Blood Thicker Than Stone

“He had thought her default expression was blank, but he was wrong. Looking at her now, he saw what true detachment looked like, and he had never felt as empty or as cold in his entire life.” A fantasy short story about estranged family members forced to work together to fight a monstrous bird.

“Your Majesty, may I present, Kacela of the North,” a herald called out into the throne room. The large ornate doors were pushed open at the same time. The assembled court began to whisper to each other in excitement. Their wait was over. The older king rose from his throne which caused even more whispers to spread. Before the doors had full opened, the king silenced the court with a wave of his hand. The room seemed to brighten as the court talked. It was as if more light poured into the already shining room.

As the doors opened, the thud of thick leather boots could be heard as a tall young woman entered the throne room. Her footsteps were so loud that they drowned out any noise from the smaller girl following behind her. The woman came to a stop in the center of the room and bowed to the king. The younger girl followed her example.

“Rise, Kacela of the North,” the king said. The taller woman, Kacela, straightened up at his words. The court struggled to stay quiet as they saw her cold, rough face for the first time.

“Thank you, my king,” Kacela said respectfully, but her voice carried through the room shocking the court. None of them expected her to exude such power and strength.

The king smiled. Now that he could see her in person, he knew he had sent for the right people. “I believe it is I who should be thanking you for coming so quickly.”

Kacela gestured to the younger girl. “Maresa and I came here the moment we received you letter, a Roc is no laughing matter.”

The court was sent into another fit of whispers at her words. Kacela regarded them with a cool yet confused look until the king asked, “Roc is this beast’s name?”

Kacela gestured for Maresa to take the floor. The petite girl stepped up and said in a soft voice, “Yes, your highness, your description of the beast was a large bird, seeming to be eagle-like, that has been taking cattle, oxen, and even humans. We do believe this bird is a Roc, we have dealt with them and other monstrous birds in the north.”

The king sighed in relief. “You seem to have a great deal of knowledge of this beast and of others.”

Maresa glanced at Kacela. “While my sister is a warrior, and quite likely to be the most powerful woman of the north, my specialty is knowledge. I believe knowledge has its own kind of power.”

The court resumed whispering, beating themselves up for not seeing the similarities in the sisters beforehand. They now realized that even though Kacela’s hair was chopped short to her shoulders, and Maresa’s in a long braid, they shared the same shade of dark brown. The girls also shared a similar facial structure, including the same nose and jawline. The court, however, cannot be blamed for such an oversight, as the two presented themselves very differently. Tall Kacela, with a large battle axe on her back, dark rugged leather clothing, and a stern, stone countenance, cut quite a different figure than the smaller more colorful, friendly Maresa.

“Sister? I knew your father. He was a good man, a strong man. I cannot imagine where this kingdom would be without the work of him and his brother. I was sad to hear of their passing, but relieved when told their children carried on their legacy. I did not know there were two daughters, for when I had my message sent, I directed it to both of their children,” the king said. As he went on, Kacela’s face tightened, and her already stiff posture became rigid. Her hands balled into fists. Maresa grabbed her sister’s arm, but it did not help in relaxing the woman.

Kacela asked in a tight, restrained voice, “Your highness, you mean to tell me… that you also sent for—”

Kacela never finished her sentence because it was then the doors to the throne room flew open before anyone had been announced. Kacela heard the doors slam, and she spun around. Her face twisted in anger.

A young man came strolling into the throne room with absolutely no decorum. By this point, there was no hope of quieting the court. It seemed his very presence erased any sense of formality in the room. The young man was tall, bearing the same shade of brown hair as the girls, but while they wore thick layers, he wore thinner clothing in reds and browns, obviously having come from the warmer southern region.

“Y-your Majesty, m-may I—” the herald stuttered, but no one noticed. The entire room was focused on the young man.

“Adamya,” the young man said. Adamya then glanced up at the king and tacked on, “your highness.”

The king waited for him to bow as was their custom, but as the moment drew on, it become clear he would not bow. The king cleared his throat. “I see you have also responded to my message quickly.”

“Yes, I did, even though the city where I received the letter was more than twice the distance away then Enagon.” Adamya shot a smirk in Kacela’s direction, as Enagon was her home city.

Kacela’s lip curled. “I’m assuming you barely even looked at the letter before ditching town. You couldn’t have asked for a better excuse than this to ditch whatever poor girl was in your bed that night.”

There were several poorly concealed gasps in the court. The king frowned upon the scene, but did not seem to know how to restore order. Maresa took a step back from the fighting pair, shaking her head as if she was used to it.

“As if you even know what the monster is.” Adamya snorted and crossed his arms.

“Do you?” Kacela scoffed, placing a hand on her hip. At Adamya’s painful silence, Kacela laughed harshly, “I knew it, and if you must know, the beast is a Roc.”

Adamya struggled to conceal his flushed cheeks. “Like you knew that without Maresa telling you!”

The two turned to the younger girl who raised her hands. Maresa protested, “Don’t bring me into this!”

The two turned back to each other and continued their argument. The king turned to Maresa. “Why are they fighting? Aren’t all three of you cousins? Family?”

Maresa blinked in surprise at being addressed. “We are, Your Highness, but when our father and Adamya’s father died, their interactions turned from teasing to harsh insults. Without our parents, it was as if whatever had held them together before was gone as well. Our mother passed away years before and Adamya never knew his, so it was just the three of us. They could never agree on anything, and things just continued to escalate. It felt like I was always stuck in the middle. One day, they came to blows, and so many things were said that cannot be taken back. Kacela told him he’s not any family of hers. It was then Adamya left for the south, and Kacela and I remained in the north to carry on our father’s legacy.”

“—like anyone would call you a lady,” Adamya snapped, catching the king and Maresa’s attention.

“Big words coming from the man who cried more than Maresa when our foxhound died.” Kacela’s only outward expression was a raised an eyebrow, but the court could practically feel the venom pouring out from her.

The king shook his head. “What am I to do? They’ll kill each other before killing the Roc.”

“Actually,” Maresa started. She had a gleam in her eyes, pricking the king’s curiosity. “This might be just what they need.”

The king patiently listened to her plan, and as soon as she finished, he called the court to order. Silence fell, but nothing was louder than the tension between the cousins. The king declared, “To ensure that this menace is brought down as fast as possible, Kacela of the North and Adamya of the South will bring the beast down together!”

No one tells the king no, no matter how much they want to.

Before the trio left to start their hunt, Maresa pulled her sister aside and begged her to at least try to get along with Adamya. Kacela let out an unladylike snort, but told her sister she would do her best. Maresa supposed she would have to be happy with that for the time being. Kacela didn’t believe Adamya could go five minutes without starting something with her, but there wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do for her sister’s sake.

Kacela was half knelt in the mud, examining a small ridge in the ground. She turned to Maresa when Adamya huffed, “You know we are tracking a gigantic bird.”

Kacela stood up, feeling her back straing under the weight of her bag and axe. She opened her mouth, but hesitated when she saw Maresa’s look. She sighed and settled for glaring at him. “Yes, I do.”

“So, why are we looking at marks in the mud when we could just ask the nearby farmers if they’ve seen it and where it went?” Adamya crossed his arms, narrowing his eyes as well.

Kacela’s face tightened, wanting nothing more than to push him into the mud like they were children. “Any normal person would be too concerned with getting themselves and their family out of the way to notice where it was headed. Not to mention, even if they had seen where it was headed afterwards, there’s no guarantee that would be where the nest is.”

“But a little scuff mark in the mud is any better? As if a Roc would make such a tiny mark.” Adamya took a step towards Kacela. Kacela widened her shoulders, as if trying to make herself bigger than him.

“Like you know anything about tracking, how about you shut up, so those of us who actually know what we’re doing can work?” Kacela snapped, immediately feeling guilty, not for what she said to Adamya, but for so swiftly breaking her word to Maresa. She glanced at the rocky terrain in front of them, and started walking. Maresa sighed as she trailed after Kacela and Adamya. So far, her plan was a complete failure. She knew Kacela had tried, was trying, but it was doing little good. Adamya hadn’t stopped with his comments ever since they left, and Kacela snapped back more often than not. As she watched Adamya mock Kacela’s stony exterior, Maresa began to fear the king was right, and she would return to the city with one less family member.

“At least I don’t suck the life out of everyone around me,” Adamya spat. While he spoke, Maresa heard a squawk. She quickly looked up and froze.

Kacela didn’t notice her sister stop. “Better than sucking the intelligence from everyone who hears me.”

“Joke all you want, but you know I’m smarter than you.” Adamya scowled, trying to use what little height he had on Kacela to his advantage.

“Kacela?” Maresa called out. She had not moved; her eyes were fixed on the sky.

Kacela and Adamya didn’t hear her. Kacela shot Adamya a condescending look. “Joking around is your thing, case and point, you just told the best joke I’ve ever heard a few seconds ago.”

“Kacela?” Maresa tried again. “Adamya?”

“I was being serious,” Adamya said. His face twisted from poorly concealed anger.

Kacela snorted, “Again, jokes really are your thing.”

Adamya stopped and opened his mouth to retort when Maresa screamed. Kacela and Adamya spun around to see Maresa staring at the sky. The two looked up to see their quarry hurtling down towards them, talons outstretched.

“Maresa, get back!” Kacela shouted as she drew her axe. Adamya pulled out his bow and nocked an arrow. Maresa dashed for cover as Kacela and Adamya took their positions.

“You actually think an axe is going to do any damage against a bird?” Adamya chuckled as he fired an arrow.

The Roc swooped down, trying to grab Kacela. Kacela ducked to the side and swung at the bird’s foot. It let out a screech ad flew out of her range. Adamya continued to aim for the bird, but the Roc’s skin was too thick for his arrows to pierce.

“It’s not like your twigs are doing any damage,” Kacela said as she adjusted her grip on her axe.

With a screech, the Roc hurtled downward again at Kacela. Kacela stood her ground as the bird moved closer. Maresa held her breath from the side while Adamya scrambled to get out of the bird’s path. The bird opened its beak. At the last second, Kacela rolled out of the way, sprung to her feet, and embedded her axe into the Roc’s shoulder.

At the bird’s cry, Maresa and Adamya covered their ears. The Roc started to thrash around, nearly knocking Kacela over. Kacela held onto her axe, waiting for a chance to pull it out, but it was then the Roc started to flap its wings.

“Kacela!” Maresa cried out as Kacela started to be lifted into the air with the bird. Maresa screamed at Adamya, “Shoot it down!”

Adamya took aim, but hesitated. Kacela glanced down to see how far up she was. She glanced at Maresa before grabbing a handful of feathers and ripping the axe out of the bird with one hands. The Roc realized she was there and started to thrash around again, this time, however, Kacela’s grip faltered. Kacela started to fall through the air.

“Kacela!” Maresa screeched. Adamya could only stare; eyes wide in horror as his cousin plummeted downward.

Kacela hit the ground on her back letting out a cry of pain; her axe hitting the ground nearby. Adamya and Maresa started to rush to her side, but Maresa was farther away. As he ran, Adamya fired several shots, but the arrows did not appear to distract the bird.

It was at that moment that everything seemed to slow down, and, yet, speed by faster than Adamya could follow, all at the same time. The Roc spotted Maresa running across the open, rocky ground. Adamya struggled to keep moving and still shoot, even though his arrows did nothing. The Roc screeched. Kacela remained still. The great bird started its dive.

Maresa was too absorbed in reaching Kacela to notice the threat. Adamya saw the bird head toward his cousin, who was still quite far away from him and Kacela. He shouted, “Maresa get back!”

“What?” Maresa paused. She looked up just before the Roc swooped in and snatched her up in its talons. Maresa let out a terrified shriek as she was lifted into the air, helpless.

Adamya fired several more arrows, this time, towards the Roc’s face, but they fell short. The Roc ignored him while carrying off his little cousin. Adamya was left staring after the bird. His mind could not quite wrap itself around what just happened. Around what he just allowed to happen. Slowly, Adamya felt something grow in his stomach. For the first time in a long time, he felt as if something was his fault.

Kacela let out a groan and she started to rise. Whatever Adamya was feeling nearly doubled when he noticed Kacela. With her eyes closed, she mumbled, “Maresa?”

Adamya knelt by her side and helped her up. He desperately tried to ignore the weight he was beginning to feel. He muttered, not having the strength to speak any louder, “Take it easy; you did just wake up after a nasty fall.”

Kacela glanced around. “Where’s Maresa?”

Adamya winced, and Kacela’s eyes narrowed. He looked away, unable to meet her cold, unfeeling eyes. “The Roc…I…Maresa—I wasn’t able to stop it from taking her.”

Kacela was silent, and Adamya dared not look up at her. He didn’t think he could handle whatever fury was surely in her eyes. Adamya waited for her to yell at him, to blame him. He certainly did.

“Which way?”

Adamya looked up to see Kacela’s face completely blank. Kacela turned to him with no emotion present in her gaze. “Adamya. Which direction did the Roc go?”

Adamya took a shaky breath, and pointed toward where he’d seen them. “That ridge, I’m sure of it.”

Kacela slowly walked over to her axe and strapped it onto her back. Adamya watched her, and for a moment, he thought he saw her falter from pain. Kacela looked through him. “Let’s move. The Roc can’t be too far ahead.”

Adamya walked up to her, not quite grasping what was happening. He would never have expected her to so cold, so emotionless about her sister. It was as if she had shut down completely. He asked, “Are you sure you’re alright?”

Kacela’s eyes flashed, and Adamya saw, for a moment, she wasn’t emotionless. She said, “We’re getting Maresa back, I am not the priority. She is.”

Adamya hesitated. Kacela turned to him, letting out sigh. She suddenly looked exhausted. “Whatever is bothering you, whatever injuries I may or may not have, do not matter. Maresa matters. For her sake, let’s put aside ourselves, our grievances, so we can rescue her. Please.”

Adamya nodded, not trusting his voice. Kacela turned back in the direction the Roc had gone in. “Good.”

Her voice was hard, whatever vulnerabilities she had just displayed were hidden far from sight. Adamya noticed she had never looked more like a stone statue than she did right then. She said, “Because nothing in this land is going to stop me from saving my baby sister.”

The temperature had dropped as the sun disappeared. The two cousins had traveled long past sundown, only stopping when Kacela tripped because she could no longer see the dips and debris the littered the rocky ground. Adamya was able to get her to sit down and eat something. They sat side by side in the darkness with no fire, both leaning on their bags. Kacela showed no sign that the cool air bothered her in her thick clothes. Adamya, on the other hand, struggled to conceal his discomfort. He had his knees pulled up to his chest as he sat by Kacela’s side.

The only sound that could be heard was their breathing. Adamya hated silence, always had. He took a deep breath and asked, “How far?”

Kacela slowly turned to look at him, and Adamya started to believe the silence was better than having her marble eyes stare through him like he wasn’t even there. She said, “If we leave at first light, an hour or two.”

There was a pause. Adamya said, “She’ll be okay until then.”

Kacela’s face shifted, as if she knew he wasn’t saying it for her benefit. Kacela nodded. “She’ll be alright. She is alright.”

“How do you know?” Adamya asked. His voice was smaller than it had ever been before.

“Intuition.” Kacela looked up at the sky. Adamya had always considered his cousin to be stoic. He had thought her default expression was blank, but he was wrong. Looking at her now, he saw what true detachment looked like, and he had never felt as empty or as cold in his entire life.

Kacela’s voice nearly made him jump out of his skin. “It’s how I knew you were alive, no matter how far away you were. It’s a family thing.”

Adamya was frozen as he watched Kacela looked at him again. If he didn’t know any better, he would have said she was looking at him like she was seeing him for the first time. But he knew better, Kacela didn’t give second chances. Adamya moved his gaze to the ground. He wasn’t going to look for any anymore.

Maresa shivered, but didn’t move. She didn’t dare move. She had just barely been able to squeeze into a hole in the wall of the Roc’s nest. The Roc had dumped her into the nest before taking off again. Maresa had immediately scrambled for a hiding place. She couldn’t remember if the Roc that had a short memory or not, but she was going to take any chance she could get. Maresa had pulled away at some of the debris lining the gigantic nest, and crawled into her hole. By the time Maresa had safely hidden herself away, the Roc came back, but that time with a cow. It repeated that process several times until the sun started to go down. When the Roc returned for the final time, Maresa could see it out of the corner of her eye as it devoured the prey it had collected. The Roc did not even seem to notice its human prey was missing. Maresa watched as the bird settled down to sleep.

Maresa shifted her arm, wincing as she felt blood well up from a long scratch. She closed her eyes, hoping Kacela was alright. She hoped they were coming for her or else Maresa had an idea she only had a few sunrises left.

The sun had just begun to rise when Kacela got into position. The Roc’s nest was between the mountain side and another rock face, hidden to the untrained eye. Kacela was crouched behind a large rock on a wide pass next to the steep slope the nest was on. She could see the Roc starting to stir from its sleep, and Kacela prayed for her sister’s safety. Kacela had her axe ready as she waited for Adamya.

It wasn’t long before there was a loud bang, and a rockslide came hurtling down the slop opposite the Roc. Kacela remained steady as the rubble came to a stop. Kacela saw Adamya start to climb towards the nest as the Roc began to wake up. The Roc cried out, and Kacela watched it fly in her direction.

Adamya continued to scramble across the slope. He glanced behind him as he climbed towards the nest; he saw Kacela leap from her hiding spot and slash at the Roc’s wing as it flew past her. Adamya scraped his hands on the rock face, but he didn’t stop until he pulled himself into the nest. The second his feet touched the ground, he called out, “Maresa?”

Adamya took a step forward and heard something crunch beneath his feet. He didn’t have to look down to know it was bone. He winced and struggled to swallow the bile rising in his throat.

“Adamya!”

Adamya spun around and caught his younger cousin. She threw her arms around him and buried her head in his shoulder. Adamya held his cousin, feeling whatever had its tight hold around his heart loosen its grip. She was alive.

“Maresa, are you alright?” Adamya started to look her over as she pulled away, seeing dried blood on her arm.

“Yes, well, a little scratched, but otherwise I’m fine.” Maresa nodded. Her voice was weak, and her eyes were red. “I was able to hide from the Roc while it ate other prey.”

Adamya sighed and hugged her again. “I’m so sorry.”

Maresa shook her head. “Don’t be. I should have been paying attention. I should know better.”

She looked around. “Where’s Kacela?”

It was then the two heard a shout of pain. They rushed to the edge of the nest and saw Kacela had been to the side by the Roc’s wing. Adamya winced. “Come on, let’s get down there.”

“Right,” Maresa said. Adamya and Maresa started to climb out of the nest. Kacela rolled out of the way before the Roc’s talons hit her. She pushed herself up and swung at the Roc’s wing. Kacela quickly ducked under the bird, but was knocked over again.

“We’re too far away!” Maresa said as they were halfway down the slope, struggling not to go tumbling down themselves.

Adamya saw the sun glint of the bird’s exposed eye. His jaw tightened, and he drew his bow. “No, I’m not.”

He braced himself against the slope and aimed. He took a deep breath and prayed for accuracy. The Roc threw its head back and screeched. Adamya pulled back and released. The next thing they knew the arrow hit the bird in the eye, giving Kacela enough time to slice into the Roc’s throat, putting an end to the hunt.

When Adamya watched Maresa throw herself in her big sister’s arms, he felt his heart tighten again. He had never seen Kacela cry before. He hung back as they started their journey back to the city. Despite the fact that everything had turned out well, Adamya couldn’t shake his guilt. His mind couldn’t stop saying what if, and how it would have been his fault.

Kacela couldn’t help but let out a sigh of relief when the man she was talking to walked away. She stood off to the side of a large extravagant ballroom; hoping time would fly by faster. This was her least favorite part of her job: the parties. The last thing Kacela wanted was to stand around all night saying nothing that meant anything. Her back ached from her fall, and all she wanted to do was go to bed so the morning would come quickly. She was ready to go home. Even though all Kacela wanted to do was leave, she stayed for one reason. Maresa, on the other hand, loved parties, and that was why Kacela stayed; it made Maresa happy.

“Kacela?” a small voice caught the woman by surprise. What shocked her further was to see it came from Adamya.

Adamya took a deep breath, and, to Kacela, he looked like he was in pain. He asked, “How is she?”

Kacela hesitated before responding, “Maresa? She’s fine, see? She’s out there dancing right now.”

“Good,” Adamya said, watching his little cousin for a moment before dropping his gaze to the floor. “I just wanted to be sure.”

Kacela waited, sensing there was something else he had yet to say. She watched him shift his weight before it dawned on her the reason for his odd behavior. Beforehand, Kacela thought it was simply worry that caused him to act so differently from his typical flippant self.

Before Kacela could say anything, Adamya blurted out, “I’m sorry. The entire thing was my fault, and I almost got Maresa killed. I can’t begin to explain how sorry I am.”

Adamya continued on, not noticing Kacela’s attempts to interrupt, “It should have never happened, but it did because I wasn’t paying attention like you would’ve. I don’t blame you for hating me anymore. We have something in common now, at least. But, honestly, I’ll keep out of your lives from now on. I can’t imagine you’d want to see me again after all this.”

“Adamya—” Kacela started.

“Sorry.” Adamya winced and glanced up briefly. “I didn’t mean to say so much. I’ll, uh, go now.”

Adamya turned, but Kacela caught him by the arm. Kacela turned him around and asked, “You really think that?”

Adamya furrowed his brow. Kacela shook her head, but a small smiled appeared on her face. “Adamya, I have nothing but gratitude for you. Without you, I wouldn’t have gotten Maresa back. I probably wouldn’t even be standing here right now. The last thing I want is for us to part on bad terms.”

“Really?” Adamya breathed. He couldn’t believe that the stone woman in front of him was showing any emotion other than a variant of disgust or anger.

Kacela rolled her eyes. “Yes, I don’t hate you, Adamya. We’re family, and I can’t believe it took me this long to see that. It’s about time we started acting like family.”

Adamya stared at her for a moment before throwing his arms around his cousin. Kacela returned the hug with one arm, not even wincing at the pain flaring up in back. “But, just for the record, I’m still going to give you a hard time. I expect the same from you.”

Adamya pulled away; his eyes shone in the light. “Of course, it just wouldn’t be right if I didn’t comment on how inferior your weapon is to mine.”

Kacela smirked. “Keep it up, old man.”

With that said, Kacela swept off, going to say her farewells so she could retire to bed. She heard Adamya call after her. “I’m only a year older than you!”

She shot him an amused look, and he laughed, feeling lighter than he had in ages. The pair knew they still had some issues to work out, but ultimately, they were family again. As Kacela watched Adamya dance with Maresa, she wondered, what kind of family doesn’t have issues?

 

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