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Chapter 3: THE RIDER
Before the sun sat round on the edge of the world, Lea packed her bedroll and laid it over the saddle. She flipped her cloak to its dun-colored side for day riding, then offered Aradros water and a handful of rich grain from his pack and took a few drops of water herself. There wasn’t much left; she’d intended to fill the skins at the inn last night, but had allowed the warrior to distract her. She didn’t bother to eat; her full meal of the night before would hold her through the day, and all that remained in her pack was a few last strips of lizard jerky.
Unless they came upon a caravan, they’d be on hard rations until they reached Serpent’s Lake. The water there was foul but could be made safe for drinking. Haresh had survived the Cleaving for its proximity to the last true body of water in Greld. Its primary industry was water reclamation and purification.
Lea had been a child at the time of the Cleaving War, only beginning her studies and training, and too young to understand the meaning of war, or its price. It was her grandmother who’d cleaved the world and sent Saapia into isolation—an act of defense from a world gone dark and vicious. She’d died in the effort; the monumental expense of magic had drawn all her life force away and left nothing but a leathery wisp of a husk inside her raiment. Queen Rheaaserea was Saapia’s greatest hero, the queen who’d martyred herself to save her people and their ways from the violent corruptions of the Farborn and the depravities of the still-souled.
That, at least, was the story Lea had been told. When she grew older, and she had personal cause to question many of the things she’d been taught on her airy perch high on the Queensmount, still she had not questioned that story. It had been beyond her imagination that her people, her family, her blood could have wrought what they had wrought and then turned their backs. Until she had turned her back herself, left the home of her mothers, and taken with her own feet the treacherous journey onto the Brisirian mainland.
Sighing at those old thoughts and the wounds that they bled fresh, Lea studied the quiet form of the warrior encamped with her. More than twenty turnings she’d spent in exile, doing what little she could to make right what her mothers had made wrong, and not one night in all those nights had she been camped with another single soul. She’d shared space in inns, yes. In caravans, of course. Very rarely, she’d accepted a bed in return for a service she’d performed. Even more rarely, she’d slept in the bed of a momentary lover. But never had she traveled with someone in this way. Never had someone forced their company on her as this warrior had.
He slept on his back, propped against his saddle, his arms crossed lightly over his belly. His face showed as much ease and peace as if he were in his own Boreldan bed. Lea studied the slashes inked into his throat and mused over what she knew about the Ritual of Rising. At the knee of her tutor, she’d been taught of its feral brutality.
The rite included three cycles—courage, cunning, and endurance—and culminated with a fight to the death against another rising warrior. At the end of the ritual, a warrior was Risen, or he was dead; there was no other result. Rising was a choice, the way a warrior advanced in the ranks to leadership and proved his primacy over his fellows. Not all Boreldan warriors rose, and few who did endured the ritual more than two or three times and survived. This warrior—Xian, clanson of Qal—was a great man among his people.
As the night before, when she’d heard it said aloud, his full name left a quivering wake of memory behind. She did not know Xian, but she knew of Qal, and she’d heard the paternal referent before: clanson of Qal. The image in her mind was generations old and faded in the bright, seawashed light of Saapia, but she heard clearly the sound of the words, snarled with ferocious defiance. I am Zaxeron, first clanson of Qal. I am eight times Risen. I am not a man who kneels. I am no slave.
This warrior was clanbrother to her mother’s favored slave.
Since she’d heard him speak the name of his father, Lea’s mind had toiled over the problem. Though he’d recognized her as a battlemage, and she’d let him see her natural eyes, the warrior didn’t seem to harbor ill will toward her for the fate of his brother. Perhaps he didn’t realize that only royal Saapians bore eyes like hers. The eyes of common Saapians and lesser royals glowed blue. Only the Queensline bore eyes like flame. Perhaps he didn’t know of that distinction; many did not.
Moreover, it was most likely that he didn’t know his brother’s fate. Boreldans were not so long-lived as Saapians; though he appeared to be of an age with her, he had probably no more than thirty or thirty-five turnings, half of her own. Qal’s eleventh clanson was significantly younger than his first and had been born well after his eldest brother had been taken to Saapia. He might know of him, but he had never met him.
If the warrior were a threat to her, she would do well to kill him now and ride on. But if he were not, then perhaps he’d offered her a chance to right a balance between his family and hers.
If she went to Boreld and faced the Farborn where they were strongest and she was weakest. If she went to Boreld and exposed herself to all as a magic-bearer. And a Saapian.
To do so would likely make her a martyr, but one revered or mourned by none.
The danger was more than simple weakness, more than exposure, more than death. But Lea would not allow even the worry of the greatest danger to corrupt her thoughts. To go to Boreld and to fight the Farborn might be worth the risk. It could balance more than her own scale. For all the long, lonely turnings of her exile, she had fought for a balance in a world gone akilter, and in Boreld, should she prevail, she could swing the weight strongly toward the good.
Or, should she falter, she could complete the destruction her grandmother had begun.
It was a dilemma worth parsing, certainly.
Aradros chuffed a warning, and Lea glanced over, taking hold of her sword’s pommel, then letting it go when she saw the cause of his irritation. The warrior’s stag snuffled at the dusty earth, seeking something worth a graze. He stood a few feet away from her horse, close enough that Aradros felt his space impinged. He was a warhorse, who made no way for anyone or anything unless Lea commanded it, so he stood firm. When the stag didn’t back off, he stomped a hoof. Lea felt the shake of it beneath her boots.
The stag tossed his regal head and wandered away. He was a beautiful, aloof creature. His gleaming coat was the color of burnished copper, and his face was the white of fresh snowfall. His pure-white antlers bore thirty blade-sharp points. Markedly smaller and sleeker than Aradros, he was nonetheless large and well muscled. Boreldan battlestags were renowned for their fleetness and courage—and, as well, for their fickleness. A stag would be loyal to no one he had not seen upon the first opening of his eyes. To bind a battlestag well to him, a warrior held a calf in his hands on the day of its birth and trained with it every day thereafter.
And yet, Boreldan warriors did not name their stags. They communicated with whistles and clicks, not with words, thus a naming word was meaningless.
This stag’s warrior had awakened with the stomp of Aradros’s hoof. He sat up and draped his arms over his bent knees. When Lea’s eyes met his, he grinned.
Born of the seed of a great chieftain, he was a well made man in every respect. Large and muscular, with a strong, handsome face and fine white teeth. Carved into his flesh were the scars of many battles, as one would expect from a seven-times Risen Boreldan warrior. Though Brisira as a whole had been mostly in peace since the Cleaving, Boreldans were warmaking people. Clans fought each other for territory, for use rights, for honor. Clansmen fought amongst themselves for primacy, for honor, for the right to mate with the best women.
Though she was a battlemage and had lived the last twenty turnings fighting, Lea found the violent ways of Boreld repugnant. Yet she could not help but admire the obvious power and experience of this warrior.
His grin spread, slashing wily humor across his face. “You’re staring, Rider. Do you like what you see? I’d heard it said that Saapians favored their own sex.”
For lifemates, yes. Saapia was a land and a race of women, and they bound their love to other women. They kept men, known as Vassa, for breeding and hard labor—all men were slaves. A woman who chose a Vassa for a lifemate faced public censure and ostracization at best. If she were of the Queensline, to bind with a man was treason.
Blinking those perilous thoughts and their memories away, Lea said, “We do.” She picked up her saddle and turned away. “I want to be away. We’ve a long ride. I want to get to the lake as quickly as we can. Now that you’ve attached yourself to me, don’t slow me down.”
Behind her, he stood, and she heard the dusty scuff as he rolled his bed. “I need a few moments,” he said, and she heard his footfalls as he walked away. Clearly, stealth was not his chief skill.
His stag stood unsaddled, still searching for greens in the brown dirt.
Irritated at the delay, Lea turned in the direction he’d walked and saw him about ten wheelturns away. He’d knelt on the ground and was shedding the traveling leathers from his back. When he was stripped to the waist, he folded low and put his face to the earth. After a moment, still on his knees, he unfolded, spread his arms wide, and turned his face to the sky. His long hair swung loose behind his bare back. Again, he folded to the earth, and then back to the sky. Five times, he did this.
The morning salutation of the Boreldan way. She had never seen it performed before. Boreldans held no gods, nor any innate dominion over any other form of life. The strong prevailed over the weak, the industrious over the indolent, but all living things shared the same life force, so none was inherently superior to any other. Men who didn’t kneel had earned the right to be knelt to.
A sun and an earth that had prevailed for millions of turnings had earned the right to be knelt to.
He finished his salutation—not a prayer, not a plea, not supplication, but a respectful greeting to venerable elders—and stood. Walking back to their sparse camp, he pulled his coarse cotton shirt and soft leather tunic back on and closed his belt around them.
When he pulled a skin from his pack and went to his stag, Lea returned to her work and left him to his.
They rode southward, deeper into the south of Greld. Lea gave the warrior no encouragement to stay with her, and yet she could not shake him
On the fourth day, When the sun was high and small at the top of a clear, white-blue sky, they stopped to water their mounts, and to take a few drops for themselves as well.
They dismounted near an outcrop of ancient black stone. Basalt. They were near enough to the Sacred Sea to have reached the black rocks that the Cleaving had shoved up smoldering from the deeps to harden under the Greldish sky. Lea set her hand on a stone and felt the magma heart of the earth beating far beneath her palm.
Never since the first steps of her exile, when she’d crossed the black desert her grandmother had made of the Sacred Sea, had Lea been so close to her motherland. Close enough to sense, faint as an infant’s first memory, the thrum of source magic as it tried to catch at her spine and draw her close. So many turnings since she’d felt that draw. Even so faint and nebulous as it was, it curled through her body, flaring her nerves and swelling her senses. Prickles rose across her flesh. Her nipples tightened as if with a lover’s touch.
“Rider.” Xian’s rough voice cut through her reverie, and Lea stepped back as though the rocks yet retained their volcanic heat.
He nodded toward the western horizon, and Lea saw the wagon. Only one, the sturdy build of a merchant’s home and work. It sat oddly, canted sharply toward one corner: a broken wheel or axle. No traveler worth the ground he’d been born to would be unable to repair her own wagon; even a broken axle should mean a delay and not real trouble. But this wagon flew a red flag from its roof. A square of solid red—the Brisirian symbol to seek help for illness or injury. There was no harness beast to be seen nearby.
“This is what you do, yes?” Xian asked.
“Yes.” Lea went to Aradros and mounted.
Xian mounted as well. “If it’s sickness, what if it’s the sores?”
“No one with any sense of rightness would put up a flag for the sores and draw those who would help to their certain deaths.”
“After wandering the world for twenty turnings, you yet believe there are no souls lacking a sense of rightness?”
“As you say, this is what I do. You can ride on without me. I have neither need nor wish for your company.”
He grinned again. His good humor confused her. He seemed to be enjoying this hard trek across unforgiving land, and he seemed to have forgotten the need of his own people.
“Not even threat of the sores will dissuade me from my purpose, Rider. I go where you go, all the way to Boreld.”
She hadn’t yet told him that she was considering going to Boreld with him. When a likely time presented itself, she would.
“Then let us ride and see what help we can be.”
The wagon had obviously been headed to Haresh as well—there was no other reason than the city to be so far south and pointed yet southward—so Lea and Xian didn’t go far out of their way. As they came close enough to be seen clearly, Lea glamoured her eyes to a common and unremarkable brown. Never before had she traveled to trouble with a companion. She considered how to explain to Xian the ways she shaped the perception of her—because she’d never made a plan for how she was perceived. She’d only used the assumptions people made of her and turned that into her disguise.
“I am commonly believed to be Elleren,” she said before they were in earshot of the wagon. “I answer no questions about myself or my way.”
“I understand,” Xian answered. With a smile in his voice, he added, “Most of the stories I’ve heard say you were born of the mating between an Elleren woman and an ice giant and learned to fight at his knee in the Stjarnbold caves.”
She had heard that story as well. The thought of learning war in the blue ice caves of Sjarnbold pleased her, but some of the iterations of the tale had her mother raped by the giant, and they all had her torn asunder in the birth. “I’m hardly the size of a giant’s issue, even as a half-blood.” She was not much bigger than Xian, in truth.
“No, but in the stories, your size grows with your greatness. Someday, you will be so great as to blot out the sun.”
They had come upon the broken wagon, so Lea didn’t respond to that absurdity.
The wagon appeared to have been abandoned. The single harness lay on the ground, empty but intact; it appeared that the drayhorse, or ox, had been released. There was no life outside, and no one came to a window or the door as they approached. Despite the warmth of the day, the wagon was closed tight. Any soul would swelter inside that box.
The rear axle had indeed been broken. One corner of the wagon rested on the ground, and the wheel lay cockeyed at some distance. A sharp jut of black rock seemed to be the cause of the trouble. A scatter of tools lay in the narrow shade of the canted wagon—and a dark stain had soaked into the earth nearby.
Lea swung down and hooked the reins over the horn of her saddle. Aradros huffed, his nostrils flaring wide, and nickered at her. He’d scented something worthy of caution, and Lea suspected what it might be. She crouched at the dark stain, pulled off a glove, and put her bare fingers to the dirt. It was too long soaked to come up red, but when she put her fingers to her nose, she smelled the copper of blood.
Drawing her sword, she went to the door. Xian’s boots hit the ground, much more quietly than he’d shown himself capable of before. He left his axe on his back and drew his dual Boreldan daggers, curved and cruelly jagged, and was at her back as she pushed open the wagon door.
The heat and smell hit them at once, and nearly drove them both down from the slanting steps. Bodily excretions. Viscera. Blood. Decay. Rotting meat.
Lea turned away from the wagon and heaved in a deep breath. Then she climbed into the cabin with her sword leading her way.
A man’s bloated corpse lay on the bed at the back of the wagon. His skin had gone blackish green with decay. His Greldish clothing was soaked in the rusty stain of old blood. Despite the bloating, his torso had an odd, concave shape. His chest had been caved in.
“The wagon must have fallen on him while he was trying to repair it,” Xian mumbled at her back. “The effort to put up the flag and get back inside must have been an agony.” He sighed. “The ground here is too solid for digging. We should burn him. I know the Greldish words.”
Lea didn’t answer. Something in the wagon seemed wrong for the picture Xian was making. Yes, clearly the man had been hurt working on the wagon—the tools and blood outside had already told that tale. The body inside, with the odd angles of its bloated chest, suggested that the chest had been caved in. The premise was sound, but the answer was wrong. She could feel it, but not see—there.
Lea bent to the floor and snatched at a strange piece of knitting. When she pulled it up, they both saw it was a doll, with a brown knitted body, black yarn hair, and blue sewn eyes. It wore a pink dress and tiny black boots. “There was a child.”
“Did she go roaming in the desert? She could survive hours at most, even on the back of their harness beast.”
Lea didn’t answer. She sent out a delicate thread of magic and unmixed the scents in the wagon. Decay. Clotted blood. Dust. Dried wood. Aging cotton. Cracked leather. Iron. Stale bread. The acrid tang of long-unwashed bodies. Bodily waste. Sweat.
Sweat. Lea pushed all the other scents away and traced that one, to the other side of the bed, under a tumbled pile of fabrics. This man had been a tailor and weaver. She pushed them aside.
There was a small child buried under them, curled into the corner, a thumb in her mouth. She had no more than three or four turnings. Her long hair was plastered to her head and face with sweat.
“Rooted mother,” Xian muttered the Boreldan exclamation with soft shock. “Is she alive?”
Lea gathered up the body; it was limp, but too cool for life. She tucked the girl to her chest and felt at her headvein for a throb of blood. There was nothing. “No.”
Xian laid his hand on the small head. “She’s wet. She cannot be long gone.” He fixed his blue eyes with Lea’s glamoured brown. “Do you have the lifebreath?”
She shook her head. “It’s more magic than I can spare.” The lifebreath would do more than deplete most of the magic she had left. It would draw from her physical strength as well. It would take her days to recover her own health, and the magic would be lost for good. She had need of her strength in Haresh.
“She’s a youngling. How long was she locked alone in this wagon with the rotting corpse of her father? Can you do nothing to save her from this horror? The Rider will not save this child?”
“Her passing is a mercy because of the horror of her end. Her suffering is over, and she is with her father—and, it seems, also her mother. To leave her to her peace is to save her.”
“Saapians don’t believe there is anything beyond this life.”
“True. And Boreldans believe the spirit returns to the cycle to be refreshed. I have studied the many Brisirian ways of belief more deeply than you, I warrant. This girl and her father are Greldish, and they follow their True Gods.” She nodded to the symbol carved over the door. “They are in the arms of their goddess Ruara, carried to the peaceful fields of the everlasting. It would be a cruelty to return her to a world in which she would be alone, and the effort of that cruelty would likely mean my end.”
His brow creased with regret, Xian studied the small body in Lea’s arms. Then he picked up the doll and tucked it under a tiny, frail arm. “Lay her with her father.”
Lea did, and then covered the bodies with a clean linen sheet.
They climbed down from the wagon and set it alight. Lea also knew the Greldish words to send the dead to Ruara, and she sang them as they watched the flames climb. Xian picked up the refrain in harmony with her.
The makeshift funeral pyre was still burning when they mounted and rode on.
“If you’re not the spawn of an ice giant, then who was your father?”
Lea turned her gaze from the fire and considered the warrior sitting an arm’s length from her side. To a Saapian, that question was an offense. To Lea, asked by this man, it was dangerous as well. To answer would be to explain the place of men in her world, and she didn’t know what he knew, either of her culture, or of his connection to it.
She turned back to the fire and pondered on her choices.
They had reached Serpent’s Lake in early twilight, and were now only a day’s ride at the most from Haresh. Xian, in the rashness she now knew to be typical of him, wanted to ride on through the night, and enter the city in the pre-dawn dark. Lea, who had wandered alone for half or more of the warrior’s life, knew that darkness was poor cover in a city. In the crush of daylight business, a stranger was unremarkable. In the night, guards and window-watchers alike grew suspicious of any soul in motion. She had insisted they stop, and he had huffed and puffed about it like a hairless boy—and then calmed to contentment when she’d started a fire and offered to make hot crema.
Here at the lakeshore, many travelers on the way to and from Haresh had gathered, and small eyes of firelight blinked along the jagged edges of the water. There was safety in conformity. When they’d been alone and exposed on the dusty range of Greld, a fire would have marked them. At this waypoint, darkness would, so they’d made a fire.
The twisting snarl of Serpent’s Lake was all that was left of the Bound Maw, a massive lake that had marked the border of Greld with the Sacred Sea. In the world that had been, the Maw had been fed by The God’s Tongue, Brisira’s greatest waterway, which cut across the world, far to the north. The many streams and brooks the Tongue had sent out had made Greld brightly green and blue and gold, rich with dark earth and the foods that it fed. But the seisms of the Great Cleaving had broken Greld from the flow of good water to the north and sent poison earth from the south. The Serpent was all that remained, and the water in this lake, pulled up from the dark depths of the earth, was murky and sour.
It could be made clean, however, in small portions or large. Xian had filled all their skins, and they’d boiled water with small tablets of purifier they both carried. Then, Lea had made a pot of crema to soften the water’s tang.
She sipped at the sweet, rich drink and decided to give an answer. “I have no father.”
“But you are born of the seed of man.”
He sat forward, resting his arms on his knees, his own cup held in his hands. Lea tried to read his thinking and could not.
“Are you not told which slave added his clay to your mother’s kiln? Men are so insignificant in your world they may not even know their own children?”
She knew which slave her mother had bred with to make her; he had been renowned as a great warrior of Ellerema in that time, until he was captured. Lea had his bronze skin and black hair, and a breadth of shoulder that spoke of blood born near the world of the ice giants. But the slave who’d sired her was not her father. There were no fathers in her world.
“And women are insignificant in yours. Our peoples are as they are, warrior. They live as they live.”
“Women are not insignificant in Boreld.” Indignation scraped over every word. “They are honored as our heartkeepers.”
“They are made to mate with their chieftain. In what way is that different from the way of my people, except in which one is forced?”
“It is an honor to mate with the chieftain. The women he chooses are venerated above all others. After they bring forth a clanchild, they may take a hearthmate as they wish, have all the children they wish. And mothers keep their children, whether born of clan or hearth, close to their hearts. I am a clanson, and I know and love my mother well. Saapians steal proud, valiant men and force their knees to bend. There is much difference between the ways of our worlds, Rider.”
“It is not theft to take a captive in battle—it is the way of war. And it has been long since a warrior has been captured by a Saapian.”
Xian frowned; the firelight drew sharp shadows in the expression. “Because they broke the world.”
Since the Cleaving, when Saapia was cut off from Brisira and made no more battle with its lands from which to claim new warriors, Vassa had all been bred in Saapia. As royalty had only bred with valiant warriors, the ways of Saapia had begun to change even before Lea had left. She could only imagine how much they’d changed in the turnings since. “We broke the world.”
She felt his eyes on her, but she kept her own on the fire.
“Why were you sent into exile?” he asked, quietly. The challenge had fallen from his tone.
“You ask too many questions, warrior, and too deep.”
He said nothing.
Lea had spent her wandering alone, even in company. When she spoke, it was with specific purpose, and she voiced only the words required to achieve her aim. She had not engaged in a conversation like this, without any seeming purpose but to know something more about a companion, in all the time since she’d left Saapia. The weight of it pressed on her shoulders and rolled over her tongue.
“I was not sent. I went.”
She sensed his reaction to that, a tensing of his body and a sharpening of his attention. “You crossed the Strait of Saapia and the Sacred Sea of your own will? You chose this life?”
“Yes. I left of my will. In that I wished a different life, and this life is different, yes. I chose this life.” It was not the life she’d imagined when she’d left her motherland. But then, she had not left it alone.
“You confound me, Rider,” Xian mused softly.
“The whole world confounds me, warrior,” she answered, and finished her cup of crema. “We should rest and prepare for an early start. I want to be in Haresh before the high sun.”
To be continued …
©2018 Susan Fanetti