“I dreamed I was old,” Kyrilee murmured as she awoke, still half in those dreams even as she spoke. The room was dark, and she could barely make out the blurry forms of people clustered around her bedside.
“She’s awake!” Someone exclaimed, and quickly leapt up to light the lamp on the bedside table.
The soft yellow glow of the lamp beside her bed illuminated the faces of those that surrounded her. There were many, and she did not recognise any of them--she could not place a name to anyone. She blinked and rubbed sleep from her eyes, and her sight slowly cleared. They were concerned--no, not merely concerned. They looked worried and deathly afraid. What were they afraid of?
Before she could ask, one of the women stepped forward and placed her hand on Kyrilee’s forehead. It was cool, and comforting. “Do you remember your dreams?” she asked.
“I…” she sat up and cleared her throat. Her head spun, but she felt the urge to tell them. It burned inside her. “I was with child…”
An ancient place. A place of woodlands and roaming herds of beasts untouched by man, of tribes living in peace with nature, but at war with each other. A place of beauty and wild turmoil.
Sunlight filtered through the pale green leaves, infusing the deep forest with a semblance of light, scattered like droplets of rain. What little of it reached the forest floor was pale green, and lit her steps as Kyrilee followed the narrow, winding path. She was glad of it; she would not want to try this journey at night, for as difficult as the path was to see now--overgrown and narrow--the forest itself held darker dangers, especially once the sun had set.
Even now, despite the light keeping the creatures at bay, she could see glimmers of eyes watching her through the brush. The animals dared not approach, but they watched and waited. If she did not return home by sunset…Kyrilee shuddered. She should not think of that.
She turned her thoughts from the sense of danger, and narrowed her eyes, peering through the dense brush before her. She should be close to the altar now. Yes, there it was; the white stones, visible through the branches, told her that she had arrived.
Relief flooded her. “It won’t be long now,” she whispered to herself as she caressed her belly. Soon, very soon she would meet the child within.
“You were with child?” One of the women blurted in shock, breaking Kyrilee from her reverie.
“Yes,” Kyrilee acknowledged, confused. “Why is that so strange?” She hadn’t even come to the strange part, she thought.
“I…We cannot bear children,” the woman explained. Her brow furrowed. “You know this. We all do.”
“Well,” she shrugged, “I don’t know about that. All I recall is that I was with child, and it felt so real.”
She closed her eyes as she sat on the bed again, and she remembered the time before her first vision; the time before her journey into the forest.
She was young; she recalled her age as being somewhere in her early to mid-twenties. She had not yet left the tent of her father and gone to her husband--she did not even have a suitor. It was late for those of the tribe, who tended to marry and start families of their own much before this age, but she’d always been a loner.
It was a disappointment to her family, but Kyrilee recalled with fondness her adventures traipsing through the woodlands of the tribal camp as a child, and clambering up the rocky cliff-face that bordered the sea on one side of their encampment, much to the worry and fear of her mother.
Those times of wanton abandon were gone, but she had not yet completely grown up. Until now. She still explored and wandered, for the silence--but for the chirping of the birds and noises of the wildlife in the underbrush--and the solitude of the forest calmed her. Kyrilee wouldn’t leave it for the bustle and conversation of the tribe’s fire, much preferring her own company instead; especially since she now received judging glances as her body showed the evidence of her supposed dalliances.
To be such was a deep shame, with child and unmarried, but she had not done what all had assumed. She didn’t know how or why she was pregnant, only that her nightmares every night had started since her belly had begun to grow; nightmares of being taken, of strange creatures, and even that the baby she carried was such a creature.
It was impossible, and none would believe her, so Kyrilee simply avoided it. She could not argue; there would be no use to it. She could say she’d never slept with a man--and she hadn’t--but no one would believe that. So she stayed, as far away as she could, and only came back to camp at night, when the woods were no longer safe and she had no further excuse for her absence. Her mother accepted this without comment, for Kyrilee would often bring back small game or firewood she’d collected on the way, and thus was being somewhat useful. And her father…well, her father didn’t know. She was not a son, nor even the eldest of his daughters. He was gone on hunting trips and battles with the other tribes too often to notice much of the goings on of his children.
It was on such a trip that he was gone now. A tribe in the valley nearby had dared to encroach upon his land in the forest, and her father had taken his son and some of his warriors to teach them a lesson. They’d been gone for close to three months, and were due back any day. She hoped her child would come prior to her father’s arrival, that she might give it to the nursery to be taken care of, and no one would need worry further. They wouldn’t question her.
But her father had come home first.
“What happened next?” one of the women leant forward, eyes eager for more.
Another woman, this one more regal than the others, held up a hand, “I think that’s enough for now.” She patted Kyrilee’s shoulder. “She needs rest.”
Kyrilee choked out a laugh. “I just woke up, after I don’t know how long. I am over-rested.”
“Regardless,” the regal woman said, “let’s leave her in peace, shall we?”
After a glance at their leader, the women filed out of the room, protests silenced. Kyrilee saw how deferential they acted toward that one woman. She seemed not only their elected leader, but their master, despite the fact half the women were servants and half normal city citizens. They all acted subservient. Kyrilee didn’t dare ask her why, though.
Marissa, as she introduced herself, walked to stand beside Kyrilee’s bed. “Sorry if you wished to share more, but they also have duties. And you do need to rest.” Her stern face softened slightly, for the first time. “You may have been sleeping, but it was not a sleep of rest; it was a coma. You are ill.”
“I suppose,” Kyrilee murmured, and mustered up a smile. Satisfied, Marissa nodded sharply to herself and left the room.
Kyrilee was alone, but only for a minute before a soft knock sounded at the door. It was another woman--the one who had been so eager, so questioning. From their interactions, Kyrilee assumed this one was also a leader amongst her people, but below Marissa.
“I’m Vi,” she said quietly, smiling. “I know you still have questions,” she sat beside her, taking Kyrilee’s hand in her own, “Questions that Marissa won’t answer--and if she doesn’t, none of the others will dare either.”
Kyrilee grinned at the truth of it, “Yes.”
“I can’t answer everything,” said Vi, smiling back apologetically, “but I can tell you this. Don’t ask any more of Marissa; don’t question her. The time will come when you tell the rest of your story, when you are allowed to leave this sickroom and see the rest of my city. It won’t be long.”
“Am I to just lie here for days until then?”
Vi shrugged, “Well, yes. Please.”
“I…” Vi dropped her eyes, her voice hesitant. “I can’t answer that yet. There’s a lot going on here, a lot of politics you’ve rather been dropped in the middle of, and for that, I’m sorry. I’m doing my best for you.”
“What are you doing for me?” Kyrilee snapped, more angrily than she intended. She bit her lip, about to apologise, but Vi interrupted.
“No, I know you can’t see it,” she replied understandingly, “But I am vouching for you; that you are well and safe and should be accepted here with trust.”
Kyrilee hadn’t been aware there was any other option. Some thought she was sick or dangerous? Well, Kyrilee admitted to herself, it was perfectly reasonable. It still stung. She said as much to Vi, and the woman dropped her gaze again.
“Yes, you are correct. Do you understand why you need to do as I say, now?”
“Yes…” Kyrilee agreed reluctantly. “I will, for now. Just as long as it means I can get out of this damn bed soon!”
“I’ll definitely see what I can do,” Vi nodded kindly. “Thank you for understanding.”
The door to the main hall swung open slowly, the rusted steel hinges creaking under the weight of the oak panels. Oak that this side of the world hadn’t seen for hundreds of years. It was lovingly polished to a glistening sheen, with elaborate carvings and gold leaf decorating the edges.
Vi stepped through, nodding her thanks to the two servants who had heaved the doors open for her, their faces red from effort. As she walked down the long, carpeted hall, she passed the rows of tables and chairs where the women of the city dined. The huge furnace to her left, almost always cold, now held a few glowing red coals. The hour of night was coming after all, and the desert became chillingly cold during that hour; a cold that lasted most of the morning after.
“What is it?” Marissa sat in the throne chair at the end of the hall and had been watching Vi as she slowly approached.
Vi knelt before her leader before speaking. “I wish to speak of our new visitor, Kyrilee.”
Marissa sighed, her normal scowl replaced with an even darker expression. She narrowed her eyes. “I’m not sure I want to hear it.”
Vi nodded, but continued, “We keep her in the sickroom, for you fear she is not who she says she is, that she may be some stranger from the abyss or beyond the desert.” She spoke the words Marissa had been hinting at, but not outright saying, for the entire time Kyrilee had been in the city. The leader didn’t dare voice her concerns in front of the servants and citizens, for all knew, no one lived in the abyss or beyond the desert. There was nothing there--and to say otherwise would be madness.
Marissa winced, but waved her hand, as much agreeing as telling Vi to continue. “Your point?”
“I don’t believe she is a danger.” Vi crossed her arms. “We’ve kept her under constant surveillance for over a week, and she has neither said nor done anything out of the ordinary.”
“Other than her missing memories--supposedly--and her obsession with her dream,” Marissa sneered. “Is that not the mark of madness?”
“She clings to her dream because it truly is all she remembers.” Vi shook her head, sighing, “You know the wasting sickness is becoming more pervasive and those that survive it can no longer bear children. We are dying, Marissa, whether you choose to face it or not. I think…” she began to pace, gesturing in her passion, “No, I believe Kyrilee may hold more answers than she knows. I don’t think she means us harm, and I have seen signs. Marissa, she may be the key to defeating the sickness.”
“How?” Marissa cocked her head, one eyebrow raised. She clearly didn’t believe Vi, but was willing to hear her out--one benefit of always being by the leader’s side, of always working for the good of the people.
“She is not ill--and she may be fertile.”
“Something none of us here are,” Marissa admitted. “I see your point. What, if given the freedom, would you do?”
“I would let her out of the sickroom,” Vi began, “for a start. And then,” she held up a hand to stop Marissa’s inevitable concerns, “I would allow her to go where she pleases. Her buried memories will come back and she may lead us to wherever or to whomever kept her well.”
Marissa sighed. “You ask much, Vi.” She rubbed her forehead before answering, “Fine. The girl may leave the room, she may tell of the rest of her dream, she may do whatever she wishes in this city. But she will continue to be watched.” The leader dismissed Vi with a wave of her hand, turning her head to listen into her earpiece as Vi left.
“Well,” Kyrilee winced, “the next part of my dream isn’t as nice.”
“Oh, tell it,” Vi cajoled, and the gaggle of women by her side agreed. “We’d all love to hear what happened next. Maybe it can help you remember your actual memories?”
“All right. When my father came home…”
The morning light as the sun rose shone through the gap in her tent’s entrance, waking her. Her bones ached. She’d stay in bed a while longer, wrapped in the warm furs on the floor of the tent before she dared face the thin, chilly air of the morning. Tiredness that would claim her as soon as she arose, despite sleeping all night.
Noise on the outskirts of camp dashed her hopes of a few more moments of peace and rest. Her father had been away from camp on a skirmish for close to three months. By the sound of horses neighing and the clanking of bridles and swords, they had returned.
Her father’s booming laugh echoed through the camp and Kyrilee knew she’d have to face him. She had barely hid her condition when he left, but now that he had returned--now at close to eight months pregnant, she could not hide it any longer.
“Kyrilee…” her mother peeked through the tent flaps, her voice soft and worried. She knew what was to come as well as Kyrilee did, and neither of them could do anything to lessen his wrath.
“It’s time to get up,” Kyrilee said resignedly, although they both knew she was hiding fear and trepidation, and that she meant it was time to face her father. “Isn’t it?” Her mother nodded.
Before she had even finished putting on the thick leather coat to protect her from the cold--and maybe to hide from father, he burst through the tent entrance, her mother on his heels. Frail and small as her mother was, she was the only one who could stand up to him, and Kyrilee was glad she was here.
She turned to face him. “Welcome back, father.” She wrestled her lips into a smile that she was sure looked more like a grimace.
She could find no word to describe him better than imposing. There were a thousand other words that could fit him--terrifying, beastly--but none no apt as imposing. It wasn’t just his physical form that commanded respect--he fairly towered over even the tallest men, broad shoulders so thick Kyrilee had seen him carry an entire buffalo on his back. It was his demeanour that was the thing that caused his enemies to shake with fear at even the mention of his name.
She stared up at him; a dark silhouette that blocked all the light from the tent entrance. From the dirty leathers and buckles, smelling of blood and sweat, to the broadsword he had hammered himself--until finally her eyes met his face. It stopped her thoughts in their tracks.
His skin was darker, his brow more furrowed; or perhaps it was the coating of dirt causing both. Despite his neutral expression, she could see the rage in the twitching of his jaw and the glow behind his blue eyes. A colour she shared, a blue so pale it was almost white, but never could she have manufactured a look so angry and, dare she say it, insane, as the one her father wore right that moment.
It terrified her.
“What,” he growled, gesturing at her belly, “is this?”
Kyrilee dared not answer.
“You have lain with a man before I chose one for you. Who is the father?”
“There…” she choked out the words, unable to hold his gaze, “There is no father. I swear. I have lain with no man.”
He merely shook his head, his eyes darkening. “You lie to your own father. You will see the wrong in your ways, harlot, and when you name the father, you will be sold to him. You and your bastard child.”
“Haren,” her mother quietly placed her hand on his shoulder, “Do not be too harsh.” She didn’t say Kyrilee wasn’t lying, to believe her, that it was not all it seemed. She had doubted it at first as well--and rightly so--but after so long watching her daughter’s every movement, having her followed, and never seeing her do anything untoward with a man; or even speak too long with or meet up with one, she had begun to silence her doubts. Even a few days before she had been speaking as though she believed her. Why does she not defend me? Kyrilee wondered.
Of course she wouldn’t. No one stood up to Haren, even his sole wife. It was custom to have several, but Kyrilee saw the way he looked at her mother when he thought no one else could see. He loved her. He had never taken another wife after her, and the tribe had accepted it silently. As their leader, it was his right; but she thought that because of it, they’d had a relationship more special than if her mother was merely there for breeding and warming his bed. It didn’t look like it was any different now.
He threw her hand off his shoulder. “You won’t be out of my sight again, girl.” He snarled.
Kyrilee closed her eyes and leaned her head against the wooden bars of the cage. The sun beat down on her so hot it burned, and her eyelids did nothing to keep the harsh light out.
The cage bounced as they began their journey. Strapped tightly in the back of the caravan, she could see their trail of dust stretching into the distance as they left their encampment. It had been home for most of her life and Kyrilee bit back tears, seeing it fade into the distance. Her father had decided that they needed to move; the wars with the neighbouring tribes had not gone well this summer and game was getting low. Far too many people in too small an area. They needed to leave.
Yet why did she have to be inside a cage? The very humiliation of it caused her to seethe with rage. Her fists clenched. How dare he? He was her father and so had rule over her life. Simply because he did not believe how she came to be with child, he had determined she could not be trusted. She would be sold as quickly as possible to a husband once they reached the trading grounds.
Even though she had given birth to what had been inside her--and no child it was, though she’d not told anyone--and her father hadn’t seen it, nor needed to see the evidence of her supposed betrayal, surmising she’d disposed of the child in the woods to die from exposure. It was an assumption she did nothing to dissuade him of, and despite all this, he had not forgiven nor forgotten, and planned to be rid of her as quickly as possible.
Who knew, I might get pregnant again, Kyrilee thought to herself sarcastically. That was surely his reasoning.
Sick of the dust and heat, she recalled back to her evening in the woods, when she’d escaped her father’s watchful eye to give birth in the peace of darkness, without the swarms of women that other tribal births had.
The sun was setting. She sat inside the marble gazebo, her back pressed against the cold, hard stone. She was safe inside here, but she could see danger prowling outside; black shapes moving silently back and forth, glowing eyes as the moonlight glinted off them. Their diamond pupils.
Goosebumps covered her arms, and it was not just because it was cold. Her pounding heart did nothing to warm her.
An arc of pain shot through Kyrilee, as though she was struck by a whip. It flicked round from the base of her back to the front of her stomach and she clutched her arms around herself, gritting her teeth. Her time was here and she had to go through this alone. She had seen the other women in the tribe in labour, had heard their screams in the night, and even then she had feared; staring up at the roof of her tent and swearing never to experience the pain herself.
Yet here she was, but not of her own volition. Kyrilee wished her mother was by her side, comforting her, holding her hand--but she was alone. She had to be. Her father would not witness this, and even if he allowed her to birth in the camp, he would not allow the child to live.
Time passed both as slowly as she had ever felt, and yet it seemed an instant as the final stab of agony shot through she and she became overwhelmed with an immense relief. She took a moment to breath, to wipe she brow of sweat before she glanced down to the cold stone floor and saw what she had birthed.
It was not a child.
Gasps of shock yanked Kyrilee out of her memories and back to the present. She had all but forgotten she was telling this story to her audience--and audience they were, gathered round, listening to every word intently; drawn in to this seemingly amazing tale.
“What was it?” one of the women breathed, her eyes wide. None of them had seemed familiar at the mention of pregnancy, even going so far as to ask simple questions a small child would have; and when she described the birth, their faces displayed a mixture of fear and disgust so strong Kyrilee thought no one had ever told them how babies were made, let alone seen one come into the world. It was unfamiliar to her. In the tribe of her dream--it was a dream, they told her over and over, but it still seemed her life to her, for she could not recall another time--birth was commonplace and everyone knew what was involved from the first time a toddler would witness his or her sibling being born in the communal area. It was not private or hidden. Unlike hers.
“It…” Kyrilee took a breath, shaking her head as she remembered. Being awake in reality, the dream seemed more and more absurd the longer she thought of it. “It was a cat.”
She nodded. The creature had been large for a newborn cat; about the size of a domestic housecat some of our tribe kept to keep the rats away. Its fur was slicked down and wet, and its eyes closed, but it mewed and squirmed, quietening the second she reached out and gently stroked its wedge-shaped head. It had to be cold in the evening air, and Kyrilee wrapped it in her shawl, holding it to her chest. Whatever it was, it was her child.
She shook her head.
“That’s enough for today,” Vi said, “I think we’ve tired her enough.”
Before she could protest, she felt the truth of the woman’s words. Exhaustion pushed her back onto the bed, and as she sank into the soft pillow, sleep overtook her.