1. Shadow on the Rainbow
A streak of red.
The vivid tone of the tulip field gleamed through the thin arrow slit of the keep’s walls.
She moved on, past the next tower.
And the next.
Yellow, yellow like the glorious sun when it shone in the springtime. When it shone over the colourful paddocks, and there was no…
She paused, exhaling sharply upon seeing them.
The army stretched out to the horizon, covering the fields as they surged forth. Trampled beneath the feet of enemy soldiers, the beautiful flower petals no longer shimmered in the morning light.
Taalin turned at the sound of her younger brother’s urgent voice, hammering in the reality.
No more flowers. No more colours.
Christophe appeared, running around the curved wall with an oversized velvet coat swishing at his heels. But it gave the boy no grand appearance, his blond hair lacklustre against the royal purple fabric. Dwarfing his young body, the battle garb made him look small and weak.
“I know, Chris,” Taalin whispered, lips stretched tight in a grimace. She saw her brother tremble slightly, his hazel eyes darting from side to side, betraying his fear.
Taalin pulled him into her embrace. But clad as they were in their rigid armour, it offered little comfort. No warmth of flesh and blood.
“We’ll defeat them. We’ll fend them off like always. And survive,” she said with all the courage and defiance she could muster.
Christophe pressed his adolescent body closer, nodding his head senselessly. Shaking fingers entwined in hers, but Taalin pulled away.
The touch of her brother’s clammy hands did nothing but sap her spirit. She fought to hold on to the resilient voice inside, and convince herself it was only another siege.
Taalin looked out through the arrow slit, at the shadowy expanse encroaching upon the outer city. Limestone houses huddled together, long-abandoned by residents seeking shelter in the fortress.
Soon it would all turn black, creamy walls and navy slate rooftops alike.
“Taali, Father wants to talk to you.”
Taalin sighed, her eyes darting away from the ominous sight. This was going to be different. The other forts along the river had already fallen, after only several days of assault.
The hope of the nation resided with them.
“Yes,” came the soft reply.
“If they penetrate the walls, go to the temple.”
And if it came to that, she prayed the Gods would protect him.
* * *
Taalin ran up the stone stairs, making for the highest point of the fortress. Screams echoed in her wake; howls uttered by all those witnessing the death of the King of Regofala.
Mighty warrior, reduced to nothing but a moaning heap.
Taalin squinted through her tears, pressing on. One, two, then three at a time, she took the steps of the winding staircase.
No time to think.
No time to feel.
She had to execute her father’s instructions.
“Filpai,” she murmured when she reached the top. At once her dove flew to her outstretched hand.
Taalin paused for a second to stroke his white plumage, but the silky feathers only brought tears to her eyes. Never again would she feel their affectionate embrace. Never.
Swallowing, struggling to suppress emotion, she thrust the roll of parchment into her dove’s clawed foot.
“Fly! Fly southwest to Soonada, where the air is clean. Warn them of our plight. Then go east, to Linuina. You must, Filpai, my hope.”
Taalin sighed as her dove gave a soothing coo and nibbled her finger. She bit her lip viciously, searching for strength. The little self-induced pain helped a touch. She still had some power. Still had some power over her body.
* * *
Voices of chanting priests reverberated up to the arching marble ceiling. Strings of sound bounced back and forth between the walls, entangling Christophe in their web.
He huddled against a nearby column. And the deafening, desperate prayers filled his ears, while the pitifully hopeless image battered his swollen eyes.
For the Gods had abandoned their people.
Christophe cast a despondent glance upward, to the four petals of the cloverleaf carved in the dome.
But there would be no more beauty. No more Justice, Faith or Love. Nothing…
Then different cries pierced the humming, and soldiers appeared at the front entrance to the temple. Christophe gulped and slipped out the side door. He just fled, away from the slaughter and the crying and the screams of the dying civilians.
He ran, down and down, into the bowels of the keep. Light faded to shadow as he made for the underground passageway, the only escape route not blocked by the enemy.
And he knew he would be the last to bear message of their downfall.
* * *
Misty rain dampened Taalin as she turned to meet the soldiers. They tumbled atop the tower in a continuous stream, armour clanking against the stone archway, evil touching the highest point of her fortress.
But though the city was conquered, she would still fight. Doomed to death, at least she would join her people.
Behind her, Filpai stretched his glistening white wings and took off in proud flight. She saw him arch towards a rainbow that had formed from the blurry drizzle, and a faint ray of sunlight illuminated his body.
Then she saw it.
The strange arc of black in the sky; as if the rainbow had a shadow.
It reached up to greet Filpai.
That was the last thing Taalin saw, before the soldiers descended upon her.
2. Voice Like No Other
His heart thudded in time to the rolling syllables of the storyteller’s words. Louder, faster, it thumped to fuel his body with the zeal of a religious madman.
Magical sounds, twisting through the air they joined with the throbbing energy of Life itself. Like musical notes they blended in harmony, tugging his heart and pulling. Beckoning. Whispering at his ears they entered his mind; drew him into a hypnotic trance.
“… And on this Midsummer Eve, we look within ourselves and we honour that place where the Universe resides; the Love and the Light and the Truth and the Peace.”
A sigh escaped his lips, a soft moan of pleasure as the words made his body tremble and ache with awe. Filling him with desire absent since Lily’s death.
“In times of difficulty, we run from Truth. Failing to be Just, we are no better than grovelling cowards, who betray their families to save their own pitiful lives. Starved spirits are those beggars who turn from Faith, traitors to the Gods themselves!”
He shuddered, gulped, the words striking him as physically as an anvil on a lump of hot metal.
He leant forward in his seat, tunic sticking to him in the heat of the crowded tavern and the fiery silence that yearned to be filled.
He waited. Motionless. Dozens of other bodies paused around him, trapped, caught, held captivated.
“Go to the girl. Stay by her side as she walks the beach, bare feet treading the pale sand. Smile at her; illuminate the bleak coast. Be the sun that is missing from the dismal sky, covered with clouds to protect a wounded heart of blue.”
He shivered. A cold touch on his neck, a ghostly finger trickled across his skin, making him quiver with fear and anticipation.
“Shelter her from the bellowing wind. Lick the salt stains from her cheeks, white rivers formed by the union of sea spray and ancient tears. Blow life into her hollow, sunken features, and wipe away the sooty smudges on the flesh beneath her eyes.”
Body tense, he gasped. Heart pulsed like a glowing star. Warmth radiated from his body to weave between the smoke rings, curling upward from pipes lying abandoned on the benches.
“Tormented, the waves roar high as the wind drives them against the jagged cliffs on the shore, and trails of foam from the whitecaps linger like the remnants of a binding memory.”
He gripped the table, fingers clutching at the wood as the desperate words reduced him to shakes.
“But remember happiness in its pure, glimmering form, and swallow the sea, her grief incarnate. Drink the salty waters, and once and for all, banish the pain from mind, the agony from spirit, and the darkness from heart. You can relieve her burden.”
Tranquillity settled over the hushed audience.
Then murmurs sifted through the stillness, a blend of content sighs and the gentle breeze tapping the windowpanes.
He sat, transfixed. Wanting nothing but to remain forever, listening to the words that sustained him in more ways than food ever could. But rowdy cheers erupted, splitting the room in harsh contrast to the storyteller’s voice, joining a tinkling chime as coins showered through the air.
Exhaling slowly, Cain stirred. His mind crept tentatively back to the present, while around him the tavern buzz inched closer to normality. Serving-girls rushed to fill the jugs of thirsty men, and a group of dancers prepared to take the stage.
Through the smoke and the crowd, Cain eyed the storyteller as he gathered his money into a leather pouch. A low hood masked his features, revealing nothing but a smooth chin cast in shadow. Narrow shoulders, slim body, he could only be a young boy. Yet despite his age, he held such a powerful gift. Even reminded the men, rough from poverty, of their faith.
And Cain had to thank this teller of fables. For the calm brought to his own life, words that made him feel purposeful. Like more to life existed than the fight to get food on the table.
More existed than forging blades, day after day, hammering at the molten metal as though that action could beat out the creases in his heart, the etchings of pain.
Cain dug into his pocket, pulling out his week’s earnings. He tossed the chips of metal without hesitation, for the storyteller deserved it all. He had reached a new level tonight. Midsummer Eve.
A reedy sound of fiddles added to the vibrant tavern hum, and the dancers began twirling to the claps of excited men. All eyes left the storyteller to gaze lustily at the girls; their lacy skirts revealing glimpses of flesh.
But Cain looked to the storyteller, sidling along the wall, making for the exit. He would catch him tonight before he slipped away so stealthily. His children would be spending Midsummer Day in the farmland with Lily’s mother, but perhaps he need not celebrate alone.
Maybe the storyteller could use some company too.
He took a swig of ale, draining the mug. Warm fluid nibbled his tongue with its bitter edge, before gliding down his throat, parched from the smoky atmosphere of the room.
Then Cain rose from his stool and hurried to the door, between men staring with open mouths at the dancers and their lithe, spinning bodies.
That was his name.
The storyteller stopped, the hood turned. “Yes, Cain?”
He breathed deeply. So the mysterious boy had remembered him. He was more than just a shadow.
“’Ave ye got someone to spend Midsummer Day with?”
The excited strumming of fiddle strings resonated in his ears, and colours flickered on the periphery of his vision. Whirling dresses, tapping feet.
And still, no response came.
“It’s okay, I know ye ’ave yer grandparents.”
The head dipped lower, the storyteller just a black hood in his face.
“No, Cain.” The voice sounded gentle, but laced with needy undercurrents. Reaching out to him like a hurt child for the comfort of a mother’s embrace. “I will come to the smithy in the morning.” The voice cracked. Words came out forced, unnatural for one with such mastery as he. “Be waiting.”
A command. Almost.
And before Cain could respond, the storyteller slipped out the door, into the summer night. Mysteries eluded him though he searched to understand, a quest as fruitless as a journey to the end of a rainbow.
But perhaps tomorrow he would make a new friend.