Ashes of the Ylan [A Rama Empire novel]

"I thought you'd kill me," she croaked. "Not much honour if you cannot keep your promises."

Within the world of Convergera, lies the lands of Rama. Though the Rama Empire has long since been disbanded, the Capital still stands as a symbol of prosperity. The Antirian wars are over, but peace is soon disturbed as disaster strikes.

Sarashi is raised on the Wild Plains, but in a culture where freedom is everything, she is tied down by fear and expectations. Her people wants her to embrace her mother's legacy, her own fury screams for vengeance and her heart aches to belong. But when the war between the Sapphire Empire and the people of Rama flares up again, she'll have to make a choice between what she wants, and what is expected of her.

"Both standing on two legs, eyes level, the lion tried to push her into the ground. Her heart beat like never before as it stretched its neck over the spear to reach her face with its teeth. Pain made her dizzy as she growled back, a fiery rage star

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21. Ch 3: Ashes in the Wind (Part 8 of 10)

The eerie trees were black silhouettes, their lines obscured by the wavering air, the image distorted by the warmth of the sun. It was the evening of their third day of travelling, when they spotted them in the distance. The trees stood tall against the orange sky, as bellboas always did. Their branches spread and heavily from the top, something swaying from them, like large prey kept away from predators.

The smell of rotten flesh reached them, thick in the afternoon heat.

Sarashi halted her stallion before they got close enough to make out the creepy shapes, a strange numbness spreading in the pit of her stomach. Her hands shook.

“I don't think we should go closer,” Mya said, her voiced strangled. None of them wanted to know for certain what part of them had already realised. Janko said nothing, though his mare had stopped as well. Their faces were pale in the dim light.

“I- I think we have to,” Janko finally broke the silence.

And so they spurred the horses and rode closer.

Sarashi slid to the ground, put her hands on her knees and retched when they reached the first of the trees. The stench was so rank and the flies so many, they could not see what it was at first. But they knew. And when the swarms of insects took flight and the bloated, rotten corpse became visible, Janko almost lost his lunch as well, and Silver Song sidestepped nervously. Mya whimpered.

Sarashi rubbed her hand against her mouth and took a shaky breath. Then she stepped closer to the man in the tree, fighting back tears brought forth at the ever present smell. The man was hung up so high she could only reach his ankle, not that she wanted to touch him. The blood had drained from his head and pooled at his throat, above the noose, causing it to bloat and blacken, much like his toes and fingertips. On his hand was the dotted shape of two pointed triangles with no bottom lines.

“A Horned Owl,” she told the others, her voice hoarse from the bile.

Mya got down from Silver Song.

“The Empire did this,” Janko said, complete shock in his expression. “Are they all Owls, you think?” His voice had gone hard, and he motioned towards the other shapes hanging from nearby trees.

“I don't know,” Sarashi whispered. “I don't want to know.”

“We're half a days walk from the river!” Mya stammered, her voice an octave higher than was normal. “The patrols shouldn't come this far- The soldiers shouldn't-”

“But they did!” Sarashi snapped, fighting back the urge to turn and smack the girl, instead she growled: “They did.”

“What do we do?” Mya still looked as sick as Sarashi felt.

“We can't get them down, not without letting them fall,” Sarashi rasped. “And we're not strong enough to build pyres for them all, and keep the flames from spreading.”

“We should tell their families,” Janko concluded. “I'll ride to the owls and tell them what we've found,” he continued quietly, but decidedly. “Silver Song knows to step carefully in the dark, and- and they would want to know quickly.”

Sarashi nodded.

“We'll keep watch.” She forced her voice to stay firm. “Do our best to keep the scavengers away.”

There was dried blood on the grass around them.

Janko picked Silver Song's reins up again – He had dropped them when he fought to keep down the acidic content of his stomach – and turned the horse in the right direction.

“I'll hurry back,” he promised.

The girls nodded.

“Do that,” Sarashi demanded, her eyes returning to the dead man. His eyes were open and bloodshot, his irises rolled so far back the only thing showing was the whites.

Then Janko was off, galloping while he had the light to do so.

The thought of tying Timpre to the same tree as the hung man was horrible, but Sarashi had to do it. There was no way they could keep animals away from all the trees, and already there were signs that creatures had been at the corpses' feet.

Mya counted them while there was still light. Eleven dead, all from the Horned Owls' tribe. Three women, and eight men. Some of them had been dead before they were dragged into the air, apparent from their violent wounds. Others looked to have been screaming and kicking as they were pulled up by the rope, their nails broken from clawing at it.

Three times during the night, Sarashi and Mya had to chase off smaller scavengers while their fire kept the larger away. Somewhere in the dark they could hear coyotes fighting, yapping as they jumped to eat the toes of the dead. The sinister laughter of a hyena preceded the coyotes' fearful howls, and then there was the tearing sound of flesh being rendered and bones crushed.

Mya almost lost it, shaking so violently Sarashi had to hug her tight to prevent her from drawing in too much air.

Neither ate breakfast when the sun finally rose, and neither spoke until noon, when Janko finally returned. With him came Dawoul and people of his tribe, carrying litters between them to bring back the dead and give them a proper funeral.

Not wanting the Mahal with the intense eyes to see her cry, Sarashi bit the inside of her cheek till she tasted blood, and dried her eyes.

“Mahal Dawoul,” she greeted wearily.

“Sarashi, Daughter of Ashael and Karnal,” he greeted her as was custom in the tribes, by her parents' names. There was a deep rage in his eyes as he watched his tribe-members cut down the dead from the trees. Rage, and to her surprise, a grief so pristine It almost made her cry again. For some reason she had not expected the harsh Mahal to show such tender emotion as the pain flaring in his eyes and drawn in the lines of his face.

“Thank you,” he said. “For keeping watch over my people tonight.”

Her eyes burned still as she answered him quietly.

“They're my people too.”

Dawoul observed her for a second, his face unreadable. Then he nodded.

“We have heard of your promise,” he stated simply.

Without further conversation the horrible work began and finished, the dead cut down and lowered onto the litters. Sarashi and the others followed the Horned Owls as they brought their friends and family home, feeling like intruders on the pain and anger that swirled in the air.

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