1. We have added a Gift Upgrades feature that allows you to gift an account upgrade to another member, just in time for the holiday season. You can see the gift option when going to the Account Upgrades screen, or on any user profile screen.
    Dismiss Notice

[R&F] [Story] Wars of the Gods: Song of Scythia

Discussion in 'Civ6 - Stories & Let's Plays' started by Gruekiller, Oct 27, 2018.

  1. Gruekiller

    Gruekiller Back From The Beyond

    Joined:
    Jan 9, 2010
    Messages:
    2,364
    Gender:
    Female
    Location:
    Ohio
    Hello, ladies, germs, and other lifeforms. Most of you probably don't know me, but I've rolled in off of the Civ4 Stories & Tales forum to make my first Civ AAR in a couple of years. The story you see taking shape before you is a sequel to my 20102012 opus, Wars of the Gods: Carthage, but foreknowledge of that story is not required. The conceit of that story was that there were a cosmic race of Immortals, whose number very occasionally took on the guise of civilizations' leaders across parallel timelines, leading them to ruin or greatness. The hero of the last story, Hannibal, seems to have been left off on the top of the world, with an empire ascendant and a domination victory all but ensured.

    But still, this story was incomplete for a long time. After a couple of years of sitting on an idea for how to resume it, I've decided at last to give it a start. I only have a few hours in Civilization VI compared to the thousands in Civ IV and even the comparatively greater few dozen I've put into Civ V, but I still love this game series. Even if I'm not much of an artisan in playing the save itself, and this story leans far more heavily on the narrative elements than the game itself, I intend to give it my best shot and provide Civ6 Stories & Let's Plays with a tale which will hopefully impress and delight new and old friends alike.

    Thanks for reading. Now on to the show.

    ------------------------------ TABLE OF CONTENTS ------------------------------


    UPDATE 1: THE NEXUS | UPDATE 2: THE TRIAL | UPDATE 3: THE EXILE ALONE
    UPDATE 4: AN UNHAPPY GUEST | UPDATE 5: THOUGHTS OF TOMYRIS | UPDATE 6: THE CAGED BIRD


    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    PROLOGUE

    He was an Immortal. He soared across countless light years in the blink of an eye and used his incredible power as he saw fit. He shaped worlds in his hands and saw the rising and falling of civilizations like the beading and evaporating of dew on a spring morning.

    And this is how he died.


    Qusqu – The World of Carthage – 1722 CE

    Dark tides lapped at the shore, clouds roiling overhead, the light of the midday sun parting around airy waves of black in occasional cracks of bright gray. Palms and laurels rattled and swayed, shaken by a strong wind from the north. Shielded by a long spit of land to the east, Qusqu, once the center of the proud Inca Empire, had been a crucial harborage on the western shore of the Great Sea for millennia. Now, only shattered and rotting hulks sat in the water, broken masts like jagged fingers reaching for the sky. A few still burned, the orange flames the sole color amidst the gray gloom. Into this field of wrecks and dead men came a lone sign of life – a small frigate cutting through the harbor, carrying Hannibal, Immortal ruler of the Phoenicians. He came into a foreign port, for once, as an ally, not a conqueror.

    The Emperor of the Phoenicians cut an imposing figure, unnaturally tall, brawny of build, and wild-haired. He stood half-hunched at one side of the deck, ashen crewmen keeping their distance. The Immortal had been the centerpiece of their civilization for thousands of years, and legends of his ire were well founded. A Carthaginian simply knew when to give the Emperor a wide berth. The workings of the frigate behind him were not at all on Hannibal's mind, however, for thoughts of this day and everything it entailed preoccupied him. His burning gaze remained fixed ahead, toward the mainland to the west, scarcely lingering upon each warship's cadaver as they drifted past.

    When Hannibal first chanced upon this world, nearly six thousand years ago, he’d come among the early Punic tribes and forged them into a continent-spanning empire. He had struggled to make them accept a nameless wanderer for their ruler, but had won their love in time. So too had he struggled to turn his empire into a towering exemplar of strength and unity, suspecting from the start that a sticky end like this one was somewhere in this world’s future. In the long term, he had even hoped to carry the Carthaginians to the stars and police this universe, giving it the peace and order it so sorely needed.

    But he had been too late, far too late to help the poor, damned souls who now made these sunken ships their watery graves, and too late to forestall this climactic feud before it could ever begin. It had started ten years before, whispers in the dark hideaways of the western continent, across the sea from the continent over which Carthage held its hegemony. By the time that the true scope of the danger was known, all the nations of the west but the Inca had already fallen. A desperate call came, and Hannibal, beholden to the future of this world, answered. When the mighty Phoenician fleet had arrived at the harbor mouth, a dozen miles south of here, what was left of the Inca navy had already been shattered and reduced to the burning pieces he saw around him now. All that stood now between the last bastion of peace and sanity on the western continent and certain annihilation was him – and, of course, his people.

    A hand on his elbow lifted him out of the stormy sulk into which he’d fallen. He turned his head to see Elisha. His closest confidante and sometime lover, the woman was slight, her dark hair pulled back in a braid. The closely guarded intelligence of her face and her bright eyes bespoke the shrewd diplomat which lurked beneath, no matter her unassuming frame. A look to his other side, and he saw Hiram. Cloak drawn tight, the man too was well-built, but not quite of Hannibal’s superhuman stature. Scruff adorned his strong jaw and his hair was messy, a russet brown. His eyes held a world-weary look as he locked gazes with his sovereign and nodded. Both of them, like many of his most dedicated followers, were lesser immortals, human beings bestowed with a shred of his ethereal essence and allowed to serve forever at his side. In his heart of hearts, he knew that he never could have gotten this far without them. Just for a moment, he felt that with companions such as these, the forces of darkness just might quail.

    "Your ire can do many things, great king, but it can’t turn back time," Elisha cautioned him gently.

    "Only my mistakes are to blame for this battle ever happening," Hannibal grumbled. "I’m allowed some regret."

    "A good military adviser would forewarn you that a general keeps his thoughts not on the battle behind, but the battle ahead," Hiram said. "Alas, you only have me."

    Hannibal sighed, accepting the logic, but not liking it. He started to pace up toward the forecastle, trailed closely by the pair of advisers, more distantly by bodyguards. "Well, then let’s have it. A battle for the fate of civilization is a once in a lifetime opportunity, even for an immortal. Let’s see to it that it’s a glorious one."

    His mood scarcely more buoyed than before, despite the bluster, it was hard to say whether Elisha or Hiram were fooled by Hannibal’s words. Just the same, neither had time to call him on it, for the horizon bloomed with light and fire, distant off the port bow. Far inland, a pot of hellfire loosed by the Inca had just been spilled in desperation to forestall the enemy advance. Distasteful stuff, hellfire the alchemical concoction had a worrying propensity to burn as many friends as foes when used incautiously. This one was nearer than the last, a few miles away but still close enough to make small waves rock the frigate and its crew to shield their eyes against the glare. Time was drawing short. Hannibal signaled the fleet full sail, all speed ahead.

    Into the ruined harbor of Qusqu they soon arrived, the jetties scarcely cleared of rubble for the Phoenician warfleet by the time they pulled to port. Disembarkation was complicated, but mostly smooth thanks to the discipline of the Carthaginian battalions, who soon filled the harbor in tightly packed ranks. Among the Inca complement meeting him there, Hannibal found Nakapi, high priestess, and since the slaying of the Immortal Sapa Inka Atahaulpa, sole leader of what little remained.

    Her bearing was noble, her eyes dark and piercing as she locked gazes with the Immortal. "If you come expecting good news, Hannibal of Carthage, then you will be disappointed."

    "Hard, cold facts will do in the circumstances."

    "The lines cannot hold. The army of supayta – demons – replenishes itself from every dark corner of the earth. Unless we can break the back of their lines today and repel them, there will be no reprieve for our city and we will perish. I hope you’ve brought more than warships, emperor, for without a power as yet unseen, nothing can stop this tide."

    "The fate of our world hinges on this battle," Hannibal said, "so everything we have is at your disposal. Anything less would be suicide."

    Seeming to accept what he said, Nakapi shrugged. Wordlessly, she proffered out a crystalline orb, a seeing stone, which those trained in the magic arts – like Hannibal – found useful for reconnaissance. Taking the offering in hand, he closed his eyes and allowed it to carry his spirit upward, disembodied, gazing down onto the battlefield from above.

    He imagined that the ravening horde of monsters were men once, from all ends of the western continent, China, Russia, Egypt and beyond. The awful magic unleashed upon this planet had twisted them all, spreading like cancer across the landmass and swallowing everything in its path, changing it. On the plains west of the city, he could see them teeming as he scryed, overrunning isolated pockets of Inca troops, the pitch-colored monstrosities howling their hate for the world into the sky.

    Troubled, but satisfied with his surveillance, Hannibal blinked and reeled as his consciousness returned to his body again, handing the seeing stone away. "Hiram. Take Fourth and Seventh Legions and man the main gate of the city. Danel’s spellbreakers at the fore." Then, turning to the rest. "Commanders! Legions Two and Three, the south gate. Legions One, Five, and Six, the north. For Carthage!"

    With a resounding echo, the seven Phoenician legions called back their reply, and began to move out. His back turned to the makeshift command post his officers had begun to set up, Hannibal wondered over their fate, and not for the first time today, felt trepidation.

    ------------

    The sharp report of rifle fire filled the air, a cacophonous symphony echoing from the north of the city to the south, and back again. Only louder was the ravening gnash of teeth and guttural growling that came from the horde of hellspawn laying siege to the city. Hiram had often found himself wondering about these creatures, since they first started to seep up into the world a decade before. Their skin was an inky, oily sheen of black, nary a trace of hair, nor feather, nor scale upon them. When asked, every man seemed to give a different account of what they looked like, recalling a childhood fear or a special phobia. Hiram could only guess that these shapeless horrors were born of the very fears of mankind, an awful punishment, or worse, a mockery for all that the human race had ever struggled for. For his own part, he supposed they reminded him of a nasty little dog he’d known in his tribe as a child. Rotten little bastard. By their very nature, the shapeless demons unsettled. So too, by their very nature, they killed.

    The Fourth and Seventh legions had formed a sturdy palisade of pointed stakes, ensconced behind sandbags and mud on the other side. Every so often, a rifle would peek through the slats of the barricade and crack, sending a bullet through another creature. The manner in which their bodies folded and warped around the oncoming projectiles like liquid disquieted Hiram, who nevertheless kept his head high and eyes forward. Military brass he might have been, but he wasn’t above fighting alongside his men. He never had been, ever since the days when he and a group of other spear-wielding scouts had crossed the desert for the glory of Carthage. He found himself nostalgic for those times, right about now. Nice and simple…

    Hiram’s own rifle was hot in his grip, one round after another firing uselessly into the lines of the beasts. Every volley seemed to inch them back, until they surged forward again like a tide, lashing at the fortifications the Carthaginians and their Inca allies had so hastily erected. Every time another soldier was yanked by the needle-like teeth of the beasts and dragged into the horde to be consumed, his comrades unable to do anything but watch. The monstrosities never overextended - they were patient, calculating, even. Hiram could detect it in the mean way they watched his men from across the few meters separating them, their toothy maws seemingly grinning. A cold gnarl of disgust formed in his stomach, as too did a hint of foreboding. They were waiting for something.

    Suddenly, the barricades rattled. Unseen by the frightened soldiers, the walls of Qusqu behind them did the same, stirred as the very earth shook. Down the hill upon the plains outside the city, the ground was yawning open, the horde of living nightmares yowling as one in a chorus of approval. From the abyss, something awful took shape.

    All shuddering flesh and pitch-black hide, the only hint of brightness from the towering monster were the glint of its savage teeth, each as tall as a tree. Looming over the battlefield like a storm cloud, the eyeless monster cast its shadow upon the soldiers, who stood petrified at the sight of everything they had ever feared. All around it, the lesser terrors merely miniatures of this dread titan seemed to burst with glee and encouragement. As this new monstrosity roared, the wave broke, and the enemy began to surge over the barricade.

    The Carthaginian soldiers folded. The most disciplined army in the world they may be, but no man was ever meant to come face-to-face with something like this. Every instinct demanded that they run, cut down in their retreat like animals. Only Hiram remained, the immortal spark burning in his heart keeping him firm.

    Drawing his saber, Hiram looked to his side and found there Danel, his fellow soldier and lesser immortal, here with him at the bitter end. The son of a farmer from Utica had come a long way in these past six millennia. One of a vanishingly small number of people born utterly resistant to magic, he had once been the bane of all spellweavers, but on these unearthly creatures, his special talent seemed of no use. Hiram could tell as much by the fear and resignation in the other’s eyes. Still, he also saw something there that was as hard as steel. If Hiram wouldn’t run, then Danel wouldn’t either.

    Together, they turned to face the colossus, swords raised in a futile challenge. There they stood firm, as the great beast’s arm came crashing down and their long lives ended at last.

    ------------

    Hannibal doubled over, clutching his heart. The twin stabs quickly melted from agony into a feeling of unfathomable loss. Two pieces of himself had just died, and he felt he knew which. Breathing heavily, he looked up to find that a concerned Elisha had caught him. She didn’t remark on the pallor that had fallen over the Emperor’s face. She’d felt it too, however distantly, and could find no words to give to the subject. Hiram had long been like a brother to her, no matter how they butted heads in the early days of the empire. The thought of his dry, easy jokes and his broad smile being gone from the world was almost too much to contemplate, but there was no time for mourning. The situation was deteriorating fast. No sooner had the realization passed, than the streets were filled with shouting and screaming as the routing remnants of the Carthaginian legions came pouring past. Hannibal felt a vein throb in his neck, an uncommon fury overtaking him at the sight of the legions, his legions, running. "Stop! Stop, damn you! You will stand and fight!"

    None heeded his order. Those who paused at the words of Hannibal only did so long enough to be fallen upon by the wave of terrors close on their heels. The Immortal made ready, raw magical power surging around him as Elisha took up a fallen soldier’s gun and prepared for the worst.

    The shadow of death passed over the city, the gargantuan monster that had sent the legions into flight reaching over the walls, coming astride its battlements as if they weren’t there. Its head turned, fixing upon Hannibal with an intensity that made the air chill. For just a moment, his sword hand trembled. It had come for him. The realization appalled him, but somehow didn’t surprise him. It all made a terrible sort of sense that this avatar of fear had risen only to tear him down, the last Immortal still standing on this world. With speed impossible for its size, it surged forward. In the shapeless titan, Hannibal was reminded of a citadel floating above the clouds. Elisha, fearless as ever, just saw a big, black blob that needed to be killed.

    Aim not wavering, Elisha lifted the rifle. Her shots struck its face true, her hand pulling the lever by the trigger guard again and again. Hannibal joined in a moment after, reaching out to send a jolt of lightning from his fingertips and into its head. The impact of the bolt made the beast split in twain, before it crashed to the ground all around Hannibal and his companion, knocking them from their feet. It engulfed them in the tide of ichor that resulted, coalescing again with the pair trapped inside. Hannibal reached for Elisha, but heard only her voice lifting in alarm before it was swallowed entirely. A moment after she passed into the inky black, he felt that pang in his chest again as the beast destroyed her.

    Stuck motionless and numb for a moment in the bubbling evil that had trapped him, Hannibal’s desolation swiftly mounted into fury. Clenching his fists, he howled in rage, half of the beast’s mass disintegrating around him as the Immortal loosed all his power with a mighty explosion of energy. He sent spell after spell flying into what was left of it, and into the waiting mob of nearby hellspawn eagerly seeking a bite. They shrieked as they died, but there were always more to fill their place. Moments later, too, the leviathan that had just stolen everything away from him began to take shape once more.

    With suddenness that caught him without preparation, its shape collapsed upon him in a wave, surging up into the sky with the Immortal trapped again in its grasp. Then, with a single, mighty squeeze, it broke his body. His limbs hanging limp, Hannibal took a ragged breath, and then didn't take another. It had been a very, very long time indeed since he’d felt pain like this. Proper pain. Lasting pain. Staring up into the clouds with unfocused eyes, he supposed it was only right. Physically unable to fight, to move, to even breathe, he could only barely register that he had started to fall from the lofty height to which he’d been thrown as he contemplated everything that had brought him here.

    He thought of Hiram, the stalwart warrior who had followed him from the foundation of Carthage to the battlefield where he died.

    He thought of Danel, the simple farmer boy, whose growth into a living weapon he had fostered.

    He thought of Adribaal and every soldier or sailor who had come across the sea to Qusqu to perish.

    So too he thought of Philosir, even Philosir, who had betrayed him but who, after all, had been steered to that destiny by Hannibal’s own hand.

    As his vision faded and he fell into the hungry sea of teeth waiting below, Hannibal thought that, sometimes, it was only right for an Immortal to die. He had made enough mistakes.

    The world of Carthage ended.



    He was an Immortal. He soared across countless light years in the blink of an eye and used his incredible power as he saw fit. He shaped worlds in his hands and saw the rising and falling of civilizations like the beading and evaporating of dew on a spring morning.

    And this is how he lived.
     
    Last edited: Nov 1, 2018
  2. Gruekiller

    Gruekiller Back From The Beyond

    Joined:
    Jan 9, 2010
    Messages:
    2,364
    Gender:
    Female
    Location:
    Ohio
    UPDATE 1: THE NEXUS

    Without thought, without form, he fell from one world and into another. Torn from his destroyed, human form, only his Immortal soul remained, towed along through the aether by some unseen force, steering him inexorably to its destination. Only once what he hesitated to call a rescue had been completed was he able to see again. In a stark, white hall, he found himself standing, at a loss. Until out of the glare, another figure passed into visibility. The familiar burning in the back of his mind confirmed, at a glance, that he was looking upon another Immortal, this one in the guise of a drab man in functional clothing. No great cosmic wanderer like himself or those he had encountered on the world where he spent the last six millennia; just a functionary.

    "Come with me, if you’d please. You are expected."

    Compelled, Hannibal numbly fell into step.

    Realization dawned upon him slowly as they crossed out of the hall and into an immense rotunda. The place was sweeping in its scale, the plain white standing out brilliantly from the vast windows upon the darkness of space outside, the light of the stars and supernovae undimmed in their brilliance. In sequential tiers, visible through the floor and ceiling, the structure stretched up and down unto forever. As he looked in either direction, countless Immortals went about their duties with steely indifference, unchanged since the dawn of time.

    This was the Nexus – the citadel of the most powerful race in the cosmos, and a gateway to every possibility that there had ever been. Wariness crept into his mind, a sinking feeling in his gut. He had ruled four civilizations and lived for a hundred thousand years in the time since he had been here last, and he knew this wasn’t destined to be a happy homecoming.

    The functionary spurred him along after a moment with an annoyed bob of his head, and Hannibal, grudgingly, continued to follow. He gazed off to the side as they went, seeing small clusters of Immortals idling around tears in space, staring thoughtfully into the portals as they observed the worlds to which they were connected. In one, a Macedonian prince was fighting a losing battle, building city after city on the rim of the sea in a fierce race with his foe. In another, Roman riflemen were embroiled in a bitter fight against a savage foe. And in one more, he simply saw an Iroquois man walking alone, the threads of fate unfurling ahead of him.

    The observing Immortals meddled in none of them, simply watching as they always had, and always would. Their lack of resolve disgusted him now just as much as it had when he left. He couldn’t sight-see like his compatriots for long. Based on the rush this bureaucrat had him in, he doubtless had an appointment to keep.

    Eventually, he was led through a grand doorway, which slid open before him automatically. Wryly, he thought how unused he had become to technology in his time with the Carthaginians. At last, he came to a stop, finding himself in a dark chamber, standing alone within a spotlight. He looked for a moment to where the functionary had disappeared into the shadows, his annoyance swiftly mounting. "And just what sort of idiotic game is this meant to be?"

    "One of your own creation, Exile, I assure you of that."

    Another light bloomed across the chamber, showing just how much of an expanse separated Hannibal from the one who spoke. Grand and gray, swaddled in ornate finery and reclining atop a throne of glass, the High Elder of the Immortals sat, staring him down with all the arch air of superiority which his timeless life had given him.

    Hannibal tutted in disdain, arms crossed. "So, you have me back home at last," He gritted out, acid in his tone. "I hope you don’t intend to give me a scolding – because I have had a very bad day."

    "Please, don’t spoil the occasion. We have been waiting a long time for this, after all."

    Hannibal’s brow furrowed. The word "we" surely did not bode well for him.

    The lights flared, banishing the darkness that had shrouded the chamber. From pews on all sides, safely ensconced in rows of viewing boxes, hundreds of pairs of eyes fell on Hannibal as one, the Council of Elders sitting in judgement over the lone Immortal. "By the undying authority vested in this Council, the trial of the nameless fugitive known as the Exile shall commence."
     
  3. Gruekiller

    Gruekiller Back From The Beyond

    Joined:
    Jan 9, 2010
    Messages:
    2,364
    Gender:
    Female
    Location:
    Ohio
    UPDATE 2: THE TRIAL
    Hannibal – the Exile – stood rigid, his hands working at the air as if threatening to strangle something. He trembled with rage as the High Elder began to name his supposed crimes.

    "The charges: disobedience toward the proclamations of this council; defiance against our most ancient traditions; unsanctioned interference in the development of mortal civilizations; obstruction of the duties of agents of this council–" here the Exile’s eye twitched at the High Elder’s dribbling pronouncements, remembering Isabella, that noisome meddler "– reckless endangerment of mortal races; use of unlawful magics; and damaging the stability and peace in the cosmos for which we have always striven."

    The accusation hung heavy in the air for several long moments, as the Exile’s eyes swept up and down the pews, waiting for someone, anyone to chime in. Finally, he let out a small, tortured laugh. "What, is that all…? Is this the part where I make my plea?"

    "You may," the High Elder said, "but keep it brief."

    The Exile’s face split into a tense, sick grin. Well, don’t mind if he did. "The cosmos are diseased. As diseased as this sad, myopic species of ours. In every corner of creation, the forces of chaos threaten to swallow order and return thought to madness, civilization to savagery. And you, who stand here and do nothing, say that I should be rebuked? Scolded? Punished for doing what you would not?”

    He stared at the jurors to the left, then to the right, continuing his invective all the while. "You should be in awe of what I’ve accomplished! I have done more to keep reality muddling along during my travels than a hundred generations of portal-gazers like you ever have. You degenerate, rotten creatures, don’t you see? Without men like me, this citadel of yours would have fallen eons ago! The Nexus, a ruined monument to hubris, waste, and indolence!

    "So where’s the pride? The praise? Or will you just sit there and continue to resent me for putting the lie to your decadence and sloth?"

    The Exile spread his arms in an open challenge, gaze sweeping around the silent chamber. He realized, belatedly, that the jurors were bored and unmoved.

    The High Elder simply shook his head at him, smiling in amusement like a parent at a toddler’s tantrum.

    The Exile felt his face heat with frustration at the lack of impact his spit-flecked lambast had made, and stood there, seething. A few seconds later, he spoke again. "So what’s the case for the prosecution?"

    "You misunderstand, Exile. Our decision was already made ages ago. You were sentenced in absentia, and your presence here today poses a mere… convenient formality."

    "What?" The Exile felt his blood rise again.

    "Now, spare us your crusader’s zeal and simply accept the inevitable, won’t you? It will make all this far easier on everyone."

    "Easier on you, perhaps," the renegade hissed. "Let us skip the obnoxious pretense of civilization, then, and destroy me already."

    The High Elder rose, smiling in that awful, grandfatherly way. "Oh, dear me, no. We’d never be so cruel, even to one of our wayward children. We are hard, but fair. There will be consequences, but you will live."

    For the first time, the Exile began to fear. "What consequences?"

    "Fittingly enough, it will be exile. Confinement." The High Elder stepped closer, his hands clasped behind his waist as he took step after purposeful, geriatric step down the small flight of stairs beneath his throne.

    The Exile struggled, but found himself unable to move. The combined psychic power of the assembled Immortals staring from above had him frozen, incapable of backing away from the genial tyrant who stepped ever nearer.

    "When you were still in the crèche, we failed to instill in you a proper respect for authority and a sense of your place in the multiverse. That is our failing, of course, which we feel obliged to correct. So until the lesson is learned," the Elder said, his voice suddenly dropping, quiet, purposeful as he stood mere inches away, staring into the Exile’s eyes, "you will be divested of your powers as an Immortal. Your strength, your magic, your ability to spread the gift of years to mortals. You will be scarcely more than a frail, ordinary human being, aside from your lifespan, about which we can do nothing. But that’s all well and good. It’ll give you time to think about what you’ve done."

    Bile rose in the Exile’s throat, the captive struggling uselessly against the psychic restraints as a pair of guards stepped up behind him. "You can’t do that," he protested, voice weak. "You can’t do that! Stripping an Immortal of his power – that’s a sin worse than murder! You yourself forbade it!"

    "Then who better to know when the rules must be bent?" The benevolence of the Elder’s smile wasn’t altogether convincing. "Besides, there’s no need to worry. I’m sure the local savages will treat you kindly. You may see in them kindred spirits, unlike our… sad, myopic species, hmm?" With a dismissive wave, he turned and began to stride back to his throne. With the hand’s flick, a hairline fracture took shape in space, soon splitting into a portal.

    Staring into it with wild fear in his eyes, the Exile screamed as the guards pushed him in. Tumbling between worlds again, he howled until his voice ceased to work as his mind and body were stripped away, and he came tumbling down to earth again…

    ------------
    It was a long time before consciousness returned to the Exile, who coughed and sputtered into the ground. He dragged a hand through the mud, shoulders trembling as he tried to rise and merely fell back onto his stomach, head on its side and eyes searching. Dimly, he perceived that he was in the woods, sparse pine and larch forming a fairly bare canopy overhead. Beneath, pine needles and damp dirt. This discouraged the Exile a little, but once several minutes had passed, he tried again. Struggling to his feet at last, he took a step, the forest spinning in vertigo like a whirlpool in his eyes. Swooning, he stumbled, catching himself upon the trunk of a tree and braced there with an arm, legs not quite behaving. "I’m utterly drained… The bastards really did it. Where… am I…?" The Exile trailed off, sensing that something was amiss.

    After feeling around, neck and head and arms, it dawned upon the Exile that her new human form was female. "Well," she murmured, nonplussed. It seemed like this was just the sort of day she was having. "Alright then."
     
    Last edited: Oct 28, 2018
  4. Gruekiller

    Gruekiller Back From The Beyond

    Joined:
    Jan 9, 2010
    Messages:
    2,364
    Gender:
    Female
    Location:
    Ohio
    UPDATE 3: THE EXILE ALONE
    Dwarfed by the lonely pines rising around her, the Exile walked through the forest. Having regained the strength to move without issue, she had elected to move west, searching for a sign of humanity and failing to find any. With passing interest, she noted that despite the chill, the sun appeared to be in the northern half of the sky, implying that unlike Carthage, this frosty clime was in this planet’s southern hemisphere.

    This truly was a savage land, the trees tall and old, the air so brisk it made her nostrils sting, and the beasts fearless of her presence. Big, shaggy rooks jeered her from the branches, croaking and crowing to one another across the taiga. Somewhat to her dismay, she found her restless searching interrupted by a gnawing in her stomach. Hunger… She’d never actually needed to eat before, and this particular aspect of her new humanity was certainly an unwelcome surprise. This left her in the troubling position of seeking something edible in this unfamiliar landscape.

    The Exile thought for a moment about those big, ugly birds, wondering how they’d look on a spit over an open flame. Chucking a rock at one with all her might, she found the throw falling short by far, the rook squawking with indignation and flapping away. Fuming, she cursed her human weakness and continued along her way.

    Unseen, the rook returned and quirked its head at the retreating Exile, watching her leave.

    ------------

    After the fall of twilight, the birds were quiet, save for the raspy wok-wok-wok of a lone owl somewhere in the trees. More distant, there was the mournful echo of wolves. Aside from these, the forest around the Exile was still as she sweated over the makeshift fire pit, fervently digging the end of a stick into the lame, damp tinder she had gathered. Eventually her exertion made the stick snap, and she kicked over the measly pile of firewood with a noisy swear in Punic. Having strained the limits of her frustration to their breaking point, she simply fell into the pile of leaves she had gathered for a bed by the side of the clearing, rubbing her arms through the shoddy, primitive clothes she’d been given. Her breath misted in the chilly air, and she found herself very much missing the royal palace in Carthage.

    And Elisha.

    Refusing to dwell for long, the Exile rolled over and had a fitful sleep.

    ------------

    Morning came, as it always did, the cold light bathing the Exile and stirring her from her incomplete rest. As her bleary eyes swept over the clearing, she paused, staring at a small heap of wild berries and bugs. To hell with pickiness. The starved Immortal fell upon the offering with relish.

    Overhead, a rook clucked in approval at a job well done, and flew away.

    ------------
    Re-energized, the lonely Exile continued to walk through the ancient wood, using a sharpened branch as an impromptu walking stick to help navigate the brush. Still neither sated nor rested, she nevertheless felt compelled to go on and find just what sort of world the Elders had dumped her on.

    Her gaze followed a small movement to her left, and she froze. Atop a small rise among the trees, there was a huge, white stag. Its pelt was radiant, pure and without stain, its size uncommon and antlers wider than she was tall… Or had been tall, as Hannibal. The noble beast stared at her, then turned, moving at a stately prance and then tearing off. Lured by the encouraging idea of stag meat for lunch, the Exile’s breath lifted as she picked up her self-made spear and took pursuit.

    Branches whipped at her as she ran, like a woman possessed, flinching and panting through her barefoot flight, never quite gaining on the white stag. Eventually, she burst out of the wood altogether, and… found that it had vanished, seemingly into thin air. Growling in frustration, the Exile dug her spear into the ground and ran a hand through her hair, unaccustomed to its length. Despite the sulk, though, her eyes lit up when she spotted something intriguing on the horizon.

    Beyond the forest, hills rolled for as far as the eye can see, a vast steppe opening. And out on those plains, leagues away – she was almost positive that this new body had been created with perfect vision – a small herd of ponies were grazing. The opportunity to give her feet a rest and ride in style was just too good. She plucked the poor, abused spear out of the dirt again and made haste.

    As she approached, the horses lifted their heads dumbly from their chewing, some stepping away to keep their distance. The only one that didn’t seem to shy away was a big, gray mare, standing her ground and looking unimpressed with the Exile’s presence. Sweat breaking out on her brow, recalling her weakness and the size and strength of this animal, the Exile edged closer, holding a hand up soothingly and hoped that she hadn’t lost her knack. "Hey there. Stay calm. That’s it…" There was a tense moment, the Exile wondering if it would break and run, or else decide to bowl her over in aggravation. When the mare didn’t move, the Exile breathed in relief, moving around the subdued beast and clambering up onto its back. The ease of it made her wonder if these weren’t escaped animals, docile and accustomed to human presence. Shrugging it off, she gave the mare a little poke of her heel and spurred it on, out into the steppe. It was a shame about that stag meat, though.

    ------------

    Another day reached its end, the sun receding from the sky and bathing the steppe in a gloomy purple as it dropped past the horizon. The Exile found a usefully sized puddle in the ground, allowed herself a drink, and let the mare graze for a while. This time, she was fortunate enough to get a real fire going to banish the encroaching cold of the night. She sat by its side, knees hugged up to her chest, and stared into the flames as they parted around the burning logs, face warmed in the orange glow. Her mind was distant; the longer that she sat alone at this fireside, the greater the sense grew that something was missing. A pang troubled her heart as she thought back to the road to Spain, where Hannibal and the legions had stopped for camp. Many a merry tune had been shared at that campfire, Hannibal shoulder to shoulder with Hiram as they sang along with the men.

    Unbidden, the ancient words rose to her lips again, remembered now only by her. The solemn, Punic melody rang out across the steppe, and all aside from that was silent.

    ------------

    Even in the day, this place was chilly, making the Exile grateful for the beast pelt she’d skinned and now wore for a coat. Tied to a hemp belt she’d lashed around the horse, three poached prairie hens swayed, ready to make a passable dinner for her that evening. A week or more had passed since she emerged into the steppe, and still she felt no closer to finding a purpose to her being here beyond the Elders’ pique. Sighing, she crested the hill on the mare’s back, shielding her eyes against the sun.

    On the other side, she found the white stag, staring at her.

    Well then.

    Sending the horse off at a gallop with a Hya! of satisfied glee, she lifted her spear and took pursuit as the stag led her on a merry chase. It seemed to glide effortlessly over the moor and heather, the mare breathing raggedly as it thundered after, steered by its relentless rider. Its hooves lashed the earth, kicking dust and grass into the air like a storm. The distance drew close and, emboldened, the Exile took the shoddy spear in hand and threw.

    Just in time, the stag picked up speed, and the sharpened stick hit a rock with a noisy crack, quickly overtaken and lost by the Exile’s speed of pursuit. Teeth gritted, she clutched the mare’s mane in both hands until her knuckles turned white. She’d kill this thing unarmed if she had to; all she had to do was catch it. As of this second, she decided, catching this whimsical beast was her life’s sole work, and she very much intended to accomplish it.

    So distracted was she that she didn’t notice the change in scenery until she heard shouts, people scattering away from her steed’s path. At the center of the village into which she’d inadvertently barreled, the Exile was surprised when her horse reared, throwing her to the ground and then cantering away. The stag had stopped amidst the buildings, staring down at the Exile as those assembled gawked at the great white beast. Then it bolted away, and was gone again, like a breath in the cold air. The attention of the incredulous people turned to the Exile, still on the ground.

    She looked around at them as the awkward silence stretched on, and hesitantly smiled. "... Lovely day, isn’t it?"
     
  5. Gruekiller

    Gruekiller Back From The Beyond

    Joined:
    Jan 9, 2010
    Messages:
    2,364
    Gender:
    Female
    Location:
    Ohio
    UPDATE 4: AN UNHAPPY GUEST

    They kept the Exile secluded at one end of the village, watched by a concerned-looking fellow with a serious face. In a place as small as this, seclusion was only a formality, since the townsfolk were gathered only about a dozen meters away, voices hushed. The Exile sighed impatiently, chin in hand as she took stock of them. The people were tall and fair, hair blond or red and only sometimes light brown. There was a roughly even mix of man and woman, old and young. Their clothing was simple wool and hemp, a few of the men sporting conical headgear that reminded her a little of the Phrygian caps she’d seen worn by the Greeks in a previous life. They looked to be in good health, for primitives, hearty and animated, barely able to keep their voices down enough to leave her out of their deliberations. These must be horse folk, used to making their voices carry far when out on the steppe. It wasn’t hard to guess so, with the big herds she saw grazing not so far away.

    Snorting softly, her attention lapsed again, and she gazed out at the sky, brazenly blue as it was. The suspense was unbearable. She wished they’d just hurry up and burn her as a witch already. All this waiting was starting to annoy her.

    ------------​

    Across the village square, the locals’ discussion continued. Raised voices and arguments were not part of the way that these people did things. In a small, tight-knit community like this, everyone was family, and such things were unseemly. Still, the appearance of the white stag had spooked everyone, and coupled with the rare arrival of a stranger in their midst, it had nerves frayed. Party to this conversation was Seelay, who thought all of this fuss was a little unbecoming. Smaller in stature than most of the tribe, her hair was red, tied back in a simple, loose braid. With a soft face and voice, she was unassuming, less physically prone than her kinsmen, but still she had little trouble making herself heard when the time came for these meetings. For now, she was keeping her opinion to herself and letting her brothers air out their thoughts about this situation.

    "What I mean is that we should show her more hospitality," said Bartatua, the eldest. He was tall and lanky, shifting restively from one boot to the other. His garb was a little thicker than the others, all double-layered leather and fur, nearly battle ready. "She isn’t just a traveler, she’s an emissary of the spirits. We’re inviting trouble if we turn her away…"

    "I wouldn’t be so sure of that," cautioned Ishpak, the middle sibling of the three. He had a full, blond beard, eyes thoughtful and brow seemingly permanently lowered. He rubbed his chin with a pair of fingers as he went on. "If she is a spirit, then she isn’t a very good one. She just came blundering in, then her horse knocked her on her rear and abandoned her. That doesn’t seem like supernatural material to me."

    "Steady on now, brother," Bartatua returned, a bit of nervous humor in his voice. "Be careful with that skepticism. I’m pretty sure most of what you just said qualifies as sacrilege in some way or another..."

    "Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t disbelieve in the spirits. Especially not after that. We all saw the white stag, and it appearing to us for the first time in generations surely means something. Just…" Ishpak rolled his shoulders, struggling to phrase this well. "She was chasing it. We shouldn’t lose sight of that. For all that we know, she isn’t an ally of the white stag, but an enemy." At this, the others all gave varying forms of acknowledgement, awkwardly considering the implications for a moment.

    All except for Seelay, who was, after all, in her own little world. She frowned softly, staring searchingly at the tribe’s guest. Seelay had never seen a person like this stranger. Her long, wild hair was just a fraction too rich, her face too noble, and the hazel of her eyes just a bit too vibrant. Seelay found those eyes turned her way now, the stranger obviously having noticed her looking. After a beat, one of the stranger’s eyebrows ticked upward, interrogative, as if to ask what she wanted. Embarrassed, Seelay turned away, back to the clan, and found that her input had been requested without her noticing. "Your understanding of the spirits would be welcome, in the circumstances," her mother, Tirgatao, was saying. The matron, tough and steely with wiry, gray hair, was watching her, arms folded. After a moment, Seelay cleared her throat and straightened up to offer her thoughts.

    "... Even if she was trying to hunt the stag," she said, starting with that careful hedge, "it did lead her here, to us. And there must have been a reason for that." Some hums of agreement circled the small gathering, and she continued. "I think that, perhaps, a wait-and-see approach would be the best. I want to discover why it brought her here..."

    "If that’s the way you’d have it," Tirgatao said, her lip quirking a little. "We can always throw her out again if it turns out we’ve made the wrong decision," she mused, Bartatua embarrassed at their mother’s remark while Ishpak tried and failed to conceal his laughter. Seelay gave a nervous chuckle, one which faded when Tirgatao spoke again. "Why don’t you speak with her on our behalf, Seelay, if you’re so curious? It could get you off to a strong start."

    Seelay frowned in protest, not much appreciating the teasing. But at the series of imploring stares being given to her by the nervous clansmen all around, she sighed in assent and took the lead, stepping across the way to the stranger, the others trailing after. Why did it always seem like important conversations like this got delegated to her?

    ------------​

    Drawing a weary sigh, the Exile sat up as she noticed the congregation break and start to move her way. Brushing a bit of dark hair behind her neck, she regarded them evenly, eyes flitting from one of their number to the next. It interested her that most shied away from her stare, doing her wounded pride a bit of good to know that she still had the overpowering presence to render such responses, no matter her dis-empowered state. More interesting, however, was that the mousy-looking redhead at the front of the pack seemed unaffected. Hm. Very well. The Exile was officially curious enough to entertain this little gathering. "I see that you’re done deliberating?"

    "We’d like to apologize," the girl fronting the party of tribesmen began.

    "Oh? What ever for?"

    "Our clan does believe in hospitality toward travelers. All of the clans do. We were merely apprehensive; an arrival like yours doesn’t exactly come every day, or even in a lifetime..."

    "Really? How interesting," the Exile remarked, chin in her hand. "I wonder what about little old me could cause such a stir?" A soft, insincere hum rumbled out of her. "Listen – what’s your name, girl?"

    "Seelay," she answered, her tone diplomatic.

    "It’s very charming and all that you’ve taken point here, but don't you think it would be better if I could speak with your leader?" With amusement, she noted a flash of indignation behind the village girl’s eyes at her flippant attitude. Oh, this would be fun.

    "We have no leader," Seelay said once she had collected herself.

    The Exile blinked at this answer, her puzzlement clearly picked up on by Seelay, who patiently went on. "Are you a stranger to these lands?"

    "In a manner of speaking," said the Exile, marveling at the irony.

    "Then you may not know that the white stag is a sign of great portent in the eyes of our people – a spirit which has been with us since the dawn of time." Her eyes searched the Exile, as if trying to confirm her own words as she spoke them. "We believe that there was a reason for it bringing you here."

    Silence passed between the Exile and her hosts for a moment, before her shoulders shook and she began to laugh. This time, the annoyed looks among the clansmen were a little more widespread. "Well, then I’m honored! Introduced to your number by so noble a spirit… Still, you don’t need to worry about me troubling your happy little village for long. Once I have the lay of the land, I’ll be out of your hair for good and on to less welcoming pastures."

    Seelay, obviously unimpressed with the account the Exile had given of herself, showed a small, thoughtful frown, then asked what was perhaps a salient question. "Well, while you’re still among us, what can we call you?"

    Now, that did throw the Exile through a loop, making her lean back in her seat with a puzzled look on her face. It had been a long time indeed, since she’d had to lean on more than rote memorization to call herself by a name. For very obvious reasons, ‘Hannibal’ wouldn’t do. Idly, as her mind went a little astray, she remembered from her time in Greece so many millennia ago a story that had charmed her, about a warrior queen among the barbarians. The details had faded with time, but the name was still fresh on her tongue.

    "Tomyris."

     
  6. Gruekiller

    Gruekiller Back From The Beyond

    Joined:
    Jan 9, 2010
    Messages:
    2,364
    Gender:
    Female
    Location:
    Ohio
    Well, in lieu of posting a fifth update in a row this morning, I'll take a momentary pause here and ask whether anyone has comments or questions. :)
     
  7. Ozbenno

    Ozbenno Fly Fly Away Moderator Hall of Fame Staff

    Joined:
    Apr 5, 2006
    Messages:
    11,354
    Location:
    Sydney, Australia
    Well I'm going to read this over the weekend, so will comment further then.
     
  8. Gruekiller

    Gruekiller Back From The Beyond

    Joined:
    Jan 9, 2010
    Messages:
    2,364
    Gender:
    Female
    Location:
    Ohio
    Much obliged.

    UPDATE 5: THOUGHTS OF TOMYRIS

    Days passed, and the fuss over Tomyris died down. The others began to take her presence in the village for granted, even ever-cautious Bartatua seeming to accept that no divine retribution against the village was coming any time soon. Alone in her disquiet, once more, was Seelay.

    She was more certain than anyone that Tomyris was no spirit, no matter her obvious involvement with that realm, and even despite the unnerving manner she had about her. Aside from her first faux pas when she had laughed at the invocation of the spirits, Tomyris had been careful in avoiding ruffling feathers. But it maddened Seelay to see how the others couldn’t recognize the unfriendly humor in which she treated conversation with the village folk, or the condescension in her eyes. They were not a worldly people, it was true, but the realization that Tomyris thought herself better than them seemed both blindly obvious and perfectly infuriating to Seelay. And so, cautious of alerting the village’s guest to her investigation, Seelay began to ask around, hoping to discern whether this really was an emissary of the spirits, or an impostor.

    Bartatua, ever shy of speaking behind someone’s back, eventually caved to his younger sister’s inquiries, and gave his opinion. Tomyris seemed to him not just a fighter, but a veteran of combat of a caliber greater than anyone he had ever laid eyes on. Even the village’s best warriors – himself being included in that number of course, to Seelay’s eye rolling – didn’t carry themselves with the fluid, straight-backed ease Tomyris did. This, Bartatua admitted, made him a little nervous. Seelay decided that everything made Bartatua a little nervous and excused herself.

    Ishpak remarked that Tomyris struck him as someone brilliant in some areas, but utterly inept in others. She had schooled him thoroughly in a debate over the nature of the wind and how it moved, dazzling him with a grandiose description of currents and weather systems, only to require his intervention moments after when she tried to pluck nightshade berries off of a nearby bush. She had only rolled her eyes, apparently humoring him. His best guess? Tomyris was a wise-woman back home, but wherever she came from was so distant that the very earth here was foreign to her. Seelay thanked him for his advice and carried on.

    Swouliyas, the shepherd, told her that a few nights before the visitor arrived, when he was tending the flocks, he had heard a haunting melody in a woman’s voice and a foreign tongue, echoing across the heath. It had chilled him to his core. He’d retired early that night, and ever since, he had kept his distance from Tomyris out of fear of her song.

    So, a great warrior? A vagabond scholar? A restless spirit ensnaring men with her voice? Something in Seelay’s gut told her that none of these captured the entire truth. Still, it was only after Tirgatao had a good laugh at her restive daughter’s expense that she relented and decided that the only way she would get to the bottom of this particular mystery was by finding it out for herself. Reluctantly, she followed their guest’s trail to the edge of the village, where a small wood began to rise out of the plains. There she found Tomyris, who seemed to be embroiled in a lively conversation with a rook, perched atop a walking stick she was holding.

    … Correction. She appeared to be swearing at it. Seelay beheld this scene with something bordering on embarrassment, feeling that she probably wasn’t supposed to see this. After a beat, Tomyris’ head whipped her way. She then proceeded to shake the stick, shooing the rook, who made an indignant cluck and flapped off into the trees. Leaning on that stick, she nodded Seelay’s way, exuding pure smarm. "Hello, little chieftess. Have you come to check up on me at last?"

    Smoothing back the prickles of irritation she felt at that, Seelay lifted her head, voice soft and steady as always. "Who are you really?"

    "Goodness, you don’t waste time, do you?" Tomyris breathed out, wearily. "I don’t think you’re prepared to know the answer to that question, red. Come back in a century or two, when you’re older. Maybe then I’ll decide you’re ready to know." She started to turn to walk away.

    Feeling her hackles rise, Seelay’s frustration boiled over, and she snapped her reply after Tomyris: "Quit belittling me and speak!" A second after, she reeled at how quickly her temper had flared, and was ashamed of herself. Tomyris’ demeanor changed instantly as she gazed back over her shoulder at Seelay, the mirth leaving her face, now cold and stark as stone. She closed the distance between them, looming over the shorter girl. Passingly, Seelay noticed that behind Tomyris, black birds had filled the trees.

    "If your curiosity can’t wait," the traveler said, each syllable dripping ice. "When you stare up into the vastness of the night sky and wonder what else is out there, that pang of awe and fear you feel is me. When you walk alone in the wood and hear nothing but the awful hush of wind in the trees, that sound is me. And when, standing at the precipice of oblivion, you feel yourself shrinking into insignificance before the age of all that’s come before, that feeling of desolation is me. Now," suddenly all smiles, grinning and leaning down to pat Seelay’s cheek, "get lost."

    Tomyris turned and left again, walking into the forest to be with the rooks. Seelay stayed there, staring at her feet in puzzlement and wondering why every word of that sounded so hollow.

    ------------

    A few days later, Swouliyas was carting wool and sheep hocks into the village. Coming up the rise toward the huts, the previous night’s sleet thwarted him, his foot slipping in the mud and sending him tumbling. The crude, unwieldy wheelbarrow came after, trapping the unfortunate shepherd. Swouliyas’ shouts heightened fearfully as the wheelbarrow began to sink into the muck around him, threatening to send it bubbling up into his face and drown him. By the time that the others had come to see what was wrong, Tomyris was already sliding down the rise. Stumbling to a stop, she planted her feet firmly in the mire, sturdy as an oak, and hooked her arms under the cart. The others watched in astonishment as, with ease bordering on the fantastical, the cart shuddered and began to rise, lifted nearly overhead before Tomyris tossed it aside and plucked the stricken Swouliyas out of the mud.

    As Tomyris shouted at the wobbling shepherd boy, cursing him for his carelessness, Seelay looked on, realization starting to stir. For the first time, she thought she had begun to understand just who Tomyris was.
     
    Last edited: Nov 5, 2018
  9. Gruekiller

    Gruekiller Back From The Beyond

    Joined:
    Jan 9, 2010
    Messages:
    2,364
    Gender:
    Female
    Location:
    Ohio
    UPDATE 6: THE CAGED BIRD
    Tomyris wondered when these people would hurry up and invent civilization already. At first, she’d found having a thatch roof overhead and something dry to sleep on somewhat of a luxury, in the wake of her time in the wilderness. With the comfort growing familiar, though, old habits were starting to return, and she found herself very much missing the amenities of a more sophisticated time and place. Alas, she’d probably have to wait several human lifetimes before anything changed appreciably around here, so her mind turned back to wandering again. With any luck, this was just a patch of roughness, lingering at the edges of a more urban world waiting to be discovered. But no matter the leading questions she asked, nobody in the village had ever seen or heard of anything like a city.

    So, for a day or two at a time, Tomyris would disappear, riding to the four winds and searching. At the center of this great plain, she found a river, running southwest-northeast, far-off hills and forests, and more open plains than she supposed anyone would ever need. More distant, mountains and other natural boundaries hemmed in the land, and there was nary a sign of humanity aside from more tribes speaking the same language as her hosts. Every time she returned, more sullen and irritable than before, the people of the village only sighed and let it be. Once again, it was Seelay who chose to break the mold.

    "Why do you want to leave?" Tomyris was stringing a bow when the question came from the stump across the clearing. Seelay sat there, looking oh-so-concerned. "We don’t want for much. The land is peaceful, but the far wilds are harsh and unforgiving… So why?" Tomyris rolled her eyes and returned to her work before answering.

    "My answer would mean nothing to you. You’ve never known anything else but this place."

    "That’s not true; the village has picked up stakes and moved a dozen times in my days." Seelay frowned in protest.

    "Not the village, the…" Snorting, Tomyris threw her hand in a wild, vague circle. "You must think this steppe is the whole world, mustn’t you? A perfect, cozy universe with yourself sitting snugly at its center…" Tomyris realized she had wound the bowstring too tight, and started over.

    "You don’t know that," said Seelay, her offense deepening a little. "If you’re implying just because of our simple way of life that I’m totally without curiosity or intelligence, then…"

    "Then what?" asked Tomyris, her eyebrow lofting as she flashed a smirk at the younger woman in a challenge.

    Nevertheless, Seelay did not take the bait, folding her arms close and drawing her lips into an unamused line. "You can’t provoke me that easily."

    "Be it as you say," hummed Tomyris, before thinking a moment. Finally, she dropped the bow and stood. "Come with me."

    ------------​

    The gray mare slowed to a stop on a tall, grassy rise. Seelay had been surprised to see the aged horse on which Tomyris had first ridden into town again, wondering just how she had coaxed it back. Or, indeed, why she’d bothered when there were so many stronger horses in the village’s herds. Seelay had suspected that sentimentality was involved, somehow, but didn’t dare say so. She’d quickly forgotten her suspicions when Tomyris had pulled her up on the saddle and sent the mare off at a ferocious gallop, the village quickly receding behind them with a dazed Seelay holding onto the rider and wondering what had prompted this little jaunt.

    They had ridden hard for the better part of a day before arriving here, farther than the girl had ever gone, past even the horizons she’d gazed at since she was a child. Breathless, she fell off the saddle and took shaky steps up to the edge of the cliff, staring out at the mountains, a majestic, heavenly blue with snow capped peaks. Their distant crags and valleys brimmed with icy haze above ancient glaciers, and the air was beautifully, wonderfully still. They stood at the rim of a canyon before the foothills a while and stared. Tomyris remained mounted, and after letting Seelay gawp at the sight for a while, she gave her a nudge to snap her out of her trance and allow her back up onto the saddle.

    Just as with the ride there, the ride back saw no words shared. It was dark by the time that they returned, Tomyris letting her guest dismount. Staring down at her with an uneasy look, Tomyris eventually said, "Ask me again another day why I want to leave. When I’m ready to answer." Stepping off the horse, she let the haggard beast drink at the trough. For her own part, Tomyris walked off into the trees, leaving Seelay to ponder just what the point of all that had been.

    ------------​

    The morning found Tomyris alone in the wood with her birds. In a stone cup, hollowed by hand, she nursed a drink of near-boiling leaf water, courtesy of the smoldering fire pit nearby. She hesitated to call her wake-me-up "tea", feeling that too generous by far. Nevertheless, it was warm and it had a pleasant, minty tang to it, even if otherwise it tasted of nothing less than hot garbage. On this front, at least, she wasn’t inclined to be picky. When a flap of feathers disturbed the air, and her peace and quiet, Tomyris huffed and turned to behold the bird that had just decided to come and pay her a visit. "Go away. I’m busy."

    The rook burbled and shook its wings in what Tomyris assumed to be sarcasm.

    "Don’t get fresh with me. It’s too early in the morning for me to deal with you stupid little chickens."

    It puffed the shag of its throat twice, then spoke in a hilarious, nasally little voice, "Hiding."

    Tomyris’ eyebrow twitched. She was starting to regret speaking to herself in Punic around these things; they’d begun to learn. "What’s that supposed to mean? I’ve never hidden from anything in my life. Not that you’d know."

    The rook blinked and refused to answer.

    "You think I, the great Hanni- the great whoever I am, hides? I’ve faced forces you couldn’t comprehend, rat of the sky."

    The bird blinked again, and Tomyris’ voice began to rise.

    "I defied the mightiest power in the cosmos and laughed. I faced the great Destroyer of Immortals and ended him with a song. I fought against quintessence of evil which bubbled out of the very ground I stood on, and you dare-"

    "Seelay," the rook said.

    "Oh," murmured Tomyris, stricken for a moment, before rapidly becoming annoyed again. "No, no, no. That’s not fair. You stop that."

    The rook croaked and took off, not seeing fit to belabor the point. It joined its friends in the trees, leaving Tomyris to stew in her thoughts of the girl’s imploring eyes. Eventually, groaning, she tossed her cup to the ground and stood, bustling out of her sad, sylvan getaway and back into the village for the first time in days. She passed tribesfolk watching her return with surprise, shouldering through them until reaching the proper yurt. Throwing the canvas at the opening aside, she beheld Seelay, newly stirred out of sleep by the noise, and took a breath.

    "I’m ready."
     

Share This Page