Welcome to a Fiction Friday! This week is a very special week… as an early Christmas present (or festive treat, if you prefer) I give you (*drum roll*) the whole of Grove of Graves to read for free! (It’s about 10K words and this was Patreon-only fiction previously.)

You can either read the full text here, or head over to my Patreon page to read it, and other posts, there:

I hope you enjoy it!

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Grove of Graves: A Story of the Ruon Chronicles

Nea looked up from her own weeding to where her mother knelt beneath the grave trees, digging at the new plants which sprouted now that spring had started. While the men dug the graves and planted the grave trees, it was the women’s job to keep the family grove clear of weeds and other plants. The grove was, after all, sacred ground and weeds and other plants was hardly the thing that should grow in such a place.

“Keep your eyes on the job at hand,” her mother said without looking up. “The faster we finish, the faster we can return home. I do not like the look of the gathering clouds.”

“I was just wondering about the weeds – there seems to be a lot of them this year. More than I remember from previous years.”

“Just old wives’ tales,” her mother snapped, though she did pause now and looked around the grove. “It means nothing. Nothing at all.” She stood, dusted her knees, acted as if she was worried about the storm clouds and not the weeds that had taken hold of the grove. “Best we gather the weeds we’ve already removed and burn them now. They will already be difficult to get rid of. We don’t need the rain soaking them as well.”

“Yes, mother,” Nea said, picking up the large basket of weeds she had gathered. With the sky darkening and the sprouting, rambling weeds mocking the graves of their family, it was eerie beneath the boughs. Her mother clutched two smaller, but no less full baskets under her arms as they left the family graves for the village.

To the north of their grove stood the tall, matted trees of the Swallowtail family – the richest and oldest of the village. To the south, hugging a stream, was a grove of ancient willows which had belonged to a family from a village which had been razed long ago during the First Midland Wars. Only now the family’s trees were starting to perish as the souls of those buried beneath them crossed the Veil into the undying world beyond. Still, no one drank from the stream’s water, which was icy cold even during summer.

Nea’s eyes followed the stream to where it disappeared into the vast shadows of the Great Brenoth Wood.

“Where is your mind today, Nea?” her mother scolded.

“The Nithin are coming this week.”

“We have no need to fear them,” her mother said. She grabbed her daughter’s arm, dropping one of the baskets, and pulled her close. “I have kept you safe from them through all the years they had to look for you. You are safe now. We all are.”

“What about the children?”

“No one will die tonight,” her mother said and nodded to herself. “I made sure of that.” She touched her daughter’s cheek. “There will be no planting of trees this week. I promise you. Now, help me pick up the weeds I dropped. We should get back to the village. I want the grave weeds burned before the rain starts.”

When they reached the edge of the village, one of the children, Hermahn, ran up to them.

“They say the Nithin are coming tonight!” he stuttered. “Ma’ Nea, I do not want them to find me and take me away!”

“Do not worry so, Hermahn! No one is going to take you anywhere. Your blood is clean. Come, help me carry these home.”

“But how do you know, Ma’ Nea?” His eyes widened. “Did the ancestors tell you?” He stared off into the distance to where the grave groves stood.

“They did,” Nea’s mother said, glancing to her daughter. “They told me no one would be taken tonight.”

Nea was surprised that her mother managed to lie so easily to the child. But the older woman had put on her own hiding cloak and had gone around the village to see whether any of the children had Ruon blood and could see her. But it was only Nea who, heart in her throat, was able to see her mother walking from house to house. Suddenly she felt as if she was seven years old again and ready to be tested the first time.

She barely remembered the night the Nithin was supposed to take her. Her mother had given her some foul tasting concoction that dulled her senses before she was placed between the other children around her age. They spent the night outside on the village green. Nea could only remember her mother’s words vaguely through the dulling of her senses.

“Do not look at them. Never at them. Look away or past them. Never make eye contact. If you do, they will take you away.”

She did as she was told, gazing off into the distance before moving her gaze in the direction of her house. She swore she could see her mother’s shadow at the window.

“Look, the Nithin has come!”

Nea, started at the voice and for a moment thought it had been her own. But it was another child who had spoken and now pointed directly at the two approaching Nithin. The women started circling the group of children.

“There’s nothing there,” Nea said. “You should not lie.” Nea looked to her own home again, but the child kept repeating and pointing at the two Nithin.

“Don’t you see them?” he kept asking. None of the children dared to look in the direction the boy was pointing. They all knew what it meant if you saw the Nithin on this night.

“You are just excited,” Nea said. “There is no one there. You must be seeing shadows.” Nea tried to get sense into him, but it did not work. Just as she was about to press his pointing hand down, the boy gasped and clutched at his neck where a speck of blood appeared. He fell backward, his head hitting the ground sharply, but he made no sound. Nea stared at the dead boy, willing herself to look at his dead eyes instead of looking back at the Nithin who had killed him for being able to see them. It was all the proof they needed to know he had Ruon blood.

The other children screamed and ran for their houses. Nea stood as well, backing away before stumbling to her house. But, unlike the other children, she did not have to beat upon the door before being let in. The shadow at the window had been her mother and now she gathered her child in her arms and slammed the door against the night and the Nithin.

Outside the dead boy’s mother started wailing at the death of her son. Nea watched in horror as the Nithin threw another hiding cloak over the boy and carried him off. To his mother his body would simply have disappeared.

“This is just a dream,” Nea’s mother said. But Nea knew she was lying.

“Where are they taking him? Are we not going to bury him tomorrow?”

“He will not get a grave in the family grove,” her mother said softly. “Those with Ruon blood never do. The Nithin -”

“But I could see them. Does that mean I am Ruon?”

“If you were Ruon, you would be dead right now.” She started at the sharp voice of her father.

“You will never utter those words again, do you hear me?” he scolded. “You have survived tonight,” he said then, his voice soft once more. “That means that you cannot be one of the Ruon. You are safe.” Only then did she see that he had been crying.

By now she knew that there were, in fact, four Ruon in the village. She, her mother, an elderly woman who was the best midwife for miles around, and the thatcher. They all knew of each other, but no one ever dared to say anything. Of them, only her mother had had any training, so they did not need to feign ignorance. But they did fear the Nithin more than anyone else. To be found by the Nithin was to be killed by them. You would not be buried, but would be dumped somewhere away from your people – perhaps even in the woods – and left for the elements and animals to do the rest. There would be no tree for you; your soul would never pass the Veil to where your family was waiting. You would simply stop existing. It would be as if you never existed in the first place. Ruon other than the Nithin, after all, should not exist. All in Agraver knew as much. Nea shivered.

Outside their house her mother built a small fire in the stone-lined pit made especially for the grave weeds and slowly fed the weeds to the flames while Nea sang the songs of dying and of the Veil. White smoke swirled into the air and burned her eyes. She wished to the Keepers of the Veil that they would not let her be found out by the Nithin and that she would be spared. She wiped at her eyes and stopped singing, acting as if the smoke was the cause of the tears in her eyes.

“We are safe,” her mother assured her in a whisper.

The evening came much too soon and, with it, the final preparations for the coming of the Nithin. Clouds still hung low in the sky and threatened to hide the moon and stars the whole night. Nea’s mother bustled between the kitchen and the clay over outside the house while Nea sat inside and braided the dragon’s bane woody and prickly vines into circles that would be thrown on the fire at midnight. Even though she wore gloves of thick wool and leather a few of the plant’s thorns had drawn blood and caused her to swear. But today the words didn’t elicit a response from her mother who had also let slip a few choice ones after some of the pastries almost burned. Even her father came to check on them every while. His face bore deep lines of worry – the same she saw every year when the Nithin came. At last he started talking about the family’s grove while sitting next to Nea at the table. He fidgeted with a piece of dragon’s bane, but did not join in with the plaiting of the plant – that was women’s work. He did nod with approval when he saw that she was plaiting twigs soaked in oil into the centre of the plait. They needed to make sure that the circles would burn.

“You say there are a lot of grave weeds?” her father asked.

“Yes, father. After all the rain – bless the rain -”

“Bless the rain,” her father and mother added. It was only a year since a severe drought had swept through the Midlands.

“There are ferns and grasses.”

“No new trees?”

“None that I’ve seen. I will go back tomorrow and clear more of the weeds. I’ll leave the great tree for last,” she added, referring to the first of the family trees that were planted outside the village in the spot that would later become the family grove.

“Leave the great tree for last?” a nasal, high-pitched voice interjected. Nea’s head shot up and she nearly dropped the dragon circle. Their neigbour stood in the doorway. The woman was short, barely five feet tall, and her voice was one that seemed to cut through bone.

“I always leave the most holy for last,” Nea explained. “I always have,” she said again, looking at her father.

“It was what great grandmother wanted,” her father added. A shadow passed over his face and he clenched his hands, dropping the thorny branch on the table. “The wish has been passed down through the family for generations.”

“So have the story that your great grandmother as you call her, was a Ruon.” She spat the word like a curse.

“Lies seem to have a life of their own.” Her father stood. “May we help you?”

“I come to see if the dragons circles have been braided correctly this year,” she lied. Nea knew she lied. She had called them “foul blood” more often than she cared to remember and always seemed to choose this day to find out if they weren’t really of Ruon blood so she could out them to the Nithin.

Nea held up the last of the plaited circles. “This is the last one.”

“My daughter already finished our family’s dragon circles this morning.”

“My daughter is somewhat of a perfectionist,” her mother said and her father had to hide a smile as she carried in the final tray of golden brown pastries. Nea’s stomach grumbled at the sight and smell. But they were not to eat today until after nightfall – today was a day of fasting as much as anything else.

“We want everything to be perfect for the Nithin, don’t we, Nea?” her mother said.

Nea nodded, not trusting her voice.

“Bless the Nithin,” the neighbour said, her eyes pulling into slits.

“Bless the Nithin,” the family intoned and watched their neighbour leave.

“And may the Khalver take their souls,” her father grumbled under his breath. Nea’s mother glared at him.

“You could at least have waited until she was back in her house,” she scolded. “Idiot busybody! I hope their dragon circles don’t burn tonight.”

Nea stared down at the dragon circles and hoped the fire would consume theirs tonight and not give them away. Last year the thatcher was almost caught before the people of the village were reminded that he had no daughter to plait them for him. They grudgingly accepted that the thatcher’s large hands were unsuited to the task and that is why they would not burn at first and simply broke apart. After all, some mused, you needed a thatcher in the village and theirs were so skilled that it would be a shame to spill his blood because he was a bit clumsy when it came to braiding branches. The circles did burn, after all, the fire claiming the offering after a long while.

Nea’s mother closed the door and they went to stand in a circle, holding hands.

“Khalne keep us safe,” each said in turn. More words that could lead to their deaths, but words that needed to be said. After all, the grave groves and spirits were here long before the Agraver with their Nithin took the land for themselves.

As the sun sank below the horizon the eldest in the village lighted the great bonfire. Nea and her family stood between the throng of people, clapping as the flames consumed the packed wood. The billowing smoke would call the Nithin closer. Nea’s mother handed them each one of the dragon circles. They would be tossed into the fire once the Nithin were there to witness that they were all pure.

Some of those too eager for the Nithin to come – or perhaps just feeling faint after not eating for a whole day – started at every moving shadow. Nea tried not to let her eyes rest on the two figures of the Nithin she could see coming closer. They were wrapped in hiding cloaks the colour of midnight – that much she could make out. And to say that she could see them while they were wearing them would be admitting that she was Ruon.

It was only when the Nithin reached the fire that they threw back their cloaks and were made visible to the villagers. All gasped, the closest quickly stepping away from the Nithin with bowed heads.

All fell silent until the crackle of wood was the only thing that could be heard. Nea reached for her mother’s hand, wanting to feel its reassuring touch.

“We have come to cleanse the village,” the Nithin intoned as one and Nea shivered at their icy voices. The elder of the village walked towards them, bowing his head and then kneeling.

“Your village is ours for the cleansing,” he said, throwing out his arms and looking around him.

Most of the villagers were too dumbstruck with fear to do anything other than nod. This was the first time Nea realised that only the Ruon knew that there wereonly two Nithin here. The others were perhaps imagining a whole invisible host of them surrounding the village. From the darting eyes around her, she realised that she must be right.

One of the Nithin, her face the pale grey colour of dragon’s bane ash, stepped further into the light. The black tattoos tracing her face danced in the firelight.

“We will begin with the burning,” the Nithin said.

The elder stumbled to his knees and started getting everyone in a long queue. The children who were too young and still needed to be tested on this night were huddled away from the flames. Nea turned her own circle over and over in her hands. As the youngest, she would be the first of the family to throw her circle into the flames. She held her breath. Once in a while someone would only show their Ruon blood when they were in their late teens, like her, or even in the middle of their lives.

She tossed her circle into what she hoped was the hotter part of the fire. The circle of dragon’s bane hooked onto some of the others that already lay in the flames. For an achingly long moment it seemed as if it would not catch fire, but then the dried twigs she had included in the centre of the bundle caught light. She looked back at her mother who smiled and nodded. What they were doing – if they were found out – would ensure that they, too, would be put to death. No questions asked.

Nea nearly started crying when her mother’s circle also caught fire. After her father burned his as well, he came to stand by them, his arms enfolding both of them.

Nea had made the thatcher’s circle this year as well – in secret though – and she watched as it, too, burned. A few of the people patted him on the back as if to say that they never truly doubted him.

Nea’s father bent down in order to whisper in his wife and daughter’s ears.

“Tomorrow, go and clear the rest of the weeds,” he said softly. “I have a bad feeling this year. Take food with you as well. You know what we’ve talked about.”

Nea nodded, trying to hide the fear from her face.

“Why now?” her mother asked, barely moving her lips.

“The midwife isn’t here,” he answered.

“She might be working,” Nea said, but her voice faltered.

“She might. But I’d rather be safe than sorry. Promise me you’ll go. As early as possible.”

Nea promised, feeling cold even though the fire burned high into the sky. Then she realised the Nithin were staring straight at her.

Part 2 – The Burning

Nea shrank back as the Nithin’s eyes remained locked on her.

“Don’t look at them!” Nea’s father hissed in her ear.

She dragged her eyes from the pale-faced women to the bonfire. Yellow flames licked at the dry wood, some blue ones licking at the dragon’s bane circles which were still being added as the villagers passed the fire one by one.

“Nea, go and fetch my shawl from the house,” her mother asked. People were starting to follow the Nithin’s staring eyes. Though her mother’s voice sounded fine, Nea could see the worry etched in her eyes as the firelight danced over her face.

“You know what we spoke about,” her father whispered.

“But the festival-”

“Go to the grandmother tree, my Little Star,” her mother said softly, chilling Nea to the bone. Her mother did not call her Little Star unless she was very ill or someone in the family had died. “Now, go fetch my shawl, there’s a good girl,” her mother said, her voice back to normal.

Nea nodded and slipped away from the crowd to their house. She could swear she felt the Nithin’s eyes on her, but when she dared to glance over her shoulder, she saw that they had moved on to another part of the crowd and were watching the circles as they were being thrown into the fire.

Nea stepped into the dark house, feeling her way around, too scared to light a candle. At last she felt her light summer cloak beneath her fingers where it hung over the back of a chair and threw it over her shoulders. As she reached the back window and placed her hands on the windowsill, she turned back to face the living area, remembering what else she had to do. In the corner of the room she lifted one of the stones close to the hearth and retrieved a small purse of coins wrapped in a piece of soft leather. She slipped the stone back into place and tied the purse to her belt before climbing out of the window.

Her foot slipped in the soft soil of the vegetable garden at the back of the house and she cried out. She crouched down, but no one seemed to have heard her. She righted herself, gave one last look at the house and sped off in the direction of the grave groves.

From the back of their house she only needed to pass another row of houses before reaching a narrow road beyond which their family grove stood.

By the time Nea reached the family grove, she could no longer hear the sounds of the village. Sound always seemed muted here between the grave trees – even more so at night. Nea wrapped the cloak tighter around her. The swish-swish of her feet through the weeds reminded her of the great amount of weeds that had sprouted this year. They should have known something was going to go wrong by that sign alone.

“Khalne save us,” she whispered and quickened her pace to the grandmother tree – the first tree of the grove to have been planted. When she came to the enormous, sprawling tree, a voice by her ear said “climb”.

She looked around her, turning in a full circle, but could see no one. Her vision blurred with tears of fear and she wiped at them in anger.

“I heard you,” she said. “And I am not afraid!”

“Then climb,” the kind voice said again, this time further away.

She grabbed at the lower branches and swung up, climbing as best she could until she reached a part where the branches spread out in such a way that she could sit down completely out of sight. She crouched, looked down, and drew back in haste. Between the roots of the tree stood a white figure – not a Nithin, but a ghost.

The pale, incorporeal figure looked up for a moment before scanning the trees in the direction of the village. Nea dared to glance down again at the figure and, sure enough, he just stood between the roots of the tree, clothes blowing softly in an unseen breeze. She wanted to call out and ask which of her ancestors he was, but then she thought the better of it. What if someone had come looking for her and she was shouting down from the top of the tree for all to hear and all to find her.

Then, as if hearing an echo, she heard a lullaby-like song drifting up to her. Soon her eyelids became heavy until they were so heavy that she could no longer keep them open for all the fear she still felt and she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

It had been a few hours since the sun rose when Nea woke. She was still curled up in the same position in the tree and, when she remembered the figure and the song and looked down, she saw that there was no one there. As she sat up and brushed dry leaves from her clothes and hair, she saw the edge of what looked like a box of light-coloured polished wood. Wiping the layer of old leaves and twigs away, she saw that it was indeed a box which had been placed there by someone – and apparently also not too long ago as the elements had not yet taken too much of a toll.

She lifted the box from its resting place before opening the lid of the engraved box. It fell from her hands and almost spilled its contents. Inside were lain thin cloths, each the size of two hands, and embroidered with strange patterns.

Ruon charms, she knew immediately. She had heard enough of them from her mother now that she was old enough to know what they were. Along with the cloths was a chatelaine decorated with detailed embroidery and which held fine needles and a pair of small, well-wrought scissors – not the type of grand thing that you hide in a tree. It must have been from her mother’s training, she realised as she placed everything but the chatelaine back into the box. This she stuffed into the purse with the coins and sat back to wait for her parents. Later she would ask her mother about it and her training at Ruon Haliern. She glanced at the height of the sun in the sky. The Nithin usually left at dawn. It was strange that her parents had not yet come for her. Her mother had said that she wanted to continue weeding the grove today. A cold fear crept over her.

Still all was quiet in the grove and she decided to rather climb down and head back to the village herself. Getting down from the tree was a lot more difficult that climbing up and Nea was completely out of breath by the time she swung to the ground from the lowest branch. She wrapped the cloak tighter around her head and shoulders even though the cool of the night had lifted before she slowly walked towards the village. When she reached the edge of the grove she could smell smoke and another harsh, acrid smell. The village seemed to still be asleep. No one moved about, there was not even any smoke curling from any of the chimneys. As she craned her neck to see the square where the remnants of the bonfire should be, she saw that it was still burning. Next to it, on the left, stood the Nithin, staring to the opposite side of the fire. Not daring to creep closer, Nea crept sideways and saw, hanging from the big tree in the green, four bodies. She recognised her mother’s yellow dress.
An icy hand clamped over her mouth and grabbed her arm. It was the ghost from the night before. Not as incorporeal now, she could make out more of his features. And they were filled with anger.
“They are going to come looking for you, you have to run!” he said.
Nea tried to speak.

“Your parents are dead. The midwife is dead. The thatcher is dead. You will also be if you do not run. Now go! You can do nothing more here. Do not stop at the grandmother tree. Go beyond it into Brenoth Wood where they will not be able to find you.”

He pushed Nea away from the village and she stumbled over her own feet, fell. She could not pull her eyes away from the village.

“Nea! Run!” The words, spoken so firmly, seemed to bypass her brain and go directly to her muscles, which obeyed so that she stumbled away from the village through the trees while tears blinded her.

The ghostly figure turned back to the village. One by one people were coming from their homes. Still dressed in their celebration clothes, they each picked up a burning brand from the bonfire and started walking towards Nea’s family grove. Run! He shouted again in Nea’s mind, urging her to run faster before he stepped back into the Veil and disappeared from sight.

Nea ran past the grandmother tree and the other old trees in the grove. From there only a few meters of cleared ground lay between the grove and the Great Brenoth Wood. As she stumbled into the shade of Brenoth Wood, she crouched down behind a bush, and peered through the branches to see if she could see the white figure again.
Cold sweat lingered on her skin and blood rang in her ears along with her heartbeat as she waited.

Voices sounded then, carried on the breeze which blew towards her. She could not make out what they were saying, but she was sure that they were anything but friendly and she was also sure that they were looking for her. Louder and louder the voices became until she could make out her name being called. Then she saw the villagers walking between the trees of the grave grove carrying fire.

Leading them were the two pale-faced Nithin. They did not carry any fire, Nea noted. But as for the other villagers… all the faces she knew and loved were there. All carrying fire in her sacred family grove.

“Find the girl!” one of the Nithin screamed and Nea crouched down lower to the ground. “She must be hiding here somewhere!”
“In the trees!” someone shouted, she knew not whom.

Eyes searched the trees, between the weeds, behind tree trunks.

“Burn the trees. And let her burn with her ancestors!” the second Nithin shouted. The woman grabbed a brand from a young woman and held it against the grandmother tree.

“Do not make a sound,” the white figure’s voice said in Nea’s head. “You will be safe here.”
Nea watched as the flames licked at the bark of the tree and then spread as more and more of the bark caught on fire.

“Set them all on fire!” the Nithin shouted.

“Cleanse your village of their filth!”  the other pale-faced woman screamed and stretched her hands into the air.

One by one the other trees in the grove were set ablaze and the villagers retreated to their homes leaving Nea alone to watch her ancestors burn.

As she watched she saw more of the ghostly figures move as if they were walking through the flames on an unseen path. Then the ancestors are not dead, she thought. They have been released. Hope, however frail, rose in her heart once more even as the white and gray smoke billowed into the air. She clutched her cloak tighter around her. At her belt the purse jingled and she started at the sound. With trembling hands she untied the string and opened the purse. She placed the chatelaine carefully aside – it was even more precious now – and stared at the few coins that was all the money she possessed in the world. It would buy some good meals, perhaps even lodging for a few nights, she mused. Not that she knew where she would go from here. When the Nithin was on the move it was a dangerous time to move between villages. And word spread fast. She looked to the south of where she sat. There was only one thing for it. Leave Agraver all together for one of the other kingdoms.

Wind blew the smoke into the wood and it stung Nea’s eyes where she crouched. Once her eyes started watering, she started to cry and found she could not stop. She sat there sobbing and silently cursing the Nithin and everyone in the village. She would never be able to forget the sight of the hangings, she had no doubt about that.

Not far from where she crouched the white figure stood, hand upon the hilt of his sword, watching her. Beside him stood a woman figure, just as white, her hands clutched before her.

“You must watch her, Tarion,” the woman said and the man nodded. “She is a lot more important than she thinks she is.”

Part 3 – Search for Sanctuary

The white figure turned to the woman next to him, fear gnawing at his mind.

“Amalia,” he asked, “What have you seen?”

She looked from the crying girl to the burning trees before meeting the green gaze of her husband.

“I have seen a time of peace followed by a time of gathering darkness. And then more darkness – a darkness I cannot see beyond. What will become of Airtha-Eyrassa is hidden from me, Tarion. Perhaps there are still too many paths that can be taken.”

Nea cried until she had no more tears to shed. Her body shook with the sorrow of all she had lost and she clutched the purse to her, swaying forwards and backwards as if to soothe herself. But the pain did not pass or dim. There were no more figures in the fire now, she saw. Branches were starting to rip from the tree trunks and fall to the seared ground, showering sparks of flame as the collapsed. She wanted to scream at the Nithin, at everyone in the village, wanted them to be cursed for the rest of their miserable lives. Wanted their lives to be short as well. Her parents had always planned to flee to the family grove in the case that they were found to be Ruon, but, beyond that, Nea did not know what their plan was. She wiped across her stinging eyes, but did not want to keep them closed. Each time she blinked, it seems, she saw the four bodies swaying, saw her mother’s yellow dress.

“There is nothing left for me here,” she whispered as if she wanted to tell the burning ancestor trees why she was leaving. There would not even be a sapling she could take to her new home. She shivered. They might as well have killed her. When the grove is burnt it would be as if none of them ever existed.

She crept from her hiding place and started making her way along the border of the woods, being sure to keep the road just within sight at all times. Every now and then she would look behind her, the feeling that someone was following her becoming overwhelming. Once or twice she thought she saw a dark shadow, but when she blinked, it was gone. Nea tried treading softly, but still found that she brushed against branches or snapped twigs underneath her feet.

Movement in the corner of her eye caught her attention and she whipped her head in the direction of the road. She was just in time to see the white figure of the man disappear once more and relaxed. Then it was he that was following, she assured herself. At least she knew that she was still being watched over.

Leaves and branches rustled to her right and, just as she turned her back on the road, Strong arms grabbed her from behind, trapping her arms behind her back. A cackle sounded next to her ear. Nea struggled, trying to free herself from the tight grip, but it was to no avail. From the shadows of the wood one of the Nithin stepped, a long silver knife in one hand.

“You are very good at hiding, young Ruon,” the Nithin said, spitting on the ground after uttering the last word as if she wanted to rid her mouth of a foul taste. “But not skilled enough in the woods, I am afraid. You will come with us.”

“I will not!” Nea said, struggling again and her arms were pinned behind her even tighter.

“You cannot walk away here alive except by coming with us,” the Nithin in front of her said. Her voice had taken on a sweet quality, but the smile she plastered on her face did not reach her eyes.

“Then kill me here and be done with it!” Selena felt new tears burning her eyes. What she really wanted to do, her mind seemed to say with a strange voice, was to fall to the ground and worship the Nithin as she would worship the Khalne if she saw one. She wanted to go with them, the strange feeling crept over her. She pushed it away when she saw the expression on the Nithin’s face.

“Stop playing games with my mind!” Nea said through clenched teeth. Her arms felt as if they were going to break at any moment.

“Then come with us.”

“Never!”

The Nithin behind her suddenly took a deep breath and the grip on her arms lessened. She stepped to the side, spun around. The woman was collapsed with dark stain of blood spreading on the back of her dark dress and cloak.

“Sister!” the other Nithin shouted, rushing forward. She made a slashing motion at Nea, but Nea got out of the way in time.

The white figure stepped from the Veil, sword in hand.

The Nithin stepped backwards, tripping over a tree root and falling into the narrow road.

“Curse you, Airus!” she shouted, getting to her feet.

The figure, now stepping wholly from the Veil was no longer just a white figure, but looked entirely human.

Nea crouched behind a tree, too scared to run in case there were any others waiting for her. The safest place, it seemed, was close to the Airus as the Nithin called him. Her heart beat faster. That one of the blessed Airus would be given the task of watching over her, a simple child from Agraver!

“Leave now and I shall spare your life,” the Airus said.

The Nithin gathered a handful of dirt and threw it at the Airus, who shielded his eyes, but it gave the Nithin enough time to get up. She slashed at the Airus, but her knife was no match for the sword and she lost her arm, screaming and clutching at the stump. The Airus stepped forward, taking his own knife from his belt and stabbing the screaming woman in the heart. She collapsed onto the road, her blood staining the ground a deeper red.

“Nea,” the man said, turning back to the woods. She crept behind the tree, hoping he could not see her, covering her mouth with both hands to keep her from screaming and throwing up. “Nea, if you can hear me, head south to Treddian. Do not stay in Agraver.” His shoulders slumped. “Trust me in this, I beg you.”

Nea remained crouched a moment longer before she shot away, running as fast as she could between the trees and leaving the Airus and the dead Nithin behind her. The heat of the grove burning filled the air, but without wind was controlled enough not to spread. Rather a column of white smoke drifted high into the sky and could be seen for miles around.

Tarion crouched by the dead Nithin women, closing their eyes and saying the prayers of forgiveness over their lifeless forms before wrapping them in the hiding cloaks they were wearing and burying them.

“May you at least find peace beyond the Veil,” he said softly as he threw the last of the dirt on the graves.

Steadily the road next to Nea became narrowed and more unkempt until it was little more than a footpath that the Agraver used to move between their land and Treddian when they went on raids. As Nea reached the edge of the woods and stepped over the border into Treddian, she looked back, wishing that she could see the smoke to tell her how far from home she truly was, but the trees obscured her view. She looked around her, but there was no sign of the man who had fought the Nithin. She was not sure if she should thank him or be afraid of him. Sweat was pouring down her face and she could feel rivulets running down her spine. She threw her cloak back, but did not take it off. How she wished now that it was one of the Ruon’s hiding cloaks. She started walking southwest, following the edge of Brenoth Wood still, only knowing that Holt Haliern was located at the edge of the Wood. More than that her mother had been loath to tell her even when the melancholy took her and she wished for nothing more than to return to Holt Haliern and be rid of the Agraver.

As the ground became more uneven, Nea moved away from the treeline and saw that there was a road not too far off. She headed towards it, making sure that no one saw from which direction she came.

It took more than an hour’s walk before she saw another soul. Next to the road sat a man and a woman. Both were middle-aged and were dressed in very plain, unbleached clothes, except for the woman’s cloak, which was a deep blue colour and was richly embroidered. While the man tended the fire, the woman was reading something to him from a book. They had a small fire going and were busy preparing something to eat in a pot over the flames. The man was first to spot her. Though he was armed, she noticed, he made no sign to get up or to attack her. She stopped some way from them and called a greeting to them. Only then did the woman look up from the book and lift a hand in greeting.

“You seem lost if you are coming from that direction,” the woman said. “Do you know where you are?”

Nea looked around her. The land here did not differ that much from her home, though she did feel naked knowing that Brenoth Wood was now behind her and that she would most probably never walk in it again, nor feel its great weight and age at her side like she did in the village. Those that had returned from raids, however, had never really spoken about how the people of Treddian looked or dressed. She just knew that they were different, the enemy. They did not have dragon blood, did not follow the old laws. They, like many of those in Agraver, also did not plant grave groves. But that did not help her much at this moment.

“I am in Treddian,” she said, and hoped that she was correct.

“Good,” the man said. “At least you know where you have ended up. I would like to know why you are here.”

Nea swallowed. What was she to tell this armed man?

“What he means to say,” the woman said, eying the man, “is that we would like to offer you lunch in return for a story.”

“I have money,” Nea said.

“And that is a good thing,” the woman said. “Although I am afraid that I would much rather take a story – any story really – above a coin. Also, my cooking is not that good.” She smiled, motioned for Nea to come closer. “I am Zala and this grumpy man here is Trevian.”

“Why would you want a story?” Nea asked as she sat down, a few steps away from them.

“I thought our clothes gave us away,” the woman said, pulling at her plain dress. “We are Seekers of Knowledge.”

“I have never heard of you,” Nea stuttered, unsure if everyone in Treddian knew about these Seekers or whether they were a secretive people like hers.

“And it is no wonder.” Zala looked in the direction Nea had come. There, in the shadow of the trees stood the man that Nea had thought was her ancestor. He did not come closer, however, and Nea wondered if he was frightened of the Seekers of Knowledge.

“The real question,” Zala continued, “ is not whether or not you have any idea who we are, but rather, I think, what one of the Airus are doing watching over a girl from Agraver.” Zala looked back at Nea. “And a Ruon girl at that.”

“I am not -”

“Save your excuses,” Trevian said, his voice gruff as he poked a stick into the fire. “That there is the border of Agraver and Zala here is wearing a hiding cloak. If you can see her it means that you are a Ruon as well. And that makes your story all the more interesting to us. Probably to anyone at Holt Haliern.”

“Holt Haliern is close?” Nea asked.

“Not as close as my poor legs would have liked. No, we are two days from the sanctuary. Most likely four because we are travelling by foot and my feet do not want to move as fast as they did before.”

“You lost the horses,” Zala said. “Not me. And you do not hear me complaining.”

Trevian hung his head and Nea wanted to laugh at his downcast face.

“You are on your way to the sanctuary?” Zala asked.

Sanctuary, Nea thought. That sounded wonderful.

“I am… I have nowhere else to go. My mother went to Ruon Haliern,” she quickly added.

“I shall give you a second helping for telling me how a woman from Agraver went to Ruon Haliern and managed to raise a Ruon child in Agraver.”

Nea felt the tears rise in her throat and swallowed hard to get rid of the lump restricting her throat.

“Where are your parents?” Zala asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

“The Nithin killed them,” Nea said when she at last found her voice again. She looked to where the Airus was standing. “They told me to hide and then he kept me safe,” she added. “He… he killed the Nithin when they tried to catch me,” she said.

Fear filled her when she saw that the Airus was walking towards them.

The Airus stopped a short way from them, lifted a hand to his brow and said: “Á Agrai tellarias or s’agrélar silássa.”

Both the man and the woman stood, made the same gesture and said: “And may the Creator shine on your path as well.”

“I am Tarion Airadan.”

“It is an honour,” Zala and Trevian said, bowing low. Unsure of what to do, Nea also bowed to the Airus.

“There is no need for that, especially not when I come to you in an hour of need,” Tarion said.

“Need, Airus Tarion?” Zala asked and he nodded.

“I need someone who will help to guide Nea here to Holt Haliern. It appears that you have come across her path just in time.”

Tarion took Nea’s hands in his. He could feel her tremble with fear, and tried to pass some of his own calmness to her.

“You need not be afraid of me or any of the Airus, Nea,” he said. His voice was one of the kindest she had ever heard and his eyes were no longer filled with fear or anger, but were also kind and smiling.

“You killed the Nithin.”

He sighed. “If I did not, they would have killed you.”

“What does that matter? They have killed my whole family and burnt the family grove. There is no use for me anymore.”

“Quite the opposite, Nea,” Tarion said. “The Airus Amalia Airadan has seen part of the future.”

“Just tell me what you want to tell me! Do you want me to believe that I am somehow special? That my choices -”

“Your first choice has already been made and it has saved your life,” Tarion said. “You will face more choices just like this in your life once the war starts. But there are others who will come after you and who will need to make the same, if not bigger, choices. Those choices can all be brought back to you and what you decide to do right now?”

“I do not understand.”

“You can choose to either go to Holt Haliern or return to Agraver.”

“I choose Holt Haliern. There is nothing for me in Agraver,” she said immediately.

“Then you choose well.”

“And this war you speak of?”

“Is still brewing, but it will come. And when it does the best place for you and your future kin will be the Sanctuary.”

Nea laughed. Future kin! But then she saw that the Airus was not joking and new tears caught in her throat. “I will have a family again?”

“Amalia has foreseen it.”

As if called, Amalia Airadan stepped through the Veil at the edge of the woods, looked around her until she spotted Tarion and the others and then rushed to them.

“Tarion!” she called. “A raiding party!”

“How many?”

“Five.”

“Ha! Five I can take alone my lord Airus, you and your lady go. We’ll keep the girl safe,” Trevian said.

“I’ll not leave you alone, Master Seeker. They will taste our steel together. Amalia, send word to my brother,” he asked.

She nodded with a fear-filled face and stepped back into the Veil, disappearing from their sight.

“Mistress Seeker, you can keep Nea safe beneath your cloak?”

“I can,” she said with a bow of her head just as the raiding party appeared from the trees.

“Hide!” Trevian cried and Zala grabbed Nea, throwing her cloak around both of them and leading her away to some large boulders not far from their campsite.

“They’ll catch us!” Nea hissed.

“Be quiet, or they really will!”

She pulled Nea down next to her on the grass, keeping the cloak around both of them. Nea noticed how the charms embroidered on the cloak started losing colour and turning to ash, just as her mother had told her happened. She kept her eyes on the charms, unwilling to see the fight that would take place between the two men and the raiding party. Yet, when the first man’s cry was cut short she looked up and saw one of the Agraver fall. Trevian fought like someone twenty years his junior as he turned and slashed at the raiding party with two knives. Another man fell beneath a stroke of Tarion’s sword and Nea wondered if she could start hoping that the party would not be able to find her.

The woman only threw the hiding cloak from them when all five of the raiding party lay dead on the grass. Both she and Nea was trembling and only now did Nea see that the woman had a short knife in her hand as well.

“You could have fled and left me,” Nea said.

“We could have,” Zala said.

“Why did you not do that? Just because an Airus comes to you with a story?”

“Because I would not leave a child to be slaughtered by an Agraver raiding party even if she from Agraver herself.”

When they reached the site of the fight, Tarion was kneeling by one of the dead Agraver, his fingertips resting softly on the dead man’s brow.

“What is he doing?” Nea asked softly. “Surely he cannot be saying any of the prayers over them.”

“He is,” Trevian said, cleaning his knives. “And I shall leave him to it. That I cannot do, I am afraid.”

Tarion rose and moved on to the next body without looking at the party of three. When he had finished, he stepped back and nodded, as if to someone, and only then turned back to Nea and the others.

“They have been taken through the Veil,” he said.

“Good riddance,” Trevian said. “Now you probably want us to bury them as well? What kind of people goes after a child to kill her?”

“Do not bury them,” Nea said, looking from one man to the other. “I know these men – I knew them – and they would not want it. We do not bury those who fall in battle outside our borders.”

Tarion regarded Nea for a long while before simply nodding and saying: “Very well.”

“Nea,” he said then, “you will be safe with Zala and Trevian. This was meant to be. Let them take you to Holt Haliern and stay in the sanctuary. Learn the craft of the Ruon, start a new family, leave the world of Agraver behind you.”

It took them only a day and a half to reach Holt Haliern following the road. Nea stared at the tall crystal pillars that surrounded the sanctuary. They seemed without blemish but for the carven symbols on them that glowed slightly with an indigo light.

“Is that-” she asked and the woman nodded.

“We have reached the border of the sanctuary of Holt Haliern. “You will be safe now.”

They entered through two of the tallest pillars that bordered on the road. The sides facing the road were carven into the likenesses of a man and a woman. Dressed in flowing robes and holding spears, they were each many times as tall as Nea herself.

“They represent Khalne,” the man said. “They are the guardians of the gate.”

Nea held her breath as they passed them and stepped onto the ground of the sanctuary.

The road led them directly to the crossroads where one road led to the library of Holt Haliern and the other led to the Ruon House. They turned right onto the paved road that led to the Ruon House and Nea could not help but stare at the dwelling which now came fully into sight. While she had pictured simply a very large house, the Ruon House was carved out of living stone with more buildings built to the sides of the rock. The entrance seemed quite insignificant from this far off though, when they came closer, Nea saw that it, like the statues of the Khalne, was colossal, its pillars rising some four storeys where they met rock carved with scenes from the history of Airtha-Eyrassa. As they reached the house Nea could see that the rock was completely covered in carven stories. Large windows with fine stonework let light shine into rooms she wished she knew the use of. Rows of windows punctuated every level of the house and she stared open-mouthed, her head flung completely back to try and get all of Ruon Haliern into her sight.

Living quarters of the Ruon students were built to the right and left of the house, their one storey, red clay-roofed buildings seeming tiny against the enormity of the house itself. A few of the student Ruon outside the house looked at them with curiosity, but at the most waved and greeted the Seekers. Nea felt her heart beat faster and faster until she thought she would surely faint. The woman pointed out everything to Nea as they walked and, when they reached the door, even knew the guards’ names.

They were let inside and the Seekers led Nea directly to the Wislic’s chambers.

“She will be able to give the command to let you stay,” Trevian said to Nea. “She is the leader of the house.”

“And if she does not let me stay?” Nea asked. “What happens then? Where will I go?”

“She will let you stay,” Trevian assured her, though she could sense a doubt in his voice.

As they walked Nea stared at the tapestries with their moving scenes hanging on the walls. Some were so enormous that you felt as if you were part of the scene playing out. When Nea looked up, she saw that the roof, as well, was decorated with fine filigree stonework.

“Who made this place?” she asked. “And did Ruon make those tapestries?”

Zala and Trevian both nodded. Then the man said: “The Airus helped to make much of this house, just as they did with the house of Holt Haliern. But the Ciph came from Kauko and Ellanda as well – their best craftsmen worked on carving much of the window frames and ceiling decorations you see.”

As they entered the Wislic’s chambers, Nea saw that here the walls were completely covered by tapestries showing scenes from the woods. With a little imagination you could hear bird singing in the trees and the leaves being rustled by the wind. The Wislic sat at a small table by the window, working on a charm by the sunlight streaming into the room. Her red hair was unbound and hung to her hips, while her clothes were of a strange cut to Nea. Though all brown, it was lavishly embroidered, and hung in thin layers and moved with every movement she made. She first finished a few stitches and bound off the charm before looking up to the three that had entered her chambers.

She smiled, greeting the two Seekers by name, and then set her eyes on Nea. Nea could feel how she was starting to blush beneath the strange woman’s gaze.

“What is your name?” she asked and it took a moment for Nea to find her voice.

“Nea, daughter of Niljana of Egrala,” she said. She did not want to mention Agraver, rather opting to name the town where her mother had been born.

“Niljana of Egrala?” the Wislic said and Nea nodded, wondering whether she had said something wrong.

“That is wonderful news!” The Wislic got up and came over to them, begging them to sit down and apologising for her manners.

“There had been news that Niljana was given to an Agraver man in marriage. We all thought that she had died.”

“She… she is dead.” Tears swallowed Nea’s voice and the Wislic’s face fell. “How? Illness?”

Nea clasped her hands together until the knuckles showed white. “We were found to be Ruon. The Nithin killed both my parents. I escaped thanks to them.” The swaying yellow dress crept into her vision once more and she could stop the tears no longer. Zala put her arms around Nea, the Wislic also stepping closer and leading her to a seat.

“You come to seek sanctuary?” the Wislic asked when Nea was able to dry her tears.

Nea took the chatelaine from the purse she was carrying and showed it to the Wislic. “I am looking for sanctuary, but I am also looking to learn. If I may,” Nea added.

The Wislic nodded. “Sanctuary will be given to you,” she said. “And if you are a Ruon -”

“I am.”

“Then you will receive training as well.”

“I can only pay this much,” Nea said, holding out the purse.

“You have sanctuary,” the Wislic said. “Keep the money for another day when you may need it.” She looked Nea in the eye. “I knew your mother quite well,” the Wislic said. “It would be an honour to teach her daughter as well.”

*

Nea walked through Ruon Haliern’s gardens to the orchard and took two seeds from her pocket. These she planted not far from the orchard, marking the spot with two sticks. One day there would be a grove once more.

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