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Chapter 11: XIAN
When Xian came down to the street in Haresh again, the fires were out. A thick haze of smoke, dense with the reek of death and murky with the first gleam of a dawning day, hovered above the heads of the folk as they began the work of reclaiming their city. They tended the wounded. They pulled down the remnants of the tents that had been destroyed. They carried bodies to lay them in groups—the folk separate from the guards, he noted. Where Kyralla now was, and what had happened to her, he didn’t know, but he didn’t see her body among the dead. Or on a pike, for that matter.
It appeared that all the citizens of Haresh hale enough to do so were out now, and well at work. Far more than had been part of the fight. In Boreld, such a battle for such a cause would have brought to the fight every soul with the strength to stand, but Boreld was a green land of plenty, and had not been so broken by the Great Cleaving as Greld had been. Mayhap the people of Haresh had known so much need and lack that they could not recognize the promise of its ease.
But they were here now, working together. The water center was open, and folk came and went with buckets at will. It spoke to strength in their spirit that they had gone straight to the business of reclaiming their home, with little celebration of the toppling of Kyralla.
Xian moved on; he had work of his own.
The Rider’s horse stood along a wall of the canyon, his forelegs akimbo and his head down, looking for more fight. The folk of Haresh gave the great beast a respectful berth, veering well of out his reach when they had cause to pass. He was clearly wounded, but also clearly strong. His Rider’s magic had preserved him. Xian hoped his unshielded stag had fared as well.
There could be no better indication of where he should look for the Rider than her mount’s protective instinct. Xian knew he would find her in the niche Aradros blocked—the way to the Hive, where the dark dwellers made their home and custom. Every city had such a place, but only in Haresh were underground deeds done truly under the ground.
When he approached Aradros, the mountain of a horse hunkered low and menacing, and made a noise so much like a growl it could only have been thus.
He put up his hands before his chest. “Peace, friend. I am your friend. And hers. You know me. We’ve traveled these days together, and fought together this night.”
The horse didn’t move, but that low growl faded to silence. His head was turned slightly, so that he could see Xian at his fore. His ears were back, warning of his readiness to crush Xian beneath his hooves.
Xian cast a quick glance around and made sure there was no one in earshot before he said, “Aradros,” voicing the name the Rider had given him—a great trust, to give him the power to make a bond with her horse. Despite the desperate conditions in which she’d uttered the name, Xian knew the trust she’d offered him was true. “I am your friend. And hers—I’m here to aid her.”
Blood glistened on the horse’s shoulders and chest. His great sides heaved with harsh breath. The wounds he’d taken weren’t mortal, but they pained him. Xian moved one hand from its peaceful stance before his chest and stretched his arm out, his palm up.
The horse grunted, and stretched his neck toward him. Xian took a step, and then another, until the horse let his head drop subtly, giving over aggression for acceptance. Xian brushed a hand down the long, strong black face.
“Is she down there?”
As an answer, Aradros stood tall, towering above him, and took one step, clearing Xian’s way into the Hive.
“Thank you, friend. I will find her.”
There were no torches near, so he stepped into the narrow alleyway and ducked into the dark.
And dark it was. As soon as he’d found the stairwell into the deep, and left behind the faint light from the city and the coming day, Xian was lost in a blackness so deep he began to lose clear sense of the presence of his own body. Each step downward was an act of faith, and each touch of his boots on the earth seemed loud as thunder.
Nothing seemed to be moving in these catacombs but him. That the dark dwellers had not joined the fight above, he was certain; he had seen no such of their kind, nor a large enough number of folk to have included them. Nor would he have expected them. Dark dwellers were opportunists, every one. The politics above meant little to them or their trades; no matter who ruled what on the ground, under it, where dark urges and desires were fed, was always the same.
They must all have sequestered themselves in their corners, waiting for the fight to be over and their trade to resume unimpeded. Mayhap a different palm to fill behind a back, but always a palm there would be.
Xian found the bottom of the stairs. The inky dark had not abated; even his keen Boreldan sight could discern no break in the black. No, there—up ahead, faint as a wisp, but a lightening of the dark nonetheless. An open door, mayhap, into another dark room?
With no other choice, he went forward, moving carefully toward that tiny chance, feeling with his feet, reaching out with all his senses, hoping that it was a true way to the Rider. In each hand he held a dagger; the quarters were too close for his axe. He took each step ready to wield them both, but nothing came into his path.
As he neared the lightness, it gained shape—still subtle, hardly enough to be real, but it became a doorway. The room behind it was dark, but something, somewhere, gave him some light.
There was nothing at all to suggest that the Rider was beyond the door but his growing sense that she was. He was drawn to that door, that sole lightness in this dark place.
He went through and could see little better. The room had the crisp reek of harsh spices with an underlayment of mold and rot. An apothecary’s. The Rider had told him she’d found the Fair One in the dark apothecary’s shop, and the Dark Queen beneath it. He was indeed in the right place. She had come to rescue the Fair One.
But where was she? “Rider?” he whispered, too cautious to give more sound to the word. He got no answer. For a moment, he stood where he was and cast out his senses, honed by a life of hunting and warring in Boreld. He discerned no sound or sense of another living presence in this room. If the Fair One was here, they had perished.
Off in the corner was another doorway, lit a bit more brightly than the first, and with a detectable waver in that faint light—a torch, somewhere beyond. Satisfied that this room was empty of friend or foe, but that he was following the right way to the Rider, Xian went to that doorway.
As he reached it, his boot caught in something on the floor, and he nearly tripped. Whipping his blades in that direction, he found nothing. But on the floor, he felt a heavy fabric—a rug, mayhap, that had been shoved aside. With a deep breath, he pushed down the fire of fight that had leapt up in his surprise, and he went through the door.
Another staircase downward, and at its foot, an open door that flickered with the golden light of torches beyond it. He listened, but still heard nothing. Through that door, he could tell, was a large room. The room where the Rider had faced the Dark One and repaid another’s debt.
Xian sheathed his daggers and pulled his axe. In that room, he could wield it. With careful, quiet steps, he descended the stairs and went through the door.
The torchlight was at the center of a large, low-ceilinged room. Around that central light, the rest of the room was in shadow, so he couldn’t fathom its full reach, but all he needed to see was before him: a low dais at the center, inside a circle of torches, most guttered out but a few still burning. A large chair like a throne, empty. The pale body of a Fair One—the one the Rider sought to free, no doubt—near the throne. The body of a round old woman, splayed on her back before the rise. Mounds of bodies in guard’s attire.
And the Rider, prostrate on the edge of the rise, a knife sunk to its hilt in her back. Her sword lay on the ground, near a pool of blood under the seeping wound at her side.
Ready to be attacked from behind as she so clearly had been, Xian ran forward and dropped, unassailed, to his knees at her side. He set his axe by and lifted her head.
Her face was swollen and bloody from the armored punches Kyralla’s guard had dealt her. Her eyes were closed. At first Xian was sure he witnessed the end of her legend, but when he brushed his fingers over her forehead, pushing blood-stiffened hair from her face, her eyes fluttered open and glowed Saapian fire.
“Xian,” she moaned softly, a sound rough with pain. It was the first time she’d given him the honor of addressing him by name.
He wished he could pay her the same respect. “I’m here. I’ll get you to the inn.”
“Get it out. Denotite.”
She meant the blade in her back. Forged of the metal that made her weak. But could he pull the blade here, so far from the inn and help for her wounds?
If it was denotite inside her, he had no choice. The grip of the blade in her back was small, and could not have supported a sizable knife. Hoping with all he had that the wound wouldn’t worsen when the blade no long obstructed her blood, Xian took hold of the grip and pulled the knife from her back.
A harsh, broken groan tumbled from her lips, but she stayed with him, locking her wondrous eyes on him.
“Can you stand?”
She shifted weakly, then gave up the effort. “I cannot.”
“Then I will carry you.”
“Wait. Fair One. Alive?”
Xian turned to the pale, bare body lying near the Rider. Until his time with the Rider, he had not passed any time in company with magic-bearers. Even during his manhood travels, he’d seen Fair Ones only at a distance in Maerland, or, once or twice, made trade with them. The Dark Ones at the border were his enemies.
Saapians were his enemies as well.
The Rider was different. She had become his friend. But this Fair One lying here, in flesh almost the white of snow, with a body of neither man nor woman, nor child either, this was not his friend.
Fair Ones had broken with the rulers of Vraelon before the Cleaving War and moved south. They were no longer magic, and no longer friends of Vraelon. Everyone knew that. But they were yet strange, and Xian found in himself a wary discomfort with the idea of being close to this one.
“Do they yet live?” the Rider asked again, her voice weakening still. Xian went to the body. It was riddled with scars and wounds, to such an extent that Xian’s discomfort gained a sheen of compassion. The Rider had said this one had been tortured. She had not understated.
“I don’t know how to know.”
“They breathe in life. Their heart beats. Like you or I.”
“Right.” He put a hand over their nose and mouth and felt, he thought, a light breath. Their skin was cool to the touch but soft. “They live.”
“They must be freed. Why I came back.”
“I know.” He sat back on his haunches and considered. In this room lay many mysteries, but only one that mattered: how to get the Rider to safety. If the Fair One had to come as well, it was only a secondary concern.
Her horse. Aradros no doubt waited at the entrance to the Hive. Xian could take the Rider up to him, and he would keep her while Xian came back for the Fair One. He put his axe on his back and got on with it.
When he turned the Rider to her back and lifted her into his arms, her eyes fluttered open, and she cried out in pain. Even now, in her extremity, those glowing orbs were an amazement to him.
“What?” she gasped.
“Hush. Aradros waits for you above. Let me carry you to him, and I will come back for the Fair One while he keeps you safe.” When she conceded with a shaky nod, he added, “Keep your eyes closed, until I say otherwise. Your glamour is down, Rider. Do not let them know you.”
Her eyes slid shut, but she responded in no other way. Xian hoped she’d heard and understood. He hoped she had life enough to be saved. Cradling her against his chest, Xian retraced his steps, up into the dark, through the apothecary’s shop, along the black corridor, up to the city.
Aradros had not moved from his watch. When Xian stepped out into a dawning morning, the horse grunted and folded his forelegs, bringing his back down where Xian could reach.
Xian lay the Rider over the saddle. She made no sound, no offered any resistance. He patted the horse’s rump. “To the inn. I will follow. There’s more I must do below.”
Aradros stood to his full height and went forward, careful of the load he carried. Xian turned and hurried down again. He had to collect the Fair One—and the Rider’s sword, as well.
Through the same dark yet again, Xian went much faster down to the cavern below; he knew the steps and the way. His worry for the Rider and impatience to be sure of her safety and care made him reckless, but there was no other soul yet stirring in these depths, and he reached the Fair One without delay.
First, he collected the Rider’s sword and put it on his back with his axe. Then he went to the Fair One. Crouching before that still, cool body, Xian checked again for breath and felt the soft kiss of air on his fingers. He quelled a sudden shiver of misgiving and picked up the odd being—sexless but somehow feminine, mayhap for their long, lithe frame and flowing white hair. As he stood, he felt a tremor of life in the pale, scarred flesh. No more than a sigh, but something.
The plan was to leave Haresh on this morning, fully supplied to cross Greld and return both this Fair One and Mya to their homes to the east. But the Rider was weak and wounded, as was the body Xian held in his arms. Neither was in a state to make the hard trek across the unyielding earth of Greld.
More delays. More neglect of his people. More risk to his home. And nothing he could do to change it.
He carried the Fair One up to the light.
As he went into the apothecary’s shop, he remembered the tangle of rug on the floor, and he picked it up and covered the Fair One with it. Aside from covering their nakedness, he hoped also to shield their race. Greldish were particularly hostile to magic-bearers, and though Fair Ones were not magic, their race once had been. In many places of Brisira beyond the community they’d made in Maerland, folk were suspicious of Fair Ones, and treated them coolly. Before meeting up with the Rider, Xian would have counted himself among such folk, and he still felt misgivings lurk inside him. But the Greldish could be truly hostile, so he hoped to get into the inn without incident.
As for their wounds and ailments, Xian could not say whether they would be offered the same succor he hoped the Rider would be. Mayhap the people of Haresh would extend their good feeling for the aid she and Xian had given them to their charges. Certainly, Mya seemed to have been embraced.
When he cleared the Hive and stepped into Haresh, dawn was full, and the smoke from many fires had lifted to the top of the canyon. Empty water wagons had been brought forth to carry the dead out, where they would be burned, Xian knew. The earth did not take the dead in Greld.
As he walked toward the head of the city, people at work nodded or bowed in greeting and gratitude. They gave his burden some curious looks but did not question him; to them, he who had so recently lifted the yoke of oppression was above question.
There was a stir, however, at the inn. Aradros stood, tall and strong and hostile, amidst a small ring of folk. From even this distance, Xian could tell they were afeared of the horse, and rightly so. He trusted none, he was himself wounded and hurting, and he bore a precious cargo—the Rider, still lying slack over her own saddle. There was likely no circumstance when that warhorse could be more dangerous.
Calmarra, the innkeep, saw Xian coming and bustled to him. She spoke in Greldish. “Warrior, he won’t let us near. Does the Rider live?”
If she’d died, the horse would know it, and he would be wild with the loss. “She does. I can get her.” But he held another burden. “She saved this one from captivity and torment in the Hive. She gave her health to the effort. Will you find someone to carry them to our room?”
He watched as Calmarra, frowning, turned the rug—not a rug, he saw in the light, but a tapestry—back. Her eyes went wide, and she stumbled back a step. “A Fair One? In Haresh?”
“Harmless and grievously harmed. Important to the Rider,” he said. “In need of aid, as well. Will you help?”
The woman was torn, clearly. She turned and considered the Rider. Xian followed her gaze and saw the pool of blood on the earth beneath Aradros’s hooves. They could not dally longer.
“Gordrul!” she finally yelled, and a squat, strong man—a tender in the inn—broke from the cluster near the horse.
“Take this one up to the Rider’s room. Don’t make a do about it, just get it done.”
He offered his arms without question, but when Xian handed the bundle over and the tapestry slipped, he pulled back. It taxed the strength in Xian’s arms not to drop the Fair One to the ground.
“Calmarra!” He goggled at the innkeep.
“I said don’t make a do. Take it to the room, and be quick and quiet about it.” She had taken a softer, deferential tone with Xian since the battle, but in her tone with her man, he saw the hard woman he had become acquainted with since they’d arrived in Haresh.
With evident distaste, Gordrul held his arms out again, and this time he took the Fair One. He hurried to the inn as if he carried death itself.
“How is Mya?” Xian asked as he and Calmarra went to the horse.
“Well, and sleeping. I’ve made up the room beside yours for you as well, in case …” her words faded out as she considered the Rider. “I hope she will be well. It would be a grief if her first deed done in Greld would be the end of her.”
“Aya. She must live.” Xian pushed through the ring of folk and came up to the horse. He’d moved too quickly, and Aradros threw his head up, ready to kill.
“Peace, friend,” he said, as he had before. He didn’t want to speak the horse’s name here, among strange ears, so he focused his feelings of ease and friendship. Whether the horse would feel it, he didn’t know. Aradros was bonded with the Rider only. But they were all of the same party.
The stallion calmed and folded his legs. Xian took the Rider into his arms. She didn’t wake. She was a slack weight in his arms, and only her struggling breath showed her life.
“Who will lead her great horse to the stable and tend to him as a valiant fighter should be tended?” he asked. No one spoke or stepped forward. Fatigue began to settle in Xian’s spine as he contemplated how he’d manage the chore himself.
“I will,” a young female voice called, and a girl, not much older than Mya, came forward. Aradros’s head turned and dipped, as if he were considering the worth of the volunteer.
“Your name, girl?”
“Shylla,” she answered. “Will he let me?”
“Come close, and we shall see.”
She came, slowly, and Aradros let her, his eye watchful and his stance wary. She smoothed a hand over his neck, and he accepted the touch.
“Thank you, Shylla. Tend him well. An angry warhorse is deadly.”
“I know. I saw.”
If Aradros had wanted to refuse her, he would simply have raised his head beyond her reach. But he let her take his bridle and lead him toward the city gates.
Xian watched for a moment and then carried the Rider up to their room—their rooms, now—where, he hoped with his full heart, she could be healed.
Xian stood on the walkway outside their rooms later that day and watched the proceedings below. The sun was low in the sky, and the Rider had not woken. Nor had the Fair One. They lay, senseless, side by side on the bed that Xian and the Rider had shared the night before. No, two nights before. He had not slept since then.
The town healer had cleaned and closed the Rider’s wounds and wrapped them in fresh white linens. She’d stripped her bare to be sure to tend every wound. Until he saw the owl’s wing on her arm, he’d forgotten about it, and he’d had a moment of deep fear. But Greldish people wore much ink on their skins, and the healer made no remark on that which the Rider wore. She didn’t seem to have thought it significant at all. For most, the ways of Saapia had become old history, a history that wasn’t much told in Greld. They were nothing more than the monsters who’d broken the world.
Unsure what to do about the Fair One, and discomfited by the task, the healer had checked them over quickly, dressed the few open wounds, and declared it was all she could do.
Two young girls in Calmarra’s employ had washed the Rider, and dressed her in a sleeping gown they’d brought with them. They didn’t seem to notice her wing, either. Xian had refused to leave the room, worried that she’d wake and open her magical eyes. From his stubborn presence, the girls had taken that he and the Rider were mated; they’d blushed and tittered while they worked. Soon, no doubt, all of Haresh would think them mated. Not long after, all of Greld, and then Brisira beyond.
He cared not. His feelings for the Rider were powerful and grew every day, but it wasn’t love he felt. He’d told Mya the day before that love was respect and understanding. Though they shared the former, they most certainly did not share the latter. But she was beautiful, indeed, and her body was lithe and powerful. His body had been moved, even as she’d been covered in blood. Mayhap moreso for the blood.
What he wanted with her was friendship, however. A strong ally at his side, whom he trusted with his life, and for whom he would freely give it.
Mya came out of the adjoining room, which she and he now shared, for lack of another alternative. He’d hoped Mya would know the Fair One, having both been the captives of Tantaren, but she did not.
She stood at his side and looked down with him at the street. “What do they do?”
“They make justice for the wrongs upon them.”
Another whip crack sliced the air, followed by a sharp bark of agony. Mya winced. “That is justice?”
“As these people see it, it seems.”
Down below, before the broken doors of the water center, most of Haresh had gathered. Only hours after the battle, they meant to try and sentence those they held responsible for the ills of their city. They had made a tribunal away from the temple, at the city fore instead, but it had not been a thing of balance. They made a play of presenting cause, but they gave the accused no chance to speak.
After a farce of a trial, the guards who’d survived were put to the lash—three score for each, even those who had dropped their polearms and worked to quench the fires. Kyralla, bound to a post at the front of the water center, was forced to watch. Her trial would come after—but Xian had no doubt she would be killed, and brutally.
Xian found no honor in it. Judgments had clearly been passed well before the accused was brought forth; there was no purpose in this minstrel show but to dull the taste of their own savagery. So that they could face each other after what they did and say they had been civil and just. But to bind a man or a woman to a post, make them helpless, and then deliver pain without risk to the wielder? It was craven. The way of honor would have been to simply kill them as the vanquished.
In the current mood, the Rider would shift quickly from savior to monster if she were discovered to be Saapian, and they would tear her to pieces.
Rooted mother, but he wanted to put this foul place to his back.
“They wake,” Mya said, and Xian shifted his attention from the goings-on below to see the girl peering through the small window. He could see nothing but the wall facing it, but he went into the room.
The healer and the girls had left some time before, so they were alone. The Rider lay as he’d left her; only the Fair One had woken. They showed eyes almost colorless, only a tinge of violet. Those odd eyes scanned the room, warily but calmly, and finally settled on Xian.
“I am Xian. You are safe. Will you share with me your name?”
They lay quietly for a moment longer, then lifted long-fingered pale hands and moved them around. Hantung. Xian knew all the spoken languages of Brisira, but he didn’t know that.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know … do you understand me?”
As the Fair One nodded, Mya said, “They say their name is Callyn.”
“You know Hantung?”
“Aya. Many who worked in the place I lived could not speak. Ukarra took their tongues.”
The Fair One waved a hand for their attention. They tapped their mouth and nodded, then made more hand words. Though their fingers were unusually long, they seemed truncated as well, as if once they had been even longer.
“Their tongue was taken long ago, by the one who kept them in a cage.”
“What’s their name?” he asked Mya. His surprise at her knowledge of this way of speaking had blocked the name from his mind.
“Callyn?” He turned back to the Fair One. “Are you Callyn, sibling to Tantaren?”
A white head lifted and dropped, and Xian’s knees shook. “Rooted mother.”
If this was Callyn, then they weren’t a Fair One at all. They were a Dark One long removed from their home, but not by choice. Callyn had disappeared before the Great Cleaving and was presumed dead. Tantaren was said to have been searching for her sibling when she was killed at the breaking of the world.
Clearly, much of what was said was incorrect.
If this was Callyn, then they might well be the Rider’s enemy. But if Tantaren had tortured them all this time, were they also an enemy of their own people? Xian’s heart thumped as if in battle. What had they wrought by entering this blighted city?
“I don’t understand?” Mya said.
It was far, far too much to explain at once to a girl who seemed innocent of all the world, and Haresh had in this moment become a very dangerous place for them to stay. He could not leave Callyn here; it was too risky to lose sight of them or leave them to the ignorant folk below. They needed to understand. He needed to understand.
“I will explain, sweetling, but not here or now. For now,” he turned to Callyn, “your name cannot be spoken again until we leave this place, and we cannot leave until the Rider is strong again. This place is safe for neither of you.”
Callyn nodded; of course they would agree. They looked at the sleeping form beside them. The Rider’s face was horribly bruised and sliced, and her complexion was dull from the lack of blood. The denotite blade had left a black, webbed bruise around the wound in her back that had crept over her shoulder and confounded the healer.
After another flurry of hands, Mya translated, “They say, ‘this is the one who came for me.’”
“Aya,” Xian answered. “She would not rest until she saw you freed.”
“’She is a bearer,’” Mya translated another burst of Hantung. “’She is … Saapian’?” Mya frowned at the Fair One. “Is that right?”
Callyn nodded and turned pale eyes back to Xian.
His hands thrummed with the need to have his axe. Peril swirled all around them. Carefully, tensely, he nodded. “And no enemy to you. Your salvation.”
Callyn reached one eerily long hand toward the Rider. Xian burst forward a protective step, and they stopped, both of them. With their eyes, Callyn seemed to convey that they meant her no harm. Trusting his instincts, ready to defend those he cared for, Xian stepped back.
Callyn laid a hand on the Rider’s temple. Mayhap for his keen alertness and suspicion, Xian thought he saw the magic move, a faint shift in the light at Callyn’s violet-tipped fingers. Any doubt that they were the Callyn of legend was answered; no other could have kept magic so long in such conditions.
They collapsed back to the pillow and closed their eyes.
The Rider stirred, took a deep breath, and spoke. “Xian?”
The sound of her calling his name eased layers of his heart. She gave such boons only when she was weak or weary, but he valued them just the same. “I am here, Rider. Open your eyes.”
She did, and they were beautiful. Mya gasped with awe.
He knelt beside the bed. “You are badly hurt, but as soon as you are able, we must away from here. While you are yet a hero, and the Fair One who joins us is not noticed.”
She turned her head and saw Callyn. “You saved them.”
“You did. I only carried them.”
With her wounded, brilliant eyes, she looked up at the rough-beamed ceiling. “The light—it’s late in the day.”
“Aya. But only the next day after the fight. The last meal will be brought soon. Can you conceal your eyes?”
Though the effort seemed taxing, she did it, and her eyes were again the simple brown of river stones. Then they were gone, hidden behind closed lids.
“I need only the night,” she murmured, too drowsily to be convincing. “I can ride at dawn break.”
“Are you certain?”
“I can ride at dawn.”
He didn’t think it likely, but if it was, and they could ride out in the quiet, fading away while the town slept, it would be for the best.
He brushed his hand over her forehead, where Callyn had touched her and wakened her. “Rest, Rider. I’ll keep watch.”
Outside, he heard the clear thunk of a heavy blade hitting a block and knew Kyralla had had her justice, as Haresh deemed it.
They needed to ride away from this place before the people of Haresh turned that justice on the woman who’d fought so hard for them.
to be continued …
©2018 Susan Fanetti