Thundering could be heard since the morning, causing people to glance at the sky nervously before shuffling back to their work. Cloudy skies were common at this time of the year, although rain had been scarce ever since the testing grounds had been established. At the very edge of the village there was a hastily pulled-together wooden hut, the newest building in the village by far. Inside, golden hued shadows danced on the quilt-covered walls, the hiss of threads being weaved on the loom the only sound breaking the oppressive silence. Hevasti was staring blankly ahead, her hands dancing through the motions mechanically, as her entire being focused on the sounds outside her door. She had been hiding away on this obscure village, as near to the testing grounds as she dared, for nearly a year now, posing as a blind weaver.
She had been on the run for nearly two years, her hunter finding her only months after the band had gone their separate ways, deciding that fighting would be easier in smaller groups. Her lot had been the Southern Plains, what used to be her birthplace before the Empire had spread, engulfing the small mountainous province. Hevasti had been shocked when she had first arrived. The wild fields at the foot of the mountains, pieces of land that should have been shining golden under the pale, late summer sun were stripped bare. Where caravans of the Mountain People had been now stood a series of concrete buildings, the smoke from their chimneys turning the sky a sickly grey.
The years on the run with her brother and the rest of the band had changed her, so much that a cloak and slightly unfocused eyes were all that it took to convince the village people of her cover story. They had made her the hut and she had repaid them in kind, weaving and sewing anything they asked of her, never accepting money, too fearful of tying herself down to a single place. She had tried to find the others, of course she had; but all communication had been lost, and they were all too talented in disguising themselves for her to be certain that any rumor reaching her had anything to do with her precious ones.
Hevasti tugged at the fabric she was weaving sharply, trying to focus herself on the present. Arta, one of the local girls was getting married after the autumn equinox and the thick white cloth –it would be the girl’s formal dress once the ceremony was over – needed to be finished by then. The weaver shuddered at the thought of a winter wedding. She almost had had one. She almost had a life once, almost settle down, left the running and hiding and killing behind. And then he had been taken from her, just at the end of the summer, conscripted to an army he hated, to fight for a cause he did not understand. They had dreamt of a daughter, a little girl called Seela. She had taken that name afterwards, a tribute to a life she was never going to have. Marti had scoffed and called her sentimental. She almost stabbed him with his own dagger, nearly mad with grief at the time, screaming that how he, her own brother could not understand, not feel anything.
Another harsh tug of the fabric and she resolutely ignored the tear that fell like a stray raindrop on her hand. She missed them, oh how she missed them! Fighting had become the center of her life, their victory – hopeless as it seemed – the only light left to her. Now she could only hide away like a scared child, locking herself inside whenever the officials from the testing facilities scouted the area for ‘volunteers.’ Her eyes fell idly to her rows of paints, precious colors once used to hide her comrades’ appearance, now reduced to instruments of manual work. How the mighty had fallen indeed…
But isn’t this life so much more comfortable? A fire blazing at your hearth, a bed, three meals a day, not having to keep a weapon on you at all times? Why would you want to go back to the fear and the uncertainty and the heartbreak? Isn’t it time? You aren’t young anymore. Surely it’s time to be selfish, think of your own needs for once.
No, these aren’t Hevasti’s musings. So close to the Empire it’s easy for them to slip into her head, plant foreign thoughts, make her lose the scraps of identity she holds on to. She isn’t that old, she never will be as long as she can yield a weapon. And why begin being selfish now, when that’s all she has been? She had been selfish when she took her brother and ran from their house, selfish when she nearly left the cause they were fighting for just for a man and a chance at a fairytale ending, selfish when she returned more broken than ever, selfish when she encouraged the breaking of the band, selfish when she hid at her old hometown, putting all the people there in danger. Selfish is her name and nature, the one thing the voices in the shadows cannot tempt her with.
The wind picked up outside, thunder echoing closer now and the door rattled under the force of the oncoming storm. Hevasti frowned. The wail of the wind sounded ominous, almost like a lament she had heard on the coastal province, sang by the family of a drowned child. He had gone swimming in the middle of a storm and never came back. They hadn’t even found the body. She had made sure of that herself. The door rattled again and Hevasti felt a shiver race down her spine. This was less like the wind and more like a person trying to get in. Her eyes snapped back at the loom in front of her, fingers mechanically continuing the motions as the door finally gave in to the violence and slammed open, the wind rushing in, blowing away the few candles, and plunging the room in nearly complete shadow.
Hevasti, Seela, turned slowly to face her visitor. The figure on the door was feminine, draped in the black folds usually worn by the assassins, her face hidden in the shadows. Silence stretched between them and then, mechanically almost, the woman at the door, her executioner, took a step forward just as her fireplace roared back to life and Hevasti jumped to her feet, because she knew that face, had fought side by side with that women and oh the betrayal hurt all the worse.
“You,” she whispered in horror, her eyes wide and scanning at the impassive woman, looking for any sign of recognition. “How can it be you?” Why you? No matter how good a cover, this is too much. You wouldn’t kill a comrade to get to a target, right Destra?” Destra took another mechanical step closer, seemingly not hearing a word, a long, needle-sharp dagger now dangling from her hand.
Step for step they danced around the room, the distance between them staying the same, Hevasti’s harsh breaths and the now raging storm outside the only sounds in the room. Her back bumped against the white fabric hanging from the loom and she choked down a sob.
“Destra, you know me,” she tried franticly again, hoping against all hope for a sign, any sign of recognition. “Marti brought you to us, I dyed your hair black, showed you how to do it on your own, how to change appearances like they’re only dresses. Remember that Duke we had to seduce, the one who thought we were siblings the three of us and walked in on you and Marti kissing? Or, or that washer woman who thought we were artists because of all the paint stains in our clothes?” Another sob, this one tumbling from her lips as her former friend she would have been a sister if you hadn’t taken her from your brother because you were jealous of his happiness closed the distance between them and raised the dagger. The wind rushed in and finally smothered the fire, darkness descending on them just like the needle-like weapon came down on her.
“I want to die in autumn,” Hevasti, Seela, Rajiya had told her brother when she was seven. It was autumn then and they were sitting at the porch of their house watching the gold and red leaves dance at the breeze.
“You are weird,” was his mumbled reply.
“But why not?” her fingers brushed the fallen leaves around them. “Everything else dies in the autumn, why not us? Wouldn’t it be nice to know when you’ll die? To know how much time you have? Everything would be much more fun if you knew it was the last time you were doing it! Even boring stuff like, like,” she looked around, searching for something appropriately boring. “Watering the plants!” she concluded triumphantly. “Wouldn’t it be fun if you knew, you’d never ever ever do it again?”
“No,” her brother said, poking an ant with a twig. “It’d be sad. What if it was something you really liked? Or someone important? Goodbyes are not fun.” Rajuya frowned thoughtfully.
“No,” she sighed. “I suppose not.”
The precious white cloth was stained red with her blood and it was probably ruined. Rajiya thought absently what a disappointment that’d be for Arta when she found out. Her legs gave out and she slumped against the skeleton of her loom, slowly bleeding out. Her assassin long gone, she looked at the hut that was to be her tomb before dipping a finger in the small pool of blood at her feet and slowly, painstakingly, she wrote her name, the true one, on the floor. The eternal night was drawing near and with a wet chuckle Hevasti Seela Rajiya laid herself on the floor next to her name.
“Guess I got my wish,” she whispered to the storm still moaning outside and then she was no more.