Authors: Kevin L. Nielsen
The Lhaurel that had first arrived would have given up then, but Lhaurel’s stubbornness had grown. As she started her second scan, a slight breeze wafted up from the chamber’s opening, swirling in a complex pattern of eddies and whorls. High above her head and slightly to the left, thirty spans up, the rock
She almost smiled but stopped herself before the expression could betray her discovery. Someone was surely watching her even now, wondering what it was that she was doing. So she continued to study the rock, allowing her expression to show feigned frustration and disappointment. After a few long minutes she hung her head in resignation, allowing her auburn hair to fall in front of her face. Behind the red curtain, though, she smiled.
She put down her metal bucket and spade, leaning them against the wall of the cavern. Next, she divested herself of the nondescript brown robe she wore, leaving her only in her smallclothes. The robe would get in the way as she climbed. There were no steps carved into the stone—no easy paths of ingress or egress. Yet the entire cliff was made of the same rough sandstone, laden with streaks of dark grey metal. That meant it was rough and full of crags. She reached up, seized an outcropping of stone, and started to climb.
She continued to climb, ignoring the ache in her shoulders, the burning angry pain stretching up her arms and down her back, which screamed at the strain. Sweat dripped down her brow and pasted her hair to the side of her head. Her hand burned where she had been cut, and it continued to bleed, leaving a trail along the rock that marked where she had been. The occasional aevian would pop its regal head out of an outcropping or nest to peer quizzically at her as she passed, but she ignored them. Everything ceased to exist except the strange outcropping where she had seen the stone move.
Halfway to the outcropping, her muscles forced her to stop and take a momentary respite on a large promontory of stone that jutted out from the regular semi-flat sandstone wall. Lhaurel pulled herself atop the lip and collapsed onto the gritty surface. She blinked away the stinging sweat, though more dripped into her eyes, making the gesture a futile one. Her vision was slightly blurry around the edges, as though she had just woken up and had yet to become fully alert. One of her hands, the one with the cut, trembled uncontrollably, like the wings of a grasshopper in flight. She closed her eyes and breathed as deeply as her oxygen-deprived lungs allowed. Was she really so soft that a simple climb like this would leave her
Near her, Gwyanth, Khari’s aevian and the only one of the creature whose name she had learned, and her son hopped from crag to crag, the younger aevian flapping his wings far less gracefully than his mother. Lhaurel smiled. The young aevian, called a fledgling, apparently, was one of her favorites. He had a funny little chirp he seemed to reserve just for her.
A sudden thought struck her, one that left her sickened and enraged at the same time.
They’d never told her not to try to escape. No one had ever threatened her about trying to run away. In fact, they had done everything in their power to frustrate and enrage her. They had
her to try and escape.
Why else would they have forced her to do such menial tasks day in and day out. She’d forgone sleep for almost a fortnight caring for the aevians and Gwyanth’s fledgling son. No one told her that Gwyanth would have done that herself if Lhaurel hadn’t been there. There had been other fledglings born while she’d been working with Gwyanth’s son, but none of them had been cared for by another person. Why had she?
The most powerful prisons were those whose bars were constructed by the one imprisoned within them. They had made her
to care for the creatures. They had used her own kindness and determination against her. She felt like a milk-besotted babe to have been so easily manipulated.
“I’m such a fool,” she said aloud, clenching her fists and kicking some loose sand over the side of the ledge. Why hadn’t she realized what they were doing to her? They’d expected her to attempt something. They’d expected her to figure them out at some point.
She looked up in a sudden burst of anger, her eyes flashing and fixating on the spot where she had seen the rock move. She could see it even though she was directly beneath it. Her ledge afforded her a slightly angled view of the spot.
“I know you’re up there,” she shouted, her voice carrying and reverberating off the close walls. “I’m done playing your games. I’m done waiting for you to explain. Show yourselves! Kaiden! Khari! I’ve had enough!”
Her voice echoed across the chamber, rolling and reverberating like a wave of rolling sand. The rock she was staring at shifted, and a head poked out over the edge and peered down at her—a head topped with dusty brown hair, a plain face, and grey eyes. And a frown.
“Well, you’re not nearly as stupid as you’ve made Khari believe,” Kaiden said, “but not nearly as smart or as stubborn as you’re going to need to be.”
Having lived the solitary life, alone with my craft and with the creatures that I love, having another’s presence within my walls is uncomfortable. The girl is always there—always in the way. And her ceaseless chatter gnaws at my mind and steals away what hope I have left. She is a leech, sapping away my strength.
-From the Journals of Elyana
Sheltered in a large stone bowl that mirrored the epic grandeur of the Forbiddence, the Oasis walls stuck up over the sands for dozens of span. The ground within the bowl the Oasis formed was covered in a thick, green grass that cushioned the foot when one walked. For Marvi, who was used to walking on the sandy covered floors of the warren, where each step was really the culmination of two motions—one forward and one slipping back marginally—the springy grass of the Oasis was unnerving.
The Oasis was a blessing, a shelter from the genesauri during the Migration and a sure source of water during the three months when the rains didn’t make the Oasis uninhabitable. If it weren’t for the nine months of rain each year, they could have stayed in the Oasis all year long and never worried about the genesauri again. But the flooding made living there during the Dormancy impossible.
Thankfully, the genesauri slept for that period, which made the Sharani Desert relatively safe.
Marvi doubted that the water oaths would hold up with all the Rahuli clans confined together for as long as they were. In truth, the peace barely held together each year. Fights often broke out between the clans who were sworn blood enemies. Tempers ran high, and fear and warmongering were facts of life. It was only common need that allowed them some respite from the chaos that awaited them on the sands. Fear was the great unifier of all men. Well, that and lust.
Marvi grimaced as she walked along the grass, holding up the hem of her robe so it wouldn’t catch on the grass or get soaked by the thick beads of dew beading along the green strands. There was a muskiness to the air, an odor of dirt and plants and the close proximity of thousands of people and whatever animals they had managed to save that Marvi simply hated. It was a foreign smell found only here in the Oasis, the thick, ugly smell of wet.
Despite her efforts, her robes caught on the rough bark of a tall palm and tore with a loud ripping noise. She swore and dropped the robe altogether. Let it get wet. Where she was going, it didn’t matter if she had on the finest robes or if she wore loops of gold in her ears. Eyes narrowed in determination, she strode through the grass and entered the camp of the Frierd clan. Though there was a water oath in place, it didn’t stop the politics or the jockeying for power or influence of trade among the various clans. And it also didn’t stop the jostling for the best encampments within the Oasis. The Frierd had been encroaching upon the Sidena borders, using the well maintained by the Sidena to water their sheep. It was a grievous insult. Were one to drink from the water sullied by the sheep of another clan, they themselves would be counted no more worthy than cattle to be driven and branded by another’s mark. It was an emasculating maneuver perpetrated by Frierd’s Warlord, Alarian, in response to some imagined slight. Marvi’s husband, Jenthro, had rushed to defend their honor, thinking with his sword more than his brain.
she thought, tossing her head with an exasperated flick,
he’s going to get himself killed one of these days, and I’ll be damned to the seven hells before I step in to protect him.
She reluctantly dismissed the thought. She knew her present duty to the Sidena, if not her husband. Do what he would, Marvi would step in to make up for all of Jenthro’s lapses. And, sometimes, protect him from himself, as she was doing now. If she’d left it in his hands, they would have been in battle now, not just against the Frierd clan, but also likely against the Mornal and Olarin clans. The Frierd, Mornal, and Olarin had fierce trade alliances, such that many of their families were intermarried one with another. The bonds of blood ran deep, more deeply than Jenthro realized or even cared to acknowledge. That was a failing of men. They never understood the power of blood except to shed it.
As the Matron of the Sidena, she had the power to speak for the clan, though that power was seldom, if ever, used. The Frierd would not stand in her way, though. She adjusted her robe against the stifling humidity, held her head high, and strode through the center of the Frierd camp as if she were their matron.
The Frierd camp was arrayed like most of the others, a half circle of tents nestled up against the protective cliffs and encircling the shallow market where others came to trade or else survey the wares they had brought to the Oasis. Or that was what it normally looked like. This year the market was just a barren stretch of grass, slightly flattened by countless trampling feet. Like the Sidena, there hadn’t been time for the Frierd to bring much other than their own selves to the Oasis with them.
Damn the genesauri!
The Frierd people themselves were arrayed in small groups around a central fire pit. Many were chatting among themselves or else attending to one of the score of little tasks that occupied both men and women when they camped. They looked mostly the same as the Sidena except that the men sported detailed tattoos around their eyes and down the sides of their cheeks. Also, they were devoid of topknot, instead leaving their hair long like a woman’s, though the women in the clan tied their hair back in thick braids that hung down their backs. Some of the wealthier women of a higher rank, as evidenced by the color of their
, even had small stones or colorful bits of yarn interwoven with the strands of their hair. It was an opulent display of their wealth, and they did it because they knew that Marvi was coming.
The fire pit sat in the center of the clustered groups. Stones had been placed around the pit to reflect the heat properly. It was such a strange thing—an open fire. Fires were such a rarity out on the sands due to a lack of fuel that Marvi still marveled at how common they were in the Oasis.
The Frierd parted around her, leaving a clear path to where Alarian waited, arms folded across his chest.
Even with her torn robes and water-soaked hem, she bore herself with a regality and authority that outshone the stones in the women’s hair, sent even the proudest warrior to reexamine his masculinity, and cast a shadow over the entire message they were trying to present. By simply refusing to be intimidated, Marvi had changed the way this meeting would unfold, and she hadn’t said a single word. It helped that even in her old age, if a trifle rounder than it had been in her youth, she still wielded a stately beauty.
As she approached, Marvi took a quick minute to study the man. He was a newer Warlord, and she had not had much time to get to know anything about him. Her informants knew little. He was a younger man, perhaps not yet past his fortieth year. His skin was weathered and bore the leathery toughness of one who has spent his entire life toiling in the blistering heat. He wore a simple vest and loose pants, exposing hard muscles and an array of scars that crossed his chest. Marvi thought they looked like the marks a sandtiger’s claws might make. Only the bravest or most foolhardy warriors still hunted sandtigers.
His face was as weathered and hard as the rest of him, square nose, firm jaw, and thin lips, all set beneath dark blue eyes that shone with a shrewdness born of survival in a place where even the smallest of children played with death as they would a favored toy. Spikey tattoos lined his eyes.
Marvi was surprised to find that she liked him. He was even somewhat handsome when compared to her own homely husband.
Maybe he could be of use after all.
Marvi adjusted her plan in an instant, shifting her intent like the wind shifted the dunes.
“Greetings, Honored Warlord,” she said with a slight inclination of her head, a gesture that just barely covered the tenants of propriety. “May death’s shadow pass you by.”
Alarian returned the nod, the slight movement far more appropriate coming from him than it had from her.
She waited for him to say something, conscious of the fact that the rest of the Frierd clan had closed in behind her. She almost smiled, but that would have destroyed the effect she was trying to create.
He said nothing.
“A troubling matter has been brought to my attention, noble Warlord,” she said. “One that concerns your cattle and our well.”
“Why would Frierd cattle be anywhere near a well maintained by the Sidena?” Alarian asked. His voice was deep and rich despite the yellowed teeth. She could look beyond that.
“Why indeed. Perhaps they were so parched from the excessive heat and dryness here that they were driven to drink wherever they could find a place to quench their thirst.” She was giving him a chance to get out of the situation before it became more than it was. Before it came to a test of honor. She knew it would be futile, but she had to offer him the chance.
“Or perhaps someone tried to lure them away from their rightful masters? Meat is scarce. The Migration took us all by surprise, and there is barely enough to go around. It would be understandable, if not forgivable, for a weaker, less honorable clan to attempt such a thing.” He was trying to provoke her, get her to react in anger and issue a challenge that would lead to a direct confrontation between their two clans.
She couldn’t risk that. The Sidena’s flight from the genesauri had already diminished their ranks enough—they couldn’t afford to lose any more, especially not with the clans all packed together here in the Oasis. It would be a massacre.
“Perhaps, but who would anger the clans by breaking the water oaths in such a way? Any form of provocation would be considered an act of war and would enact the full retribution of all the clans. That is not something anyone would want to face.”
Alarian shrugged, though she caught a glimpse of something in the set of his jaw, the glint of his eye. Agreement.
No one wanted to violate the water oaths. None of them could afford the losses after the deaths meted upon them all by the genesauri. Outside the Oasis, out on the sands during a Dormancy, the clans could and
fight each other over the slightest perceived insult or merely to jostle for power and influence. Pride was the motivator of every fight. Inside the Oasis, mutual fear and need outshone the pride but didn’t kill it.
“Perhaps not,” he agreed with a slight nod. “Perhaps the cattle were merely so thirsty they were forced to find whatever drink they could. A pity it fell upon your well.”
Marvi spread her hands wide in a gesture that took in the entire camp. “What happens to one affects us all.”
The assembled Frierd watchers nodded and murmured their assent.
Marvi grinned inwardly. Now was her time to strike. “One would not be so loathe to share water with cattle if a portion of them were one’s own.”
“If only one were fortunate enough to have brought one’s own,” Alarian said slowly, his eyes narrowing as he tried to puzzle out where she was going with her reasoning. “One would not mind sharing with them. The animals grant us life and are worthy of sharing some comforts with man.”
“From such sharing are other things gained,” Marvi agreed. “The water gives life to both cattle and man, and the cattle can then sustain the man even when the water no longer remains. To share water with the cattle is to lay up storage for the future against unknown need.”
Behind her, some of the warriors began muttering under their breath, realizing what it was that she was proposing. A trade between the two clans. The Sidena would allow the Frierd cattle access to their water for a portion of the herd. Alarian’s eyes narrowed, his eyebrows coming together in small ridges over his nose.
“But the costs of such sharing can sometimes be toxic,” he said, his voice hard. “Cattle spread disease, and once cattle get used to watering with men, they come to expect it and so strut around as if they were men. And men as if they were beasts.”
Laughter erupted at this, deep laughs, from the men in the group behind her. Several small children took up the laughter, responding to the adult’s mirth more than from any understanding of the discussion.
Marvi smiled and nodded slightly, acknowledging the skill of the veiled insult. “When hunger strikes, as it is wont to do, is it not easier to slay a beast that is close to you rather than far afield?”
Alarian smiled at this, a smile that spread from his lips to his eyes, a hot smile, one of conquest and lust.
She had known this would appeal to him. She had steered him toward it from the moment he had tried to provoke her. He was a bully at heart, a shrewd bully, but a bully, nonetheless. And to the core, bullies were the epitome of laziness. Having victims close at hand was something that appealed to the malicious nature within him.
“You are very wise, Marvi, Matron of the Sidena,” he said at length, holding out his right hand, wrist up, exposing the multitude of scars there. She reached out with her left, conscious of the single scar on her own wrist.
“And your counsel is always sought, Warlord. May death’s shadow pass over you always. I will send a scribe to dictate the full terms.”
He nodded and turned away, dismissing her in the same motion. Normally, Marvi would have rankled at the indifference Alarian was showing her with the gesture, but she ignored it this time. She’d been lucky—no, she’d used her talents and gotten what she wanted, but she wasn’t about to push it any further. The spider didn’t catch many flies by waiting in the middle of the web, hovering over its kill. No, it wrapped the fly in silken strands and then retreated, awaiting the next victim. And she was only a Matron, not a Warlord—her gender made her beneath him in social standing, if not in skill. Luckily, the latter was far more important.