A wisp of dying smoke writhes through the dawn. Briefly flitting before my blood-filled vision, it swills my senses in acridness.
I pause. And take a deep breath, filling my cracked lungs to their screeching brim. The smoke stings; perhaps this will be the last breath I can withstand. But I don’t care. In my mind, I reach out and out, towards the pain, because it means to me only one thing: victory.
It started with the end.
“I’m glad you’re here.”
He didn’t smile back; he usually did. I clapped his back; he didn’t react. Instead, he breathed tremulously out into the frosty, night air.
“What’s the matter?” He didn’t look at me. No, he couldn’t look at me; he was avoiding my gaze like…like a man ashamed of something.
“Thanil, look at me.” If my blood brother couldn’t even look at me, what did that mean? “Thanil!” He finally turned round and looked mildly surprised to see me there, as if he’d only just heard my anxious voice right next to his ear.
“What’s the matter?”
A weak smile; a shamed smile.
“I’m glad to be here, too…brother,” Why did he pause? Why did he call me ‘brother’; it was too contrived, too mawkish, too out of sync with our closeness. I shook his shoulder lightly, both annoyed and worried.
“Tell me what’s the matter, Dlian. Tell me what’s so dreadful that you’ve not even noticed that you’ve slung your arrows on the wrong way round!” Dark eyebrows lifted briefly and he glanced blankly round his shoulder. All the time, that look, that look of shamed deliberation roughing his features, increased.
“You’ve not got married, have you?” The joke failed. Our joke failed to raise anything more than an ironic twist of clenched lips from my usually jovial brother.
“You don’t give up, do you?” He finally replied, lips twisting a little more into a grin. Though it was only a shade of his nature, I almost cried out loud for joy. However, being found together would mean an enemy’s death for one of us and a traitor’s execution for the other, so I merely smirked back and shrugged, “You know me.”
Those familiar eyes glittered for a brief moment; were those tears? “Yes,” he whispered, “I know you.”
“Thanil, you’re speaking in riddles tonight; are…?”
I paused, as a thought struck me.
“Why did you want to meet me tonight, Thanil?”
These secret meetings between us two blood brothers of enemy clans were the only way I could remember our peaceful history, when our clans enjoyed an alliance; the only way I could remind myself that we hadn’t always been the petty, fighting animals to which we were now reduced. When did it change? I can’t recall, only that it was swift and bitter and all sundering. Nothing forgotten, nothing forgiven, nothing left. Only a miserable, clandestine link between two young men who tried to live by brotherhood, not an enemy existence.
I cherished these meetings, as I knew he did, as much as I cherished our land and banner, but tonight was a risky night; the moon was full. And Thanil was not a risk-taker.
“Thanil, we’re both risking our necks here,” I hissed, frustrated, when he did no more than frown and chew his bottom lip. “Would you just please enlighten me as to what we are doing here, so urgently, out in the open?”
Maybe it was the frustration and vexation in my voice, but suddenly, Thanil turned and grabbed my shoulders in a fierce grip. His eyes flickered madly over my face, as though trying to remember every crevice. Without warning, he clapped me to him in a fierce embrace. Then, just as suddenly, he let me go. I stumbled back with the sheer force of it, and stared at him dumbly.
“I had to see you for the last time.” The first coherent thing he’d uttered that night left shivers on my neck in a way no cold night breeze could..
He looked around feverishly; hair flinging, eyes haunted, jaw set, eyes trying to penetrate the dark fog of the midnight forest. It would have been funny if the situation had been different, but it was this situation, and it was not funny. He looked like a paranoid, hunted man.
“Leave!” He swung me round to face the open lake, almost wrenching my shoulder out in the process. “Tonight! I beg you, Kellan; it’s the only way. Leave! Leave now!” He was gabbling now, pushing me unseeing towards some path only visible in his mad memory.
“Thanil!” I hit him then, nothing more than a light punch to the jaw, but I could not see any other way to wake him from this seeming madness. “Please talk sense!”
He rubbed his jaw, more as a reaction than to soothe any bruise. He looked briefly annoyed, then a cloud of resignation brushed his face. He sighed.
“You must leave Dana. Tonight.” He repeated softly.
He was serious and, more frighteningly, completely lucid.
“Why? I can’t exactly leave on a whim.”
I regretted those words as soon as they’d left my mouth. Thanil; good, steady, serious Thanil would not play a whim like that. He glared, but woefully, at me.
“It’s not a whim.” He stated flatly.
“I know. I’m sorry, Thanil.”
Another pause; he still hadn’t told me why.
“I suppose it’s something to do with why you dragged me here in the middle of the night!”
He smiled briefly, then his features creased again in gloom.
“I came here to warn you.” He took a deep breath, as though he’d spent many hours plucking up courage and rehearsing his next words. “Dana is in danger; it’s in danger from….” He sighed and lifted his eyes pleadingly towards the uncaring, indigo sky, “…from us. From Dlian.”
Dread clouded and gathered in the pit of my stomach, and began to creep up my throat.
“So, it’s finally come,” I muttered to myself.
He stared at me mournfully, “I’m sorry.”
I turned away in disbelief. No, not disbelief; I turned away in the knowledge that this truly was the end of Dana. Ever since the end of that fragile peace, an uneasy ceasefire had existed. But as Dlian grew strong under the command of their fierce warrior leader, Dana had turned to a subsistence life; keeping and training only a handful of fighters. We had believed ourselves at a permanent peace; we were wrong. And now we would pay for our trusting folly.
“Your father commanded it?” I already knew the answer.
“Yes. The attack will come – ”
“Yes.” It was barely a whisper; and I felt his anguish carry to me on the chilling breeze.
I stared searchingly into the face of my chosen brother; willing him to believe in my trust in him. “It’s not your choice, Thanil.” I glanced down at the words stitched on his tunic. The strong vanquish, and the weak fall. How true that was.
“We can’t fight you.”
“I know that. That’s why – ”
“You came to warn me.” I smiled; I was genuinely grateful, “Thank you.”
“So, you will leave?”
“How can I leave? I am still of the tribe of Dana.”
“I know. I knew.” A quick, too quick, grin curled his lips. “You’re too damn proud.”
“Not a shade on you.”
A blanket of silence fell around us. We were past the need for words to express our emotions of sorrow and regret.
“So what will you do?”
“I will warn my people; we will leave early in the morning.” I looked at Thanil levelly, “Your people will take our land, but none will die.”
He nodded; what could he possible say?
I plucked a feather from one of my arrow tails and gave it to him. He did the same. There was no need for words.
I started to turn away, then a thought occurred to me.
“Thanil, the hills…the hills are sacred.”
Thanil frowned at me in puzzlement, not understanding. Of course he wouldn’t; only Dana returned her Kings back to the earth.
“The hills are sacred.” I repeated. “Our line of Kings are buried there; from Granthuil to Thantyl. You can take and use the land without disturbing them. You cannot cultivate or build on them anyway; they are hollow.”
“Hollow?” He echoed; I remembered that the fierce Dlian tribe burn their departed Kings.
“We dug out the hills to make earthly tombs for our Kings. Only bodies, not treasure, lies beneath that earth.” I hesitated; trying to explain. Thanil was my blood brother, but we are still born of different cultures.
Looking above to the night sky, I saw Oberon, the brightest star in the Sage’s crown; the star from which our people sprung. It was a sign of hope, and I prayed silently to it now.
I stepped towards Thanil earnestly, “Please, promise me…promise me that you won’t touch the hills.”
He looked puzzled, nervous, then annoyed. “I…I can’t promise you that.”
He lifted his eyebrows casually. “It’s just a battle…tactic; we…destroy everything.”
“But the hills will be neither a use nor a hindrance to you!” I grasped his hand; forced him to look at me, to face me.
He turned away immediately; he looked uncomfortable. But those hills enshrined our history, our culture. If we were being forced to leave them; I wanted to ensure their continuation without us; our history must be preserved for a future day of peace.
“Please,” I could hear my voice begging; but a desperate love can subdue even a proud man, “Do not violate the hills; I know you have the power within your tribe to ensure that!”
Dlian tried to squirm out of my grasp. He had never shied away from me. That cut deeper than the refusal.
“Please,” I whispered, “I beg of you…brother.”
Thanil twisted violently away from me and swung round in confused confrontation.
“Why do you ask of me that which I cannot promise?” He shouted into the gulf between us. “What you ask of me is impossible! Even if I wanted to –”
He stops. I could not speak for shock. I could only stare in horror.
“You did not mean that…” I tried to convince us both, for I knew he did.
“You did not mean that!”
He said nothing. This could not be; why has my blood brother, who I have known for many hard years, become suddenly so callous? Surely it was not always so; I could not believe; I would not believe.
“Thanil!” Forcefully, I slammed him against the trunk of the nearest tree. He grunted in pain and shock, but I could not let go. I could not let go of the brother I knew.
“Thanil! Why?” My fury and anguish channelled in one, clear word.
Suddenly, I doubled over; there was a strange pain at my side. I looked down; sticky, black blood flowed down the edge of a shaking knife blade. Thanil’s knife blade. I stumbled back, frozen and stunned. He looked at me. Stunned.
“Thanil…,” it came out as a moan, “When did you change?”
His jaw clenched, his eyes narrowed, and the shocked guilt left his face, to be replaced by deliberate insouciance. He shrugged and scowled bitterly, “They are just hills; they mean nothing!”
“Thanil, do not speak of something you cannot ever understand!”
He looked at me wide-eyed for a moment before spitting out, “What is there about Dana that is worthy of understanding?”
Every man has a limit beyond which it is not wise to push him.
Without a word, I hit him again. This time, I spared no force and he stumbled back a few steps. My heart felt hollow as I realise that I have drawn blood. I, too, unsheathed my knife and both our blades glitter together under the moon.
“Humanity. Culture. Honour!”
Rubbing his jaw again, he sneered, “What Dana calls honour is only cowardice.”
Amid the fog of disbelief as I heard these cruel words uttered by him, I felt the first cold shards of a bitter dawn pierce the dank forest. His face became partially illuminated, and I was amazed to discover that it is was still Thanil, and not the face of some monster, which looked at me. Those same green eyes, that same brown skin, but not that same man.
And suddenly, I am exhausted; from the long night, from the his wound at my side, from the splinters of sorrow splitting my soul.
“What Dlian calls bravery is merely brutality,” I could only state the words listlessly.
Turning to go, I felt a terrible finality in my movement. I started to leave, not caring whether he would strike me with my back turned or no. An hour before, I could never have considered such a thought. But things had changed.
As I walk away, I whispered my warning.
“Like you said, Thanil, I’m proud. And so are my people; we live, and fight, through loyalty to people, not riches. We count history and culture, not land and gold. You can take our land, but I warn you, you will not violate our hills!”
I trudge wearily away. I did not know if he believed me. I did not know if he felt the same pain as I felt. It did not matter; I would not see him again in the light of day.
We would have left them the land they so coveted. We would have left them all our material goods, keeping only our knowledge. We would have tolerated the destruction of anything; except the hallowed hills.
But Dlian did not heed my warning; they thought it was the ranting of a wounded man’s pride.
They broke down the wooden doors, they desecrated the ancient graves, they defaced the clean white walls.
But Oberon watched, and lent our people strength beyond reckoning to match our stoked fury.
And so the clean, white walls of the cavernous tombs ran with the crimson blood of Dlian’s sons.
And the menacing beat of their war-drums were lifted by the chants of our vengeful people in a sychronised symphony of ruin; grand and terrible, echoing among the ancient graves.
And when the sons of Dlian perished in the tomb of their enemies, we nailed them to the great wooden doors as gruesome guardians.
As I lean back to embrace the miracle of life snatched from certain death, sacrificial music swells our hollow hills. But, I cannot join the rest of my people in their victorious crows among the slain. The only emotion that swamps the empty vessel of my mind is a grim satisfaction.
O, how twisted fate has become! Thanil lies at my feet, a wispy feather blushes on his pallored face. But remorse comes too late. Blood brother in life, blood brother in death; it is only right that mine is the hand that runs with your blood!