Chapter 1: The Tainted
The breeze is rarely still this high on a mountain, especially near the coast where the wind blows freely on the high seas. That’s why the people here are used to it; their houses have no glass windows, only metal bars and wooden panels that they close whenever the wind gets unbearable. I guess it makes the neighbourhood look more like a prison than a place of residence. Which is ironic since you’d be hard-pressed to find a more exclusive place to live. Well, there is the capital, of course; rich people live there too. But then there is also the Tower of Avos… there is no comparing the splendour there – so I’ve heard.
I don’t know much about the world, not really. I’ve read a lot about it, but never seen it for myself. Not that I need to go anywhere. My future is set here in the city of Vale, after all. It is my home, and always will be.
The wind blew through the paved streets, whining eerily and making wooden panels crash into the walls of the neighbouring houses. A large street snaked through the neighbourhood, connecting alleyways and smaller streets into one. Along it, a lone a boy walked with a stack of books in his arms.
As the gust became stronger, the boy staggered and almost dropped the stack that reached to his chin. The boy glared into the nothingness, as if he could make the wind apologise for its rudeness. But even though the wind had almost made him fall over, he still welcomed the cool air on his face, the books too many for him to carry on his own.
However, he didn’t complain, for it wasn’t every day when the Grand Master would allow him to borrow books of his own choosing. And as a result, he had become greedy, picking one rare volume after the other. Fendrael licked his lips as he glanced at the stack in his arms. The effort would be worth it once he got home and got reading.
With his arms aching under the strain, he knew he had to find a place to rest. Looking around, he found only empty streets with vendors closing shop for the day. However, the porches of the resident houses looked inviting and he decided to invade one of them, hoping that the person living there wouldn’t mind, or wasn’t home.
Fendrael’s breath was deep when he placed the books on the dry wood and sat down next to them. Though, he was tired and wanted to lay down, he instead eyed his precious stack with a wide grin on his face, trying to decide which one he would read first.
He had never heard most of the copies he’d picked out, and many of the author’s names were unfamiliar to him. Though, the Grand Master had assured him they were famous writers in their own time and well worth exploring. For some reason, the past excited him more than the present. The thoughts and ideas of his ancestors seeming more important, more real, than the current.
But, enjoying older works had it’s difficulties as the language is bound to change through the ages, even if they once were derived from the same common tongue of the capital. When he explored the Grand Master’s private library, he’d even come across great works in different languages entirely, which made Fendreal appreciate how well travelled the old man was. The very thought of places with culture so different than his own, that was elusive to himself, made him shiver with excitement. Everything different from here was better in his opinion.
Scanning the titles, Fendrael’s smile vanished as he laid his eyes on one of them: “Proper Etiquette and Behaviour For Noble Gentlemen: Volume One”.
He had no choice but to read these kinds of books, as well, he recalled grumpily. It was the only condition from his father that allowed him to read the books he really wanted.
One and every third book must be a “proper book”, his father had told him, and not one of those “fairy tales” that you always seem to enjoy.
Fendrael snorted at the idea that his interest were fairy tales. They may hold little relevance today, but they tell of times he would never experience, and places that he would never see. This was enough to get him excited, for he wasn’t going anywhere; he’d known it all his life and had accepted it.
Fendrael’s mind turned to gloom as his thoughts lingered on the idea, that these streets were the only thing he would see until he died, carrying on his lineage with duty and pride.
With his breath settling, Fendrael gazed at the sun that was setting between two tall buildings at the end of the street. The neighbourhood will darken soon, he thought, and dusk will follow soon after.
Revelling in the silence, his body twitched when he realised how late he was. He cursed beneath his breath and prepared to gather up his things, but then he hesitated and took another look at the sun. He estimated it would set within the hour; he wouldn’t be able to make it home before then. Realising he would get a scolding no matter how much he hurried, Fendrael took his time and strolled through the street. His arms beginning to ache again.
Looking determinedly ahead, he winced as a small piece of ember sailed by his face. Fendrael stopped and stared at it inches from his nose, the ember still glowing slightly. But soon, it was picked up by the wind and whisked away into the sky. Fendrael followed it with his eyes and froze, dropping his precious books on the street.
He gawked at what he saw. Embers covering the entire sky, glowing in dark orange – enhanced by the dusk light. His head turned in the opposite direction where the wind blew and his stomach knotted at the cluster of blackness the embers formed over the houses.
All his thoughts about reading vanished then, replaced by a seething fear that made him bolt into the nearest alley. The alley was dark and narrow, and he was unable to see anything expect the light at the end of the street. Despite not knowing what lay before his feet, he urged himself forward – he would know for sure where the fire started once he got to the lookout. Reaching the end of the alley, he climbed a barrier at the edge of the mountain and peered at the city below. Countless buildings formed before his vision, with a great city wall reaching from the coast on one side, to the mountain on the other.
Immediately as he watched, he found the source of the embers and his body lost its tension, almost making him fall over the ledge.
Now safely sitting with his back turned against the wall, he blew a sigh of relief; the lives down below no concern of his.
He always thought it was odd, the effort his ancestors put into building an entire district on the side of a mountain when it would have been easier to build on the flat ground as the rest of the city. But upon this day, he could imagine the purpose the district was built for, to keep the fickle lives of the rabble away. He praised his ancestors then for their foresight.
Looking around he found more people gathering at the lookout, people hunching over the wall and peering at the flames with grins on their faces. The flames brightening their otherwise dull lives. Seeing their enjoyment, he felt ashamed that he could not share in it.
He himself took no enjoyment in the death of others, though, he had to admit, it fascinated him. Letting his breath settle, the roars of the flames reached his ears, drowning all other sounds around him. The longer he listened, the more clearly he could distinguish faint screams of despair picked up by the wind. The sounds joining together into a symphony of chaos.
Help…! Have mercy…! Avos help us…!
As the sounds became louder and louder, he pressed his hands against his ears and curled his head towards his chest.
You Vaan scum…! I’ll kill all of you…! There they are…! Burn you filth! Burn!… Monsters…
Suddenly, the muscles around his chest tightened and he grunted in pain. The air seemed to suck away from his lungs and he gasped as he trembled on the spot. His thoughts went to his mother and he repeated her name, calling her out. But her name did not soothe him and only after recalling his father’s strained expression did he manage to snap out of it and rise to his legs.
Standing stiffly facing his district, he looked around, suddenly concerned if anybody saw him tremble. But when he saw the people gathering at the lookout had their attention set elsewhere, he sighed with relief. Appearance was everything, he had been taught. Embarrassed he turned around to the chaos and imitated the people around him. Watching the destruction, he realised the voices were now gone and he could only hear the sparks and roars of the flames.
How he was able to hear voices in the first place, he didn’t know. But he shouldn’t have been able to, all the sounds around him drowning out any semblance of words. Was it all in his head? Considering this deeply, his mind snapped back to reality when he heard a great clang in the distance. He turned his head in the direction of the gates that separated his district with the next. And with a pang of fright, he wondered if the chaos had spread all the way up here.
He considered going home then, but with the humiliation fresh in his mind, he decided to head out towards the commotion. He had to face these vermin without showing empathy. A good look at their miserable faces would prove that he didn’t care for The Tainted.
Following the wall, he headed towards the gate as the sun set in the east while his father’s words echoed in his mind:
The Tainted are not worthy of our concern, our empathy. Their blood is tainted and they are traitors to our race. Their ancestors made this choice and the rebellious blood still lingers in the minds of the people today. They need to be shown they do not stand above us – always. Lest they will take their chance and dethrone us.
As he got closer, the rattle of iron against iron amplified, and after turning around the corner, he came across a great barred gate that separated the two districts. On the opposite side, a mob had gathered, and soldiers stood at the ready on his side of the gate. They were clad in armour and armed with tall spears that looked more adorned than functional. The blades at the tip twisting in beautiful angles.
Standing a distance away, leaning his hand against a house next to him, he watched intently at what transpired. A large man came forth – his helmet too tall for his head – bellowed out a command that made the soldiers snap into formation. Somehow, the large man’s voice drowned the desperate shrieks of people on the other side as they tried to press through the gate.
Fendrael’s heart pounded when the bars of the gate swayed at the combined strength of the crowd. He expected the Tainted to be enraged, with murder in their eyes. But upon taking a closer look, their eyes showed not hatred, only fear and desperation shone through.
Many of them tried to squeeze through the bars to get inside, but they were unsuccessful as they were far too big to get through. As the people at the front was forced into the bars by others pushing further behind, a small child managed to squeeze through. The crowd cheered. But the moment was fleeting, as the child was immediately cut down by one of the soldiers, killing the child instantly.
Seeing the death of the child and hearing the mother’s shrieks of sadness and rage, Fendrael’s legs were no longer able to support him and he felt the muscles around his chest start to ache again.
He had come here to prove his indifference, instead, he had reaffirmed his fears that he could not hate these people and he wanted to get away and forget what he had seen.
But as his legs were no longer able to support him, he watched the commander bellow out another command. In unison, the soldiers lowered their spears and slowly marched towards the gate. The people on the other side tried to get away, but the people further back (ignorant of the danger) continued to push, and soon, the spears penetrated their bodies.
No matter how much Fendrael wanted to get away, he could not take his eyes of the twisted faces of pain that the Tainted expressed. They were no different from him, he was certain. Why then were they considered lower than him? When they bled and cried like the rest of us?
Despite the blood and fear in front of him, he felt watched and he moved his head to the corner of the gate. At that corner, a lone a girl stood motionless, gazing at him. Her expression was blank and her eyes were white as snow. So different from colourful gazes of the Tainted and his own kind. Who was she? She who were unaffected by the turmoil around her. The spears seemed to avoid her and the people around her seemed unable to touch her. If it hadn’t been for her hair catching in the wind, he wouldn’t have believed that she was really there.
Unable to look away, he winced as he felt a hand placed on his shoulder. Fendrael snapped his head around and saw his father standing over him. His mother hurrying to them from behind. They were both sweating and panting, their worry apparent in their eyes.
Upon seeing them, all the tension drained out of him and he slumped in his father’s arms, his mind slipping away, into the safeness of his dreams.