Like a fleck of ash, rising in the smoke and heat of a night-time fire, like an eagle soaring up into the clouds, Tarjana slowly began to regain consciousness.
It was no small thing.
She couldn't remember going to sleep, so waking from sleep confused her.
In Tarjana's world, confusion was always a dangerous, potentially fatal thing. Worried about where she was, uncomfortable both physically and emotionally, uncertain of everything, Tarjana lay as still as she could, counterfeiting unconsciousness, doing all she could to slow her breathing to what she took to be normal for someone asleep.
If she had been left unmolested in her sleep, then it was reasonable to seem to continue that sleep as she gathered her wits.
But where was she?
Unable to remember where she was and unable even to remember lying down to sleep - last night? - Tarjana knew she had to be cautious, to persuade whoever might have taken her, whoever might be holding her, that she was unaware, not a threat.
Was she alone?
Were the others like her?
Where were the guards? Captors?
She didn't know.
Again she probed her memory, but again there was nothing more than a vague sense of loss, though even to give it the name 'loss' was to change it, to make it into something it wasn't. Tarjana felt that something had changed, something been taken, something been given, but had no idea what any of it might be, might mean.
This in itself should have scared her – and it did – but she set that aside; she simply didn't have the time to be afraid right now, didn't have the time to show her fear. If she lived through this – whatever this was – she would have the time to be afraid later.
Again she asked herself, was she alone, hoping it would trigger some memory, but nothing came to take away the black abyss of unremembering.
Yet she must be alone, for if she were not, surely there would be some memory, some sound, something to tell her if she were in the company of an enemy, a captor - or even a lover.
And if it were not another man keeping her company, then even an animal, some predator that had found her, perhaps wounded her, and was waiting for its hunger to rise high enough that she became its next meal, even that would make some betraying sound.
But still there was nothing. Nothing.
Pushing that aside as fruitless, Tarjana settled on an inventory of what she could tell of where she was now, regardless of what had happened to bring her to this place, wherever it was.
Focusing on her sense of touch, Tarjana realised she was warm, not the warmth of a fire, more the warmth of a sunny day. There was more, she realised, the warmth and the dull orange glow behind her eyelids told her it was daytime ... sometime. The heat seemed to be pretty much overhead, making it sometime within an hour or so either side of noon.
At last, Tarjana had a fact to cling to, to build on.
More, the heat was more, the sun brighter than she was used to, so she had to be on an exposed position somewhere.
But what kind of place could that be?
Concentrating on where she lay, Tarjana could feel a hardness to the ground ... rock perhaps? Slowly moving her awareness through each of the places where her body touched the ground – her arms, her thighs, her ankles, her ass, her breasts, the side of her head – each of these confirmed she was lying on some large rocks – or a single large rock - somewhere exposed, and that probably meant high ... but where?
Wondering if her sense of smell might tell her something, Tarjana slowly took a deep breath, the kind deep sleepers took – she hoped – but that told her nothing more than that there was a leafy jungle not too far from 'here'...
At once a chain of memories hit her in quick succession, their strength causing her to gasp aloud in shock despite the imagined danger she was in.
Tarjana suddenly remembered sleeping in ape nests – something called the Harrowing – caught by the Watrali – hung on an execution frame – gutted like bushmeat – dying ... dying!
All caution forgotten in the aftershocks of her memories, Tarjana's eyes opened wide as she sat upright in absolute mind-numbing shock, only then remembering she had no memory of where she was, no idea of why she was there...
But there was nothing.
Tarjana could now see she was alone atop a small rocky mound, thrust up from the jungle, one last bastion against the intractable green. Maybe two dozen strides at its widest, half a dozen at its narrowest, the crest of the mound rose up higher than the canopy, giving her an unobstructed view for miles in every direction.
Breathing hard, almost panicking, Tarjana scrambled to her feet, desperately scanning around, looking for ... what?
In every direction, all she could see was the jungle, birds, occasional and indistinct animals in occasional clearings, and the mountains that rimmed the jungle, far, far away on the horizon, and even they were the dull green of distant jungle.
It made no sense.
And those memories?
The feel of the blade, opening her belly???
Her memories were telling her she had died, but how could she have died ... she was alive!?
She certainly felt alive, felt good, felt as good as she could remember ever feeling.
Tarjana smiled to herself; she had to admit she could not remember all that much, so memories of feeling better or worse were ... unreliable at best.
Closing her eyes in concentration, Tarjana grasped at the shreds of the ... memories of ... what?
There were no such things, no such peoples.
The jungle was empty of human life, at least, life like that.
There were no tribes, no peoples, there were only families and individuals, all of them trying to snatch life from the dripping teeth of the green. Some of them came together in small groups, usually extended families, sometimes friends, but never more than a dozen adults plus their children. They were not tribes. There was no Watrali.
Again Tarjana shook her head, dismissing such thoughts.
It was time to be practical, time to concentrate on the daily battle for survival.
Looking for the first time more closely where she stood, Tarjana saw to the end of the outcrop where she had awakened and now furthest from her a collection of goods. Crossing the distance between them in lithe, easy strides, Tarjana knelt down as she examined her find. First to grab her attention was a knife, in its sheath, lying where she had been lying, just as if she had taken it off to sleep, but kept it close by in case she needed it. Beside the knife, there was a small waterskin, and a halter and briefs of some fur, a musk-cat, perhaps, from the pattern of its now tailored pelt.
Crouching down, Tarjana took the stopper from the waterskin, sniffed, found no foul smell, not even a smell of staleness, so she cautiously put the neck to her lips and took a sip. The water was ... water; still, warm, and seemingly clean. Tarjana took another sip before stoppering the waterskin. The rest she knew to keep until she could find a source to replace what she had drunk, though the waterskin was weighty enough to hold perhaps enough water for three days, if she were careful, and if she got out of the sweat-drawing sun quickly.
Kneeling on the rocks, Tarjana gratefully drew on the halter, her firm breasts too large to be unhaltered. For a moment Tarjana shivered; after waking naked, the feeling of cloth against her skin, fur though it was, was odd, almost unwelcome. But it was also necessary. Without the halter, her breasts would get in the way, and any distraction could spell the difference between life and death.
Next came the briefs, briefs that were very brief, almost not sufficient even to cover her smoothly-shaven slit. Thankfully Tarjana was not so deeply slit hat she showed above the top of her breifs, but it was only a matter of a finger's with. Again, her briefs felt odd too, but it too was necessary for her health and hygiene. Shrugging at the necessities of life – why didn't animals need such, she absently wondered – Tarjana turned her attention to the knife's sheath. Made of stiff leather, Tarjana saw it had two small straps to one side with which to secure it. Untying her briefs at her left hip, Tarjana threaded the straps on to the twine of her briefs, and retied them. The sheath was, she was surprised to discover, a good design, resting on her hip bone but allowing her to move freely. Thanking whatever demon had provisioned her thus, Tarjana picked up the accompanying knife. It was, Tarjana saw, a simple, honest, but deadly knife. With a sturdy leather-wrapped hilt some six inches in length, the basic design had a small guard that separated the hilt from a blade of about nine inches, tapering to a point, edged on the one side but dull on the other.
Tarjana turned the blade over in her hand, testing the weight, and was pleased with the result. It was a good blade.
Smiling, Tarjana dropped the knife into its sheath, making a couple of minor adjustments to the position of the now-weighted sheath so that it was properly fitted, ready to be drawn quickly, to protect, to kill, as the situation demanded.
Feeling herself dressed, not as she had in halter and kini briefs, but in fastening on her knife, Tarjana finally picked up the waterskin and slung it over her shoulder, its belt over her left shoulder and down between her breasts so that the waterskin rested against her right hip, an ad hoc counterweight to the knife on her left.
Finally, she decided, she was ready – but for what?
She had water, but she had nothing to eat, and that must be her first priority.
Arbitrarily deciding to head north, Tarjana carefully clambered down from the rock of her unknown rebirth and headed into the green.
Tarjana had been walking in the jungle for perhaps an hour, certainly no more than two, when it came to her that this really was not the jungle she was used to. It was too dense, much more dense than the jungle she remembered learning her green-craft in. The jungle of ... of... yesterday? was so much easier to navigate through, but this was almost impossible, and she recognised nothing.
That thought alone unsettled Tarjana. Though it must have been a dream, could not have been anything else, she still remembered how, just yesterday, she was captured, bound, and executed, slaughtered for the glory of some god or demon.
It must have been a dream, but it was so real.
What was more confusing was that Tarjana remembered her green-craft, all of it, yet set against that, here she was, somehow alive, though she remembered the abyss of death, in a jungle that was not her jungle.
And it really was not her jungle.
The trees! There were more of them, taller, with fewer leaves on their branches save for those of the canopy.
Matching the trees for their differentness, the undergrowth she was slowly, laboriously making her way through, it too was different, somehow less, with fewer leafy bushes, more trunks and vines.
Even the animals and birds were almost alien, so different were they. Since entering the green from the rocky outcrop she had awoken upon, Tarjana had seen almost no animals, a few spiders, a couple of snakes, but nothing more, nothing larger – nothing she could hunt for food. Likewise the birds seemed duller; there had been one with a red throat-sack, but other than that, nothing that was not grey or dun or black, and all of them so wary of her it seemed that could never have seen another human. Even in Tarjana's jungle – the jungle of yesterday as she began to think of it – there were sufficient occasional humans to accustom the birds enough for them to be ignored; but not here.
Tarjana shook her head; these doubts, these memories that must be memories of fevered dreams, when would they go away, when?
To distract herself, Tarjana took a moment to stand still, to close her eyes, and to let her awareness reach out to the green, to seek, to find, to know. It was an old trick she had been taught, as a child; when you are in a new place, pause and listen to it, let it come to you, don't continue crashing about like a blind thing, be a woman of the green.
As Tarjana fell still, she heard the signs of animal and birds, smelt their smells and those of the trees and the undergrowth and even – yes! – of something flowering sweetly but too deep within the green to see. More, Tarjana began to hear the sounds of individual animals, the movements of birds in the trees and-
-there! To her right, maybe ten minutes deeper into the green, the sounds of apes of some kind, a couple, no, a family, maybe three, maybe more, eating.
Tarjana opened her eyes and smiled – soon she would have her bushmeat.
It took Tarjana maybe fifteen minutes to cautiously approach the feasting apes, and every minute she hoped and prayed they would not eat their fill and move on, that they would remain long enough for her to take her fill of one of them.
While she was still out of sight of the apes – and making sure she was downwind of them, circling their position a little to ensure this – Tarjana dropped down to her hands and knees and began to crawl her way, slowly, so painfully slowly, to where they were. Moving from tree trunk to bush, always timing her movements with the breeze that blew through the jungle, masking the sound of her progress.
When, finally, she caught her first sight of her prey, Tarjana saw that her senses had been right and in front of her was a small family of apes feeding on fruit and leaves, a pair of adults with three juveniles.
But they were like no apes Tarjana had ever seen or heard of before.
From the adults – a breeding pair, Tarjana assumed – they seemed to be maybe six feet in height, much taller than she was, with long and thin, almost spidery limbs and small heads, something Tarjana took as a good sign, suggesting limited intelligence, just the dullest of instincts and the inherent will to survive.
Though not of this size, Tarjana had seen apes such as that before. What made these apes so different was their fur, long, thin, fine, and a ghostly white. It was, Tarjana abruptly realised, a sign that this jungle – for she had now accepted it was not her jungle – was not only very different from her 'old' jungle, but also forced her into realising it was far warmer than her jungle, the thinness of ape's pelts suggesting that the nights might be warmer too.
All that was for later.
As Tarjana hunkered to the floor of the jungle and studied the apes, her only concern was how to attack, and which member of the family to take? The adults would feed her better, but the three juveniles might be easier to kill.
For perhaps a further ten minutes Tarjana crouched there and watched as the adults started picking grubs from the mound they were sat around, the adults eating sparingly, grunting at the juveniles, encouraging them to ignore the plentiful leaves and eat more of the scarce protein.
Were they so unintelligent, so animal, Tarjana wondered.
It didn't matter. She needed to eat, and they were the only source of meat she had seen since she had taken up her trudge through the jungle. If she did not take one of them, there was no telling when her next opportunity might present itself.
Deciding that her best option was to take the adult male – he had the most meat to offer, and would have to be killed anyway if she were to attack any of what she took to be his family – Tarjana had carefully removed her waterskin and drawn her knife, was on the very point of moving forward when one of the juveniles ... disappeared!
One moment it was there, the next it looked like it was wrapped in grey smoke, and the next after that, it was gone.
At once the other apes began to scream and riot, pandemonium overcoming them, the adult male clearly angry but with nothing to attack, the adult female, probably the mother, distraught and clutching for the two other juveniles.
She never reached them.
Even as they were scrambling towards her, the closest was enfolded in grey smoke ... and was gone.
Panicking, not believing what she was seeing, Tarjana dropped back to the floor of the jungle, ignoring the scratching discomfort and only just in time to glimpse the disappearance of the last of the juveniles, provoking the confused and terrified adults to further anger.
Not knowing what to do next and remembering the lesson not to act without thought, Tarjana did nothing, watching, as the adult female abruptly collapsed, shrieking, seemingly consumed and overwhelmed with grief.
The adult male, though, was about to become a problem.
Though he too was confused and upset, he was expressing himself, not in shock, but in violent anger, stomping around the place where his 'family' had been so peacefully eating only moments ago, battering the larger trees as though to dislodge an answer, uprooting the smaller as though to search out an answer, and steadily, steadily, drawing closer to where Tarjana lay.
Tarjana tightened the grip on her knife.
Whatever had happened, where the juveniles had gone, whether whatever it was was over ... none of that mattered for now.
Right at that moment, Tarjana's world was simply focused on the adult male, the combat that was just seconds away, and how to survive it.
Closer and closer came the male, tearing up the undergrowth, rending saplings, battering against older trees.
Cautiously Tarjana rose to a crouching position, still hidden behind the generously leafed succulent purple fern she had selected for cover. To her left was a mighty moonflower oak, and it was to this she edged, ever less cautiously as she sought to attract the ape's attention.
In this Tarjana succeeded magnificently as, with a roar, the ape spotted her and charged at her.
At any other time her tactic would not have succeeded but, driven made with confusion and consumed with rage, the ape's brain was incapable of thinking, incapable of recognising he was being manipulated, and that Tarjana was about to use his own strength against him.
With the ape scant steps behind her, Tarjana rose up and ran for the great oak, reaching it moments ahead of the ape, but those moments were all she needed.
Turning to face her enemy, squatting down a little, knife still firmly in her hand, Tarjana roared her own challenge, further enraging the already furious ape, drawing him into charging at her at full speed.
At the last moment, Tarjana jumped to her right and the ape, unable to adjust or compensate for her sudden movement, crashed into the oak with all his strength, causing the mighty tree to shake, showering her with the wispy white petals from which the tree took its name.
Tarjana had no time to admire their beauty.
The ape, stunned, was momentarily weakened, open to attack, and Tarjana took her opportunity and leapt at the ape's back, its weak-spot, its blind-spot, her knife stabbing again and again into the animal's ribs, hunting for the means to kill him.
Confused by the sharp pain in his ribs, at first the ape stood there, stupidly, the urgency of the attack only dimly intruding into his awareness.
As Tarjana's knife sank hilt-deep into his ribs for the fourth time, the great ape, already dying though he did not know it, began to swing his arms around him, seeking the source of his new pain, but his great hands found nothing as Tarjana skipped backwards, placing the tree between them before she scampered up the trunk, knife in her mouth, tasting the ape's blood as she reached up, grasping, climbing higher and higher until she was some twenty feet or so above the great ape. From this vantage point, Tarjana watched as the ape finally succumbed to his injuries, collapsing to his right hand side, twitching, twitching ... still.
Tarjana held her position, watching now for the adult female. As angry as her mate had been, she was silent. Had she been human, Tarjana would have thought her withdrawn into her grief and pain, but she was only an ape, and Tarjana had to be more wary of her for that.
The sudden mysterious disappearance of the juveniles seemed to have driven her, were she human, insane.
That, Tarjana could understand.
But the death of her mate, a death so violent she could not have missed it, that seemed not to have touched her at all.
That, Tarjana could not understand, and that made her even more cautious, made her watch and wait...
After watching the adult female for some fifteen minutes, during which time she was entirely unmoving save for a slight rocking motion, Tarjana decided it was time to finish things.
Edging along the branch she had been sat upon as far as it would support her weight, Tarjana jumped for the nearest sturdy branch, reaching it with ease. Leaves, dislodged by weight, fell down upon the remaining ape, but if she noticed, she gave no sign.
With a strange feeling, almost of sadness, Tarjana dropped down to the floor of the jungle, crept up behind the ape and, with the swiftest of motions, reached around and cut her throat.
The ape sagged forward, choking on its own blood ... dead.
Tarjana left her where she fell.
As she turned and moved towards where the corpse of the male lay, Tarjana wondered if the female had known she was about to die, or if she had cared.
Of the male's corpse, Tarjana made swift work, still fearful of the strange, enveloping mists that had snatched the juveniles away. Quickly Tarjana removed the best of the meat such as she could carry away with her and eat that night. The remainder she left for the predators and scavengers of the jungle, from the flies to the tree dogs to the vultures, trusting they would be so glutted on this unexpected meal that they would leave her alone.
As for the female, Tarjana felt only a strange compulsion to close her eyes, leaving her alone otherwise, knowing the predators and scavengers would dine on her too, but not wanting any further part in that.
With an oddly wet feel to her eyes, Tarjana melted into the green.
That night, her belly full of fruit and bushmeat, Tarjana slept fitfully, constantly alert to every strange sound, always imagining the clouds of grey were coming for her from the dark, but they did not.
Eventually, exhausted, Tarjana slept.
For the next week Tarjana made her way through the jungle, always cautious, always heading roughly roughly north, for no reason other than for consistency, to make sure she didn't go round in circles and, maybe, in the dim home of finding her way back home to the jungle she remembered, though those memories too were fading quickly into nothingness.
Whatever the truth of her memories, of the Harrowing, of the Watrali, even of her death on that execution frame, Tarjana slowly but surely dismissed them, falling into the easy rhythm of life in the green, always treading softly, listening intently, resting securely, and making sure of her provisions.
It was not, perhaps, an easy life, but, for Tarjana, it was a life she was – somehow – accustomed to.
It was the morning of Tarjana's second week of life in the 'new' jungle. The sun had risen high into the sky, bathing the canopy of the jungle in its clear yellow warmth, drawing the life of the jungle up, up, up, to where it could bask in the sun, or hunt those who were basking. Birds sang their songs and their alarm calls, monkeys flashed through the upper branches as they fled from the stealthy approaches of tree snakes, and all under the dull watch of the sun.
Tarjana had risen with the dawn, just as she did every morning, and had long since breakfasted of fruits and roots, not risking the hoarding of meat from the previous night's meal. Now also carrying a small spear fashioned from the straight trunks of an stonewood tree, she was cautiously making her way through the jungle, mirroring the path of a small stream she anticipated led to a larger stream or river where she might catch a fish or two.
But those fish were to remain uncaught.
Instead, at first at the very edge of her awareness, Tarjana heard voices, their words indistinct, lost in the distance, though not too far away.
Judging as best as she could where the voices were coming from, Tarjana pressed herself close against the trunk of the nearest tree, crushing herself up to the rough bark as she listened.
Silence ... no ... more sounds ... more words ... words? ... whatever it was she could hear, it was nothing Tarjana could recognise.
For a while the words continued ... one ... two ... more voices ... two of them upset ... the others uncaring ... one of them full of indifferent authority.
More sounds followed, what sounded like a struggle of some kind, with the pleading voices growing more and more urgent.
Suddenly one of the two urgent voices screamed out, the scream long, painful. Tarjana had heard such screams before; it was a scream of death.
As the scream faded away, it was replaced by a sobbing, that weird sobbing when someone is in intense pain yet, for whatever reason, trying to hide that pain, from others, from themselves.
The was another barked command from the authoritative voice, and then it was gone, as were the other voices, leaving behind only the urgent, one of which was sobbing incoherently and the other of which was weeping in pain.
Fearing the others had somehow learned of her presence, Tarjana did all she could to blend into the green, while at the same time readying herself for combat. For a minute she waited, then another, and then another, but no one came, she heard nothing, she felt nothing.
Tarjana was not so easily fooled.
She waited for another ten minutes or so, waited until the jungle had settled back to normal again, judging that if the jungle thought it safe to return to normal, then it would be safe for her to investigate where the sobbing was coming from.
Treading slowly and carefully, Tarjana emerged from her cover and, moving from tree to tree as cautiously as she could, she made her way downwind and towards the source of the sound.
It didn't take her long.
As she came to the final tree trunk, having moved from tree to tree, sometimes crawling through the undergrowth to hide herself as much as possible, Tarjana peered around the edge of the trunk, moving so slowly that she hoped she had not attracted any attention to herself.
There, in a small clearing no more than a dozen feet at its widest point, was a cross set into the ground. Tied to it was a young girl of about nineteen, almost unattractively thin, with dusky skin, dark hair falling down her shoulders, breasts so small as to be almost not there, and the sparsest of hair covering her cunt. She had been tied, ankles and wrists, some six feet or so from the ground, the position of her ankles and the crossbar such that she could get no release from the pain, either pushing against the ropes on her ankles to ease her shoulder, or hanging from her wrists, stretching her shoulders, and injuring her equally painfully.
If she were strong, stronger than Tarjana thought she looked, then she would last for perhaps four or five days before exhaustion and lack of water would take her. Given how she struggled and fought against her bindings, one minute rising up on her ankles, arching her back, desperately and futilely trying to free herself, one minute sinking down so far Tarjana thought she would dislocate her own shoulders, it was clear she would not last three days, maybe even only two.
It was, by design and by her actions, a cross of suffering.
It was all the more so, for the girl's face was covered with tears as she watched the still figure of the other woman there.
Her fate had been different.
Equally naked, looking older than the girl on the cross, she lay on her back, a few feet from the crucified girl, clutching her bloody hands around a slender black spear that was impaling her belly and had been driven deep into the ground. Incredibly she was still breathing, though her breaths were rapid, shallow, and it was only a little time now until she crossed the River to the Jungle of the Black Trees.
So captivated was Tarjana by the sight before her, that she almost shrieked when she heard the crucified girl calling out to her.
¡——! the girl cried again, looking directly at where Tarjana thought she was hidden, her words a confused jumble Tarjana was unable to understand.
Recognising neither of them were a threat to her, and as comfortable as she could be that the others had gone – at least for now – Tarjana broke what was left of her cover and slowly stepped into the clearing, clutching her short spear in her right hand, her left gripping the hilt of her knife on her left hip.
"What happened?" Tarjana asked, her attention flicking between the two women.
The girl on the cross shook her head. ¡———! she shouted incomprehensibly.
Tarjana shook her head in return, seemingly as equally unable to understand the girl's words as she was unable to understand Tarjana's.
¿——? the girl asked, her tone more and more desperate.
Again, Tarjana shook her head.
¡——Ten'lah'xi! the girl shouted again, more slowly this time, clearly feeling herself talking to someone of low intelligence.
Tarjana repeated the phrase over in her mind. "Ten'lah'xi?" Tarjana asked, pointing to the girl on the cross who shook her head, so Tarjana repeated her question, this time pointing to the girl on the ground, and drawing a nod of agreement from the girl on the cross.
«Ten'lah'xi——» the girl repeated, adding something else before dramatically closing her eyes and letting her head slump. She waited a moment before lifting her head again and looking back, from Tarjana to the other girl and back to Tarjana.
Cautiously, Tarjana set down her spear and drew her knife. "Ten'lah'xi?" she asked, slowly, pantomiming the act of killing the other girl.
The girl on the cross nodded, tears streaming down her face.
Though she did not know the phrase, Tarjana understood well enough the idea of the coup de grace, the 'kind murdering'. This was clearly what the girl on the cross wanted for the other. Tarjana looked again to the girl on the ground, slowly dying, and she understood, whoever she was, whoever she was to the girl on the cross, a swift end would be a kindness.
Cautiously Tarjana approached the girl, making sure she made enough noise that her appearance was not a shock to her.
Slowly, sleepily, Ten'lah'xi turned to look, her eyes wide as she saw Tarjana's approach, then softening as she looked behind at the girl on the cross. Tarjana hesitated a moment, looking back at that girl, seeing her nodding and smiling and weeping all at once.
Thinking she might use the spear, Tarjana made to draw it out, but Ten'lah'xi cried out, shaking her head as wildly as she could without further adding to her pain.
«—» Ten'lah'xi said, her eyes moving from Tarjana's to her knife, her meaning clear.
Tarjana moved away from the spear.
¡—! called out the girl on the cross, her words falling dumbly into Tarjana's ears.
Ten'lah'xi nodded once to her before turning back to Tarjana and nodding to her too, wincing with pain as she tried to smile.
"It's okay, Ten'lah'xi," Tarjana said as knelt once more at the woman's side, sure she understood nothing of her words, yet hoping that somehow her tone was conveying what she otherwise could not. "It will hurt, for a moment, and then you will be at peace."
Ten'lah'xi nodded before looking back at the girl on the cross. «Rom—Rom'lah'xi—» she said, adding something more in words Tarjana could not understand, but which caused fresh sobs from the girl on the cross. Rom'lah'xi?
Slowly Tarjana knelt down at Ten'lah'xi's shoulders, nodding once, waiting for her to nod back in agreement. Not wanting her to see her moment of execution, Tarjana whispered, "Rom'lah'xi."
Ten'lah'xi, seemingly understanding Tarjana's intention, turned to look at Rom'lah'xi as she strained and fought and wept.
Ten'lah'xi was still looking at Rom'lah'xi when Tarjana covered her eyes with her left hand, kissed her fully on the lips, drew, and plunged her knife directly into the dying girl's heart.
So close to death was she already, that it was only a few seconds later that Tarjana felt her kiss transform into her final gasp ... and then she was still.
Withdrawing her blade, Tarjana wiped it clean and sheathed it. Only then, when the instrument of her murdering was out of sight, did Tarjana withdraw her hand from Ten'lah'xi's eyes.
They were closed already, and on her lips lingered the traces of a smile.
Whoever she was, whoever she had been, Tarjana could not but help as she shed a tear for her.
For her part, the girl on the cross, Rom'lah'xi, had already shed many, and would shed many, many more in her memory.
"I'll cut you down!" Tarjana shouted up to the girl on the cross, miming her using her knife to cut her bonds. At first the girl, still consumed with grief, made no response but, when Tarjana repeated herself, the girl looked at her for a moment, and nodded sadly.
Presuming it would be the work of only moments for her to free the girl on the cross, Rom'lah'xi, Tarjana quickly scampered up the cross to the back of the girl, but even as she climbed, Tarjana saw how mistaken her presumption was.
Whatever the cross was made of, it was made of no wood Tarjana had ever seen before. Its limbs were unnaturally straight and regular, the grain of the wood incredibly dense, so much so that Tarjana was sure the wood was harder even that the stonewood she had so tiringly cut down to make her short spear from.
As she edged across to the bindings of the girl's left hand, Tarjana found those too to be equally alien to her jungle, having something of the character of leather, though of some fibre rather than leather itself. Tougher than both, it took several strong cuts before Tarjana was able to sever the bindings that held Rom'lah'xi's left wrist to the frame, Tarjana carefully cutting the last strand and holding Rom'lah'xi's arm to secure her from the sudden release until she could hold the frame for herself; only then could Tarjana move across, repeating her actions as she cut free Rom'lah'xi's other hand.
Finally, Tarjana dropped back down the upright of the cross and severed the binding's at Rom'lah'xi's ankles.
A moment later, Tarjana dropped to the floor, an exhausted Rom'lah'xi dropping down beside her, howling with pain and sobbing desperately.
Tarjana let her recover for a moment before offering her her hand, and supporting her as she led her to where Ten'lah'xi lay. At once, ignoring the spear that still impaled her lifeless body, Rom'lah'xi desperately clung to Ten'lah'xi's body, stroking her, covering her with kisses, pouring a torrent of words over her.
For her part, Tarjana withdrew a little way, sitting cross-legged, watching, waiting as, finally, she wore herself out in her farewell.
Looking up as though she had forgotten all about her, the girl smiled weakly, placing her hand on her heart and nodding her head three times in some kind of formal ceremony of thanks. Not knowing what else to do, Tarjana placed her right hand over her own heart and nodded, just once.
Again the girl smiled weakly. «Rom'lah'xi» she said, wiping absently at her tears. A moment later, she began pouring out another torrent of words, none of which Tarjana could understand.
Tarjana held up her hand, hoping it would stop, or at least delay, the verbal onslaught.
"Tarjana," Tarjana said, pointing to herself.
Rom'lah'xi nodded. «Rom'lah'xi» she said, pointing to herself. «Ten'lah'xi» she repeated, pointing to the other girl, her voice almost breaking. A moment later, she parroted «Tar-ja-na» as she pointed to Tarjana.
Tarjana nodded, asking before she realised the futility of her question, "What happened? Who are you? Where did you come from?"
Rom'lah'xi shook her head uncomprehendingly.
For a moment, the two women looked at each other, and each knew the other to be thinking the same thing - this will take some time.
"What happened?" Tarjana asked again, tried again, waving her hand around in what she hoped was a gesture encompassing 'here'.
«Drow!» Rom'lah'xi cried out.
«Drow» she repeated, her tone now sad, resigned.
«Drow» she said once more, her voice now beginning to fill with hate.
Drow? Tarjana wondered, her thoughts interrupted as-
«Drow» Rom'lah'xi repeated once more, her tone hopeful, but her shake of her head showed that she knew Tarjana didn't understand.
Tarjana shrugged, and Rom'lah'xi smiled wealky, understanding that much at least.
Sighing sadly, Rom'lah'xi rose and began looking around the clearing and just beyond it, finding stones about the size of a grapefruit or so, each of which she carried back to where the corpse of Ten'lah'xi lay.
With these stones Rom'lah'xi began to build a tomb for her companion.
Feeling herself oddly compelled to help, Tarjana rose and also began searching for rocks, showing the first few to Rom'lah'xi to ensure they were the correct size before adding them to the tomb.
By late afternoon the tomb was done, the final act coming when Rom'lah'xi stood atop the mound of stones and, with much struggle, drew the spear out, out of the ground, out of Ten'lah'xi, and out of her tomb. Brandishing it aloft, she cried out an incomprehensible oath to the skies, and oath whose words Tarjana did not understand, but whose intent was clear – death to those who had done this, death to the drow
Silently, Rom'lah'xi climbed back down to stand beside Tarjana. Though they were both tired and sweaty, though Rom'lah'xi was still as naked as when Tarjana had cut her down, though they were both feeling a weariness from what had happened, what had been witnessed, there was also, somehow, a feeling that fell over them, that each in their own way felt that they had done their duty towards Ten'lah'xi and that she, at least, would not be feeding the denizens of the jungle.
For a moment, Tarjana and Rom'lah'xi stood, looking at each other, deciding about the other, the future.