Everything had changed. And there was no going back now.
As she crouched in the shadows, palms to the ground, Nora cursed. She had known deep down what had been happening. Perhaps everyone had. The rift between her people would not be easy to heal. And now their world was shifting, changing. If you stopped to listen, you would be able to hear it, feel the cracks forming, shifting and grating against one another.
The dissonance was resonating in the soil, the air, the city, the mountains. As the day wore on, bruised grey clouds had begun to roll in and hide the calm sky. Now as the sun sank, oranges and reds began to wash across the swollen grey, like a bloody, infected wound hanging low above the grey stone city below.
Taking a deep breath Nora knew that she must find her blood-brothers. The other men had retreated to the wharf and had taken as many boats and other large vessels as they could to cross the channel. There was still a good chance she might find them there but she was still a long way from the bay.
Built on a hill, Ignacia was the oldest city in the Land and also the largest. Four titanic stone spires overlooked the city within, a large stretch of the west coast and much of the surrounding land. It became the centre point of the two Continents and as such became the home for the Council that governed them both. The maze of streets within dotted with rows and rows of stone cottages and shops but they were balanced with courtyards where beautiful gardens and trees grew. Places where the Napeans could go to escape the stone structures and take in the greenery again and find balance.
And now more than ever they needed that balance back.
Nora stood. It would take her too long to wind her way through the streets. The only way to go was… up. Clambering over rooftops took less time than negotiating streets and alleyways and it would keep her from view until the she chose to show herself.
She surveyed the street. Two taller buildings a short sprint away concealed a stairway between them that would give her access to their rooftops. She had used that stairway before but those buildings were a little too far and too high from the others around it and she had almost broken her neck last time she tried to climb up there. Better used for a vantage point but not for access to other rooftops. She scanned the other buildings. There. A garden wall would give perfect access to the row of cottages beyond it.
She ran and using her strength and well-practiced agility, she climbed up onto the rooftop with ease.
Above the street she felt the weight of the clouds bearing down on her, but it was a little more bearable than the tension pouring out of the very ground beneath her. With feline grace she moved, jumping down between each building only when she had to, moving across the city, avoiding the chaos where she could.
Women everywhere were on the streets mourning and wailing. They held onto each other absorbing the pain from their Sisters where they could to avoid it seeping into the Land. Men travelled in troupes to discourage confrontation with their Sisters. Many had been so deeply hurt by the revelation that their husbands and lovers, brothers and sons would not be returning that they couldn’t do anything but watch them go. But some of their Sisters were pissed and the men knew better than to approach an angry woman alone.
Nearing the buildings that bordered the biggest courtyard in the city, Nora lay down on her stomach. She watched the gathered army of men… Army. She had never thought about them like that before. An army. Well, that was exactly what they were and suddenly she knew that if any of her Sisters tried to defy them or force them to do anything that would be exactly how they would respond.
She hoped with all she was that none of her Sisters were stupid enough to try and force their hand into staying. They might have a deeper understanding of their power but their Brothers would be ready and that battle would not be pretty.
Nora looked up to the horizon and her heart lurched into her throat as lightning flickered between the crevices in the clouds, illuminating the courtyard below and every other inch of the Land. The image of the mountainous horizon burned into her retina.
Holy Mother of Earth.
She hoped that her fellow Sisters on the other side of the channel were ready for the storm that was brewing and heading in their direction. And she hoped that it hadn’t already hit.
The Previous Day…
He was a coward. He knew it the day that the troupe of men had sought him out and he knew it now. But he couldn’t face the look on his family’s face when he stood aside and joined his Brothers.
Sitting perched on the sill of his bedroom window, Ari hesitated a moment before reaching out to grasp the branch of the tree that now towered over his family’s cottage. As a young boy he had climbed within its branches a thousand times and over his lifetime he had watched it grow and bloom. And with it, he had watched part of himself grow and bloom.
His twin sister Nora had taught him to climb, made him overcome his fear of falling, pushed him further in more ways than he cared to admit. This tree was a symbol of everything that he had become and he had her to thank for most of it.
A bitter breeze blew through the branches making them clatter together like bones. The coldest months were only weeks away and the tree’s leaves had begun to fall upon the lawn below. By winter’s end it would be covered with a rustic golden carpet and the tree would stand naked under the bleak winter sun.
He fingered a note in his pocket. A final goodbye to Nora and his family. What would his father have said to him? He had passed away two moons ago after an accident on their family estate south of Ignacia and his remaining two brothers had left to take care of his sisters who were left with the family’s orchards to tend and harvest by themselves.
He had heard nothing from his brothers. Knowing that they would have been sought out just as he had didn’t make things easier. Had they accepted? Or did they not fear the retribution that would surely come if they had resisted. He could have tried to contact them but the men had sworn him to secrecy and he had been too much of a coward to ignore them.
His heart swelled with disappointment and sighing he reached out and swung his legs around the tree one last time.
The sun had begun to melt into the horizon as the Napeans began to gather. Ari could almost feel the blade of the knife being held to his throat as he stood in the shadow of a building at the courtyard’s edge.
He stood on the opposite side of the courtyard to that of his family. It felt wrong. Not only because he knew what was to come but also because part of the reason they were there today was to farewell his father. His father had served on the Council as High Chief for many years representing his fellow Brothers and today they were there to mourn his loss a final time before his replacement was to be elected in his stead.
Ari shifted uncomfortably. He read the tension on the faces around him. He could feel it too. The silence among the people was unnerving. He needed to go. He couldn’t stand here and watch – or feel – the hurt they were about to inflict. He turned but stopped when three burly men walked in behind him. A silent reminder of what was about to happen. He gave them a nod and hoped they hadn’t noticed the fear in his eyes as he turned around.
Standing with his hands in his pockets, leaning back against the wall in his private study, Terod smiled. He didn’t like his companion much, but he had proven useful.
“Our Brothers are ready?”
Corbin nodded slightly but said nothing.
Both men knew how much was riding on how their Sisters reacted. And they both knew that after the shock and the news had sunk in, they wouldn’t sit back and let them leave without a fight. That was why they needed to get their Brothers out quick.
“Two days is a long time,” Corbin said. “We’ll need to disarm them if we want any hope of parting without bloodshed.”
“The illusion will work.”
“I hope you are right. They may be too overwhelmed by the faces of their lovers and sons to attack at first, but they will lash out if you push them too far. We will be fighting a losing battle if the illusion is broken and if the Neonan men can’t make them see…”
“Stop fretting like a lamb without its mother,” Terod snapped. “I’ll bet my balls that it will work.” He straightened, stretched his arms above his head and walked away from the wall trying to shake off the tension that was seeping into him as it poured out of the other man, as well as the walls, the floor and the air for that matter. This night had been long in the making and he’d be damned if this prick would fill him with doubt now.
There was a curt knock and the door to the study swung open. Four men filed into the room.
“Gentlemen,” Terod nodded in the direction of the Guards. He had faith in these men. Each one had seen first hand how much power their Sisters were hiding. They knew that if they didn’t stand apart now they would watch their world tilt in their favour and perhaps without meaning to, they would take control… And he and his Brothers couldn’t give them that. They needed to grow in their own way, take control of their own part of the world and show their Sisters that they could be just as strong, if not stronger.
“The people have gathered. It’s time to go,” said one of the Guards.
“I will go to the other Nodin men, make sure they are ready,” Corbin said and hurried out.
“A little twitchy isn’t he?” asked a Guard.
“You would be too if you could feel the tension in the air like he can,” Terod sighed. So many Brothers lacked the basic talent to feel the change in the world around them. The Land knew that something was coming. There was an… anticipation in the very soil that had been building all day. It was no wonder that none of their Sisters had so much as remarked on the change. Perhaps they thought it had more to do with the election of the new leader that was supposed to take place that night. Tonight was the beginning of a long and rocky road for all of them.
“Let’s go. I have a lot to do.” And you have a lot to learn, he thought.
Standing amongst his Brothers at the top of the path that led down to the wharves, Ari hadn’t been aware of the tears on his face until the bitter breeze became a surly gale. He squinted and rubbed his arms, trying to convince himself that the tears were merely his eyes adjusting to the cold of the night.
He was bustled along as the crowd of men moved further down the path jeering and shouting. Behind them in the courtyard a hundred men or more had assembled and stood now in perfect formation. Slowly, by the lead of one man, they began to run through the synchronised Kateyan fighting positions. Then as more and more men gathered to make their way towards the small boats and vessels that would take them all across the channel they began to chant.
The air prickled with energy as their voices rose into the night. Ari felt something inside him stir as he listened. Their voices grew louder the energy grew stronger, intermingling with the raw emotion that seemed to be descending upon them.
Hurt. Betrayal. Anger.
Suddenly Ari realised that the emotion didn’t just belong to his Sisters, but also his fellow Brothers. They too felt hurt and betrayed by their decision to Divide. And now they were calling on the Lord of the Land to give them strength, not only to move forward but to heal.
His Brothers knew it too. One by one they began to join in. They were stronger united together. Ari clenched his fists at his sides. He was part of this. Whether he believed in himself or not, whether he felt the loss of his Sisters or not, he must support his Brothers. A hand clasped down on his shoulder but instead of flinching, Ari stood straight. And finally he raised his voice and shouted alongside his Brothers with everything he had in him.
“We stand solid among the rocks!
We stand tall among the mountains!
Hail, the Lord of the Land!
As Brothers We Unite!”
The minutes dragged by as Nora waited on the rooftop, watching. The army of men who had gathered in the courtyard had lingered while others were funnelled down onto different vessels, some of which had crossed the channel and already returned awaiting new passengers. As far as she could tell, no women had come off the boats when they touched back on this side of the shore. So where were they?
Nora suspected that the army of Brothers remained only to intimidate their Sisters and discourage any outward attack. But every so often a small troupe would leave and go back into the city. Were they waiting for something or searching for someone?
Somewhere close by a woman began to wail in anguish and then as if in response to her pain, the heavens answered with a crack of lightning and a slow, guttural rumble of thunder.
A commotion near the courtyard’s edge caught Nora’s eye and she saw the band of Brothers return, a struggling woman in their grasp. They dragged her across the courtyard before the leader and shoved her before him. A faint smile crossed her lips as she watched the angry young cat, no more than about twenty summers old, hiss and spit at the men in disgust. If she were able to free her arms from their grasp she would have scratched out their eyes.
A moment later the leader stepped forward and cracked her across the face with the back of his hand. The young woman fell hard on her knees but regained her composure. Even from the rooftop Nora could see look of defiance in her eyes as she straightened her back and hissed at him.
Then women appeared at every entrance to the courtyard, surrounding them. Nora’s heart lurched into her throat. Something wasn’t right.
Scrambling for the edge of the building she was on, Nora swung her legs over, found a window sill and scaled the building to the ground. She ran for the courtyard, wanting to grab somebody and shake them and tell them to stop.
The nearer she got to the courtyard, the more strange the Land felt beneath her. Something had changed… was changing.
Nora ran to one of the Sisters.
“You can’t…” she grabbed her shoulder.
The woman turned to her, anger burning in her eyes. A moment of recognition flickered between them.
“They are not going to abandon us.”
“Merinda.” Nora stared at her friend, noticing the rank tattoos on her arm and the red band she adorned. It was proof of her alignment with the fiery Neci Clan. She had not seen her since Nora had declined the offer to join, and Merinda accepted.
“This isn’t the way,” Nora said.
Both of them knew that their Brothers had disliked the formation of Clans according to Gifts. And both of them knew that Nora had chosen not to join because of her twin brother, Ari.
Merinda shrugged out of Nora’s grasp.
“What would you do? Bind, gag and torture them until they agreed to stay?” The look in Merinda’s eyes was accusing.
Unable to respond Nora just shook her head. She understood that something had to be done but this felt wrong and she wasn’t sure why.
Lightning flickered between the clouds and this time the thunder tore through the city’s heart, loud and brutal.
The brief moment of distraction was enough for the Neci Sisters to throw up a wall of flames surrounding the courtyard. Nora wasn’t sure whether it was supposed to keep their Brothers in but the army did not even so much as twitch in response.
The leader stepped forward unshaken, the young cat’s hair in his grasp.
“I’m so glad you could join us, Sisters,” he crooned. “It would have been foolish of us to think that you would let us take our leave without your interception.” He paused assessing the women silently. “Stand aside. Let your Brothers go.” He shoved the young cat to the ground again and nodded to the troupe that brought her before him. “Let us go or your Sisters on the other side will suffer the same fate.”
The men were holding her. Some of them were tearing at her clothes. A couple more had begun to untie their belts and loosen their trousers. The young girl was now sobbing and pleading.
Nora tensed and felt every woman do the same, anger blazing within them all.
“You would brutalise your own wives, your lovers, your daughters?” One woman snarled. She strode up to one of the men and then stumbled back suddenly, reeling.
One of their Brothers climbed on top of the young girl and every woman saw red.
Nora wanted to castrate every one of these men for daring to threaten them. And then she wanted to make them eat their own castrated members as a reminder never to cross paths with her or her Sisters like that ever again.
She didn’t remember pulling the dagger, wrapping an illusion sight shield around it, nor launching herself at the band of men surrounding the young woman. She didn’t remember knocking three of them down and pinning the man who was just about to enter her either. But when she held that knife to his groin, panting with blind fury, ready to cut off his balls she didn’t expect to see her twin Brother, Ari.
Mother of Earth. No. Eyes wide she sat staring at his face. Her heart told her this was wrong. Ari was not capable of… but her head. Her eyes didn’t lie. Her hand tensed around the hilt of the dagger but the rest of her had gone numb.
Then he smiled. Somehow he managed to smile. The sight repulsed her. He shoved her off and to the ground. Nora turned to find the young cat had broken free from their grasp and a couple of the women had rushed in to protect her. Something inside her relaxed and then tensed again. She turned to her twin brother and found him standing over her, leering.
He opened his mouth as if to speak but the leader cut him off.
Ari nodded and stepped away.
“You gutless whoring bastard,” Nora spat at his back. “You. Are. Not. My. Brother.”
Feeling completely and utterly empty, Nora slouched on the coarse sand beside the remnants of her last meal and the bile that her stomach kept rejecting. She couldn’t rid her mind of the image of the smile on Ari’s face. She had seen so little of him in the days before this and he had definitely not been himself when she had. Before now Nora had put it down to grief at the loss of their father but suddenly she wasn’t so sure.
Ari was possibly the only person in the world that Nora felt truly understood her. Sure they were twins and they were alike in some ways, deep down where it really mattered. But in so many other ways they were completely different.
Her stomach did another backflip and she closed her eyes, putting her head on her knees, breathing deeply to try and settle the building nausea. And there he was, smiling like he was enjoying the torment on Nora’s face.
On most days having talent with both her Nodin and Neci Gifts were a blessing. She knew better than to let her fiery Neci temper get the better of her… she would have been able to use her Nodin Gifts test his mind, see if he felt like the brother she knew. Perhaps he had been drugged or coerced…
It was too late to change anything now.
Nora lifted her head when the nausea finally passed. The shore before her was illuminated by the ochreous glow from smouldering vessels, boats that were to take their Brothers away for good. Too many lifeless bodies lay on the sand, life blood seeping into the ground. She could see the glow, smell the smoke, but it all felt like a bad dream.
She couldn’t really remember what had happened. The overwhelming, all consuming anger had taken her over. She had wanted to cut him up, rip him limb from limb, tear out his throat… Flexing her fingers involuntarily Nora looked down to see bloody hands. Then her stomach did another back flip and she heaved and heaved onto the sand again.
What have I done? Oh, Lady what have I done?
A soft hand on Nora’s shoulder brought her back to the present moment.
“Sister. Sister come, let’s leave this place.”
Lifting her head Nora peered at the woman through bitter tears. Behind her a new boat had anchored and she could see women making their way along the beach and up into the city one by one.
Nodding, Nora took her hand and together they turned and followed their Sisters home.