I’m gonna take a break from Victorious Maiden for a little while. I’ll talk more about it tomorrow. Here are 1000 more words:
* * *
“Piper,” a male voice whispered, “who is she?”
A female voice, presumably Piper, responded. “You know who she is, and she should not be here.”
“The battlefield is no place for a mysterious peasant girl.”
Piper scoffed. “Is this what you think of peasant girls, Sabiti, or all girls?”
“Help me get her up,” Sabiti retorted. The smile in his voice was evident.
The voices faded and Kamaria felt her body jostle. The sensations disappeared as well, and Kamaria returned to her slumber.
* * *
Kamaria moaned, but sleep still held her in its clutches.
“Please, wake up.” The voice was followed by a patting of Kamaria’s cheek.
Kamaria opened her eyes, and fuzzy shapes populated her field of vision. Her eyes slowly began to focus and the shapes took the form of faces. Worried, childlike faces. She placed her hand over her eyes and squeezed away the last remnants of the unnatural sleep.
“She’s awake.” A murmur of assenting voices followed. It took Kamaria a few moments to discern that the voices were of the children she shared the cart with.
She attempted to sit, but cobwebs of unconsciousness beat behind her eyes. Her tongue felt dry and the roof of her mouth itched. Tiny hands pushed her into a sitting position, and pairs of scared eyes scanned her face.
They’re terrified, Kamaria thought as she surveyed her dim surroundings. “Where is Elder Akua?”
“The Elder and her guard are exploring the cave,” a tiny voice replied. Kamaria had to strain to hear all the words.
Kamaria looked up to see rock towering overhead. Shadows played as deep fissures allowed scant light into the earthen room they were in. “Is one of you named Piper?” she asked, looking at her charge of children.
Heads shook in the declarative negative.
“Sabiti?” she asked, but the voice in her dream state definitely was an adult male, unlike the rabble of children.
The children watched as Kamaria staggered to her feet. Leaning against the rock wall was her quiver and bow. She swallowed hard, trying to assess the situation and overcome the dryness in her mouth and throat. She retrieved her belongings and counted the metal shafts.
The room was as larger than a man on a horse, and two craggy entrances left in different directions. Stalactites covered in moss clung stubbornly to the cave ceiling, reminding Kamaria of the mouth of some unholy beast. A steady drip fell from its tip, and she opened her mouth and allowed the water to fill her mouth. The water was earthy, with a slight tinge of decaying plant matter.
She surveyed both entrances to the room. One was dark, and Kamaria noticed the children huddled near the other entrance, a dim light revealing it was open to the air not too far away.
“Come now, children.” She spoke and paused as her voice echoed off the tall ceiling. “Let’s see where we are.”
The children didn’t move as she walked towards what she thought was the exit.
“Elder Akua said we should stay here,” one of the little boys said. He clutched a threadbare blanket in his arms and looked back to the opposite entrance. The rest of the children looked at each other and nodded in agreement.
Kamaria nodded, and returned to the center of the room. “Who’s the oldest here?” she asked the group.
A girl of nine or ten summers stepped forward.
Kamaria knelt in front of the girl. “You’ll be responsible for everyone while I’m away.”
The girl nodded.
“Keep everyone safe and wait for me or the Elder to return.”
The girl nodded again, but Kamaria could see the fear in her eyes. It wasn’t just the fear of being responsible for others, but a fear she had seen in warriors who spent too much time battling the bandit hordes. It was as if the little girl had seen something that she was unable to process, and she willed herself to not think of it.
“Which way did the Elder go?”
The little girl’s eyes darted to the dark passageway, but she stood mute.
Kamaria nodded. “I’ll go outside and see if there is something for us to eat.”
“Please don’t go!” The little girl’s protestations were sincere, almost desperate.
“What’s your name?”
“Well, Bree. I’m not sure how long the Elder will be gone, so we need to get food and water. Can I count on you to keep everyone safe?”
Bree nodded, and Kamaria tousled her hair. Bree shrunk away from her touch, but still stood proud in her new elevated position.
“I’ll return soon,” Kamaria assured the children.
She walked to the cave entrance, and a glance over her shoulder filled her with an unmistakable feeling of dread. All eyes were on her as she left the room. Sniffles and other sounds of sadness emanated from the children. Her own body felt heavy, and as she walked, she felt aches and pains she hadn’t felt when she got into the cart.
* * *
Kamaria had only walked for a few minutes when cavern walls ahead shone brilliantly. Sunlight streamed in through the open roof, accentuated by tendrils of dust and other flotsam. In the center of the cavern was a sight she was not expecting. It was a sight that stole her breath and and nearly sent her running back to the children.
In the center of the cavern, partially crushed by pieces of the cavern roof was the wooden cart. The horse lay broken, still attached to the large cart. Sticky blood pooled around the horse, and some of the flotsam hovered above.
Flies, she thought, as the sight revolted her. Still, she gingerly picked her way through the debris and in the cart was the source of her dread: the bodies of Elder Akua and her personal guard. Their limbs were bent in impossible angles. Their eyes wide, they stared lifelessly out through the cavern ceiling where they, the cart, and the horse had fallen.
Kamaria collapsed to the uneven ground, and sobbed quietly, cursing the gods for their fickle whims.
Next: Cacophony of Crows