I moved. I took all my stuff and put it in cars with my parents’ help and then lived at my parents’ place for days. I waited, FULL of anxiety for word from the landlord as to whether me and my new roommate GOT the place.
Then I got word, and we could move in. So I moved all my stuff again. In the middle of this I also switched banks.
BUT, I found time to write. The Story of Hajra is expanding. I am mentally preparing myself for the terror of critiques. It will be difficult considering this is a longer work. Things need to add up. Things need to make sense with prior information. I get so much satisfaction out of this. My dream is that someone will read it and it will change the path of their life in a positive way.
Thank you all for reading! Thank you for commenting! THANK YOU FOR PROVIDING CONFIDENCE TO AN AMATEUR WRITER!
Hope all is well.
-Scott “Is that my food?” Brown
Chapter 3: The Awakening
One of the sirens-to-be was a daughter of lords. Her family’s land was in the center of Sowd space, safe from the ravages of war. The fields they controlled over would flood in the spring, calmly and timely. The crops would yield every year without fail. Their artisans were known for their greatness. Shoes, pottery, tailoring, and building. Trade blossomed, and wealth abounded. Their people were well-fed, content, and without persecution.
The lords of this small oasis were known for their corruption. The high king had sent many men to investigate. These men would claim everything was in order while their pockets bulged ever more. The lord’s sons would avoid combat, or even the manual labor of serving as an alchemist.
This girl, the daughter of these lords, was Waniska. She was indulgent, hedonistic, and delusional. Even the inquisitor wanted to turn her away until the family name was mentioned. The girl could sing one note of accusation and it would cost the inquisitor her lofty position.
It was early evening, and she talked about frivolous things. To her, her weight was a pride. In such terrible times, she was heavier than most.
“It is a testament to my family’s adaptability,” she had said.
In that moment, Hajra was been glad that Siveny was with her. There could have easily been a fight.
Waniska dropped from the wagon with all the grace of a hound playing a flute. This did not affect her attitude. She walked past other girls with her chin raised. She seemed oblivious to the anger she was causing in the others, especially the alchemists.
Her singing had been alright. But when the inquisitor had questioned whether she knew the weight of what her singing was doing, there was simply mumbling.
The girl walked past the tents as they were set up. The large, round one in the center was for the Sirens. Soft pillows and tone bells were being set up. A bell created a tone that could not be altered easily by the changing temperatures of the Sowd lands. It was how the sirens tuned their voices, and in turn, how the drummers tuned their war-drums.
Waniska had told the other sirens-to-be about her exploits, and praises. It had all been from family members in her stories. Some of the girls latched onto her just from her family name, and others were lured by her songs of untruth. Her surrounding people fed into her delusions of grandeur.
Hajra saw it easily enough, so did Siveny. They simply watched her from a distance, wondering how she would sabotage the efforts of the military.
It came quicker than they had thought.
That night, she decided to sing. As the drummers readied themselves she began to sing near the prepared corpses. The awakening ceremony had not begun, and Waniska ignored the words of the elder and all those around her.
Her singing began as a low hum near the bodies. The alchemists had tried to warn her. Then they attempted to stop her and she cascaded into song. The notes were full of vanity. The melodies rang with hedonism, self-indulgence, and arrogance. The alchemists, startled and afraid, backed away.
Waniska sang a song of selfishness.
The other girls heard yelling and ran like everyone else to the site. One of the other girls had been chosen by the elder to perform this night, and she was with the group, watching in disbelief and anger. The bodies rose, and several girls attempted to sing over Waniska.
Death fueled her tainted heart. Death had taken her, and now the bodies. The corpses turned on everyone around them. An alchemist was grabbed. The corpse ran them through with a dented blade. Waniska’s body fell limply to the earth.
Hajra did not think, she only felt. Slow swaying tones came from her body. All of her direction went into putting power over the crazed dead.
Drummers came next, their skins rattled in futility as the bodies found any target, killing in the name of chaos.
A large man, with his drum on his back, got in between a body and its chosen target. He slashed at the neck, severing the head from the rest. Its glowing eyes fell away, and the man moved on to another.
Hajra used his acts as fuel for her voice, and soon the rest of the sirens fell away to let her voice be solitary in the small valley.
The chaos fell away. The bodies waited for direction.
The big man wasted no time in swinging his war drums to his front. He sheathed his sword with one hand and began drumming with the other.
The eyes of the risen burst with damp, green light with each beat. They were lead away, into the western front.
Hajra continued with her song until a hand found her shoulder.
“It’s alright dear,” a frail voice came.
Hajra stopped, turning to the woman at her side. Beyond them, walking over the hills was the large drummer. He was guiding the dead to a safer location.
The woman was an elder. A caretaker of the sirens. It was her job to prepare them for their task, and her job to keep them as sane as possible. Her face was covered in protective runes. The bear, the ox, the raptor, the serpent, and of course, the closed third eye on her forehead.
“Thank you,” Hajra said.
It dawned on her that the bodies had gone, and so had the drummers. A crowd had gathered during her song. They watched her every move. She had successfully navigated a failed awakening. It took luck, and preparation to do such a feat. Hajra was a recruit, and the youngest at that.
“You did very well,” the elder said, patting her shoulder, “Very well, indeed.”
Hajra watched the camp fill with men and sirens. They milled about, preparing the bodies with “Nahdab”, and consolidating them into groups for the awakening ceremony.
Siveny stayed with her, now even more enamored with her presence.
Hajra had become a celebrity among the sirens and drummers. People stopped and sang her melodies of surprise and praise. It was enough to make her forget about her family for a while. The drummer was not among them. The man had a singular purpose. He had not carries himself like a normal drummer. His arms had been large, and he did not think twice about unsheathing his blade. Most of them did not even carry a blade. It was seen as doubt in one’s ability. This mysterious drummer walked a path of confidence and purpose.
A carriage arrived, carried by four dead horses. This was a song of the highest order. The coin required to hire a siren of beasts was enormous. The horses never tired, they did not eat, and they never complained. In the waning sunlight, their glowing green eyes shown brighter than any raised human she had seen. The drummer sat next to the man at the reigns. He beat the drum slowly, plodding. They found a spot away from the activity of the camp and the drummer ceased. The glowing eyes of the horses waned until their bodies fell to the ground. Dead again.
From the carriage emerged a man and a woman. The woman was young, and had wear under her eyes. She was the siren of beasts.
The man was the passenger of interest. He was the commander of this group. Red hair, braided and falling on the back of his neck. His beard was finely trimmed and kept short. There was a symbol on his forehead that Hajra could not quite see. It was not a tattoo, although his face was covered like the drummers.
He went into the commander’s tent at a brisk pace, talking to no one. No one followed him in, and the siren of beasts made her way to her sisters in song.
“Alik,” Siveny said.
“The commander?” Hajra asked her.
“He came to visit my family’s estate a couple of times when he was younger. He has changed a great deal since then.”
“Alik. The name strikes a familiar chord,” Hajra prodded.
“He bears the scar of the closed third eye,” Siveny said.
Hajra said nothing, debating to end this gossip now, before she continued.
“I saw him one year, and he was spending his family’s coin like it was his own. He wore the clothes of merchants and tradesmen, even when he had accomplished nothing.”
“His father went insane. The man carved the symbol of the closed third eye onto his own son’s forehead.”
Hajra turned to Siveny, “That mark?”
“It’s a scar. He chose not to tattoo over or around it I guess,” Siveny said.
“He seems accomplished. Serious.”
“After the scarring, he changed. He wore beggar’s clothes. He practiced his duty. At the next dinner party he was hardly a mouse. He said nothing. Nothing like the lively crow he was before,” Siveny told her.
Soft candlelight illuminated the inside of a red war-tent, a table resting in the middle. Three people stood arched over the crude layout of the land with pensive faces.
“We begin at midnight?” Hajra asked the two others.
Her black hair was braided all over, with long wooden beads acting as a weight. The other siren’s had devoted their time to this. They tapped sharply against one another when her head turned. Lyrics and protective runes had been burned into the beads, so that she was always close to the next words. She doubted she would need them, as her informal training seemed to have served her much better than the other sirens.
It was her first battle; the previous singer had succumbed to her own song, dying in the process. It was a difficult balance to wake the dead. The song must be alluring enough to drive them to motion, but not enough to make the living move to the opposite.
But she was new to battle, and was finally involved in a discussion of tactics.
“We always go at midnight, Hajra. The fog, the pitch blackness. It terrifies them. They lose half their men just due to reckless abandon,” Alik spoke quickly, his hand waved with quick dismissive motions.
He was the lead Drummer. He followed the dead into battle, urging them on with chants and rhythms. His father was a drummer and his father before him. Going one step further than Hajra, runes were tattooed on his face, and in the center of his forehead was the closed eye, scarred into his skin. His brown hair was long and braided. It snaked around his neck multiple times with wooden clamps to hold it in place like a collar.
“This is my first battle,” Hajra glared across the table at Alik.
“Do you think you are special?” War-son broke his stoic silence.
“I sang three days ago and succeeded with no writings,” her glare turned to War-son.
“How do you think new sirens are introduced? Do you ever wonder why there are no veteran sirens?” War-son spoke with a smile on his face.
“She doesn’t need any more fear,” Alik silenced the other two, “She needs information, and we are running out of time to give it to her. It is fortunate you’re here Hajra. We need more sirens than we have. I know someone on the southern front who heard your song, you’re talented. We’ll need all the help we can get.”
All of her anger was gone, replaced with shame. These were veterans she was talking to, and she was a novice in every sense. Hajra turned her gaze to the plans on the table, which may have well been in a foreign language.
“All you need to know right now is that if you feel the battle-horn in your throat then you need to follow us in and sing amidst the battle,” Alik pointed at an open field on the map.
“What about the song?” Hajra spoke up.
“Just do what you did before. Whatever it was,” War-son grumbled.
“He’s rude but he’s right. All you need to worry about right now is the song. Have it in your head. Remember, it needs pain and death,” Alik told her.
“The lyrics?” Hajra asked.
The two men exchanged glances.
“The feeling,” War-son began, glaring at her, “The sound must come from pain, staring into death. If it is happy the dead do not rise. If you are not looking into the void there is no connection between you and the bodies, and the dead do not rise. You are telling me that you do not know this?”
“I sang from my heart three nights ago,” Hajra straightened in defiance, “I can do it again.”
“Remember what you felt. What you were thinking about,” Alik said softly, looking at the board, “Or the northern front will fall tomorrow.”
His hand reached over to War-son’s shoulder, patting it vigorously. The big man loosened up, at least enough to stop glaring at Hajra.
Alik laid out the plans to Hajra and War-son. She had a hard time understanding the movements, but the two drummers told her it was more for them than for her.
“Just follow the light if you hear the horn,” they told her cryptically.
Hajra nodded in solemn recognition to both of them. Alik reciprocated while War-son pretended to be interested in the tent.
The three of them finalized the sequence of events and left the tent. Other sirens were leaving tents with four and five drummers. Their old faces looking sickly and pale in the lights of the torches.
“Gotta piss,” War-son muttered, and wandered towards the tree line.
The drummers and sirens began to gather in the center of the small outcrop of tents, preparing for the speech.
“War-son does not trust me to perform,” Hajra said with furrowed brows.
“He is weary, tired and jaded,” Alik responded quickly, “You would be too if you’d seen as many battles as he had. You also forget, Hajra, I haven’t heard you sing either.”
“You spoke of me with confidence in front of him,” she was hurt.
“I said I heard of your performance from a friend. We won’t trust your talent or skill until we hear it. This war has been going on for a long time, Hajra. The siren is key, and the siren is easily lost to their own sworn duty. Just remember the pain, and to fear looking into death. The last one had grown complacent. There was no fear left in her, and so death took her,” he spoke somberly.
His words hit hard, leaving her contemplating.
War-son entered the light of the torches and gave the other two a tilted head towards the vigil. The three of them made their way to the gathering. The sirens met in the center of a forming circle and the drummers formed a ring around them.
The drummers gathered close, locking their arms in a brace. The dozen sirens gathered close, placing one hand on the center of their chest. The other hand found the chest of the one to their right. The oldest Siren broke the silence.
“Death is our ally. But we do not invite it in ourselves or our way ends. We sing into the void, and the void fights to creep into us. But we are strong; our voice is pained but true. Feel the life-rhythm in you and feel the life-rhythm in your sisters of the songs of death.”
She took a deep breath.
“We are all alive. Now,” her volume went far beyond what it was, “Invite death to this battlefield.”
The whispy sound of intense inhalation from the people surrounding her filled Hajra’s ears. The drummers tilted their heads back. In a burst of a sound, a low guttural tone came from the outer ring. A drone. After a few seconds of this a secondary whistling came from the outer circle. They sang in two tones simultaneously. The whistling wavered, sweeping up and down. Hajra began feeling cold. She could feel eyes on her.
As the singing went on she felt more and more confidence surge within her. With an almost lightheaded feeling she swayed with the silent beat of the vigil. Her eyes fought to open, and her soul burned to sing. The men around her sounded ready to stop several times but took deep breaths in unison. She was growing more and more impatient and less afraid of the creeping dark feeling coming from the cold.
“Stop!” the elder siren boomed over the cacophony of sound, “This is too much for the young one, I can feel her now. Let her sing. But do not let her open her eyes. Do you hear me young one? If you open your eyes you will see death staring back at you, and only a few have seen it and been able to withstand its allure.”
There were murmurs around Hajra, and she heard feet moving on the muddy grass. But there were whispers too. Her eyelids burned, and the voices told her of the sweet release if she let them open.
“Feel the life-rhythm, hear it. Feel the life-rhythm, hear it,” two sirens repeated this mantra-prayer to her as they guided her to a large group of fresh corpses.
She felt her heart, listened to it and the feeling of life faded fast until the next beat. Her breathing was becoming slower; the body was growing more and more calm, but the mind more and more frantic.
The mantra repeated, the wet, marching footsteps pierced her ears as they went.
In a fit of passion Hajra let out a single tone, high and bright. The women stopped, one of them covered her mouth.
“No, pain and fear. Remember, pain and fear. Bright and cheerful invite death,” she spoke slowly and forcefully.
They began again and Hajra concentrated on the fear of death, the slaughters of their people. The persecution of her mother. Conflict rose quickly inside her and an intense physical pain spread from her chest, outward to the rest of her body. A low hum escaped her.
“Good, keep it up. Only a short distance more,” one of the sirens whispered in between prayers.
The pain intensified, the allure of song grew and muscles in her throat and jaw began to twitch. They begged to be used. Each beat of life-rhythm seemed to be minutes apart. Pain and fear filled her head.
“Now, sing!” the elder commanded from some distance behind.
Hajra breathed deep and her eyes fluttered. With an enormous effort she kept them closed.
A tenor note escaped her in a breathy timbre. It weaved into alto and soprano ranges holding on flats and sharps. It overtook her very being. She seemed only able to feel where the music had just been, and had no control over where it was going.
She could see glowing through her eyelids. A soft yellow, getting stronger with each passing moment. Her eyes fluttered again as she held a wavering high note and could barely make out a face. She slammed her eyes shut, and with the sudden shift in focus the song faltered. The glow faded a bit and she felt gleeful, the pain began to slip.
“Her voice is faltering!” a siren cried.
“Remember! Pain, fear! You are too close to death to forget,” the elder cried out over the song.
Hajra sustained, keeping the glow from fading. She thought again of her mark, and how painful it had been. Physical pain pulsated through her with the thought, and she longed to see what was staring her down from the void. She pushed her voice to a strain, feeling it about to break. She pushed harder, reaching a tone she was unaware she could perform.
Her hand crept to her chest, her heart barely beating at all despite the tension.
A beat. She was alive. She wanted to be alive.
Her voice sailed through the dark in a tone as true as anything ever was. The yellow light almost blinding her through her eyelids.
“By the eyes of death,” Alik was heard exclaiming.
“My life-rhythm!” War-son cried out.
Cries of shock and awe dispersed. Hajra held the tone, her body being riddled with pain. Tears ran from her eyes as the drums began.
Grunts and shifting.
“It’s alright girl. You can open your eyes now. It’s done. By the eyes of death you’ve awakened them all,” the elder comforted her with a hand placed gently on the center of her chest.
Hajra opened her eyes.
Shambling corpses with glowing yellow eyes pushed down the slow slope towards the battlefield. There were over a thousand visible all throughout the dark valley.
The drummers marched along the undead, waiting to strike the walking skins in unison as the bodies around slowed.
Where the heads of the shambling corpses began to sway back to sleep, with the strike of the skin they snapped to attention, their shamble turning into a march.
And again they began to fade.
Then they marched, the valley brightening with the infusion of musical energy.
“You did it, girl. What is your name?” the elder whispered.
“Hajra,” she told her, her voice creaking under the weight of tears and use.
“You can rest now. I’ve never seen a siren awaken so many,” her eyes darted around.
Hajra realized all eyes were upon her.
“Give her some room! This one needs rest.”
The elder swept a blanket over her shoulders.
“Your performance,” she paused, shaking her head, “It was the most intense I’ve seen.”
“I almost looked,” she told the old siren, “I saw something.”
“You captivated death, dear. Be careful when you sleep now. It will be watching,” the woman spoke a warning.
Hajra could feel herself slipping into sleep while standing. For a flash of time she saw a face. Black, with white pits where the eyes should be. Calmness washed over her emanating from her heart. Her eyes shot open, sharply inhaling. She clutched her chest, finding the old woman’s hand there too.
“Pain, Hajra. Remember pain,” and she began with the mantra, “Feel the life-rhythm, hear it. Feel the life-rhythm….”
Together they walked to the nearest tent, the sounds of the war drums fading toward the enemy. Almost as soon as she was laid down, Hajra was asleep.