Chapter 2: XIAN
Xian stood and turned, watching the cloaked back of the Rider skim the walls of the inn as she made her way to the door. Though she had denied him, it was victory that surged through his blood. He’d tracked her for weeks—longer—and had finally caught up with her. Now she would not escape his sight.
He’d been surprised by her youth. Stories of the Rider had been told since before his first Rising, many turnings of the seasons past, but the woman seemed barely of an age with him. Her hood had shadowed her face, but he’d seen enough to know her as womanly and in the fullness of her age of strength.
He’d seen, and heard, enough as well to confirm his suspicions about her—suspicions that had driven him from his people to seek her out.
Long had he suspected that the Rider was a magic-bearer. The stories of her power and skill were too astonishing to be the work of a single still-souled woman, and too consistent to be fancifully embellished. For turning upon turning, she had roamed Brisira alone, fighting the battles of the weak against the powerful, setting the scales to rights on the fulcrum of her own shoulders. The stories never spoke of magic, but Xian was certain nonetheless.
Only the Farborn and the Saapians bore magic, and, with few exceptions, both were enemies to everyone but their own kind. Now that he’d seen her—her surprising youthfulness, despite near a generation of wandering and battle; the sheer size and power of her body, evident under that swirl of black cloak; the strange, subtle shimmer in her eyes that showed, to the keenest observer only, the effects of a concealing glamour—Xian knew the Rider was Saapian.
That explained why she’d fled after denying him, and why she kept herself isolated and obscured. To be known as Saapian was to be reviled, and then to be destroyed, but the Rider was revered across every border as a savior. Xian shuddered to wonder what the peoples of Brisira would do to know their greatest earthbound hero was born of the people who had unmade the world.
That, more than any other thing, would keep her secret in Xian’s chest. He had no love for Saapia, and no need to save this woman who was more powerful than he. But Brisira needed the Rider, if only in its stories. He would not tarnish the image that kept hope alive even in a deathly place like Greld.
But he would not let her escape him, either. He had need of her magic, and her might, and he would have it. So he followed.
He moved through the clamor of weary travelers basking in a rare moment of leisure and comfort. Each soul in his path made way with a weightless smile or a distracted nod, which Xian returned. In his own world, he was a great warrior, but in Greld, he was merely a man and easily forgotten.
Though he had not partaken, he tossed a broken crescent on the slab bar as he left the inn.
The dark was thick on this leaden-clouded night. Xian blinked the inn’s warm firelight away and tried to acclimate his seeing to the lightless world. Boreld was a land of dense forest, with dappled days and deep-dark nights, so his eyes were born to make best use of the faintest light. And yet, they strained in this night’s empty black. A lone torch illuminated the stable door, and Xian went toward its beacon, trusting his feet and his memory to find smooth stepping.
Just as he reached the circle of torchlight at the stable, Xian stopped and drew a hunting dagger. Before it cleared the sheath on his thigh, he felt the chilly edge of a blade at his throat. He’d heard no sound, seen no flutter. Only his battle sense had alerted him at all to trouble, and not nearly in time. Even now, he saw nothing, heard nothing. But the blade was sharp; he felt it true.
“I could cleave your head and catch that dagger before it hit the earth,” the Rider said from behind him, at a distance the length of a longsword. Her voice was a low drumbeat of menace.
Xian held out his arms to his sides, the dagger turned down and gripped loosely in his fingers. “I am not a threat to you, Rider.”
She scoffed. “No, you are not. Why do you follow? Our congress is done.”
“It is not. I’ve traveled long to find you. I will not give up because you’ve denied me once.” The blade left his throat, and he turned to face her. “My people need the Rider.”
“I have said the words already, and I will say the same each time you ask: I can be no help to you. I cannot fight the Farborn so close to Vraelon. Go home, warrior, or go on. You have found no help here.”
She sheathed her sword—a beautiful Saapian relic forged of Elleren moonsteel and pristine amber, with a simply wrapped grip and an empty socket in the pommel—and walked past him, into the stable’s light, and then into the stable itself. Xian followed, keeping his dagger in his hand.
The boy was nowhere to be found—probably sneaking a sleep behind the hay bin. The stalls were full, mainly of drayhorses, who’d pulled the wagons behind the inn. The only mounts of note were his own stag, and the magnificent black warhorse overwhelming the stall against the back of the stable.
Xian had marveled over the beast when he’d stabled his own mount. Even among the great horses of the Elleren breed, this stallion stood out. His withers were higher than Xian’s head, his back as wide as Xian could straddle, his massive head as perfectly formed as one of the Crystal Guardians at the Bay of Shadows. Solid, gleaming black from his nose to the trailing ends of his lush tail, his long mane sweeping his knees, the stallion was so beautiful Xian had bowed his head in awe.
Now, the Rider was leading him out of the stall. She meant to travel into this sightless night.
“Only a fool or a magic-bearer would seek to go into the world tonight, Rider. Are you a fool?”
Her straight back went still. At her shoulder, her horse raised his head and seemed to squint down the aisle at Xian, as if he’d understood the words. His breed was known to be particularly intuitive and keenly empathetic for the soul he’d bonded with; he must have sensed the Rider’s wariness and shared it.
When neither moved, and the woman didn’t speak, Xian walked to her until he was a few steps away, and the horse chuffed a warning that he ought not come closer without leave. One of those hooves was the size of Xian’s head, so he heeded the warning and stopped.
“You are a Saapian battlemage, are you not?”
The horse stamped a hoof on the earthen floor, and the stall doors rattled against their hinges. The Rider was still and silent. Xian clutched the dagger in a fighting hold, ready for her attack.
He’d been sure he was ready. He was one of the greatest warriors Boreld had ever known, the seven-times Risen son of the great chieftain Qal. Until the moment that he was slammed against the stable wall with a blade against his throat again, he’d believed in his marrow that he was near a match to the Rider.
But he’d barely seen her move. She must have used magic to have spun, grabbed him, and heaved him at the wall so quickly.
Her hood had fallen away in the effort, and a long, thick fall of midnight-black hair spilled over her cloak. There was no age on her tawny face. She might have known twenty turnings or forty. Or a hundred. Saapians were long-lived women, with a span of age as much as double his own.
The glamour held over her eyes, showing them to be unremarkably brown. Then she blinked, purposefully, and the glamour was gone.
Xian’s breath dammed in his chest. Hearing her legend, he’d guessed that she was a magic-bearer. Seeing her, he’d deduced that she was Saapian, and a battlemage, and thus well born. But her natural eyes were the glowing gold fire of royalty.
The Rider was of the Queen’s family.
This, he would not have guessed. Why was a queenborn Saapian battlemage wandering Brisira in lonely exile?
“I will not reveal you, Rider,” he said, making his voice strong despite the blade threatening his headvein. “Help me, and I will keep your secret.”
She pressed on the blade, and blood seeped down Xian’s throat, into his traveling leathers. “A cleaved head tells no tales,” she snarled.
“You would kill a warrior in such a way?”
Again, she blinked, this time in reaction; his words struck true. No, she would not. There was no honor in such a deed. The blade eased from his throat, but she didn’t release him. “I do not deny your request from malice, warrior. I mean it true when I say that I can be no help to you. You’ve guessed what I am. Knowing what my strength is, you must also know that I am not so strong as once I was. I have long been from my home.”
About magic, Xian knew little—only what he’d been made to learn in his battle training. To fight a magic-bearer, a still-souled warrior required a unique set of skills, and reflexes honed to a sharp point—the failure of which could leave a warrior with a blade at his throat if he were lucky, and a blackened soul inside his dusty corpse if he were not.
One thing he knew: magic was not a limitless power. A magic-bearer outside the congress of her own people, distant from her own homeland, lost access to the origin of her power. Over time, her abilities waned. Such had been the case for the Fair Ones, Farborn in exile, who’d left Vraelon after the Great Cleaving and taken up a claim far to the south, in Maerland. Despite their congress with each other, Fair Ones had lost their magic long ago.
The Rider had been wandering alone for at least twenty turnings. That she had any power left at all was an astonishment.
Yet here Xian was, trapped against the wall, unable to free himself. That was more than her mere physical strength. Physically, at least, they were well matched, and he might even be her better. To have so surprised and overpowered him required supernatural aid. He felt no force of magic in his body, so she must have ensorcelled herself for greater strength.
Twenty turnings away from home, and still with magic to burn. How strong had she once been?
“You are yet powerful, or my feet would touch the earth now.”
She released him and stepped back. “Not so much as you might think.”
Sensing her resistance soften, Xian pressed his point. “Rider, I am not a man who kneels, but my clan is succumbing. When we fall, and the Dark Ones take the Northwoods, the rest of Boreld, and then all of Brisira, won’t be far behind. Your aid is more than a boon to me or my clan.”
She sheathed her blade—a thick hunting knife with a jagged point. Lifting her hood over her head again, she turned back to her horse—and away from Xian. Now that she was considering his request, he was no longer a threat to her, a point she conveyed decisively by putting her back to him.
After a moment, her stance eased subtly, and Xian sensed concession. “Boreld is weeks’ journey from here. The season will turn soon.”
Suppressing the grin that victory tried to put on his face, he went to his stag’s stall and lifted the bridle from its hook. “As one who’s made that journey and more, you needn’t tell me. It’s a long, difficult ride, made more so with snow. But Haresh is near a week in good weather. That was your destination, yes?” The only reason she would take the risk to travel so deeply into Greld, the land that hated Saapians most poisonously, would be pressing business in its one rooted location.
“Yes.” She hoisted up an armored black saddle and a thick leather and fleece pad, and her horse stepped its great hooves out, lowering its body so she could heave the saddle onto its back.
Silently coveting a mount so deeply bound to its rider, Xian began to saddle his stag as well. His beast offered him no assistance. “We can resupply and head north from there.”
The Rider paused, her hands at the cinch. “I am headed to Haresh. If you wish, you may ride with me that far, and seek your boon from someone there. But I am not your savior, Risen warrior.”
She turned her head, bringing her chin to her shoulder. Her hood obscured her face, but she’d given him her full attention.
“I am called Xian. Eleventh clanson of Qal. First heartson of Breesha.”
Her posture went suddenly taut, but she didn’t speak. She swung up onto the saddle with an uncannily fluid grace, and she rode out of the stable.
Xian finished his saddling with every haste, leapt astride his stag, and rode after her. The light, fitful puffs of wind had steadied to a breeze, and the solid bank of clouds had begun to fracture and fragment, letting watery beams of moonshine through. The night was still dark, but no longer a strain to his Boreldan eyes. He could follow at a short distance without losing her, or his way.
Still she resisted him, but Xian knew no worry. He had found her. When he returned to Boreld, the Rider would be with him. She would fight at his side. He would find a way.
Greldish terrain had little to offer in the way of cover or shelter, or even a place to rest one’s eyes. Though rains came for this sliver of a season, the dead land held little water or life. The earth was rock and dust, the growth scrubby and sparse, and water scarce and often foul. Most of the living beasts bled venom and could only be eaten by those souls who had inured themselves to its effects. The rare edible creatures, subsisting on this unforgiving land, grew no larger than a man’s hand and bore sinews tough as leather.
It had not always been the case. Before the Great Cleaving, Greld had been richly green and gold, patchworked with crofts and seamed with fresh streams and rills. With neighboring Carrica, they had produced the bulk of Brisira’s greenfoods.
Then the Saapians had broken the world, cleaving Saapia from the rest of Brisira, shoving The Ire up from the deep, to spew white-hot lava across the Sacred Sea and bring dusty death to the Greld that had been.
Sixty turnings had passed since the Great Cleaving, and few Greldish yet lived lived who remembered a green world. Now, Greld was a wasteland, and its people had lost all their history. They lived unrooted, moving through their land and all the others, scratching out lives as traveling barter merchants or migrant workers, or, if they were lucky enough to have training among their kin, as craftsmen.
Sure now that the Rider was a queenborn Saapian, Xian understood why Greld had no stories of her. This dead place that welcomed few would be the end of her if she were known. Likely, she avoided crossing its borders as much as she could, and clearly, she sought not even to be recognized as the hero of her legend. Her business in Haresh must have been pressing indeed.
With Xian on her trail, she rode until the sister moons rested heavy on the horizon, when they arrived at the bleached desolation of the Dead Spears. Once a great forest, now no more than an unstable expanse of bleached trunks, reaching up to heedless gods. The clouds had scattered to leave a clear sky, and Xian could see deep into the shadows of the dead trees.
He had never been so deep in Greld before. He’d heard of the Dead Spears—in his green world of trees and soft earth, the Dead Spears were the source of many tales told to frighten children—but to see it with his own eyes was to know despair. These were no imaginings of scary tales. This was hopeless death. He pulled up his stag and bowed his head in mournful reverence.
In his people’s way of belief, every living thing shared the same life force. No thing held station above any other, except through merit and toil. This was more than a dead forest. It was a graveyard.
When he lifted his head again, the Rider had taken her great steed into the Spears. Xian hesitated. A long-dead forest bore long-dead roots. Any one of the Spears could topple under the slightest pressure; many had fallen already. It was both disrespectful to disturb their rest and dangerous.
“Rider.” He didn’t raise his voice.
She heard him and turned as her horse stopped. Without the glamour, her eyes glowed softly in the remaining darkness. “Warrior.”
“You disrespect the dead.”
Her hooded head cocked, and Xian prepared for an argument, or to be ignored and forced to follow her trample through this hallowed place. But she turned the horse and came out of the wood. “There is no other shelter.”
“It’s poor shelter at any rate. Safer to rest in the open and trust our senses to alert to trouble.” She’d come close enough that he could see her face clearly, and read the ease on it. She’d lowered her guard against him. “Have you never seen the Dead Spears in all your wanderings?” he asked.
“No. I rarely travel through Greld, and never so far south. It’s not a hospitable place for me.”
“No, I imagine it’s not.” He nodded at the dead forest. “The Spears died in the Cleaving, like all else here.”
“I’m well aware.”
“Then you should show respect.”
Her smooth brow pleated. “Not everyone reveres a tree, Boreldan.”
“But only Saapians destroyed them all, Saapian.”
The ease he’d found in her expression, that lowering of her suspicions, cramped away. With a dark scowl, she turned from him and rode on.
Xian nudged his stag to catch up and ride at her side. Her horse eyed the stag with clear reproach but didn’t break stride. His stag tossed his antlers, making up in regal disdain what he lacked in strength and size against the stallion.
“There are only a few hours left before the sun is hot.”
“I can read the sky.”
“Then do you not plan to stop? To water our mounts, at the least?”
Another scowl. “Stop if you will, warrior. I need no traveling companion.”
She was riding to escape him, hoping he’d let her go on. Willing to tax her steed and herself and give up any portion of rest in the hopes that she and her horse would outlast him and his stag.
Xian grinned. Mighty she was, strong of body and spirit, but inside that powerful form rested the stubborn, contrary heart of a woman like any other he’d known.
“Ride or rest, I stay with you.”
A harsh grunt of frustration left her, and the stallion stopped short. The Rider swung from the saddle and landed silently in the dust. “Then we make camp and rest until the shadows are sharp. Only to Haresh, warrior. If you try to follow me thereafter, I will kill you, whether you fight me or no.”
Xian swung from his saddle and loosed his packs. He didn’t answer her claim, or her threat. She would have to kill him to rid herself of him before Boreld was safe.
She could try, at least. She had shown him her fight, but she had not yet seen his. She knew not the expanse of his own earthbound strength, or his determined spirit. Magic or no, when he fought her, she would find him a worthy match.
Because he had no other choice.
to be continued …
©2018 Susan Fanetti
Note: This is the second 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. Find the first installment here.