Want to read Chapter 1 and 2 before you read Chapter 3? Read them here:
“Nana!” I ran to her.
Instantly enveloped in big soft arms I was crushed to her ample bosom. She was a large woman, with an even larger heart. I took a step back and studied her face. She’d grown noticeably older since last I saw her. Her soft green eyes were identical to mine.
“I missed you girl. Did you have a good trip?”
Overall it was fairly uneventful, apart from the rather strange experience in Dinja Forest.
“We had a good trip Nan,” I heard myself say.
“No excitement? No drama?” Her eyes grew large as she mocked me. “Well, things have not been as boring here in Rukima. Come, let me show you.”
She led me to a small house toward the edge of the village. We stepped inside, and I gave my eyes time to adjust while Nan lit a candle. The room wasn’t big, with only enough space for a fireplace, a table and two chairs, a small wash stand and a bed. A musty smell hung in the air, as if the house had been shut tight for a long time.
Unable to stifle a gasp I stared at the bed’s occupant, a young man about my age. Blood-soaked clothes clung to his body, his chest zigzagged with scars. He appeared to have seen many battles and sad lines softened his face.
“Who is he?” I whispered.
“No one knows. He arrived about the same time you did. I was just about to tend his wounds.”
Nan dipped a cloth in water before she squeezed out the excess and wiped the stranger’s brow, pushing strands of dark hair away from his face.
“Some kids found him on the outer edge of the village. He had a horse, but it ran away as soon as we removed him from its back.”
“Do you think he will live?” Moving his torn shirt aside I examined the wounds on his abdomen.
“I doubt it,” Nan sighed. “So young…so young.”
“Remove his clothes and clean the wounds Raki dear, then we can bandage him.” While she spoke she mashed an herbal remedy together with tree sap and milk from the Kadara plant.
“The milk will help lessen the scarring,”—she said—“although with the deep gashes this young one has, I’m not sure how much difference it will make.”
I removed his clothes, placing them in a bucket next to the bed to be burned. His body was a map of scars, some old and long healed, others in various stages of healing.
Nan handed me the ointment and, after cleaning the raw bloodied mass, I applied it liberally. A soft groan escaped his throat, but he didn’t open his eyes.
“Has he been awake at all?”
Nan shook her head, “And this is the first sound he’s made. You better wake up soon young one,”—she whispered—“with injuries like these your body will not be able to last long without food.”
After we bandaged his wounds she brightened.
“He’s in the Everlasting’s hands now; we’ve done what we can. I will check on him during the night.”
We toddled over to her house, a place I loved. It held many happy memories; memories of Mamma before she passed over, of her laughter and of us playing together in the field at the back. She loved the fields and the flowers and the waterfalls. Above all, she loved Nan’s house, saying it was a place she could truly call home. Because of this the wood and straw that to others were just a building, became my passage to the past. The house always smelled like fresh bread and Kadara milk cookies. These fragrances transported me back to a time of carefree wonder.
We found my father already there. He sat in front of the fire with a keg of fermented berry juice.
“Where have you two been?” he asked droopy eyed. The long days travel mixed with the fermented berry juice had obviously taken its toll. I looked at him and love filled my heart. He had been my only parent since I was all of five years old.
“You get yourself off to bed!” Nan shooed him into the next room where a big soft bed waited. He fell into it with his weighty body, and for a second I was scared the bed would break in half. I had an amusing thought of my father stuck in between two parts of the broken bed, and Nan and I struggling to pull him out.
No sooner had he hit the mattress and he snored away. We removed his boots but could not manoeuvre his big body to get his coat off, so we left him to sleep in it.
Back in the main room I slumped down into the rocking chair in front of the fire. It suddenly dawned on me that I was dead tired.
My thoughts wandered back to the stranger. Who was he, and how did he come to be so wounded? The damage could well have been made by a Telike bird, they often go for the stomach with their talons. But the Telike only nested in Dinja Forest. Was the stranger in the forest at the same time as us or perhaps shortly after?
As if through a haze I saw Nan drape a blanket over me, and then everything went black as I drifted into an exhausted sleep.
I awoke the next day to the sweet smell of cookies.
Nan smiled while handing me a hot cup of cocoa bead water. I gulped the sweet drink down. It remained my favourite even though the cocoa bead wasn’t found in the Mora Region. While Nan prepared a hearty breakfast of boar with duck eggs and herb bread, I got busy setting the table.
“Your father’s gone out with some of his old friends to hunt, and I need to get to the market to buy ingredients for the big feast to celebrate the annual reunion of the clan,” Nan chatted while the boar meat sizzled on the fire. “Would you be a dear and check on the stranger? Change his bandages if needed.”
After we ate and tidied up, I made my way to the little house. As I entered it was clear not much had changed during the night. I grabbed the water jug from the wash stand and sauntered out to the nearby stream where I filled it to the brim.
On my return I checked the bandages, removing some to have a closer look at the wounds before I changed them. While I worked I sang an old song my mother used to sing. It echoed through the room in the ancient language which, even though I didn’t understand, soothed me. My hope was that it would sooth the stranger too. He looked weak and I knew each hour he went without food lessened his chances of survival.
Once I finished tending his wounds I pulled one of the chairs next to the bed, sat down and examined his face. He lay very still with no muscle movement, his eyes frozen in their sockets. I breathed out a disappointed sigh, stood up and walked to the window. From the position of the sun I estimated I’d been there for over an hour. Hearing movement behind me, I turned to find him trying to sit up, a pained expression crumpling his face.
I rushed to his side and helped him lean against the pillows.
“Don’t worry, you’re okay,” I said.
He stared at me with confusion and pain. The sight of his eyes startled me; pale grey eyes, the likes of which I’d only ever seen on the snow wolves of Mount Jaki.
He tried to speak, grabbing his throat in panic when he failed to produce a sound.
“Here,”—I handed him a mug of water, guiding his hands to his mouth—“now lie down. You must have a lot of questions, but for now you need to rest.”
He stared at me, his eyes questioning.
“You’re safe,” I said.
He reluctantly lay back on his pillow, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that, if he had any strength in him, I would have a knife to my throat.
After a while he fell into a restless sleep. Deep furrows appeared between his brows as his face contorted in pain. Taking his hand in mine I sang a lullaby and watched his breathing become steady.
Relaxing into the chair I allowed myself to drift off to sleep. When I awoke the stranger was sitting up in bed, eyeing me with trepidation. A frown wrinkled his forehead as he struggled to prop himself up higher on the pillows. I wandered to the window and looked out over the village before facing him again.
“My name is Raki.” Not sure if he could talk yet I decided not to ask for his. “They found you on the outskirts of Rukima—that’s the name of this village.” I walked to the table and concentrated on cutting up some fruit.
A creaking sound drew my attention to him trying to push himself up from the bed. I lunged forward and reached him just in time. His body collapsed, straining my muscles as his full weight bore down on me. Using all my strength I pushed him back onto the bed where he doubled over in pain.
My eyes quickly scanned his wounds before I guided his head back onto the pillow. He followed my every move.
“You can be glad you didn’t do more harm to your already slaughtered body,” I scolded while reaching forward to assess the damage.
I was startled when he grabbed my arm, his grip firm around my wrist. He let go almost as quickly as he latched on.
“Oh good young one, you’re awake.” I was relieved to hear Nan’s voice behind me.
“Raki, carry on with the fruit dear, so we can get some food into him.” Nan had her hands full of all kinds of bibs and bobs. A colourful woollen blanket was draped over her arm and she handed it to him. “This will keep you nice and warm at night.”
I brought the fruit and he took it cautiously.
“Do you still need me Nan?” I had a sudden urge to get out from under his stare.
“No, thank you dear. I will take care of him for the rest of the day. The Healer should be here tomorrow—I sent for him as soon as we found him.”
Nan stayed with the stranger for the rest of the day, only returning home in the late afternoon. When we sat down for dinner that night I noticed she looked worried.
“I’m hoping the Healer arrives sooner rather than later,” she sighed.
“There’s still a lot of strength in him.” I rubbed my arm where his grip had been earlier that day.
“Yes,”—Nan said absent minded—“there’s definitely much more to him.”
“Well, he makes me uncomfortable.”
Nan raised an eye brow. “Does he now?”
For the rest of the evening she was in a good mood, joking and filling me in on the gossip of the past year.
“Nan,”—I eventually asked—“do you know any legends about a Shadow Creature in Dinja Forest.”
She hesitated before answering, “There’s an age old legend of a Shadow Creature that roams the whole of the earth. He’s said to be the most evil creature that ever existed. Just as the Healers have the power of healing, so he has power to destroy.”
I wondered why I had never heard of this legend. As if reading my mind she brought her face close to mine, her voice no more than a hush. “So evil and depraved is he, most are too fearful to even mention his name.”
“Where did he come from Nan?”
She walked over to the table and poured herself a cup of fermented berry juice before slouching back into her rocking chair. Her gaze focused on a spot behind me while she sipped her drink. “It is said he was a warrior from a faraway land who lost his family after a brutal war. He allowed his grief to turn into hatred. Eventually it consumed him. In revenge he committed great atrocities against others. With each deed the evil inside him grew and grew. Soon the brave warrior that once was had vanished, to be replaced by an evil he could not control.”
We sat in silence for a long time as I digested what Nan told me.
“What’s his name?” I finally asked.
After what seemed like an age she stood up, grabbed a piece of paper and a pencil and scribbled something. She handed it to me while saying a prayer of protection.
The name was in the ancient language ‘Sedrak’, meaning Shadow Dragon.
Turning my gaze back to Nan I found her staring at me.
“Has Pappa ever told you about your mother’s death?”
I shook my head. She thought for a moment before waving her hand dismissively.
“Don’t worry Raki, Sedrak is only a myth. One of those legends people made up to explain the bad things in the world.” With a wink she went into her bedroom and closed the door behind her.
That night I struggled to sleep. Nightmares plagued my mind and darkness envelope my spirit. When I finally drifted of it was nearly morning. Nan left me to sleep well into sunrise. By the time I awoke she had already left for the Market Place, the house tidied and breakfast waiting for me on the table.
After I ate I decided to go to the waterfall for a swim. On the way there I noticed some commotion inside the stranger’s house—the Healer had arrived. Nan will be happy, I thought. Walking passed the house I experienced an uncomfortable stirring in my insides. The stranger bothered me. His eyes. His scars. He intrigued me while at the same time making me fearful. I shrugged and shook my head, trying to rid myself of all thoughts of him. Instead, I focused my mind on my surroundings and breathed in the fresh smell of the flowers and trees.
When I arrived at the waterfall I quickly stripped down to my underwear before jumping into the water. My skin tingled with the coldness and I felt like a ten year old again, splashing and diving before swimming to the outer edge. No sooner had I spread myself out on a warm rock when I felt unnerved, sensing something. I scanned the surrounding foliage for movement but found none.
After diving back into the water I swam toward my bow. As I reached the waters’ edge I knew something was out of sorts. In the foliage I saw what resembled a black cloud, like smoke evaporating into the air. I froze in place as the cloud moved back and forth before vanishing into the bushes. A cold hand tightened around my heart causing the hairs on the back of my neck to stand to attention.
I don’t know how long I hung onto the edge of the bank before getting out, dressing as I ran to the village. Once in Rukima I started to doubt myself. Had my mind played tricks on me? I only had a couple of hours sleep the night before, maybe I simply wasn’t thinking clearly. Before long I recognised my own silliness. The legend of the Shadow Creature was a myth. A fairy tale. Something people made up to explain bad things in the world—I repeated Nan’s words. Laughing at my own gullibility I dismissed the experience, convincing my mind that there were at least a dozen animals and plants that could’ve caused a smoke cloud like that.
PERIL, The legend of Sedrak – on Amazon