The story about two lovers - one a chieftain's son and another the village huntress - as they seek to find redemption in a world devoid of morality and dignity. Will the son convince his people of her innocence or will she take matters into her own hands?
ISHANTI, Xissan (15 Urmon, Tae 2985), The Principalities of Aramyss
Eoyan licked the edges of her feathered arrow and gently drew it to her heavily-carved bow.
She flicked her bone-braided pony-tail aside as she tiptoed across the soggy earth, underneath the soothing whistle of tall, heavy bamboo trees. Against the foreboding chill of a trailing mist seeping into her multi-ringed ears and flared-up nostrils, she crouched lower as she released a trail of vapor into the air, waiting for the thump of her heartbeat to match the patter of the earth. She wasn't wearing any shoes; she had decided to abandon them when she left Ishanti village, and as she curled her toes ever slightly against wet leaves and grass, she knew it was the right choice as she sensed imminent danger ahead.
Sweat trickled and soaked underneath her animal skin clothing and bone-sewn belts, but there wasn't time to remove the layers of what she wore and she thought they would keep her warm against the moonlit night. She raised her bow and arrow slowly against the mist, bringing her bowstring close to her jet-black eyes as her senses detected a silhouette of a man moving closer towards her. When she recognized who it was, her eyes flickered, a pall of disappointment and anxiety swept across her face.
She quickly twirled her arrow back into her waist-belt quiver and swung her bow over her shoulder. With a twist and a jerk of her hand, she pulled the vine-sewn rope that coiled around her waist and let it yank her skywards, away from the approaching man. She slipped up through the mist in a silent whistle.
Just as the mist cleared and Eoyan disappeared from view, moonlight bathed the moving figure that came into view, revealing the multi-tattooed Maksi, a man she had recognized and abhorred all at the same time.
Hovering high up against a bamboo stalk, with the rope spring-looped around it like a pulley, Eoyan adjusted the balls of her feet against the sinew and wood while gently shifting her body weight at a kneeling angle. She leaned ever so slightly to look below her, noticing Maksi looking lost and uncertain when he thought he had seen her along the Shujiang bamboo path. Under different circumstances, she would have giggled at his loss. But tonight, her lips hardly wavered.
Maksi was a heavy and big-muscled man, as opposed to Eoyan, who was smaller-boned but taller. They were roughly the same age. He was thirty-one while she was twenty-eight, and they had been childhood friends since young.
As she reached for her bow and reloaded her arrow to string, Eoyan's eyes briefly rested on the red feathers on the arrow's tail. She bit her lips and stowed it back into her quiver; her fingers shuffling through the other arrows and loading a common brown-feathered one.
As if by instinct or learning from his warrior-training experience, Maksi seemed to have sensed the threat of her arrow somehow, raising his bare hands and twisting his body and head around for fear that she might sink one into him. He was risking exposing himself for a reason, and he was counting on her to recognize his trust.
It was then, through the mist and moonshine, that Eoyan noticed his empty axe-sheath dangling loosely by his waist. She mouthed a silent curse; the arrow half-hanging off her hand, its loose feathers teasing her fingertips.
"Eoyan! I am unarmed! We need to talk! Please!" Maksi whispered, trying his best to keep his usual loud voice suppressed.
Eoyan let out a quiet breath, closing her eyes and forcing her mind to find a momentary peace. Her breathing slowed to a calmness she thought she could never find. She looked skyward and saw the full moon in the night sky, wondering if fate had other plans for her.
Maksi was looking ever more desperate when she did not answer. His brown eyes blinked against his long black hair covering half his face. He was cold, that's for sure, and he had forgotten to bring his bear-skin cloak with him. He knew he would freeze to death if he lingered another couple of hours there.
"You do not need to do this! This is insane! Give yourself up and we can settle this in peace!" He tried again, lending greater urgency into his tone.
Eoyan thought it was drizzling, but realized that tears had trickled down her cheeks. She leaned her face against her sleeves to wipe them, but they kept streaming.
"He was a corrupted man Maksi!" Eoyan finally said, "The entire village knows this! How could you let it happen and not say a word--"
"He was my father!" Maksi interjected, looking up, squinting against the mist and darkness, as if to figure out where Eoyan was.
"He was the chief, Maksi!" She couldn't control her anguish anymore. As the tears swept her face, her voice cracked, the dryness in her throat choked with despair and disappointment.
"No...listen to me Eoyan!" Maksi screamed, he didn't care if others heard him anymore.
Eoyan couldn't wait any longer. She let out a bloodcurdling scream and loosened the rope around her waist. As she rolled down the bamboo stalk, her pony-tail whipping around her eyes and face in a circular whoosh and the heels of her feet dancing against the shaft in a straight line downwards, Eoyan fired her bow across the clearing multiple times, reloading her bow, re-firing again, reloading and re-firing.
As Maksi cowered and crouched in fear, arms raised to cover his face, all six of Eoyan's brown-feathered arrows whistled and landed all around his feet, forming a semi-circular barrier in front of him; the nearest arrow missing his toes by an inch.
When Eoyan landed on the ground, she rolled to her knees, pulling her seventh brown-feathered arrow to bowstring in a swift move and aimed it at Maksi's forehead.
"Run Maksi! Don't make me kill you too!" She warned, her voice surprisingly calm.
Maksi lowered his arms and saw Eoyan's face, looking past the arrow-head trained at him, at his reflection in her jet-black eyes and the heave of her chest breathing fire into her lungs. He was staring death in the face, and yet he knew he saw mercy and sorrow in its eyes.
Eoyan's tears were still trickling down her face. She saw him hesitate, his eyes trapped between pleading and fear. Against the quiet night, they could both hear the tautening sound of Eoyan's bowstring screeching to breaking point.
Maksi turned, scrambling in the opposite direction, skirting past bamboo stalks as panic set in. Eoyan's arrow whooshed past his right ear, sinking with a THUNK! into a bamboo tree where his fingers were just a moment ago.
Eoyan ran after him, her quiver of arrows banging against her right thigh. Her hand waved over her arrows, hovering above the solitary red-feathered arrow. She hesitated as she reached for it...her eyes squinting against the shifting bamboo trees, trying to make out Maksi's silhouette in front of her...the heavy draw of her breathing, his breathing...the drone of adrenaline pounding in their heads, against the walls of their hearts.
Many nights ago, against the dim firelight of campfire sputtering inside a giant grey-skinned tent, Eoyan and Maksi were lying naked underneath fur blankets and sheepskin pillows. They were writhing in the climatic throes of love-making, their eyes hardly drifting from each other as they clasped their fingers tight and moved against the light.
When they were finally lying on top of each other, catching their breaths and staring into the flames, Maksi reached into his pack and pulled out a red-feathered arrow.
He handed it to Eoyan, a smile forming as he noticed her questioning eyes.
"This was passed down from my forefathers. A symbol of our life here in Ishanti. Our village. Our home. Our traditions," he had said to her.
Eoyan returned it but Maksi insisted she keep it, pushing the red feathers against her nose, his eyes serious as he looked into hers.
"No, it is my gift to you. To celebrate our union. The trueness of my love for you."
Eoyan admired the arrow, felt the shaft and ancient arrow-head in her hands. She knew it was a well-crafted arrow. Her training to become the village's best huntress had taught her to recognize it so. She embraced the arrow and returned Maksi's gaze.
"Thank you Maksi."
"No...thank you," Maksi said, as he put the arrow aside, drew her close and kissed her some more.
Eoyan's fingers strayed away from the red-feathered arrow, pulled another brown-feathered arrow from her quiver. She drew it to her bow and aimed it at Maksi. As her lithe legs pushed her forward, she kept her hands steady as she made out his moving shape in the foggy dark.
Suddenly, her eyes shifted sideways to her left, just as an Ishanti warrior, all dressed in bear-skin and bone-crafted armor, lunged towards her with his spear. She twisted her body just as he hurled his spear towards Eoyan, the tip scraping through her woolskin sleeve, tearing flesh and drawing blood.
Instead of letting out a cry, Eoyan flicked her bow sideways, released her arrow in the warrior's direction instead. Before he could ululate a war-cry, the arrow sunk into his throat and he garbled blood instead.
Without time to stop and think, another Ishanti warrior, his twin-brother, appeared out of the dark between two bamboo trees, his bone-axe raised as if to cut her in half. As Eoyan reached for another brown-feathered arrow, her last one before the red, the warrior flung the axe at her face instead.
As the axe whooped through the short distance, Eoyan ducked, hearing the blade of the heavy weapon sliced past strands of her pony-tail, as she rolled to the side to cushion her fall.
Before the axe even landed into a bamboo tree, the warrior unsheathed his scimitar and leaped across the distance towards her. Eoyan's fingers widened as she realized her final brown-feathered arrow had slipped and was now lying on the ground between them.
The warrior swung his scimitar downwards, missing Eoyan as she jumped back and spread her legs. The scimitar spat dirt into her face just as she scrambled backwards. The warrior grunted, yanked the scimitar off the ground and swung it sideways, aiming for her jugular.
Eoyan leaned all the way back, supported only by her knees, as she twirled sideways, reaching for the arrow on the ground but barely touched it. She couldn't risk it. Before the warrior made another hack downwards, she used one arm to brace herself as she kicked his weapon-hand with her right foot and hammered his chin with her left.
The sudden counter-maneuver took the warrior by surprise as his scimitar flew off his grasp and he fell backwards with blood streaming from his lips. Before Eoyan could recover and get back up, the warrior rushed forward and grabbed both her ankles. He flipped her sideways and tossed her body towards a wall of bamboo trees.
Eoyan dropped her bow, reached out and grabbed one of the trees with both hands before the impact. The jarring sensation to her arms and body sent her shuddering as she fell, but she knew the warrior was no longer holding her legs.
As he scrambled forward to grab her again, Eoyan spun around towards him. As she whirled, her left foot reached for the last remaining brown-feathered arrow and flicked it up towards her waiting hand. Before the warrior could see what was coming, she skewered his neck with the arrow and watched his eyes and tongue pop out in shock. Blood sputtered against her hand and face.
As the Ishanti warrior collapsed, she retrieved her bow.
A shuffle behind her made her spin around...as she grabbed her last arrow...
...it's Maksi with his arms spread open.
Eoyan pulled the drawstring of her bow, aimed it at Maksi. The sound of both their breathings slowed when they both saw that it was the red-feathered arrow.
Maksi looked at Eoyan, circling her.
"Don't do this Eoyan...don't."
Eoyan followed his movement, her cocked bow trailing after his chest, sensing his heartbeat. Her hand was steady where it touched the red feathers, but her lips quivered, her eyes narrowing.
"What my father did was wrong. You've got your revenge. Put down your bow Eoyan...put it away...please."
"Your father violated my honor! He defiled me! And what did you do? You just stood there! You did nothing! You and the rest of you! You...Maksi...you are no different from the rest of them! You...they...deserve this!"
Maksi stepped forward. He was earnest, Eoyan could tell from his pained expression, soft sniffing and sunken eyes. But he was also guilty, perhaps, knowingly feeling it, and bearing it like a burden on his chest. She could see it on his face, observed the shakiness of his hands, the wobble in his stance.
"I am not my father, Eoyan. I promise you this..."
Eoyan aimed her bow higher this time, her gaze matching his, her breathing awfully calm, filled with an innate certainty.
"Come any closer and you will join him!"
Maksi stopped, hands lowered. He was in tears, his nose wet with mucus. He looked like he hadn't slept for nights.
"My father is dead. He is no longer the chief. His bodyguards are dead. I promise you...Eoyan, I promise, I will not have the village stone you for the shame he's done to you. Never."
Tears rolled down Eoyan's cheeks. She noticed Maksi inching closer towards her.
"Lower your bow...come with me...come."
To Maksi's surprise, Eoyan lowered her bow, the red-feathered arrow gradually drifting downwards towards the ground. Maksi reached out to her...
...when suddenly, Eoyan turned the bow around, flipping the red-feathered arrow to aim upwards. With her feet, she pulled the drawstring and fired the arrow into her heart.
"No!" Maksi screamed, grabbing her before she fell, his face aghast.
Blood filled her mouth, the stream of her voice lost in chokes and gargles. Eoyan looked towards Maksi, saw the sadness filled his eyes. She smiled, touching his cheek, wiping away his tears.
She spat out some more blood, then felt bubbles of air in her throat. She found her voice and she knew, she didn't have much time left.
"I carry his child Maksi. Ishanti will stone me even if you are chief, no matter what you say."
"Do not become your father Maksi. Become the man that I loved."
Maksi felt Eoyan's hand on his fingers as she drew them towards the red feathers of the arrow. He lowered his head as she breathed her last.
They were lying asleep in the tent. In the gloom, Eoyan twisted the red arrow in her hands, once again admiring its craftsmanship.
She turned her attention to Maksi, watching his chest rise and fall in the dim light of the dying fire. She rested her head on his, listening to his heartbeat.
With the arrow still in her hand, she smiled and closed her eyes.
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