Second Sun Horizon – Chapter Two – Part One
A rain came, sudden and hard. Fortune lent them favor as Ilenia and Helaia made it to the forest before the deluge was made all the fiercer by billowing winds. The leaves of the trees here were broader than the usual fare, which gave them some measure of shelter. They huddled together against a thick bole.
“So,” began Ilenia through chattering teeth, “giving Elren my horse was probably not the best course of action.”
“I’d say not.” Ilenia could hear the smile. Despite the frigid nature of the storm, the heat from her friend’s body staved off the worst of the mounting chill. Maybe it helped that her heart pounded so hard it resounded in her ears. The rain lessened not minutes later, reduced to a more welcoming drizzle. They pressed on along the obscure path back to Keloh Rah. Their arrival at the village was met with two large bonfires smoldering and smoking black in their ashen wood piles. The festivities had barely even started before the floodgates opened from the skies. Denizens gathered in droves around the healer’s massive hut. A structure that dominated as if its size determined its importance.
The healer was more than just a healer; they were also matriarch of Keloh Rah, a chieftain chosen for their years of service and infallible wisdom. A matriarch who just so happened to be Ilenia’s mother. As Ilenia and Helaia squeezed through the throng, people hushed their discussions; everyone wanted to know what was happening, and the lack of an answer filled them with dread. The armored guards that surrounded the hut, hands gripping their pommels, did nothing to quell their nervousness. Their murmurs evolved into shouted questions: “Why are you here?” “What ails the man you brought?” “Has the plague struck once more?”
One of the guards, stout and bearded with beady eyes, stepped forward to address their concerns as he spread out his arms in a gesture that asked for silence.
“The man whom you saw has nothing more than a common virus, I assure you.”
“A virus?” asked a man, loud above a volley of unintelligible outpouring. “Are we to be next?”
Ilenia reached the perimeter where the guards held fast.
“Let me through,” she demanded. “I am the daughter of Keloh Rah’s Enrah, and you will let me pass.”
The man to which she spoke blinked in confusion. He looked to his fellows, opened his mouth, then shut it. Helaia stood by her side, stoic and quiet. As the guard could not raise any objections, they moved past him, up the stone steps and beyond the double doors. Inside, a trembling orange glow pervaded the expansive room. A group clustered around something, or someone. A few were the guards they had seen on the road; others were the Enrah’s maidens. They toiled with bloody linens and soaked towels. A hearth burned to their immediate right. The fire crackled but the flames began to shrink. Cupboards that lined the wall to the left were filled with an assortment of vials, beakers, and other measuring utensils. Broken glass littered the oak desk underneath. Liquids of varying viscosity dripped to the floor.
Ilenia, with Helaia close behind, took a couple measured steps before she was hailed by her mother. She rose from her crouched position next to a cot, and as the surrounding members parted, Ilenia noticed the scarred man once again. This time, a blood-soaked cloth dressed his waist. He was slathered in sweat, mumbling to himself and tossing about like a man deranged. Her mother approached, and at first Ilenia was struck cold by the expression on her face: distraught, lips downturned, and blue eyes glossed over as if she were caught in the throes of some considerable drug. Her silken robes slid across the floor as she walked, shining different colors depending on the angle of the light. Her silvery hair was tied in a bun much like Helaia’s to reveal aging lines etched into a tan face. Withered. Scraped thin. So unlike her to be seen so vulnerable.
“How is he?” asked Ilenia. She could not see the scarred man any longer, again blocked by guards and maidens.
The Enrah shook her head. “He may not survive the night, I fear. I’ve done all I can.”
“What happened?” chimed Helaia, tremulous and muffled. Her first words since returning to the village. Ilenia glanced at her friend, but Helaia would not meet her eyes. She wanted to comfort her, to take her in her arms and unburden all the fear that now took hold, but she restrained herself. She chided inwardly for thinking such foolish thoughts at a time like this. Consolation could wait.
“The caves unleashed a power that had been dormant for thousands of years, since before the first pioneers came to these lands. Perhaps even before the land itself was made by the hands of the Four Gods,” explained her mother.
“What sort of p—”
Before Ilenia could finish her sentence, Elren interrupted. “Mura, his fever rises, and he’s thrashing!”
Her mother nodded and left to tend to her patient. When he calmed, he whispered too softly to hear. “What’s that?” The Enrah leaned closer so that the scarred man’s lips nearly brushed her ear. Her eyes widened, then she stood and backed away, a hand covering her mouth.
“Mura?” asked Elren, stepping toward her. She did not lift her gaze from the scarred man. Ilenia made to stand by her side, but a hand caught her own and held it tight. She looked to see Helaia shake her head.
“Give her a moment.”
The initial shock seemed to wane, but in her mothers’s face Ilenia saw how brittle she became. Seeming to recover, she said, “Magic has availed our land for a second coming. Its servants once long dead shall rise. It is a power that understands itself. Not quite evil, but neither does it do good for goodness’s sake.”
Elren asked the question that seemed to rattle in all their minds. “What does this mean for us?”
The Enrah of Keloh Rah shook her head, driven to her knees by the weight of the truth she shared. A truth that wormed its way through the consciousness of those present like a parasite feeding off their collective agitation, to steal a piece of who they were in this instance, forever changed. Ilenia broke free from Helaia’s grip and went to her mother, who now had her face buried in her hands.
“We’ll survive it. Just like we survived the famine,” said Ilenia softly. She dropped to one knee and attempted to catch the matriarch’s eye, but her mother would not budge. Then Elren grasped her by the shoulders, dragged her to her feet, and led her outside. The sound of worried declarations echoed then ceased as the doors opened and shut.
It was a long while wallowing in silence before Ilenia departed and made her way back to her hut. Helaia opted to stay behind, though she gave no reason. The mob had dispersed to their respective homes. The guards lounged around, trading jests as the tension dissipated. Apparently, Mura spoke to the villagers, but Ilenia could not guess as to what yarn she weaved. It all amounted to trust, thought Ilenia. No matter what, they counted on her mother to do right by them.
Her body felt weighted. Every limb heavy and every muscle wound tight. As soon as she collapsed on her bed, she let sleep take her. In her dreams, only darkness remained. Sunlight soaked the hut in a darker shade of pink when she rose the following day. She felt some undue burden, lethargic as if she tossed and turned through the whole night. The second sun arrived earlier than usual. As she dressed, a scarlet light cast over her hut. Too leaden to hunt, she put on a shabby brown tunic and well-worn leggings. She let her hair fall about her face.
Then she stepped out.