Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language and violence.
The riding in the following two days was uneventful. They finally broke from the jeweled birch forests and rode through sparse oak, the broad leaves few and dispersed, leaving the glaring sun to shine upon them through most of the ride. Rieka’s complaining, unsurprisingly, began anew.
When the sun began to cast the sky in a mirage of gold, red, and cyan, they broke into fields of sparse farmland surrounding a small town. None of them—Ambrose included—knew the name of the village, but they all decided to stop there rather than risk riding into the early night.
As they passed the meager farms, Kai gazed over the feeble crops. They were delicate and few, their leaves limp under the setting sun. A far cry from the abundant fields of wheat and grapes they had passed days earlier.
No one spoke—not even Rieka—as they rode along the worn, dirt path. When the village came into view, Kai’s stomach dropped.
The houses were built from oak planks, their roofs sagging and weak. Torches lined the town and roads, casting the poor buildings in an eerie, orange light. Kai had never seen such destitute conditions. Even in the slums of Reindale, there was always access to food or a safe roof. Yet, despite the obvious poverty written in the walls, sounds of laughter and music rang from the center of the village.
“A party and I wasn’t invited?” Ren’s voice cut a sharp knife through Kai’s contemplation.
“Today is the Day of Harvest, marking the first day of fall,” Ambrose said, not acknowledging Ren’s joke.
Day of Harvest… How had Kai forgotten? In his morning prayers, he had recited the same scriptures, requesting the same guidance. On a day such as today, different prayers and blessings were in order.
“Day of Harvest? Sounds fun.” Ren leaned forward upon his saddle as though he could see the festivities through walls of the surrounding houses. “Sounds like there will be food, too.”
Kai gave him a look. “There won’t be. The Day of Harvest is to bless the fields and hope for a good return on crops. It’s a day of fasting.”
Ren pouted. “How sad. You religious folk don’t know how to have fun.”
Kai bristled and was about to retort when Rieka said, “Can you all still drink on such a holy day?”
The sarcasm in her tone had Kai’s back straightening and he again opened his mouth to retort, only to be cut off. “Yes,” Ren said with a dream-like grin. “Wine. I could do with some wine.” Kai briefly wondered if the small thief wanted the wine for himself or for the addled civilians who would have their pockets emptied of gold.
“There is wine to celebrate,” Kai grumbled. The festivals were more geared towards farmers and townsfolk, but even the clergy at the palace lifted chalices in the name of the Harvest, blessing the crops ahead.
“Thank the gods,” Ren muttered. Ironic as he didn’t believe in the gods. “I take back everything horrible I said about your religion. Wine on an empty stomach sounds like a wonderful idea.”
Kai wasn’t entirely sure if he was joking or not.
When they entered the village, signs of the festivities could be seen immediately from the dried sticks and grass that had been tied upon doorsteps to the flower petals lining the dirt streets. They were poorer versions of the same decorations that would be seen in Reindale. The sticks and grass were meant as gifts for the God of Harvest, Kai supposed, though stalks of wheat were more common.
They found a tavern near the head of the town and stopped to settle their horses and book a room. The tavern was empty but for the single owner who was nursing a cup of wine and flipping through his ledgers, his slow rate of business apparent as his eyes widened with excitement upon their entry. Kai also didn’t fail to notice the piled dust in the corners of the wooden entrance, filling the room with musty mildew.
After buying their room keys, the tavern owner informed them any meals wouldn’t be served until the following morning in reverence to the God of Harvest. Guilt pooled in Kai’s stomach from the rather large breakfast he had eaten that morning. How had he forgotten?
After settling their belongings into their rooms and brushing down their horses, Ren declared, “I’m going to the festivities. You lot are no fun, so maybe I’ll find some there.”
Kai’s gut twisted at the prospect. “The festivities are religious.”
Ren gave him a look. “So? They don’t know I’m a sceptic. Not to mention: wine.” Rieka nodded in agreement, though she seemed opposed to agree to anything the elfish thief said. Ren turned his eyes to the rest of them, his gaze lingering on Ambrose. “Come on. Pull those sticks out of your asses for one night.”
Ambrose’s face reddened and he straightened his spine. “There’s still a lot that needs to be prepared. That needs to be contemplated.”
“We still have days of travel. Or wait…” Ren arched his brows in insinuation. “Do you need help getting that stick out of your ass? Is it too deep?”
Ambrose’s face matched the color of his hair. “No, I—” he sputtered, trying to find words.
Kai turned to the thin boy. “If you want to go to the festivities, go ahead. There’s no need to force us into it.”
Ren rolled his eyes dramatically. “Boring, the lot of you. Come on, Rieka darling. Let’s go get our asses drunk.” He linked his elbows with her, but she shoved him off roughly, sending him staggering. Ren was wholly unbothered and grinned before marching off to the sound of the music.
“Can we go?” Shadya’s voice sounded. Kai glanced over to find her staring up at her sister with wide eyes. Something was strange about the girl that Kai couldn’t place. She looked to only be ten or eleven, yet she stood as though she were a queen holding court. The fire in her eyes was so unlike the kind gentleness in her sister’s.
Amani nodded at her sister. “But not for long,” she warned. Shadya nodded furiously before dashing off after Ren and Rieka, Amani on her heels.
Zain glanced his and Ambrose’s way, his scar flickering grotesquely under the torch light. He didn’t say a word before turning on his heel and gliding off after the Bahajadi girls, a shadow in the night.
“Ren is right, you know,” Kai muttered.
“About what? Having a stick up my ass?” Ambrose’s blush still lingered.
“No. About needing to take a break. If you keep working over the same issues and same notes, no new ideas will come to you. Sometimes you just need to let your mind rest and come back to it.”
“A party’s not going to help with that.”
Kai shrugged. “It’s a small village. They won’t recognize you so there’s no pressure to play the prince. You don’t even need to talk. Just drink some wine and call it a night.”
“I don’t like getting drunk,” Ambrose muttered.
“Then don’t get drunk. Just give yourself a break.”
Ambrose pondered it, his eyes narrowed in ambivalence. “I don’t know…”
“Just one hour,” Kai decided. “One hour to relax, then you can go back to your notes.”
Ambrose’s brows furrowed but he nodded. “One hour.”
Kai threw an arm over Ambrose’s shoulder and began leading him towards the music. “Who knows. Maybe you will have fun.” Ambrose only answered with a grumble.
The festivities were small. In a square in the center of town, a large bonfire had been built, its flames licking towards the clear sky. A gathering of musicians sat beside it, plucking at their lutes and playing their fiddles. The townsfolk danced beside the fire, switching partners in gliding waltzes.
It seemed they had tried to dress their finest for the celebrations, but being from an impoverished town, their finest consisted of all shades of brown. The men wore brown overcoats over partially stained tunics, some bearing a cravat. The women were dressed in brown gowns and corsets, their skirts stuffed and large. Occasionally, a colorful dress or coat could be found among the revelry, but looking out over the crowd, drab colors stared back.
Fortunately, the lack of wealth made Kai’s and Ambrose’s travel-weary appearance unnoticeable. They got a few glances as they approached the fire—many eyes lingering on Kai and his skin—but were otherwise ignored.
Kai immediately picked out Ren among the fray. He was twirling in the midst of the dancers, breaking apart their practiced steps and gentle waltzes. Many townsfolk sent glares his way, but he didn’t seem to notice as he spun, his arms held wide. He spotted Rieka next, who had found the wine. She had a large mug in her hand as she watched the fire, its orange light flickering gold over her blonde hair.
Amani and Shadya seemed to be the only ones he didn’t have to worry about causing a riot. They twirled in a quiet waltz, their steps unpracticed and clumsy. But despite their lack of knowledge regarding the dance, Shadya’s smile was wide—the first smile Kai had seen from her, he realized. Amani returned the smile with a gentle dimness, and continued to lead her sister, gliding gracefully across the cobblestone. Despite their pleasant dancing, they received harsh stares, same as Ren. Kai suspected it was due to their browned skin.
Zain was nowhere to be found, though Kai didn’t really bother looking. The man seemed to always disappear the minute they were separated. Even among the others, he was easily forgotten as he sat in silence, sinking into the shadows.
“This is going to be terrible,” Ambrose muttered, already drawing back as a couple passed them, their eyes narrowing.
“One hour,” Kai reminded him. Truthfully, he didn’t have much desire to dance either—he wasn’t much of a dancer and preferred to avoid it at all costs—but his friend needed a break. And the only way Kai was going to get him to take advantage of that was if he subjected himself to the festivities as well.
With a grimace, Ambrose let Kai drag him to the table of wine. Rieka caught their eye as they approached and she lifted her mug in greeting. “Thought you wouldn’t join,” she muttered, tipping back her mug to drain it.
“I wish I hadn’t,” Ambrose murmured too quietly for Rieka to hear.
Kai ignored him and reached out for the pitcher of wine likely blessed by the God of Harvest. After pouring himself and Ambrose a mug, he took a sip and responded, “I’ve come to give my prayers to the God of Harvest.”
Rieka rolled her eyes, which appeared almost like starlight under the fire. “While I appreciate the wine, throwing grass in a fire and putting gold in a temple won’t make the crops grow any stronger. The soil here is shit so the crops will turn out the same way no matter what.”
Anger sparked in the pit of Kai’s stomach. “The gods created this land and therefore have the power to strengthen it.”
“There are no gods,” Rieka said with a wave of her hand. “This world was born among the stars, just as we all were.”
“That’s preposterous. The gods made the stars just as they made this world. To believe otherwise is ignorant.”
“You are the one who is ignorant. To believe—”
“Stop.” Rieka and Kai’s eyes both went wide as they turned to Ambrose. He was looking down into his mug. “One hour,” he told Kai. “I’m not spending that hour listening to you bicker about religion.”
Guilt pooled in Kai’s gut. He was only here to relieve his friend’s stress, but he had instead added to it. Kai opened his mouth to apologize, but Ambrose waved a hand. There was no accusation in his eyes nor was their annoyance as he said, “I’m going to go to sleep. Don’t worry. I won’t go over any of my notes.” Kai opened his mouth again to offer his company, but Ambrose shook his head. “Drink your wine. Have fun. I’m tired anyway.”
At that, he turned on his heel and marched back in the direction of the tavern.
“Your friend really does have a stick up his ass,” Rieka commented, refilling her mug.
“No he doesn’t. He just has… A lot to deal with.”
Rieka rolled her eyes. “Bullshit. We all have a lot to deal with, and you don’t see me spending every minute stressing over it.”
“He has more pressures on his plate than either you or me.”
“Please,” she said mockingly. “You don’t know anything about me and therefore know nothing about the pressures I face. Defend him all you’d like, but it won’t change anything.”
With that, she spun around and marched off towards the gaggle of musicians.
Kai huffed an enraged sigh and drained the rest of his mug. After setting aside his empty cup, he marched towards the temple resting upon the hill. The bonfire had been set up just so, as to have its golden light reflected upon the temple’s stone front. Unlike the other wooden buildings in the town, the temple had been made with care and precision, its stone pillars smooth but for a few cracks. Though it was smaller than any temples in Reindale, it was obviously built with love and devotion for the gods.
Kai trailed behind a small family all bearing gifts for the God of Harvest. The gifts were small and worn, but it was likely the nicest belongings the family owned. A dented watch lay in the father’s hand, an unadorned glass vase cradled in the mother’s arms. Kai felt extremely empty-handed as he walked forward with empty pockets. He debated going back to his room at the tavern to grab a coin for his gift, but decided against it. A coin meant nothing to Kai and would therefore mean nothing to the God of Harvest.
Many shot him disparaging glances as he approached the stone steps of the temple, which were swept with care. When he set foot upon the smooth stone, ignoring them became impossible.
“This is a place of holiness and reverence. You are not welcome here,” a voice spat. A thin man stood in Kai’s path, his skin decorated with sun spots from the hours spent outdoors.
Kai raised his hands in placation though anger churned in his gut. “I am here to honor the gods same as you. I only wish to give my thanks and prayers on this holy day.”
Despite Kai’s fluent Arlanian and lack of accent, the man crossed his arms over his chest in defiance. “We won’t allow you Larabosi heretics in our temple.”
Kai took a deep breath, shoving down the anger that rose in his stomach. “Sir, I only wish to honor the gods, same as you,” he gritted out. Dealing with sharp comments and glances was common, but even within the palace, he was never declined the use of a temple.
“You heard what I said. Now get out.” The man spat a wad of saliva at Kai’s feet and he stumbled back to avoid it hitting his shoe. Kai glanced up, his chest heaving.
Then he exploded.
Time moved quickly after that. He vaguely remembered punching the man, his fists connecting with his jaw. He kept hitting, but how many times, he didn’t know. All he knew was the never-ending anger pulsing in his gut, radiating through his fingers.
Then there were arms yanking him back, strong upon his shoulders. A cool, accented voice was hissing in his ears and those hands secured Kai’s arms behind his back as he thrashed.
Voices called after him as those arms dragged him away and didn’t stop until Kai was deposited into a dark alley, far from any revelry. “What the hell,” Kai spat, shaking off the strong grip.
When he turned, he saw Zain standing at the face of the alley, his form cloaked in shadows, masking his expression. “If I hadn’t stopped you, you would’ve killed the man,” he said, his voice cool.
“He said those things and wouldn’t let me and—” Kai cut himself off, realizing he was uttering complete nonsense. “He deserved it,” he finally hissed.
“Granted, but I think we would all regret your actions if they got us banished from the town in the middle of the night.”
Kai began to pace in the tight alley, the anger simmering beneath his skin. The longer he paced, Zain watching silently, the more his anger ebbed and his logic returned.
Suddenly he stopped, his knuckles throbbing. He felt the blood drain from his face. “What have I done?” he muttered. He had dealt with ignorant people before. He had always done his best to ignore them and to move along. There was no point in fighting back—not with someone like that.
Instead, he had beaten up a man at the base of a temple. He had shamed himself to the gods and defiled their holy land. Kai scrubbed his hands over his face and short hair. “How bad did it get?” he whispered.
Zain didn’t move from his stance as he responded, “The man will bear bruises for weeks.”
“Did I… hurt anything permanently?”
Zain’s silhouetted form shook his head. “No.”
Kai released a breath. A small relief from the massive guilt that weighed upon him. He never had lost control like that. Yes, he had been angered by ignorant men, but he had always taken it out in the sparring room, not on a man’s undefended face.
Kai glanced down at his bloodied knuckles, the split skin invisible under the darkness of night.
“You should get those disinfected and bound,” Zain said.
Kai nodded absently and scrubbed at his face once more. With a single muttered thanks, he brushed past Zain and went down an abandoned street, heading for the darkness and solitude of a far off hill. Thankfully, Zain didn’t try to stop him
The hike to the top of the surrounding hill—opposite of the one holding the temple—was a long one and by the time he reached the high point, his thighs were burning. He relished in the ache and stood atop the hill, staring down over the town. Facing the temple, he looked over its stone walls and the flickering light inside. The man he had hit had long since vacated the scene.
The revelers seemed undisturbed by the violence that had just taken place as they waltzed about the fire, singing praises to the sky. Wine was drunk and the movements of the townsfolk began to show it as they stumbled and dragged their loved ones off into the shadows. On the day of celebration, children were granted a forgotten bedtime and they ran through the dirt streets, playing with sticks and rubber balls.
Despite the poverty etched into their faces and homes, they were full of laughter and smiles. Full of devotion and hope for a good harvest.
Kai sat upon that hill until the moon was high in the sky and dried grass was piled upon the fire, the flames reaching for the stars. The last blessing for the God of Harvest. The last gift the poor farmers could give in hopes of a field riddled with crops.
When the flames were at their peak, Kai tilted his head to the heavens and prayed. He didn’t ask for forgiveness—he hardly deserved it—but he asked to protect the townsfolk. To provide them with the food they needed.
It did little to abate his guilt.
And that guilt… It was not for the strikes he had landed, but for his indifference towards them. Towards the man. He had defiled the gods and their temple, and for that, he would repent, but he couldn’t find it in himself to regret the punches he had taken. To regret the pain he had inflicted upon the man.
Perhaps that made him evil. Perhaps that made him the barbarian he was often called out to be.
Kai clenched his fists and felt the blood trickle between his fingers and into his palms.
The anger he felt hadn’t wholly abated despite his actions. And perhaps it was because that anger wasn’t for the man in its entirety. It was for everything else. For the world and for the prophecy. For his friend Ambrose and for the danger ahead of them.
Kai sent up one last prayer. Not for safety nor good fortune. This prayer was an apology. An apology for his hatred and an apology for his rage. His prayer was wholly ineffective.
Three days later, they broke into the pine forests of northern Arlan. The chill air that followed left Rieka blissfully silent, her head turned to the sky as the breezes swept through her hair.
With the new cool wind much more accustomed to fall, they had to stop at a seamstress and each buy new coats to protect themselves from the chill. Despite Rieka getting one for herself, she refused to wear it as they rode, embracing the sharp air.
Zain hadn’t mentioned Kai’s fit of rage to the others, and despite the size of the small town, they were all oblivious to his actions. Rieka had pointed out the bandages on his knuckles, and he had given a piss-poor excuse that issued a doubtful glance but ultimately resulted in her silence.
Despite Zain’s assistance with his bout of anger, he and Kai hadn’t spoken since, but the apprehension Kai had felt towards the man had lessened.
Kai avoided any thoughts of that night before the temple, instead focusing on their travels. He watched the landscape change from the sparse farmland to thick wood, the pine’s aroma swirling through the air as a natural perfume. The rolling hills also began to turn to steeper slopes as they entered Arlan’s northern mountains. Rieka claimed they were a joke compared to Styrka’s slopes, and as their horses scrambled for purchase on the winding paths, that prospect was a chilling one.
There was little wildlife they came across in the northern forests, though Kai was sure it was all hidden within the depths of the trees. Occasionally, they would hear the howl of a wolf as they rode, the sound unsettling.
Just as it had been in the small village, no one seemed to notice them as the prophesied group destined to restore strength to Arlan. Even Ambrose wasn’t recognized as Prince. Though, Kai supposed it wasn’t much of a surprise. Not only was his friend forgotten under the light of his elder brother, but after days of travel and little time to wash up, they all stunk of horses and sweat, grime marking their faces. The state of filth was uncomfortable for Kai, but since the others seemed unperturbed, he pretended otherwise.
On their tenth day of travelling, they began the ascent of the last mountain to border Styrka according to the map Ambrose had consulted. It was steeper than the others they had rode over, and the horses were sweating profusely within the first hours of their hike. With no villages between the mountain and the border, they attempted to ride swiftly to avoid a night spent under the stars.
When the sun was just beginning its descent into the horizon, they reached the top of the mountain.
Kai paused as they looked over the drop. They stood before a valley so deep, he could barely make out the thin river cutting through its base. Wind whistled up from its depths, singing an eerie song of an agonizing death. The stones on the opposing cliff were sheer and layered with different colored minerals. They looked impossible to climb, even from the most gifted of climbers. Kai fought the urge to pull his horse away from the ledge. One slip and they would fall to their deaths.
Along the rock of the opposite mountain was what looked to be red paint. It was smeared in the center of the cliff, virtually inaccessible. From the distance, he couldn’t make out the pictures the paints depicted.
He turned to Rieka to ask what they were—for she was most likely to know—and found her smiling. The first real smile he had ever seen from her. “Welcome to the Red Valley. Cross that, and we are in Styrka.”