On elven death: even elves that live over millennia do not, strictly speaking, die. This period is called going into recluse, as the aging person becomes introverted and shies away from social life, becomes less active, spends more time sleeping, until one morning they do not wake up. Their bodies do not erode as humans and other races. Orcittians of old faith used to lay them in burial chambers underground, believing they will return some day when Lady Death would release their souls, but the Sun cult followers burn their sleeping dead, believing that way they will experience closeness of the radiant heat of the Sun Goddess, who gently guides their souls by the smoke rising to the sky.
On Orcittian Empire, Vol 2.: Religion and belief.
By Barnabas Visecord
The creak of the wood tensing up as a slender fist pulled the string back was so silent and soft, like lover’s whisper, that no being heard it in this silent desert night. Moonless, still night, with barely a breeze to disturb scorched tall grass on the shores of slim river Wasa, only starlight guided a heard of oryx to the water. In the hight of summer, large animals dwelled in the shade of mountains scratching into the star-filled sky within short distance and come out at night to refresh and drink the precious life blood of the desert. One oryx, a stout alpha male, with four horns crowning his head, led the herd out as every night. He was on edge, tense, often looking behind and around, in addition to predators, he had to fight off another male, a pretender to take his place. If anyone could talk to that oryx, he’d say he was thirsty, the dried wounds on his chest and hips were itchy, it was dark and he couldn’t see well, his herd, he felt, might be in danger. All very grounded complaints that were never even conceived by this non sentient being, led by instinct alone, ended with a sharp pain in oryx’s neck, a sprout of blood, loud barking and thundering escape of the herd.
Beautiful. The huntress thought to herself as she followed the oryx with her darkness piercing eyes, elegant, gold and turquoise embellished bow tightened and arrow with bright blue fletching ready to find its target. The woman’s breaths were shallow and silent, her excitement buried until the kill is successful so her loud heartbeat underneath lightly olive skin wouldn’t give away her existence here. Her long pointy ears, protruding from underneath black, brushed back hair only covering her neck, had many holes for earrings, but she wore none tonight. Her clothes were black, leather tunic enveloped her slender figure perfectly, shortened jodhpurs allowed for slick, silent movement, leather brogans, pointy at the toes, protected from sand and cut the path for ease of travel. There was one arrow less in the quiver and when her kill is done, it’s going to stay that way: her rule was – one arrow one kill.
If anyone would be able to see as well as her in the darkness (and all of her fellow elves could, but they were not there), they would see her amber eyes glistening with excitement, following the wild beast and admiring its lines, its figure and grace, caressing its elegant constitution with a look that a lot of lovers would only dream of receiving.
She released the arrow and knew instantly it would hit. The needle of death pierced hot night air soundlessly and the huntress let out a breath of satisfaction as it hit the oryx alpha male right in the area of the neck under its jaw. Seconds later, several loud barks ended the silence of the night, as five black hounds sped from their hiding spots in the tall grass, three jumping on the twitching and contorting prey in its death, while other two ran growling and barking towards the herd, scaring it off with success: the herd, roared and thundered away towards the safety of the mountains, leaving a cloud of dust behind.
The huntress walked calmly towards her dying prey, black dogs on top and around, biting at the beast to keep it still as the pool of blood soaked into the sand and expanded. The woman snapped her fingers and five hounds left the prey, standing in an imperfect circle as their mistress took out a short, crescent blade and knelt next to the beast.
“May the sun be bright in the eternal grazing grounds” she whispered and slit the throat of the oryx, ending its suffering almost immediately.
“Good job all of you” she clapped her hands at the dogs that started barking happily and rubbing against their mistress’ legs like loving puppies, despite the fact that all of them were almost to her hips and one of the dogs, larger than others, was scarred at the right eye and his left side, clearly a veteran of the hunt.
She then whistled, a sound that pierced the air almost as well as the arrow, to call a slender, buckskin mare with saddlebags, ropes and other gear covering her back. The huntress took a moment to caress mare’s snout and made a sign with her hand after which the mount lowered itself to the ground, softly brushing its nostrils through the sand, waiting. The huntress took the hemp rope off the saddle and tied it around dead oryx’s back legs. Then with a bit of effort pulled the oryx on the back of her mare just behind the saddle and signalled the mount to stand back up. Then the huntress wrapped the rope under the mare and on the saddle and tied the oryx’s front legs, securing the carcass on top of the horse. All the while her five hounds were playing with each other, only the grizzled one stoically ignoring his younger brethren and sniffing around the grass for small night critters.
The huntress took her mare by the bridle and led her away from the riverside, the five hounds following in wide range.
When in desert at night, names loose all meaning, as no one but your animal companions, if any, know you and you know them by shape and size, but little else. This moonless night, the huntress was simply Olivia. Olivia had a loyal mare Fiducia and five hounds she trusted with her life in hunt and sleep: Ric, the youngest male, son of Astra, then there was Maris, an orphan found at the sandy beaches by the Sleeping Sea and there was Fury, daughter of Kaligo – the oldest, scarred leader of the pack. Like shadows these creatures moved through the desert, freely, knowing that their footprints, even on the most windless of nights will be covered by the shifting sands.
Surrounded by nothing but open sand plains, the pelt of the oryx was hanging between two large twigs, secured on all four limbs, drying in front of the bonfire, its innards already gobbled up by the dogs, its bones being cleaned for dessert, one of its shoulders now sizzling over flames, its head with magnificent quadruple spiral horns resting against bagged edible parts.
Olivia was sitting on a worn bedroll, cleaning off the blood from the arrow that had slain the oryx. She used a cloth she always carried, tattered and stained, but always precariously washed and folded, to clean the liquid essence of life after she took it. When she was done, the huntress carefully put the arrow back into the quiver on the sand next to her, folded the cloth and stuffed it into a small pocket on the holster. She checked the tension of the bow and also laid it carefully next to the holster. Olivia observed her mare, now lazily blinking herself to rest, the dogs, happily chewing on large oryx bones and sighed, like a happy mother sighs seeing her children happily playing on the garden plaza. She laid down on her bedroll, arms crossed underneath her head and looked up at the stars.
There were many, dim and bright, in clusters and lonely. She observed stories of her ancestors’ travels, wars, hunts and dreams and felt closer to them than ever at home. She wondered what did run through Justus’ mind when he was facing that seven-headed horror, with so many eyes and mouths gnarling at him. Pleasant shivers ran through Olivia’s skin when she saw herself, pointing an arrow with a flaming tip to ensure pain right into a red bright eye of furious hydra and she thought what it would be like if ever constellations would contain her image, killing perhaps an ancient dragon or some such beast, larger than life, and if ever small children like she once was will get inspired by stories of her tracking the creature five days and five nights through treacherous paths and then fighting for her life to the last breath, but she would win, of course, as she always does, and would bring the head back for everyone to be mesmerised and to bathe in her glory.
Such thoughts emboldened Olivia, sent pleasant goosebumps down her body and at the same time called forth shame for longing such glory. But she often couldn’t help it, especially at nights like these, after a successful kill, in the desert where everything was open and free and no one knew her, and especially now, just as her consciousness was slipping away into meditative sleep, Olivia couldn’t help but see herself in the constellations, brave and powerful, gazing into the abyss of death and knowing that Sun Goddess watches her path, even in the dead of night, through her companions the stars.
Suddenly, Olivia tensed up, her eyes opened wide. Before she saw or heard, she felt it: a rumbling in the ground, tremors underneath her. She rolled over from her bedroll and laid her sharp ear on the sand: truly there were tremors, constant, yet rhythmical. While listening, she saw that Feducia was on edge, her ears cutting through the air like scissors, the hounds suddenly lost all interest in the bones, smelling the air, looking somewhere into the plains. Olivia picked herself up and readied her bow, arming it with an arrow. There was nowhere to hide from the incoming band of horsemen she now heard and saw, driving their horses towards her at full speed. She gave an oral command in native elvish to her hounds and they took points in front of her, growling, Kaligo in the middle, barring his teeth at the coming danger.
Only when the horsemen reached the edges of her bonfire light did Olivia lowered her bow: she recognised the insignia on the silver plate armour of the riders – golden arrows pointing away from golden sun – the symbol of the Orcittian Empire’s royal family. The last rider carried a white flag, waving in the wind with that symbol. The band surrounded her camp, eight of them in total, their horses rearing and snorting, riders’ faces covered in white cloths from helmets with crossed arrows on their pointy tops to protect from harsh sand. One of the riders descended from his horse, took off his helmet and Olivia immediately recognised him as the captain of Hastams, the royal guard, Captain Batista. Unlike hers, captain’s skin was bronze, his hair brown, eyes almost golden. He bowed as low as his plate armour allowed.
“Your Highness” he started with quite melodious elvish for his trade “we did not mean to frighten. We were sent to find you. Your father is looking for you. We are to escort you back to the palace immediately.”
“The Emperor wishes to see me?” Olivia moved her bow behind her back, hiding her true surprise and, more seriously, fear.
“As soon as possible, Your Highness” the captain looked around her camp and signalled his men to collect what things were on the ground “we must hurry. The Emperor was clear about the urgency.” his soldier wanted to wrap the drying pelt, but Ric, the youngest hound, growled at him, seconded by Fury, whose name reflected her character. Olivia caught captain’s pleading look and ordered the dogs to stand down. She quickly packed Feducia’s saddlebags, hung the head of oryx on mare’s side and flicked her fingers to kill the fire. They were galloping through the desert in no time, pack of dogs behind them.
Soon, Olivia could see lights against the mountains and hear distant murr of the sea. Suddenly, her name became meaningful again, her heart less free, her fantasy of slaying a dragon gone to the wind. She was Olivia of Solvegitos again, born under the arrows of the sun. The responsibilities she carried with that name returned earlier, at the camp, when she agreed to ride with Batista. Her fear that it could be her father’s last request to see her drove a cold dagger in a space between her heart and stomach, affecting both equally. Her father, Enlightened Emperor Gohar of Solvegitos, entered and passed his thousandth year many cycles ago, becoming more and more reclusive, until few years ago, he stopped seeing everyone but one man, his horned, old tiefling servant Bernhard von Razila. Even Olivia and her younger brother Sorin barely saw their father and two months ago Olivia “celebrated” anniversary of two years not seeing her father, although living just a staircase distance of him. She knew the signs from doctors and Goddess’ clerics that the end of Emperor’s life is coming, but Olivia secretly hoped he wouldn’t leave to the warm embrace of the Sun just yet, for she was to take his place.
With a heavy heart she observed as the lights coming from what looked like a mountain surrounded by will-o-the-wisps come into shape, revealing to be nothing else but candles and fires of Orcittia, the beating white heart of the Empire named after this city. The white walls reflected starlight and appeared purple, with countless windows lit, towers blazing in the distance, countless large ships resting under the light of enormous lighthouse, alight with fire, spewing out white smoke into the night, still some distance away on an island in the sea. Brighter than most though, was the palace on the highest hill, every sharp tower, every window lit, awake even in the middle of the night.
Olivia could never look at this awe-inspiring city with the eyes of someone who has never seen it before and be left aghast with its glory and richness. However, she is not able to enjoy simpler things, as someone who calls this city home would.
As her group rode in through the Pilgrim’s gate in the south, which always stayed open safe for the sieges, and immediately felt sense of safety, something she ran from to the desert, but was almost instinctively relieved to feel every time she returned. Even at night, the city did not sleep: as the riders moved through cobbled street that will soon merge with Emperor’s way, cutting through the city from the harbour all the way to the palace, Olivia saw people awake – old humans sitting around fuming censers, long pipes between their teeth, gnomish city helpers, raking straw, rotten fruit and vegetables and other, much less pleasant leftovers from day’s trading. Also, she saw several Sun clerics, mostly elves like her, greeting pilgrims from all corners of the Empire, gnomes, tieflings and humans alike, looking for their souls and bones to be warmed up by gentle caress of the Sun Goddess. As her band moved into the wide Emperor’s way, she saw a group of elven and human young women, dressed in blues, whites and golds, going away from the palace, giggling and chatting among themselves, then they respectfully moved to the side and bowed to the Hastams and her before continuing on their way.
The palace was towering at the highest point of the city, which was layered like a cake, neighbourhood after neighbourhood on top of each other. Their horses and dogs were catching their breath when stable hands led them away to rest. Olivia’s hounds followed her dutifully as she was led into the greeting hall, all white and gold, with marble shined so clearly it caught her reflection almost as clearly as looking glass in the dancing halls. The Hastams led her up and up, one marble staircase after another, passing sounds of music and laughter (someone, likely Sorin, having a late-night soiree), scurrying servants and sleep-deprived advisors, going through their notes with small balls of light following them, until they reached the final flight, which Olivia hasn’t used for two years.
Captain Batista stopped just before the staircase, bowed and showed Olivia to go up.
“The Emperor is waiting for you, Your Highness” he said, as always surprising Olivia how peaceful his voice was given his stature. Olivia signalled her hounds to stay.
“Thank you, captain. You may leave.” she turned away and stepped up the stairs, hearing armour clutter against marble floor. Just a few steps up the stairs and a carved two way door of whitened wood and golden decoration of the sun appeared in front of her, as did many childhood memories. Her running and racing her brother in reaching father faster. Her, slowly going to her mother after she got in trouble. Her, saying her last goodbyes to her mother, before she was given to the Sun Goddess. The door opened itself, as it always did to the members of the royal family, and Olivia stepped inside.
Author’s note: Orcittia is a fictional empire I’ve created in my head, set in a fantasy world also created in my head. If you find any name, person or location familiar, it is only by chance. This world has little to do with the real one.