A Girl from Cheemee Ch. 01byredlead©
Thanks in advance for all feedback on my first story!
The small room smelt of human bodies in need of better cleaning and better health. The earthen floor and walls, rotting wood ceiling, cots, blankets and huddled human shapes gave off the musty, dark scent of mold and filth. The choking odor of food turning sour filled every corner of the confined space with a repugnant rotting sweetness.
Tendrils of stench and desperation wrapped around the inhabitants with such thickness one could almost see it as a yellow-gray swirling fog, waiting to invade a nose or soak skin, hair and clothes to match its vile nature. Unable to leave, the room's prisoners had dug two holes in the dirt floor for a makeshift latrine, and this, combined with the constantly increasing temperature, was worsening the situation by the minute. But to Keriana, more disconcerting than these pervasive odors, was the very palpable odor of fear in the small basement.
The screaming silence of twenty hushed souls was broken only occasionally by a muffled cough, a whispered word, and the light swish, creak and shuffle of rearranging bodies. A small shaft of light leaked into the room from a partially covered window near the room's ceiling, letting the inhabitants know that it was still day. A few candles flickered, letting Keriana see the women and a few men sitting about the floor, or comforting patients laid out on tables or blankets on the ground.
At eighteen, Keriana was the youngest in the room. Most knew her as Ani, a sweet and somewhat quiet girl that was well adapt in the art of healing. People weren't her usual patients, and she was growing weary of being confined with so many. Ani had been raised in the country by animal healers, and she might have been more at ease trapped in a barnyard of sick sheep than a basement of sick men and their attendants.
They were hiding from their enemies, the merciless Gingubi army, in the cellar of a care cabin. The cabin above was a makeshift hospital for wounded Banigold soldiers until they could be transported home or sent back into battle. Ani and the others had also mended clothes and performed odd jobs to help their men. They were supposed to be safely within ally lines, but apparently a northern Banigold stronghold had been breached.
Ani scooted over to Kinkei, the youngest man in the basement at roughly twenty-two. He was the one that brought them warning of the oncoming Gingubi warriors over a day ago, in the middle of the night. Kinkei had come with five other Banigold scouts. When the scouts had showed up, they started moving everyone and supplies into the basement.
The dirt-walled cellar had not been big enough, though, for all of them, and the scouts had made the tough choice of ending it for the five most critically injured men to make room for others. Ani had almost been relieved for the injured men, who were likely dying anyways. Three had sepsis due to infection, and one man was already unconscious likely due to blood loss. If they had been animals, Ani would have shown them mercy days ago. Stories said that the Gingubi never showed mercy, preferring to torture their victims.
The only tough call was Horti, who had gone insane and was just too loud to keep around with approaching army. The Gingubi were said to have an exceptional sense of hearing and smell, and use beasts of the forest to aid in tracking. Horti should have been sent elsewhere long ago, but he had seemed harmless until his incessant rambling and occasional yelling would jeopardize all their safety. Kinkei and another took him to a cluster of trees, where the ravings had ended abruptly. War was a cruel mistress, with survival requiring her sacrifice.
Only an hour after the Banigold men had shown up, horses could be heard moving in the distance. Ani had already been down in the basement, helping organize food and medical supplies, when Joli, one of the head nurses and Tiwel, their main doctor, arrived. Ani had heard screaming in the distance through the open basement door.
Kinkei had been the last into the cellar, latching the door shut behind him. Kinkei had described seeing a band of thirty Gingubi warriors, with some imprisoned slaves with them. They apparently only kept the women beyond the first few days, killing or maiming captured men through torture.
Kinkei's words had scared them.
"I do not know the truth of it, but it is said that Gingubi have remarkable sense of smell and hearing. Perhaps it is the hounds they travel with, but they are very hard to escape."
"Aren't we just awaiting our death then?" one of the recovering Banigold warriors had asked. He had been in the army for only a short while before receiving a brutal side injury. Luckily, it looked like he would fully recover, though it would take many more weeks and rest.
"The other men are making some diversions. We came here smeared in Whispervane, which seems to hide our scent, so that they cannot directly track us. We burned some upstairs as well and tried to make the place appear deserted, so the smells they do pick up on will appear confusing and old."
Ani remembered how Kinkei had tilted his head towards the basement door as though listening, and then touched his hand to the floor.
"They are nearly in the area, we must be quiet. My men will do what they can to keep you safe, but from what I have seen, if our hide away is breached, you would be wise to end yourself and spare the misery of Gingubi capture."
He had given the women a pointed look, his eyes resting on Ani. "God help us all," he had mouthed.
Now, over thirty hours later, the basement inhabitants were growing weary. The day had been hot, and though the basement typically was slightly cool, the small room had grown choking in its stuffiness. They had periodically heard muffled sounds in the surrounding area, but it was hard to tell the distance away from within the basement.
Kinkei kept trying to assure them that everything was fine, but everyone knew that the scouts should have been back by now or other reinforcements should have arrived in the area.
Ani's eyes swept the room once again. She saw Joli standing with Tiwel and another young man that had come in last week, missing three of his fingers and a cut through his eye. Unfortunate wounds, but not fatal. He would probably return to battle at the end of the week, if they survived this. Ani watched as he looked up at her, but his eyes instantly rested on Kinkei. Ani inched even closer to Kinkei, since he seemed most in charge of allowing them to leave.
Soon, the seven-fingered, one-eyed man came to consort with Kinkei. She couldn't hear what he asked, but she caught most of Kinkei's hushed responses, "...probably very close scouts...they are very quiet and a cabin wouldn't go unnoticed...men back around dusk to let us out, if they have survived the day...doubt many would make it if we ran, as too many are injured, and women, no horses...mmmm...hmmhmm, we may. We'll see the situation tonight..."
Ani felt a shiver of anxiety run down her spine. She looked around the room. A lone thought kept running through her mind—the only freedom from this dreary hell would be to embrace the death they had tried escaping. She tried to shift her mind from the despair. Fear will freeze my heart, she thought, unless I stay hopeful.
But cold apprehension kept squeezing her chest tighter. Her hand scraped the floor beneath her. She felt the dirt fill under her nails, until the pressure on her fingertips drove her to pick it out. How convenient that they were already near buried.
Brushing off her hands, she studied her palms in the dark. Oh lines of life read by fortunetellers, what truths do you hold for us?
She couldn't really see her palms well anyways. Either they would survive this or they wouldn't. Fifty-fifty coin toss. Then again, from the hushed conversations, Ani suspected their chances of survival were much worse. Absent-mindedly she started to trace the outlines of her palm creases, when she felt dampness upon them. She felt that the dust was turning to mud there. Where had those drops come from, she thought. Rain leaking through the floor?
As she looked about, her eyes found Joli watching her. The nurse gave Ani a look of concern, which is when she realized she had been softly leaking tears. She pointedly looked back at her lap, and then looking away, wiped away tears with the back of her hands. It's only been about a day and a half, she thought. It could be worse.
Then a particularly strong odor hit her nose, causing a burn that brought additional moisture to her eyes. Maybe it couldn't be much worse. The situation was overwhelming, being so far from home, without any of her family, with near strangers, and all the while waiting for some potentially terrible death. Or worse, she thought. Kinkei and Tiwel liked to talk about options worse than death, every time someone has tried to leave.
Ughh, she thought, why didn't I listen to my family?
Ani thought about them then. Her mom, dad, little sister, brother and Dallan. Sitting in a dusky room filled with the rot of flesh, food and fear, her mind wandered to better times. She was from a small village in the Banigold kingdom, which was so far west it bordered the Shadimaran Empire. Luckily, a Banigold royal was married to the heir apparent of the Shadimara, and so her village, Cheemee, was safe from conquering attacks.
Cheemee still had some crime, and occasional squabbles with other villages or passing outlaws, since they were so far from either ruling center, but mostly it was just another mundane grouping of people trying to live out lives of relative mediocrity.
Compared to Ani's current underground prison, it was heaven.
Ani missed the relative peace of her childhood. She had few memories before the age of five, since her parents had died and she was left in the care of her aunt and uncle. They were her parents now, adopting her in with warmth and love. Her adopted sister, Merrilee, was three years younger but always acted wise beyond her tender years.
Her brother, Soren, was only three moons older than her. Soren and Ani looked so similar, with warm brown eyes, full yet graceful eyebrows and thick honey colored hair that many called them twins. Soren, Merrilee, and Ani had spent countless summers playing in the lake near their house, hiking miles up into the mountains, climbing trees and generally enjoying youth.
Ani smiled thinking of that beautiful freedom she had enjoyed. Her thoughts turned bitter thinking she had been foolish to give it up for a rotting basement grave with people she barely knew.
Particularly on her mind was her betrothed, Dallan. She wanted so badly to feel his strong arms around her, protecting her, his voice in her ear, comforting her. Being surrounded by so many men, Kinkei, Tiwel, and the others, just made Ani miss her man more.
A new tear slid down her check. They had just been engaged a week when Dallan and her brother Soren were drafted into the Banigold army. The Gingubi were descending from the northeast. They ransacked every village, killed most of the men, and enslaved the women and children. Even those who survived the initial onslaught as slaves were then often brutalized and killed, and the stories told by the few escaping survivors were absolutely sickening.
The Banigold king had decided to draft particularly heavily from the west, since they could rely on the Shadimara to be strong allies along that boarder, and this wouldn't leave other villagers in the kingdom as vulnerable from attack.
Ani hoped the two men she loved were fairing better than her. At least they had weapons and an army on their side. They were at least 30 miles south of their cabin by this time, and possibly somewhat westerly. She would have gladly switched places, meeting the enemy head on instead of waiting like some sacrificial lamb. She hated feeling helpless. Which is why she had decided to join the service crews as a healer in the first place, so she could be near Soren and Dallan and play a role in keeping them safe.
She had left Cheemee with them, knowing it would be dangerous, but knowing her heart would break for her adopted twin and future husband if she stayed back. Her parents had wanted her to stay, but ultimately supported her decision. She was never supposed to be this close to the battle, but there are no rules in war, and she was now drawn directly into the conflict.
Ani was so caught up in her thoughts and memories, she didn't initially pick up on the extreme silence that had descended in the room. She opened her eyes and scanned the room. All eyes were glued to the floor above them. She tried to pick out what had everyone else frozen when she heard it. A creak from someone walking the floor above them. Oh mighty, please not Gingubi.
The first set of footsteps was joined by two more, and then what sounded like large dogs padding across the wooden floor. Dust fell down from the rafters into the eyes of the hiding, and Ani grabbed her nose to prevent a fateful sneeze. Deep voices talked in low whispers. Everyone in the basement was practically holding their breath. Please, Oh Mighty, please let them leave us. Please don't let them find us, Ani thought over and over again, a screaming plea in her brain to any power that would let them live.
Suddenly, a loud voice could be heard, his words ringing clearly to everyone below.
"We can't seem to pick up the trail of the Banigold scouts we were following. We think we should head West and then follow the river further south. That's their most likely route."
"Should we stay here tonight? This house seems recently abandoned," added another, younger sounding voice.
Ani squeezed her eyes shut and tried to still her heart. She could hear it so loud in her ears she was certain everyone else could too. She was scared that they would be stuck here all night with Gingubi above them.
"This shit hole?" a gruff voice exclaimed, "no fucking way. I'm bedding down with one of them bitches we captured this morning. You two fuckups can do what you like, but I'm going back to camp."
The voices dropped again and the last few remarks were hard to make out. Then the footsteps and dogs shuffled out of the house. Everyone waited several minutes until nothing could be heard before normal breathing resumed. No one spoke. They might have survived that scare, but the Gingubi could come back, or still be waiting.
The basement became increasingly stuffy, but luckily the temperature dropped slightly as night set in. An hour or two after the Gingubi had swept the house, Ani threw up. Joli helped her get cleaned up and gave her some water.
"Shhh, sweet girl, shhh. Its gonna be ok," she whispered, stroking Ani's back. "You might be young but you are strong. You're gonna be ok, we all are."
Ani was glad she couldn't see the head nurse's face. Joli's words were soothing, but she delivered comforting lies to so many patients that Ani had learned to read her eyes to see the truth. When a patient was likely dying, Joli always told them they were strong, loved, and to keep hope in their hearts. It was kind to give words of comfort, but Ani would rather they were all honest with themselves. They were still in grave danger.
At some point, Ani fell asleep from pure exhaustion. She had helped Joli re-bandage some patients and put together a small meal for everyone. Sometime after that, eyes closed and body propped against a wall, unconsciousness enveloped her like a magic cape to take her to other lands of dreams and memories.
Ani was back in Cheemee. She was dancing through the fields, and looked up, seeing a hawk in the sky. Then she was the hawk, flying with her brother and sister. And then she dove, falling, down, down, into the stream, and suddenly she was a fish, playing chase with Dallan. She giggled, because he was a silvery blue fish, his favorite kind to eat.
And then she was a kid again, back on their farm, fishing. She was supposed to be doing chores, but fishing was more fun. She thought of the farm. It seemed forever ago that she was a happy farm girl in Cheemee, working on their rather small farm compared to most of the villagers. Theirs, however, was freeman's land and not "owned" by a royal man.
Though they grew the best berries for miles, the farm was not the main income. Their father, Yosep, was an animal doctor, and their mother, Kinah, watched the farm when he travelled to a neighboring town. Kinah also had some skills with animals, and assisted Yosep when needed. Their family was renowned for their miraculous skills of healing, often helping both domesticated and wild animals recover when all hope seemed lost.
Yosep had an apprentice, the son of family friends. His name was Dallan, and he was Ani's world. Dallan had come to them when he was 14, and Ani was 11. Soren and Merrilee treated him like an adopted brother, but Ani wanted him as more even then. Dallan stayed with them for six months at a time, until he was 18 and had moved in to work with Yosep full-time.
Dallan had light brown hair that he kept pulled back, eyes so dark brown that they seemed like two cave openings to wonder and mystery, thick black lashes, a full mouth and angled jaw. He was tall and gangly when he had first come, and Ani had thought him wonderful even then, like a determined sapling full of life and patience. Each time he returned after that he grew more and more into the man that made her blood boil with desire.
Theirs had been an easy camaraderie, him always teasing and her always falling into the verbal traps. But she liked the game, and liked when she said something witty or stupid, smart or foolish and they would laugh together until their sides panged from the effort. She liked his easy love of nature and fascination with all living creatures. He showed such deep respect for everything and everyone, more than anyone else she had ever known, including Yosep, who had been her previous measure.
She struggled greatly with her feelings, since everyone could see how she felt, except Dallan. Well, he probably could see her crush but never said or did anything to embarrass her. Her family, on the other hand, thought it a cute school girl crush that would pass, and they teased her endlessly.
Then, when she was sixteen, everything changed. Their village was hosting a summer festival, which had a dance one night. Soren had already found a date to attend with, and Ani was contemplating asking her mother to help procure her one as well, since no one had asked. Her mother, however, thought she should go with Merrilee and keep out of trouble. But then Merrilee got sick, and Kinah stayed to watch after her until the fever broke. With Yosep out of town, it left no one to take Ani, and she had left the house to go contemplate her ill-luck by the lake.
Ani had climbed out onto a tree that over hanged a small calm inlet of the lake. It was her favorite moping or thinking spot. Sprawled out on the branch, she faced her reflection in the lake. She had long golden hair, kissed with strawberry highlights, full lips, high cheekbones, lightly arching, full eyebrows and long light brown eyelashes. Her nose was small, and from the profile it curved up like a little snow ramp. She had a few freckles across her cheeks and nose, but mostly her skin was a healthy light tan, kissed by the sun. The most striking feature of her face was her eyes, which were whiskey brown like her adopted twin Soren, only hers had flecks of golden yellow near her pupil.
She had suddenly heard a scraping sound at the base of her tree and looked up to find Dallan there. She sat up as he scooted out to sit with her.