The storyteller sat at the table, playing with the envelope that held the ticket to see Miss Jackson. The story of Miss Jackson had been spreading for 20 years before their birth, so by the time they were born, Miss Jackson was just another Colonel Sanders; a caricature of a real person.
“Is that the ticket?” their little sister said behind them.
The storyteller jumped and turned around.
“Don’t do that!”
The little sister laughed and reached over the table, taking the envelope.
“They say Miss Jackson can take us out of here,”the little sister said, staring at the ticket inside. The storyteller watched her. They toiled with the idea of selling the ticket to someone with no family, letting the little sister have it, or just burning it all together.
The white sheet was up again. The storyteller’s throat was now used to talking for so long, the last time someone had to motion for them to wrap it up. The storyteller would keep going today.
For 3 weeks, Aife sat in her room with a tutor, learning new letters and ways to move around numbers. Aife’s knuckles were always red and bleeding from when the tutor would whack her hands with a stick every time she got something wrong. After those 3 weeks were up, she awake 4 hours before dawn, an hour earlier than when her trainer was supposed to get her.
When her trainer arrived, she was kneeling on the floor, listening to the ocean gently push itself across the rocks. She had learned to accept the watery prison her father had put her in; the windows were low enough the floor that water would constantly splash into the room, regardless of tide. A storm had rolled through, pushing the waves well into her room. Her bed was soaked by morning. They wouldn’t give her new bedding, she dried the sheets and her clothes in the sun, taking apart the bed and table with a rock that had washed into her room. As her tutor taught, she built a makeshift ladder that went a step just above the highest flooding mark in the room. When her sheets were dry, she climbed her ladder and placed the heaviest sheet onto hooks that were the walls; her hammock was done. Her tutor watched her from the floor and huffed, leaving the room. The King walked into the room and laughed.
“Are you ready?” the trainer said behind Aife. Aife stood up, dressed in her in her training garb; a long brown shift with brown linen pants. Aife nodded at her trainer. The trainer nodded back and left the room. Aife followed closely, looking at the warrior in front of her. He was tall but still shorter than her father by a head. His hair was braided into a ponytail that stopped in the middle of his back. His training garb was more intricate and graceful than Aife’s; it was a deep red with black ancient text sewn into the fabric. Aife stared at the letters, her lips moving to make the sounds of each letter.
When they arrived at the training ground, the trainer stood next to Aife as a circle of other warriors stood around them, their ages from 15 to 30.
“Mujahida here isn’t even in her double digits yet and already she has shown more discipline than most. You shame her. Regardless, this is the King’s child and you should treat her as such… Outside of here. In here, she is another warrior in training. Yes, yes, I know,” the trainer said, talking over the whispers that had started. “While she has shown that she has the spirit to be awake before the sun, her spirit will be challenged and she may decide to leave.”
I won’t, she thought to herself, looking at all the faces of the warriors. She could tell her first few years with these young and green warriors as well as the older, wiser warriors weren’t going to be easy on her.
At the age of 7, she had run 20 miles each day before dawn, done 1 thousand push-ups before lunch and stood in a squat for 6 hours holding a pot full of water because she knocked over a basket during a jumping exercise.
By the age of 9, she had broken her limbs (not at once, mind you) in practice combat. Even while being nursed back to health, she didn’t allow herself to stop her practicing.
At 10, she bested the trainer during spear practice. The other warriors stood in awe of her as she had the spear tip at the trainer’s neck.
She was as tall as the 15-year-olds, her hair spreading out behind her like a deep brown wildfire. Her eyes had gone from wide-eyed and curious child to no-nonsense squint in the years she had been in Slaanjo. The day she had bested the trainer, it spread like wildfire through the barracks. She changed in a closet with no lights. After being stuck in here for hours because the warriors locked her in, she kept a small knife hidden behind a loose brick in case they locked her in again. When she opened the door, a few of the older warriors were standing in front of her. They were 18 now and were only a head taller than her. They had their warrior braids done, their golden warrior marks painted onto their face and their weapons of choice they have been training to use for years. She stared at them, the one in front bouncing on his heels nervously. The one to their right spoke up.
“We just wanted to apologize for–”
Aife squinted more at them. They shut up and stood up straight.
“Never in your life apologize to me before you go off to die on the battlefield like some coward. Don’t hide your hands after you tortured me before, during and after practice. You don’t get to feel sorry after three years.”
She shouldered between them, stepping on the jaws they left on the floor.
That night, the King had Aife join him for dinner. A servant brought her a dinner dress. It was flowy and the color of a week old bruise. She frowned at it and put it on. It was a size too small her long frame, the hem of it reaching her ankles. The sleeves went to the middle of her forearm. She snorted and used a stolen dagger from training grounds to unstitch the sleeves. The waist was a bit tight as well, so she cut slits from the waist down. She pulled on a pair of thin linens for pants and went to the dining hall.
The King and Sanjo sat at one side of the table, the King heading it. The King looked over at her and smirked.
“You always have to ruin something, don’t you? Sit,” he said, pointing to a seat at the far end of the table with a fork. Aife nodded and sat down, staring at the food in front of her. Sticky, honeyed duck, fire roasted peppers with a side of bread, and a small glass of blueberry wine. Her mouth started to water. These past few years, she’s only been eating various forms of stale potatoes and dry boar jerky. The idea of seasoned food made her wipe her mouth before she even started to eat. She made a small, quiet noise as the duck entered her mouth. Her eyes watered. She had never tasted anything so amazing.
Sanjo watched Aife with annoyance before he took a deep sip from his goblet of wine. The King turned his attention to the cooks bringing out a tray of apple spiced lamb ribs, charred tart pears, and a whole turkey covered in a citrus glaze. Aife’s eyes watched as all the food started to pour in from the kitchens. Her stomach was bigger than her eyes at this point. She was a growing girl after all. She wanted to eat like a barbarian but she knew her father would lose his shit. So, she ate like the lady he thought she was.
“We leave for war at dawn,” the King started, piling food onto his plate. “Have you chosen the weapon you wish to learn?”
Aife nodded, taking a swig of her wine to chase down her bite of food. She coughed a bit. It was very strong.
“What is it then? Out with it.”
“The warhammer,” she said without hesitation. The King raised an eyebrow while Sanjo laughed.
“She wants to swing around a giant hammer! This little girl thinks she’s already a warrior!” Sanjo screamed, tears of laughter falling from his eyes. The King looked at Aife, who was eating her food quietly, unbothered by Sanjo.
“It’s my destiny,” she said, taking a small sip of her wine. Her body started to feel warm and tingly. She pushed the wine glass away.
“Oh? What makes you say that?” the King asked, placing his elbows on the table, chin resting on his hands.
“During my trial, which you had left me to die in, a god had come to me. They gave me my weapon, which you have taken from me, just like you took Wyk.” Sanjo stopped laughing, he and the King looking at Aife, her eyes still on her plate of food as she ate.
“You still think I’m stupid and that’s fine. I bested your finest warrior and you still find me weak,” she said, finally looking up at them. “I don’t care if you find what I want to do silly, but I’m not living for you.”
The King stood up.
Aife stood as well, pushing her chair back. Her clenched hands felt extremely warm.
“No, YOU listen. You think you can try to break me and hurt me and destroy me like you did my mother, but you won’t. You are weak and I’ll be DAMNED if I let some weak man rob me of my freedom to learn! You will not treat me, your daughter, the way you treat these towns and cities you sack! No longer!”
The King snarled, flipping the table to the side. He rushed at Aife, who screamed in defiance, charging at him. The rage she had been building since the age of 4 wrapped her body in the glow of fire. She pulled her arm back in a punch, her first turning into a fireball.
Sanjo watched the punch in slow motion, his heart freezing. This child had the same blessed yet cursed fire he did. The King couldn’t stop the punch, his eyes filled with sudden horror as this young warrior child landed the punch to his temple. Fire caught his hair, the oils in it sending it up in flame. The King started to scream, Sanjo grabbing the tablecloth and throwing it on the King, putting out the fire. Aife rushed out the dining hall, back to the “safety” of her room.
She sat in her hammock for hours, watching the door. No one came She stood up all night, jumping when the trainer came.
“You don’t have to come to the grounds for training today. But do stop by later,” they said, leaving her in the dark room. She could finally breathe, passing out in her hammock. She woke up when the sun was well into the afternoon. She walked out of her room, still dressed in last nights dinner clothes. Servants walked passed her, nodding their heads to her as they went on about their chores. The shroud that seemed to hang over the castle like a cloud ready to release a storm seemed to go away now that the King was gone. She ran around the castle, peeking into rooms she never got to explore. The library, the sitting room, the war room… She slowly pushed the door farther open, the smell of old men and old blood hung heavy in the air. She made her way to the war table, looking down at it, The map was as long as her mother’s Friend was tall and it sat in the middle of the room in a perfect circle.
From where she stood at the table, she was at the West, where the sands of the Slaanjo region greeted the sun. In the middle of the map was the Hushed Lands, the plains that took Aife so long to cross. To the East were the regions of the swamps and jungles of Mudstomp and Rali. In the North, the mountains of Melaeye sat, with the forests of Estele budding up against it. To the South, where the cold killed anything that lived there before was the tundra lands of The Shrill, named after the wind that rolled across the dead lands. Aife looked at all the small little animal figures from various tribes that the King had allegiances with make their way to the Southwest, where the warm desert days turn into daytime cold nights.
Aife looked at all the marks that were carved into the map. It was decades old, some marks probably older than her father. One mark caught her attention. It was in the area where her ritual took place. A small ‘x’ was freshly carved into in a row before crossed out. She took a shaky breath in and cleared her throat. Her eyes slowly made their way to Malaeye, her eyes watering with rage. A crown was carved around the castle, a knife dug into the middle of it. Her eyes studied the knife, the handle looking familiar. She climbed onto the table, pulling the knife from it. She rolled it up in her dress and ran out the room, continuing her adventure to explore the castle.
She made her way outside, ending up the gardens. She stared in awe at all the brightly colored desert flowers. One of the younger groundskeepers was making their way through a patch of tall pink flowers before they bumped into Aife. They stared at Aife, who was a bit taller than them.
“Who are you?” They asked.
“Aife. Who are you?”
“Who are you?” Aife repeated.
“I don’t understand.”
Aife smiled and nodded a bit.
“So you don’t have a name?”
Aife nodded and looked at the pink flowers.
“What’s this one?” The groundskeeper smiled a bit, their brown skin getting a pink tint in their cheeks. They cleared their throat and stood straight, proud of the flowers they helped grow.
“This one is called Sinjin’s Lips. Sinjin is the goddess of love and fertility.” Aife nodded.
“I see. Thank you, Sinjin,” she said the groundskeeper, before moving on. The groundskeeper blushed.
Aife made her way to the barns. She slowly went down row after row of barns, peeking inside each and every one, looking for Wyk. They weren’t in any of the barns closest to the castle. She looked toward the dunes, seeing the shadow of something in the waves if heat. She took off back inside, going into her father’s room and digging through his clothes. She pulled out one his silk shifts, changing into it. She also grabbed one of his belts, throwing it around her shoulder instead. She slid the knife into one of the knife holders. She grabbed one of his cotton scarves and threw it around her head, rushing back outside to the barns. She snagged a horse, charging toward the shadow in the sand. As she got closer and closer, the shadow turned out to be a giant rock. She pulled the reins on the horse to stop and jumped down. A log was lodged in the sand, a heavy rope tied to it. She followed the rope to the back of the rock where the shadow cooled her by 20 degrees. Her voice got stuck in her throat when she saw Wyk laying there.
They were fast asleep.
Sanjo and the King sat in the King’s tent in camp during the middle of the night. They finished sacking one of the smaller towns, Sanjo having taken the eldest of the ruler’s sons as a prize. The son had no objection to it, finding it rather exciting.
Sanjo watched his brother quietly. He was bald now as well, the fire had singed his hair. He felt embarrassed by the way his hair was so he cut it all off. 40 years of hair, gone. He rubbed at the new sensation on his head, frowning.
“I should have killed her before we left,” he said, drinking his wine. Sanjo smiled and shrugged. The King started to cough, clearing his throat. He started his sweat and rub his neck, his throat tightening up.
“I guess, I’ll have to kill her,” Sanjo said, as the King struggled to breathe. His eyes started to bulge out his head as they started to bleed. The King wheeze and fell face first into the dirt.
Quickly, Sanjo raced his way to his own tent, grabbing the sleeping son and making love to him… Before slicing his throat. He dressed the man in his sleeping clothes and carried his body back to the King’s tent, slipping in through the back. He tossed the man onto the ground next to the King. Sanjo switched his clothing with the King’s.
All of this motion took place in about an hour, the guards having fallen asleep standing up.
Sanjo placed the knife he used to cut the man’s throat and into the dead man’s hands and called out to the guards.
They didn’t realize they had moved their dead king’s body out of the tent. They didn’t notice the small burn marks on his head as they set him on a funeral pyre.
They didn’t notice Sanjo laughing as he ordered them to return to Slaanjo.