage. Other than that and a whole lot of bruises, they were fine. Things could have gone much worse.
Kiran was unscathed, however, for reasons easy to understand, he let his father see to their wounds.
They cleaned the camp in silence. The horses had calmed down, Kiran had lent a hand with that. One had managed to break free and he found him at the northern edge of the glade. The fire pit had crumbled during the fight, but they rebuilt it and Bredan succeeded in rekindling the fire, using the hot coals still smouldering on their burnt bed. Then they moved the dead bodies away from the camp, after reluctantly searching them for anything useful, lining them on the grass close to where lay Kiran’s first kill. Because they were all tired and shaken from the event, and even more so by the extraordinary transformation they had witnessed in him—none of them would meet his eyes or speak to him yet, but he could not resent them for that—he went by himself in the forest to look for the other horses, the ones left by their attackers. He found them less than half an hour away from the camp, tethered to the trees and rather nervous. They were hungry, so he brought them to the second puddle, then let them graze a little further from their own.
They searched the travel packs and found food and water, dry blankets, coin, knives, tinder, a map and other sundries, but no information as to who those people were or why they were following them. Or, indeed, why had Kiran not been able to sense them.
He found the answer himself, when he searched the bodies again. Hanging around one of the dead men’s neck was a soft leather pouch, half the size of his palm. It had escaped his notice during the fight, but now he felt something about it. He opened the pouch to find a few dry, purple leaves. Odari. I should have known it! Of course he should have, the presence of feya was the only possible explanation.
Of all feya, odari were the ones feeding on emotions. They could take several shapes, but most seemed to favour attaching themselves to various trees. For reasons unknown, when dried their original colour turned into a light purple shade. They were helpful in treating melancholy and depression in people—or any emotional condition in any creature, for that matter—but one had to use them with care, because they could leave a person emotionless if kept close to the heart, for as long as they were borne. And were just as potent dried as they were fresh, for drying did not affect the feya. Strange, though, that they could not suppress the horror his transformation had aroused, or the anger of the man he had wounded.
He sighed. They were fortunate only the men had carried odari on them, otherwise he would never had been alerted to their presence. But that showed they had been prepared to look for him better than he had expected. They had known about his senses and had tricked him. What they had not known was what happened once he was in danger. That had been his saving grace.
“Those men were no highway robbers,” broke the silence Bredan. His tone was uncommonly hostile. His eyes fixed on Kiran, cold as the stone whose colour they resembled. Resentful. “Do you mind explaining?”
They were sitting around the fire wrapped in their cloaks, watching the flames with hollow eyes. Despite the weariness they could not sleep. Not even lay on the blankets—that place, at the roots of the old oak, suddenly repelled them.
Val was sitting to Kiran’s left. To his right, just a little further, was Bran. The captain had seated himself so to put some distance between Kiran and his men. Not for Kiran’s sake, for theirs. Because they feared him, Bredan and Bert, and even him, despite having had a taste of that horror before. It was impossible not to, after feeling that tremendous power. At least Ceri had been spared the shock, he had missed most of the confrontation. As for the doctor, Bran had no doubt he had known about that all along. One thing was clear, though: Kiran, or whoever that was, had no intention to harm them, for if he had, they would not be resting around the fire.
Bredan’s dry question raised all the eyes. Bert and Ceri, in particular, had never seen that side of him. His eyes were darker in the shadow of the lowered brows—not their colour, their emotion—and no trace of his usual smile seamed that hard face.
Kiran met him with resolution. “No, they were not robbers. They were looking for me.”
“That I know, I was with you when they hit us.” A blow behind the head had meant to render him unconscious long enough for those men to grab the object of their interest and flee, but had failed. He had raised the alarm and had forced them to fight. “It’s the reason I’m interested in.”
“Whatever their reason, Kiran is not responsible for it,” said Val in a firm tone, before his son could even answer.
Dear Val, he would have fought anyone to protect him and his secret. And did he suddenly look taller?
“I beg to differ,” Bran said coldly. “He was the only one who knew we were being followed.”
“Who realized that, yes, and he alerted you. Am I mistaken when I say you doubted him?”
He was not. Bran had acted upon Kiran’s warning because he had had no arguments to exclude the possibility and because it had required no changes in the plan. His goal had been to reach that glade before nightfall. As to the manner in which Kiran had acquired that knowledge, he had been rather sceptical about it. What rational mind would be otherwise?
And Bredan? That conversation by the fire, just before the attack, that was his usual way of making people speak, spill out their secrets. Persuading them with his affable manner and an appearance of acceptance, which made the others feel at ease with him. After all, loosening tongues was his talent and Kiran was intriguing him. But he had been convinced the truth was more ordinary than it seemed.
Ceri and Bert had been more concerned with the forest itself.
“My son is not to blame for what happened. None of us is.” He would not admit any objections.
“Val.” Kiran placed his hand gently on his father’s knee. “They have seen him.”
“I know they have,” said Val softer, sinking. He had not, although he wished he had. Oh, how he wished it! But that had been precisely the kind of event which would draw him out, the kind of event they had always tried to avoid. There was so much sadness in those sagging shoulders, so much regret in his countenance. He shook his head in helplessness. “This should not have happened. I should have thought better before leaving.”
“Seen whom?” asked Ceri, confused. No one answered him. He turned to Bert and the motion made him groan with pain. “Hey, seen whom?”
“You don’t want to know,” muttered Bert, without looking at him.
“You could not prevent it. They tricked me, Val, they had odari. Otherwise I would have known.”
Bran cleared his throat. “I believe we deserve some explanations,” he said, softening his attitude just a little. Laying blames and venting their anger would lead them nowhere. And, now that his most haunting question had finally received an answer—albeit one that exceeded his expectations—and his men were safe, he was willing to set aside his prejudices and listen.
Val sighed, long and weary, squeezing the lean hand resting on his knee. Then he straightened his back again. “The cat’s finally out of the bag. It was bound to happen.”
Kiran tried to smile for him, though he only managed a tiny stretch of lips which looked more sad than encouraging. He took a slow breath and turned to their companions, meeting their accusing eyes with adequate composure.
“Have you ever heard about Eina?”
Kiri nocked an arrow to his bow. He gripped the bow, lifted his arms and drew the string until his hand touched his right cheek, just above the chin.
“Elbows straight,” whispered Keryon. “Good. Now aim.” Kiri’s bow shifted a little. “Do you see him?”
Kiri nodded slowly. He could see the large bird along the arrow shaft, perched on that boulder about eighty feet from them, grooming its feathers unaware of the danger. He had emptied his mind and had closed his heart, so his target would not sense him. He held his breath.
“Release!” came the whispered command.
The string snapped with a whizz and the arrow sprung forwards. The bird startled and gave a short cry, before falling to the ground. Kiri lowered his bow slowly and breathed out. His chin began to tremble.
“I’m sorry,” he whimpered, blinking repeatedly because the tears were welling up in his eyes, uncontrollable. A wave of emotions flooded him and now his heart was aching.
“May the blessed Sireei embrace you in Edesil. May you become sidaar, nourish and fortify him, to protect our worlds. We humbly thank you for your sacrifice,” recited Keryon in a low voice. He turned to his child with a compassionate look. “Your first kill. You did very well.”
“My… k-kill,” stuttered Kiri, dropping the bow. His body began to shake with sobs. “I didn’t want to kill him. I’m so sorry!”
“I know. But it is something you must learn.”—Kiri nodded, still sobbing—“They feel neither pain, nor fear if we strike properly. It’s important to be prepared, to have a good aim and a steady hand, otherwise you will make them suffer needlessly. Or anger them, and then you will become the prey. So never strike unless you are resolved to kill. And never forget to thank them for the sacrifice.” He brushed the child’s hair. “In time it will be easier… Come, let’s pick him up.”
Kiri sniffled and wiped his tears. His breath was still uneven and his limbs were quivering, although he was making efforts to hold back his emotions. Nobody was forcing him to do this, but every Eina, be it man or woman, knew how to hunt and shoot the bow with remarkable precision. Archery was an age-old tradition: not just a means of defence or feeding, but an exercise meant to strengthen their body and mind, improve their attention, self-control and coordination. Nowhere in the world could one find a more graceful or skilled archer than an Eina. They started training as early as yanee, first by learning posture and proper use of the bow, then by shooting at special targets made of wood and, roughly around the age of Becoming, they went hunting for the first time. Kiri had just turned fourteen and, although they could have waited a year or two, his father thought he was ready for it. The child had been excited and unaware of the ways in which his first kill might affect him. Keryon had known, because it happened to everyone, but he was confident Kiri would overcome it. It was all part of growing up.
The bird was still, its wings slightly spread. The arrow had pierced its heart, killing it instantly, the blunt, bloody tip jutting out from the back. Kiri felt a pang of pain in his own chest. A new wave of tears was threatening to blurry his vision and he fought them back. He had gone hunting with his father before, but it turned out to be very different when he was the one taking the life.
“It’s all right to cry,” said Keryon, pulling the arrow free. The body was warm, but the wound did not bleed too much.
Kiri did not touch it, he could not. He turned his head, struggling not to cry and wondering whether he would be able to eat the meal his grandmother was going to cook with that bird.
“Enough hunting for today, let’s go back.”
On their way back they made a stop in a clearing, because Keryon wanted some wood for new arrows. To keep his mind away from the dead bird lying in the middle of the path, Kiri passed his time playing, chasing butterflies or looking for feya, while his father was searching for suitable shoots, not too far from the edge of the glade.
It was a splendid spring day, with clear sky and warm, bright sun. The leaf canopy was still young and it had that extraordinary shade of green that had come to make Kiri’s mouth water, because watching the goats relish the tender leaves had always made him hungry. So hungry, in fact, he had tried chewing some himself, though he had found the taste bland. But that colour still looked appetizing. Beneath the canopy, the forest floor was carpeted with bluebells and ramsons in full bloom. There was a sweet scent in the air and the violet-blue glade buzzed with bees, bumblebees and colourful butterflies, lifting Kiri’s spirits. He frolicked about the place, trying to step so he would not crush the delicate flowers, crouching to smell them or watch the insects feed.
There were no feya, none that he would recognize, anyway, but he saw a couple of squirrels crossing the glade and hiding in a tall, nearby shrub. He followed them excited, searching through the thorny branches and clusters of tiny, white flowers. The squirrels were gone, but something else caught his eye: hidden in the entanglement of shoots was a nest with a few eggs inside, though no bird. They were so small and beautiful, a pale green-blue with dark specks, like some stones he had once seen in Maelifeld. One egg was broken and something had come out of it, though he could not tell whether it was alive or not. He pushed aside the branches and tried to reach it. The sleeves caught on the sharp thorns, baring the skin, so scratching his arms was all he accomplished, but he was not one to give up so easily. After struggling some more, he managed to push his way through, in a rain of white petals.
Whatever had hatched from that egg was not a chick. He knew how a hatchling looked like, naked, almost translucent, blind and utterly helpless. This one, however, had no head, no legs and no wings. It was just a lump of… something, very soft, covered with a smooth, pink skin. How had it managed to crack the shell without a beak? Perhaps it was the mother bird who had helped, but then it was strange that she had not thrown it out of the nest.
Out of compassion he brushed the poor thing with his fingertip, without thinking. It was warm and it twitched under his touch, and Kiri almost cried with fright. He did not expect it to be alive. Instinct told him to leave it alone, but curiosity was much stronger and he touched it again. A heartbeat reverberated through his finger and up his arm, all the way to his heart, shattering against his own, startling him. He touched again. Another heartbeat, then another, and another… until they matched his own and he felt his whole body drumming with the throbs of two hearts beating in unison. It was both wonderful and frightening, he had never felt that sort of connection with any creature before.
As gently as he could, he pushed his fingers underneath the soft body and scooped it out of the nest, cupping his other hand protectively atop. Without anything to hold them, the branches sprung back, grazing his skin. The little treasure hidden in his palms, however, was safe. Had he been there his father would have scolded him for what he did, and for good reason. Not only he could harm that fragile body, but touching a hatchling could induce the mother bird to remove it from the nest herself. But it’s not a chick, Kiri justified in his mind, she will throw it out anyway. No, not a chick. What lay in his palm was something far stranger and the only thing that came to his mind was… an egg yolk… of sorts.
And then it happened: a surge of feelings flooded him, so strong and sudden that his heart almost broke and he staggered, nearly dropping the thing. Fear and relief, loneliness and friendship, strangeness and familiarity, helplessness and strength, and above all, a strong desire to live. Whatever it was, that creature was calling to his mind, to his heart, asking for help, wanting to live. The moment Kiri understood what he should do it changed before his eyes, turning slick like a true egg yolk and glowing from within, like the lanterns in their home, only weaker. Without a second thought the child sucked and swallowed it, in the same way he ate the raw eggs. And it felt just the same, sliding down his throat, smooth and slippery, only warmer and tasteless.
He looked at his hands in a daze, staring at the wet trace on his palm, trying to understand what he had done. What was that? Why did he eat it?
Because I told you to.
Kiri jumped. “Who said that? Danaa?” He heard his father’s knife cutting shoots.
Who is danaa?
“Who is—who are you?” He was alone in the glade. Where did that voice come from? “Where are you?”
Kiri looked down, touching his stomach, his belly, his sides. “In-inside me?” He looked at his palms again and his legs folded, sending him down on the grass. That… that thing I ate!
You did not eat me, said the voice, loud and clear. You took me in. And saved my life.
“How did you—”
I’m inside. I hear your thoughts. I hear your heart.
Instinctively, Kiri clutched at his chest.
I shall not hurt you.
What do you want?
To rest. And live. Grow.
Grow? Inside me? He panicked.
“No!” he squeaked. “I don’t want that. I thought you were dying. Please, get out!”
“Kiri? Did you say something?” His father’s voice jolted him and he covered his mouth.
I would have died. You saved me. I was waiting for you.
Waiting? What did it mean by that? Kiri felt warmth inside his chest, around the heart, as if something were nested there. Throbbing, warmer, warmer. Daylight grew brighter. The vibrant colours disappeared and the whole world turned to gold: the sky, the forest, the bluebells, the butterflies. All shapes looked distorted somehow, glowing with a golden, pulsing light that matched the rhythm of his own heart.
“What’s happening? What are you doing?”
I am using your eyes. It is how I see.
“No! Give them back!” He covered his eyes with the hands. They were glowing golden. “Why are you doing this?” he whimpered, squeezing his eyes tighter.
Why are you afraid? You were not afraid when you found me.
“I thought you were a… d-dead hatchling.”
I was… almost…
The voice was drifting away.
Inside me! “Wait, don’t go!”
I am tired. Coming into the world is so difficult…
“Coming into—” Kiri sniffled. “What do you mean, coming into the world?”
“No, wait! Talk to me! … Hey!”
The golden glow faded, until Kiri saw nothing. Hesitating, he lowered his hands and opened his eyes. The sun was shining upon the violet-blue glade and the young canopy had that extraordinary shade of green, which made his mouth water.
Is it gone? “Hey! Are you still there?”
No one answered him, but he waited. He closed his eyes and listened. His father was still working. There were birds in the trees and the air was buzzing with insects. Inside, though, he only heard his own thoughts. Tears welled up in his eyes again and he sank in the grass, trembling. And whether because the sun felt so pleasant on his face, or because the sweet smell of flowers and the low hum were so comforting, he suddenly felt terribly sleepy. Why so suddenly, he wondered. Orife?
“Kiri, let’s go home!” his father called him.
“Who were you talking to? … Kiri?”
The world disappeared.
“Something is not right,” said Arryn. There was a restlessness in her heart she had not managed to subdue. “He is not sick, why is he still sleeping?”
“We cope with our first kill in strange, unexpected ways,” said Talian.
“I was weak and queasy for two days,” Keryon tried to reassure her. Himself, too, although he was putting up a front, for her sake.
“You were,” confirmed his father. “And you refused to eat meat for a while. Do not worry, my dear, Kiri will overcome it.”
Arryn shook her head. “I cannot help feeling something is different.” Her husband squeezed her arm gently.
They were sitting in the main room, with their usual steaming cups of tea. The evening was cool and a small fire was burning in the hearth. Through the opening in the roof poured in damp, mossy scents, blending with the smell of burning wood and the sweet, slightly minty fragrances rising from the lanterns. The last traces of twilight were fading.
Yunal returned from Kiri’s room. There was a strange look in her eyes.
“Still sleeping?” asked Arryn.
“Soundly.” The elder woman sat on a cushion, near her husband. “And I might have found the reason.”
Arryn put the cup down and drew closer, followed by Keryon.
“He is not sick, is he?”
“I don’t think so, my dear. And I’m not entirely sure of what I sensed, either.”
“But… none of us sensed anything wrong.”
“Not wrong, foreign.” Yunal sipped from the calming tea. “I, too, thought his sleep was strange, very much like the orife sleep. So I reached to his heart.”
“It’s peaceful. I sensed no distress.” Given the circumstances, it was rather confounding.
“Yes. Peaceful and strong.”
“Kiri is a strong child,” said Keryon with pride.
“Almost as if he had two hearts,” added his mother.
“For a brief moment, I sensed two heartbeats. Nearly synchronous, but not perfectly so, as if one of them had slipped out of rhythm.”—Talian’s cup paused on its way to his lips—“It happened twice… Now, I cannot be absolutely certain there is something inside him, but if it were, it would explain his sleep.”
Keryon frowned. “Inside him? A parasite?”
“What if it hurts him?” Arryn’s voice broke.
“I sensed no danger or malice. My dear, if we didn’t notice before, it would be because they beat at the same time. Together, in almost perfect unison. That would not happen if it wanted to harm him.”
“I cannot think of anything that we would not be able to find,” objected her son.
“There is… one thing that comes to mind,” said Talian, who had been quiet for some time—and there was something concerning in the slow, careful way he spoke. “It bears a resemblance to your description, although… it would be very unusual—” He met their anxious eyes and paused, then shook his head. “No, it cannot be, Kiri is too young.”
“What is that?”
Talian hesitated. “Vhareei.”
“What? No! Impossible!” They all voiced their incredulity at the same time.
“Manee!” Kiri’s quavery voice interrupted them. None had heard him coming. He was standing in the opening that led to his room and his burning, golden eyes were wide with fear. “What’s happening to me?”
“Reei ay tualain,” blurted Talian, nearly dropping his teacup.
“King’s Host,” said Yunal, paling.
Her children almost fainted.
In a matter of days the whole Enma tribe knew. Not just their village, but the other ones spread along the southern borders of the Eina forests. They sent people to take the news to other tribes and, in a few weeks, every Eina, from the south to the farthest depths of the forest, in the north, knew the new king of Edesil was born. Elders from all tribes came to see the Host. It was the rarest, most important event in their culture, and not just for their kin. The future, the very existence of both worlds depended on the safe growth of the Vhareei in their world. It was the duty of their race to protect him.
Kiri was just a child, though, and the whole matter was distressing. The thought of living his life with a strange creature inside his body alarmed him. It was a privilege, everyone told him, but he could not see it that way. The lore said many things about Hosting, but in truth nobody could tell what it was like, what he should expect, how it would affect his life—his everyday life—and growth, because nobody knew. Such details were missing from the old stories and, since it only happened once every two thousand or more years, there was no living Eina who had met the previous Host, nor any records about their lives, for it was not in the customs of Eina to preserve their knowledge in writing.
The first weeks after that fateful encounter had been very difficult. Kiri had often fallen asleep at the most unusual hours, only to wake up to a glowing, distorted world that was foreign to him and frightening because of it. His own vision returned to him after a while, but not before he cried and pleaded for it. He even begged the Vhareei to choose another person, when he was awake and alone in his room, although he had been told that was not possible and he knew, he could feel the king was kind and would not harm him. What had happened during those weeks was, in fact, the attuning of the Vhareei with his host—the bonding. Kiyun. But, of course, Kiri was just a child and he could not understand that.
The Vhareei only spoke again once, after that he remained silent. Only much later Kiri understood it was not an act of stubbornness. The king himself was a newborn, a child, still weak and weakened even further by the effort to bond. He needed to rest and to learn before he could understand his host’s distress.
After completing the bond, he had entered a dormant state, retreating into the farthest corners of Kiri’s consciousness. Or heart? He could not say. But the world did not turn strange to his eyes anymore and Kiri felt himself again, his body his own, as it ought to be. He felt free, though he knew he was not, but he was finally able to go out without fear, play with his friends, wander the forest with his family, live as he used to. And, as time passed, he often found himself forgetting about the little creature hidden inside.
“It is a marvellous thing Vhareei was born. We are blessed, for the birth of the new king is a sign that Madara is not disturbed,” said Muun, pleased. He was the eldest of the Enma tribe, three-and-two-hundred years old, and the most knowledgeable among them. “Perhaps you did not expect it—no one did—but the time is right, according to the lore.”
“So the other elders said, Eli-Muun,” agreed Talian. “But we cannot help thinking this is strange.”
“The lore says Hosting is, in some ways, akin to pregnancy. So far all Hosts have been women, unless we misunderstood. Kiyun has happened after Berethis. But my grandchild is a yanee, his Ritual is not until next year. It is not decided, yet, whether he will be a boy or a girl.”
Muun twisted the cup in his hands, brushing the smooth surface with knotty fingers. His hands looked as if the years had sucked out all moisture from them, leaving the soft, wrinkled skin to slide over the back of the hands and the swelled veins like a pair of very thin gloves. His creased, weathered face had not entirely lost the Eina beauty and his eyes were clear, spirited and wise. He dressed no differently than younger men—he was old, not crippled—and wore his white hair braided in a thick plait that fell all the way to his waist.
“Indeed,” he said, raising his gaze from the cup, “it is unusual. But since it happened, I can only assume the choice has already been made. Kiri shall be a girl, or else this will be the most extraordinary occurrence in our known history, and I know not whether that is a good or a bad sign.”
Kiri’s family exchanged gloomy looks. They were all there, his parents and grandparents, gathered in the main room to take counsel with Muun. He had been among the first to arrive from the other villages to confirm the event and had been taken in by one of the families. There was no doubt in his heart that Kiri was the King’s Host, so the others he had come with had been sent to spread the news. He had stayed behind because his knowledge was valuable and much needed at a time like that.
“Now, now, do not be so gloomy! Fa-Talian, you ought to know it is not advisable to jump to conclusions without considering all the possibilities.”
“My knowledge does not come close to yours, Eli-Muun, but as far as I know there have been no yanee Hosts before.”
“As far as we all know. Precisely! And how much do we know? This is such a rare event that perhaps long ago, long before our memory of it, it happened. We know not how old our worlds are. Or how Vhareei comes to this world, or when. Perhaps he is not always close to his chosen Host and it takes him time to find her. How can we tell? The lore says nothing about that. The way I see it, the circumstances have been favourable and the king has found his Host sooner than he hoped. Next year your grandchild will have his Ritual and all will be well.”
“So you think Kiri will be a girl?” asked Arryn.
“Most likely. But do not tell him that. A yanee must not know such things beforehand.”
It was only four months to Kiri’s Becoming when they learned young King Arne was looking for him, less than a year after coronation. He personally paid them a visit, escorted by a small number of guards and a few of his closest entourage. More guards were left to wait for him in Maelifeld, where he resided the entire length of his stay. The tribe had not seen a royal member since the defunct King Frode was fairly young. The purpose of the visit, His Majesty said, was to greet his best neighbours—not subjects, no, for their belonging to Astur was not officially stated or agreed upon—and reinforce his ancestors’ promise of peace and friendship, now that he had taken his father’s place. Though he would not deny he was very curious to meet the Eina himself, claiming he had always been interested in their remarkable race.
Soon it became apparent that their way of life was not the only subject he had taken an interest in. He wanted to hear about their bond with creatures and their beliefs, and how much of it contributed to their healing skills.
Speaking of beliefs, there was this very old book about Eina he had discovered in the palace library when he was younger, which alluded to the existence of another world, a World of Light, although without much detail. What was that? A realm where their souls resided before and after the death of their bodies? The home of the divine beings his people believed in? He did not really believe in things he could not see, not without solid proof, he confessed, but from an intellectual point of view it was an intriguing idea. After all, the existence of yanee was unthinkable, yet there they were! And the Eina’s sense of the living world was absolutely fascinating. Had anyone ever seen the World of Light? The book implied, if he remembered correctly, that a few times Eina had been possessed by entities from that world. Was that true? What had happened to them?
His Majesty asked all that among many other, far more worldly questions, with the perfect attitude of an inquisitive scholar. During his visits he was all politeness and benevolence. But that was just an act. The sudden interest in their tribes and the incidental allusions to The World of Light and to possession were odd. More important, there was no real emotion behind those perfect manners, as if he had prepared for that meeting long ago, training his self-control. Not even Eina could see very well in the heart of someone who knew how to hide, but that was precisely why they suspected danger behind his professions. Why else would a good, honest man make every effort to hide his feelings, if not because his thoughts and words were dissimilar?
Nevertheless, they answered him truthfully. For, on one hand, mendacity was against their nature and, on the other, they knew not how much the king actually knew. Omission though, when truth could place them in peril, was acceptable, at least since Astur’s attempt to conquer them. So they told him what the lore said, insisting upon the great disaster the whole world would face, should anything happen to that entity from Edesil. They told him only women have been hosts, or possessed, however nothing was said about the Vhareei being born, nor did His Majesty ask about it, for it would have made his intentions obvious.
At the end of his visit, after expressing his pleasure and gratitude for the hospitality, he promised to return after Kiri—such an adorable, clever child, he could not even tell he was a yanee—would have had his Ritual, because he was very curious to see how that Second Birth transformed him.
Everyone suspected that King Arne’s visit had been prompted by an incident which had happened about two months before it, in Maelifeld. In an unfortunate train of events Kiri had been close to losing his life. Of those who had witnessed it there were a few who claimed he had been possessed, for what else could explain his eyes bursting on fire and the horror they had inspired? And how else could he have ended up with nothing more than a few bruises? But most had seen nothing of the sort and were dismissing those claims as nonsense, declaring that it was just a case of ridiculous luck.
Had the Eina known the Vhareei resurfaces when his host was in danger, they would have been more careful, but that was another detail missing from the lore. It only said he protected the Host, but not how. Unfortunately, despite the fact nobody believed the strange claims, the incident had somehow reached higher ears in Vres. And now the king had taken an interest and had promised to return after Becoming. Whatever his intentions, the Host was not safe.
There was a council that reunited elders from many tribes and, after debating for over a week, they came to a consensus: Reei ay tualain had to disappear.