Scars of Ayah

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The dense forest canopy shifted overhead, like the pulsing throat of a giant beast. Orange torchlight flickered underneath, painting the bark, leaves, and branches with dark shades of persimmon. Shouting and stomping boomed through the air, drowning out the agitated cries of forest wildlife as it scurried, crawled, and flew away in the midst of the raucous group's advance.

There must be over a dozen of them, Teag thought, as he scampered along the uneven ground, dodging tree trunks. Imperial soldiers always loved a good chase, but this had been going on for hours. Teag's legs twitched and spasmed as he hurried onward. He knew what they would do when they found him. He understood what he'd done. No one would dare offer him shelter, not even his fellow Ayahli.

The kingdom of Ayah held no love for the Argan Empire, but its people had suffered through enough imperial cruelty to make them hesitant to provoke them. Few held as much bravado or incompetence as Teag, but he'd gotten that from his father. I remember when he left for the war, he thought as he threw himself down to the bottom of a deep ravine. He ducked his head, trying to hide under the web of roots that jutted out from the ravine's edge. The painful memory seeped into his mind in fragments.

A herald rode into their village that day, racing in from the forest clearing like a frightened bird. He brought tidings of war, war with Arga. Ayah was to join Koterra and Viroda in their resistance against the imperials. Father left that day. His cape danced in the wind as he turned his back on us, raising his spear. Teag fought against his heart's aching, trying to keep quiet as the patrol closed in. He didn't mean to abandon us; he was doing his duty. He couldn't have known that he'd never return or that Mother would get sick.

The soldiers stood above him now, their torches illuminating the slight gap in the columns of trees. Teag's limbs shook, nervous jitters rippling through his body. His breathing echoed in his head, and he focused on limiting it. More shallow, less frequent. It worked, as he heard the Argans begin to march south, along the ravine's edge and away from him. He'd begun to plan his careful retreat when it all fell apart.

One of the imperial soldiers' legs caught a thick vine, and he toppled over, tumbling down to the bottom of the ravine with a chaotic thud. The Argan foreigner landed just a couple feet away from Teag, and his head darted up at the Ayahli. Teag brandished a curved, slender knife from his side, and dashed forward at the fallen man. Too late. The Argan screamed, alerting his comrades. Teag stopped him short, slicing through the man's neck before he'd finished shouting. Warm, crimson blood splattered onto the dried leaves and twigs below. I've gotta move.

Teag hurried up the ravine and back into the dense thicket of trees. The forest was Ayah's great barrier against the oppressive Argans, after all. It hadn't helped win the war, though. Viroda fell to the imperials first, being raised to the ground and renamed New Arga. The Kotterans fared better, achieving a bloody stalemate along the passes of their mountain range. The Ayahli had no such luck. The Argans defeated their armies and pushed deep past the borders of the forest, killing and burning indiscriminately. The invaders set up forts along the perimeter, cutting down trees and processing prisoners. The Ayahli's fighting spirit broke, and the kingdom's surrender soon followed.

Cowards, Teag thought as a passing branch tore into his arm, opening a thin line in his skin. My father fought them to his dying breath, as everyone should've. Sticky blood oozed down his elbow, droplets falling as he ran. If we'd just kept fighting, maybe things would be different. I'm never gonna give up, not until they kill me. Teag held onto that thought as he raced forward, struggling with the immense fatigue. He didn't have an idea where he was running, but he needed to keep going as he heard the Argans pursuing him not far behind.

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