I hope everyone is having a great time. The weather is getting nicer. Here in Vermont, the snow has disappeared completely. I’m wearing a short-sleeved shirt right now. It’s awesome. Also I just had a giant plate of eggs at the cafe where I do all my tippity tappin. That was arguably the best part of my day, and I say that with most of my day yet to come.
The Story of Hajra is halfway complete with the first draft. Full critiques are imminent. My soul may not be ready, as I sense retreat. I have never worked on anything this long. It is…overwhelming.
The tale of a young girl who sings to awaken the dead as part of her nation’s military operations in a fantasy setting is nearing completion. I would like to have a physical copy by the end of the year. I think new years resolutions are pretty meaningless, but I thought it sounded like a reasonable goal.
Again, if anyone wants to chat about writing, or you have a piece that you want feedback on, please, message me, e-mail me. It feeds my writing, and it helps yours to get another pair of eyes on it.
Things are good right here right now,
-Scott “Blip Blorp” Brown
Chapter 4: Hypnotizing
There was anxiety in the sleep, her mother appeared to her as most times but there was another force. It was always just outside of her sight, watching. For the first time in her life, Hajra felt pain in her sleep. First her legs, then her arms. The dream faded to the tent, but she was not awake. She saw the tent as if her eyes were open, and felt the pain creep into her torso. Her breathing ceased, and although she tried she could not wake herself. Awake, she commanded, be awake. But there was no reply from her body.
From all directions a black mist crept into her vision, concentrating above her. The white burning eyes of death slowly opened from the blackness. The glare pierced her fear, overwhelming her with acceptance and love.
“Feel the life-rhythm.”
The words fought their way to her. She focused on the pain in her legs and arms. The power in the burning white eyes seemed to fade, but her fear grew. Death’s eyes grew wild with rage, and in an instant of terror, made a lunge towards her.
“Gyuuuuuuhhhh!” Hajra burst from the dream, back to reality.
Her hand shot to her chest. The heartbeat was a relief to find. Her fear was too much to hold inside. Tears welled up in her eyes. She suddenly wished for the wheels of time to turn back, so she could choose a different path. The elder rose quietly next to her, and several sirens sat up with her.
“It came for you, did it not?” the elder asked.
Hajra looked around at the faces of the other girls. Their fearful, pensive faces waiting to hear about their own fate.
“I could not move. It hurt,” she said between breaths.
Multiple hands came to her shoulders. The elder took her hand and brought them both to Hajra’s chest.
“But you are here, girl. You are with us. If you are with us death cannot take you,” she reassured her.
Tears forced their way through her clenched eyelids. The words helped, but she knew how hollow they were. Death’s eyes were on her now. She had awoken the dead, and she was marked because of it. These women could not protect her from a god.
“You survived the first night,” one of the sirens spoke up from behind her.
The other girls murmered in agreement.
“That’s when most of them get taken,” another chimed in.
They gently shook her shoulders. It only made Hajra angrier, the tears more forceful.
“There is no hope for me now,” she stammered out.
It pained her to speak such weak dribblings. If there was honor in any of these girls, she thought, they would rightly slap her in the face.
“You are amidst a battle of will, with a god,” the elder said flatly.
Hearing her situation summed up so simply helped her regain her composure. She lifted her head and met the elder’s eyes. The old woman was smiling.
“It’s what we all strive for, and what we all fear,” she addressed the tent full of girls, “To join death is everyone’s fate. But as sirens you all gain the privilege of seeing it before your time.”
All eyes were on the elder now.
“This one is engaging with the one true god. She survived the night. She is a veteran now. Look to Hajra,” she turned to her, placing a hand on her shoulder, “Although you are full of doubt and fear, you are doing better than anyone I have ever seen. Your ancestors are watching you with rapt attention. They will help with your struggles.”
Hajra’s face turned from a sad display to bitter determination. Her mother’s face came to her. She imagined the faces of the girls behind her, with their hands on her shoulders. They looked to her now, and she could not let them down.
“Thank you sisters,” she choked out.
She slipped from the helping hands back onto the soft mat under her. Somewhere between tired and fearful she fell back asleep.
The dream came, clawing at her heart. There was pain, and she had to focus to regain the fear. Warm air rushed to her lungs. Burning pain, whispers from beyond, half-sleep mixed with restless sleep. Finally, her eyes exploded open as her torso violently righted itself.
She was in the world of the living. There was a faint glow to the tent. It was daytime. A long, tired sigh escaped her. She scanned the tent and saw no one. There were the sounds of activity outisde. Laughter, buckets of water being moved, drums being tuned, and people practicing singing. She rose, throwing the blanket off herself.
Hajra stepped out of the tent. The light blinded her, and moving made it apparent that she had sweat in her sleep. Her battle dress was in need of cleaning.
“Ah she’s awake! She’s awake!” came a booming yell from a nearby campfire.
There was a murmur and footsteps. Objects starting coming into focus. There was a small crowd of nearby soldiers coming towards her with smiles. Some of them bowed to show respect for a job well done, and some of them touched her shoulder with a nod. A line formed.
Midway through the procession War-Son offered the same, bowing his head, patting her shoulder. By his standards it was a light tap, but she needed to shift her weight to avoid toppling. Hajra smiled.
The last of the drummers went through. Her heart swelled with pride. Alik was last. He paid respect just as the others, then turned to stand beside her.
“You did very well, Hajra,” he told her, surveying the campsite.
Hajra straightened herself up.
“Thank you, Lieutenant. I hope to serve many battles with my gift,” she said.
Hajra made her way to the outskirts of the camp. Mud grabbed at her shoes with each step.
Torches dotted the camp. The orange light bounced off the animal hide tents. Alchemists, drummers, and movers played the game of skulls. It was gambling, using vulture skulls and bone shards. The skull was cut in half behind the face and planted into a small pile of sand, eyeholes pointed up. The goal was to be the first to drop one of your bone shards through the eye hole, standing up in the sand.
It was a loud, boisterous game. Cursing and yelling were common. Away from the military presence it would often turn violent, but here in the forward camps the men knew better.
She received glances from some of the soldiers as she walked alone through the camp. Near the center she found the wooden cage with the prisoner, her commander was waiting.
“This is the one,” Alik said with disdain. He spit at the wooden cage.
A small man clad in rags revealed his face from under mud-clotted hair. It was a beautiful face, unlike any Hajra had ever seen. Although it did seem strange to see no tattoos at all. There were no marks, no runes, no paint. Just a face. This man wore the only naked face she had ever seen. In a moment of clarity Hajra realized this was the first time she had ever seen a Lenithan.
“Ah! A lady! Come to grant me one last request? I’d like a foot rub, if you please,” the man coughed up blood, smiling to reveal blackened teeth.
Hajra smiled. This man had no idea what was in store for him. The joking and crudeness would only prolong his suffering.
“He jokes,” Alik laughed, turning to Hajra.
“Heh, just get this over with,” the man made a show of relaxation. He leaned back against the wooden bars with his fingers laced behind his head.
Hajra turned her nose, the man was sitting in mud. He was also sitting in his own refuse.
Alik turned her away from the cage.
“He was found naked. He tried to convince us that he was one of us, that he’d been robbed by a group of brigands,” Alik said.
“What is he, really?” Hajra asked impatiently.
“A Lenithan scout, or a spy. We do not know. His smallest fingers are missing from each hand. That is Lenithan punishment, not ours,” he shook his head, “I do not understand how he thought we would not notice.”
“He sounds like a desperate man. This is good news,” Hajra said.
“I thought perhaps I’d give you a chance to try something different,” Alik said.
“What do you mean?” Hajra squinted.
This was unusual. Sowd torture was reknown for its success rates, as well as the brutality. It was so feared that usually the victims would begin talking at the first sight of the implements. But the true horrific element was the singing. The torturer would repeat the same song as they inflicted pain, relaxing the victim.
The victim would begin to perversely enjoy the horrors of torture, and the song is ingrained in their brain for the rest of their lives.
“I would like to try new things,” Alik told her, “Use your voice. Use your imagination. See what comes of it. We have this man, and we have dogs that have his scent. He cannot escape”
“You would give me free reign with the prisoner?” Hajra smiled, then quickly composed herself.
Satisfaction, appreciation, confidence. All of these were given to her.
“I accept your token of trust,” Hajra said.
She bowed slightly, fingers laced across her belly.
“I leave him in your charge for the night, Hajra,” Alik bowed in response.
“Thank you commander,” she cringed at the word.
Alik took his leave.
Hajra took his cue, turning back to the prisoner.
She took a moment to observe him. Dirt was across his face. He was tired. There was nothing left for him in this land or his own. The only thing she could sense in him was spite. He would deny anything and anyone after a lifetime of suffering.
“What is your god?” she demanded.
He squinted at her.
“What is your god?” she repeated.
“I have no god,” he laughed, “My gods abandoned me long ago.”
“My god is death. Would you like to meet it?” Hajra threatened.
The prisoner gave her a look of surprise.
“I have been captured by my allies, and captured by my enemies. There has been nothing in my existence but pain and embarrassment. If you are trying to threaten me with death, you would be doing me a favor,” he gripped onto the vertical wooden bars, hoisting himself up.
“A godless fool. A thief, and a liar,” Hajra stated.
“Those are all my current titles,” he laughed.
“You joke…” she started.
“I do! What will you with me?”
“Can you see that I am not a torturer?”
“You all are,” he scowled.
“I am a Siren. I do not hurt the living or the dead,” she scowled in return.
“Do you know what we call you? What everyone calls you?”
Hajra crossed her arms, waiting for the crude words.
“The Defilers,” he said.
She watched him for clues. She wanted to know if he was exaggerating.
He seemed to be speaking honestly.
“They call you the sanctifiers of the unclean. The puppeteers of the unholy. You,” he pointed, his hand wavering, “You are the most hated in the continent.”
Although this was all news to her, she could not let the man see this.
“And the most feared,” Hajra added.
The man revealed his disgusting teeth. He threw his head back and laughed, falling into the cage wall behind him.
“You think that will save you? You’re a girl, yes. A young one at that, but surely you must know that this will come at a terrible price. You spit in the face of every deity that has ever been,” his face lit up.
“It is the Lenithans. The Bori. The Yoltians. They will pay for their brutalities on this land,” she hissed.
“By raising the dead? You are a fool. The gods will come down on your heads all at once. It will be a terrible sight.”
“Admit the failure of your nation…” she began.
“Fully!” he laughed.
Hajra’s thoughts congealed. The man made her uncomfortable. She was not sure if she could get anything out of him, or if he had any knowledge worth her effort. Death was not a threat to him, and without the leverage, the second option was pain.
But she might be able to offer him something else. Although it would need to be explained to her officers.
“I can offer you solace. What is your name?”
“They call me Sowd-Fucker!” he looked away from her, towards some imaginary friend to share his chuckle.
This would difficult, Hajra thought, but she wanted to try something else.
She started with a bright sounding hum, like Mamun would do in the river during chores. The prisoner forced a scowl.
“Sowd singing,” he said, “I was told it was something to behold. What is this noise?”
Hajra faltered a bit, amazed that he would react bitterly to such a pleasant alternative to torture.
Her voice began to lift, and sway. Her back straightened, and she twirled a melody that brought a smile to her face. After a few moments of this she allowed herself to abserve the prisoner.
He was entranced. His head was pushing between two vertical bars. Tears of joy washed his dirty cheeks.
“My mother,” he said
She cut herself off. It was jagged, and painful sounding. The prisoner lurched, making a sound of yearning.
“Please, don’t stop. I…it was beautiful. I could see it. The last time..” he stopped, looking away, but only a moment passed before his face soured and reddened.
“Something different, hmm? No. I’ll not be make the fool by a Sowd,” he spat at the ground in Hajra’s direction.
“I have given you a pleasant memory. What do you think the inquisitors will do?” Hajra raised her eyebrows.
He fidgeted, looking around for help.
Hajra took in a deep breath and let out a tone that slowly built in volume. Wavering, at the middle of her vocal range it was neither strong nor weak. The man reacted by staring off into space.
His arms relaxed. His eyes made furtive movements. He took a deep breath.
After seeing this response, she lifted the tone, keeping to a pleasant melody. Hajra kept the memories of her mother close, and used it as fuel for the uplifting tune. His eyelids fluttered and his eyebrows lifted in the middle. Tears came to him.
She lowered her music to a gentle stop.
“What is this madness?” he chuckled, looking at his palms, which were now wet with tears.
“What did you see?” Hajra asked.
She was eager to know. A living Lenithan was a short song on the frontlines, as most were quickly turned into corpses and then the undead. Any clue to the way they live would satiate her curiosity.
“Please,” she added, “I have no intention of hurting you.”
Looking up, as if into the memory itself, he began.
“I saw my mother. She tried to steer me to a good path, but we lived in a poor area. One of the local gangs took a liking to me, and me to them. She tried and tried to reason with me, but I was youthful.”
“Gangs?” she questioned.
“You have no Sowd gangs?”
“What is it?”
He shook his head, “A group of criminals, tied together by mutual desire for coin and acceptance.”
“A group of theives? It seems counter-productive”
He smiled, “Especially when you are arrested. Thieves do not look out for their own. They will tell you they will. But thieves lie.”
“You were arrested?”
“Many times,” his face turned again, “My poor mother.”
“What is your name?” she asked, letting a soothing timbre into her voice.
“Milo. My name is Milo,” he said.
“Milo,” Hajra smiled, “What happened to your mother?”
“No. Don’t ask me that. I have disgraced myself so many times. She is better for cutting ties with me.”
“What will you tell my commander when he returns?” Hajra became serious, remembering what she was here to do.
Milo grew concerned, looking around. His face turned to a smile, as he remembered his current predicament. He laughed.
“Oh right, the torture. The questioning. I’m a prisoner!” he giggled, “A fitting end to a person who caused so much misery.”
“What will you tell us? Troop movements? Plans? What do you know?”
Milo turned to Hajra and frowned, “You have a lot to learn about questioning, little girl. If I knew anything I would tell you. But no, I was simply a criminal, exiled to die.”
“They will not let you free. I’m sorry,” Hajra said.
“I know this,” Milo looked away, “Tell me, girl, will it be quick? When they decide I’m no longer worth their time?”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Hajra told him.
Even if she could get it across to her commanders that this man was useless to them, she doubted if any of them would have the resolve to go easy on one of the enemy. Even if she convinced them that Milo was not an enemy she doubted if they would be able to be lenient. The sowd always needed more frontline soldiers.
“I am grateful for your kindness. Please go. I am a pitiful sight, and I do not wish to stain your eyes any further,” Milo said.
Hajra took a bow and left.
The man had been so reticent to talk, yet he knew nothing. He had been so miserable to everyone despite harboring deep emotional yearnings. The Lenithans were a deceitful bunch, she thought. Groups of criminals ran in the streets, plucking people and putting them into a dangerous game. There was pity inside her, and she wondered what that would do to her songs.
Lenithans seemed just as capable as any Sowd. Hajra had been told from many people that they were a terrible breed of people. That the world would be better off without them, and that they threaten the Sowd people in every way.
Hajra’s confidence weakened. Her mother’s accusations seemed more and more sympathetic.
As she walked back to the Siren’s tent, the alchemists were winding down. Some, giddy from their winnings, wrapped up their bones and sand with leather pouches. The unlucky ones were in bed already, grumbling in their sleep. No one met her eyes this time.
Death would meet her in her sleep. This truth filled her with dread. She longed for her mothers advice, her mother’s comfort. Hajra’s stomach churned with anxiety. The thought of finding Alik in his tent was a powerful urge, but she continued on to the Siren’s tent.
The girls slept restlessly on the floor. None of them engaged with Hajra.
Hajra did not want to sleep, but she had to try. It was part of her duty to be ready for the next day. She lay down in between two relative strangers on a bed of furs, and fell asleep almost instantly.