The journey back through the Ironsnarl was a beaten path that cut through the heart of the forest. The three-thousand steps were blisteringly fast, near leaps with each and every stride. Rachael nearly collapsed when they reached the camp, struggling for breath. Emilia was barely winded, but they at least look like they struggled with the weight of the woman. Slung over their shoulder, the woman seemed to have finally lost consciousness and from all the blood and ichor down Emilia’s jumpsuit, the reason why is obvious.
Rachael finally found her breath, and straightens up, “I’ll go get the medic.”
“No,” Emilia strides forward through the camp, “I know the way.”
Rachael pauses, but Emilia doesn’t and when she finally catches up, Emilia has the woman inside the medic’s tent and on the table. The medic’s tent is one of the largest in the camp, the size of a house by itself, divided up by colourful and elaborate paper and wood screens. The medic seems to know Emilia by nature, the two merely extend a glance as the young woman is placed down.
“Keep this between us,” Emilia asks, and the medic nods.
Rachael steps in, as the two of them conspire, “What are you going?”
Emilia gestures to her, and to the woman’s wounded arm. It is missing from the elbow down as if their entire forearm had been torn off. Torn, not cut. Their skin hangs unnaturally, like ripped fabric, the flesh itself ripped from the joint and black-laced blood oozes from barely clotted veins.
A weakness churns her stomach, her head turns light. She had watched her mother butcher animals as a child, it was part of the cuisine. Small animals like rabbits, larger ones like fish, none had looked like this woman’s arm does. She clutches a hand against her mouth.
“Black… like the forest,” Emilia says with an almost whisper, “ is it plague?”
The medic busies themselves with cleaning the wound, thoughful and deliberate, “No. I do not believe it is, but to be sure, you should both take treatment.”
Rachael watches anxiously as Emilia breathes a sigh of relief, and then helps the medic with their tools of the trade.
“We found her deep in the forest singing to herself. I am guessing that they got an arm caught in something as they fell into the ravine we found her in.”
The medic looks up, sceptical, “It takes a lot of force to tear apart a joint like this. Something did this to the poor thing, possibly the same thing that caused that bile.”
Rachael is out of her depth, but it seems so natural for Emilia to just start work alongside the Medic. All she can do is, do her best to stay out of their way as she watches with grim fascination. The smell of burning flesh makes her sick and the thought of cutting bones…
“She’s lost a lot of blood and I don’t think we can save what’s left of her arm.”
That is not a particularly comforting thing to hear from the Medic. As much as it creeps her out that they found a woman just laying there wounded in the middle of a dead forest, with the black seeping from them… like the forest itself had blighted them. She doesn’t want them to die. Emilia however seems haphazard in how generously they carve apart the woman’s arm.
“You haven’t lost any of your touch, Emilia.”
Too focused to speak, Emilia grunts, and points to the veins and arteries exposed by the cutting. It is only once the wound is cleaned and the bleeding staunched that Rachael realises why… the entire piece cut free is black, and it spreads.
“If anything kills her it’s blood-loss,” Emilia finally speaks grimly, “whatever this black stuff is, it is nasty and it is only getting worse.”
“I’ll make sure to burn it, in case it is some kind of… plague.”
“Try not to worry everyone over it, that last one is still in everyone’s memory. Imagine the chaos if we found the missing-half.”
Decades ago, long before Rachael was born, the Rohvanese Empire spread across the known world. Yet it was felled by a plague that swept across its majestic trade networks, across the vast roads and through the grand fleets. A plague that killed only men, and for many more decades people have lived in fear that the missing-half of that plague would surface. Or that it would come again and finish off what is left.
Rachael had to sit down, her mind already lost in the racing thoughts. To be completely honest, the death of seventy-percent of the world’s males had done nothing to change anything about the world. Losing the rest would do nothing to impact Rachael’s life, but… she cares for the future of her people.
“You think, you think it’s possible?”
“Anything is possible,” Emilia scrubs her hands clean, “but if such a thing did exist, it would not take so long to resurface.”
Emilia gestures to the woman, “She is young, there is no way she met anyone from the first outbreak.”
Emilia crouches down to meet her eyes, “Do not worry, we know how to cure these things now. It is how we survived the first half.”
“Do you think they’ll be okay?”
“I hope so,” Emilia’s eyes slip away, unable to hold her gaze, “I have a lot of questions to ask.”
Rachael looks up at the woman, she can see their chest rising and falling as they breath.
“At least they are still alive.”
“That is a good sign.”
She has a singular question in her mind as she gets to her feet – what were they doing out there?
“I’ll uh, I will be outside, tell me when they’re awake.”
She leaves the tent, just happy to be away from the viscera. It isn’t until she reaches the campfire that she feels far enough away to stop fighting down the acrid taste in her mouth. Luckily there are plenty of trees around to hide behind as she is sick.
The idea of a plague, no matter the number of times she is reassured, would still make her sick to her stomach. It worries her, even though it would do nothing to her. And now she is expected to pretend it doesn’t…
The world beyond her little slice of cave is as terrifying as she reckoned it would be, but it is hard to deny the beauty of this place steeped in violent memories. A Rohvanese Camp, the finely painted canvas tents surround her, nestled in against walls made of thick wooden posts and finely hewn planks arranged between them with care and deliberation to the pattern. It is not perfect, there are breaks in the fortifications, namely the one she just passed through and the thick foliage is off-set as near pure black against a setting sun.
Lingering about outside the walls are the Ceton, large beasts of burden made of hard bones and gentle spirits, happy to feed upon the thick grasses of the open plains just beyond the walls. Mountains rise above her, snow capped peaks glimmering in the late afternoon. No hint of the coming rains…
Around the lit camp-fire, the women of the camp gather. Most are in pairs, most are talking affectionately to one another, uncaring of the onlooker greedily trying to voyeuristically gaze into their relationships. She wonders idly how many have paid the blood price, before she sits and is immediately greeted with hospitality. A pair of women, well younger than she is, speak with her candidly. They ask her about Battery Point, they are tribals, yet to have ventured into a major city. Her opposites.
They wear the thick braided hair of her people, people she held no true attachment to yet proudly refers to them as her people. Jeweled, to symbolise their marriage, as though the stars crown their hair. It is odd to them that Rachael is not yet married.
“Do you not like anyone?”
“No,” she tells them, “There are people I have loved. I just, haven’t…”
To them it seems a great shame, until they take the opportunity to extend to her their bedroom. As flattered as she is, it wasn’t really something she enjoyed the idea of. She lacked that old-fashioned charm about her own life. A product of the city, her blood runs thick with the new way of living.
When she turns them down, they stay, they talk to her, it isn’t until Emilia arrives that they finally leave her.
“These women are yet to pay the blood price,” Emilia tells her.
When a woman comes of age in Rohvana, she takes upon herself a debt – either she bears a child or she becomes a soldier. Both shed blood for the people, to ensure the survival into the next generation.
Emilia looks at her, eyes unable to meet her own, “I chose the sword, but no.”
“Do you think you ever will?”
“No, not by their standards.”
Emilia gestures to the fire, the neatly stacked wood that burns away eagerly.
Rachael smiles, and leans against them, wrapping an arm about their shoulders, “We’ll be outcasts together then.”
Though she knew she could live past death, it always worried her that when it came, she would not wake. What if this is the true life? What if the dreams that had lead her here, were truly just dreams.
She always remembers the lives she has lead once she wakes, but never the lives she has slipped away from and into the realm of sleep.
She knows she has died, so waking up in the same body was a strange experience. A lifetime ago she had slipped away against the body of a woman trying to carry her to safety, maybe only a day or two have passed. Near death has a strange effect on the wiring in one’s brain.
Opening her eyes, she is met by an unfamiliar world she has not lived in before. How to process it… a fragment of a life she was living somewhere deeper in her brain maybe – or a life she had considered over but that is still here.
A bedroom, blank brick walls, a soft mattress under her back that makes her body ache. No, of course, this life comes flooding back to her. She had been in the forest, they had chased her, and one had caught her. Her arm…
She tries to raise it, it is no longer there even though she can feel it. She can feel the sheets, her fingers smoothing out the rough fabric. She can still feel it, burning white hot as…
Looking down, it is gone. She turns her attention up, the strange dim white light, the glowing particles of some kind of plant. It leaves the world ghostly, near intangible to her eyes. As if she could pass through whatever she touches like water. But she makes it to her feet without any strangeness. Her head spins and her body is on fire, but her mind is chill like ice.
Where she is, remains a mystery. It is a bedroom, book shelves and a desk line the walls, a door to the side of the desk, and the bed is under a wire-bound window that looks out at a river falling from the sky. Sitting up she can feel the cool air rushing through the cracks in the glass of the window, against her neck. Her hair has been cut, and her body is wrapped up in bandages. The woman that helped her… they had been kind enough to bind her wounds, but what had happened to her clothes and her hair?
She doesn’t remember anything after the moment they picked her up. She doesn’t remember all her wounds, but she knows they include her left arm.
She is just resisting leaving the room…
She has to, she pushes herself up and with her body weak she leaves to explore beyond the shuttered door. The hallway outside the bedroom is lit by the same eerie glow. Another door is directly opposite, and it is shut. To the right opens up into a much larger room with a sheet roof, a small table and a few chairs.
Beyond is a smaller room with another small table, and she isn’t sure what it is for as it seems to just contain cupboards. There are pictures on the walls, both of two women with unfamiliar faces. She assumes one is her rescuer.
They seem happy together.
The room beyond that is larger, and it has a window that takes up the entire right-hand wall that looks out over a town. The town is lit up by the same light that brightens this… house? A counter… maybe it is also a shop. Then she turns her eyes up and through a smaller glassless window to the left.
A woman is working in a workshop, and if they didn’t look so differently, she would have thought she had somehow gone back to her youth.
“Good, you’re awake.”
The woman sees her from the corner of their eye and she freezes, unable to even duck behind the counter to escape.
She finds the door at the end of the counter and steps into the workshop. Actual, proper light fills this room, the crisp white kind. The woman doesn’t smile, they just regard her carefully as they approach her.
“I am Emilia.”
She looks them over, this is the woman. They have the same strong build, she had imagined them a soldier, but judging by the workshop they are a forger.
“I am Athema.”
“I have a lot of questions for you, Athema, but you’ve clearly been through a lot so that can wait for a few days.”
She goes to rub her arm, but she is missing one.
“I am sorry about that… you lost an arm and to fix the wound I had to take more off.”
“It is alright, thank you for helping me.”
“Well,” Emilia steps closer still, light illuminates the thick sinewy muscles of their exposed, grease-coated arms. Significantly taller, broader and no doubt stronger. A woman that seems able to tear her other arm off.
“It was lucky for you, I found you. I doubt anyone else could have carried you out of that ravine.”
“Well, you’re free to stay here for as long as you require. This is my workshop, but Rachael owns the house so you will have to make a good impression on her.”
“You are a forger?”
“I’m an engineer, yes,” Emilia crosses their arms, “These days I mostly repair things.”
“Things?” she looks past the woman and at the machine on the back wall, “Machines?”
“Water pumps mostly. It’s the only thing anyone knows how to use.”
“You were out in the forest, looking for machines to fix?”
Emilia raises an eyebrow, “No. No-one fixes those, they’re sacred relics I’d get myself lynched doing that.”
“And this one is okay?”
“Well… only if you don’t tell the monks,” they gesture to a high, backless chair, and she follows suit to sit upon one, “Can I call you by something shorter?”
“Ash? Uh, alright. Can you answer me one thing?”
“Yes, you saved my life. I owe you that much.”
They nod thoughtfully, then after a long moment of contemplation they finally ask, “You are not from Rohvana are you?”
“Is it that obvious?”
Emilia smirks, “I have been everywhere that bears the blessed name, but never have I met a woman with a split tongue and chiseled fangs.”
“I am not Rohvanese.”
“I only have one question for you,” Emilia sits across the bench from her, “the thing that did that to your arm. They are not going to come looking for you, correct?”
“No, they will not,” she runs her fingers over the stump of her arm. It is wrapped up in soft bandages and feels smooth underneath that, “they are dead.”
“Alright,” Emilia’s fingers tense, “I will not accept any harm coming to Rachael. Understand?”
They are silent for a time, as though Emilia is waiting for her to prove themselves wrong. Finally they simply stand again and say to her, “Don’t tell anyone what you are, and promise me that you will tell me if you think you are putting me or Rachael in danger.”
“But I am putting you in danger.”
Emilia smiles, it is a hard smile, not at all like in the pictures in the other room, “Come, meet Rachael.”
Emilia gestures for her to follow them out of the workshop.