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INTERLUDE: The Crone
“I told you,” the old woman said in a voice grown even rougher with the long use of the night, “that my telling would be one of friendship and love, and of war and strife, of magic and might, of knowing and being. On that night in Haresh, when the Rider was weak and weary and Xian was full of the fire of the righteous, on the eve of battles they meant to make, their friendship was formed.
“It is no love story that I weave for you, and yet it is, for love is the blood of life. The only love as pure as the bond between a mother and her child is the bond of true friendship between equals. Xian, who lived his life in company with his clan, saw it first, because he knew the power and goodness in it and feared it not. The Rider had been riding long, lonely turnings in solitude. She still ached from the leaving of her home, and all the great losses of her life. She closed her eyes in fear of any new touch to her heart, especially one so true as the one Xian offered. But in her fear was the knowing of its truth. She saw the friendship as clear, felt its draw as strong, as did Xian, and needed only time to let it touch her.
“There were secrets standing yet between them, knowings not yet shared, and such salty ground is not good tilling for friendship. But their journey together was only beginning, and they would soon find more fertile land.
“Xian was right—that was the night the great party of heroes was first formed. They were not yet complete, they had long travels yet to make before their circle would be closed, but the three souls who shared that room would ever be its heart.
“These heroes of our story would give much in their striving to make right what was wrong in the world. The next night in Haresh was only the first test of their bond and their strength.”
The old woman went silent, and for a moment there seemed to be no sound alive in the world at all. Then a log crumbled into the heaping embers and sent a flurry of red starlight into the black sky. A man came forward and fed logs to the dying fire, and flames leapt greedily up and returned to blazing life.
“Tell us the story of the Battle of the Water!” a woman called out from a distance, her voice robust with youth.
The storyteller heaved a sigh round with all the wearying losses of an ancient life. “For the promise of a bed and a pillow for my head when my tale is told, I will tell on.”
“We can offer you bed and food, old one,” a man near her said.
“And I thank you dear for it,” she answered. A girl came with a pitcher and filled her mug. “And thanks to you as well, little one,” she said to the girl and took a long draught.
She set the mug aside and pulled her ragged cloak more tightly around her chest. She lifted her head and, with eyes shielded deep in the shadows of her hood, surveyed the folk so still and eager before her. And then she picked up her tale again.
“The Battle of the Water is the first verse the Rider made in Greld, after many turnings at wander. The first, the boldest, and the most perilous. But before they could take on the fight to save Haresh, there was work yet to be done.”
Chapter 7: XIAN
They’d retired before dark had fallen fully on the night, so Xian was rested and awake well before the dawn. The shine of the moons came through the earthen window and threw long shadows through the room. The soft luminescence of the Blood cast a faint rosy glow in the strong shine of her greater sister, the Stone. This was the season of the moons’ greatest shine, when the Stone sat so vast in the sky she seemed to own it all. In the places of Brisira where things could be nurtured in the earth, it was the end of the season of reaping, on the cusp of the season of resting. Here in Greld, since the Great Cleaving had turned their earth to dead dust, they no longer called the seasons by the cycle of the earth. They recognized the turning in the air: the hot, the cold, the first calm, and the last.
It galled his clan-grown heart to know that a woman born of this world of need would have no caring for the need of her fellows. This Kyralla had turned Haresh into her own dominion and left multitudes to scratch and suffer in the dust, had made them outlaws in the very acts of their survival. The breadmonger had said that power grew in tandem with weakness, and Xian agreed—it was the way of the warrior to prevail over the weak, to bend their knees, or put a foot on their fallen back, and claim primacy. But that was battle—a fight between a champion and a challenger, or defender and attacker. A compact. Two sides engaged in the same conflict, grappling for dominance. An honorable warrior would never draw first blood against a manifestly weaker foe, nor weaken an enemy before a battle began. An honorable warrior, a true one, fought strength against strength and in victory earned, deserved, his place above others.
Xian wanted Kyralla to kneel before him. On the night that followed this day, he would bend her knees.
Beside him, the Rider sighed softly and rolled to her side, facing him. It was the first time she’d moved all night; for hours she’d slept the deep, still sleep of someone who’d badly needed rest and had at last allowed herself to take all she needed.
Xian turned his head on the pillow and studied her. She was beautiful, even more now, since she’d taken off her heavy, black leather armor and released her body to its shape. Her black hair had escaped the bind of its braid and now lay in wisps over her face and trailed into the opening of her tunic to lie along the bronze swell of a breast. Xian turned away from the sight of her before he got lost in it. He hadn’t had a woman’s touch since he’d left home, and his body’s need now would be an inconvenience, at the least.
Especially with the Rider—aloof and unfriendly, and a Saapian in the bargain—the only woman at hand.
That she was beautiful was no surprise to him now, nor had it been when he’d first seen her and known her heritage. Saapian women were known for their great beauty, and the royal line were said to be most beautiful of all. Even since the Great Cleaving, when as a people they were reviled, no one sought to diminish that truth. Generation upon generation of breeding only with the best of men had refined the Queensline to near perfection, it was said.
Breeding, not mating. Men were only slaves, for stud or labor, in the Rider’s homeland.
Was that why she wouldn’t deign to call him by his name, or to share her own? Did she think him too far beneath her for the privilege? It was the most likely, and offensive, answer, but it didn’t ring true in Xian’s mind. She was aloof and unfriendly. She could barely manage to show the slightest warmth to a child. She’d insulted him the day before. But in truth, in deed, she treated him as an equal. Not one she wanted in her company, but not a lesser.
This distinction was important for the work they would prepare for today, and attend to in the night. Clearly, he didn’t have her trust, or her affection, but he had her respect, and it would be enough to stand together and fight.
The light had begun to shift from moon to sun. Xian eased from the bed and drew his boots on as quietly as he could. The Rider should sleep and renew her strength. He needed to be outdoors, tend to his business, and greet the new day.
Before he left the room, Mya sat up and wiped at her eyes. She said nothing, but blinked curiously at him. She seemed a sweet child, innocent and untutored, but keen nonetheless.
“I’ll return shortly,” he whispered. “I must keep my custom.”
“May I go with you?” she asked.
He meant to piss and then to make his salutation; neither a thing he ordinarily did in company. “What I go to do is private, child.”
She said nothing, but didn’t shift her eyes from his. They were the pale green of Boreldan water flowers, so light and lovely they might almost have been worthy of a magic-bearer, though she was clearly neither Saapian nor Farborn in any portion of her blood.
In her quiet, steady regard, Xian sensed patience and resolve and felt himself give way to it. “You may come. Put your shoes on.” They would have to buy her boots and sturdier clothes on this day. She’d never make it across the unforgiving expanse of Greld in the laced slippers and linen skirts she wore now.
They left the Rider soundly sleeping and quietly descended the earthen stairs to the street below. Morning light was slow to fill this canyon, so the city remained in deep shadow while the sky turned pale. The first workers of the morning had begun to stir, to open their tent shops and hang out their wares, but the peaceful quiet of recent rest lingered over the street. This was Xian’s favorite time of day, full of promise and renewal.
The inn’s privies were dug into a crevice at its far end. He caught Mya’s hand and led her in that direction. No doubt she, too, had need to make use. As she had the previous afternoon, traversing the very same street, she goggled in every direction while they walked, taking in the simple sights of Haresh as if they were wholly new to her.
“Were you kept beneath the earth always?” he asked, though he couldn’t believe it to be true. She didn’t have the look of a child who’d never felt the sun on her skin.
“Not always,” she said. “There was a place I could be in the sun. But not so grand as this.”
Xian chuckled. If she thought Haresh grand, her pretty pale eyes would pop from her head when they encountered Ellerema and its great city of Tullashel.
He stood watch at the street while she used the privy and then kept her close, facing the opposite wall, while he did.
“There,” he said when they were out on the street again, “Now I need to make my salutation.” He scanned the city, seeking a likely place.
“What is that?” Mya asked, turning her head to mimic his survey of Haresh.
“In my way of belief, the earth and sun are my worthy elders. For turnings beyond count, the earth has supported our travels and the sun has lighted our way and warmed our backs, and we should greet each new day of their enduring with respect.”
The situation of Haresh, filling a canyon from wall to wall, offered few open spaces or private ones, and even fewer spaces where one might give due to the sun in its first waking. But the inn was near the city gates, and the gates were at the mouth of the canyon, so Xian led Mya out of the city and found a place.
He let go of her hand and knelt, offering his knees to the earth. Then he pulled off his tunic and laid it across his thighs, presenting his back to the sun.
“May I do a salutation as well?”
“It’s not a game, Mya. It is my way of being.”
Again, she simply stared at him and waited for him to change his mind, and again he did. What harm was there in this girl, so long a captive, learning the world through his eyes for a time?
“You may join me, yes.”
She smiled brightly and dropped to her knees at his side. When she moved to lift her dress up, Xian took hold of her arm and stopped her. Boreldan women made their salutation bare-chested just as men did, but here in Greld, he knew it would not be understood if Mya did so at his side, and they were within sight of the guards at the gate.
“No. Here.” He settled her dress as it belonged, and pulled loose the tie at her throat. “Open the top and bare your shoulders only. The old sun has seen all of life and will understand your meaning.”
She did as he said, and he pulled her hair over one shoulder so the other was presented to the sun. Then he folded forward and put his head on the ground. Mya did as well.
“Should I say something? Or ask for something?” she asked.
“No. You should be still and listen. Take from the earth what she offers, but make no prayer or plea. We are greeting our valiant elder. It is not our place to speak.”
Mya nodded and closed her eyes. Xian closed his as well. After a moment of quiet congress, he lifted his head and chest and outspread his arms to greet the sun and take the warmth and light he offered. “Mya,” he said, and she opened her eyes and followed his lead, tipping up her young face to the sun’s next day.
Not since he was a boy at his mother’s side had he made his salutation in such close company. The memory of his mother, and his home, his clan, filled his heart with warm nostalgia.
And with worry. It would be months yet now before he would be home again. What would be left of the Boreld he loved? Of the people he loved?
The Rider was up and nearly dressed when they returned to their room. Closing the last fastening of her chestpiece, she turned as they came through the door. She looked fully refreshed and entirely self-possessed, and Xian knew a faint twitch of disappointment. In her weariness of the day and evening before, she’d lowered her defenses. She’d been more expansive in conversation and even shared small personal details. She’d smiled, and even laughed once. In the end, she’d retreated from him when he’d made his desire for friendship clear, but still he’d felt the chance to grow trust between them, and to someday know her true name.
Now, she was simply the Rider again, tall and proud, powerful and righteous, nameless and homeless. Aloof and unfriendly.
“You’re not full dressed,” she said, arching a black eyebrow at his tunic and breeches.
“No. I had personals to attend to.”
“And you took the girl with you?”
“I did a salutation,” Mya offered. “I listened to the earth and the sun.”
Xian smiled at her innocent pride. By sight, she seemed only a few turnings from her blossoming, but she had been sequestered long enough that there was a sheen of newness over her eyes and heart. He gave her shoulder an affectionate squeeze.
The Rider glanced at her, then returned her attention to Xian. “I want to go to the stables and see to my horse. I assume you will want to tend your stag as well?”
Though his bond to his mount was not the empathic bond of near-friendship an Elleren warhorse made with the rider it accepted, it was nonetheless exclusive and deep, and could be badly damaged with neglect. Near a full day had passed with their mounts stabled. The Rider’s stallion would tear the place apart to get to her if she didn’t tend to him soon. His stag, on the other hand, would pout and snort.
“Yes. It should be our first stop. And we should buy at least one more, if we mean to take on charges before we leave Haresh.” He turned to Mya. “Can you ride, sweetling?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“Well then, you can ride with me until we can teach you.” To the Rider, he said, “Still we should have another mount.”
Swinging her cloak over her shoulders, dun-side out, the Rider said, “I agree. I don’t know how strong the Fair One is. They might be too weak to sit a saddle, but we can’t cross Greld with four on two mounts. Not even our mounts.” She sighed and slung her sheathed sword on her back. “My pouch will be as light as yours before we’re full supplied. We’ll need to seek work when we cross the God’s Tongue and find more bountiful land.”
Xian nodded, but he had a thought that they might not leave Haresh so light in the pouch as she feared. If the night went as he hoped—as he planned.
The stable of Haresh stood just outside the city gates, behind the craggy mouth of the canyon. It was large enough to accommodate the mounts and dray beasts of travelers to the city, but not as well-staffed as would be ideal. Xian, the Rider, and Mya entered into the musty building well past full light. They’d stopped in the common room for a dreary first meal of watery porridge, the aging stumps of last night’s bread, and a selection of ambivalent fruits carted in from greener lands at far distances. Though the sun was well risen and the city fully into its daily business, the stables seemed unattended. A full stable of restless beasts rumbled with hunger and confinement.
Xian paused, curious, and tried to understand why the place was so full of beasts and empty of attendants, but the Rider barely broke her step before she quickened it. She stormed through the stable, her cloak billowing, back to the stallion stalls. Xian caught Mya’s hand and followed, concerned that in her obvious anger and worry, the Rider would do something that queered their plans for the night.
He turned the corner to the stallion stalls, where his stag was also waiting. The Rider was with her horse, that magnificent black beast. They were forehead to forehead. Her hands rested on the sides of his head, just beneath obsidian eyes. The stallion pressed his nose against her chest and nickered. The sound was like thunder, low and distant.
It was the best approximation of an embrace they could accomplish, and the first time Xian had seen the Rider demonstrate any kind of affection or soft feeling for another being.
“Oh,” Mya murmured, a word soft as a breath. “Pretty.”
“Aya,” he answered.
Then the Rider reared back and opened the door of her warhorse’s stall. The horse stood docile, or at least compliant, but Xian could see he wanted out. She went in, pushing her way past the immense shoulder of her steed, and stopped at the corner. Then she looked over the wall at Xian.
“They have neither grain nor hay nor water. They have not been tended since the last midday. There has been no one.” She set her hand on her horse, and he made a brisk nod, as if he were answering a question. “When I find the stablehand, I will put him in this stall and let my horse take what he will of him.”
Their mounts were both built for endurance and strife, and Xian and the Rider had seen to it that they were fed good grain and fresh hay, and given clean water, before they’d walked into the city the day before. Less than a day of lack would do them no lasting harm. But Xian wouldn’t stand in her way. This kind of neglect was dangerous and disrespectful, and a break of the compact made with their coin.
He went to his stag’s stall and saw the same inattention. For the neglect his mount had suffered, Xian was to be punished with contempt. The stag stood at the back of his stall, his rear wedged into the corner, and his antlered head raised as high as he could manage, with all the disdain those thirty points could lift.
Boreldan warriors didn’t name their battlestags, nor speak with them, nor share an empathy as Elleren warhorses did with their riders, but they were linked all the same, by language and by bond. His mount had been with him for near ten turnings, since the day of his birth, when Xian had torn the birth bag and lifted the new calf in his arms to present him to his doe.
Xian chittered at his stag, conveying his regret. The stag huffed and turned, presenting his rear instead.
“The animals are sad,” Mya said quietly behind him. “They are hungry and thirsty.”
“They are,” Xian answered. “We should find the hand.”
“No,” the Rider countered, coming out of her horse’s stall and closing the door. “We should find food and water ourselves, and then deal with the hand.”
“Can we afford the time?”
The look the Rider gave him was answer enough. They went in search of food and water.
They found it easily. The grain bin was full, as was the hay loft. And there were two barrels of tablet-cleaned water locked at the back of the stable. It was near midday before they were finished, but they ensured that all the stabled beasts had food and water, and that their stalls were fresh.
And still there was no one to work the stable.
Mya had helped, and her pretty linen dress was soiled and a little frayed now. Her laced shoes were scuffed and caked with Greldish dust, and her elaborate braids loose and snarled. But her smudged cheeks were rounded with her smile.
As they all came together after finishing the work, Xian offered Mya an answering smile, but then turned to the Rider and grew serious. “Something’s wrong,” he muttered.
“Yes. This neglect is not habitual. We should speak in town of this. Does it change the day?”
Xian shook his head. Already they meant to travel all the way to Mt. Falisle before crossing to Boreld. He wanted not another moment to add to their delay. “Our mounts are tended. There cannot have been only one working this stable. We can ask at the inn and see to it that the beasts are tended, and that we have someone to buy a mount from. Then the stable is no longer our concern until we’re ready to ride again.”
With a brisk nod of agreement, the Rider turned and went back to her horse. Xian checked on his stag as well, and brought Mya a block to stand on so she could see him better. He was surprised when the petulant beast came forward and set his sleek nose in her palm.
“He pays you a great honor, sweetling. There are few souls on the earth this beast cares for, and that is how he shows his regard.”
“He’s beautiful,” she gasped, gazing at the snowy points of his antlers.
“Try this,” he said and made the sound that was like the stag’s name, a specific swirl of air over his tongue and through his pursed lips. Hearing it, the stag nodded his head and made a sound like a cough—his answer.
Mya tried it and didn’t come very close, but the stag seemed to accept it nonetheless. He set his nose in her hand again.
“You’ve made a friend, I think, Mya. He’s a good friend to have.”
“What is his name?”
“You’ve just said it. He has no name to make with words. That sound you made is his beckoning. Every battlestag has one unique.”
Mya giggled as the stag snuffled against her palm. Xian drew her close and brushed a loose tress behind her ear.
“We should return to the city,” the Rider said behind them and broke the moment.
©2018 Susan Fanetti
to be continued …