Hooves like thunder crashed over the earth, and Aru leaped to her feet sharing a look of concern with Sira. Her friend shrugged and went on ahead, unhindered by any threat it presented. At times like this, Aru wondered if it was she that lacked boldness or her friend that lacked sense. Even if Sira had control over her gift, surely she could hear that inner cacophony of emotions too. What makes her run towards it?
Like a black storm cloud of swirling fear and anger they swept in. The southern field came ablaze with the heads of men rising up over its hills, dressed as if for battle, in helmets and breastplates and with swords at hips. The rear was drawn up of a mixed crowd, of men in robes or plain linens, some with staffs or spears or nothing at all.
To come all this way, there was no mistake where they intended to be. Rose Hill was the highest peak in the southern Earth cities, and the last one to be reached on an upward climb. But why? And with armed men? Aru could not begin to think. She clutched Sira’s arm as they fell behind a bush at the Grove’s edge. “Do you know anything about this?”
“Let’s find out.” Sira tried to shake her arm loose, but Aru held her tight.
“What are you doing? You don’t know why they’re here. Or if it’s safe.”
“You won’t find out by hiding in a bush, Aru!
The first of the Zaari seemed a peculiarity, like a flash of the imagination drifting by and then gone. Zosimos had only time to blink and the girl was nowhere to be seen. Until suddenly they appeared in multiples, every which way, it felt more like a dream.
The sketching in his hands was not exactly right. They bore striking similarities, true enough. Every head was as surely horned as it was capped in all different hues of red and crimson hair. And long ears that stuck out in points would be the envy of any wild animal. Yet they were not so ******* as the drawing would suggest. In fact, they looked properly human in every other aspect. But those markings, those black tear-lines on their cheeks, were definitively the image of Zaar, as he had been known in the old ages and his portrait captured. Perhaps most frightening of all were those pure white eyes, like fog trapped in a bottle, seeming to stare at no one in particular and yet see everything.
Zosimos’ chest tightened with each passing glance, as nervous faces turned from one to the next, then back his direction. News of the knights’ arrival had not spread as far as Rose Hill, it seemed. The men began picking their way slowly down the road, empty but for a few young children frozen mid-play in the dirt. Not a word was spoken among them, yet they appeared to catch each others’ understanding. Quickly, they scattered from the streets and into open doors. Others peered from windows or just above the tall grasses. The world held its breath, and Zosimos felt his heart thumping along noisily.
He trotted his horse up the road close behind the knights’ line. They had kept a fair distance apart from the commoners and even the sages for the whole ride, though they gave little explanation for anything. Occasionally a word or name slipped out, but not enough to make sense of. Much as he strained to listen, the constant ramblings of the men beside or behind him made any other noise like a distant bee’s buzzing.
For part of the journey, he was joined on foot by a boy named Riel, who was the captain’s servant. One day he would be a knight too, he proclaimed. It was not all idle conversation, but Zosimos had preferred the company of silence and his own thoughts to focus on the task ahead. It was difficult enough trying to find a way around all these men without knowing their intentions toward the Zaari. He had to thank them for giving him a clear path here at the least.
The Sages were all ranges of upset by the whole thing, if slightly more forthcoming. One of the Trueborn was here, he had heard in whispers. For most, that name seemed to hold different meanings. A reincarnation of one of the gods. A child born with the powers of a god. The manifestation of a true god, be that Zaar himself or another. The villagers had made a spectacle of the possibilities from what scraps they caught onto. In Sage Azarias’ words, the words she claimed to be of the Goddess Za’akil’ina, it was Zaar’s Daughter whom they sought. By the look of it, that could be any woman or girl child here.