The tree gives birth in waves. First is the sprouting of its seedling after the breeding ritual. Then, the growth of it into a sapling, its colour turning from the green of its roots to stark white, the colour of northern magical properties. In this stage, the tree will reveal the imagery of the offspring it would give birth to as it develops a bough or boughs. Most of them can only have one or two. Sometimes, when the Garya Current brings the Southern air into the desert, sweeping through the wasteland in a small imitation of the Eternal Storm, the tree would grow three. However, this is a subject of many conflicting words of mouth told in generations of the Shepherd line. The third wave is when the trunk thickens and the boughs take their full shapes, twisting down avoiding the suns in the day and upwards to the hollow moon in night-time. Lupine heads take shape, frozen in its connection with the roots. As it blooms, the petals are delicate and fragile in deceitful appearance because even the most resilient desert storm cannot sway them. The forth wave is when the Shepherd or one of their chosen novices comes to bear witness. Sanjanara will stretch its paws and sever its roots when the appointed one is ready, heart and soul, never before. Time itself is uncertain in regards of the tree. Only threads of fate can determine the coming of each wave.
There goes the weight of the restricting chains, falling onto the sand. Her hands are free after twenty days of binding. The evidence of it still branded on her skin, red marks, scratches, felt through the numbness of her fingers where warmth creeps back to the tips. A deep breath of relief. A small comfort. A wiggling of fingers to make sure they are still there and not mere illusions like one tends to find in the heat of a desert like this.
Irina looks up to the guard. The suns are shining from behind him, shadowing his face and the mark on his forehead, his clouded eyes like plates of milk in the hollow valley that leads to the peak of his pointed nose. Lips wide yet so thin, they practically disappeared in the silhouette of his prominent cheekbones. This man has no sign of humanity whatsoever etched on his features. But twenty days is not enough to learn the whole life of a sightless Royal Guard, so Irina dares not to assume anything about his qualities other than the basic knowledge of him being another one of the Queen’s watchdogs. He never laid a hand on her or treated her unfairly during her containment. The only times she would see him before today were when he delivered her daily meals three times a day through the decrepit bars of her cell.
The journey from the prison to the desert was the longest time she had spent in his faithfully silent company. They are accompanied by two other guards she has never seen before and the Royal Spellcrafter herself. She is unremarkable by sight, a small, bald woman wearing thin, light, practical robes with the colour of moss. If not for the spells written in various white shapes all over her visible skin, she would be dismissed as an eccentric vagrant. She clutches a wooden stick of no significance in her right hand to complete her appearance. Impatience radiates from her body, apparent in the tilt of her brow, the tightening of her mouth. With her hand, she motions for the guard to continue his work.
After pocketing the key to Irina’s chains, the guard moves his unseeing eyes from her small, dust-stricken face to the lone tree that stands in front of them, rendering a part of the circular ‘looking’ spell on his forehead visible in the light of the suns.
The tree has two boughs hanging low from the ground. Impressions of heads, eight legs, and tails are visible from Irina’s point of view.
The guard’s hand comes down on her shoulder to hold her in place. They are waiting.
In the distance, two men and a pack of wolves are coming towards them.
The Spellcrafter tells the new strangers her name. Her crime. The verdict. And then, one of them puts his hand against the bough, right at the end of its snout. He falls silent for a moment before turning to the people from the city.
“She seems ready,” the short stranger tells the Spellcrafter. “Leave her here and come back in a fortnight. We will stand watch. If she’s still here, you can bring her back to Vardu. If she’s not here, she will be with us.”
The Spellcrafter nods. “I leave her in your capable hands, Shepherd.”
They leave unceremoniously, treading the path back to the way they came. Clinking of the now useless binding chains accompanies their journey. The blind guard turns at one point and tilts his head in silent farewell. At least, that is what Irina thinks the guard does. With every blow of the wind, the impressions of their feet are disappearing in the sand.
The Shepherd and his companion introduce themselves.
“I am Galni and this is Somran.” He gestures to his partner who lifts his palms upward in salute. “Sanjanara have no names. They are what you make of them.”
There are nine of them, Irina notes. The biggest wolf that seems to be the leader of the pack is sitting down facing the tree while the others are roaming the area freely around them.
“They are animals,” Irina says.
“Oftentimes that is true.” Somran nods. “But once you know them, you will see and feel much more than what they are now.”
“Feel?” She turns to Galni. “What does it mean? What do you want me to do?”
“Stay there and wait for the suns to fall,” Galni says as he turns around to go. “We will make camp on the other side of the dune.”
Somran follows him. Irina is left behind with the wolves. A familiar feeling of being alone is present. She sits beside the biggest wolf and waits.
By nightfall in the desert, Irina has forgotten the face of the blind guard. She tries to remember the ridges of his features, but all she can see in her mind’s eye is the ‘looking’ spell on his forehead and nothing else. Most likely it is because of the leftover traces of the spell. It grants the bearer sight and inflicts people nearby with the feeling of being watched. Now that she thinks about it, the guard must be an elite breed to be trusted with such a high-level spell on his person. She cannot remember learning anything about ordinary prison guards being trained to the level of earning a spell.
Of course, considering the crime she committed, it is no surprise that the Queen herself wanted to watch her closely.
She is just contemplating all of these new facts when, all of a sudden, the wolf beside her stands on its four paws and backs away from the tree.
A loud cracking of broken woods is heard.
Someone—or something—is humming her name in a song. Her heart mirrors the beat of it.
The fallen bough is now a wolf, shaking the petals on its head and embracing life. It approaches her slowly. She is unmoved, but the voice in her head screams for her to get away. Her body is not hers. As if drawn to them, her hand rises to stroke the wolf’s head, covered in petals. The light of the hollow moon disappears and darkness comes in the stark white of the wolf’s eyes, not unlike those of the sightless guard’s.
The blood of the sovereign shall fill the cups of our toast tonight.
Red streaked in green all over is a sign of fungal intervention.
No one will miss him. He was a villain, a traitor to the cause.
Power for the fallen, the disgraced, the forgotten, skyless people!
Irina, your mother is outside to see you. Will you see her?
You will be missed. You have been missed.
Irina opens her eyes to see the person she failed to kill standing over the first person she had killed.
“You were nine when you first killed a man?” He looks down to the dead man with a knife jutting out from between his ribs.
“You’re not real.” She cannot feel her hands, her body. Phantom feelings of her being and the words coming out of her imaginary mouth are all she has.
“How did it feel?” He walks around the corpse, both arms behind his body. He exists in whole while she becomes a ghost in her own memory.
“Are you the wolf?”
He looks at Irina and smiles. “I want to help.”
“Is this my punishment?”
“If you want it to be.”
This is a waking dream, she decides. And this person is an illusion.
“You do have to indulge me by answering my questions.”
The place is an alleyway in Undavardu, where the people who were born skyless live. Irina is crying, sitting down beside her kill. The man was forcing himself on her and she fought back. Now, her hands will forever be dirty. She wonders which is worse—surviving by enduring the pain or sacrificing her soul altogether.
“It felt terrible.” She is now in her body, younger and crying over the monster she slew, the one who had stolen her innocence. Wailing, calling for help that will never come.
“How did you let go of this crying child and turn into the cold assassin who tried to kill me?”
Irina falls silent. She stands up from her helpless seat against the stone wall. Drenched in blood and tears, she stares down the man who slipped from her grasp by an inch. His throat bears the mark of her dagger.
“I was surviving.” Anger rises in her and the last thing she remembers doing there is pulling the knife from the corpse to finish her task. To open the line on his throat and let flow the royal blood from his veins down to the mouth of the forgotten people.
Galni hovers above her. His face in the firelight looks soft and friendly. Irina only blinks and coughs.
“Do not worry, this is a process.” He offers her a slice of meat and a tin of water. “The first time is always shocking.”
She refuses the meat and takes the water. The burning in her throat recedes as she drinks.
“How did they do that?” Irina asks to Somran who is stroking the petals of the newborn wolf, now severed from its roots. The whiteness of its bark looks menacing in the night.
“The Sanjanara do what they will,” Somran answers flatly like reading a well-remembered scripture. “What they will do nobody knows.”
“Don’t listen to him.” Galni smiles fondly at his companion. “They feed on the pain inside you and take them away, but they will only help you if you let them.”
“That did not feel like helping.” Irina shivers, recalling the invading presence in her head.
“This one is still stretching its paws and trying to know itself.” Somran pats the newborn wolf and it responds by nudging his side and sniffs. “By being your guide, it will grow and be its own creature. Right now, it needs to learn emotions and memories from you.”
Irina’s guide wolf leaves Somran’s side and lies down beside her. It goes to sleep peacefully, like every natural thing in the desert.
In her dream, the conversation continues like this.
“They saved me.”
“Don’t you think they took over your life?”
“If they left me in the streets, I would have died.”
“But they forced you to do things that frightened you.”
“I stopped being frightened when they told me the truth about the Vardunians.”
“Was it the truth if you’ve never heard another voice about the Vardunians?”
“I didn’t need another voice, I just needed a purpose.”
“How about now?”
“You have failed. They will not accept you anymore.”
“I... I don’t know.”
“What do you want to do now?”
“I have never had the luxury to think about what I want, I was born skyless.”
“But sky is not a privilege, it is a choice.”
“I think I need to find that knife again and cut your tongue with it.”
“Why did she spare your life, the Queen?”
“You mean your mother.”
“I’m not the Prince, I’m the wolf, remember?”
“Stop it. I... I don’t know.”
“Maybe that’s why she let you live, to find out the reason.”
“Of being alive. That’s your new purpose.”