Anastasia is an aspiring writer that originates from Athens, Greece. Born into a military family, she has already lived in four different countries, with her most recent home, London. A true fanatic of travel and exploration, she loves to blend her experiences of other cultures with her own. She enjoys experimenting in various forms of storytelling and has recently published a poem called “Home” in The Bard Literary Magazine. Her writing genres include fantasy, contemporary fiction and science fiction, tangling with themes of family, societal alienation and searching for identity. Her friends call her Stacy.
Inspired by works such as His Dark Materials, Lord of the Rings and The Inheritance Cycle, she wishes to appeal to young adults with her first fantasy novel series, Breaking the Cycle.
The world of Lithia was healing. The conquered Onthropo race was finally integrating with Lithians, a race mystical and strange that existed for eons across the world. Eneida grew up as an orphan in the northern parts of Tan’hee, the land of Onthropo, and had a difficult childhood. Why? Because her eyes were cursed to witness how people die. As a young woman, she travels as a luthier to try and discover her identity.
She returns to Wark, the town closest to the orphanage she grew up in, when her only friend sends her a letter with shocking news.
in the Dungeon
I let myself be showed into Wark by wanderers. People who sought the enchantment of Lithian festivals with all the strange and unfamiliar that came with them. I stepped on the traces of peculiar sandals and entertained myself by watching their long garments dance with the wind. Seven years had passed since I had last seen this town’s mountainous, earthy houses.
In those years of absence, nothing in Wark had really changed. With carefully planted glances, the only true changes I witnessed were the once young faces who had grown and wrinkled. Faces replaced by similar, younger versions.
Baked, meat pastries filled the air with a gamey smell. The colourful clothing of the people illuminated the grey and brown stalls of the market, like sparks of a fire fluttering in the sky. To the sound of the lute and the rare drum, my chest felt heavy.
I paced through the crowd not sure if anyone will recognise me. With such chaos, sliding between people was easy. I was, for once, grateful that humans had adopted Lithian customs. Nonetheless, to be safe, I kept my eyes pointed on the dirt, looking around only to orient myself. There was something in the air, as if eyes were nailed on me from the moment I entered the market. I was used to attracting attention, but this time felt eerie and impossible to escape.
A small girl, tied to her mother’s hand, noticed me. To the sight of my eyes, she gasped and pointed towards me, yanking her mother’s hand. She gawked, as if she was seeing a rare creature. Before her mother could turn her attention on me, I fled, waking up from my slumber. I had not the luxury of dwelling in nostalgia. I scattered between the people like a spark leaving its torch to reach the dark sky.
The wide path of the market led to the largest tavern in Wark, Hik’s Hog, my destination. On the rare occasion we were allowed to travel to Wark, my friend used to say that Hik loved butchering pigs a little too much. I never visited the tavern long enough to find out if that were true.
It was that friend I intended to meet. Nana. A once fearless, spunky girl with red pigtails and a love for song. My only letter recipient these past years. Though rare, those letters helped more as a way of keeping track of my life. Probably knowing that, she never wrote back.
When I spotted him at the clearing, I thought time had gone back to when I first met you.
Nana’s words echoed in my head as I pushed the wooden door and entered the tavern. The smell of charred meat and dry ale made my nose twitch. A gigantic room spread in front of me with tables covering the entirety of the grey stone floor. That night, every table was full all the way to the far end.
Not knowing what Nana looked like after so many years, I searched for her curly red pigtails. It was difficult to search for her while also being cut off by servers holding jugs of ale and beer. The gentle sound of the lute sounded and drew all attention to a tiny space close to the bar, dedicated to bards. And there she stood.
He was quiet, still as a doll, even as I approached him.
Her pigtails had transformed to fiery waves, washing her all the way down to her waist. It was all untamed but for a gold barrette, with emerald stones, pushing the waves safely behind her left ear. I reached the far end of the tavern, and leaned against the mouldy, stone wall when she started singing.
The thin voice of the girl who sang in the orphanage’s cellar had been remade. Now velvety and powerful, her sound pervaded the stuffed air. The little girl who used to splash her way across the cold river, in search of snowy pebbles, danced rhythmically upon the grey stones. Whether drunk or sane, people cheered and accompanied her performance with thumps on the tables.
He did not have eyes like yours, but something about his skin…
“What is wrong with her?”
“Do you reckon she’s Lithian? They have weird eyes, don’t they?”
“Never seen one this north before.”
Whispers. My eternal company. I rolled my eyes and turned my head away from them. No human in Wark had ever seen a Lithian. The few that resided in Tan’hee stayed within the capital, their aim to achieve a full immersion of the Onthropo race to Lithian ways. That is what a forty-year-long war and utter defeat had brought. Having been raised as Onthropian, I thought answers about my nature lay with the Lithians. I had almost reached the capital when Nana’s letter had reached me.
By sheer luck, a man began puking his way to the entrance. Stinky vomit or more whispers about my eyes? It wasn’t hard to choose. I followed his reeking path and reached the door once again. After mere moments, the music stopped, and Nana was showered with breadcrumbs and wilted flower petals. She searched the crowd wearing a bright smile and I lifted the object she was looking for.
A glossy river pebble, whiter than snow.
Suddenly, I was there in the middle of a vast, green valley. The wind blew ruthlessly making me shiver. Seagulls sang around me, and the wind tasted like salt. Across the valley, a horizon. Waves splashing. I walked towards their monotonous sound, tasting the fresh air, each breath leaving me hungry for more.
There loomed a steep cliff. Worn by the water, the rocks underneath were smooth and deadly. Lulled from the waves, all I needed to meet the foamy waters was one more step.
A hand seized mine.
“What are you doing?”
Nana’s voice rang so clearly in my ears. Crystal clear. For a while, Nana was a beautiful sound to me. My association of her as a person, with a body and a face, came much later. I turned slowly out of curiosity. Hints of her scarlet curls and a splatter of freckles surrounded me. But, as if an infant unknowing, I gazed deep within her green-flecked eyes.
Immediately, she melted from my view. Everything around me merged with the world being washed away and with new colours being dipped in it.
Within a mouldy dungeon, a woman sat up on the stone floor leaning against an ugly iron chair. Her brown tunic was torn and its rips revealed her torso’s deep gashes. Her hands were bruised from the tightness and weight of their chains. Her legs spread forward, surrendered. My insides twisted and I knew that my utmost effort not to vomit at the sight would fail. Yet when I hunched over, nothing came out of me.
The girl’s head was leaning backwards, resting on the surface of the chair. Her face was bludgeoned and swollen. Her dislocated jaw bore slashed lips and patches of dry blood. What had been most gruesome was her missing right eye, which laid, partly squashed, right next to her left leg. The air reeked of mud, and ceaseless waterdrops fell on the dirt one after the other.
My skin crawled at the sound of coarse laughter. The shivers on my spine overwhelmed me as I spotted a figure take shape behind the iron chair. Clothed in black, its long hands bore talons that stretched to my direction. Holding my breath, I clenched my fists only to discover an iron ring, firmly placed on my index finger. Before the darkness-wrapped figure began to move closer, I glimpsed at the woman and her oily hair whose waves fell soulless around her like remnants of a wildfire.
When I came to, I was still screaming my lungs out, bruising Nana’s hand within my clutch. Without being able to realise the minutes passing, Nana escaped and with a last scream, I caught a glimpse of her head disappearing into the forest. Panting, I could feel something within me had changed, and I thought my chest would explode. It took an eternity to breathe through it. Focusing on the edge of the forest, my eyes relished in the sun blended within the trees and the wind quietly brushed my face. One breath and then another, I eventually calmed down.
I shivered once again by the cold touch of the iron ring still placed on my finger. I stood and trailed on the footsteps of Nana, heading towards the orphanage.
Nana had always been overly expressive.
She hugged me tightly for some time, while babbling about how she couldn’t believe I was in Wark. Buried in the forest of her hair, I waited for her to calm down. We had created a hazy atmosphere of excitement and sadness, and when we finally separated, everyone in the tavern was staring. We stepped out, breathed the fresh air, and we decided to head up to the northern part of Wark. To the most prominent hill, which was at that time deserted, where the Five Guilds overlooked the entire town.
On the way, she avoided talking. I did not enjoy conversing amidst crowds and she remembered. A lot of townsfolk greeted her, and a couple of children came close to give her flowers. While Nana glowed like a rare, volcanic gem, I formed behind her an obsidian shadow. Further and further from the colourful crowd, appeared the hill, and it slowly grew upon us as we climbed it in silence.
“Your eyes are still mesmerising!” said Nana, having sat on the grass. Away from the red torches, she appeared less fiery and more like a wisp. Muted by the moonlit streams, her red hair turned into a deep, wine colour. She sat there like a dark red rose, stumbled upon a nocturnal walk in the forest.
I gave her a soft smile, trying to be friendly. Nana always felt more comfortable around me if I softly smiled at her. I had gotten good at reading others over the last two years.
“Your voice, it’s powerful now.”
“A praise? Seven years away and you can praise people now,” she said, punching me playfully in the arm and giggling. She noticed the bump my harp created underneath my cloak.
“Do you still play?”
“Yes, it still helps.”
“Happy to hear that.”
We let silence fill our minds with memories of the past. But the silence also brought forth a strangeness, as if we were both shells of what we used to be. I felt Nana’s eyes on me and saw her hand tremble. She was nervous.
“Are they treating you well? In the Guild?” We were never girls that talked a lot, even before I left Wark for my journey. I didn’t know how to help her feel comfortable to tell me about the letter.
“Oh yes!” she said, taking in a big breath, “Alan, the Guild Meister, is determined to make me the best bard in Tan’hee. He had me learning to play the lute, the harp, anything I could get my hands on, really. It proved difficult but I am proficient now.”
“Maybe we could play together sometime,” I suggested, knowing too well I hadn’t touched my harp in over two years.
“That would be lovely,” murmured Nana, her voice soft and distant. Her trail of thought felt dishevelled. I tried to look up as far as I could. Her smile disappeared. I shed mine as well.
“Tell me about what happened,” I asked firmly.
Nana sighed and looked away from me and towards the forest that spread behind the enormous buildings of the Guilds. I knew at which direction her eyes were pointed. Far away and on the other side of the mountain, there was our old home, the orphanage.
“I go there from time to time. Not as much as I would like, but often enough. The Matron is kind and lets me stay over if I help care for the children. We play, we sing, I tell them about Wark and what I know of the world.”
She scoffed. Nana used to dream of travelling far away from Tan’hee. Back then, however, people were still afraid since the war had only been over a few years. Travelling was usually done by the merchants. If you had no reason to leave, you were taught to stay still and safe, away from the unknown Lithians.
“In my last visit, we were all outside. The children had scattered across the clearing, and I sat against the entrance of the cellar, reading. I looked up for the briefest moment and there he was. Still quite far away, but lingering like a lost spirit. It shook me to my very core.”
She faced me and without the faintest of hints, looked straight into my eyes.
“He looked lost and vacant, just like you did back then,” she whispered.
Nana was the only person that looked straight into my eyes without being afraid. No vision ever occurred twice. It didn’t need to do either way; it still lived deep within my mind. I had never told Nana about what I had seen. Something within me forbade this conversation. She simply knew that when I gazed into people’s eyes, it wasn’t good for me. So, in order to prevent other children from doing it, she always avoided my eyes and let me avoid hers. Spotting her green flecks, shining gold in the night, I half expected to see her broken by that chair, in a mouldy dungeon.
“He didn’t have your eyes. But he carried himself as you did when young. A strange, iridescent mole pattern covered half of his face and disappeared underneath his ragged shirt. It sparkled iridescent. He was half-naked, bruised, and bony…”
Nana paused as she hugged her torso, shaking.
“What happened after?” I urged her, not knowing what to feel. All I wished for was to learn as much as I could. Her lips parted slowly, and her eyes were watery. As if filled with horror and guilt, she avoided my look.
“I touched him. He started shouting and slapped my hand away. He fell on his knees and held his head tightly. He screamed my name, again and again. That is when the Matron ran outside with all three carers and he started banging his head on the ground, bleeding everywhere.”
I nodded as her words trailed off. She felt guilty. A million thoughts must have rushed into her head after she had touched him. After our first meeting, her friendship with me did not bloom overnight. It took work and years before she could understand my behaviours. After all she had been through with me, she must have felt naïve of how she handled the boy.
“I’m sorry,” she said finally.
“Don’t fret over it, Nana. You couldn’t have assumed he was like me.”
I stood and she followed my example. The market shone like a makeshift sun, hypnotising me. I started heading back without really caring if Nana was coming after me.
“What are you planning to do?”
“I will head to the orphanage.”
“Right now?” she asked, worried, “It is a two-day journey on foot. It’s dangerous to leave at night.”
I pondered over it. The idea of staying in Wark overnight, and on such important occasion, overwhelmed me. When you are a traveller, people murmur but keep their distance. The longer I stayed, the more chance I would be recognised by others who had not been as kind as Nana.
I offered an apologetic smile. She frowned in disapproval, determined to not give up.
“I can arrange passage with a merchant that will head up there tomorrow. That way you will arrive faster.”
One moment of hesitation on my side was enough for Nana to start making her way towards the market. I followed. I had been selfish to think of running away. Nana did not have long. She had already started to look like the butchered woman in the dungeon.
I owed her one night.
In the middle of the market road its square was steeped in festivity. A large, wooden stage had been built, decorated with vine leaves and colourful blossoms. On it, a small stool. People looked at nothing but the bard on the stage. If the ballads would be to their liking, they would fill the stage by throwing flowers or handkerchiefs. Later on, some would take it further and provide gifts to the Guild. Such supporters received all kinds of attention. Bards would later accompany them to the tavern of their choice or would take requests and sing once more.
Nana urged me to stay and enjoy the current performance while she headed back towards the tavern, to find the beforementioned merchant and to arrange my passage. It was then that I felt it once more. The entrapment within the gaze of an inescapable pair of eyes.
Trying to recollect my thoughts, I realised the feeling had never really gone away. But now, it was stronger than a gaze. A sensation resembling an aura slowly flowed to my direction. Not quite a person yet something that felt similar. I gasped for air, feeling I was truly being submerged underwater.
Everyone was still facing the stage. Between claps and cheers, I tried to focus on the source of it all. Dizziness overpowered me, and the aura became an intoxicating poison filling my mind and body.
A hand upon my shoulder and a sharp turn shook the world around me.
Blond hair upon the wind, and a radiation of strength.
The world disappeared, and I was gone with it.