[Present Day – Methuselah 2 Site 23 – Colony Year 501 – 5384 A.D.]
In the small dining hall, just off the King’s aerie, as the soup bowls were being cleared to make way for the roasted Yinyani breastbird, the Great Ancient King Zithram burst into a spell of inexplicable giggling.
For Zithram’s advisers and attendants, it was discomfiting, to say the least. The King never had been what anyone would call a mirthful person. Apart from the occasional snort or bark of derision, none of them could recall hearing the King really laugh. But now, suddenly, he was giggling like crazy, for no reason that was apparent to anyone.
The King’s staff and ministers didn’t know how to interpret this behavior, and it frightened them.
Kalind felt frightened too, but out of instinct and long practice, she kept her fear well concealed. Seated far down the table from her uncle, she simply pretended that nothing odd was happening. It was the least she could do for the King; after all, he was the only family she knew. He could be harsh, and sometimes his actions seemed less than fair. But nevertheless, Kalind had grown to love the old King. They were bound by kinship and shared talents. And beyond that, day-by-day, he had conditioned her to love him … had tethered her to him. Their connection now felt visceral, almost complete.
So while the decrepit King giggled like a madman, Kalind did what she could to help him. She cleared her throat and spoke up.
“This bread seems stale, don’t you think?” she asked no one in particular, plopping the crusty loaf into a woven breadbasket. The three advisors seated at the King’s table looked at each other, and then at Kalind. Mission accomplished; she seized the breadbasket and thrust it into the hands of the nearest server, a young man wearing a shabby-looking gold waistcoat and the same blue velvet cummerbund worn by all of the king’s servants and maids. “Bring us some fresh bread, please. And also, the Commerce Minister’s mug is empty, and so is mine. Do the cellars have any sweet mead?”
The servant nodded curtly and looked around the table to see if any other mugs needed refilling. He glanced at the King, who continued snickering to himself. The King’s attendant, Pilos, standing behind the King, shook his head, telling the server to move on. To the King’s right at the table, the Secretary-General – an overfilled tick of a man – nodded to the server and tapped the side of his goblet with a fork. “I’d have some mead, if it’s aged proper,” he said through a mouthful of food. He chewed, swallowed, and added, “None of that young stuff; it gives me gas.”
The servant bowed, lifted the basket over his head, and rushed out of the room. After a few seconds, the King’s giggling subsided. Suddenly he croaked a question: “Where’s the minstrel? That lazy pisspot had better get back in here, or I’ll make him think he’s an eagle!” The King hooked his thumbs together and waggled his fingers like wings, and broke into another fit of laughter. “He’ll go out of the aerie like a fledgling! Hee hee hee hee!”
“I’ll fetch the minstrel,” said the attendant, moving toward the door. But just then the musician entered, carrying a Vokkan pantar – a 24-stringed instrument shaped like a large wooden butterfly. The minstrel bowed before the King, saying, “Good evening, Your Highness.” In turn he bowed to each of the seated staff members, and finally turned toward Kalind. He smiled, but didn’t bow toward her. “Would Her Grace care to request a tune for the King’s enjoyment?”
Kalind hated this ritual; she’d make a suggestion, per the ancient tradition of lady’s preference. Then the minstrel would seek the King’s approval, which he never gave. Instead Zithram would insult Kalind's choice, and demand some obscure ditty that nobody had heard for eighty years.
It had happened a hundred times before. Kalind knew she couldn’t win. She sighed, and suggested the first song that popped into her head. “Let’s hear ‘The Fireborne Maiden,’” she said.
The minstrel grinned knowingly, and looked toward Zithram for his response. The King seemed to be chewing the inside of his cheek. After a moment he looked up, and to Kalind’s surprise, he smiled and began singing in a painfully flat croak: “‘Fireborne Maiden / cry no more / carry your burdens / to the burning shore.’” He laughed. “A fine poem,” he said. “Let the girl have it then. Let the lady have preference.”
Kalind sat stunned, staring into the fireplace as the minstrel began strumming. Moments later the server returned, carrying a basket with a newly sliced loaf of bread and a carved wooden flagon. He set the bread basket on the table and smirked as he used the flagon to refill the King’s goblet, ignoring the remonstrative gestures of Pilos. Then he moved on to fill the Secretary-General’s cup and the Commerce Minister’s. Finally he came to Kalind, but she waved him off. The server rolled his eyes in annoyance, and she pretended not to notice.
The minstrel was just finishing his tune, when the King lurched up out of his seat, knocking his chair over backward in the process. He leaned on one elbow, bent over against the table, and scrabbled for his walking stick, which had been resting under the arm of his chair. Pilos picked it up and presented it to the King, who grabbed the stick out of the attendant’s hands and used it to lever himself more or less upright.
“What … what are you all gawking at?” he demanded. “I should …” he snorted in laughter and began giggling again. When he gained control of himself, he shouted, “I should … make you walk straight into the boars-pen! Ha ha! And give yourself up for slop … hee hee hee! Every firedamned one of you!”
“And you!” he turned on the server, who froze in position holding the flagon of mead. “You are … you are … a dog! Hee hee hee hee! Fetch!”
The server dropped immediately to all fours. The pitcher crashed to the hard floor, breaking in two and splashing mead everywhere. The server adopted a dopey expression and began panting pathetically, while the King’s staff members held their breath in terror; they all knew the server’s fate could be theirs, if their luck turned bad.
Zithram stopped giggling and leveled a wicked grin at the server. “Dog, fetch the stick.”
The man barked a happy bark and shambled off toward the fireplace. He shoved his face directly into the blaze and chomped down on a burning log. He extracted his fiery prize, and turned to look adoringly toward the King, oblivious as his lips and nose sizzled and cooked.
Kalind screamed, and Zithram burst out in uproarious laughter. Suddenly the server’s expression changed, from dopey to horrified. He dropped the burning firewood, howled in agony, and clambered away from the fire. Heedless in his panic, he slammed backwards into the minstrel, who lost control of the pantar. The instrument fell, bashing the server on the head and bursting apart in a cacophony of strings and percussion. The server fell unconscious at the minstrel’s feet.
For that temporary mercy, at least, Kalind felt grateful. But Zithram continued giggling, until the giggle turned into a ragged cough, a deep phlegmatic hacking that went on and on, while everyone in the room kept silent.
[Nine years earlier]
Soft Woman rocked the baby in the dim quietude of her frontroom, humming the same mournful lullaby that Kalind had heard countless times before. Soft Woman didn’t cradle or rock Kalind anymore; the girl had grown too big for that now, she knew. But with a pang of sadness, Kalind missed the warm comfort of Soft Woman’s cradling arms and breast, and the mesmerizing tones of her lullaby.
Kalind closed her eyes and pretended for a moment that she was the baby, dozing off to Soft Woman’s lullaby. At first it was so quiet that she had to hold her breath and strain to hear Soft Woman’s humming. Then as her pretending became more real, she imagined the baby’s sensations, the woman’s voice thrumming like soothing waves.
Sad, soothing waves for the new baby boy.
Kalind thought of her as Soft Woman, but she never said it out loud. Instead she called her “Mama,” because that’s what all the children called Soft Woman. Kalind knew her real name was “Nadia,” and neither Kalind nor any of the other children were actually hers; Soft Woman had made this clear to her from the beginning.
“You are half-siblings, she explained. “Your father is a great, great man. He brought you to me for safe keeping.”
“Who is my father?” she remembered asking, a long time ago.
The Soft Woman merely shook her head and clucked her tongue, and said, “That, I cannot say.”
Couldn’t or wouldn’t? Kalind assumed it was the latter. But she and the other children learned not to ask for more information, and eventually stopped thinking about it.
The new baby – another half-brother, Soft Woman said – had arrived earlier that day. Kalind had been playing chase-and-touch with the others in the narrow gaps between the houses and shops, when she ran home to get a drink of water. Panting and sweaty, she burst around the corner and ran directly into a towering figure wearing a cloak the color of mud.
“Whoops!” she squeaked. She staggered backward and almost fell before a gnarled hand caught her arm. The figure gently steadied Kalind on her feet, and then released her. She looked up to see a tangled beard and bulbous nose jutting out from under a hood. She then glimpsed a flash of brilliant blue eyes within the dark cloak, and felt a sense of ease and satisfaction wash over her. She smiled up at the eyes, but in a blink, the cloaked man was gone.
Confused, she looked around to see where he went, but momentarily found she didn’t really care anymore. Now the only thing that interested her was Soft Woman, standing underneath the little peak of roof that shielded her front stoop. Soft Woman’s eyes showed rapt devotion, gazing at the fidgety bundle in her arms, and Kalind knew that she was no longer the youngest child in the household.
As she processed this, Kalind’s older half-brother Dangil came around the corner. Dangil’s eyes went straight to the scene at the doorway, and flashed instant recognition of what he saw. Dangil stood there for a moment, his brow furrowing slightly, his lips pursed in annoyance. Then he turned to Kalind and his expression softened. He smirked, leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, “Come on, let’s ambush Meegan.”
Kalind looked up with a questioning expression and glanced toward Soft Woman. Dangil followed her glance and shrugged. “Never mind the new one,” he said, stroking Kalind’s hair. “Mama will introduce us later. It will be fine. Trust me.”
But although Dangil’s lips smiled, his blue eyes looked sad, and Kalind sensed that not everything was fine. Nevertheless she accepted his hand, because she did trust him. In tow behind her big brother, she brushed unnoticed past Soft Woman into the house, to hide in the dimness and await their half-sister.
Not a week passed before everything changed again.
Kalind and Dangil were with a group of other children in the muddy field they called the Big Open. Their game of toss-run-catch had devolved into a fight between Dangil and an older boy named Hamell. They were arguing about the fairness of a toss; Kalind didn’t really understand the rules of the game. They seemed sometimes to change, to suit whoever was biggest among the players. But Dangil and the other boy were of similar size, and they weren’t agreeing on the rules. They circled, eyeing each other and trading threats. Kalind could tell that although both boys were angry, only Dangil was feeling afraid. The other boy, by contrast, was feeling something more intense and confusing. His stomach churned amid his anxiety, as he struggled to ignore a sense of shame and self-hatred.
Paying closer attention, Kalind understood that Hamell was trying to deceive everyone. His toss had been illegal; he knew it, and he now chose violence to avoid being revealed as a cheat.
This made Kalind furious; she hated cheating and lying more than almost any other behavior, even more than violence, because it caused such deep and abiding pain. Deceit was a betrayal of trust, and it destroyed friendships and kinships more thoroughly than physical abuse did.
Now, Hamell was doing both – cheating and threatening violence. Kalind knew that Hamell had been in more fights then Dangil had – many more, in fact. So the other boy was tougher, and he expected he could beat Dangil easily.
Kalind felt a pang of sympathy for Hamell’s shame, but she also felt panicked by the thought he might hurt her half-brother. She’d seen playground fights go very badly for one contestant or another … or both. Hastily, she reached a decision. She stepped between the two older boys, shielding Dangil from the cheater. She knew she was breaking the unspoken playground rule against interfering in a fair fight, but she didn’t care. She couldn’t stand by and allow a cheater to hide behind his fists.
She shouted in Hamell’s face, “Stop it! You cheated, and you know you cheated! Just admit it and say you’re sorry!”
The older boy’s face registered momentary surprise and guilt, then twisted into derision. He laughed and gestured toward Kalind. “Look at this! Little Dangil needs a bodyguard.” Several children laughed, and Kalind looked around at the group, scowling.
“He cheated!” she shouted. She turned back to the boy and pointed an accusing finger at his chest. “You cheated, Hamell!”
The boy’s expression changed from derision to furious anger. He stepped ominously toward Kalind. “Listen, you little toenail. You go running back to your fat Mama right now, or I’ll destroy your face instead of your brother’s.”
“No!” she shouted, feeling more angry than afraid. She knew she couldn’t match Hamell physically; he really could smash her face, if that’s what he wanted to do. But it was so unfair; just because he was bigger, he thought he could cheat people, hurt people, and get away with it. Somebody had to stand up to him, and if it had to be her, then so be it. She just hoped the other children would intervene before anyone got really hurt.
Kalind could sense Hamell’s anger rising now, twisted by shame into something cruel and violent. He actually was thinking about smashing her face. Hamell imagined using both hands to grip the back of her head and grind her face into a jagged rock, tearing the flesh of her nose and lips, breaking her teeth inside her mutilated mouth.
He grinned and reached toward her. Kalind jumped back and then, regaining her courage, she glared at Hamell, straight in the eye. Without knowing how she did it, she drove her anger into his mind, all the force of her will behind it. She wanted him to feel what he was imagining doing to her, so she concentrated on pushing his violent imaginings back onto him. Suddenly Hamell’s expression went blank, and then registered his fear and horror. His eyes went wide, his mouth flew open, and he screeched in agony. “No!” he howled. He thrashed away from Kalind, bowling into two other children. They shouted objections of surprise, as Hamell screamed and tumbled to the ground. As he fell, he broke Kalind’s gaze, and she felt her anger dissipate as she relaxed her concentration.
Panting from exertion, she turned toward Dangil. His face was white with fear. He knew what Kalind had done, and what it meant.
When Hamell only picked at his supper, his father had smacked him in the back of the head and demanded to know what was wrong with him. At first he’d only glowered, and felt his ears and cheeks go hot with shame. Then, to his own amazement as much as his father’s, he’d burst into tears and let his story spill forth in a bewildered torrent. Finally his father gripped him by the shoulders and gave him a shake. “Get a grip on y’self, boy. For stink’s sake, slow down! Now start over. What happened on the playground?” And so Hamell had started over, this time taking care to describe his humiliation at the Big Open as calmly he could.
Now, some hours later, Hamell was sitting on his pallet, hugging his knees, and listening to the voices of his father and the two men. Father had welcomed them with cups of strong ale, and related Hamell’s story in a dubious tone that infuriated the boy. Father concluded with a sigh, “The way he carried on, with the tears and whimperin’ and moanin’, he must’ve believed the whole firedamned load.”
One of the two men added, “Shameful to be bested by a little girl.”
Father didn’t disagree, but said as if defending his honor: “The boy’s always getting’ in fights; vicious little monster, he is. I try to keep him out of trouble, but he doesn’ learn.” Then he added, “Hamell’s mean and thick, I always knew that. But I never thought he was crazy.”
One of the men mumbled something Hamell couldn’t hear, and the other spoke up. “I agree, the boy isn’t our chief concern here. We need to find the girl. What’s her name? Where does she live?”
“This isn’t right.”
Dangil was whispering to Meegan in the darkest corner of their sleeping room. They thought Kalind was asleep, and were keeping their voices as low as possible. But she could hear their conversation as clearly as if they were speaking aloud.
“What’s not right?” Meegan asked.
“The men who just came here, and the way Mama looked at them … she was afraid of them. It’s not like last time.”
Kalind spoke up. “What last time?”
Dangil and Meegan looked at each other. Then Dangil shrugged and gestured for Kalind to join them. She clambered over the pallets and crouched with her siblings in the corner. “You gotta whisper now, OK?” Dangil said. “We don’t want them to hear us talking.”
Kalind looked at him fearfully, and Meegan whispered, “Don’t worry, everything will be OK.”
Kalind looked at her, and surmised the truth. “But you don’t think it will be OK, do you?” she said. It wasn’t really a question, and Meegan didn’t answer. She just dropped her gaze.
“Look, we might have to get out of here,” Dangil said. “Something is wrong, and … I don’t think we should let those men…” His sentence was cut off, as a silhouetted figure stepped into the doorway, holding the curtain aside. Firelight flickered behind the figure, illuminating a blue feather in his black cap. Otherwise he was hidden in shadow.
The man spoke, calmly and forcefully. “The candidate will come with me now.” A chill ran down Kalind’s spine. He knew he was talking about her.
“You’re not taking her anywhere!” Dangil shouted. His voice was shaking. “Leave her alone.” He stood up, and the figure stepped into the room as Dangil went on. “She didn’t do anything, isn’t that right Kalind? It’s that stupid Hamell, it’s his fault. He was…” Dangil stopped midsentence as the figure turned his gaze onto him. Dangil froze in place, and then collapsed to his palette. Meegan stood up and made a move toward the door. The figure then turned toward her, and Meegan fell heavily against the wall, slid to the floor, and whimpered.
The figure now turned toward Kalind and spoke. “Candidate, gather clothing for a journey of several days. Prepare for cold weather. Nothing else is necessary.”
As the man spoke, she realized that behind his words she sensed nothing at all, no feeling of any kind. His voice seemed fake, or separated somehow from the speaker’s mind and body. It was a strange thing, almost as if he were merely a reflection of a man, and not the actual person.
“Where is Mama?” Kalind demanded. “Let me talk to Mama.”
The dark figure turned and exited the room, and a moment later, Soft Woman appeared in the doorway. Kalind ran to her and threw her arms around her. “What’s happening, Mama? What did that man do to Dangil and Meegan?”
“Hush now,” Soft Woman said flatly, placing her hands on Kalind’s shoulders. “Don’t concern yourself about them. You will go with these men and do as they say.”
Kalind stiffened; she sensed nothing behind her words, and the hands on her shoulders felt hard and confining, not comforting at all. A chill fell over Kalind.
“I’m afraid,” she whispered.
“Fear is not necessary,” Mama stated. “Collect your clothes. Do you need help?”
Kalind didn’t answer. Nevertheless Soft Woman peeled Kalind’s arms away and moved the girl to the side. Kalind watched as she went to the box of drawers where Kalind’s clothes were kept, and purposefully began removing the clothes, gathering them into a bundle.
“Come now, child,” the woman said, looking back at Kalind with no trace of softness. “It’s time to go.”
The last thing Kalind saw of her village was the boy, Hamell, standing outside his house, watching her wagon pass by. At first she thought he might be gloating over her departure, but then she realized he didn’t seem happy about it at all. Rather, he seemed confused and ashamed.
Kalind got to her knees on the seat and shouted, “Just be nice, Hamell. No cheating! Tell the truth! Everything will be OK if you’re just nice.”
Hamell raised a hand in a tentative wave, and Kalind lost sight of him as the wagon turned a corner and carried her away fireward on the muddy road. Fear and sadness welled up within her, but then she felt her sadness overcome by a sudden and overpowering fatigue. She lay down on the seat cushion, and was asleep before her eyes closed.
She awakened to the screech of a bird of prey. She opened her eyes to see the bird unfurl its great wings and take flight from its perch upon a bare tree branch. She sat up to watch the bird, and saw a low line of jagged mountains in the distance, girding an amber sky. She rubbed her eyes with her fists and yawned. Stretching, she asked, “Where are we?”
The man with the feathered cap was driving the wagon. Without turning around he stated flatly, “We’re on the King’s road, on the eastward reaches of the Stone Mountains. It’s necessary to stop soon. There’s a plaza up ahead; we will not stay past supper, for we must not delay our journey.”
Kalind yawned and stretched, bouncing on her cushioned seat as the wagon went over a pothole. “I was very tired. How long was I sleeping?”
“Long enough. No more questions, now. We will stop soon. Say nothing at the plaza unless I bid it. It is not necessary for these people to know who you are, or that you are called as a candidate for the King’s service. So do not mention it, even if someone asks. We are not here to make friends.”
The word “candidate” sparked fearful memories in Kalind, and she retreated to the corner of the wagon. Soon the wagon came to a halt, and the man guided her out of the wagon. They walked across a stone patio toward a small building made of gray stone blocks. They entered through a pair of doors into a dim room containing a few small tables and stools. A tall, bulky woman wearing a stained apron approached them. She bowed slightly and introduced herself as the landlady. “Welcome Sir … Miss,” she said, nodding to them in turn. After a brief exchange with the man, the landlady took Kalind’s hand and led her to the washroom. She led Kalind inside, and pulled a curtain over the door, leaving her to use the facilities. Kalind found a basin of steaming water, and a stack of clean towels. She washed the road dust from her face and hands, and went back out into the hallway, where she found herself alone.
Momentarily she thought of making a run for it; she could go right instead of left, and take her chances on finding a back door out of the inn. She hesitated, weighing her chances of successful escape, and then weighed her chances of subsequently finding anyone actually capable of helping her evade the man with the feathered hat, and returning her to her village. And then if she did get back, would she be welcomed? Or would she just be recaptured … and perhaps treated more harshly the second time around?
Just as she concluded that she had no real choice but to stay and cooperate, the man with the feathered cap appeared at the end of the hall.
He looked broodingly at her, and after a moment said, “Wise choice. Now come,” he beckoned her. “Supper awaits.”
When he said the word “supper,” Kalind found that she was famished. Her stomach growled, and she went eagerly. The man with the feathered cap led her to a table, already set with bowls, cups, and a plate of bread and butter. She sat down and greedily dug in. She devoured a bowlful of savory stew with vegetables, barley, and fibrous chunks of meat, and accepted seconds on the warm bread. She drained her cup of milk, and let out a satisfied belch. The man with the feathered cap also finished his meal, and remained seated.
Kalind looked at him, and realized that she was seeing the man’s face for the first time; previously his features appeared vague to her, instantly forgettable, and utterly nondescript beneath that hat and its blue feather. His appearance didn’t seem to matter before, but now that she was actually looking at him, she saw that he had a deep scar along the left side of his narrow nose. He wore a trimmed beard, and his eyes were dark brown. His face bore a dour expression.
“We are alone,” he said. “You may speak if you wish.”
“Um … OK. What’s your name?”
“You may call me Fidore.”
“Where are you from?”
“I don’t know where I was born. My home is in Vokk.”
“Were you ever a … a candidate?”
“Yes. I was called as a candidate.”
“What does it mean to be a candidate? What happened to you?”
“I was tested, judged capable, and selected for the King’s service.”
“Because my abilities served the King.”
“When were you called?”
“Some dozen years ago.”
“How do you serve the King?”
“In whatever manner the King requires.” He added, “It is a great honor. Few are called as candidates. Fewer still are selected for service.”
She nodded. “Will I be selected?”
“Only through testing can your capabilities be known.”
“What kind of testing?”
“When it is necessary, you will learn.”
“What happens if I’m not selected?”
He shrugged. “If necessary, you will learn.”
She felt a momentary chill, and Fidore gestured dismissively. “Worry is unnecessary. Do you have further questions?”
“Yes. Where are you taking me?”
“To the King’s fortress. I told you.”
“How long will it take to get there?”
“A few days longer, if we are not delayed.”
She fell silent for a few moments, then asked, “Will I ever see Dangil and Meegan again? Or Soft Wo … er, Mama?”
Fidore’s face flashed a momentary smirk, and then he looked grave. “The future is unknown to us all,” he said. “Worry is not necessary. Come now,” he said, standing up and producing a few coins from his jacket pocket. Setting the coins on the table with a click, he said, “The journey continues.”
Kalind slept for much of the trip; she often found that she could not stay awake, and would fall immediately into a deep sleep. But while she was awake, she was mostly bored and uncomfortable, bumping along on the wagon seat. To pass time, she sang quietly to herself, observed the scenery, and sometimes wondered aloud about the animals she saw, about the houses and barns, plazas, and abandoned buildings and ruins that they passed along the way. Sometimes Fidore would respond, other times he seemed to ignore her for long periods, after which she frequently would find herself falling asleep again.
Sometimes, however, Fidore would reveal much to her, even though he said few words. She asked about a long line of white rubble that seemed never to end. Fidore answered that it was a remnant of what he called “the original Colony.”
“Scholars say it was a great storehouse, for goods and equipment. Few Colony ruins remain on Vokk,” he said, “More are found on Dustan.”
She’d heard only vague stories about the Colony previously, and knew almost nothing about it. Prompting him to continue talking, she asked simply, “Why?”
Fidore shrugged. “Scholars might know; I do not.”
“Scholars? What are scholars?”
Fidore paused as if considering his answer. Finally he said, “If it becomes necessary, then you will learn.”
She huffed in frustration. Kalind had come to realize this was Fidore’s way of telling her to shut up. She still couldn’t sense the feelings behind his words, but she was learning to read his body language and tone of voice. If Fidore had a sense of humor, however, she hadn’t found it. His moods seemed to range between tolerance and irritation.
“But what if it is necessary for me to know now?” she said, trying to tease a reaction out of him. “Maybe a bunch of scholars are right around that corner. Maybe they will tell me something I need to know in order to help the King.”
Fidore turned slowly in the driver’s bench until he was looking at Kalind on her seat. “If we find any scholars around that corner,” he said, “I surely will point them out to the candidate.” He turned back toward the road.
Imitating his deep voice, she added flatly, “if necessary.”
Fidore continued in silence.
The day after Kalind arrived at King’s Fortress, the first handmaid appeared at her door.
Kalind had slept a long time in the bed, which seemed oversized compared to her palette at home – and gigantic in comparison to the wagon seat. When she’d awoken, her body still ached from the interminable carriage ride. She stretched, looked around the room, and remembered what Fidore said when he brought her here.
“This is the candidate’s chamber,” he’d said. “Stay here until it is necessary to leave.”
“When will it be necessary?” she’d asked.
“When the handmaid comes, it will be necessary. Not before.”
She got out of bed and began inspecting the room. It contained a few pieces of simple furniture – the bed, a stool, a side table with an empty vase, and a taller mirror than she’d ever seen before; she could see her entire body in it, and it was barely foggy or wavy at all, unlike every other mirror she’d ever seen. There also was a tall box of drawers, with nothing in them. All of her possessions – a pair of sandals, a thick woven coat, and the sack into which Mama had stuffed her clothing – remained where she’d left them, in a small heap on the floor next to the door. Other than that, she found nothing else inside the room except a door that led to a small washroom off her chamber.
She was amazed to find the toilet was not a bucket or pit, but a deep metal bowl with a padded rim. More amazingly, right next to the toilet stood a cabinet with a basin, into which was directed a metal pipe flanked by two handles. When she turned either or both of the handles, clear water would come pouring out of the pipe into the basin, where it would swirl momentarily and disappear down a drain in the bottom. Turn the handles the opposite direction, and the flow of water would stop. What a marvel! No pumping or carrying water like she and her half-siblings had done every day.
She was thinking about who might be pumping or carrying the water to allow its delivery here to her chamber, when she heard a sharp knock at the door. Before she could respond, she heard a latch sliding, and the handmaid entered.
She was a young woman with long, curled locks and petite features. She wore a knee-length dress, made of a shimmery yellow fabric, with a green cloth sash tied around the middle. But although she was beautiful, she appeared to Kalind as wooden and cold, much like Fidore. Kalind sensed nothing behind the woman’s face or her words.
She dipped her chin and curtsied before Kalind. “Your Grace,” she said. “I am Her Grace’s new handmaid.”
“‘Grace’? Why are you saying that? My name is Kalind.”
“Her Grace is the King’s kin. Her Grace is blessed.” Another curtsey.
“Um … my name is Kalind,” she repeated. “Not ‘Grace.’ What is your name?”
“I am Her Grace’s handmaid. It is not necessary for Her Grace to use my name.”
“But what is it?”
The handmaid smiled sadly. “My name is Crestenna. But if it pleases Her Grace, she need only call me ‘handmaid.’ My name is unimportant.”
Kalind’s brow furrowed. “Is that why you keep calling me ‘Your Grace’? Is my name unimportant too?”
The handmaid blushed and answered politely. “No, Her Grace’s name is honored. ‘Your Grace’ is how we address a person of honor … such as Her Grace.”
Hmm. This was unexpected … and confusing. She understood that being a candidate was an honor, but the handmaid’s verbal backflips to avoid addressing her directly seemed extreme and purposeless. Was it part of the tests that Fidore had talked about? She looked around the room. “What’s going on?” she demanded. “Where am I?”
The handmaid answered patiently. “Her Grace is in her private bedchamber, in the residential wing on the fifth floor of King’s Fortress.” She paused, thinking, then continued. “King’s Fortress stands at the pinnacle of Mount Xian in the province of Vokk … in the domain of the revered King Zithram the Great.” She lowered her chin, curtsied, and added, “Her Grace’s uncle.”
Kalind took a moment to comprehend what the handmaid said, and then repeated.
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“The King is my uncle.”
“That’s correct, Your Grace.”
“My real uncle? Not like Mama?”
A smirk briefly appeared on the handmaid’s face, and then was gone. “Your Grace, I do not know who her Grace’s ‘Mama’ is; I am sorry for my ignorance…” She curtsied again. “Your Grace.”
Kalind’s mind reeled. When Fidore had taken her away from Mama’s house, Kalind asked repeatedly what would happen to her half-siblings, and what would happen to her. Fidore would only say some variation on, “You will learn when it is necessary.” He would say no more, aside from telling her not to worry. When she persisted, she’d find that she was overcome with fatigue and would fall asleep on the bouncing wagon seat. And upon awakening, she would no longer be upset.
But now she was fully awake, and this person was not Fidore. Rather, the handmaid was someone who seemed to treat her with deference, as someone to be obeyed. Kalind threw her shoulders back and fixed her eyes on the handmaid. “Where is Dangil?” she asked. “I want to see my half-brother.”
The handmaid’s faced registered a moment of surprise, and then she regained her composure. She lowered her chin again and said, “I am sorry, Your Grace, I don’t know where Her Grace’s half-brother is, but I will be pleased to make inquiries on behalf of Her Grace.” She curtsied stiffly, and kept her chin lowered.
So Kalind was alone.
The handmaid helped her bathe and dress – in clothes finer and more comfortable than any Kalind had ever worn. She put her in a pale blue dress, soft stockings, and a new pair of shoes that shone with polish. Then the handmaid knocked twice on the chamber door, and in a moment, Kalind heard a metallic scraping sound followed by a click, and the heavy wooden door opened a crack. The handmaid pushed the door open further, turned to Kalind, lowered her chin, and said, “Your Grace, please come along now. Her Grace’s breakfast awaits.”
Kalind followed the handmaid through the door, and looked around to see who had unlatched it from the outside. To her surprise, she saw no one.
The long hallway was illuminated at intervals by daylight flooding in from floor-to-ceiling openings along the left wall. The floor, walls, and ceiling of the hallway all appeared to be made of polished stone the color of charcoal. She saw no one in the hallway except for the handmaid, but sensed that someone was there … hidden from view, but nevertheless there, somewhere.
Kalind furrowed her brow, confused. The handmaid took no notice and said, “This way, Your Grace.” She led Kalind down the hallway, to the left, until they came to one of the gaps from which light flooded. They turned and walked down a short hall that was flanked by windows. As she followed the handmaid, Kalind observed the view over a rugged mountain landscape. Craggy black peaks jabbed into a cloudy gray sky. She went to one of the windows and looked down to see a road leading from a huge gate at the foot of the stone fortress. A pair of riders on horseback exited the gate and kicked their mounts into a gallop down the road, out of Kalind’s sight.
“This way, Your Grace,” the handmaid called from the hallway. Kalind turned and followed. The handmaid led her down a stone staircase that curved tightly leftward, and then she knocked on another wooden door that opened onto another long hallway. Again, Kalind saw no one present to open the door.
As the handmaid led her down the hallway, Kalind caught the scent of food cooking – meat and bread, with subtle and spicy odors that were new to her. The handmaid led her through a doorway on the right, into a small room that was unadorned except for a small round dining table with a smooth top, painted shiny red, and a plain wooden stand in the corner with a basin and glass pitcher containing clear water. An orb in the ceiling glowed to illuminate the room. The handmaid rounded the table and dragged a stool into view. “Your Grace, please sit. Her Grace’s breakfast will arrive soon.”
Kalind obediently sat at the stool, and the handmaid went to stand near the door. Kalind began inspecting the room; it was just like the hallway, with polished black stone from floor to ceiling, and no decoration or furniture of any kind apart from the table and stand. After a moment, she heard a door open nearby, and then footfalls in the hallway. A man entered the room, bearing a polished silver tray. He was a portly fellow with sweat beading on his bald head, and fat fingers curled around the edge of the platter. He glanced briefly at the handmaid, and then turned to face Kalind. He looked straight at her, smiled, and then averted his eyes. “Your Grace, may I … er … here’s your breakfast, Your Grace.”
The handmaid scowled, took the tray from the cook, and gestured him away. He smiled haplessly and bowed, backing out of the room. His footsteps echoed in the hall as the handmaid set the tray on the table before Kalind. “Your Grace,” the handmaid said. “The King wishes that Her Grace should be satisfied with this breakfast.” She gestured to the food, describing each item in turn. “Fruit porridge, dried fish, and toasted bread. And water.” The handmaid smiled. “Salt and seasonings are available if Her Grace finds them necessary.” The handmaid curtsied, and returned to stand at her place near the doorway.
Kalind’s stomach ached with hunger, and so she ate greedily. She could not finish the dried fish; it wasn’t bad, just not her favorite, and the fruit porridge was delicious. She finished every drop, mopping up the last of it with her toast.
She sat back on her stool, and the handmaid spoke. “If her Grace is finished, then we will proceed to the conditioning.”
“Condi … condi … what?” Kalind said. She’d never heard the word.
“‘Conditioning,’ Your Grace,” the handmaid repeated. “The King wishes to prepare Her Grace to achieve the condition necessary to fulfill Her Grace’s destiny. It is called ‘conditioning,’ Your Grace. This way, please. I am sorry, but we have stairs to climb.”
Kalind sat on the floor, for there were no chairs or cushions in the King’s aerie, apart from his throne, ornately carved into the caricature of an eagle.
The climb had been exhausting, and on a full stomach Kalind almost had gotten sick, scaling flight after flight of large stone steps. But the handmaid let her rest at the halfway mark, and she managed to reach the tower’s pinnacle without puking. When the handmaid finally showed her into the King’s aerie, Kalind was astonished at the dramatic view. She didn’t even notice when the handmaid left her alone and latched the door behind her.
Kalind could barely see over the black stone balustrade. The mountains displayed every shade of gray, blue, and black, with their craggy peaks casting forbidding shadows. To her right, the sun hung near the fireward horizon, painting the sky a dusky violet. Angry clouds churned overhead, against a deepening blue sky. To her left, beyond the black pile of the fortress, an endless scene of jumbled peaks continued iceward, beneath a velvety purple sky. She felt dizzy from the perspective.
“Enjoying your view of my mountain domain?”
Kalind jumped when she heard the King’s voice. She hadn’t heard him enter the room, and now she whirled around to see him standing there. He was an old man, wrinkled and thin, but his blue eyes were sharply focused on her, and his face bore an easy smirk. She could not sense anything behind the expression; he seemed as blank as Fidore or the handmaid … as blank as Mama had been, that day she’d sent her away.
“Well?” he said.
“Um, what?” she asked.
“Are you enjoying the view?” His hand swept in the yawning expanse of mountainscape beyond the balustrade. “It meets your approval?”
She glanced over her shoulder, and suddenly felt stupid, belatedly coming to the awareness that she was standing before the King, and should probably bow or something. She turned back to him, lowered her chin and attempted to curtsey like she saw her handmaid do so many times. “Um … Your … Your Grace?” she said uncertainly. “The mountains are amazing. Your Grace.”
Zithram snorted. “All right, young lady, that’s enough with the honorifics. You can call me Uncle Zithram, or just Uncle. After all, any grace that I possess is also your grace, eh? And so it is senseless to call me ‘Your Grace,’ because in so doing you refer also to yourself, and we both might become confused. Eh?”
She gave him a blank look, not knowing what to say.
“No? Well no matter. Just call me Uncle, or Your Highness if we’re with others who are calling me things like that. When we are alone, just ‘Uncle.’ All right?”
She nodded. “All right … Uncle Zithram.”
He nodded in return. “Now then,” he continued, “you are Kalind. You are my brother’s bastard daughter, left to be raised in the West Marsh, down by the Foul River. Have I got that right?”
“Um …” she said.
“You must’ve had a difficult life there,” he said. “I can only imagine. Living in the mud, half starved, struggling every minute, never knowing how important you might be to this world. Am I correct? Well, speak up girl! Did you have any idea who you were, living down there amongst the toads and insects?”
Kalind’s mind reeled as she tried to grasp what the King was saying. What was the question? Something about starving in mud with toads?
“I, uh, don’t really know, sir … um, Uncle,” she stammered. “I didn’t see many toads. We had a decent house. We weren’t starving.”
Zithram’s brow furrowed. “Hmm,” he said. “Odd. You tested as brighter than most your age, but it seems you had barely an inkling of what’s what. Barely a spark of self-awareness. Pity … we must improve the rigor of those tests,” he said, shaking his head and turning away from her.
Kalind felt ashamed for reasons she didn’t understand. “Tests? I … I didn’t take any tests,” she said.
“Hmm, indeed,” he said. “You took no tests, but you were tested all the same. The tests showed that you have great aptitude, great gifts, and a keen intellect. But for all that, you bear some important weaknesses.” He shook his head gravely.
Kalind didn’t understand. When was she tested? She’d just gotten there … she’d slept and eaten and come before the King. She felt confused and alone. She wanted more than anything to be back home with Soft Woman, and with Dangil and Meegan, her friends and playmates, even the mean ones like Hamell … at least she could understand someone like him, could sense a person behind his face. Here, she sensed nothing, understood nothing. She felt lost.
“What happened to Dangil and Meegan?” she whispered. “What happened to Mama?”
“Hmm?” Zithram said. “Your Mama? Well, of course you know, the woman who cared for you is not actually your mother. Even I don’t know what happened to your real mother.” He turned away and looked over the balustrade. “You’d have to ask your father, and there’s no guarantee even he knows,” he said. “In all probability he … wait, you don’t know your father, do you?”
She shook her head, but he wasn’t paying attention to her.
“No, that’s right … you have no memory of him. He is my brother, the itinerant and incorrigible Sangil, Prince of Dustan,” he said with a flourish, and then scoffed. “Of course, he hid his identity from you intentionally, just as he hid your existence from me. He hoped to keep you a secret, along with all the other bastard brats he’s deposited across this firedamned world. The secret cannot know itself, eh? Or it won’t be a secret for long. Hmpf.”
After a moment, he continued. “Well. Your half-siblings are inconsequential; eventually you will realize this. But if it makes you feel better, they are safe and as well as can be expected, living down in the mud. So now, put them out of your mind!” he shouted.
She was startled by his shout, but found herself caring less about Mama and her siblings, and more about meeting her uncle’s expectations – which wasn’t going to be easy, she could tell. He glanced at her and clicked his tongue disapprovingly. “It’s inconvenient that you’re a girl, that is certain. The conditioning won’t be easy.” He reached down, gripped her arm and shook it. “We’ll need to strengthen your body, almost as much as we’ll need to prepare that brilliant mind in your head,” he said, dropping her arm and then tapping her temple with a gnarled knuckle.
She felt a vague sense of dread when he touched her head. “Prepare for what?” she asked.
“To achieve your destiny, of course,” he said, smirking. “Do you think this body of mine will hold out forever? No, of course not. I’m old, Kalind,” he said, turning toward her. “Even an urchin like you can see that, eh? The future depends on preparing my replacement. And let me assure you, ruling this domain is not easy.” He turned back toward the balustrade, sweeping his arm out in a gesture that encompassed the entire landscape. “The world is constantly trying to fly out of control … the forces of disorder threatening to destroy what we’ve created. It’s a constant struggle, keeping things in balance. It can be exhausting. Your body must be strong, and your mind …”
Without warning, he brought his hand down with a loud slap atop the stone balustrade. Kalind jumped in alarm. “Your mind must be as stable and solid as a fortress!” he roared. “If your mind isn’t strong, then all will be lost. All your gifts will be wasted, and the world will descend into chaos. Do you understand me?!” His expression was fierce and hard as he waited for her response.
She looked at him in bewilderment, and nodded slowly.
He flashed a cold smile. “Good, good. Ha ha,” he chuckled mirthlessly. “You don’t understand at all, it’s plain to see that. But you have some courage, and you are willing. For this degree of conditioning, your obeisance is the most important thing. Now … we begin. Follow me, girl.”
Kalind awakened in her bedchamber some time later, not knowing how she got there, what time of day it was, or how long she had been asleep. What had happened? The last thing she remembered was following her Uncle Zithram into a dark room off the aerie, and after that her memory was blank. She puzzled over it, struggling to remember anything, when a sharp knock came at the door. The latch slid aside, and the door opened. The handmaid stood in the doorway.
“Your Grace,” she said. “It’s time for Her Grace’s exercise period.” The handmaid stepped into the room. “The revered King Zithram wishes for Her Grace to grow strong and agile, and so this is necessary.”
After she got dressed, Kalind followed the handmaid down a different staircase and a different hall. This time they turned and walked inward toward the center of the fortress, and after flights of torchlit stone stairs descending to the left, to the right, and to the left again, they finally exited the stairwell onto a wooden platform. It overlooked a large courtyard inside the fortress walls. Wooden steps led down to the scrubby grass and shrubs that grew in the courtyard. A line of flat stones described a curving path through the courtyard, but it was otherwise unremarkable.
“This is the exercise yard. Her Grace will come here each day, and a trainer will provide lessons to her Grace, to build Her Grace’s strength and skill, and to sharpen Her Grace’s reflexes. The revered King wishes for Her Grace’s body to be strong. And so this is necessary, Your Grace.”
“Are there any toys?” Kalind asked. “Anything to play with? Or other kids … er, candidates?”
The handmaid smiled indulgently and shook her head. “Toys and playmates are not necessary. Exercise is necessary,” she said. “But a trainer will be here shortly to assist her Grace.”
Glumly, Kalind went down the steps into the courtyard and began exploring its perimeter. A weed was blossoming near the base of the fortress wall, and so she picked its flowers and carried them around as she continued exploring. It felt good to be moving, out in the open, outside of a bleak stone room or hallway. The sky overhead was dark blue, with a few puffs of cloud scudding across her view. Soon she was skipping along the stone path, singing a nonsense song that Meegan had taught to her:
“Run to one it’s loads of fun
dance on two and twirl a few
flee to three and turn with me
next to four and turn some more
move to five to stay alive
sit on six and pick up sticks
jump to seven to get to heaven
climb to eight and stand up straight
now it’s time to fly to nine
roll to ten and start again.”
She sat for a time on the grass at the bottom of the stairs, plucking petals from one of the flowers, and wondering whether she was the only child in the fortress. She had seen so few people of any age. The fortress seemed cold and lifeless, almost abandoned. It was a shame, she thought; so many people in her home village lived in small houses and huts, some crammed together like rats in a cage, and here there was more than enough room for all of them – and yet it was almost totally unused.
“It does seem like an awful waste of space, doesn’t it?” Surprised, she whirled around to see who it was. Usually she knew when people were coming long before she could hear or see them. Now, she’d been caught unawares twice in the same day – first the King, and now this man. Her brow furrowed as she looked at the stranger. He was middle-aged, carrying a large ball under one arm and a pair of long wooden rods under the other. He smiled coolly, but like the others, his aspect seemed wooden and lifeless. He revealed nothing behind his smile.
Kalind dropped the remnants of her flower, and stood to face him. “Who are you?” she asked. “And how … how did you know what …”
“How did I know what you were thinking? Come now, surely Her Grace understands by now that she is among people of her own kind? Her Grace can sense others’ thoughts and feelings, no? Well, so can I … although certainly not as well as Her Grace may be able to do, once the King’s conditioning does its work.”
Kalind blinked, beginning to understand; among the King’s special people, she was even more special. Or might be … presumably … someday.
“But to answer Her Grace’s first question … I am Bolyde, Her Grace’s personal trainer.” He bowed with a flourish, sweeping the pair of sticks out to his side. “It will be my great honor to assist Her Grace in learning how to move freely and flexibly.” He stood straight and held the ball before her. “Is Her Grace ready to begin?”
Kalind shrugged. “I guess so. What game is this?”
“Apologies, Your Grace, but this is not a game. It is an art.” He grinned. “The ancient Sindlani masters called it ‘Sfidaru a-Grabetchei,’ or ‘Defiance of Gravity.’ But I call it simply ‘balance.’ For that is what we are learning when we practice this art.”
He squatted down before Kalind, becoming level with her height. “Her Grace should understand that this art has a very clear purpose. The Sindlani masters used it to train their muscles and their instincts. It made them very powerful. If Her Grace learns this art, she will be able to defend herself against even the largest soldier … to avoid injury and ultimately to render an enemy unconscious with very little effort, even without the staff or other weapon … even without the gifts of her mind.” He saw her confused expression and rephrased. “Her Grace will be able to knock a man out easily with her bare hand, even if she has no weapon, and even if the man’s mind can block Her Grace’s formidable gifts. But we are a long way from that.” He stood and held up the ball and the rods. “First Her Grace must master the fundamentals. We will begin by learning to keep the ball balanced on the edge of the staff.”
He dropped one rod and held the other out flat in front of him. Then he placed the ball on the edge of the rod, halfway from his grip to the tip, and held it there with the other hand.
Kalind looked dubious. “You’re holding the ball onto the rod,” she declared. “Anybody could do that.”
He laughed and released the ball, and it remained in place. Chastened, her cheeks flushed, and Bolyde laughed again. “Her Grace is correct that anybody could to it. The secret is to understand the mass of the ball, and to position the staff directly beneath it.” Suddenly he moved the staff and ball in a sweeping figure-eight path through the air. The ball remained in position, but turned in place as the staff moved. Then he brought the staff to a halt. The ball remained balanced, its rotation slowing until it too stopped moving. Then, with barely any movement, Bolyde flicked the rod upward, and the ball launched into the air. She watched it soar high overhead, reach its crest, and then plunge back downward. Bolyde positioned the staff beneath the falling ball, and Kalind stepped back, expecting it to hit and bounce off in some random direction. But instead, just as the ball made contact, Bolyde allowed the staff to move downward smoothly, catching the ball on its edge and slowing its descent. The ball did not bounce or roll, but instead Bolyde brought ball and staff back up to their original position – perfectly balanced, perpendicular to the ground.
Kalind stood agape. Bolyde explained, “Achieving this balance requires maintaining an awareness of the mass of the ball – the substance of it, the weight, the size, the position in space,” he said. “Once Her Grace is able to sense that, then she will learn how to manipulate the staff and ball however she wishes.”
“OK,” she said. “But what does balancing a ball have to do with knocking somebody out?”
“A person’s body is like a ball,” Bolyde said. “And the hand or foot is like the staff.” Again he flicked the stick, sending the ball skyward. “All forms of combat are tests of balance – energy and mass tested against energy and mass. This art will teach Her Grace the fundamentals.” He paused as he caught the ball again, this time with barely any movement in the rod. The ball seemed to just stop preternaturally on the edge of the staff, without any perceptible bouncing or rolling. To Kalind’s eye, it seemed fake, like a magic trick, rather than a real physical act.
“Everything depends on learning the fundamentals, and so that is where will begin. Is Her Grace ready?”
Kalind was asleep when the handmaid knocked at the door the following morning. She groaned in discomfort as she rolled onto her side, and her sore muscles stretched and twitched from unaccustomed exertion. Suddenly her left calf muscle seized into a cramp, and she screamed in pain. The door burst open and the handmaid rushed to Kalind’s bedside.
“What is it, Your Grace? Pain?”
“Ow! Ow! My leg!” she cried, gripping her calf with both hands.
The handmaid peeled away the plush blanket that covered Kalind. She took Kalind’s hands away from her leg and massaged the calf muscle. The handmaid took Kalind’s foot in her left hand and pushed it upward, forcing her toes back, stretching the calf. “Aaagh!” Kalind moaned. Then, as the cramp relaxed, she exhaled slowly.
“Wooh,” she said. “Thank you. That hurt so bad … what’s wrong with my leg?”
The handmaid smiled indulgently. “It was just a cramp,” she said. “Her Grace worked hard yesterday, and Her Grace’s muscles are just getting accustomed to being worked in this way.”
“Ohhh,” Kalind said, stretching and flexing. “I’m sore all over.”
“I’m not surprised,” the handmaid said. “But training is necessary to make Her Grace strong, so that she is prepared.”
Kalind sat up, now fully awake. “But why? I don’t want to do this. I don’t even know why I’m here.”
The handmaid stood and went to the box of drawers. She pulled open a drawer and began removing clothes to dress Kalind. “The King requires Her Grace to be strong.”
“But why? Why do I need to be strong? Does the King expect me to become a soldier? I don’t want to fight. I don’t like fighting.”
The handmade kept her face turned away from Kalind. “Of course Her Grace will never need to fight as a soldier,” she said, sounding amused. “But Her Grace faces challenges of conditioning and preparation, someday it may be necessary for Her Grace to defend herself. For that, Her Grace must be prepared.”
“Defend myself? Against who?”
“Against whomever would seek to harm Her Grace, to remove Her Grace from power.”
“From power? What does that mean? I don’t have any power. I’m like a prisoner in this stupid place.”
The handmaid stiffened, and a moment passed before she turned to face Kalind. Now her face looked stern and hard, on the edge of anger. She spoke slowly and quietly. “Her Grace does not know what it means to be a prisoner.” The handmaid fell silent and looked away. Then she seemed to gather herself, and spoke with a cheerfulness that seemed forced. “Her Grace is blessed, and owes the revered King all her gratitude.” She smiled woodenly, but behind the wooden expression Kalind now sensed something else; for the first time, she sensed an emotion in the handmaid … or rather, a set of emotions, roiling underneath her false calmness: Bitterness, anger, hatred, even. And then as fleetingly as it appeared, the emotional turmoil was hidden, obscured by a wall of cold neutrality. For a split second, the handmaid’s eyes went wide in alarm. Then she cleared her throat, and continued in a false lilting tone.
“Her Grace is … special,” she said. “Her Grace should feel honored for the King’s attention.”
The handmaid displayed a winning smile. Her bright eyes twinkled, and dimples appeared in her cheeks. But it was a brittle smile, without warmth, and it sent chills down Kalind’s spine.
Continued in Part 2 here: https://www.shortstories101.com/story/fireborne-maiden-part-2/
Author Notes: This novella is excerpted from a longer work in progress.