We Hunt the FlameBy: Hafsah Faizal
People lived because she killed. And if that meant braving the Arz where even the sun was afraid to glimpse, then so be it.
On the occasional good day, Zafira bint Iskandar mused that she was braver than the sun itself. Most days, she couldn’t wait until the evernight Arz was behind her and she was firmly rooted in the plains of her caliphate, daama snow and all.
Today was one of those days, despite the antlers rough against her hands. She stepped free of the cursed prison of a forest, pretending her sigh was due to her task being complete rather than a product of the tightly coiled fear unwinding in her heart. The morning sun kissed her cheeks in welcome.
Marhaba to you, too, coward.
Sunlight was always faint in the caliphate of Demenhur, because the sun didn’t know what to do with the snow that should be sand.
Before her, the sea of white rolled out smooth and pristine, gifting her a moment’s contentment in her solitude, even as her toes numbed and the air crippled her nose. For in a caliphate where a woman’s actions were always in danger of being turned against her, there was nothing easy about pretending to be a man. Not when she had the curves of a woman, and the voice and gait of one, too.
She dragged the deer carcass along, a trail of steam in her wake, the sullied snow an eerie crimson. There was a promise in the air. A stillness in the earth and in the whispering trees.
It’s nothing. Paranoia had a way of visiting when he was least desired. She was a bundle of emotions because of the impending wedding, that was all.
Sukkar nickered from the rotting post where she had tethered him, blending in with his near-white coat. While she made quick work of tying the deer to her stallion’s saddle, he remained still, as sweet as the name she had given him.
“We had a good hunt today,” she said to the horse who hadn’t helped, and swung onto his back.
Sukkar didn’t react, content with staring across the distance into the Arz as if an ifrit would leap out and swallow him whole.
“Dastard,” Zafira said, a smile on her numbing lips.
Though everyone was a coward when it came to the forest—each of the five caliphates that made up Arawiya were afraid of the Arz, for it rimmed those lands, too. It was a curse they’d shared ever since the land had been robbed of magic. Baba had taught Zafira that the Arz was, in many ways, simply a forest. He had taught her of ways to use it to her benefit. Ways to believe she could tame it, when in reality she could not. No one could.
His death had proved as much.
Zafira steered Sukkar away from the forest, toward the clearing and deeper into Demenhur. But the Arz was such that it always demanded one last glimpse. She paused and turned.
It watched. Breathed. Its skeleton trees reached with gnarled fingers steeped in swirling shadow.
Some said it devoured men like vultures on the dead. Yet Zafira returned, day after day, hunt after hunt. She was aware each venture could be her last, and though she swore she didn’t fear much, finding herself lost was her biggest fear of all.
Still. There was a pulse deep inside her that relished those visits into the depths of darkness. She hated the Arz. She hated it so much, she craved it.
“Akhh, plenty of time to stare at the Arz every daama day,” she said to Sukkar, a quiver to her voice. “We need to get back for the wedding, or Yasmine will have our heads.”
Not that Sukkar cared. Zafira clucked her tongue and urged him forward, the tension escaping his taut muscles as the distance between them and the Arz grew.
Until the air heavied with another presence.
The small hairs on the nape of her neck lifted, and she threw a wary glance over her shoulder. The Arz stared back, as if with bated breath. No—whoever it was stood here in Demenhur, imitating the silence almost as well as she did.
If there was one thing she feared more than losing herself within the Arz, it was being caught unaware by a man who could prove she was no hunter but a huntress, a girl of seventeen concealed beneath the weight of her father’s hooded cloak every time she hunted. Then she would be shunned, her victories derided. Her identity, viciously unraveled. The thought closed hands around her heart, the thud, thud, thud racing a little bit faster.
She spun Sukkar to face the Arz, kicking against the strains of his hesitation as a low command drifted on the wind, words undecipherable.