tagSci-Fi & FantasyDemon Child Ch. 11

Demon Child Ch. 11

byXantu©

Chapter 11: The demon city.

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Aylanna woke slowly, the images and sensations of her dream still echoing around in her mind. She yawned and rubbed her eyes, blinking. Tollarra cooed softly and smoothed the tendrils of red hair that had fallen down over her forehead. "Sister, you slept for most of the afternoon. Are you sure you are well?"

Aylanna thought back to the day before, facing the ghost of her father. It had only lasted a few moments at most, but it had left her drained and exhausted. Yet she felt calmer, clearer now than she had ever felt before. It felt as though she had finished one chapter of her life and now was facing a whole new destiny and she held no question where that path lay, she was Aylanna Ha'akh Bak Tai Twisted Dagger. Where they led, she would follow.

She took Tollarra's hand and gave it an affectionate squeeze, "Sister, I am well. I just needed to sleep." She looked around the wagons, seeing for the first time that they had come back to the little valley where she had spent the night before. "Now it is time for us go about our duties."

Later in the evening, after the water barrels were filled, the fires built and fresh wood gathered from the rare little copse of stunted trees, Aylanna looked up at the sun rapidly dropping to the horizon, turning the sky into a riot of oranges and gold. She wrapped her bare arms around her chest and shivered, thinking of the cold night before. Normally, the cold held little concern for her but here, in the northern plains, it seemed like the heat of the day disappeared with the sun. And each day's travel further north made the nights even colder. She cast an envious eye on Tollarra's layered clothing.

The older ha'akh's outfit was made up of several layers: a loose long sleeved overdress covered a sleeveless knee length tunic and a set of leggings that tied to an inner belt that supported her loincloth. The outer dress was crisscrossed with a complex set of decorative bands that wrapped around and crossed across her chest and belly. But most of all, Aylanna was intrigued by the numerous pockets that Tollarra was always reaching into, producing rags, string, spinning bobbins, even little snacks.

Aylanna looked down at the simple little sleeveless shift that hung just below her knees. Other than the blue cloth tied around her head, she wore little else, not even a loin cloth unless her bleeding time was upon her.

Shyly, she reached out to touch the cloth of Tollarra's dress, feeling the soft wool of the grasslands' goats. Tollarra paused and looked at her with curious eyes, "Yes, Sister?"

Aylanna shrugged, "Your dress, I was looking at your dress. It is nice."

Tollarra looked down at her traditional garb and then at the girls simple garment. "It is a woman's dress. She touched Aylanna's shift, "This is a child's summer dress."

Aylanna looked down at the stained and worn cloth, "I have a prettier dress but it is even thinner. Kwal'kek gave it to me to wear at the gathering." Again, she stroked the natural brown wool of Tollarra's dress, "Yours looks warm." She paused and smiled, "And you have pockets. Sometimes I wish I had pockets."

The older ha'akh looked puzzled, "If you want a new dress, why don't you just make one for yourself? I am sure that I saw some bolts of fabric among the loot in that wagon we ride on. Just ask Kwal'kek for some cloth."

Aylanna looked confused and embarrassed, "I don't know how."

Tollarra laughed gently, "Little sister, you continually surprise me. You cannot spin, your skills at the cook fire are those of a toddler, and now you say you cannot sew; you are fortunate that fate has made you a ha'akh. You would make a poor wife."

Aylanna froze, a shiver of premonition made the skin on her neck and scalp tingle. Her voice was soft and distant, and curiously an octave lower, "But I am a wife, a wife and mother to the Bak."

Tollarra blinked and suddenly uncomfortable with the odd tone and expression on the demon's face, changed the subject, "Well, little sister, I will help you make your dress. It is about time to start dressing like an adult woman. Come, let us petition that old tight-fist Kwal'kek and see if we cannot get him to part with a few measures of cloth."

Aylanna appeared completely unaware of her previous words and smiled happily at Tollarra's offer, "Really? Will you help me make a dress? I want pockets, lots of pockets."

Tollarra nodded and whispered to Aylanna conspiratorially, "Now don't argue with me, just follow my lead."

She led Aylanna near to where Kwal'kek was sitting on a box, speaking at length to a couple of the younger warriors, taking advantage of his role as teacher to tell another long story of his youth. Tollarra began to speak loudly enough for her words to carry, "Sister, you really must be braver. It is not wrong to speak to him about this."

Aylanna blinked and looked at Tollarra in confusion. Carefully keeping her back to Kwal'kek, the older ha'akh grinned and winked and continued.

"Sister, I have seen you shivering in the mornings. If he is neglecting you, you should plead with him for what you need. It would be a bad thing if you should fall sick from exposure." Then, Tollarra sniffed and spoke up a little louder, "It is shameful that he keeps you in such an inadequate garment."

Beyond Tollarra, Aylanna could see that Kwal'kek had stopped his speech and was looking at the two women with a curious frown on his face. Abruptly, the older woman grabbed Aylanna's hand and pulled her to stand before Kwal'kek, her voice lecturing and a not a little shrill, "Sister, you must beg him to treat you better." Then Tollarra gave her a little shove toward the older warrior who acted as the quartermaster for the regiment.

Aylanna was so shocked; she looked up at the old warrior wordlessly, her arms naturally coming around her body in embarrassment. Kwal'kek peered up at her from his seat and gruffly spoke.

"Well, what is this about?"

Aylanna shot an outraged look at Tollarra and mumbled, "Could I please get some cloth for making a dress?"

Tollarra spoke up, still carefully keeping her words directed toward Aylanna rather than the gruff old soldier, "Sister, don't be afraid of him. There is nothing wrong with asking for what you deserve."

Kwal'kek harrumphed and stood up, "If you need some cloth, just get what you need from the wagon. Let it not be said that any ha'akh of the Twisted Dagger is not properly cared for."

Instantly, Tollarra was all gratitude.

"Of course, of course, we are grateful for your generosity." At the same time, she pulled Aylanna away before she could speak, dragging her to the wagons.

Once out of earshot, Aylanna whispered furiously, "What was that?"

"It was us getting free access to the wagons without that old coin pincher looking over our shoulders. I was deliberately challenging his ego by putting his care of you in question. This way, we avoid having him extract any payment from us."

"Payment?"

"Of course, most of the items in the wagons are loot taken from the Ramaldi villages. The warriors have already been given their share. What is left is the Khan's share of the loot. It is being brought back as tribute. If any of the warriors want something now, they are expected to trade for it. And that old man is a hard trader."

Aylanna fingered her little hoard of strange silver coins that had dropped at her feet when she burned the mummy's remains. "I have some money. I could have paid."

Tollarra looked at Aylanna in surprise and then shrugged, "Well, you will have use for that money in the future, I am sure."

"I need a purse too."

Tollarra chuckled, "It is a good thing that we have free access to the wagon. There is leather in there as well. Come along, we do not have much time before our warriors will seek us out for the night or Kwal'kek will come to his senses and realize he has given us free access to his treasures."

It was clear that Tollarra was very familiar with the contents of the wagon as she quickly pulled out two different lengths of fabric, one rich dark brown and a lighter piece of creamy light tan. She added a piece of rich red tanned hide, commenting, "We can use some of this for a belt and a little purse for you."

Both ha'aks were busy for the next few days, cutting and sewing. Tollarra was adamant that Aylanna help with each step, cutting and sewing the cloth and leather. More than one of the warriors would stop and stand, watching the women working on their task, smiling at Aylanna's childlike enthusiasm as she learned new things and donned her new clothing.

At Tollarra's suggestion, they left the front seam open so that the dress could fall on either side when she rode. This made the dress flare open as Aylanna walked, exposing her leggings and the flash of bare skin above her knees. Somehow, this tantalizing glimpse of her thighs drew the eyes of the warriors even more than her light summer dress had.

Tollarra helped Aylanna sew a small pouch style leather purse that could be tied to her belt or slipped into one of many deep pockets that Aylanna had insisted on. When Aylanna carefully put her treasure into the purse, Tollarra had exclaimed at the beauty of the gem on the golden chain, holding it up and letting the light shine on the opalescent stone.

"Sister, the sunset is trapped within this stone."

Aylanna looked at the stone again; it was a smooth oval, almost as long as her finger, caught inside delicate gold filigree. When she went to put it into the purse, Tollarra stopped her, and handed her a scrap of fabric, "Wrap it in cloth first, it will protect it from rubbing against the coins." It went unsaid that this was a treasure too precious, or perhaps, too magical to be worn.

Aylanna took one of the dark tarnished silver coins and pressed it into Tollarra's hand. "Sister, please take this gift as a gesture of my gratitude for all you have taught to me."

Tollarra looked at the coin curiously, spitting on it and rubbing it vigorously with the hem of her skirt, and peering at the strange markings on it. There was a picture of two straight swords crossed on one side and some symbols on the other. Actual money was rare among the grasslands tribes.

Tollarra looked at Aylanna, "What is this?"

"It is my legacy from my father."

The older woman's eyes widened, "The demon?"

Aylanna's eyes shifted, "Yes, when we took the sword from his bones, this fell out from under his shirt of iron links. Our Khan said I should keep it."

Tollarra automatically made a sign against evil, but did not return the coin. She quickly pulled a small purse from her pocket and slipped it inside and then unconsciously wiped her palm on her dress. She smiled suddenly and said in an over-bright voice, "I thank you for your gift."

Aylanna looked at Tollarra with confused eyes, "Sister, did I do wrong to give you that?"

Tollarra's eyes softened, "No, nothing wrong. It is just said that things stolen from the dead can bring the angry spirit to curse you with bad luck." Again the older ha'akh made a warding gesture, "But I am sure that it is just a superstition."

Aylanna shrugged and spoke with a conviction that could not be questioned.

"Oh to be sure, you would be wise to fear provoking a spirit's wrath." Frowning thoughtfully, she continued, "But I cannot help but believe that these things fell at my feet for a reason. This demon had no more use for his treasures. His spirit wanted nothing more than to leave this land." The girl gestured broadly around her, "He is not here now."

Tollarra gave the girl a sidelong look and then looked nervously around. Her voice was fearful.

"Can you see them, spirits?"

Aylanna laughed at the idea, "Oh no, I can't see them." As Tollarra visibly relaxed, the younger girl hid the smile on her face thinking that it would not be wise to say that while she could not see them, if she chose to listen, she could hear them whispering on the wind.

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The Twisted Dagger regiment made their way west and north. As they went north is was as if they were leaving summer behind. To be sure, the sun brought warmth, but it seemed the wind stole it away. The nights grew increasingly bitter. Even the normally stoic warriors were taking the time to set up their tents every night.

The grassland plains were changing too, the endless grass growing shorter and patches of low brush appearing here and there. Nearly every little valley was choked with low growing trees, twisted and bent by wind and winter storms.

Within another day's travel, the low contorted pines began to dominate the land. Their long bent branches all seemed to point south, away from the direction they traveled, silent sentinels warning them to turn back.

Aylanna remembered the words of Lachram, the leader of the Grass Walker tribe, that there was a band of forest that divided the cliffs that overlooked the great northern ocean from the grasslands to the south. He had said that the grasslands tribes did not venture beyond the forest, that the wind that howled through the empty stone cities of the defeated demons could steal your soul. She looked at the trees and shivered with foreboding.

Jhardron had said that their mission would take them as far north as the sea and he seemed eager to see what lay along the coast. That night, as they made camp, he spoke to Kwal'kek of having the wagons and the warriors part ways for a time, the wagons traveling west along the edge of the forest, the rest of the regiment riding north and exploring the coast, Aylanna felt a mixture of regret and relief. She did not like the idea that her warriors would be gone but somehow she was nervous about this place. The tortured trees, the chill that never quite left the air and a general sense of unease about this strange northern land that had her listening to the wind once again. She wanted nothing more than to leave this place.

The next morning, as the younger warriors began to pack up the tents, the warriors began to tie their bed rolls and bags of trail rations behind their saddles. Jhardron lead Xin'sha up to Aylanna, "You should bring your bedroll too, ha'akh." The girl looked surprised, and realizing that she was to ride with the warriors, hurried to attach her bedding behind her saddle. A wide excited smile lit up her face. The prospect of accompanying the warriors eclipsed any reservations she harbored.

She hugged Tollarra and murmured a quick farewell and mounted Xin'sha. The little red mare was restless, sidestepping nervously, her ears flickering back and forth. Aylanna, sensing that the little horse was reacting to her own inner turmoil, clamped down on her surging excitement and reined the mare to the back of the column.

The regiment traveled due north, alternately moving at a trot and a walk. The terrain became increasingly forested, and the wind that whistled through the tangled branches of the trees had an unfamiliar bitter tang. As always, there was the almost imperceptible murmur of voices in Aylanna's ears, but they were soft and distant, demanding nothing.

The advance scouts came back with reports of the remains of some ancient stone ruins, and the remnants of what may have been a road in ages past. There was a perceptible ripple of interest among the warriors at the thought that these had perhaps been the dwellings of demons. It was as if they were venturing into myth.

The ancient stone buildings were little more than piles of hewn stone, covered in moss, leaves, and pine needles but the road was a wide, mostly treeless avenue that beckoned north. The warriors wandered among the stones, curiously scraping the dirt and moss away here and there but finding little beyond a worked corner or a few fragments of pottery.

Aylanna idly kicked at a pile of damp leaves and was rewarded by the glimmer of white marble, stained now with the tannin of rotting vegetation. Crouching down, she slowly wiped the accumulation of endless years of falling leaves from a worn and chipped visage. Almost unrecognizable as being once a human face, the remains of a shattered statue lay staring up at her. The ha'akh remained huddled low, held transfixed by the sight, when the strong hand of Jhardron woke her from her reverie.

"What have you found?"

The demon girl did not speak, only moved aside, her eyes still trapped by the hollow pits that had once been eyes. Jhardron curiously kicked more of the soil away and the cracked sculpture rolled free and then crumbled into fragments. He pulled Aylanna up to face him, peering into her eyes. "What do you sense, ha'akh? What does your magic tell you of this place?"

Aylanna paused looking at him and the other warriors watching curiously. "I sense nothing, my Khan. Whoever was here, whoever made this place, they are gone." Her voice was curiously soft and pensive, "They left here so long ago that even the stone goes back to the earth."

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The ancient roadway was not easily negotiated. Once paved with wide stones, now the surface was buckled and broken. Innumerable trees had fallen down and blocked the way. And in many places, trees had force their way up through the cracks, their roots ripping up the pavement. The regiment was forced to ride single file, picking their way along, following the meandering trail made by the feet of wild animals. Aylanna rode last, her little red mare treading lightly, her head up, alert and watchful.

Aylanna could sense a tense alertness that permeated the whole regiment. It was a warrior's preparedness, a readiness to face anything that this unfamiliar place might challenge them with. Yet she sensed no fear in their hearts, and she found comfort in their calm resolve. Her spirit held no reservations as she followed in their footsteps.

The roadway led north and the hills rose on either side as the grade began to fall in a steep slope. The single file of mounted warriors came to a halt and Aylanna peered ahead at the wide clear sky. The wind was sharp and cold, funneled into narrow divide between steep hills, and it was strong with that same strange bitter smell. Aylanna licked her lips and marveled at the taste of salt, almost as if she had blood in her mouth.

The warrior closest to her turned and spoke in a low voice, relaying the order that they should dismount and proceed on foot, leading their mounts. Aylanna slid down to stand beside Xin'sha, holding her reins. The path narrowed to barely the width of a single horse where the steep slope above the road had slid down. As she urged the little red mare between the fallen rocks, the vista before her opened up and she froze in wonder. The road fell away before her feet, the incline dropping even more sharply and far below, stretching to the sky was the grey and restless sea.

It looked endless and churned in the wind. Huge waves crashed against the shore, the dull pounding roar an angry rumble in the distance. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of white birds swirled above them, seeming to play in the wind, tipping and sliding through the torrents of air like arrows, their haunting calls carried up on the rising air. Aylanna wondered if the high, piercing calls were a welcome or a warning.

The warriors were moving further away, carefully picking their way down the narrow road that led down and down to the sea. Xin'sha nudged Aylanna's shoulder gently, wanting to follow the stallions that were leaving them behind. Nodding almost numbly in agreement with the little horse's wish to stay close to the other horses, Aylanna began to work her way down the narrow and precarious path. The wind seemed to tear at them as they worked their way down and down and Aylanna had to squint her eyes and bend all her attention to the path. Once in the shelter at the base of the looming cliff, the wind seemed to be less fierce and Aylanna paused and looked around curiously, craning her head back staring up at the steep face they had just descended.

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