The day before the storyteller was set to tell the complex the story of Princess Aife, one of the complex leaders caught up with them.
“So, we did a headcount,” they started after pleasantries. “Went around and asked who was coming. Looks like about 85% of the complex is — Are you okay?”
The storyteller’s face had lost color, their mouth started to feel dry. The world was mute around them.
The leader started talking again, but it was muffled. The storyteller sat on the ground, their heart coming out of their throat. It was vomit, actually. The leader pulled out a bottle of water they had in their bag and handed it to the storyteller, who drank from it like they hadn’t had water in days.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” they whispered into the bottle. The leader and smiled slightly.
“Oh… I understand. Well, that’s why I wanted to talk to you. We’re gonna have you speak at the gym in the school. Since the idea of being in front of everyone is making you nervous, we can totally work something out with you.”
The storyteller watched as two people put up a giant white sheet in front of their seat on an old couch. They were situated with a headset, the microphone securely set in front of their mouth. They heard the muffled drone of the generator behind them, the many voices talking in front of them, behind the other side of the heavy curtains. Their heart raced as the lights behind them turned around, creating a shadow on the sheet. The curtains moved out the way, the audience hushed.
The storyteller was quiet. They looked to the left, their little sister sitting backstage. They sat with Gorty, who was asleep in her lap. The storyteller smiled and took a deep breath, looking at the white sheet in front of her. It started to swirl with color, setting the scene for the audience on the other side. In their imagination, at least.
Princess Aife and her companion made their way down the mountains of Melaeye, the tower of smoke behind them looked like another mountaintop. It was well into the night when they made it down to the main road on relatively flat land. Aife was asleep under her heavy cape before her friend started to growl. She quickly sat up, looking around the dark landscape, her eyes not adjusting fast enough. She squinted at a figure in front of them.
Cloaked in dark greys and dark greens, the grey scarf around their face covered all but one eye. The person squinted back the princess, pulling the hood tighter around their face. They started walking toward them. The dog barked. Aife jumped down, pulling her cape around her shoulders. She wiped the sleep off her face as best as she could, walking toward the figure.
The met in the middle. Aife’s little hand went to her chest, her posture tight and proud. The person raised an eyebrow and smiled behind the scarf, repeating the same motion.
“Ever prim and proper, yeh? She taught you well,” they gruffed behind the scarf, bending down to look at Aife eye level. Aife stared at this person’s face, something about it making tears well up in her eyes. The person didn’t notice as they were digging through their robes, pulling out a rolled up scroll. They handed it to Aife.
“Do not open until your 13th birthday.”
“The day after the first heavy snow, when the night is its darkest,” Aife said quietly. The person nodded.
“Aye, I remember that day. I wasn’t there, but she told me, yeh.”
“Who told you?”
The person smiled behind their scarf, but it spread to their eye. Aife started crying then, the face clicking. The person held Aife in their arms, holding onto her tightly.
“I wish I could take you right now, sweetling,” they cooed into Aife’s ear, rubbing her giant poof of hair in their hand. The pulled away, wiping away Aife’s tears with a gloved hand. A gust of wind engulfed them, knocking back the hood and the scarf from the person’s face.
Aife looked behind them, a giant Akun eagle-owl standing 10 feet tall quietly getting comfortable behind them. The bird hooted, looking at the woman, now standing. Aife looked up at her, eyes wide.
The person was the Queen’s identical twin. Where the queen had a giant mound of hair, her twin was bald, burn marks on the left side of her head and face. Her left eye was burned shut, but she had a patch covering it. Her right eye was a light shade of grey, a scar reaching from the center of her forehead to her right ear, cutting right through the eye itself. She was going blind if she wasn’t so already. Her mouth was untouched, but the burn marks, which was hidden by the scarf. She walked over to the owl, climbing onto it’s back.
Aife slowly walked after her, the owl watching her. It hooted at her.
“Remember, save that until your 13th day,” the twin repeated. She pulled her scarf and hood back up.
“Yura will be back for you. Until then, if you wish to see your father’s warriors, you must head to the deserts, past the plains, in the South. To the West, on the other side of the mountains, there is forests and the tundra. To the East are the swamps and jungles. All these places will teach you ways to fight you never thought of. You will have to use what you learn to your advantage. And soon. You’ll be 21 before you know it. At 4 you have seen what I saw 21. What your mother had to hear from your father at 22. Your rage is her rage, too. Use it well,” she said before the owl took off.
Aife watched them fly into the disappearing darkness. She turned her head the other way, watching the sky turn pink behind the pillar of smoke from Melaeye. She walked over to her companion, who was laying on the ground, having watched everything go on. They lifted their head, Aife patting their head and pushing her head against their giant one.
“You need a naaaaame,” she wailed, into the dog’s fur. It blinked and barked.
“What?? It’s unheard of to give you names? That makes no sense!” Aife said, sitting next to her friend, taking off her boots. She wiggled her toes into the dirt. She leaned her head against her friend, closing her eyes.
She saw her mother’s face. She was smiling.
“Use the sands of the father
To put out the fires of the brother
Take his time
To give yourself time
Your army of one
Will become an army of
Aife opened her eyes when the sun was high in the sky. Her friend had moved everyone under a tree, miles from where they were before. Aife’s head was laying on a small pack, covered in her cape. She sat up, looking around for her friend, who was rolling on their back in the sun. They were growling and snarling as they rolled, getting up and shaking themselves up. Aife laughed loudly. Their friend’s ears perked up and they trotted over, wagging their tail. They yipped.
“Yes, I slept fine, thank you. Where did this bag come from?” she asked, pulling it into her lap. The dog barked.
“So… Her owl told you where it was? This animal stuff is all so interesting,” she whispered, looking into the bag. There was a change of clothes, a better pair of boots and gloves. Aife quickly got changed, shoving her old clothes inside. She yelled out when she cut herself on the knife she had forgotten about. The cut wasn’t deep but it did start to bleed a bit. She shook it off, staring at the knife. She pulled everything out of her pack and packed it slowly; she laid her old pants at the bottom, gently laying the note given to her by Yura on top. She folded the knife in her cape, placing it next in the pack. She unballed her shirt, a small sack of bison jerky falling out. Her stomach suddenly started to growl loudly. She ate it slowly, still not satisfied.
She looked at the sky. She got up, pulling the pack onto her back.
“Well… Maybe we should get started,” Aife said, climbing onto the back of her companion. They barked. Aife smiled.
“Thank you for letting me know, Wyk,” she whispered, patting the dog’s head before they took off towards the south.
The Hushed Lands were the plains that spread for weeks. They stopped in smaller towns and bigger cities, getting information from children when the adults weren’t so forthcoming. Only after the princess had left, did the adults know who she was. The children she met along the way had given her food and shelter, harboring her in their sheds, their barns at night. In return, she let the children ride on Wyk the next day.
While isn’t rare for people to have rather giant animals, it was rare for someone like Aife Mujahida. Aife’s animal wasn’t a very typical animal. When most people have giant animals, they are great beasts with strong features and attributes. Wyk didn’t have that grace or features. But that was fine for Aine because Wyk was loyal and silly. Just like her mother would say about her.
In one of the towns, Aife had managed to talk her way into teaching one of the street kids on how to hold a proper sword. While it won’t be as formal and smooth like the King’s warriors, she’d they rather know something to ward off animals in the night.
As the child showed her to wag a stick, the other street children were playing with Wyk.
“What’s this then!?” someone called out from behind them. They turned around, the street children running off. Aife looked at the adult walking toward them.
“What’s a little runt like you doing with all them fancy clothes? Who’d you steal ’em from, eh?” the adult asked. The street kids peeked from behind a building. Aife stood her ground.
“They are mine,” she said matter of factly.
“Stop lying, yeh?” the adult said, taking a step toward Aife, trying to make her flinch. Aife just stared at her.
“Oh, you think you tough!?” the adult reached back, as if to slap Aife.
Another adult came running to the other adult’s side, grabbing their arm.
“That’s the princess,” they said. The adult who was about to strike Aife fell to their knees in an embarrassed faint.
Aife shook her head, looking back at the children.
“Let’s go, yes?”
One of the guards of the town had brought Aife in to see the mayor. He pleaded as to how sorry he was, how he didn’t know and how word just had gotten in that she was coming.
“We didn’t know, we hadn’t heard anything. The kingdom is in shambles since the King came into power.”
“No excuse,” Aife said, standing while the mayor had sat. Rude.
Aife had sat in many of her mother chamber meetings, although never in sight. She watched as her mother sat with perfect posture, her eyes sharp and unforgiving. She had caught many liars with a stare and Aife always shuddered and bit her hands in joy when her mother made men older than her stammer with fear. Aife thought it would be great to try to perfect it from here on out.
She stared at the mayor for a long moment. He had smirked instead of fearing her. She nodded.
“Since you see fit to see in the presence of royalty, I shall have your head in one month, unless you can find me a young person to take your place. If you do, you will have no choice but to leave this city for you are banished. How dare you let this city crumble under the guise of ‘the kingdom is in shambles’. This city should be a beacon of hope, those seeking refuge if the kingdom is as bad as you say it is. And even if it wasn’t, this city should be a place where people are proud to come and live and sightsee. How dare you have children running barefoot in the streets when there are empty buildings to house them, to clothe them, to feed them. All these elderly folk sit on the street corners, begging for bread and people like you ignore them. Find me a young person now, or else your head is mine.”
She stared at him again, his mouth slightly open, sweat falling from his brow. She left the building, making her way to the street kids who waited in the front.
They sat hours later, eating fried fish that was given to them from a vendor. Word had spread like wildfire through town about what happened in the mayor’s office. That night, the street kids let Aife stay with them in one of the buildings that had taken over. It was packed with other children. They were older, but some of them were her age. Her heart started to fill with rage. The month couldn’t go fast enough.
The oldest child, a child of 13, met with her on the main floor. The children looked over railings, watching the two of them talk.
“Aife? I don’t have a name, but the others think I’m the leader because I’m the oldest. I don’t know if I can do that,” they said. Aife nodded.
“Well, do you know other people who know how to help you?” Aife asked. The child nodded, pointing out 4 other children. They walked up to them and Aife smiled.
“This one can fight, this one can steal, this one makes things, this one can count and read,” the leader said.
“What can you do?” Aife asked the leader.
“I can write.”
Aife handed her old clothes to the one that could make things, asking them to make them the size of the writer. The one could count and read sat with Aife and the writer as Aife helped them with various letters of various alphabets she knew. She ordered them to practice them every day. She talked to the fighter, gently pushing them in the direction of guardsmen and building a team. She soothed the thief that their stealing was nothing to worry about, that their skill would be needed as they got older; secrets were expensive and useful.
This person, barely even 5 years old, has gotten a city of children ready to fight, read and write their way to greatness if the mayor had done his part of the bargain.
The night before the mayor’s deadline, an owl circled the city.
As the sun rose, Aife stood alone in the middle of town. The mayor rode up on a horse, 10 guards following behind him. He looked down at her and spat at her feet. She blinked.
“There is no princess. The King said she died in the church. How you die in that decaying thing is silly. You are an imposter and you shall be sent to Slaanjo for your crimes,” the mayor said.
Aife nodded and smiled.
An army of older children came up behind her, armed with heavy sticks. They were dressed in handmade robes made from cheap cloth pieces. They stood 40 children to the mayor’s 10 guards. The mayor raised an eyebrow, unsure but still not threatened. He got off his horse and walked to Aife, looking down at her.
Adults and children not involved were watching from their homes, from doorways. There was suddenly a shift in power and the children in town felt it. They started cheering for Aife, the adults tried to shush them. They rebelled, running their way to the middle of the square.
“I am not afraid. They are not afraid. WE ARE NOT AFRAID!” Aife boomed at the mayor.
“FEAR IS TEMPORARY,” the army boomed behind her.
The mayor quickly jumped back on their horse, running off.
“ATTACK,” they called out the guards. The guards hard no problems rushing the children. They were ready, however, gracefully pulling out their sticks and sweeping at feet, ankles, and knees. The taller ones went for guts and chins. The rogue children that had joined the protest also started to wail on the guards, dropping all 10 of them to their knees. In that moment, a wave of children and adults alike started to go after other adults like the guards and the mayor and the lady in the street. The adults on the side of the children had tied up all of the sick adults. Other adults had caught the mayor before they managed to ride out-of-town.
Aife ended stalked paced in front of the mayor’s broke, bruised and tied up body. She stared him down. He flinched. She grinned. She pulled out the stick that the garden god had given her. Her hands suddenly felt like it was on fire as she held on to the now metal rod. Fire came from her fingertips as the rod turned into a war ax. She held it out in front of her, the blade against the mayor’s nose.
“You treat these children like shit, you give the ones who harm them jobs instead of exile and death. You bring no proof of these lies you claim I’m doing, while I bring the truth with my weapon. You and your sick brothers and sisters will rot in the dark abyss, where you will be stuck with all your misdeeds to the future of mankind. May your soul be reborn as a decent spirit.”
With no hesitation, the 4-year-old sliced through the mayor’s neck effortlessly. The adults who were next gasped, straining against the rope that held them all to a long wood pole.
As the last head rolled across the dirt, Aife turned to the other adults, the war ax turning back into a stick. She pointed it at the crowd, her face and hands covered in blood.
“LET THAT BE A LESSON TO ALL OF YOU. IF ANY OF YOU SHOULD HARM ANOTHER CHILD IN MY DOMAIN, I WILL HAVE YOUR HEAD, DO YOU UNDERSTAND? I DO NOT CARE IF I AM SAILING THE SEAS, YOUR HEAD WILL BE SENT TO ME.”
She stayed in that city for another year, helping the writer become the new mayor. They were 14 now with a team of advisors they had chosen the year before. The adults who had helped with the revolt had left the city, lest they felt the wrath of Aife for any infraction. Before they left, however, they helped the children turn buildings into homes. Some stayed, however, some teachers and warriors to help the children hone their skills.
Aife and the new mayor saluted, hand to chest.
“Thank you so much for helping us… We will be with you whenever you need us,” they said, hugging Aife. Aife blinked. She hugged back, smiling.
“My name is Lily,” they said.
Sanjo had gotten word of the rebellion. He stormed the halls of the sandstone castles, his black robe, and skirts blowing behind him. He threw open the doors to his brother, the King’s room. The King was in bed with 4 of his best concubines, eating the grapes fed to him. Sanjo rolled his eyes in disgust.
“OUT, WHORES,” Sanjo yelled. The women screamed and left the room, pulling their silks close to them.
“Brother!” The King huffed.
“Don’t! Your seed is alive and well! I thought you killed that brat!” The King blinked and got out of bed, pulling on his own robe.
“Oh, Brother, I never said anything about me killing her. I was going to let nature do it. She’s still alive, eh? Well… HA. I guess she’d be a great warrior,” he said, laughing. He stared out at the crystal blue waters that were at the edge of his kingdom.
“I will have them teach her the ways of war and…” He turned to Sanjo, smiling.
“What if we have one more sack, brother?”
“Take one more city for the hell of it,” the King said, walking over to Sanjo, clapping a hand on his shoulder. Sanjo stared out into the water, then smiled, looking at the King.
It was like looking into a mirror. Sanjo’s brain started to plan something. To be on the other side of the mirror.
“One more city… Why not?”