Gracia, my sister, is packing salted meats and dried fruit as Declan, my brother, sharpens his dagger. Ailward, our village guardian, uses a wooden cane to hobble about the crowd of warriors, helping the youngers strap their horses correctly. Dempsey, Ailward’s nephew, and three other men wrestle each other playfully, their hair flying and their deep laughter traveling along the air above our caravan. Everyone is lighthearted, either purposefully ignorant or naturally oblivious to the dangers that await us. As I pack my water sac on my horse, whose name is Tyrell, and observe the rest of my village, Ari, Ailward’s son, walks over to me, holding a parcel in his hand.
“Your smile is stale, Chaviva,” he remarks, “What is the matter?” He waits for my reply on the opposite side of my animal. As he waits, he takes my provisions in their cloth sacks and straps them to Tyrell.
“I am afraid…they are unaware of the tortuous journey ahead…I don’t know what will happen.” Even as I speak to Ari, I feel as if someone or something is watching me from the tree tops. Anxiety seizes my chest and I don’t want to go on this journey, but I know it is necessary. I know Ell’s plan and his desires, and I want to pursue them.
“You are concerned about things beyond your control. Ell will protect us, as he always has,” Ari says.
His words are comforting, and I sigh and smile as a response, but doubt still plagues my heart. He places his hand over mine as it rests on Tyrell’s leathery saddle. I try to ignore the tingling sensation this touch inflicts on my heart. I cannot trust men, not yet. I move my hand out from under his and avoid his gaze, which I know follows me closely.
“We leave before sunrise tomorrow.” Ari gives a final order before leaving me to tend to the rest of our warriors. Gracia and I are the only female leaders of the battalion, and therefore share the responsibility of mentoring and training and encouraging the other female warriors. I leave Tyrell and walk over to Penelope, a young and emotional warrior who has a beautiful singing voice and great skill with a stone and slingshot, to help her strap her horse, named Perditta.
Ari follows in his father’s footsteps, though he gratefully lacks the fear-stricken bones of his courage-bereft uncle. Ari is like no man I’ve ever experienced and this makes me confused, because I have always thought all men to be the same. What makes him set apart? I wonder.
As the sun sets in a kaleidoscope of radiant hues of crimson and amber our battalion of two-hundred fifty warriors trek through Amalawood, maneuvering through trees and over boulders, across meadows and between patches of swampy ground. Ari rides on a dark steed at the head of the caravan with Dempsey and Declan on either side of him.
I weave my fingers into Tyrell’s shaggy mane and hold the reigns loosely, because I know Tyrell will follow Declan’s mare, as they are brother and sister. With no control to be had over my horse, I begin to contemplate Ari’s words. Is it true I have no control over this journey, that it all must be given to the mighty Ell? I ask myself. But then I remember the time before I encountered Ell, who is the divine sorcerer of our land. He is more than a sorcerer, but I cannot find any other word to better describe him. Declan and Gracia had told me of Ell. I had watched them pray to him countless times and thought them fools. They began to carry long swords that glowed in darkness instead of carrying bows and arrows in quivers hand-crafted by the women of our village and inspected by our warriors.
I remember encountering Abaddon, our great enemy, for the second time in my life. The first he had attacked me and cursed me with a fear of men, a distrust of all people save my siblings. The second, he had attacked my troop, which had consisted of myself, Gracia, Declan, Uggi (Ailward’s brother and Dempsey’s father), and several others as we’d trekked through the woods, searching for him. He had appeared as a basilisk. I had fallen into a tunnel beneath the ground, where I met Ell, where my disbelief was vanquished and my strength solidified.
That is where I gained my sword, Ellond, and tossed my bow, for the swords of Ell are the only weapons able to defeat this demonic presence terrorizing our land, the only way to fight against Abaddon. Without a sword of Ell, any warrior is subject to Abaddon’s influence, his possession, and this is a weakness and a vulnerability. Only Ell and his weapons can protect us.
Two warriors walk on either side of my steed. Half of the battalion rides on horses while the others travel on foot. We are scheduled to make camp at the border of the Maca desert and Amalawood, about four hour’s journey from our current position. If possible, we are to reach the village of the desert tribe, the Macaby, before the setting of the sun on the following day.
I don’t know the nature of the Macaby, only what I’ve heard from great warriors who have traveled to their land. The Macaby are said to be harsh and severe, pierced with bones and jewels, much like the beads and feathers our warriors wear in their hair. It is said that though their nature is cold, once you befriend them you are a comrade for life, a covenant friend. We must wish for a good first impression if we are to gather more warriors from their village to rise up against Abaddon.
“You are nervous,” Gracia notes. She is riding on her horse, Kade, next to me and had been quiet for the first part of the journey.
I look at her face, the picture of kindness, the most loyal eyes ever to behold. She seems tired, her face covered in grime and sweat, her pale hair a tangled mess. Alas, her eyes are ripe and vibrant, refreshed and alert. Her stature is sure and her manner is calm. She is the epitome of peaceful.
“I am,” I say.
“Why? Allow me your thoughts,” she says.
“Ell must be in control,” I say. “For if he wasn’t, Abaddon’s forces would have descended upon us by now.”
Gracia looks into the canopy of branches above us, which are sagging low and nearly touching the tops of our heads. She observes the way the warriors walk and notes the time being stolen away with each ounce of sunshine fading into the night. She furrows her brow for only a moment, and then turns to me with her face at ease once more.
“It must be so, though you should remember: Abaddon cannot live in light…it is not the right time for him to attack,” she says. “The night will be the true test of Ell.”
“Do you believe he will keep us?”
We remain silent for some time, my heartbeat quickening as the last sliver of sun disappears behind the mountains in the west. Our physical protection has faded.
We are exposed.
“Sege, you shall take first watch,” Dempsey barks orders and sniffs out a challenge from the warriors, though he is surely aware of the last time he challenged us and was sent away with his tail between his legs.
“Very well,” Sege consents.
Our group of warriors is by Goma, the river that separates Amalawood and Maca, setting up tents made of boar hide and laying out sleeping sacks made of bear fur. Because there are so many of us, the leaders set under Ari, Dempsey, and Declan spread out into different troops and overlook the warriors in their appropriate groups, each with their own lookouts. The men will sleep under the stars while the women will sleep in the tents. Gracia and I, however, will not sleep in the tents, for we are the female leaders of the battalion.
The area in which we camp is a meadow ten trunks from the river bank, bordered by tall willows whose wispy tendrils reach down to caress our hair and whisper us to sleep. Declan and I build a large fire and cut wood from dead trees, making sure we have an adequate supply for the night. The light will keep them away.
Before long, our many horses have been tied near to the river so that they may drink, and all of the company save myself and Sege is asleep. I sit on a rotten log near the crackling fire, the light of which reaches far past the boundaries of our camp, while Sege sits near one of those boundaries, hidden from my view. I rest my elbows on my knees, Ellond’s sheath resting on the end of the log. While glancing at the trees around me and noting the stillness of the air, I observe my comrades. Ari sleeps near the fire next to Declan. Declan sleeps soundly next to Gracia. My kin sleep facing each other, their hands entwined, strengthened. Dempsey appropriately sleeps at Ari’s feet.
I smile upon seeing this. Ari, because he is Ailward’s only son, is to be the next village guardian, a position of high esteem and great responsibility. Dempsey is green with jealousy, and it is not difficult to observe the malice and contempt with which Dempsey speaks of Ari. He is often rebuked for it, but I must wonder if he will ever have the misfortune of acting on such feelings.
The flames dim for a moment and come back up, but there is no wind or rain. I smell something sour, something foul, and I place my hand on Ellond’s hilt. I do not cry out, for fear of preparing the enemy rather than catching him off guard, fear of letting him know I’m aware of him. A sinister laugh bubbles up from the coals like spoiled blood, and I find it hard to breathe. Wind coils through the air above my head and rattles in my ears as gray tufts of smoke slither upward along my body. My hands begin to ache and blister, but I hold on to Ellond’s hilt.
A wet and hungry snarl from behind forces me to turn around, but I’m tackled to the ground before I can react. The wind is knocked from my lungs with the collision of bodies and a beast wrestles me outside of the boundaries of the camp and nearly beyond the light of the fire. I grunt and struggle but can’t find the breath to scream as my ribs ache and creak from being hit so forcefully. The animal is clawing at my shoulders and tearing at my face as I hold it at bay with my hands on its skeletal chest. Thick tar falls from its body and oozes over my skin, hot and oily. Two front teeth carve my collarbone and extract an earth-shattering cry from my lips. The strength in my arms is failing beneath the weight of the monster, whose vermillion eyes burn into mine. Fear is the only thing in my mind and it begins to consume my thoughts. I am too close to death.
The creature suddenly screeches with great agony and falls to the side of me. Ari stands over me, holding his glowing sword over his head. Sege stands next to him, looking down on me in horror. My skin is tingling and my limbs are numb. My body feels wet and vulnerable. I cry and wish they wouldn’t look at me in such terror. The tears evaporate as they cross the surface of my swollen cheeks.
Ari, Sege, and two other warriors, one male and one female, run over to carefully move me, each cradling a limb and placing a strong hand on my back. Each moment is filled with agony, so much that cries clog my throat and come out with no sound.
“How did this happen?” Ari demands, glaring at Sege.
“I-I don’t know…it just came out of nowhere…behind me,” Sege says.
“Ari, put her in here,” Gracia’s voice comes in over them and we pass underneath the roof of a tent, becoming basked in the light of an oil lamp and hidden from the light of the fire. I am set on a low bed of grass and cloth. The hands of my supporters graze my skin and cut through my senses. Gracia stands over me and places her hand gently on my forehead, though her form is blurry and unclear.
“She is fading,” she states. “Penelope, take water from the river and boil it over the fire, quickly!” Penelope leaves the tent in a whirlwind, rushing through its flaps.
There are needles coming in through the air and piercing my skin, and I cannot run from the pain. My shoulders and chest ache as blood oozes from their wounds. My lips and cheeks are numb and continue to swell. I cry again and my pride is crushed as I lie there, helpless to end my own suffering.
“What was it?” someone asks.
“I’m not sure. I’ve never seen a creature like it,” someone answers.
“Bring the animal to me.”
Bustling and busyness inhabit the space for a long time until there is silence. I wonder then if I have finally died, but this is not the case.
They are studying the creature. As they study, my grip on consciousness loosens, and I fade into darkness.
An eternity seems to pass in that darkness. I remain curled up in a lightless place somewhere in my mind. I do not cry. I do not shout. I say nothing. I am alone.
But in a moment, while I am in that space, a bright light moves toward me, and I recognize it as the light of Ell’s orb, the one that rests on his staff. Ell is in my mind. I am aware he can move through space, possibly even time, but I was unaware of his ability to move through people. How can this be?
“Your sword,” he answers me, though I have not asked my question.
“You…you’re in my head,” I say. The hair on my arms stands on end, and a shiver travels quickly up my spine. This is the most intimate, the most alone I’ve felt with Ell before. He is normally aware of my thoughts and my feelings, but now that he is experiencing them with me, I suddenly feel naked.
“Yes, I am.”
“Am I going to die?” I ask him.
“No, you will not die,” he says through a kind smile, kneeling before me and looking into my eyes, “though, when you awake, you will have to accept help. Your wounds will not heal easily.”
“What was the creature? How did it evade Sege?”
“It fed off of fear and arrogance coming from someone near the fire. The creature was a wolf with demonic blood running through its veins, taken captive by Abaddon and morphed into something it was never meant to be.”
“Is it dead?”
“Yes, and though there are more like it, you are ready for them.”
“How can you say, ‘I am ready’ when I was caught off guard only moments ago?”
“Chaviva.” His melodic tone cradles my name, “you must be caught off guard by the enemy once to know where he will come from the next time. So long ago, in Amalawood, when you were confronted by Abaddon, you were caught off guard. But in the tunnel, when you were trapped, you were much more aware of his presence, much more attuned to his movements.
“I will heal you, and you will live. Use this event to be ready, for many more will come before your journey’s end.”
“Why was there only one creature? Don’t his forces normally travel in packs?” I ask.
“There were more. But once the young warrior pierced the wolf’s heart, they backed down, seeing that he is one of mine.”
A question plagues my heart, one I am sure Ell can answer though unsure if he will.
“Ell, how am I to defeat Abaddon when I come to the end? He returns even when I strike him with Ellond. How can he be eradicated?” I struggle to conceal my desperation and frustration as I beg an answer from him.
Voices come into our conversation then, first Gracia’s, and then Ari’s. Penelope’s and Declan’s are murmurs among many others. Ell’s form begins to fade.
“Wait…wait, no! You must tell me!” I plead.
But he fades, and the orb of his staff floats in the air before me, soon piercing the entirety of the darkness and bringing about vision and consciousness.
The back of my head vibrates when I open my eyes. I don’t know how many days it’s been, or if it’s been days at all. Sunlight shines through the roof of hides and wood, dust circling in a celestial descent to the unseen floor. I want to sit up, but I’m still weak, my body aching and shivering. I let a slow breath hiss through my teeth as my stale vision begins to adjust to the forms besetting me. I can see no one in the room, though my vision is of course limited. The air is cool in the shade. In a moment or two I find the strength to prop myself up on my elbow.
“You’re awake,” Gracia enters in a cloud of relief and sends the cloud up to the roof to cover the atmosphere. Her smile radiates the purest light and it alone heals my heart: I am happy to see her.
“Gracia,” I whisper, “what happened?”
She does not answer my question promptly, but glides away from me to a basin in the corner, where she soaks a cloth. Bringing the cloth to me and placing it on my burning forehead, she takes hold of my hand and begins.
“You were attacked—“
“This I know.”
“—the moment you were attacked the camp burst into life and Ari pierced the animal’s chest with his sword. He and three others carried you to where you are now. You fell unconscious and remained so through the night. We were ready to call upon Ell, but Ari ordered us not to. I know not why but I understand now that it was unnecessary, for you are awake and healing.” She ends.
I am quiet for a moment, looking to either of my shoulders, noting the white cloths that cover them, and feeling the oil on my chest and the way my hair is no longer braided but sprawled out behind me. The sour aroma of balm reaches my nose from my lips and cheeks.
The balm stings my wounds and the cloth itches, but I understand that I am healing.
“Will you help me?” I ask her.
She strengthens her grip on my hand as I use it to lift myself up to sit. Pain splits my chest in half and breathlessness chokes me. Gracia asks me to lie down again but I refuse and ask her to bring my hair over the front of my shoulder.
“I must heal soon. When can I ride Tyrell again?”
“Not for another day or two,” Ari says loudly as he walks in.
“You must know that’s not possible,” I argue, frustrated by his presence. “We can’t remain in this place for so long,” I say.
“Gracia, leave us.”
Gracia obeys Ari and leaves the tent. As he stands before me, I begin to braid my hair, but my attempt is pathetic and my fingers are clumsy. The locks are cumbersome in my hands, which I notice are also bound in cloth and balm. I try to remain calm and determined but I know it is no use. My cheeks burn and my eyes well up with tears, but I do not cry in front of Ari.
“Please, allow me,” he says, sitting next to me. He untangles my fingers from my hair and places them on my lap. I begin to wonder if this is what Ell meant by accepting help.
“Chaviva, you must take time to heal,” he says as he beads and braids my hair. “You are one of the leaders, and I cannot have you less than completely able to fight and protect. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I say.
His long locks are tied back in an intricate braid decorated with war beads and eagle feathers, which show his position as highest leader. Whirlpools of deep, dark water stare at me through his eyes, though I continue to avoid them lest I should drown. As I sit there, vulnerable to his influence, I ignore the urge to scream, to fear, to fight him. This fear of men hurts every part of me, worse than any physical injury I can imagine. But remembering Ell’s words, taking refuge in his soothing voice and in the healing of his perfect touch, I find serenity in sitting there with Ari, a supernatural occurrence.
Two days later we begin our journey once more. The caravan wades through the quiet river under the protection of day light. Penelope, Gracia’s friend, walks beside Kade as Gracia rides beside me. Dempsey, Ari, and Declan once again lead the battalion in confidence, in bravery. Tyrell’s saddle rubs against the bandages on my thighs from where the wolf’s hind claws ripped at the flesh. The sun beats down on my scabbing face and shoulders. My chest wounds itch and burn and my fingers begin to ache as I hold Tyrell’s reigns. Despite the discomfort, however, I am glad to be moving again.
Ell’s words of caution, speaking of the wolf feeding off of arrogance and fear, irritate my thoughts. I understand many are afraid…I am afraid. But who is arrogant? Who is placing himself above all others? I remember my observations from that night, seeing those sleeping around the fire: Declan, Gracia, Ari, and Dempsey…
“Gracia,” I say. She moves Kade closer to me. “While I was unconscious, Ell spoke to me.”
“The mighty Ell? Did he tell you of Abaddon’s demise?” She asks eagerly.
“No…no he did not. But he did say the creature attacked because of fear and arrogance harbored by one of our own…and I think it’s Dempsey.”
Gracia widens her eyes to expose the veins in her whites. She looks up to the front where Dempsey rides on a red steed, his bow strapped to his quiver and his quiver strapped to his back.
“He does still use a bow…” she says.
“Yes…what are we to do?”
My sister and I continue to gaze onward at the men in the front. Dempsey turns on his horse to look back at me with a seductive gaze of deep red, a sinister smile.