Jourd’Umbra, 17th Duema
She awoke to the sensation of lying on a soft bed, her head pounding.
Assuming she must be lying still in the snow drift in the ravine into which she had rolled, and somehow was still alive, she struggled to get up, to get her body to safety.
A hand pressed her back against her resting place.
Her eyes flew open.
Things were fuzzy for a moment, but soon blurry shapes resolved themselves into clarity, and she found herself looking at the face of Queen Zameera.
So I’m dead then. Wonderful.
Zameera regarded her steadily, and then disappeared from Yarrow’s sight. Before the ex-bellica could follow her mother with her eyes or get up, the woman reappeared, cup in her hands.
Yarrow sat up a bit and took the cup from the late Queen. It was water. Thinking it strange to offer her water if she was dead, she nodded her thanks and drank, for she was – inexplicably – parched. Need to talk to the Goddesses about that – shouldn’t be parched if I’m dead. Unless I’m a shade. That would be less than ideal.
It was then her mother spoke, and Yarrow realised that the woman couldn’t be Zameera.
“Quien es ten sera?”
Her heart sank as she recognised Ancient Atherian and realised she must still be unconscious in the ravine, having a crazy dream in which a woman who looked like her mother offered her water and babbled to her in a long dead language, but not, as she’d previously thought, dead.
She’d prefer the latter. Though if she was still in the ravine she probably would be soon. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand,” she said to the woman in Athee, deciding that if she was having a crazy dream in her last moments she wanted to see where it would lead.
The woman sat back on her heels and stared at the ground, a contemplative look on her face. When she raised her head again she spoke in Athee sans grammar and syntax, using body language to extrapolate her meaning.
“Who?” she asked, pointing at Yarrow.
It took a moment for Yarrow to understand the question, so thick was the woman’s accent. “Oh. Who am I?” The woman nodded happily, and Yarrow was glad her dream-lady understood Athee better than she spoke it. “I’m Yarrow Achi deZameera,” she said out loud, stopping herself before saying ‘Zarqon’. No. That was not her last name anymore. She was just a commoner.
A smile broke out on the woman’s face, and she pointed to her chest, and then her head. “Thadea…thought. Yes.”
The name made Yarrow sit up straight. Where had she seen the name Thadea before?
“Your name is Thadea?” Yarrow asked, hoping the woman could clarify more.
“Thadea. Yes. Thadea deZora.”
Yarrow felt the bed drop out from underneath her.
Thadea deZora. Her mother’s twin – ostensibly dead in childbirth, for that was what her mother had told her. Yarrow had been young and fascinated with her family’s genealogy. She studied every book she could find, and one had listed Thadea as a daughter of Zora. Zameera had told her what had become of the princess’ aunt, a story the Queen herself no doubt believed, and Yarrow had never questioned it again.
Now that she thought about it, there had been no date of death written next to Thadea’s name.
This wasn’t a dream. This was real.
Yarrow took a closer look at her aunt. Thadea had Zameera’s features, it was true, but now that Yarrow actually paid attention she could see the small differences. Thadea’s eyes were snow-gray, almost white, whereas Zameera’s had looked like a storm-cloud reflected in the ocean. Her hair, while the same lustrous shade of blue black, fell in tight ringlets and curls down past the woman’s shoulders, where Zameera’s had been slightly wavy and down to her thighs. Their eyebrows, too, were different: Thadea’s matched her hair, but Zameera’s had been a dark brown. Her facial structure was the same and she had the same fair skin, but it was crisscrossed with fine white lines – scars, Yarrow realised. One large one ran right through the woman’s eyebrow, just missing her eye, and another one cut diagonally across the bridge of her nose.
The ex-bellica’s eyes fell to Thadea’s garb, and she realised the woman wore clothing made of the same white fur she’d seen on the creature who’d attacked her. She’d killed enough of them to make a cloak that hugged her shoulders and fell down her back, opening in front to reveal a white jerkin and breeches made out of some leather-like material, though Yarrow could see it was not the standard cowhide used for most clothing in Athering (except military issue, of course). The belt the woman wore was of the same material, and held two vicious looking blades – curved, and black, like the claws of a great predatory bird.
Yarrow’s eyes took in her surroundings, and she saw they were in a room somewhere in the servants’ quarters – and she wished that she’d been more interested in those before. The bed she rested on had blankets made of the same white fur Thadea’s cloak was made of, and she saw the small shelving unit installed in the wall held a longer blade, also black, and two spare dirks like the ones Thadea wore at her belt. There were some carvings as well, that Thadea must have whittled in her spare time. Yarrow wondered where she found the wood.
She turned to address her aunt, who had been looking at her patiently during her inspection, a small smile on the woman’s face. “Aunt Thadea,” she said, and Thadea’s smile grew and she nodded, “how long have you lived here – in the mountain?”
Thadea rose then and patted the wall of her room affectionately. “Whole time. Impri home.”
Oh Goddesses. It seemed Yarrow’s grandmother had followed the grand tradition that dotted the history of the Zarqon family – sending away one child, as a babe, with an entourage of nurses and body guards, to live in exile. It had begun with Mina in the First Age, who had then come back when she’d grown to purge the wickedness wrought upon her land by her twin sister Eradola, and the story cropped up again throughout the legends and history of Athering. As it had cropped up now.
Except this time Thadea’s twin had not been the one to purge – Zanny had. Which had no doubt been done, by Yarrow’s own twin sister.
The Goddesses had a wicked sense of humour.
Thadea turned then and offered a hand to Yarrow. Yarrow took it and got up, standing in front of her aunt. They were of a height – Thadea resembled Zameera in that, too, for Yarrow had grown to gain her mother’s height. Thadea patted Yarrow’s cheek gently, then, and the ex-bellica almost stumbled back. That was exactly what Zameera had done.
“Yarrow niece. Thadea protect family,” the woman said, still smiling.
“Thank you – for saving me,” Yarrow said. Had it not been for her aunt she would be dead now.
Thadea waved her hand as if to say it was nothing, and judging from the amount of dead Flesh Screamer in her room it probably had been. “Come now – eat.” She tugged at Yarrow’s hand, drawing the ex-bellica to the door. Yarrow let herself be led, and when they exited she saw they were at the end of the hallway on the bottom floor of the levels of servants’ quarters. She’d not taken a look inside the rooms down here.
She was about to turn to head to the kitchens with Thadea when she noticed her aunt was staring at where the hallway ended, a queer look on her face, her head cocked as if listening to something.
“Thadea?” she asked, wondering if her long-isolated aunt was about to flip out.
“Friend Briony bothered.”
So, yes, but not how I expected. “Pardon?”
Before Thadea could say anything the wall slid up to reveal Jules, a wild look in his eyes. He saw Yarrow and smiled.
“I’ve discovered the secret of the voice in the mountain.”
The voice in the mountain was Thadea’s ‘friend Briony’, and he was hidden in a deep cavern, far below everything else in the mountain.
Yarrow almost didn’t get to see Briony, and Jules almost didn’t get to see another day. No sooner had he spoken than Thadea had pulled one of her dirks and pressed it to his throat, shoving him in the corner of the hall.
“Bother Briony. Thadea hurt,” she said, giving Jules a vicious glare that Yarrow knew intimately.
It had taken some negotiating to convince her to let him go. Eventually Yarrow had to permit her aunt to kick him in the ankle once but that was it, a deal which earned her a murderous glare from Jules. There followed even more negotiation to persuade Thadea to let them see ‘Briony’. Jules bent over, rubbing the red line at his throat and catching his breath while Yarrow spoke to Thadea.
“Aunt, what if we promised not to…bother him? I just want to meet him,” she said, her voice engineered to calm.
“Briony keep Thadea safe. Thadea keep Yarrow safe. Briony keep Yarrow safe,” Thadea said, as if it settled the matter.
“Which is why I want to meet him,” she smiled, kept her voice bright. Thadea looked suspiciously at Jules. “He won’t say a thing,” Yarrow said quickly, reassuringly. “Right Jules? You won’t talk to Briony?”
He nodded eagerly, hand still at his throat, and smiled at Thadea. The woman continued to glare.
Thadea looked at Yarrow then and sighed. “Ok. Yarrow meet Briony. Yarrow friend stay quiet,” and she glared at Jules again while sheathing her dirk pointedly.
She headed through the door then and down the stairs, gesturing for Yarrow to follow.
“Aunt Thadea, eh?” Jules said, voice raspy. Yarrow nodded. “So apparently wanting or trying to kill me runs in your family.”
She snorted. “No. You’re just irritating.”
She headed off down the stairs. Jules’ voice followed her. “Ah, princess, I love you too!”
“Don’t call me that. And shut up lest I let Thadea kill you this time.”
Eventually they came to the end of the major curve in the stairs and the door behind them was no longer visible beyond the bend of the wall. This didn’t bother Yarrow, however, as the wall fell away on one side to reveal a huge room. Large crystals, coloured and clear, jutted out of the walls, ceiling and floor at odd angles. It looked like the inside of a rock she’d found as a kid and broken open, to discover a world of light and colour within.
“Juno’s Tits,” she said in wonder.
As they got further down she could make out details of what they were walking towards. At the bottom of the stairs, in the centre of the cavern, was a large field of the crystals. In the middle of the field, raised up, was a throne of clear quartz. A figure sat on it, a dark silhouette against the lights.
They reached the bottom and went to stand in front of him, and Yarrow could see the figure was a man – or looked somewhat like one. His skin was almost translucent, and he wore a strange, silver outfit – where shirt and pants should have separated they were joined. His eyes were closed, but Yarrow could see they were twitching, as if he were dreaming.
“This is Briony,” she said to Thadea, her voice a whisper. Thadea nodded. “And he’s the voice?” Another nod.
Yarrow felt cold, and knew she had to be in the presence of a God. But she’d never heard of the name Briony in mythology, and why a deity lived in the bottom of Mt. Impri she couldn’t fathom.
Unless I really am dreaming.
“Jules,” she whispered. “Pinch me.”
“No,” he said, voice low. “You’ll hit me.”
“Then how am I supposed to know whether or not this is a dream?” she asked, fairly exasperated.
Without hesitation he gave her a slap on her backside like those she’d been wont to give various tavern-wenches. She turned and punched him. He stumbled back and held the side of his face. “Ow! Dammit, Yar – are you satisfied you’re awake now?” Though angry, he still kept his voice low; it seemed one was not able to speak loudly in the cavern.
“I didn’t hit you that hard,” she said, standing upright again. “And not really.”
“Do you dream of punching me that often, then?” he grumbled.
“Only when you don’t do what I say. You should have pinched me.”
He came to stand beside her again. “There’s not much to pinch.”
Before she could glare at him, Briony opened his eyes and looked at them. Yarrow swallowed nervously. His eyes were totally white, as if they had cataracts. She knew, somehow, that he wasn’t blind – he was looking right at her. He spoke, then, in what she recognised as Ancient Atherian, and in the voice that had greeted them – the one she’d nicknamed ‘Aro’. She almost laughed thinking that if she ever saw Aro again she’d tell him that she’d met a god in a mountain who had his voice. The look on the major’s face would be priceless.
When Briony finished Thadea turned to them with a translation, broken though her speech was.
“Briony bienvenue Yarrow, Yarrow friend.” She didn’t call him Jules, though she knew what his name was. Yarrow decided it was her aunt’s way of establishing a pecking order. Thadea didn’t fully translate, but Yarrow understood that particular word of the ancient language. “Briony want know – Yarrow need anything?”
Yarrow felt quite flabbergasted. “Um,” she hedged. Why would a being this powerful ask her what she needed? She should be serving him! Wasn’t that how it went? Instead of protesting, however, she decided to take advantage of a deity’s boon. “An army would be nice.”
Her own words surprised her, as well as Jules, she could see. Both had thought she’d given up. I guess I haven’t.
Thadea spoke to Briony and received a reply; before she said anything Yarrow knew the answer. “Briony sorry. No army here since Vara.”
“Vara. As in Queen Vara?” Thadea nodded.
Sweet Althea. There hadn’t been a Queen Vara since 3300 – ousted by her sister in legal challenge, the mad queen had chosen exile over the amnesty offered her. She’d taken a few Regiments and Bellicas loyal to her and disappeared. She was best remembered for her refusal to wear the official coronet – the crown passed down from generation to generation in the Zarqon family. She’d said it caused a buzzing in her head and she couldn’t think, and so had a different crown made for her. There was a ballad about her, come to think…. The Madness of Queen Vara. Very well known, even seven centuries after her rule.
“Must be the skeleton in the throne room,” Jules whispered, though Yarrow had already figured that out.
Briony was staring at her expectantly, she saw, and she shifted nervously. In this being’s presence, with the knowledge of how long he’d been here, she felt small and insignificant – not a feeling comfortable to the six-foot-six warrior. She cast about for something else to say to the deity and settled on being grateful.
Before she could finish relaying her thanks to Briony for even considering her needs, Jules jabbed her in the side. “Ask him for food,” he said. “You said yourself we’ll need more; ask him where the food in the kitchens comes from.”
It was a good idea. Yarrow didn’t know why she hadn’t thought of it. “Thadea, does Briony know where the food in the kitchens comes from? And can he get us more?”
Thadea didn’t even speak to Briony before she answered. “Food not from Briony. Thadea – ” she jabbed her thumb to her chest proudly ” – hunter.”
“That’s a bonus,” Jules muttered. Yarrow nodded, but she felt nauseated. Flesh Screamer was not high on her list of animals to try for supper.
“Thadea, tell Briony we thank his greatness for all he’s done for us, and ask him if there’s anything we can do in return.”
Thadea spoke to Briony and had a strange frown on her face when she replied. “Briony say he grateful serve Aradian Queen again. Yarrow do nothing.”
Confusion reigned on Yarrow and Thadea’s faces; Jules just looked like his suspicions had been confirmed. Yarrow bade Thadea to direct her thanks to Briony regardless, and their meeting was concluded.
Upon reaching the top of the stairs, Yarrow started to try and convince Thadea to ‘move in’ to the suite she and Jules occupied.
“Thadea room,” her aunt said, as if it were obvious.
“Yes, but wouldn’t you rather be closer to me?” Yarrow said. Thadea looked torn, and Yarrow pushed the family card a little further. “I’d like the chance to get to know you, Thadea. You’re family. We’re blood.” And I’d feel safer with you in my sights, she didn’t say.
Thadea grimaced. “Thadea close Briony.”
Yarrow raised a hand placatingly. “You can still see Briony, Thadea. But it will be easier for you to protect me if you’re close by,” she said, and saw Jules working hard to keep his laughter back. She almost kicked him.
That did it for Thadea, however, and they went into her room to pack up her things. As Yarrow took a closer look at the carvings she could see one was of Briony, another of a woman Yarrow didn’t recognise, and a third was of a Flesh Screamer, dead, with a carved knife handle sticking out of its back. She’d ask Thadea about them later, for her attention was now taken up by two, soft spongy items on the shelf below.
“Thadea,” she asked, holding them up, “what are these?”
Instead of answering verbally Thadea demonstrated, taking the items and placing them in her ears. She then snapped her fingers beside her ear and shook her head, and Yarrow realised they were ear plugs – that was how Thadea faced the Flesh Screamers.
She smiled, for the answer had been obvious – I’m just tired – and they finished grabbing Thadea’s things before heading up to the suite the three of them would now share. Thadea was given the room next to Yarrow’s so she could ‘protect family,’ and the three of them then took the opportunity to sleep, for it was 0068, a quarter to one-hundred hours.
With Thadea moved in and part of the family, their lives were never quite the same.