Excerpt from the novel “Born of Blood”
Her mother’s words were like stones in her mind as her hair was tugged roughly, the story she had been told distracting the harsh tug of her skull as the elder sisters wove her heavy black hair into an elaborate braid that was then piled on top of her head. They were in a red silken tent, embroidered pillows served as furniture in front of small dressing mirrors. Pots of crushed henna plants filled the tent and incense smoked into the night air stinging Phuong’s eyes. The sisters adorned her hair with gilded clips shaped like phoenixes with red gems for eyes. They placed a paper fan painted with flames and lotuses in her hand and spun her around to the looking glass. Her jaw dropped at the woman staring back. Beautifully drawn henna tattoos covered almost every inch of her, curlicuing around her eyes; diamond and floral patterns crawling from her fingertips up to her shoulders. The silk dress she wore was embroidered elaborately with tales of Phoenixes and Dragons, its red so deep and vibrant she looked like a dancing flame. The elder sisters had used sticky wax to glue red stones all over her.
Ah, all grown up. She whipped her head, seeking the source of the man’s voice but she knew she would not see him. For so long he had been silent, his voice fading inside her mind to a memory. Now, he had returned, the phantom voice that teased at her, seemingly getting louder as the night wore on. Was she losing her mind?
“Phuong! You look like Queen Tientu herself!” Phuong smiled at Kieu, pushing her worries to the back of her mind. It was just like her to invoke the name of their first warrior queen. She had had a glass of rice wine made evident by her blushing cheeks and giggling. Phuong looked at her sisters, each under a different state of transformation. Kieu’s skin was covered in silver paints, every finger of hers was adorned with thick silver and gold rings, a large turquoise stone hung from a silver chain at her chest. Her silk dress was a luminous aqua and when the fabric shifted it shone pearlescent. Her hair was braided long down the side of her head, ribbons of blue and silver shining through it. The elder sisters had looked at her, recognizing the water that ran through her spirit.
Jaya had fought and fought against her mother for wearing a silk dress. Finally, the elder sisters had conceded and allowed Jaya to wear her gilded armour which was craftily etched with prayers for strength and courage. In compromise she had allowed the sisters to decorate her hair in a high bun and place green gems on her body. “We all look like queens!” Jaya’s usually stern attitude had taken a giddy turn, the effects of the celebration seeped into their skin, exciting them with the sound of music, their hearts beating deeper. The whole town was waiting for them, waiting to embrace them as women.
The Elders waved their hands impatiently and waved them towards the tent exit. Phuong hugged her sisters tightly, their bond thicker than blood – they were genetically identical, they had the magic of a shared womb.
Out they stepped from the warm tent into the cool night air, their cheeks flushed with excitement. The beating of drums filled the town, the aroma of spices and cooked food smoked above. It was a cloudless night and stars sparkled infinitely in the sky. They clutched each other’s hands, their elaborate jewels clicking metallic sounds against the other’s. Three silhouettes, conjoined at the hands, approached the blazing bonfire and the crowd that surrounded it.
Everyone had dressed up, there were animal masks, golden heads of dragons and tigers, a musky scent combined of incense, bodies, and alcohol filled the air. The night was filled with apprehension, adrenaline, and a magic of what was to come. Phuong loved parties, festivals and celebrations. There was something so freeing to be apart of a group of loved ones, to join in community and come together to enjoy the night. But as she stepped into the crowd and turned her head to look at the illuminated faces, Phuong felt fear creep under her skin. A paranoia sunk in. No one was recognizable under their masks – quickly, she pushed the thought down. Who would want to hurt us? Breathing deeply, and willing herself to shake the feeling, she threw herself into the night and vowed to enjoy the celebration. After all, she would be married next week.
Their mother waited with open arms in front of the fire, she was a petite beauty, her high cheekbones glistened from the golden powder they used, her black hair shining from the bonfire. Her face was uncovered and stood out against the wall of thriving people, she had kind, dark eyes, and the delicate hands of a seamstress.She was simply dressed, a single golden chain wrapped around her head, pale pink silk wrapped around her, the colour of lotus petals indicating her as their mother.
“My beautiful girls, finally, come of age.” She took each of them into her hands and kissed their foreheads, placing a freshly picked lotus flower into each of their hands, the aroma of it wafting into their faces. Each of them kissed her on the cheek, they saw the tears forming in the corner of her eyes. Phuong felt her heart swell with love, though they argued she knew her mother loved her, she had raised all three of them alone and here she was, ushering them into a new, full womanhood. She felt overwhelmed with emotion and senses, her mind beginning to race with all that could possibly go wrong, frightened of the voice and darkness in her mind that always threatened to rise. She breathed and focused on the soft petals in her hands and held her head up high, nodding at the old, crooked backed woman standing across from them.Her hair hung loose and long, it was straight and shone white like moonbeams, she wore a robe that shimmered gold and silver, signifying her as the Wise Woman. The Wise Woman was a leader of all ceremonies in their town, she not only knew all of their history, she was apart of it. She knew the ancient language and would pass down lore, magic, and wisdom to her successor.
“High-Nün! High-Nün! High-Nün!” Her deep voice shook them to the core, she roared the town’s name, invoking the roar of the crowd.
“Tonight we see girls become women. Tonight! We see queens made. Tonight! Blood becomes pure, blood becomes power and blood becomes goddesses!”
Phuong was jostled into position around the bonfire, its towering flames reaching for the heavens, illuminating the ruined tower behind them. Thick grey smoke plumed above and heat wavered out, she knew the heat would make her sisters sweat, but she found comfort in the heat. She stood between Kieu and Jaya, their backs to the fire. At the crescendo of the drums they tossed their lotuses into the fire, hearing the sizzle of petals and watched as they curled into black and then disappeared into ashes of white. They linked hands, and the Wise Woman came to them holding an ornate gilded horsehair brush and matching bowl.
Phuong knew what was inside, it was the blood of a snake, killed to rid the world of usurpers and deceivers. Mixed in was fresh sage. She mixed the bowl vigorously, Phuong suppressed a smile and tried not to be surprised with the speed in which the old woman moved. Her dark eyes whipped up at Phuong’s, catching her in her thought. The village children alway said she knew what you were thinking.Finished with the paste, she dabbed the brush in and pulled out the dark paint, it smelled of sage and snakeskin. Her hand deftly moved as she painted each of the young women.
“Peace.” Her voice boomed, as she dipped the brush and swirled it onto Kieu’s forehead. “Strength.” Running it quickly over Jaya’s cheeks. “Power.” The blood was warm on her, Eldest painted the bridge of her nose and chin, the mixture dripped down her chin and onto her chest.The fire seemed to grow hotter, the heat crawling like bugs all over Phuong’s skin. Eldest called forth the dancers, six children of the village dressed in orange silks holding golden tambourines.
They lined up as the drumming stopped, silence came for a moment, only the cackling of the logs could be heard. And then a single drumbeat, and then another, and another, as the drumbeats are built up into a rhythm, the tempo quickening and the sound thunderous as the children begin their dance.It was hypnotic, their limbs deftly moving, the fabrics pulling behind them in the air as they circled the bonfire. Their tambourines are hit on the offbeat, the crowd around the fire began to hum, joining in an eerie and beautiful melody. Eldest’s voice booms over all of this, her song beginning. She reaches deep into her lungs and begins The Prayer of Tientu, a blessing for women asking for fertility and strength.As the prayer unfolds Phuong’s eyes are drawn into the towering bonfire before her. A pulling sensation in her gut made her unable to look away. The flames twist in an intricate ballet of shadows and flames, hypnotizing Phuong. The drums fade, the voices and music leave her mind as images begin to play out in the flames.
She saw herself, seated on a throne, a heavy, jeweled crown placed upon her head, shining brighter and brighter until it bursts into flames and melts down onto her face, suffocating her. Her expression turning from contentment into agony, a large yellow flame licked upwards, changing the vision into herself diving into the depths of the sea, her skin translucent as she reaches into a glowing pit which overtakes her in a glowing eruption. Phuong sees herself once more, this time her body wrapped in a white shroud, her face disappearing, fear marked in her skin.
Eldest’s song has stopped, there is only silence as the crowd anxiously awaits for the ceremony to end.
Blood rushes through Phuong’s ears, she breathes deep into her belly, tasting the spices in the air. The thickness makes her cough, tears tipping off of her eyelashes. What just happened? She gripped her sister’s hands tightly, looking around, seeking their eyes to see if they had seen what she had. They gave her small smiles, their dark eyes reflecting the fire and shining with excitement. She was the only to have seen it. . Eldest bowed to the girls and raised her arms to the heavens, “The Great Earth welcomes you… as WOMEN!” The village crowd erupted into cheers and with that end the festivities began. They began their dancing and tables were brought out, long wooden ones and a multitude of hands began to lay out a feast, roasted ducks with dark brown crispy skin, soft rice cakes wrapped in banana leafs, marinated fish with sliced mangoes placed along their skin and various rice wines and fermented drinks are brought out in plain clay jars. Jaya squeezed her sisters’ hands and pulled them towards the festivities, as they walked through the crowd they are adorned with flowers and gold coins.The pull of the crowd releasing Jaya’s grip on Phuong and Kieu and Phuong found herself lost in the throng of people. Masks were kept on and festivities were fully on, everyone was possessed by the love of dance and music, their feet jumping in rhythm. The intoxicating smell of burning wood, cooked foods, alcoholic drinks and sweaty bodies pulled at Phuong, the sound of drums and crackling longs fading the image she had seen in the fire into her memory. Her feet pulled at her joining the rhythm of the drums, and she lost herself to the festivities.
The rice wine she had drank made her head light and warm but she felt the recognizable darkness pull at her. Her senses reached out into the night testing it, expecting the warmth and excitement she was used to in the town but something was not right. There was a void within the crowd, an emptiness that seemed to spread around the bodies. The warmth from the rice wine left her body and she was all too aware of the dried blood cracking on her face, and that she had been separated from her family. She left her peers to their drinks and talking and searched out her mother and sisters.
Jaya was demonstrating her warrior pose, her arms swinging up deftly into defence position, the young men staring at her in reverence. In the crowd was her betrothed, his copper skin and black hair swept back perfectly. He was handsome and well smiled, he smiled at her and she knew she should say something to him since they would be married next week. Her stomach pulled at her, so instead she turned to Jaya and pulled her aside, “
You are quite the party performer, little sister.”
“Phuong, I am only an hour younger than you!” She dropped her voice and whispered to Phuong, indicating towards the men, “Do you see Tuan? He is not only the cleverest but he can teach me to shoot a bow and arrow. Perhaps I will be next to marry.” Her smile spread wide, she looked so young underneath the golden armour, it stirred a fierce protectiveness within Phuong.
“Jaya, you can marry your warrior prince later. We need to find Kieu… Something in the air is wrong.” Jaya relented, she knew better than to doubt her sister’s intuition. They weaved through the crowd, finally finding Kieu dancing and laughing with the younger girls, close to the fire. Kieu’s eyes took in Phuong’s face and read the concern, with no words she linked hands with her sisters and they went in search of their mother.
As Phuong took her next step, she felt the air thicken and the bodies and masks seemed to press in close, making her throat restrict. She did not remember so many partygoers. The smell of burning filled the air and smoke, thicker than before filled the air, blocking the clear night sky, turning it into a thick blanket of red and grey. Despite the fire they felt a chill and a night fog rolled in around their feet.
“There’s no fog this time of year,” Kieu whispered, more to herself than anyone else. The drumming stopped and the voices quieted, with the fog and smoke they could not see in front of them. The cackling of the fire and the murmur of the crowd was all that could be heard until it was suddenly broken by a war horn, blaring loudly, breaking the crowd of their reverie and into a panic.
“THE BLOOD ARMY IS HERE!” That was all Phuong could make out of the screams as the crowds scattered. She grabbed both of her sisters’ hands and pulled them out of the smoke, bodies falling in front of her as she darted between them, her eyes tearing up and fighting against the smoke. They ran to the edge of town where the forest was. It was clearer out here from the fire and they crouched low on the edge where the trees met the village border, hiding out of the way.
Phuong looked at the bonfire and fought the nausea that came rolling from her guts. Her eyes skimmed over the fallen bodies, not daring to look to long at the villagers she had known her whole life, their faces lifeless. The fog began to dissipate and the silhouette of muscled men and women were thrown into sharp relief. They stood amongst the dead bodies and ripped off their festive masks to reveal faces covered in still wet, crimson blood painted in symbols that rippled along their skin, eyes of onyx hatred stared out beneath the blood. They threw off the robes they had worn to blend in, their bare skin showing old scars beneath new scars and scabs, tattoos of perverse magic etched into tough skin, thick black leather and chain straps with fur adornments were their armour. These were the Blood Warriors.
They had heard of these warriors their whole lives, legends of the Mad Queen’s favourite warriors, ones who had sacrificed their humanity and their families to serve under her. Phuong had not believed it, she could not believe that people would choose to do such terrible things. The warriors began to separate, they were shouting to each other, hunting for something. A movement in the sky caught Phuong’s eye, oily feathers reflected the fire as large wings pumped up high, circling the site. She had never seen a snakebird out at night, and the way it flew so deliberately, she just knew it was enchanted.
“Quickly, let’s find Mama,” She pulled her sisters deeper into the darkness, they shed their noisy gilded jewelry and weaved quickly round the forest to the other side of the village. Phuong knew there were people dying, they were in trouble but what could she do? Her and her sister’s were too frightened to even speak. And then she felt it, an urgent pull that told her she needed to find her mother.
“Hurry!” They circled throughout the village, the one they had known their whole lives so that even in the darkness they could maneuver about, avoiding the streets where they heard screams or saw fires blazing, they squeezed through laneways where haphazard homes had been built next to each other until finally, they were near their small stone house, only two streets away they could see candlelight through the window, their mother would be there.As they were about to step out of the alley they were in to cross, four Blood Warriors walked by. Phuong pulled her sisters back, pressing them into the alley wall. They watched as the warriors began to chant.
Their voices were inhuman, grating like the sound of nails on stone, so affected by the darkness of sacrifice. They crowded around each other, and Phuong could not take her eyes away as they passed around a small obsidian dagger and cut their palms, the skin raised in pink scars, drops of thick blood falling to suspend in midair. With each chant the blood turned darker until it reached a thick, menacing black. It formed into a thin, seemingly delicate chain of glittering black. The biggest Blood Warrior, a broad shouldered woman with tan skin picked it up, her lips nearing it and whispering to the chain which formed into a collar.
“Manyara!” His voice was a boom even amongst the chaos, “Fill these cuffs with the women and children. We need more for the Tower, and Fearwhether is asking for young ones.” He seemed to be high ranking; his skin was creamy, with fresh pink scars. He had black tattoos that covered both his arms, they writhed like leeches and spoke only of dark magic. The only thing darker were his eyes. He scared Phuong to no end.
“Yes Great Adegoke.” The one called Manyara, a thin, lanky man with few tattoos on his dark skin, and long black hair, shuffled off into the night with a bow.
Adegoke turned to his men, “Now that we are rid of that idiot it is time to find what we came here for. Three girls, identical abominations that should have died years ago.”
“Great Adegoke,” it was the warrior to his right, a younger one with skin like tanned leather, wild steel blue eyes and white hair. “What do we need three paltry girls for? They are nothing, this whole village is ours for blood!”
Adegoke turned to him, spitting his reply. “Lesser Gunne, their blood is worth the entire village. Do not question me again or I shall have your head for dinner and your children for my slaves.” The one named Gunne flinched and lowered his defiant gaze. Phuong could feel Kieu trembling next to her, she tried to still her own shaking, she was sure this twisted man could hear the loud erratic beat of her heart. She hadn’t realized that she was gripping Kieu’s hand until the Warriors spread out, each cutting another line into their arms, blood dripping suspended into the air and streaking through the sky.
Jaya doubled over and wretched, vomiting that night’s feast. Phuong could feel the nausea rising in herself, the blood magic washing over them, the air around them feeling like cold, steel, insects crawling on their skin.
“It’s vile.” Kieu’s face was pale, sweat swathing her hairline. The girls’ blood paints were gone, their ceremonial silks dirtied by running through dirt and alleys. Phuong took a deep breath then gestured to her sisters, they had to keep going and find mother.
They snuck up through the grove behind their house, stepping through the bushes and looking into the small window with a flickering candle. Their mother was sitting at the kitchen table cutting mangoes. She looked beautiful, she still wore the white silk pants and long yellow dress embroidered with a phoenix on it, her hair was swept back and clean. Her face was calm and she was clean, seemingly untouched by the events of the evening. She could have been a painting. It was unsettling to see her sitting in their home, slicing fresh fruit. Just as they were about to speak out to her and cross into their home, a shadow stepped from the other side of the room. It was the warrior, Adegoke. He was large in their small home, filling a corner where the light seemed to avoid him.
His hand swatted away the mango slice she offered him.
“You knew we would come for them.”
“I knew and I waited. I did not run.” Their mother regarded him coolly, she was not frightened but treated the man as if he were a leper.
“You should be beheaded for treason.”
“Treason?” She rose now, leaving the mangoes forgotten. Her voice took on a passion that Phuong had never heard. “On whom? Yuennan? The monarchy? The Mad Queen? You have committed treason on your soul, tainting it with vile magic, cutting yourself beyond recognition – killing innocents – killing my family.” Every word was spit with fury. “For what Adegoke? For what?” She stared deeply into him then, her soul bared for all the hurt she had suffered, a look that Phuong never thought she’d see on her mother’s face.
“Enough Esha.” The dark warrior’s voice echoed with magic silencing their mother. “Once I looked upon you as a sister – now, you are nothing but dirt.” He spit the last words, his chest rising and falling in anger.
A glitter caught Phuong’s eye, her mother was slowly becoming coated in a golden dust that had come out of nowhere. At the sight of this Adegoke threw back his head in a rage, “You will not escape you witch!” In a flurry of movements his dagger found his arm, slicing deeply into the skin producing a steady stream of blood that fell onto the stone floor. His voice changed into that dark grating one as he began to chant words that sounded like the earth cracking into pieces.
She took her sisters’ hands and clasped them tightly. The golden dust had filled the room, sparkling, suspending in the air like fresh dew in the morning light, pausing for a single moment before it snapped onto her skin, coating her all over and making her look like a sculpture. As Adegoke continued chanting, a crack formed in the dust on their mother’s skin, then another and another. Each drop of blood from Adegoke’s wound synced with the cracking as if on fine china. The air grew thick with rage and before Phuong could see what was happening there was a flurry of dark skin and a shining black dagger, a plume of blood and gold dust filled the air, their mother shouted a word they could not make out, lost in the blood and gold, and then the door was ajar.
Phuong blinked trying to process the aftermath. There in the middle of the floor lay their mother, she could have been sleeping except for her dark eyes staring into nothing and the dark pool of blood soaking into the stone floor. There were patches of gold dust covering parts of her, and her beautiful silk pants were soaking deep in blood.Phuong had to remember to breathe. Everything became dark on the edges of her vision, all she could see was her mother’s small body on the floor. Next to her, her sisters were in their own forms of grief. Jaya swore vengeance between sobs, and Kieu whimpered as her face leaked tears.
She did not realize she had stood up and entered her home until she stepped around her mother’s body, and entered her bed chambers. She swept aside the curtain partition, where her small straw mat lay in front of her and a modest chest in the corner that was filled with various books, parchments and sketches, and beneath all of this a gilded dagger, its handle wrapped in red and gold fabrics, stones that glinted like a fire were embedded in the blade and the handle had a carved dragon’s head, a fiery, threatening stone for its eyes. Phuong had received this gift for her fifteenth nameday, Her mother had said it was the only gift her father had left for her.I will take this dagger and take out that man’s heart. Her eyes swam with images of blood, vengeance and the man’s dark eyes, the feeling that she had at the bonfire seems to leak out of her heart, a blackness that beckoned and a deep voice that seemed to encourage her, I will kill him. She felt a cool hand on hers, covering the dagger. It was Kieu.
“Killing him will not bring mother back.” Phuong hadn’t realised she was shaking or speaking aloud. She looked at her sister, it was so much like looking into a mirror. Her heart was broken. A void had entered into it, that nothing but revenge or justice would fill, and even then it would be in vain.
Their coming of age meant Kieu’s smile would never be the same. Jaya would never marry Tuan, and with a heavy weight, Phuong wished all she had to worry about was her betrothal.
“We should go. Jaya says we should head North to Legion. To Uncle’s, Perhaps we may sail East?” Kieu tried to sound hopeful, a small attempt at a small broke Phuong’s heart, a desperate attempt to quell her sister’s pain. I will be strong for Kieu, she decided. Phuong nodded, she was the eldest and had always watched over her sisters. She would take them safely to their uncle. She would be their strength, this pain and anger she felt would be locked away, stored deep inside her heart to be recalled when she had time to mourn.
“Jaya! Kieu! Gather your sacks, fill them with clothes and bring what food you can. Grab those water skins and fill them up. We have to go, they’re looking for us.” Phuong sprang into action beside her sisters, hastily they gathered what they could and couldn’t take. Their jewels they stripped and kept in the bottom of their bags for trade; what sentimental items they could lose they did.Phuong let her sisters say goodbye to their mother’s body, she slinked down two steps to her mother’s chambers, a small room carved deeper into the earth the coldness seeping into her veins. Phuong had not stepped into her mother’s room in a long time, it was as she remembered, a small mattress and a sewing table in the corner. She explored her mother’s mattress and sewing table, taking as many gold coins as she could and a map of Yuennan. Then she turned to a wardrobe that was imported from the Northern lands. She had never paid much attention to the strange wardrobe her mother mysteriously had but now she felt the air vibrating around it, something beckoning her closer.
It was a large wardrobe, imposing in its dark chestnut with an intricate leaf inlay. The buzzing in her ears grew louder and she threw open the wardrobe doors. It was vast inside, and there was nothing but a simple silk shift hanging from the top. It had a small tag that read “Jaya”. Phuong lifted it out, the material shimmered and shifted in her hands, feeling not quite like silk but like skin or scales.
She folded the dress and tucked it into her own sack, with one look at her mother’s bed she stepped out to her sisters, who were kneeling around her body. The woman who had raised, who was always so strong, and mysterious, the mountain in their lives, she seemed so small now, her body no longer holding her.
Phuong reached out, her warm fingers touching the cold, waxy skin of her mother. She pushed down on the eyelids, closing her dark eyes.
“Phuong,” Jaya spoke between tears, “She would have wanted to be burned.” Kieu nodded, she took the wildflowers they always had in their kitchen and laid it on her body. Phuong reached within, finding that flame that was always burning. The heat rose out of her hands, flames licking the cold skin of her mother. She let out a small cry as a surge of power left her and her mother’s body was engulfed, the wildflowers on her chest catching and curling from the flames. Golden dust sparked out of the fire and their mother’s body began to burn. They left because they could not bear the smell of burning flesh.