Find more information about this serial novel project here.
Note: Mercenarium, the game played in several scenes throughout this novel is, or will be, a real thing, designed by my son, Daniel Drake (he of Dancakes fame), and in development for production as part of his Anthromancer project.
Chapter 6: THE RIDER
The denotite had left its weight on Lea like a leaded shadow. Though she had full control of her magic again, her head throbbed and her belly quavered, as if with deep illness. Worse was the lightness in what remained of her magic. The weakness in her body would pass with rest. The magic she’d lost, she could not recover away from Saapia. As she could never return to her motherland, that magic was lost to her forever.
She had expended far too much to keep her glamour up in the Dark One’s cavern, and now she wondered whether she had chosen rightly. Her sword was on her back, had been on her back when she’d faced Tantaren. Perhaps she should have dropped the glamour and challenged her when she’d had the chance.
No. Weariness had numbed her logic. A score of Greldish warrior guards, an immensely powerful Dark One who’d been conserving her magic, and a cavern laced with denotite. Twenty turnings ago, she might have been strong enough to make a fight of it, but now, she could only have made her own death of it. Her weakness now was testament enough to that truth. She could not fight Tantaren. Not now, and not alone.
But she could save the Fair One held captive above her lair.
To do so, she needed a plan—and a readiness for escaping Haresh with a weak charge in tow.
And she needed to understand what to do with the charge she had in tow now.
The girl had not yet spoken, but had followed her meekly through Haresh to the inn. Now they stood together before Xian, whose mouth hung open in shock.
“I need a meal,” she repeated as weakness shook her joints.
The warrior blinked. “Right. I paid for a room for the night and meals for two, but I’ll toss the keep a few tchuks so the girl can eat.” He nodded to the farthest reach of the large room. “There are tables in the back. Patrons gather close to the windows, so we’ll be in peace there.”
She understood why patrons preferred to be near the windows. The inn was bright with sun and torch alike, but the stench of the place was strong and unpleasant. Smoke and sweat and grime, mixed with hot grease and burnt meat. As she expanded her senses beyond Xian and the entrance, Lea saw that this inn made communal meals. Rather than placing an order for food to be cooked fresh to that order, patrons ate at the time food was offered, and went to a long table to fill their own plates. They could take as much as their plate would hold, but in balance with that quantity, the quality was generally poor—hence the biting scent of blackened flesh.
In tardy answer to Xian’s offer and explanation, Lea pulled lightly on the girl’s shoulder. “Come. We will have a meal, and we will talk.”
Xian went to the bar, and Lea led the girl to the food line. When the girl only stood at her side, Lea took a tin plate from a stack of them and handed it to her. “Fill your plate, girl,” she said and began to do so with her own.
Leathery meat in watery sauce. Greyish balls that might have been turnips. Crumbly Greldish cheese, thick with mold. Hard dark bread. Greld was not a land esteemed for its gustatory delights, but even so, this meal was bleak. Still, it was the first true meal Lea had taken since the night she’d met Xian, so she heaped her plate and the girl’s as well. Then she led her to the darkest corner of the room, where, as Xian had suggested, they were alone.
As they sat, Xian came up with three mugs of ale. He set them on the table and went to fill his own plate.
The girl—Mya—sat quietly with her hands in her lap and didn’t take a drink from her mug or a bite from her plate. Lea took a drink from her own mug, ignoring the bitter scent of unclean water and the sting of it on her tongue. Her unsettled stomach quailed at the intrusion, but poor ale was better than none.
Mya had not yet spoken, and Lea knew not what to say. She had many questions, but no faith that the girl would or could answer.
She picked up her own fork and poked it toward the girl’s plate. “Eat. It’s not good, but it will nourish.”
The girl did as she was bid. She could hear, obviously. Whether she could speak remained to be seen. It didn’t appear that Tantaren had abused her; on the contrary, she was clean and well dressed. Her dewy complexion and the soft, smooth skin of her body told of good nourishment. Her long hair gleamed and had been artfully braided in a style typical of girls from moneyed homes. She might have been Tartaren’s own child, for how well she’d been tended.
“Can you speak?” Lea asked. The girl answered with a silent nod, and Lea laughed.
“That is a sound I’ve not heard before,” Xian said as he took the seat next to Lea, with his back against the other wall in this corner. Of habit, they’d both taken defensive positions; only Mya had her back to the inn.
“What?” she asked.
“Your laughter. All the way through Greld together, and I neither saw you smile nor heard you laugh until these past moments. I confess to surprise that you’ve acquired a young companion, and you look like you fought all the giants of the north to claim her, but she seems to have brought you some ease.”
She had not, not at all. This child brought only confusion and complication.
Xian leaned toward the girl with a gentle smile. “I am called Xian. What name do you have?”
The girl put a forkful of meat into her mouth and chewed diligently, but she didn’t speak.
“Can you speak, child?” he asked, and she gave him the same silent answer she’d given Lea moments before. He laughed as well, then shrugged and turned to Lea. “It seems she prefers silence.”
“It would appear. I’ve been told she is called Mya.”
He gave the girl another charming smile. “Pretty name.” Of Lea, he asked, “Was she your business here?”
“No. She is the result of it, and was not in my plan.” Lea sawed at her meat and shoved the scrap she’d managed to free into her mouth. It tasted exactly as she’d expected it would.
“So what do we do now?” he asked, and attacked his own plate.
Lea hadn’t yet decided if the warrior would be welcome with her henceforth, but now that the girl was on her hands, she was her most pressing concern. The problems of Boreld were far away, while this problem sat beside her and gnawed at its meal.
“I must decide what’s to be done about the girl. Whether to leave her behind here in Haresh or take her to her grandfather at Mt. Falisle.” Her pledge to Voss Crookhand had been honored when she’d handed the pouch to Tantaren. She was not bound to tend to the child or return her to her grandfather. But if she didn’t, she abandoned the child to survive on her own in Haresh.
She turned to Mya and leaned close. “If you will not speak, then I must decide alone.”
“Mt. Falisle!” Xian grunted. “That’s twice the distance to the east that Boreld is to the north. If we take such a detour, we’ll traverse the span of Brisira and pass through a full season before we can make it to Boreld. I will have been away from my people and their need for half a turning or more.”
“You can return to Boreld from here, now, and be home in a few weeks.”
“You know I cannot return without you, Rider.”
“And I told you, warrior, we would travel together no farther than Haresh.”
They glared at each other in silence, while the girl munched her meal before them. Lea needed the warrior to save the Fair One—or, at least, would feel better to have him at her back. Though there had been no denotite in the hag’s shop, Lea would feel sick at least for the next day or so, and she fretted about how much magic she’d need to fight alone. This day had seen the harshest drain on her resources of body and spirit that she’d experienced, and it worried her. This mighty Boreldan would be a worthy partner in a fight, she knew. She’d been considering using his help with the Fair One as a reason to agree to go to Boreld and make the decision in truth.
But now she had the problem of the girl. Lea put her fingers to her head and rubbed at a throb of pain that hadn’t left her since the cavern.
“You do look weary, Rider, and ill.” Xian said, leaving the burgeoning argument aside. His tone now held only concern for her. “What happened while we were apart?”
Lea considered the silent girl. She could hear, and she’d indicated that she could speak, so her silence was a choice. But what were her feelings about Tantaren? How much did she know? If she’d been treated as well as it appeared she had, perhaps the girl was fond of her gaoler. Lea risked much to speak in her presence. Unless she kept the girl close.
She couldn’t free the Fair One while towing a child behind her.
Too tired and ill to think through the problem, Lea simply gave up the effort and said it aloud. Sometimes it was easier to deal with the consequences that arose than it was to anticipate and protect against what they might be. “There is more I must do in Haresh and beyond. If you help me accomplish it, I will go to Boreld with you, when my tasks are complete.”
“You mean the girl. When you deal with Mya.”
“I mean the girl, and more.” They’d been speaking as quietly as they could under the rumble of an inn during a meal, but Lea lowered her voice more. “There is a Fair One kept caged in the Hive. I mean to free them.” She glanced at Mya as she spoke, but the girl only took a swallow from her mug, with no evident distaste for the cloudy ale, or interest in their discourse.
Xian, on the other hand, was stunned. “A Fair One, you say? Imprisoned?”
“Not imprisoned. It is not a punishment. They are enslaved, their body used for a dark apothecary and her unguents.”
“Is it true, then? The power of a magic-bearer’s flesh?”
“It is not. But the desperate and the foolish are easily beguiled. The Fair One is old enough to have once borne their own magic, before the schism, and they have been tortured by this hag for time unknown. They go free before I leave Haresh.” As long as she’d said so much, she’d said the rest. “Tantaren is here. Do you know the name?”
The warrior reared back in his chair. “The Queen who led Vraelon in the Cleaving War. She died in the Cleaving, here in Greld. Sucked into the earth with her serpent when the Bound Maw drained.”
“It is said. But I saw her myself. She dwells in the Hive and uses the name of Ukarra. She is the dark broker here, and the one with whom I had my business.” Lea pushed her plate to the side and leaned her arms on the table. “The Fair One is caged above Tantaren’s lair, and the lair is heavily defended. In my current state, I cannot free them alone.”
“What happened to put you in this state?”
“The lair was laced with denotite.”
“But Tantaren … why would she make herself weak with it?”
“To conserve her power.” Lea sat back and looked around. They spoke of magic in the common room of the inn of Haresh, closer to the break of the world than any other inhabited place in Brisira. Were they to be heard, it would mean disaster and possibly death, especially at this moment. With an effort to hold a relaxed posture that conveyed no cause for suspicion, she tipped her head closer to Xian’s and dropped her voice. “Denotite doesn’t deplete magic. It quells it. The effort of overcoming the quelling is the drain.”
Xian cocked his head, and Lea saw that he understood only in part. “Think of a cistern of water,” she said, searching for an apt comparison. “There are two ways to empty a cistern. One is to draw from it in use of its water. The other is to leave it neglected. If it is not tended and replenished, the water will evaporate, and eventually the cistern will be as empty as if all the water had been used, but it will not have slaked a single thirst. If you put a heavy lid on the cistern, however, the water will take more effort to get to and use, and it will be slower to evaporate. It will last longer. Tantaren made a lid for her cistern.”
Full comprehension brightened Xian’s eyes and lifted the corners of his mouth. “I see. Yes.”
With a nod of acknowledgement, Lea continued with her point. “Tantaren hid herself away in a room that makes it difficult to use magic without making a clear, painful choice to do so, and that keeps magic from fading away with disuse and distance, so her power wouldn’t wane. I would say that, outside the lair, she might be nearly strong as ever.”
“Stronger,” the girl said. Her voice had the soft, sweet tone of innocence and the rough weight of experience. Both Lea and Xian swiveled their heads to stare.
“What say you, Mya?” Xian asked.
Mya put her round, pale green eyes on Lea. She swallowed, and swallowed again. She closed her eyes and opened them. Lea understood that the girl’s silence had not been borne of inability or indolence or intractability. She had been silent because she was not used to speaking.
“The thing you gave Ukarra, it released me. So it was the thing she wanted most in the world. She said often that when I went free, so would she.”
“What did you give her, Rider?” Xian asked.
Alarm throbbed at the base of her skull. What had Crookhand made her do? “I don’t know. I was only the agent. He for whom I brought it bade me on my honor never to look, and had me swear.”
“And you did not look?”
Lea gave him the sneer the question deserved. “A vow I took on my honor, warrior. Would you have looked?”
“My pardon,” he said and tipped his head down. When he met her gaze again, he said, “But it does appear to have been powerful—and likely troublesome.”
“Agreed.” Lea turned to Mya. “What do you know, girl?”
“Only what I have said.”
Xian asked, “How long were you with Tantaren?”
“I know no Tantaren. With Ukarra, I was a long time. The memories of my time before are so few I can close them in my hand.” She made a small fist and stared at her curled fingers.
“How many turnings have you seen?” Lea asked.
“I do not know.”
“Mya,” Xian said and reached out to cover her small, pale fist with his large, sun- and war-darkened hand, “were you treated fairly or harsh?”
“I do not know which is which.”
“Did you feel pain in Ukarra’s keeping?”
“When I fell, or mashed my fingers in a door, I was pained. Is that harsh or fair?”
Xian smiled. “I would say a door that mashed these pretty fingers treated you quite harshly. But as a door has no spirit, to say so is only a jest. Did Ukarra, or another soul, cause you pain?”
She shook her head. “I spent not much time with others. At most times, there was only me. But it didn’t hurt in my fingers or other outside places. Only inside.” The girl turned to Lea. “Is there someone who waits for me?”
Lea felt a burning nostalgia at the question and had to close her eyes against her own memories before she could answer. “There is, child. You have a grandfather who loves you above all and strove for many turnings to find the way to reclaim you.” She could only guess at Crookhand’s love for the girl, because he had in fact labored and sacrificed to reclaim her.
“Is he the one who lost me?”
“I don’t know. But he is the one who waits for you.”
“Will you take me to him?”
“Of course we will,” Xian answered.
Lea turned to the warrior who moments before had protested any delay in returning to his people. With a rueful smirk at one side of his mouth, and a lift of one shoulder, he said, “It seems my people are not the only souls in need.”
Perhaps the warrior was only now comprehending that, but twenty turnings the Rider had spent offering service to souls in need. She knew well how vast and deep the need of the world went, and she knew where the fault for it lay.
Grinning broadly, Xian leaned in, drawing Mya as well as Lea into his private circle. “As long as we’re righting wrongs in Haresh, I know of a wrong we can right for all of the city.”
Lea stood in the room Xian had taken—only one room, now for three of them. Very small, with bare-earth walls and floor. And only one bed. There was a padded bench beneath the small window, however. Xian and Mya were crowded into the room behind her.
Xian had told her there’d been only one room available, and she was too exhausted to complain about the accommodations. She needed rest; the dawn brought complicated preparations, and the next dusk brought a hard fight.
They had sat long in the common room below, well beyond the meal, and then they’d gone back into the city so Lea could see for herself what Xian had discovered. They kept Mya with them, for she had nowhere else to go. The girl was as much a party to their talk, and their nascent plans, as they themselves were, though Lea meant to keep her from the fray when the time came.
“You take the bench,” Xian said. “Mya and I can share the bed.”
“No.” She spun on her heel. “It would not be right for you to share a bed with this girl.” He was a virile warrior, and the girl could be near her flowering. They should not share a bed and cover. But Lea held her tongue from shaping her protest so boldly.
Xian showed sharp offense nevertheless. “You think I would—?”
She cut him off with a lift of her hand. “I do not, but still it would not be right.”
He crossed strong arms over his chest, and leaned back into a posture of rebuttal. “Then it would not be right for you, for all the same reasons.”
Because, according to cultural inclination, Saapians favored their own sex. Though Lea was not tempted by the girl any more than she thought Xian was, she couldn’t dispute his reasoning as weaker than her own.
Mya, about whom they clashed, and who’d at last spoken long and well at the meal, had reverted to her watchful silence while they’d explored the city. Lea imagined she’d spent long turnings in just such a demeanor and was well habited to it. She’d seemed as unfamiliar with the sights of Haresh as Lea; it appeared she’d been kept secreted for all the turnings of her confinement. Lonely and silent—Lea knew something of the burdens of such a life, though her solitude had come when she was grown, and by choice.
As her elders stood locked in stalemate, Mya went to the bench and sat down. She bent over her knees and unlaced her leather slippers, then curled up on the pad with her hands under her head.
Xian chuckled. “You and I will share the bed, it seems.”
The only other option was a narrow sliver of bare earthen floor. “It seems we will.” She lifted a knitted blanket from the end of the bed and covered the girl with it.
Side by side in the cramped space, Lea and Xian shed their weapons and the main layers of their clothing. Xian stripped to his bare chest and left his leather breeches on. Lea left her tunic and breeches but pulled the tunic free and slipped from under it the small vest that kept her breasts secure, and she pulled in a deep breath of relief from the pressure of it. Long weeks had passed since she’d last removed any part of her clothing beyond what was required to tend to her body’s business.
Besides the bed and the bench, the only furniture was a large locking chest and a small, rough table with an empty tin bowl. For washing, though the inn didn’t provide the water for it.
They’d bought two additional skins in the afternoon, and Lea poured a bit from one into the bowl. She pushed up her sleeves, sank her hands into the cool, clean water and splashed it over her face, letting the glamour drop from her eyes with a sigh.
Xian grabbed her wrist—not harshly, but firmly—and lifted her arm. His blue eyes had gone sharp with surprise.
Blinking water from her lashes, Lea sighed again. She really was exhausted, and desperately needed to renew her strength. It was that which had caused her to forget, that and the way Xian’s constant presence over these days had rubbed soft her instincts for caution. Never had she exposed her forearms to view, not since she’d left Saapia.
His gruff voice was close at her ear and soft with awestruck comprehension. “When you first showed me your eyes, I thought I knew. I’d heard that only royal Saapians bore eyes that shone as yours do, like firelight caught in glass. But now I see the full truth. You are more than Saapian. You are more than queenborn. You are the heir.”
Lea pulled her arm free and drew her sleeve down, to cover the owl’s wing that had been inked into her skin, from wrist to elbow on her sword arm, at the time of her agecoming. “I doubt I am any longer the heir. I left long ago, and they would not have left the line in doubt. One of my sisters bears the wing now, I’m sure.”
He laid his hand over the wrist she’d just claimed back, over the wing she’d covered again with her sleeve. “Why did you leave the home of your mothers? This cannot be a better life than the life of the rising queen of Saapia.”
Taking her arm from his touch, Lea turned from the bowl and faced him. She stood eye to eye with him, close enough to feel the heat of his body. Saapian women loved other women, and Lea had known good and great love with good and great women. But, unlike most of her kind, against the laws of her land, and to the great shame of her line, she also had known love with a man. Great love, with a great man, though her people had called him Vassa. Slave.
With Xian standing so near and this quiet, vulnerable moment all around them, she felt a flicker of a like pull toward him now.
She stepped around him and went to the bed. “There is more in life than power and comfort, warrior.”
“Why will you not use my name?” he asked, his broad back to her, mounded with muscle, scarred by a life of battle. “Why will you not tell me yours?”
To know a name was to forge a connection. To give a name was to seek the connection. To speak a name was to claim a bond, for good or for ill. “No one has called me by my name since I crossed the Sacred Sea.”
He turned. “Then let me be the first. We are now a party together, you and I. We share a purpose. There should be trust between us. I am Xian, clanson of Qal, and I would be your friend. Who are you?”
He couldn’t know it, but he had torn open an old, devastating wound, and Lea, already weak from the denotite, now reeling as well in the onslaught of painful memories, couldn’t put down the shield that protected her heart and its truths.
It hurt her not to give him what he sought, but she shook her head. “I need to rest.”
Xian’s head dropped, and his hair dangled at his chest. The teeth ornamenting his braids clicked together. Teeth he’d torn from the living mouths of his vanquished foes. How had she done hurt to such a fierce man with only words?
©2018 Susan Fanetti
to be continued …