The air in Eranas was hot and heavy, clogged with the dust stirred up by the constant tramping of feet. The atmosphere was dull and oppressive. Perhaps that’s why everyone is in such a bad mood, Willow mused to herself. But then, people here are normally in a bad mood.
She was jerked out of her ruminations by the sound of Taren’s voice. He had probably been talking most of the way home, she hadn’t been paying attention.
‘They seem to have been acting strangely. Perhaps they’ve found another one that they suspect is cursed.’ Curiosity permeated his voice, mixed with sorrow.
‘What?’ Willow said sharply. Taren shot her an amused look.
‘I was just commenting that the Monarchs have been acting oddly recently. That is, more odd than usual.’ He frowned. ‘If they have found someone with the curse, I dread to think what they’ll do to him. Or her.’ He shuddered. Willow kept her face impassive.
‘What do you mean by strange?’
‘More withdrawn and distant. They’ve been holding a lot more meetings than usual, that’s for certain. People are beginning to notice.’
It could just be a rumour, but if there was truth to the story, there could be trouble. Willow decided that she would have to pay more attention to the gossip she heard, and would sift through it to see what the general opinion was. After all, there could be no cause for concern. She tried to reassure herself, but a cold dread was starting to spread through her. They slowed their walking as they drew near to the building Willow lived in. As she had no family, she lived in a dormitory with other women who were also alone. It was small and run down, like most of the buildings in Eranas.
Willow hated the poverty and near starvation of her village. Something inside her wanted to rebel against it, do something, anything. But troublemakers were swiftly dealt with by the Monarchs.
‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’ Taren smiled, turned and loped off, his figure fading into the dusk.
Willow opened the door. The main room of the building, containing the narrow beds where the women slept, greeted her. Briefly, she shut her eyes and drew in a deep breath. Sometimes, she felt like she couldn’t take another day in this place. Just the sight of the shabby buildings and dispirited people made her want to scream. This was one of those days. A feeling of great uneasiness settled on her, as it had done many times before. No one else agreed with her, or even seemed to think there was anything wrong; they had long since accepted it as normal, getting on with the life of slavery that they were trapped in. The odd thing was, they didn’t even seem to notice. It was if they were blinded. She was considered something of an oddity for her way of thinking, and people often avoided her, thinking that there was something wrong with her.
She released her breath and walked to her bed, sinking down onto it. Her muscles ached, and she didn’t think she could stand for another minute. Sireon, a woman who Willow knew fairly well, smiled at her wearily from across the room and began to make her way over to her, weaving between the narrow spaces between the bunks.
‘Have you heard?’ There was a glimmer of excitement in Sireons eyes. Willow froze.
‘The harvest has finished! The Monarchs are giving everyone a days free rations as a reward for meeting the quota early.’ Willow relaxed, and managed a faint smile.
‘That’s a relief! Although I must admit, I am rather surprised by the Monarchs generosity.’
Sireon pulled a face. ‘I’m not complaining. A days free rations gives more leeway for the quotas. Especially at this time of year.’
Willow suppressed a scowl. The quotas bothered her, and it made life harder for the peasants, especially for the old and infirm. If you did not meet your quota, you did not get fed.
‘True.’ Her reply was shorter than she intended. Sireon studied her closely.
‘Are you all right? You look bothered by something.’
‘It’s nothing.’ Willow stared at the floor, reluctant to meet Sireon’s gaze. Sireon sighed, sounding tired.
‘I wish I knew what was going through your mind sometimes. This is a cause for celebration, yet you seem just as gloomy as ever.’
‘I’m not gloomy… I’m just tired.’ Willow forced a smile. ‘I think I’ll go to the bathhouse. See you later.’
‘Later then.’ Sireon responded doubtfully. Willow pulled herself up off the narrow bed, and walked to the door. The sand covering the floor of the dormitory rustled underfoot. The bathhouse was good walk away from the dormitory, but she needed some time to think. What was wrong with her? Everyone else was feeling happy, enjoying this fortuitous turn of events, and here she was moping. She reached the door and let herself out into the chill night air. A breeze ruffled her long hair, wafting it into her face. She brushed it away impatiently. Her looks where just another brick in the wall between her and the other villagers. Where most of their eyes were brown, hers were an icy blue, spiked with grey, and where their hair was brown, hers was a rich reddish coppery colour. She had never felt like she fitted in here, as if there was some subtle difference within her that separated her from others. Too small to notice, too big to overlook. Sireon is right, I AM in a serious mood today. She smiled to herself sardonically, and scanned the scenery quickly. There was very little sound, save for the faint creak of the trees. She increased her pace, her boots thudding softly on the floor. The back of her neck prickled, and a cold feeling tingled down her back. She looked over her shoulder, but there was nothing within the inky shadows. She shook herself. Now she was imagining things. The dark shape of the bathhouse loomed, pale lights illuminating the high windows. She hurried forwards, eager to reach it. She hoped the bustle of people would distract her. If nothing else, maybe she would be able to drown her sorrows in a bath.
The bathwater had been cold, and now, out in the night air, Willow felt even colder. The small room had been dingy, but at least it was private, and the water was clean. It had given her some time to gather her thoughts, and now, feeling clean and more cheerful, she headed back to the dormitory. She had missed dinner, but she wasn’t too bothered. It was nothing worth eating anyway. She was just considering the idea of visiting Taren and his family for a while when she noticed a figure standing underneath a tree. She froze in mid step, staring. Her heart pounded in her ears, adrenalin coursing through her veins. She blinked, but when she opened her eyes, the figure had vanished. Straining her eyes, she searched the darkness, but saw nothing. An icy feeling stole over her, and she turned and ran, fear propelling her forwards. She arrived at the dormitories breathless and puffing; bursting through the door she shut it behind her. A blast of warm air hit her, contrasting sharply from the chill night outside. The dormitory was now mostly full, so her sudden entrance went unnoticed. She was grateful for this; she did not want to have to answer any difficult questions.
‘Lights out in ten minutes!’ A voice bellowed over the babble of conversation. A hush fell, and then the noise flared back, louder than before as the women tried to ready themselves for curfew. Willow surreptitiously joined the throng, and quietly slipped into bed unnoticed.
Her final thought before falling into a light sleep was that she must have imagined the shape in the darkness.
She awoke in the morning to see the pale rays of sunlight filter in through the filthy curtains over the window. Lying in her hard bed, she allowed herself a few moments to relax. She couldn’t dally for long though; she was meeting Taren and if she was late to work then she would earn herself a beating. Most people were still asleep; the sun had not yet fully risen, meaning that they still had a few minutes left of precious rest.
She heaved herself out of bed reluctantly, and after washing, dressed quickly in her usual tattered attire: a threadbare tunic and leggings, and her worn pair of leather boots. As she dressed, other people began to stir and rise, greeting the new day. She finished, and splashed some cold water on her face from the shallow basin in the middle of the circular room. Feeling somewhat refreshed, she exited the dormitories, and after a stop at the food halls for a rushed breakfast of stale bread and water, she went to meet Taren for work.
He was waiting for her at the end of the road, leaning against a tree, his muscular frame relaxed. She smiled at him.
‘Morning.’ He smiled, his dark blue eyes sparkling. She replied in kind. In a companionable silence, they continued along the road, heading for the fields where they were allocated to work that day.
‘I thought that you grinding the corn today?’ Taren enquired.
‘No. The older women are doing that now. They’re less resistant to this cold weather.’
Taren nodded. ‘The temperature is quickly falling. It’ll be winter soon.’ He kicked at a stone on the road, stirring up clouds of red dust. Willow exhaled, enjoying the peace of the early morning. Few people were on the roads.
‘Have you heard that the harvest is over?’ She asked.
‘Yes. Father told us yesterday. It’s the best news we’ve had for a while.’ He chuckled, then frowned briefly.
‘I thought you were coming round yesterday?’
With a start, the events of the previous day came flooding back to her: the figure in the darkness, the uneasy feeling.
‘Yes, I was going to but…’ She paused, thinking fast. She couldn’t tell him why she had taken fright, it would sound stupid. She doubted she had even seen the figure anyway; it was more likely a side effect of her tiredness and the gloomy mood she’d been in yesterday.
‘But…?’ Taren prompted, curiously.
‘But there was a queue at the bathhouse and by the time I’d finished, it was nearly curfew.’ She felt pleased with this new story; it was close to the truth and believable. Mush more believable than her real reason: that she had scared herself by imagining things. She ignored a brief stab of frustration that she had taken flight like a child. She had seen far worse things and not run away, what had been so different yesterday?
‘Fair enough. Mother missed you though.’ Willow detected a hint of teasing in his voice and rolled her eyes. Taren’s mother had four sons and a husband, and frequently complained about the lack of female company. She had taken Willow in as a substitute daughter many years ago, and Willow suspected that she hoped one day she would become a part of their family.
‘Your mother sees me often enough. I’m sure one evening without me won’t unmake her.’
‘Perhaps not. You how she gets though; you’d think she had ten sons rather than four from the way she carries on.’
‘You know she loves you really.’ Willow smiled, enjoying the levity of the conversation.
‘I’m not sure. Sometimes I think she’d rather you were her child instead of me.’ Taren teased. Willow playfully elbowed him.
For a minute they walked in silence, savouring the free time.
‘Do you ever think about leaving? Living somewhere else?’ He asked, almost fiercely. Willow paused, surprised by his sudden outburst. They had spoken about everything but this before, it was the one topic that they avoided by unspoken consent. He had never expressed any resentment about living here; she had always assumed that he, like everyone else, considered it normal.
‘Be careful. Such talk is forbidden,’ Willow responded cautiously. Taren snorted.
‘Who’s going to hear us out here?’
‘I don’t know. The Monarchs have a way of knowing things they shouldn’t.’ She said uneasily. He was probably right, but she didn’t want to risk the wrath of the Monarchs if they found out. Taren frowned at the floor.
‘We could leave.’
‘No, we couldn’t.’ She said gently. ‘What about your family? You couldn’t leave them. They’d catch us sooner or later anyway. There would be no point.’
He sighed, his shoulders slumped. She reached for his hand and squeezed it. She understood how he felt. It was the same way she had felt for her whole life. He gripped her hand tightly.
The fields rose into view, now looking strangely empty without the crops that had been adorning them previously. The job now would be to clear them and prepare them for spring, when the seeds would be planted in preparation for the next harvest. It was hard, arduous work, and Willow was not looking forward to it.
‘I’ll see you later.’ She whispered. He gave her a brief hug and nodded distractedly before walking off towards his designated area.
As she approached the section where she was working, she noticed a short, fat man standing among the workers with his arms folded. Her stomach clenched in fear. He was a Monarch. She could tell from his large girth, and also from the rich clothes that ornamented his bulbous body. Keeping her head down, she trudged past him, trying not to draw attention to herself.
Occasionally Monarchs did observe the work the peasants were doing, apparently to make sure that they were working hard enough and that there were no trouble makers, but Willow suspected they popped up every now and then simply to make people feel unsafe, and to reinforce their own power over people. The people who were normally in charge were not kind, but neither were they excessively cruel. The Monarchs, on the other hand, had a reputation for brutality.
The Monarch ignored her, and she went to the area that was furthest away from him to work, near a man she knew called Maril. She avoided eye contact with him, and began. Within a short space of time she had blisters on her hands, and her back ached from crouching down to reach the floor.
Time seemed to pass oddly, sometimes slipping by fast like sand through her fingers, or else it passed painfully slowly, as if it was wading through mud. The end result of this was that it by the end of the day it felt as if she had been working both forever, and had just begun. By this point her nerves were stretched so thin that she jumped at every noise, and her hands were shaking. I can’t go near him. He’ll sense my fear; he’ll know what I am…
The Monarch was slowly walking past them, surveying their work disdainfully, a slight curl on his heavy lip. Her heart kicked into double time as he drew nearer, walking agonisingly slowly. He walked past Maril, who had clenched his trembling hands together, and was crouched with his head bowed. As the Monarch passed him, he slowly relaxed, looking up in relief.
Fear coiled in her belly like a snake as he drew nearer, looking this time at her and the progress she had made. He was level now, walking past her without slowing. She was just breathing a sigh of relief when he stopped, and spun to face her.
‘Rise peasant.’ His voice was a low hiss, sinister and threatening. Willow stood slowly, keeping her eyes on the floor. Don’t look at him. Don’t make eye contact.
‘Look at me.’
Her heart sank. She was cornered. She raised her eyes, looking him in the face for the first time. His face was flabby and corpulent. He was bald, and his head glistened unpleasantly in the sun. This was not the most noticeable part of him, however, her attention was instead drawn to his eyes. They were small and dark, like the eyes of a predator, with a cold, soulless depth. Yet they were strangely captivating, and when she looked into them, she felt as if she was drowning, and found that she could not look away.
They stood like that for a minute in silence. It seemed to Willow that all else ceased to exist, she was aware of nothing else. She felt like an animal trapped in some snare, waiting for the final death blow to come. She noticed a strange pressure on her mind, as if walls were closing in around her consciousness. Abruptly they stopped, as if halted by some invisible force. The Monarchs eyes widened slightly, almost as if he was surprised.
‘What is your name, slave?’ There was something behind his words that she could not quite detect, anger maybe? Or perhaps recognition…
‘Willow.’ With a slight shock, she realised there was an unintentional edge to her voice, making her sound oddly defiant. She flinched. His face darkened. He raised his hand, and with a movement so quick she hardly saw it coming, he slapped her. A cry sounded, and with a sense of vague surprise, she realised the sound had come from her. Dazed, she raised her hand, and felt a warm liquid oozing from a cut underneath her eye. He drew blood. The skin was already beginning to bruise.
‘You will show respect when you speak to someone of worth.’ He spat the words out as if they disgusted him. There was a dangerous undercurrent to his voice.
‘Y-yes sir. I’m sorry.’ Willow stammered. He surveyed her for a moment, before sneering.
‘What do you call this?’ He kicked at the stalks and debris she had cleared, spilling it over the large segment of empty soil. Willows face flushed, but she remained silent. His sneer grew.
‘You haven’t… met your quota, have you?’ His voice was smooth and polished, gloating. Anger rose in the pit of her stomach. I HAD met my quota, until you spoiled my progress.
‘Well?’ He purred.
‘N-No sir.’ She kept her voice empty, devoid of any inflection.
‘You know the punishment for failure to work effectively.’
‘Your meals are forfeit for one day.’
‘Yes, sir.’ She forced the words past her lips, hating them. How was she supposed to work tomorrow without eating? She would lose today’s evening meal as well.
He studied her intently, eyes narrowed. The pressure around her mind increased, but the invisible barrier didn’t waver. Her heart jolted. He’s trying to force his way into my mind! The Monarchs powers were infamous. The pressure suddenly subsided, and then, with a wave of his hand, he dismissed her.
‘Get out of my sight.’
She knew where she was heading. She forced the air into her lungs, gasping for breath, arms pumping. Her boots thumped against the path, a fast regular beat, pounding its way into her skull. Dust swirled around her ankles.
She had to get away. She couldn’t stay here for another minute.
I need time to think.
The scenery moved past quickly, until suddenly, she had arrived. She was standing on a small hill surrounded by trees, near the edge of Eranas. She came here often; it was far enough away from everyone else that she felt she had space to think, and close enough to the edge of Eranas that she felt that she had some modicum of freedom.
Walking over to one of the nearest trees, she sank down underneath it, drawing her knees close to her chest.
More than anything she wanted to leave. For a brief moment she seriously considered it. It would be hard, yes, but the feeling of freedom that she imagined would be worth it. She had never felt truly free.
With a sigh, she reluctantly acknowledged she was stuck in Eranas. There was nowhere else for her to go, and she could not abandon Taren and his family to the Monarchs. That would be a betrayal of the kindness they had showed her all these years.
Willow raised her head, admiring the scenery. Moments such as these were rare: time alone, away from everything. Time to think. There was grass here, and trees. It was peaceful and it seemed as if all her problems were many leagues away.
She didn’t know if the Monarchs knew what she was. It could be that they were still completely unaware, meaning that her secret could remain hidden in the depths of her mind, as it had for many years. But if they did know…
She stood, brushing dirt off her leggings. If they did know then she would deal with it when the time came. There was no point considering what might be; there was nothing she could do about it anyway.
She had taken a few steps when a movement caught her eye. She froze, feeling suddenly cold. She remembered all too clearly the shape on her way back from the bathhouse. It’s probably a Monarch.
A man stood in the clearing. He was tall and slender, but there was an air of authority surrounding him that distinguished him from anyone else Willow had ever met. He was not a Monarch, she could tell. He was too thin. His face was young; yet there was an oldness to him that she could not place.
‘W- what are you?’ Willow’s voice shook slightly. He was neither a Monarch nor a peasant, which was impossible. That meant he had to have come from outside Eranas, and no one was allowed to enter. Ever.
He stood quite still, surveying her. His expression betrayed nothing of his thoughts. His eyes lingered slightly on the bruise on her cheekbone. Eventually he stirred.
‘My name is Caius. Who are you?’ His voice was pleasant, and fairly deep.
Willow backed away slightly. She could sense a power coming from him, and it made her uneasy. He raised his hands quickly.
‘I mean you no harm. Please, stay.’
‘What are you? And what are you doing here?’ Willow demanded sharply. A knowing look briefly crossed Caius’ face.
‘I am a person, and I am simply passing through. What is your name?’
Willow eyed him suspiciously.
‘No one just passes through here. It is forbidden.’
Caius frowned. ‘What do you mean it’s forbidden?’
‘Are you stupid? Don’t you know what they’ll do to you if they find you here?’ Willow asked incredulously.
Caius paused for a minute.
‘No one will find me if that is what you are worried about. We are quite safe here.’
Willow resisted the urge to roll her eyes. This man was clearly a simpleton. Yet deep down she knew that this was not true. There was something familiar about him, something that she could not quite place. It made her feel uneasy, especially as she was certain she had never seen him before.
The day was drawing to a close; dusk was beginning to fall.
‘I have to go.’ Willow said abruptly. This whole encounter was disturbing: this man should not be here. And if the Monarchs knew she had spoken to him…
She could feel his eyes watching her as she turned her back, and walked quickly in the direction of the village. She resisted the urge to run.
As she reached the edge of the village, she could hear the sound of voices on the wind. A prickling sensation crawled down her back. Everyone else should be at the dining hall; it was the hour that the peasants living in the dormitories ate their evening meal. She hadn’t bothered coming back for dinner, as her rations had been forfeited.
What on earth has happened to cause such a commotion?
Perhaps the Monarchs had found out that the borders had been breached. That might explain it, although such occasions were usually kept under wraps. The peasants inevitably found out, but there was never such a large uproar as this.
She walked as quietly as she could, hoping to join the rest of them without drawing attention to herself. If Caius had been caught, she didn’t want anyone to notice that she had been missing. It might seem suspicious.
The large shapes of the dining hall and dormitories loomed into view, casting dark shadows in the half light. A shadow detached itself from the side of a building, and ran towards her. Willow stood still, recognising the shape of the silhouette.
‘Taren? What’s going on?’ She hissed.
As Taren drew nearer, the urgency and fear on his face became noticeable. His eyes were wide, but there was a determination in them that worried her more than whatever was happening in the village.
‘We have to leave, now! Come on!’ He roughly seized her wrist, dragging her backwards. With a yelp, she stumbled , and, losing her balance, dragged them both down in a tangle of limbs.
‘What are you doing?!’ she said in a muffled squawk.
Taren huffed, and wriggled free.
‘We don’t have time to go into this now, Willow. Please just trust me. The Monarchs are searching for you. They say…’ He shuddered.
‘They say you’re one of the cursed.’
It seemed to Willow that the world slowed, all sounds momentarily extinguished, leaving only the unsteady beating of her heart. It was happening. She had known it would, sooner or later.
‘Go home Taren. You can’t be involved in this.’ Her voice was monotonous, empty. A look of disbelief passed across his face, quickly replaced with anger.
‘I’m not leaving you. I don’t care what they say you are. We have to leave.’
A feeling of intense weariness washed over Willow, leaving her feeling lethargic. Instantly, she was aware of a strange sensation in the back of her mind. It was like an itch, and irritation that refused to leave. Dread settled like a pit in her stomach. They’re affecting my mind! As the realisation dawned on her, the fatigue vanished, leaving her alert.
‘They know we’re here. They’re coming.’ She said abruptly. Grabbing Taren’s hand, they sprinted away from the settlement. Thoughts ran through her mind like water down glass. This is my fault. And now I’ve placed Taren in danger. We can’t escape.
She was vaguely surprised to realise that she felt nothing. It was as if she had frozen; she felt numb and empty. This was the end, she was sure. And it had happened so quickly. It must have been the Monarch in the field. He had noticed her resistance when he had tried to reach into her mind, and now he knew what she was. She was going to die.
And Taren was going to die with her.
The night was still, the air punctuated by the ragged sounds of their breathing and the impact of their boots on the hard ground. They reached the hill where she had sat earlier, and had seen the man, Caius. It felt like an age ago now. Everything had changed.
They drew to a halt, dust rising in the air from their abrupt stop. Taren bent over, gasping for breath. Willow ignored him and walked to the centre of the hill. She stared into the darkness, trying desperately to see some sign of anyone who might have been pursuing them. She could see nothing except the dark shadows of trees. She turned, and walked to the edge of the trees on the hill. This was the border. If they stepped over here, the Monarchs would know where they are and would be there immediately. Hopelessness engulfed her. There was no way to escape. By running, they had just prolonged the inevitable. Taren, breathing somewhat more normally, joined her on the hill.
‘We’re trapped.’ She informed him. Her tone was even and calm; her face was an impassive mask. She spun around and walked to the hills crest. She wanted to scream. To be so close, so near to leaving, but unable to…
A strange choking noise sounded from behind her. She pivoted. Taren had fallen to his knees. An bolt was lodged through his throat, a stream of blood trickling down from the dull metal head, glinting slightly in the half light. Behind him, a Monarch stood, an evil smile splitting his face impossibly wide. He raised the crossbow one more time, pointing it between her eyes.
And this is how it ends.
The Monarch released the bolt, it shot towards her. Right before it made contact, it exploded into sparks, and fell, glowing onto the grass.
Willow turned and ran.
The grass was dry and scratchy beneath her cheek. Willow opened her eyes, and slowly lifted her head. She’d been running for most of the night, and a few hours before dawn she had collapsed under a large tree. She had only intended to rest for a few minutes, but it seemed she had fallen asleep. She stretched her legs, felt the cramped muscles protest. By her estimation there were only a few hours of daylight left. She had slept for most of the day. Frantically, she leapt to her feet, searching the landscape for some sign of one of them. Seeing no sign of another living soul, her heartbeat slowed.
She considered trying to use her ability to attempt to conceal herself, just in case anyone was around. There was very little cover for her to hide in if a Monarch were to come looking. But she didn’t know how it worked. If she used it, would they be able to find her? Maybe they could sense it. That was how the Monarch in the field had found out.
She hunched her shoulders and strode forwards. Best not to risk it. She was so tired; it was an effort to keep her feet moving. But the worst part of it was what she didn’t feel: emotionally, she was numb. She was simply a void in which no particle, not the slightest molecule of feeling stirred.
Taren is dead. I killed him.
She might as well have done. She had been the reason for his death.
She pushed it from her mind. It was too near to think about, because if she did, she would want to find the Monarchs. Make them pay. She would probably die, but then her life had ceased to mean anything to her when they put that crossbow bolt through Taren’s throat. She had nothing to lose.
Her feet kept moving. The constant thudding of her boots hitting the dry grass drowned out all other thought, the endless drumming distracting her from the emptiness in her heart. She kept her head down, not looking where she was going. It didn’t matter; she had no plan or direction. Just keep walking until she died of thirst or found another settlement. If there was another settlement anywhere. For all she knew, Eranas was all there was. For all her dreams of a different life, she didn’t even know if there was anything else beyond these dry, endless plains.
The sun beat down mercilessly against her, fighting her progress as it sunk down through the sky.
Willow kept walking.
The daylight fled, and the darkness quickened.
It was well past nightfall when Willow finally paused. She had reached a stream, the clear water cutting across her path. The landscape around her had got more and more arid and lifeless the further she walked. This stream had been the first moving thing she had seen for hours. It rushed along, slapping wetly against the pebbles and riverbank. The night was still; no other sound could be heard. A strange prickling sensation moved across Willow’s neck. It felt almost as if there was a watchfulness about this place, a something that she could not describe. Something other. There was no feeling of ill intent, just the feeling that there was something powerful nearby. She tensed, and listened, straining to hear a sound. With an effort of will, she wrenched herself around, eyes darting, taking in the area. After a few seconds she relaxed slightly. The place was deserted.
She sank to her knees, scooping some water up to her face. It trickled over her dusty hands, leaving tracks in the dirt and blood.
For the first time since her flight, she examined her clothes, her skin. There was a dark, stiff stain covering the front of her tunic, and a number of other spatters on her clothes. She reached up, touching her face. There. Dried over her cheeks, blood. A shuddering gasp wracked her shoulders, jerking her forwards. She thrust her head under the water, scrubbing frantically. The stuff peeled off, floating in the water before it dispersed. She ripped off her tunic, washing it frantically. She kept washing till the skin on her hands cracked, and her nails were torn and ragged. It would not come out. Taren’s blood, all that she had left of him. She slumped forwards, defeated. It remained on her tunic stubbornly, a reminder of the life that she had taken. A testament to the guilt that would not come off, no matter how hard she tried. She bowed her head, feeling suddenly very old. Was this all life was? A substance, constantly pumped throughout the body, and which, when the circuit was broken, simply stopped? If so, where was the value in life? Why bother fighting if it was all futile anyway? Death comes to all, eventually.
Willow pulled the cold, sodden shirt over her head, recoiling as the slick material chilled her skin. She lowered her head, and drank deeply from the stream, now sullied with dirt. With massive effort, she pushed herself to her feet. Tentatively, she stretched her foot out over the stream, and slowly placed it on the bank opposite. She paused, a foot on each bank. Then, with a newfound resolve, she pushed herself forwards across the stream, and continued onwards leaving Eranas behind her.