Chapter 1

by Ski Hemulen

Next chapter→

She was frightened. Her father wanted her married and her options were very few. It was a grave matter of family honor – her family’s and the prospective bridegroom’s – whatever she decided.

And, as always, when honor was on the line, so was blood.

She looked out of the window, near her cot in the attic, at the green Herian valley under her family household. A beloved view. This view, at least out of this vantage point, will have to stay behind. Whatever comes to pass she will have to leave these known women quarters promptly.

*****

There was going to be a raid tonight and Romial was excited and nervous. He was only out on one raid before and witnessed very little of the violence, let alone took part in it. That raid ended only with a beaten and humiliated opponent. This one was different. This was an act of war. A war Gjergj had already started with his actions and negligence, but nonetheless, the drawing of first blood still had significance.

Blood will be spilled tonight for the honor of the Romjid family and Romial will be there. He may even draw the blood.

The men stood in a circle, knifes in their hands, dressed in black, everyone but him with oiled mustachios.

‘Honor will be served, honor will be served’, they all muttered together.

He knew they were glad he was there. As one of the Akrusia his presence was seen as bringing good fortune.

And they were on their way, moving silently through the night. It was three weeks since family honor had been slighted with the rejection of an arranged marriage after the deal was made. Romial’s father, Romjigan, had accepted Gjergj’s apology and said honor will be settled later, with payment he needed to consider. A weaker man would have sent his men against the Stoyanjid that same night. Not Romjigan. He wanted the enemy calm, his guard down. And in the case of Gjergj that wasn’t hard to achieve. Gjergj was a fool. A kindhearted and generous fool, but a fool nonetheless. He wanted to be off guard and believe that the danger he brought upon his family was over.

They moved away from the Herian valley of the Romjid territory and up to the heights, to the Stoyanjid territory, approaching their household.

The guard was gagged and bound. They spread quickly through the Stoyanjid house. They did not enter the inner courtyard of the keep-like family house but kept in the wings, aiming for the women quarters upstairs.

The Stoyanjid were weak. They had few men and none of them Akrusia. On the way to the women quarters they encountered only a few sleepy men who were presently hit, bound and gagged.

He entered a room and several elderly ladies began screaming. Seconds later louder screams were heard from another room – like an animal being slaughtered.

‘Quiet, women!’ he barked, ‘don’t make this worse than it has to be’.

The women’s screaming turned to quiet whimpering. They were good women and knew they should step aside when honor was at stake. He started towards the side door when his older brother, Timotei entered the room, hands covered with blood and black clothing soaking with liquid, likely blood as well. The whimpering from the women turned into great sobs. The mother was probably one of them.

‘It is done’ Timotei said. ‘We need to find the other girl’. Another great sob from the women at that. The Romjid spread out around the House but couldn’t find the girl. She probably ran away in the commotion. Without much talk they decided to search the heights outside.

*

Romial went out on his own, going north. He knew the heights. Not from his childhood, when naturally he was mostly cooped up, but from the five years since being sworn Akrusia. Those years included a lot of intensive caching up: exploring, hunting, farming and more. It was the most exciting period of his life.

Walking through the night he noticed some trampled grass. He was on her trail. He contemplated calling out to inform the others and have them join the chase, but stopped himself. A thought started to form in his head. He wanted to find her alone.

He stepped on quietly. ‘Otmakla!’ he called out her name in a low voice. He knew her. They were friends of sorts as children, when their houses were still allied. They haven’t met in years, naturally, but he hoped they could speak. Even if honor demanded her death he preferred her to live – and if she could survive the night there was an honorable path to her survival. He just had to convince her to take it.

He heard a rustle from a nearby bush, took a step back, stumbled and fell on his bottom. Good that he did, because the rustle was followed by a rush of air, a flash of steel and quick movement. Her knife would have been embedded in his throat had he not stumbled.

He hurriedly kicked her legs from under her. She fell to her side but rolled back to her feet. Seeing that her chance at a free stab was gone she turned and started running away.

‘Stop!’ he snapped at her in a whispered shout. She continued her stumbled escape. ‘I’m not going to kill you!’ he added quickly.

She stopped and looked back cautiously, half crouching, her body tense.

In her hand she held a long curved knife. A man’s knife. She held it like she knew how to use it. Well, she obviously knew something about using it based on the encounter seconds ago. Fighting and using a man’s weapon. More evidence that she disregarded honor and propriety. More evidence that she must die.

‘You’, she turned fully and stood straight.

‘Yes, it is me’, he said. ‘Your sister is dead’, he added. Not to frighten her or hurt her – he knew she was frightened enough, and she seemed able to cope with fear – he just wanted to make the gravity of the situation clear. ‘Your family paid enough for your lack of honor. I can help you survive the night. No more death should be on your conscience’.

She looked stricken, her beautiful round face ashen. But the fight was still in her. ‘It was not my lack of honor that crept to Rozafati’s room and cut her down with a knife!’ she snapped. ‘It was one of your family’s men. Or maybe you, Akrusia’ – he thought that separating him from the men was a low blow, but he could hardly blame her for the pettiness minutes after her sister was killed. And for this conversation to turn out for the best his condition may need to be discussed openly. ‘I didn’t kill your sister’, he said, not sure why he’s saying it.

‘It was not my lack of honor’, she repeated, ‘it is not on my conscience. It is on yours, Fatime’. Another low blow, bringing up his old name. It was not done. But he already knew to expect no honorable conduct from Otmakla. As for his conscience, he thought, it’s not as if he decided on this attack.

But perhaps his last thought meant he did fear his conscience would have been burdened had he made the decision. He hoped that wasn’t the case. He knew it was the right decision. Honor must be maintained or life would cease.

‘If not for honor, do it for life’, he offered.

‘It’s not life, the thing you’re talking about’ she said, but the wind was out of her. This was negotiation. He felt calmer.

‘Am I not alive?’ he asked.

‘No. You’re a tool for their honor. No more alive than the paper puppets in a shadow show’. Their honor. But that didn’t matter at the moment. She didn’t have many arguments left if she was trying to insult him.

‘I won’t argue. I feel as alive as ever. More alive’, he said, his voice harsh and rasping, ‘but if this path has no life to offer you, well, at least it’ll be life for your father, your brothers, your mother. Your family. If this isn’t life then your life is over anyway’, his voice became softer at that, pitched higher, almost his old voice. He felt momentarily embarrassed for the slip, but looking at her he thought it might have helped her surrender.

She sagged, mumbling, ‘I thought you, of all men, would understand.’

‘I understand refusing to marry Luben’, he conceded. Luben was old and deaf. The arranged marriage wasn’t supposed to be desirable for the Stoyanjid, as they got good land with it and ended a feud that threatened their survival.

‘Then why is it either that or the end of my life? Why kill Rozafati?’ she openly sobbed.

He didn’t feel like defending basic civility and honor. ‘You want this to end. I can see that. We have no time. We have to move before the other men arrive. You have to hide until morning’, he told her hurriedly, gripping her arm. It felt soft yet muscular under his fingers.

‘At least you acknowledge that the other men are murderous monsters’, she whispered ruefully.

He slapped her. It wasn’t a strong slap. He felt the softness of her cheek under his open palm. Touching her felt like stressing his vows, although he never swore not to touch a woman. She said nothing. He looked in her eyes. Her eyes were filled with tears. And to his horror he felt that so were his.

He started running, dragging her northwards after him.

He ran with care, leaving as little tracks as possible. They came to a small creek that cut through the heights and they descended into it. He made a hideout for himself over there two years ago, during his explorations. He couldn’t imagine anyone would know about it. He pushed aside a bush and shoved her into the shallow hole in the ground.

‘Stay here until late morning tomorrow. Don’t go out! Piss here if you have to. It might foul you but you’ll live. And no one can know about this hideout. If the men of your family come by don’t show yourself. I’ll cover up your tracks’.

He looked at her, his eyes hard. ‘When you return to your father tell him you’re ready to be sworn. It will end this. My father won’t like it but he will feel honor was served with the death of your sister. The whole feud can be settled if your father will give up some of the land he got in the marriage agreement. I truly hope he won’t be stupid enough to think about vengeance. But that’s his honor and his decision to make. I will see you on the other side, I hope’.

At that he left, tearing his eyes away from her sad and beautiful face.

He went back, covering the tracks. Then went on to look for the other men. He didn’t feel any strain while he lied to them. It surprised him a little, but the lie came naturally to his lips. It felt a bit like acting his new position in the first couple of years after being sworn.

They continued the search until dawn and then headed home, crossing the heights and then his beloved Herian Valley, up to the Romjid family house.

*

He entered his tiny basement room slowly. Was his brother a murderous monster, as Otmakla said? He didn’t want to think that way, but had his actions betrayed his secret thoughts?

He had a clay jar full of cold water in his room and he filled his wash basin with it. He started undressing to wash himself before going to sleep. He didn’t have time for more than a quick nap before he had to start a regular day at the orchards. He took off his black coat and his undershirt and found himself crying in strangled sobs. He untied and rolled the cloth he used to bind his breasts flat against his chest, and for the first time in years cried for a life he could never have. He peeled his breeches and underwear and stood naked in front of the basin, washing quickly. His face, his arms, his breasts, his stomach, his vagina, his legs.

The life that has been taken from him wasn’t a good life. It was life as a prisoner. You were a prisoner of your father, then a prisoner of your husband, then a prisoner of your sons. Being a sworn Akrusia was much better. Much better than marrying an old cripple and becoming a slave at the age of fifteen.

But for the first time Romial thought that maybe in his new life he was still a prisoner.

*****

That evening Gjergj arrived alone and unarmed to the Romjid house. His face was gray and grief-stricken and he walked stooped, dragging his feet. He asked for an audience with Romjigan.

All the men of the household attended as Gjergj apologized that he had no more daughters and thus cannot uphold the agreement that one of them would marry Luben. The tension in the room rose and he quickly clarified: ‘my youngest son, Otmakil, is now a sworn Akrusia. I will offer land as compensation’. Romial released his held breath silently. His plan worked.

The tension lightened a bit.

‘May the sworn bring blessing upon your house’, Romjigan said, his head turning slightly towards Romial. ‘They have certainly blessed ours’.

///

Some photos of the sworn virgins of Albania, the inspiration for the Akrusia.

Next chapter→