The Aurelian Anthology (working title)
In the empire of Aurelius, there is a hidden legend. It is not about a warrior and it is not about a king. This legend is about a young woman who defies all odds in search of wealth, adventure, and ultimately, a place to belong.
Loss (story 1)
I never thought the day would come when I outlived my own child. Of course I had night terrors about it, but I was always so sure that the dreams were just that. Dreams. Nothing more. Prophetic visions were not within my range of abilities, nor had I wanted them to be. If they had been, I would have known about the girl. I would have known about the Shield. I would have known how to save my daughter.
Silent tears trail down my face as the funeral pyre burns in the cold desert night. As per Shamari custom, nobody is to make a sound during the ceremony. The only exception is for the immediate family of the deceased. One of which is lying next to her in the flame's embrace. The only other member sits listlessly on the ground, staring at the burnt wood beneath her parents' linen-covered forms.
This is her. The child of my child, trying so hard to be strong. Even she does not cry. She simply stares, oblivious to the evil eyes cast upon her.
Why does she not cry? She has the right do.
Have you not heard? She is the cause of all this!
It is true. She cursed her own mother to death!
The father said he witnessed the act himself.
And look what happened to him.
It's a good thing her grandmother is here. Let her take the little wretch away.
The mother never belonged her and neither does she!
Superstitious bastards. I can only hope that they never have to experience what this poor child has.
The wind had begun to blow out the flames, sending glowing embers onto the robes of the Shamari villagers standing to close. They gasp, turning their heads to their leader with faces full of dread. The old man nods and steps forward.
"The ceremony for Mahal and Harani is over due to the ill omen of a dying funeral pyre. The undertakers will continue alone from here. Please, Brothers and Sisters-"
"Please no!" A young woman stumbles forward from the crowd. "My husband is one of the undertakers. Please don't make him go near that cursed family again!"
"Haven't we already gone through enough?" Another voice calls.
"Send out the witch!"
"She's a danger to us all!"
"Brothers, Sisters, please calm yourselves." The leader quiets them. "The girl will be far away from here by morning. Do not shame the village in front of our visitor."
"This is not about shame. Our lives are more important than your reputation!"
"Send her out!" The villagers repeat over and over. The sound is deafening, making my head pound in cadence with their chant.
"Enough!" I screech, my voice cracking a little. Oh dear, my old age is really starting to show. "This is absolutely unacceptable. Not only are you disrespecting me and my family, but my station as well. I am the High Priestess of Amazora and that is my child in those flames. How dare you!"
The crowd is silent but I feel their glares upon me.
"Child, come here." The villagers' heads turn at my command, except for the girl's. I tap my staff impatiently and the village elder hurriedly rushes her over to me. "Tell me your name."
"Tell me yours first."
"Her name is Tikali, my Lady." The elder bows low, dragging the girl's head down with him. "Please forgive her. She has gone through so much in the past week and-"
I raise my hand. "No, I understand. Death is always a hard hand to grasp. Even the best of men succumb to it."
Tikali lifts her head, pushing the elder's hand away. "My mother used to say that… whenever my pet birds died."
"It is from the legend of the Gilded King. And who do you think she learned it from? It was I, your mother's mother. You may call me Baba Chandra, or just Baba Chan if you like."
"It means 'Elder Mother' in our native language. I have traveled very far to meet you. Your mother and I had not spoken for quite some time so when I received her message, I made my way here." I pat her shoulder lovingly, then turn my gaze to the villagers. "And yet this is what I have arrived to! The death of my only child and the blatant harassment of my only grandchild. This is utterly offensive and I will be sure to tell all of my influential friends about the people of Shamar and their gracious hospitality."
The elder flinches at the sound of my voice and the girl looks away, snickering.
I want to show her that I will always be there for her in the face of adversity, especially against gullible fanatics like these. I think I made my point rather well.
"Now Tikali," I tilt her chin up towards me. "You were supposed to return to Amazora with me at dawn, but I refuse to stay here any longer. Go gather your things."
"Actually, my lady," the old man steps forward again. "This girl is the last member of House Iman which had amassed quite a large sum of debt. Her parents have left nothing for her inheritance either."
"Ah, so she has nothing to pack."
"Of course, my people will gladly offer what little we can for your journey. Food, drink, shelter, anything you need," he adds nervously, bowing again, "in recompense for our earlier transgression."
"Tikali?" I look to the girl beside me as she glares daggers at the elderly man.
"You can start with a camel." She turns away and I cannot help but smile. She has the same brown skin and clear green eyes as her mother and I, but I could not count her as one of my own until she revealed that streak of fierce independence we Amazori women all share.
Now I am sure we are related.
"Please prepare food rations and water as well. And please move quickly. We have quite a journey ahead of us." I turn from the villagers and head toward the inn. Tikali follows behind me as silent as a shadow. I almost forget she is there until she tugs on my robes.
"Hey, Old Woman."
"Call me Baba." I say again.
"Are you really my grandmother?"
"Yes, Dear, I am. Who else would I be?"
"A slave trader. They come through here every once in a while. You're just pretending to be my relative so you can take me away."
I sigh and turn to look at her. "If you think I have an ulterior motive for stealing you away from your home, then why are you still coming with me?"
Tikali crosses her arms and looks at her feet. "Any place is better than here."
"Even a cold, dark dungeon?" We reach my room and I push back the curtain, yet Tikali stops a few steps shy of the threshold.
"You're really not a slave trader?"
"Tikali, I am not a slave trader. In fact, slavery has been a banned practice in the Aurelian Empire for hundreds of years now. Anyone who still does so is either utterly foolish or utterly cruel. I am your grandmother and we are going to my home where you may live out the rest of your days if you so choose." I begin to pack my things. "The journey will be very long but we can manage."
"How long exactly?"
I continue to pack, ignoring her question. Honestly, I traveled for so long that I had lost track of the time. I had been so happy to hear from Harani that it did not matter how far I had to travel. I just knew I had to.
The second time she asks, I respond more brusquely. "Long enough."
She huffs and leans against the doorpost. "Wandering the desert with a strange old hag. Great."
Clearly, I have been given a rather disagreeable child.