Find more information about this serial novel project here.
Chapter 5: XIAN
Her pet, she’d called him, and then sent him on errands, as if he were a street urchin to offer a coin to fetch a loaf of bread. Had anyone but the Rider herself dared to insult him in such a way, Xian would have cut the offender down where they stood. But she was right—since he’d caught up with her, he’d been following her like a starved cur hoping for a scrap. She hadn’t even extended him the trust to share with him her name or to use his own.
His need for the Rider was bending his knees, and he would not have it. He was a seven-times Risen warrior and clanson of Qal, and he did not kneel. The Rider would learn that he was her match, and she would learn it soon.
Now, he stomped through the streets of Haresh, fuming, his anger so hot it forced a clear path before him. People saw him and scurried out of his way. Good. It salved his warrior’s hide to see fear in the people on the streets.
But he wasn’t accomplishing the errands. Incensed he might be, offended he certainly was, but they needed supplies, and he needed to get the Rider out of Haresh and headed to Boreld. So he pulled up short, near the temple at the far end of the city, stepped to the side, out of the tangled flow of people, and crouched in the shade between two shop tents. He set his hands on the ground, splayed his fingers wide in the dust, and closed his eyes.
Under the shake of so many feet treading upon it, Xian felt the steady beat of the earth’s living heart. Many of the peoples of Brisira, including those of Greld, revered the gods they called the True Gods. The shadow of their temple crossed over the path just before him. But the people of Boreld held no gods above themselves, built no temples to fill with wealth better used elsewhere.
In the Boreldan way of knowing, there were The Ones Who’d Made the World, ancestors of their own kind, who’d had need of a home and had made it from their own being. The One Who’d Made the Earth had shaped it of her flesh. The One Who’d Made the Sky had breathed it from his own mouth. Water, Fire, Trees, Animals—each made from One who’d seen the need. And then The Ones had shared flesh among each other and made more of their kind.
What they’d made was strong and vibrant and long-lived. Like all of his people, Xian venerated that ancient strength, drew from it to bolster his own. With his hands on the earth now, as its spirit pulsed against his palms and fingertips, Xian found the balance of his heart and mind. He breathed calm from the strong spirit of the air.
When he stood again and joined the movements of Haresh, Xian’s purpose had returned to clarity before him. After Haresh, Boreld. While the Rider completed her business here, he would make them ready for the long journey northward, and while he did, he would ponder on the best course to ensure she came with him, willingly or no.
As he stepped back out into the bustle, someone crashed hard into his back and bounced off. His warrior’s reflexes flared out instantly, and he spun and grabbed hold with both hands before the soul could run on. The gaunt face of an underfed newling man was turned up to his, with brown eyes round with fear. His complexion had the flake of someone who’d traveled too long without water, and his lips were crevassed with the need of it.
“HOLD THAT MAN!” a strong woman’s voice called out, and the husk of a young man in Xian’s grip flinched and clutched his arms more tightly to his chest. He’d concealed something under his tunic. At a glance, Xian saw the outline of a cheap waterskin, of the kind the watermongers around the reclamation center sold.
This water-starved man, still really a boy, had stolen a single skin of water, and now a guard chased him down? Xian let him go, and turned to walk the other way, making himself an obstacle to the guard. The One Who Made the Water had made it for the health of the many, not the profit of a few. It was neither the One’s fault, nor that abject young man’s, that the world was broken and good water in Greld was scarce.
The guard, a Greldish woman, powerfully built but considerably smaller than Xian, drew up short and glared up at him, shaking her polearm. “Out of my way, Boreldan!”
Before he could react in any way, a squeal rang out over the crowded street, and the guard’s glare became a smug grin. Xian stepped to the side and turned, making sure not to put the guard at his back, and saw the thief, who’d not gotten far. Another guard had hooked him with her fanged polearm. The harsh blade dug into the poor boy’s shoulder, and his tunic soaked with blood.
While Xian watched, the thief turned sharply and was free, but at the price of nearly severing his arm at the shoulder. He ran on, the crowd making way in surprise, and the guard chased after him. Though she was gaining quickly and could have caught him, instead she sent her polearm flying, and it went through the thief’s back, through his heart. He fell forward, and the skin he’d stolen broke open when his body hit the ground. The water soaked uselessly into the dust.
The guard drew her polearm from the body and returned to her post. Two men emerged from the crowd and carried the dead thief off. The guard Xian had blocked was gone, seemingly also returned to her post.
Xian stood where he was and tried to make sense of what he’d just witnessed. Though he was by no means a wanderer, he had seen the world. On his manhood turning, as part of his warrior training, he’d been sent in a band with other young warriors to travel under all the stars of Brisira. They had reached every major city and crossed many wide expanses between. They hadn’t crossed the black death of the Sacred Sea to Saapia, and they hadn’t mounted the wall into Vraelon, but they had gone to every other land of note and all their major gathering places.
Upon returning to Boreld and continuing his training, he had studied the ways of being and believing of all the peoples of Brisira, including those of Saapia and Vraelon. He had thought himself learned. He had readily discerned the Rider’s true identity, when she had kept it well for twenty turnings or more in wandering exile. He had thought himself astute. But what he’d just seen with his own two eyes—an obviously starving young man slain in the streets for the theft of a single skin of water he desperately needed, the bland destruction of the thing deemed worth his life, and the nonchalance with which the people on the street greeted the scene—he had no place for it in what he knew of the world. He’d seen evil deeds, of course. He’d known bad souls. He’d fought them in his own home, and vanquished them. He’d set his foot on their defeated backs and howled. He understood that the good in the world was matched by the ill, and it was by the presence of the ill that the good could be known.
It was the nonchalance of the many that disturbed his comprehension. If a skin of water was worth a man’s life, then the loss of it was worth a like weight of grief. Yet there was barely a ripple among the masses, either for the bloody death of the thief or for the destruction of the thing he’d stolen. They’d hardly given it enough notice to be witnesses.
“You have not been long in Haresh, warrior, I can tell.”
The sentence was spoken in Greldish. Xian was fluent; the tongues of Brisira had been part of his training, and he’d kept up the practice of them all since. He wheeled around and saw he stood before a breadmonger’s tent. A hefty, hirsute man in a dun apron and skull cap gave him a small but friendly smile. “I mean no insult. You look like a man I shouldn’t insult. But you also look like a man who can’t believe what he’s seen.”
“Is water here so precious it’s worth a life, when the lake is but a day’s ride?”
“Serpent’s Lake is sour, friend.” The baker leaned in. “And we should speak soft.” With a brisk wave, he invited Xian into his tent.
Xian accepted the invitation. The tent adjoined the earthen wall of the canyon, into which was carved a row of deep ovens. Inside the canvas walls, the mingled aromas of yeast and spice watered his mouth. “Then you’re correct. I do not understand. The lake water can be made good.”
“Since Kyralla came to power, the tablets to make it so are forbidden. She has decreed them unsafe. You can find them in the Hive, but they are more dear even than the water. Only water from the center can be purchased, and the price has risen a hundredfold in the last few turnings.”
Kyralla was the Advisor, the chief lawbringer in Haresh. Xian had seen her name on several signs and bills already. “Water is life. To make profit of it is to make death.”
“Aya. You are not alone in your thinking. But power grows strong as people grow weak. And the weak grow used to need.”
“How do you survive at all?”
“Those of us who root our home and work in the city are rationed some, accordingly with our taxes paid. Not what we need, but enough to survive. Others pay bribes to keep their businesses thriving. It’s the itinerants who suffer most. People like you, who come to Haresh to replenish. You pay the brunt.” The baker cocked a grey eyebrow. “But you, for one, look like one who can pay.”
“Aya. But it is not right. There is nothing but Haresh for long days of travel through drylands.”
The baker lifted his heavy shoulders and let them fall. “Haresh is built on the ruin of what was broken. In the wound of such wrong, what right could there be?” He pushed a tray of hard loaves at him. “Your coin makes right what it can, warrior.”
Xian bought two large sacks of hard bread from the man, and he went on to complete his errands for supplies. For a price like he might have paid to have a good bed, a stall and fresh hay for his stag, and two hot meals for himself in another land, he bought two skins of water, enough to get them and their mounts back to Serpent’s Lake, where they could use their tablets and replenish properly.
When he walked back toward the inn at the head of the city, he was light in coin but well laden with supplies, had arranged for others to be delivered to the stable, and had decided that he could not leave Haresh without turning the table on this Kyralla, who thought herself lord of life.
As Xian was traveling with the Rider, he felt certain they could effect some justice before they rode on.
Haresh had only one inn, near the entrance of the city. After completing his errands and speaking with vendors up and down the city path, Xian knew what to expect when he came in through the entrance tent and ducked through the doorway into the large common room. Like most of the city, the inn was carved into the side of the canyon, and the rooms to let rose above the common room and beyond for three levels, accessible by narrow carved steps and walkways and small portal doors and windows. The common room was a wide expanse like the central room in a cavern, with a ceiling so low Xian wasn’t sure the Rider, a bit taller than he, would be able to stand straight beneath it. Lit by shaded sunlight from the fore, torches at the rear, and candlewheels over the tables, the room was bright but rank.
Here in the aging day, when the city settled into its time of leisure, the inn was crowded with travelers and Hareshians alike, eating and drinking, laughing and arguing. The smell of so many bodies who’d spent the bright hours laboring in sun and heat mixed with the acrid waft of torchsmoke and made Xian’s nose wrinkle and his eyes water.
Wending around the densely clustered tables and occupied chairs, Xian went to the bar and lifted a hand. The innkeep made her way to him, wiping her hands on an apron that showed the stains of many such wipings. “You here for a meal?” she asked in coarsely accented Frentung.
“Meals for two through through first meal on the morrow,” he answered and set a full moon coin on the splintered bartop. Now his pouch seemed perilously light, and he almost wished he hadn’t refused the Rider’s coin. The supplies were for them both, after all. “And two rooms.”
The woman swept the heavy coin into her hand and made it disappear. “Unless you want below, only got one room open above.”
He’d heard about the rooms below. He could sleep anywhere, and likely the Rider could as well, but he’d rather share a room with the Rider and sleep on the floor above, with fresh air coming in through the window, then hunker beneath in the dank while depravities went on around him. “The room above will do.”
With an unfriendly nod, she pushed a rough-forged key at him. “Topmost, third door. There’s a chest in the room for your dear things. Meal’s on at the half bell.”
Xian locked up their supplies, adding his axe with a pang. He didn’t need it in the inn; even if trouble arose, it wasn’t a good weapon for such close quarters. He’d keep his daggers close by. But the thought of walking away from his warrior’s weapon made him uneasy, despite the lock on the chest and the key on his belt. Haresh was not as welcoming or honorable as he’d recalled.
Back in the common room, before the meal was ready, Xian ordered an ale and leaned back on the bar to watch the people around him. At the table just before him, three women and a man sat. Two of the women were deep in a game of Mercenarium, while the others watched, flanked by a few interested bystanders. It wasn’t a game played often in Boreld—his people took their leisure in motion, so a game played on a table was generally left to the old and infirm. Elsewhere in Brisira, however, it was wildly popular. He remembered the play from his manhood travels, and he’d sat at a table or two since he’d gone in search of the Rider as well. He wouldn’t say he was skilled at the game, but he’d held his own well enough.
One of the women at the game sat with her back to Xian, at just enough of a slant that Xian could see her hand, though she held it close. He watched her play a turn, and then another, and at that point became much more interested. She held a powerful card that could reverse the cards on the board, shifting her position to the dominant one, and she’d made weaker moves twice now. Xian would have played that card at his first chance.
“You damage your honor to stare so keenly at my hand, Boreldan,” the woman said as she selected her next card—and held that hymn card again. She turned and gave him a saucy look over her shoulder. “Perhaps you would like to play?”
Xian grinned. The woman was well-featured, and he enjoyed the teasing promise in her look. “Mayhap I would. Mayhap I’ll take your seat when you lose.” A soft ripple of laughter wove through the small group of onlookers clustered around the table. Having been long weeks without knowing a woman’s touch, or even his own, Xian wondered if he had time to take the woman into a dark corner for a rut before the Rider made her way here—probably not. Greldish women were used to being in charge and not so easily wooed.
A heavy mug crashed into his elbow, and he felt a splash of ale soak his leather. When he turned, the innkeep had already moved away. The ale was cloudy, and had a sour cast to its aroma—the water to make it had not been cleaned first. The fermentation process killed what was toxic, so it was safe to drink, but clearly, the innkeep here was no more concerned with providing her customers with a quality product than she was with presenting a welcoming attitude.
He took a slug and grimaced as the tang cramped his tongue. A man standing beside him chuckled quietly. “Calmarra’s not known for the sweetness of her ale, or her tongue,” he said in Greldish.
“The innkeep, I assume?” Xian asked in the same language.
“Aya. She gets more fresh water than any here but the temple and the council, but she is loath to share it with even her paying customers.”
“I do not ken how you stand for this price on water. Has there been no protest?”
The man cast a furtive look around the inn and then leaned close. “Best to hold those questions still on your tongue, Boreldan. If you’re here in two days’ time, go to the temple at the dawn, and you’ll see well enough why.”
Xian kept his eyes steady on the man and waited for him to say more. He was dressed in laborer’s garb, grimy with his morning’s work. He looked well enough, full of enough food and water to soften his cheeks.
With another cagey scan of the room, he muttered, “It’s thirty barbed lashes to speak out against Kyralla or her laws. It’s death to steal clean water, or to buy from anywhere but the city, or to keep tablets to clean your own. Justice is brought at the dawn of each sixthday, on the temple steps.”
Though Xian did not share the belief in the True Gods, he was nonetheless shocked on behalf of these people for the desecration of their holy place. How had such a woman gained so much power here? “I thought the Advisor of Haresh was chosen by the people.”
“Aya, was true. Kyralla was chosen. But she has not allowed a choosing since—more than five turnings now. Now she rules as she will, any who’d had arms strong enough to stop her are dead, and the Water Guards are her instruments, blunt and bladed. They and her personal guard—a great soldier, said to be born of the giants. She keeps him at her heel.”
Xian’s conviction now forged to a weapon’s strength: the Rider could not leave without adding the first Greldish verse to her legend. They had to put down a weight to tip the scale toward the good. “Is the water center so surrounded day and night? It must be costly to keep such a guard in place always.”
The man squinted, and Xian wondered if he’d been wrong to believe this man no friend to Kyralla. Then he cocked his head and answered, “The mongers close their tents at dusk, and the guards change their shift. But a full guard stands through the night. Two score of the strongest men and women in Haresh in full armor and honed weapons.”
Xian nodded. “The water is safe, then, it would seem.”
“Aya. Very safe.”
Two score armed and powerful guards. Xian wondered how much of the Rider’s legend was truth.
His eyes on the entry, Xian pondered that question as he watched out for the Rider and stalwartly finished his noxious ale. The half bell chimed outside, and the innkeep, Calmarra, climbed onto a stool behind the bar and called out that the meal was ready, and still there was no sign of the Rider.
Xian began to regret that he’d set aside his instinct when they’d parted. He’d wanted to follow her. He’d started to follow, but he’d been angry, and if she’d turned and insulted him again, he might well have called on her honor. A fight with the Rider in the middle of Haresh would have accomplished nothing, except to weaken them both, and cause a stir in the city in the bargain. Now, though, he wondered if she might have truly needed assistance.
He could think of no place in all of Brisira more dangerous for a royal Saapian battlemage than Haresh, except Vraelon.
Rooted mother, he should have ignored her insults and protestations and gone with her. Likely, she had come to danger, and he had no way of knowing where she might have gone. But he could try, at least. He had to try.
Moving against the people headed to the tables of food, Xian made his way toward the inn’s entrance. Just as he cleared the bulk of the crush, the Rider came through the doors. First, Xian noticed that she looked badly spent—far more weary than after their long journey to Serpent’s Lake with little food or water. Lines of exhaustion drew age on her lovely face, and deep smudges darkened the skin around her eyes.
She saw Xian, and his breath caught at the expression of pleased relief that lightened her burden and returned her youth. A smile lifted her cheeks, the first he had seen on her face, after a week of traveling together. The Rider was glad to see him.
Before he could think more on that surprising change, or the way it made him feel, she stepped to the side and reached back with one arm. Someone had been standing behind her, and she ushered them forward with a gentle hand.
A child. A girl, tall and slender. Too young to have sprouted into womanhood, but not so far off. Carrican or Maerlish, by the look of her. She was dressed in good Greldish linens, and her long hair, the color of baked honey, waved prettily over her shoulders and down her back.
Had the Rider brought a child into their party?
No. Impossible. This girl had somehow to do with the Rider’s business in Haresh, and she would have told him if she’d been ward to a child. It would have been a much more compelling reason to deny him his boon than the paltry ones she’d offered. But why was the girl with her now?
When Xian opened his mouth to ask any one of the dozens of questions that filled his mind, he discovered he was quite speechless.
“Did you get supplies?” she asked, scanning the room as she drew the girl in.
Xian managed a nod, and then found some words. “Who is she?”
The Rider looked down at the girl, who looked up at her. “Much has happened since we parted. We should take a meal, and then we must talk, in a place where there are no ears. There is work yet to be done in Haresh.”
On that point, Xian agreed.
©2018 Susan Fanetti
to be continued …