Mia remembers the first time she saw death and was old enough to understand it.
Her grandmother had been little more than skeleton, flesh stretched unconvincingly over her sharp, skinny frame. Those days she could only lie in bed. She mumbled fever dreams and cursed spirits that came to her during her brief spates of sleep.
Mia remembered standing by the doorway watching her grandmother’s fingers trace patterns in the air. Maybe her grandmother had been a witch, and maybe she had been casting spells, as the entire household changed after she took sick. Her parents became more anxious; her brothers snuck out in the morning and slunk in during the night; her aunt and uncle started to fight with each other all the time. Her grandmother was the last remaining elderly relative in their family. Mia hated those memories. Her grandmother was dying, nobody bothered to deny it and tiptoed around the subject, and death had reached out and changed the entire house. She knew she could not save the sick old woman, but Mia had taken it upon herself to try to save her family. She tried to soothe her parents, brow brash her brothers, stop her aunty and uncle fighting. Wherever she meddled, she made things worse.
She had never stopped hating that she had no choice but to sit by her grandmother’s bed and watch her die. ‘Everything is changing,’ she said to her grandmother one day, ‘because you’re dying.’ Her grandmother’s room was no longer getting cleaned regularly. Dust framed the walls and crept across the chests and basins. A scar of damp that had been creeping down the grey wall behind her grandmother’s bed now reached the floor. Mia had not realised before that it had been growing.
‘Everything is changing,’ she repeated, ‘and I can’t do anything. Why do I just have to sit watching? I wish I could do something.’ Her grandmother was asleep, but she already looked dead.
Mia wondered if this is what her mum had meant when she talked about life, about how good it was to be a child. She wondered if there was something she could do, something she just wasn’t brave enough to do. She wondered if she was a coward.
So Mia sat, and she watched, and eventually her grandmother died.
The Dark Messenger Ran
The Dark Messenger, the world’s last hope against Monrath, fled up the mountain, through the trees. He was wounded, and he felt like he was dying.
The land was treacherous here; a tree stuck out a branch and tripped him. His instincts kicked in, and he hit the earth as quietly as he could, catching himself as he fell. He needed to be quieter; he had lost them, but his pursuers were still near.
These mountains were at the end of the world. Here be dragons. Grey rocks and shadowy forests rose like the fortress of a tired god, hiding and nursing depression at the end of his creation. Through the web-work of branches above him he could see an angry sky, ready to rain.
The Dark Messenger was far away from his home, both literally and symbolically. Two weeks ago he had arrived back on this plain, in the sunny Coppell, and he had set off on his journey to Monrath’s palace. Since then he had only seemed to travel further from his goal. Now here he was; at the opposite end of the world.
He got to his feet carefully. He was wounded and they were getting nearer. He had been climbing a slope under the cover of the tangled woodland. When he had tripped, he had slid back down the slope. Now he found himself on a small ledge about ten feet above the main path. Back up the slope, skid marks in the earth marked his slide downwards, and the Dark Messenger considered trying to climb the slope again. If he fell again he could hurt himself further or give himself away, and if he was spotted he would not be able to defend himself. He would have to risk going by the main path.
Someone called out – he must have bumped his head when he fell, because he could not tell where from. The temptation was to run, just jump onto the path and make a bolt for it. He did not have the element of surprise though, they knew he was here and were searching for him. That too would be risky.
This was a defensible position – there was a drop in front of him, so he had higher ground, and he did not have to worry about getting caught off guard. If they tried to reach the ledge, they would not know he was there until they stuck their head up, making themselves targets. Was there any way to draw them here, and fight from this vantage?
Moving slowly, he flattened himself against the ground and crawled forward. There was some quiet rustling. He felt leaves crumpling under him. The closer he got to the edge of the ledge, the more certain he became that the moment he stuck his head past it, to peer down, he would see the point of a sword rising to meet him. It was moments like this he hated his imagination.
The back of his hand was itchy. It hurt to move his left arm, his whole body was being hugged by a throbbing pain; but the back of his right hand was itchy. Why was that so hard to ignore?
When he reached the edge, he took a moment. His throat was dry. He swallowed, and the movement hurt. Again he check the ledge and slope around him, in case a soldier had improbably found a way to sneak up behind him.
He stuck his head out over the edge and then ducked back again. For a second or two he was very still, waiting for the cry of one of Monrath’s men, telling the others they had found him. There was a soldier beneath him there, on the main path. If the man, armed, had been looking up he would have been spotted. The Dark Messenger listened as the soldier continued to walk down the path searching for him. Too slowly for his liking. The others would not be far away.
There was a choice to be made here. As the Dark Messenger, he had meant to stay away from others, keep his distance from other people. Not only would that bring repercussions to those that harboured him, but also it would be much easier to stay hidden if people did not know where he was. Information spread far and fast with startling ease.
But he was wounded, and he was not stupid enough to think that it was a good idea to remain hunted and alone whilst wounded. It was not a really bad injury – not fatal at any rate – but it made him terribly vulnerable. Further up the mountain, or back down it to civilization?
Up. If he had to fight more, better to have higher ground. There was no guarantee that he would even get a sympathetic reception in any of the villages further down the mountains. Not everyone was as scared of Monrath as they should be.
With one fluid movement he vaulted over the ledge, landed painfully, and muttered two words. ‘Roots bind.’ The air around him shimmered golden, vapour symbols appearing in the shimmer. As the symbols vanished, dissolving, giant tree roots burst through the ground and enveloped the soldier, his red and black uniform’s uniform was smothered in a second. The soldier cried out, but the noise disappeared as the roots dragged him underground. The Dark Messenger was taken aback for a moment – he had thought that they would just hold him in place.
‘He’s over here!’ They had heard the soldier’s cry. They were coming for him.
The Dark Messenger ran and up ahead four soldiers rounded the corner and blocked his path.
When Taltin came tearing down the hillside, leaving a trail of wobbling tree branches and shrugging bushes, shouting his head off, Mia’s first thought was that he had spotted a raiding party. He had never been more of a dark-haired, short ball of energy as he had been then. His rotund chest was heaving rapidly when he finally skidded to a halt in front of them. ‘Soldiers! Soldiers!’
Southern Betan was not ill-acquainted with lowland raiders. It was rare, not unheard of, but rare, for any potential bandits to make the trip all the way up the town of Dai. Raiders were far easier dealt with than soldiers. There had been rumours, working their way up from the foot of the mountain, that a group of soldiers had been pillaging the area – same concept, she guessed, but far more trouble.
‘You sure?’ said Heero. Somehow he always managed to stand so the sun was behind him, a near constant golden aura surrounding him. His status within Dai as “a bit of a troublemaker” was ironic – he was unrelenting and often abrasive in trying to make sure that everything was fair and right. People often joked that his name was actually a curse, or a moment of foresight from his parents.
Nearby, Mia knew, there was a lookout post. It was something only half-remembered, treated as unnecessary with no small note of hope. It was against the law not raise the alarm in Dai if you were near a lookout post whilst raiders were attacking. For soldiers, she imagined, this was no different.
She had been in there only once. There was nothing particularly interesting about it – it was a wooden box with a hidden door and a disguised viewing window. Mia had been in there once and something about it must have made a lasting impression, because she still had stress dreams about being locked in that small room whilst through the window she could see raiders burn Dai to the ground.
‘Come on,’ said Heero, ‘we need to check this out.’ He did not wait for anyone to reply before setting off, back up the slope. Taltin was still puffing, bent over.
Mia looked between Gali and Hollo. Hollo, the girl who only seemed to get more rangy and wide shouldered as she got older, followed him after a moment. There was something ungainly about the way she sprawled up the slope after him, graceless and clumsy.
‘Shall we?’ asked Gali. He was big and strong and dexterous and talented and intelligent and utterly hideous. His lumpen nose, his skin stretched tightly over his skull, his weirdly-round head. Little kids would point at him at the street and ask their parents if he was a monster, and he would duck his head and pull up his hood. He turned to the still recovering Taltin, ‘are you okay there Taltin?
‘Yeah,’ said Taltin, ‘we should follow.’ Poor Taltin, nature had not been kind to him. Mia admired that he was still willing to run with them. She and Gali made sure they did not leave him behind.
When they reached the lookout post, Heero was standing in the doorway, waiting for them. ‘The Dark Messenger! Hurry up guys, the Dark Messenger! The Dark Messenger is fighting the soldiers.’ They were already running, thought Mia, did that not count as hurrying? When they got through the door Heero pulled it shut so hard he that the slam probably told everyone on the mountain where they were.
‘I told you guys!’ said Taltin, ‘soldiers!’ He slumped down in the chair, which wobbled threateningly under his weight. It was an old thing – how long had this lookout been here?
‘Both of you, shut up,’ said Gali, ‘we’re meant to be hiding in here.’ He stomped over to the narrow viewing window, Mia following him.
Beyond the shrubbery that barely overlapped the slat of a window, she could see the mountain and the sky. Southern Betan was a deep green where it was not grey rock, and most places the slope was not too steep there was thick vegetation. Above them, the clouds were forming. It was hotter too, or at least more humid. Mia was knew well enough what that meant: a storm.
The path that cut through the trees was easy to see. It was not the only way to get to Dai, but it was the only real way if you were not a local or wanted to take any supplies up there. There were a number of other lookout posts, progressively further down the mountain, well enough hidden that she could not see them from here. Close, on the path, people were fighting.
First she saw the man in dark clothes. He was surrounded by maybe a dozen soldiers, attacking then falling back in a well-rehearsed fashion. He was caught on the path in a narrow section between a thick clump of foliage and a slope so steep it resembled cliff side. The other soldiers’ had formed into two rows either side of him, all equipped with spears – if the man in dark clothes tried to move in either direction he would find a wall of spear points waiting for him. Only four of them were engaging him directly with longer swords, but that seemed to be enough.
There was a painting in the People’s Centre of the Dark Messenger. He was turning as if to confront the painter, his clothes billowing with the movement. Around him the air was shimmering, like a coloured heat haze, and words were written in the haze. They were nonsense words, not meaning anything. No one knew much about the Dark Messenger, so Mia had always assumed that the painting was just a fanciful interpretation.
The man down there was not as darkly glamorous as the painting, not as androgynously beautiful, but he was the same man. The words that were appearing in the shimmer were real however. Mia was rooted to the spot. She had never seen magic before.
Leaves. A flurry of leaves surrounded him, obscuring him. The cover afforded to him was useless, however – on the narrow path, there was nowhere to go. The soldiers kept up their assault.
Power. A soldier was thrown backwards, but the spear carrying ones scrambled out of the way in time to stop him from being impaled, reforming fast enough to give the Dark Messenger no time to escape. It looked as if they had rehearsed that earlier – this trap was planned. It felt as if something cold was trickling down her spine.
Fire. This time it seemed like there was an in drawing of breath between the word appearing and the spell taking effect. Then a scarlet stream of flame, bathing everything around it in light, leapt from the hands of the Dark Messenger.
The soldiers were prepared for that too. As flames shot from the Dark Messenger’s hands, they hid behind shields. Scorch marks, no injuries.
He was naturally agile, that much was clear, but his movements were laborious. He looked hurt. ‘They are going to kill him,’ said Heero, ‘he’s trapped.’
Nobody replied to that. There was no reply. Mia wanted to look at the others, see if any of them could convince her Heero was wrong. She could not meet any of their gazes, and looked again out the window. For all his power it was obvious that the attackers were too well trained, ready for anything that he was able to throw at them. They were going to watch the Dark Messenger die. The world’s last hope, dying before them.
‘We’ve got to do something,’ said Heero.
‘What?’ asked Taltin, ‘we can’t do anything.’ He was rocking and forth on his seat with nervous energy. Mia wished he would stop, there was enough to take in without the sight of her friend jittering like that.
‘We should go,’ said Gali, ‘get back to the town, tell someone. If we move quickly maybe we can save him.’ Gali alone, amongst them all, seemed to be unruffled. Mia didn’t believe that, she knew well enough he had built high walls around his emotions a long time ago.
‘And just leave him?’ said Heero. ‘Just let the only one who can save us from Monrath die? It’ll take twenty minutes at least to get back, and then by the time they send anyone – if they even do – he’ll probably already be dead. We can’t let him die!’ That was probably true. Mia felt sick.
‘I’ll go ahead,’ said Hollo, ‘I’m faster than anyone else.’ She ran every morning and ran every night. It was not unusual to get up at some unfathomable hour and see her run past your window, a golden sheen of sweat by lantern light.
‘Go,’ said Gali, ‘quickly.’
‘Take care,’ said Mia, as Hollo left. She probably said it too softly for Hollo to hear.
‘Why can’t we stay here?’ asked Taltin, ‘there might be soldiers out there. This is the safest place.’ He looked at his feet for a moment. ‘Okay, sorry, I mean-‘
‘You and Mia should stay here,’ Gali said, ‘not like you would be much help anyway. Me and Heero – Heero, wait!’ Heero was already gone. ‘If that little bastard gets himself killed, I’ll…’ Gali left the room at a run, muttering to himself.
‘I didn’t mean what I said,’ said Taltin, ‘I think I should go after them. I might be able to help.’ He looked at Mia as if even considering his own safety for a moment had been a massive betrayal.
‘That’s okay,’ she said, ‘I believe you Taltin.’ It had been her first thought too. What could she do? She wasn’t as big as any of them, and she couldn’t think fast. She would just get in their way.
She looked back out the window. They were close, but Dark Messenger and the soldiers looked quite small. Were they powerless to stop this? She hated the thought that this was all she was good for. Watching and waiting, whilst someone died and the world crumbled around her. The sky was totally dark now, brimstone clouds obliterating any sunshine. It was still day, but darkness had come.
Déjà vu. She remembered waiting. She remembered being powerless as her grandmother died. Old age was not something she could have prevented. She was not a doctor, she could not have eased her grandmother’s passage.
The Dark Messenger had been hurt again, it was hard to tell from this distance, but it looked like he had blood on his face. He was no longer attacking, just focusing on keeping the soldiers at bay. One of the soldiers was dead, but the rest continued with greater vigour, as if sensing their opponent’s weakening. It seemed clear enough that he had not much fight left in him.
This was different. This, she may just be able to do something about. ‘Let’s go,’ she said, ‘Heero was right. We can’t let him die.’