Dark Forest

Child of Starlight: Issue 2 – Part 3: Pasts That Define Us

The day continued and the two travelers began sticking to the shade of trees, avoiding the searing sunlight of midday. Aliene was beginning to feel the rebound of her exertion. She looked back to Jacobus who had stayed quiet over the past few hours. The man still looked as if he was on a leisurely walk. Does he outclass me by so much? The thought had wormed its way into her skull, exacerbated by the silence between them. Aliene had only been able to compare herself to Hafwen growing up; her mentor had always been better at everything. Speed, power, endurance, and stealth, the four tenants of a hunter. Hafwen told Aliene she was better than some but how could the young girl really know?

The use of magic had always been compared to how she used her muscles normally. Magic just made up the difference in what she could normally do and what she may need to do. The farther the difference, the more magic needed. Outer magic was a little different but pulled from the same source within her. Hafwen had drilled Aliene till her magic was drained, then made her keep going, fighting through the sharp tingling that ensued. A sensation Aliene was starting to feel now in her legs.

Should I just rest? A foreign concept after twenty years of scheduled life. They had food for a few days and nowhere to go. I have nowhere I need to be. The realization of that fact stung Aliene more than she expected.

“Let’s stop over there for a bit, I don’t sense anything nearby.”

Her comment was met with a burst of Jacobus’ own reach. Aliene noticed it felt different than Hafwen’s. He smiled, replying, “Sounds good.”

The two ventured off towards a small patch of ground half encircled by thick intertwining trees. Aliene dropped her pack and more landed on the ground than sat, putting her back against a tree. The well-shaded bark was almost cool against her back, and she noticed the shrills of insects and bird song after Jacobus sat down. Breathing deeply, Aliene took in the variety of smells a forest could have. She hadn’t needed to go this far north in a few years, and it was different, sweeter. The only disturbance was the man a short distance from her, meditating?

“You said you were a part of the Schilian army, in a civil war?”

Jacobus didn’t open his eyes. “Yes, the eastern one.”

“Why were you fighting?” Aliene began feeling she may have upset him earlier by asking.

“Difference of opinion.” He pulled his legs in, crossing them.

“With half the county?”

Jacobus opened his eyes finally, rolling them as he smiled. “Do your tribes not have any qualms with each other?”

Aliene had to think for a moment. “Not so bad as to kill each other over it.”

“Maybe it’s just the scale.”

“The what?”

“Let me ask you, how large are your tribes, the number of people, on average?” Jacobus wasn’t smiling anymore.

“A bit over a thousand maybe, tens of thousands all told.” Aliene realized where he was going with this.

“Schilia has over a million people.”

Or not; Aliene was trying to comprehend the difference. When she had seen Schilia on maps the county didn’t seem that large. “So, what could be so important?”

Jacobus folded his arms. “Honestly I don’t fully know.”

“You said.”

“I was a part of the army, I wasn’t in charge of it. I joined years before, then was told we were fighting. So, I fought. Took it day by day until our leader said we were done. Dozens of battles, but as for a real reason, I was never given one. I suspect only the highest-ranking member may have known.” Jacobus made a face like he had been stabbed from behind.

“How high up were you?” Aliene wondered what kind of loyalty this man must have to follow so blindly, then she remembered how they met. Oh right.

“Not very. I had been given charge of a few men before the war started, and halfway through it I was given a few more.” Jacobus blinked away a drop from his eye. Aliene couldn’t tell if it was a tear or just sweat.

“Can I ask where they are now?” Aliene had a growing knot in her chest as she guessed the answer.

“Dead, all but me. It was a glorious end for the war.”

“Glorious?” Aliene had seen a few other hunters die. That wasn’t how she’d have described the events.

“Exiled?” Jacobus’ face went rigid.

Aliene was almost ready to be angry again but she just didn’t have the strength. I may as well tell him, “This star, the thing you followed, is in short blasphemy.”

“How so?”

“That merchant mentioned our gods are represented by stars.” Aliene slumped down suddenly uncomfortable. “That is part of it. Starting at the top, we have seven celestial chiefs, and each chief is a patron for each village. But within each celestial chief’s ‘house’ are another seven members, each embodying some aspect of the house’s main purpose.”

“Sensing a pattern in the use of seven.” Jacobus was massaging his jaw again.

“Exactly. Socially we always follow this; it gives us a place, a purpose, and a set of role models.” Aliene resisted the urge to raise her voice.

“Then you are a walking contradiction,” Jacobus said his face softening when he saw her physically sink from his blunt statement. “But why exile you? Has no one ever been out of place?”

“Never to this degree.” Aliene was having to force the air from her chest. “The speckles of stain everyone has from the ‘placement’ ceremony can always be linked to something within our tribe.”

Jacobus pulled his pack to him before responding. “No clear shapes like yours?” He pulled a skin of water and wrapped piece of bread, only to have the bread loaf whip from his hand as a rush of wind started. Jacobus watched the bread as it was flung into the dark brush, and after staring at his hand for a moment asked, “Wasn’t it the middle of the day?”