Photo via Visual hunt
“What is the Barrier?” Lilavati asked.
“You won’t like it,” Manas said. “But I should prepare you since we’re about to pass into the area and I’m willing to wager you’re going to see it.” He took a deep breath. “A thousand years ago, when the Antinarians and the Velrusians – ancient ancestors to both our peoples, my dark scholar – fought a bitter war over these lands, the Velrusians needed time to muster their forces after a horrific battle. So, late into the night for nearly a week, the Velrusians gathered the dead of both sides and piled them high in a line between them and the Antinarians. They didn’t differentiate between man or beast and they stacked it as high as they could.”
Lilavati gasped as they rounded the corner. She couldn’t hold it in. She bit her lip to stop the sobs welling up inside of her. The only thing that kept her rooted to her saddle and not running in the opposite direction was the presence of the preester.
“I take it you can see it, Great Lady?” Theda asked quietly.
“It stands higher than my father’s house. I dare not look to see how far it extends, for to do so would be to draw more attention to myself than I care to,” Lilavati said. “I am already making more of a stir than I wish.”
Manas glanced over his shoulder. “I think you’re right, my dark scholar. Would you like me to tell you what everyone else sees?”
“They see great rocks stained with something that makes them a washed out brownish red. They do not understand that it is blood that they see,” Lilavati said. “The blood of thousands of men, women, children, and beasts.” She shuddered. “For it was not only the dead of battle they chose, Manas. It was the villagers and townsfolk from nearby. If they were already dead, I could understand. But I just witnessed a Velrusian soldier slit a woman’s throat. Her abdomen was swollen and she was near the time of birthing.”
“How can you be sure of that?” Manas asked.
“Do I need to tell you?” Lilavati asked, meeting his gaze.
Manas looked into her eyes for a moment. He saw what she wouldn’t say. “No you don’t,” he said softly.
“Great Lord, it looks like there’s a good spot for us on a plateau about six spans past the Barrier,” Ludger called. “Is that far enough ahead to suit you?”
“It should be,” Manas said.
“Good. Then we need to turn our track just a bit to the west,” Ludger said. The group shifted and moved on.
Manas drifted between chatting with his soldiers and servants, conferring with Ludger, and making sure Lilavati was staying in her saddle. She knew he wanted to remain by her side, but Theda reminded him he needed to act normal or things would just get better for the dark woman.
Lilavati was grateful for Theda’s presence. She kept the worst of the sickness and horror away, though she couldn’t completely blind Lilavati to what she saw. The preester kept Lilavati’s spirits up as they passed through some of the most horrific, violent, terrifying things she’d ever seen.
They passed through the Barrier and Lilavati was able to straighten in her saddle. “Don’t get comfortable, Great Lady,” Theda said. “You’ll still see random pockets of violence along here.”
“Will I see anything as sickening as what we just passed through at the Barrier?” Lilavati asked. “For as long?”
“As horrific? Quite possibly,” Theda said. “But no, the Barrier is the worst event in history in this part of the country, other than the Devouring – which I know you also saw.”
“What were those creatures?” Lilavati asked.
“We’ll talk about that when I can get you and Manas alone for a while,” Theda said. “Among many things. Great Lady, I think the two of you need to talk, and not just about the curse that’s been placed on your eyes.”
“He refuses to tell me what haunts the camp at night that forces me to seal myself away,” Lilavati said. “But what I would need to tell him I do not know. I have no secrets that I have not told him.”
“Why you were marked the way you were?” Theda asked.
“I do not know why the Thousand – or whoever it is that put this on my face – did it,” Lilavati said.
“Did your parents not tell you any stories as to why you were so ugly?” Theda asked. “In their eyes, at least.”
Lilavati frowned. “My mother, perhaps, when I was little. But my father forbade them when it became obvious I was a scholar rather than something more suited to a young woman in a noble house.” Her lips quirked. “Then again, even at that age I knew I would never win a husband. I was never told I could not be a scholar as an adult so I went through my childhood happily thinking I might attend the chuo kikuu.” The smile turned bitter.
“You wished to be a scholar, Great Lady?” Theda asked.
“It was the purpose to which I dedicated my life,” Lilavati said. “I hoped to find answers to every question I wanted to ask, even the ones I did not yet know. But when my first blood appeared, my father pushed me from his library and banned me on threat of a beating. The one time I defied him, he broke two of my ribs to prove to me that I was no longer a welcome guest in what I once considered our shared domain.”
“Great Lady, have you known no love at the hands of your family?” Theda asked.
Lilavati smiled. “My brother Kavi loved me. It is not the false affection my parents showed when we were around guests. He truly wanted to be with me, even when no other member of my family would look at me. I taught him to love the written word, and to speak the five other languages I know. We talked often of the politics my father forced him to learn and I was able to explain them so he could understand them.”
“Do you regret leaving him behind?” Theda asked.
“No,” Lilavati said. “I do not.”
to be continued…