PRELUDE: The Crone
A sharp wind blew through the camp like a scoff, stirring up the dusty ground, ruffling the canvas and hide sides of the tents, sending sparking licks of campfire spinning into the air. With the same suddenness, it died away and left the gathered souls to their scanty comforts in quiet. Here in the dead heart of Greld, everyone had been long days without a reprieve from the wind and its elemental fellows. Even the hard-soled merchants, who bore their worlds in their wagons, grew weary after too many days in motion, and they all faced many more days of traveling in their many directions before they could be safe enough to truly rest. There was no food or water in these dead reaches but what they carried with them in their ration packs. The game the land provided in this place was scarce and venom-blooded.
As the night fell heavy and the Stone and the Blood rose vast in the star-shimmered sky, wanderers and travelers finished making their night’s beds and turned to the fire. Those crossing the world on foot or in saddle counted themselves fortunate to come upon a camp like this, in which they might find safety and warmth, community and companionship, and perhaps, if their fortune were truly great, the chance to barter for supplies or repairs. To fall upon such a gathered camp with bad intent was to invite the displeasure of the goddess Etris, and her curse could starve a man to desiccated death while he stood before you.
By the common compact of the long-traveled, in honor of Etris, goddess of plenty, when night fell full, everyone came together at the fire. They shared a meal, bringing all they could spare to share, and they shared good congress, with music and news and stories.
On this night, a figure hunched in dark robes sat in the firelight. The licks of yellow flame brightened only facets of a face within, and it wasn’t until the figure spoke that the others at the fire knew she was an old woman. “For a bowl of good food and a mug of good ale, I will tell a story,” she said in a voice brittle with age but rich with soul-strength. She spoke in Frentung, unaccented by any land’s flavor.
In that powerful, crackling voice, the people at the fire with her heard her truth: she was a venerable soul who’d lived a worthy life. An old warrior, perhaps. A man ladling thick soup into wooden bowls handed a steaming bowl to his son, who trotted to the crone and offered her the bowl with his head bowed and his knees bent.
She took it in withered hands. When she put it to her mouth and drank, the firelight flashed more deeply into the shadow of her cloak, and a shock of white hair showed, but no more of her face than the soft creases of her cheeks.
Until the bowl was empty, and she’d drunk long from a clay mug of ale, she did not speak again. By the time she set the mug aside and swiped the back of her hand through the shadows that sheltered her face, the travelers at the fire, a dense ring three souls deep, had grown quiet, so that the occasional querulous cry of an infant was the only sound above the snaps of firewood.
“I have a story of the Rider,” she said into the waiting quiet, and her companions on this night leaned in. Though her face remained in shadow, no one doubted that she smiled. “It might be that I have the greatest story about the Rider that ever will be told. I have the story of how the world was made, and unmade, and made again. I have the story of how the Rider stands at the heart of all you know and holds all your truths in her hands. So harken close, my friends, for when you rest tonight, you will dream of magic and might, of friendship and strife, of war and love. You will dream of the world that was, and the world that is, and the world that might be.”
She picked up the clay mug and held it out. “But first, I need more ale.”
Chapter 1: THE RIDER
The inn nestled into the valley below was a beacon of warmth and comfort and the only light in this heavy, black night. The golden eye of a vast dark beast.
Lea swung down from the saddle, her boots landing silently on bare earth still soft from the halfhearted rain shower that had brought the sky to loom low overhead, with clouds so thick that neither moon, not the Stone nor the Blood, could pass through.
Dropping her lids, she called up her moonsight. When she opened her eyes, the world appeared around her as if bathed in grey sun—colorless, but clear.
Behind the inn she saw a cluster of small tents and covered wagons. No other signs of habitation. There was no town in that valley, only the inn and the scrubby wood around it. But this road, meandering through the valley, was an important byway through Greld and the Brisirian midlands. The Greldish were a nomadic people, and their land had few fixed points. But this inn was solid, sunk in place, and Lea knew she could not be more than a week’s ride to Haresh. In addition to her business there, Haresh would be a chance to repair and resupply, but it would also mean danger. In Greld, so close to the Sacred Sea, so devastated by the act that had created that expanse, Lea was always at risk, but she meant to move as quickly through as she could.
Greld was not a place she wandered by will, nor passed through often, but in this time she had no choice.
Aradros turned his great black head and nudged her arm, nickering with impatience. He was an Elleren warhorse, a powerful stallion twice the size of common horses, with three times the fire, and he didn’t like to stand aimlessly on dusty hills.
“Shh, love,” she murmured to her sole companion. Blinking back to her true sight, she gave his inky mane an affectionate tug. “I’m listening.”
She closed her eyes again and opened her other senses, none so keen as her moonsight, but acute nonetheless. First, she heard the breeze, and the crackly whisper of dried grass it carried. Then the softly harmonic susurration of Greld’s bitter night creatures, bustling in the shadows. Beyond that, soft but, now in focus, clear, she heard the sound she sought: the inn. The rumble of voices, no more than a brush of sound on the air. And music. A stroke of strings. Turning all her potent senses to that sound, she listened. The kind of music could tell her whether the inn was safe or no, whether the people were in peace or strife.
The song she made out was a Greldish ballad, one she knew. It told the story of one of the battles of the Great Cleaving. She sighed. That was no help—people sang it as celebration and as consolation both, and she was too far from the sound to ken its intent on this night.
Aradros stamped a massive hoof, and the ground under her feet trembled. He was more than impatient to be moving, she knew. He saw the inn below and understood what it could mean. For many days, their rest had had no more shelter or comfort than the rocks and earth and stunted trees of Greld could provide. A soft bed and a cozy stall would be a welcome boon for them both.
“Fine and well, fine and well. We’ll go down and see what we see.”
The stable boy gawked up at Aradros, his jaw hanging unhinged. Elleren warhorses were rare so far from Ellerema, and therefore valuable, and the boy seemed never to have seen one so close before. As she swung down from the saddle, Lea cast a subtle glamour that made her voice seem deeper and her eyes more commonly colored. Shaded by her long cloak and its deep hood, she said, in the voice of a road-weary man, “It’s three tchuks to you for a good stall and fresh water and hay for my horse.”
“Th-th-th” the boy stammered. His mouth snapped shut. He swallowed and tried again. “We’ve no stall fit for a warhorse. He’ll tear the walls down.”
“He will not, so long as neither he nor I come to trouble.” Lea brushed a gloved hand over Aradros’s neck, and sent him a silent command for patience. It would not do for him to trample the boy. Her horse huffed a protest, but bobbed his head.
“Cromerra won’t have it,” the boy insisted. “She’ll box me for it.”
Lea could compel the boy to do her bidding, but sentient beings were aware of magic used on them. If she ensorcelled the boy at all, even a nudge, she would mark herself a magic-bearer. Only Farborn and Saapians had magic—and neither were friendly with Greld, or any other land in Brisira. That meant a fight at best, and death at worst. If she were known as Saapian, she could face worse even than death, should she be delivered into the grasp of a Greldish chieftain. Her people had brought forth the Great Cleaving and turned Greld into a desert wasteland. No Saapian was welcome at any fire in Brisira, but in Greld they were reviled as the monsters of stories.
She could take on an inn full of drunken traders and prevail, but here in the middle of the country, far from any border, she would have a long road of endless battle before she could find safety again.
Better, then, to charm him the common way. Hidden in the shadow of her hood, she smiled, and let it shape her words as well. “Five tchuks. Above the cost of the stall.”
The boy considered, blinking. Five tchuks was a windfall for a child of his low station. “Your word he won’t crush me or the stable—or the other horses?”
Lea stroked her horse. “My word,” she said in a man’s voice. “So long as you don’t give him cause.”
With a quivering nod, the boy reached for the reins. Aradros snorted his displeasure, and the boy faltered and reconsidered. With five tchuks in the balance, he found his spine and clenched the reins. “What’s his name?”
“You did not buy his name for so small a price, boy. See to him well.”
Lea turned and strode to the inn, leaving the boy to find his own way to a peace with her horse.
The inn was made roughly, by hands more used to canvas than wood. The wide slats were bleached with age and fit poorly together. The ceiling was low and flat, no more than a wall turned on its side, and canvas showed through the gaps, where a sheet of tenting had been laid as a roof. The floor was earth. A piled-stone hearth in the center offered warmth and light and fire for cooking, and each rough-hewn table bore a flickering tallow pot. Windows were few and small; the rich aroma of meat and bread vied in the close space with the acrid tang of unwashed travelers. Greldish folk were merchants and traders, with few roots. The whole of the country claimed only one town, Haresh, and fewer true villages than Lea had fingers to count. An inn like this, its posts sunk deep into the hard ground, was a rare thing here and would draw every soul in range to its fire.
The common room was crowded with women and men, and some children as well. The crowd reminded her of the tents and covered wagons she’d seen from the crest earlier. Perhaps there was no bed for her tonight after all—but a meal of seasoned meat and fresh-baked bread, with a mug of strong ale, would be welcome, too.
The player stood at the hearth, his instrument strung over his shoulder. His songs were good-natured and lighthearted, as were the voices around her, joining him. This inn was as safe for Lea as Greld could ever be.
The innkeeper saw her and gave her a nod of terse greeting. She kept her hood pulled low; a glamour strong enough to change her appearance would draw energy she needed to hold in reserve. But Saapian women were taller than most, taller than many men; under her layers and cloak, with the dulling of her eyes and the deepening of her voice, she needed no strong glamour to be seen as a man.
“Welcome, traveler,” the innkeeper muttered. “We’ve no rooms left this night.”
She would sleep in the stable with Aradros. “A meal is all I need.”
When she set a silver crescent on the scarred wood slab that served as a bar, the innkeeper collected it with a deft gesture worthy of a spellcaster and drew a mug of ale from the keg. Another short nod, and a vague wave into the crowded room. “Find your comfort where you may,” she said, pushing the mug Lea’s way.
Lea took it and made her way to a small table and stool in a far corner, at a distance from the fire and the player, where she had walls at her back and could survey the whole room. Though this inn was clearly a waypoint, there was a sense of community unusual among strangers. A game of Mercenarium was going on at a large table near the center of the room, and a cluster of folk ringed the four women playing. Each move brought a cheer or a groan from the onlookers, and laughter and crosstalk between. These people were known to each other.
Perhaps the wagons and tents behind the inn belonged to a single group. The thought made Lea sit up more fully and draw deeper into her hood. Large groups carried stories more quickly than lone wanderers or small bands. The strength of their numbers made them more open to strangers, and strangers often paid for bread and bed with tales. Greld had no stories of her of their own, but others might have shared with a group of this size.
She was glad to be sleeping in the stable tonight; she would make away before the sun rose.
A small, portly man, of an age with the innkeeper, his complexion rosy with the sheen of hard work, pushed through the noisy throng to Lea’s small table, bearing a wooden plate laden well with thick slabs of dark meat, a fat hunk of warm bread, and a wedge of hard cheese. Lea nodded, and the innkeeper’s mate returned the gesture as he set her meal before her and left.
Keeping her attention on the room, Lea ate. The food was good—the meat was Greldish boar, tough but savory, in a sauce seasoned with a spice that left fire on the tongue. The bread was dark, soft, and filling. The cheese was the common Greldish style, made from sow’s milk and blooming with pungent mold. It smelled like seven days in the saddle and the mold furred her tongue, but she ate every crumb. The way to Haresh cut through the western Greldish drylands. For the next week, as the last week, she’d eat only what she could hunt, so anything that wasn’t an arabin lizard or a range rat was worth the swallow.
As she sopped up the last of the meat sauce with the crust of her bread, a man broke from the crowd around the game and walked toward her. She’d marked him already; he’d entered the inn, alone, as she’d made her way to this corner. Different though he was, clearly as much a stranger here as she, he’d blended readily into the camaraderie of the guests.
He was not Greldish, or trying to seem to be. Long in the leg and broad in the shoulder, he was tall—not quite so tall as she, but taller than any man of this land. He wore soft hides, and thin hanks of his long, gold and sable hair were wound into braids and trimmed with rough ivory beads that she knew to be teeth. Teeth adorned his hides as well. And seven thick slashes of dark ink streaked his throat, five on the left and two on the right.
He was a Boreldan warrior, one who had claimed many souls and survived the Ritual of Rising seven times.
The warrior tribes of Boreld claimed trophies from their enemy kills, and were known by the trophies they claimed. This warrior’s tribe collected teeth. In their way of belief, the soul resided all through the living body, in every part, and a warrior took on the power of a soul when he claimed a piece of its body before he ended the life. Each tooth this man wore had been ripped from a living mouth.
The Ritual of Rising was a brutal test of a warrior’s fortitude and endurance. Those who undertook it and failed died in agony. Those who withstood the torment and prevailed had proved themselves the strongest, and they gained status, power, and wealth commensurate with that achievement.
Lea had known of only one other Boreldan with so many marks of Rising—she’d known him as her mother’s favored slave.
Pushing a sleeping drunk to the floor, the warrior dragged the vacated chair to Lea’s table and straddled it backward, facing her. He crossed his arms atop the solid back of the chair.
Sheltered by her hood, her small glamours in place, Lea watched him and waited.
“You are the Rider,” he said, speaking the common Frentung in a deep, hoarse voice rich with the rumble of a Boreldan accent.
Though she was surprised, Lea did not answer.
Her silence made him smile, an expression as full of violence as of humor. The grin of a wolf. “You need not answer. This truth is known to me.”
Lea thought quickly. In most lands of Brisira, though she always shielded her race, she claimed her sex. Had she met this man in almost any other place, she would have spoken in her true voice. In Greld, where, as in Saapia, women held sway, and where the risk to a Saapian was greater than anywhere else, she wanted to be dismissed as a man. But if this warrior had encountered her before in her travels and knew she was a woman, he would know her also as a magic-bearer if she masked her voice.
Since the Great Cleaving, still-souled folk looked on magic-bearers as enemies. Across all the varied countries of Brisira, despite all the jumbled jostling of tradition and culture, that one truth kept them allied: a unified enmity against the magic-bearers who had broken the world.
Was he familiar to her? She thought not—he was distinctive in appearance and bearing, and she would know him if she’d looked on him before.
He’d heard of her, then. Well, many had. She had been told the Tale of the Rider—a legend she herself had made, in deed rather than word—on several occasions when she had no cause to add a verse and could be left to be unknown.
The Rider was known to be a woman. So there was no point in pretending with this man that she was not.
She dropped the glamour from her tongue and spoke true, but quietly; the innkeeper and her mate, and the boy outside, had heard her as a man, and it would be no good for them to know otherwise. “And?”
The warrior’s feral grin became an honest smile of satisfaction—and relief, it seemed. “And I have sought you long. Your trail wends over many tongues, twists across all the worlds, and hardly seems to lead true. I come to seek your aid. My people have need of you.”
“A Boreldan warrior who has Risen seven times seeks the aid of a wanderer?”
His blunt fingers grazed the span of five slashes. “I seek the aid of the Rider. No other friend could surpass me, and I have need of more than my own strength. My clan is of the Northwoods, on the border with Vraelon. Their Dark King poisons our earth and sky. We cannot fight his magic. But you have taken on the Dark Ones and won.”
“Not in Vraelon. Only a stray whose power was faded by distance and solitude, and only once. I cannot help you against magic-bearers standing on their own ground.” She could, perhaps, but only in small measure. She could not face down the Farborn king alone and prevail, and she would expose her magic even to try.
“Is it not your calling, to help those in need?”
“I am not called. I only do.”
“Thus I ask you to do this. If you seek payment, or a boon …”
“I do not. But I cannot help you.”
“Our people die, Rider. Children and elders alike. Warriors and homekeepers. Starvation and sickness take them. Madness for those who go too near the border.” He leaned closer. “It is more than my people. He breaks the treaty to press at our border. If he takes Boreld, we are all at risk again of falling to magic.”
“I can be of no help to you. Your people are best served by their own. Boreldan warriors are the fiercest in the land. Why are other clans not amassing at your border? Who guards your people while you, who must be the mightiest among them, roam the lands of Brisira seeking phantasms?”
His brow drew tight, and he stared at her, but he didn’t speak again.
This place was not safe after all. In disappointing this warrior, she had made herself vulnerable. He would insinuate himself among the inn’s guests and tell them who she was. She stood and, without a word or glance at the warrior, keeping her head tipped so her face was deep in the shadow of her hood, she headed for the door.
Whatever slight rest Aradros had taken in this short hour would have to be enough for them both. They would hie to the west and ride until they could no longer.
©2018 Susan Fanetti
To be continued …
Note: This is the first installment of my serial novel project. Find a description of the project and a blurb for this novel, The Cleaved World, Book One: The Gathering, here.