“I know the voice of the girl child screaming. Am I the cause of those screams? The enemy has come.”
-From the Journals of Elyana
The crowd pressed close as the outcast juggler tossed flaming brands into the air. Near the middle of the crowd, three children scuffled. Two boys pushed a little girl out of the way and scrambled to get a better look. The little girl fell with a muffled shout, landing hard enough to scatter sand across the stone floor.
Lhaurel watched the children out of the corner of her eye, waiting for the parents to step in. None came. She moved to the girl’s side, gently helping her to her feet. One of the boys, perhaps no older than seven or eight years, made a face at her, but Lhaurel glared at him until he sniffed and turned back to the show. Lhaurel turned back to the girl and dusted her off. There was a small cut on one of her cheeks that bled down in a thin, red line.
“Hey,” Lhaurel said softly, licking her thumb and wiping way the blood. “It’s alright. Do you want to see the juggler?”
The little girl swallowed and bowed her head, shuffling her feet and sniffing as her nose ran.
Lhaurel sighed. Most of the children in the clan had been told to stay away from her—the clan’s bad influence—at one point in their lives. It appeared they were starting even younger now.
“Come here.” Lhaurel swept the girl into her arms and then up onto her shoulders.
The girl whooped, drawing angry glares from more than one of the watchers, but none of them said anything. Little hands fastened in Lhaurel’s bushy hair, and a little chin dropped onto the top of her head. Lhaurel smiled and turned her attention back to the performance. And for a moment, at least, the stresses and weight of the next day faded away.
The juggler gave way to a pair of acrobats, who contorted themselves into strange positions and performed stunning jumps and leaps that left the crowd gasping. The little girl laughed and clapped her hands. Lhaurel laughed along with her.
Castoffs from the seven clans of the Rahuli people, the outcasts, were typically shunned and ignored, left to wander the Sharani desert alone unless they found another of their kind. Except, of course, when there was cause for celebration. Then they were commissioned to perform.
Even under invitation, though, they were kept at arm’s length. Unwary people were sure to lose any valuables they had on hand if they let an outcast any closer.
The little girl—Lhaurel thought her name might be Kesli—tugged on Lhaurel’s hair. “Look. They’ve got red hair like you.” The girl pointed one pudgy hand at the acrobats, who bowed to the clapping audience and stepped away from the stage.
Lhaurel tugged on the girl’s foot, and she giggled, dropping her hand.
In truth, Kesli was half right. Lhaurel’s hair did have a certain reddish cast to it, especially in the sunlight, but it was a deeper shade of brown beneath. The acrobats had hair the color of fresh blood, bright and vibrant even in the dim light of the cavern in which they performed.
Not many people paused to consider the difference, though. More than one family had passed Lhaurel along based on the color of her hair. That and her height, another similarity she and many outcasts shared.
The acrobats vanished into the small group of waiting performers behind the stage, and an older woman stepped forward amidst the claps and shouts from the crowd. This woman’s hair was streaked through with white, only a few strands of brown remaining. She had been acting as the main narrator, introducing the next performance and interacting on behalf of the group as a whole. It was almost as if she were their leader, a preposterous idea. Even the Matron of the Warren had to bow before her own Warlord. Yet Lhaurel admired the outcasts for it.
In the back of Lhaurel’s mind, seeing this outcast woman leading the tribe only made her that much more nervous about what lay before her.
“Wasn’t that something?” the woman said, her voice a scratchy, grating sound like the wind against sandstone rocks during a storm. “We will now be graced with the story of a great warrior, a man of great stature and strength. Gavin, master of lore and legend, will tell the tale of Eldriean.”
She raised her hands wide, and a young man stepped forward, garbed in simple, dusty robes. He adopted an easy, practiced pose just slightly off from true. His red-brown hair fell casually in his eyes, but he stood stiffly like he was afraid of something. Or he was simply nervous. If she were the one on the stage, she’d be stiff as well. And trembling on the inside.
The crowd applauded. Several of the younger children pushed forward through the crowd in an effort to get closer to the storyteller. Stories were rare, and this one was a favorite.
Lhaurel leaned forward slightly, though not enough to unseat Kesli. In her seventeen years, she’d only heard the story one other time, and it had been so long ago she’d forgotten much of it.
The man, Gavin, kept his eyes forward, focused beyond the crowd at a distant point on the wall behind. When he spoke, there was no quaver in his voice. It resonated and echoed off the cavern walls as if a chorus of men were speaking.
“The Salvation War, War of Recovery, The Deliverance. It went by many names. In the last years of the long, bitter struggle, Eldriean became leader of the Rhiofriar, greatest of the three clans.”
A focused hush fell over the listeners. Even the small children fell silent.
“It was a happy time for the Rhiofriar, for the Enemy had abated its furious onslaught. The clans could take a few months, mere moments against the span of years of death that came before, to breathe once more. To have a few moments of peace.
“But the blood of past deaths rang heavy in Eldriean’s ears, a clarion call to arms. He rode forth to the Lord’s Council on the back of the Winds, his mighty Weapon at his side, won from an Enemy slain in battle. With a voice of thunder, he claimed leadership of all the clans, not just his own. He demanded their fealty and their strength. He drew forth his Weapon and brandished it in the face of those who opposed him. One, Serthim, stood against him longest, but all fell away, bowing to his might. They surrendered to his glory.”
The man paused, letting the silence grow heavy with weight. Emotion roiled in the cavern, curiosity mixed with confusion. Who was this Eldriean? And the Rhiofriar? No such clan existed.
“The hordes came in waves,” Gavin continued, “from the earth and from the air, leaving destruction and death in their wake.”
“The genesauri!” Kesli whispered. Lhaurel felt her shudder in fear. A matching one worked its way into the pit of Lhaurel’s own stomach.
“Yet Eldriean brought the clans together in unity in the one place where life still clung. The clans met the enemy there upon the cliff that surrounded this place of lush fertility. There they ringed the walls with bodies and with flesh, armed with lances and swords and spears and magic and will. There they faced the final charge. There the Weapon that so much sacrifice had earned was unleashed in full at long last, unleashed in all its might and glory and horror. There they found victory and defeat. There they found their salvation. And their destruction. There upon the cliffs.”
Gavin waited, his eyes growing unfocused. His hands shook at his sides, and he clenched his fists into balls. Behind him, the older woman made a small grunt.
“Eldriean fell there, upon the cliffs,” Gavin continued, his voice so soft that Lhaurel had to strain to hear. “Betrayed by Serthim, who had never truly bowed. His mighty Weapon, which had rallied the clans and unified them under one rightful King, pierced Serthim there, slamming the traitor into the rocks even as he fell, sealing the fate of the Rahuli.
“Leaderless, left to fight the enemy on their own, they became lost and broken. Three tribes became seven—and the outcasts. But it is said Eldriean’s Weapon lies there still atop the cliffs of the Oasis, there for the time of great need when the clans shall once again need a King.”
For a moment after Gavin stopped speaking, the silence seemed a living thing, an entity unto itself.
The man stood upon the stage, head bowed and fists clenched, as if telling the tale somehow left him afraid. Or maybe angry. Lhaurel couldn’t decide which.
A bark of laughter shattered the ethereal blanket that had covered them all.
Jenthro, Warlord of the Sidena, stepped forward. “And every year in the Oasis, at least one of you fools dies trying to scale those rocks and find it. Now that is a performance I like watching,” he said, raising one hand and spreading it before him.
Behind him, several people laughed. Atop Lhaurel’s shoulders, Kesli giggled as well, though Lhaurel wasn’t sure the girl knew what she was laughing about.
Lhaurel herself maintained her silence. The man was an outcast, but he was still a person.
“Wasn’t it just last year there were two of them who tried?” Taren asked. He was an older warrior, the effective second in command behind Jenthro. “I think I remember watching that one. A husband and wife, I recall. One of them tried to fly when they fell, flapping his arms like a bird until he hit the sand.” He mimicked flailing arms, and the Sidena laughed again.
The man on stage, the youth, really, shook with suppressed anger. Lhaurel was sure his nails were digging into the flesh of his palms. The outcasts who had already performed were stony faced or else turned away, backs stiff.
Only the older woman seemed unfazed. She stepped back up to the stage and smiled sweetly down into the jeering faces. With one hand she pushed the young man back in the direction of the others. He retreated with reluctant steps, leaving her alone on the stage.
“Mighty Sidena,” she said with a bow that a woman her age shouldn’t have been able to accomplish with such alacrity and grace. “We will take our leave now. If you would kindly provide us our payment, we will leave you to your festivities.”
Lhaurel winced at the reminder. As much as she enjoyed the performers, she would rather they not be here at all.
No, I won’t think about it. Not now.
Jenthro laughed and gestured with one hand. “Three goats, I believe.”
A disturbance arose at the back of the crowd, followed by renewed laughter. A younger warrior came forward, pulling the leads on the three goats. Lhaurel felt a moment of pity when she saw the creatures.
Scrawny and obviously sick, the goats were in such bad health they were likely only a few moments away from being culled from the herd. Lhaurel could count the ribs on all three of them. One even had a large, festering sore on one flank that was causing the animal to limp.
Lhaurel felt a moment of simultaneous anger and pity warm her chest. The goat and sheep herds were a large part of what sustained the Sidena. They were cared for, fed, and looked after with more care than some of the children. These animals had been purposefully underfed and neglected to mock and demean the outcasts.
It was vain, foolish posturing. The act was one she should have expected. One more strike against a clan she would never call her own.
“Three goats,” Jenthro said with a bow much less graceful than the lady’s had been, “as promised.”
The woman accepted them with another bow, not even raising an eyebrow at the condition they were in. She was an outcast. They were used to such treatment. At least they got paid at all. Other clans may have chased them out at the point of a sword.
Lhaurel admired the grace the woman showed in the face of such hostility, a grace Lhaurel wished she herself were able to imitate. She’d thought about joining them before but had always given up on the idea. Life in the protection of a large clan was better than life as a clanless nomad.
Yet, as the small group of outcasts gathered up their possessions and left the warren, pulling wide-wheeled handcarts and escorted by a half-dozen Sidena warriors, Lhaurel couldn’t help but wonder if her life was really any better off than theirs.
Blood and Leather
“Our lush, arboreal verdence lays desolate, crumbling from life to dust. Life is dissolution.”
-From the Journals of Elyana
Lhaurel paused at the intersection of two passages, trying to decide if she should go back and accept her pending marriage or chance the desert sands on her own. If she was honest with herself, she knew there wasn’t really much of a choice. She’d never survive the sands alone, not with the Migration coming in just a fortnight’s time, but that didn’t stop her from trying to avoid the bonding ceremony anyway. To give up was to condone the act, which she didn’t.
Part of her toyed with the idea of running away and joining the outcasts like the group from the night before. But—
She took a deep, steadying breath as the sound of voices echoed down from the passage ahead of her, and she began walking at her normal pace, careful not to appear as if she had been running. The stitch in her side throbbed, reminding her of her lie.
A crowd of women appeared in the passageway.
Lhaurel mentally sighed, succumbing to the inevitable. They would have found me eventually anyway.
“Lhaurel,” the woman at the front of the group said in an exasperated voice, “there you are! We’ve been looking everywhere for you! Didn’t I tell you to meet me by the greatroom?”
Lhaurel inclined her head in respect, which also hid the grimace that crossed her face.
Marvi was a large woman, as equally intimidating by her size as by the blue shufari at her waist that marked her as the Warlord’s wife. The Matron of the Warren, Marvi could tan the hide off of anyone with either her hand or her tongue as easily as a sandstorm stripped the flesh from a body.
“Your pardon, Matron,” Lhaurel said as women with yellow shufari began to usher her down the hall with impatient clucks or gentle prods, “I needed to be alone for a moment to—to get ready. I didn’t mean to cause you stress.” Only years of practice kept back the bitterness from her voice.
Marvi snorted and rolled her eyes, brushing back her long black hair with an irritated flick.
“As well you shouldn’t. If today weren’t your wedding day, I would send you out with the children to tend the sheep and hunt for mushrooms. And Saralhn’s no better. She was supposed to be keeping track of you. I put her to task working the salts.” She sniffed. “Your head is as full of sand as a genesauri’s nest. Why, just this morning I was telling the Warlord—may he ever find water and shade—that you’ll need a strong hand to calm your vagrant spirit. He just nodded in that flippant way of his. As if I hadn’t carried his children for the last twenty years or made sure the warren had food to eat and water to drink. Despite him, sometimes.”
Even Lhaurel flinched at the words. Marvi was the only one who could get away with speaking so ill of the Warlord, and even for her it was dangerous. If her husband hadn’t been so indulgent, he could have ordered her death just for referring to his nod as “flippant.” Lhaurel grated at the irony of Marvi being the one to always punish her for acting unwomanly. Lhaurel had often found it to be true: those who most vehemently supported an ideal were often the ones to most egregiously and consistently violate it. As it was, what Marvi said was true, at least insofar as taking care of the warren despite the Warlord was concerned. She never let his temper get in the way of getting things done.
Lhaurel did feel guilty about getting Saralhn into trouble again, though. She hadn’t known Saralhn had been appointed to watch over her. Likely Saralhn had known Lhaurel needed the mental and emotional break and had let her go, knowing full well she’d get in trouble for it. That was so like Saralhn. Lhaurel made a mental note to thank her for it later. After she apologized.
“You’re as wayward as a Roterralar, child,” Marvi continued, ushering the procession through a series of passages normally reserved for women who wore a purple shufari. “Maybe one of the older, widowed warriors would suit you best. Sands knows I’ve had my hands full trying to find someone willing to take you after everything you’ve done.” Lhaurel didn’t have to see Marvi’s face to know the Matron was rolling her eyes toward the heavens. “Taren would have you broken and gentled within the week.” Her voice grew soft at the end, almost a whisper, and she grimaced.
Lhaurel couldn’t suppress a scowl of her own. If she had to get married at all, couldn’t it at least be to someone who wasn’t old enough to be her grandfather? Part of her gave a mental shrug. What difference did it really make? The choice wasn’t hers either way.
The young women around her broke out in whispers, each suggesting a potential match among the eligible bachelors of the clans. Taren was, surprisingly, one of the least objectionable choices.
“Enough of that now,” Marvi said, noticing Lhaurel’s scowl. “You will learn your place. Just as your sisters have.”
Lhaurel had always hated how all the women of a certain age were referred to as sisters, even when there was little, if any, relationship between them. She had no true sisters, and the women in her own age group found her odd, almost as odd as she found them. Most of them were around her, wearing the yellow shufari that marked them as bound to a man, wedded within the last year. After that, they would wear the brown until their husbands attained a high enough status for their wives to wear the purple. Or, like Marvi, their husbands became the Warlord. Then they would wear the blue.
Lhaurel was as different from them as it was possible to be. She stood a full head taller than most of the Sidena woman, tall and thin and straight like a pole, all angles and bone without much of a figure to speak of. Where they were olive skinned with dark hair and dark, ovular eyes, Lhaurel was fair of skin, was covered in freckles, and sported an unruly mane of bushy hair the color of new-formed rust.
Sisters indeed. Well, she counted Saralhn as a sister, so they weren’t all bad.
The procession led her to the bathing chambers, where steam wafted up from the salted hot spring vents. The water was unsuitable for drinking, but it served perfectly for bathing or washing out clothes as long as you didn’t mind the fine grit of salt that was left behind. Honestly, it wasn’t much different than having your clothes or body covered in sand. Either way you remained itchy.
The salt springs were the pride of the Sidena, and the salt harvested from them was a staple of trade for the clan when they were in the Oasis. The shallower pools, farther down in the caves, were a stable source of drinking water once the processing was completed. Lhaurel didn’t understand it completely, but it involved capturing the steam. Somehow that produced non-salty drinking water. Or something like that.
Lhaurel stripped and stepped into the hot water while listening to Marvi prattle on. She smiled when the dirt, sweat, and sand were washed away, leaving her skin feeling clean and smooth. As she slipped beneath the water to rinse her hair, though, Lhaurel couldn’t help but suppress a nervous little shiver that crept up her spine. She was getting married today. A small part of her was excited and nervous all at once. Another part of her, the larger part, felt an overwhelming sense of defeat. She’d have to give up so much. Her independence, the freedom to clandestinely do things women were not supposed to do, was at an end.
“You know, you really shouldn’t provoke the Matron like that, Lhaurel.” A soft voice said when Lhaurel broke the surface of the water.
Lhaurel opened her eyes. Marvi and most of the other women had departed while she had been under the water, leaving only one behind. Saralhn, the closest thing she had to a friend. As was custom, Saralhn, the most recently wed among the women, would prepare Lhaurel for her own union.
The short woman frowned at her, arms folded beneath her breasts. “Running off like that on the morning of your wedding.” Saralhn held out a towel so that Lhaurel could dry herself off. “Why do you always do that?”
“You know why, Saralhn,” Lhaurel said, taking the towel.
Saralhn only sighed and shook her head.
Lhaurel ran the rough towel through her hair, making it stick out at odd angles over her head. “Thanks for letting me go anyway. I didn’t mean to get you into trouble.”
Saralhn smiled and helped dry Lhaurel off with another towel she took from a nearby stack.
“I don’t see that you have anything to complain about,” Saralhn said after a moment, a small note of envy creeping into her voice. “If you really do end up with Taren, you’ll jump straight to the purple after your year with the yellow.”
“We’ll just have our children call him grandfather instead of father,” Lhaurel said, making a face. “It’ll be wonderful.”
“Oh, Lhaurel, why do you have to fight so much? This is our life. It is a good life. Being married, being a woman, they have their own rewards. Besides, no matter how much you fight it, there’s no way out.”
Lhaurel maintained her silence as she finished drying herself. Saralhn was right, of course. There wasn’t any way out, and that’s what Lhaurel hated more than anything. Her only purpose, according to the clan, was to serve her husband and the clan by producing more children and tending to womanly tasks. All the other women in the clan accepted this and seemed to find some measure of happiness in fulfilling that purpose. Lhaurel sometimes wondered if there was something wrong with her since her thoughts dwelt on things generally denied to women. Mostly she wondered what was wrong with them.
Saralhn turned and retrieved a small box from a nook in the wall. Actually, it wasn’t a box at all. It was something wrapped in a piece of white cloth.
Lhaurel looked a question at Saralhn, who gave her a small smile as she handed Lhaurel the bundle. “It’s not much, but it was the best I could do.”
Lhaurel slowly removed the cloth, revealing a thin white comb made of bone, teeth set wide apart. With Lhaurel’s thick hair, the wide teeth would be a welcome relief.
“Oh, Saralhn,” Lhaurel said, voice catching. “Thank you.”
Saralhn held up a hand to silence her, a faint smile on her lips. “I understand, Lhaurel. Let’s just pretend, for now, that I’ve convinced you to be happy and that you actually are, okay?”
Lhaurel smiled through the tears in her eyes.
No further words were exchanged between them. Not as Saralhn combed and braided Lhaurel’s hair. Not when Saralhn garbed her in the robes of a bride. And not when the gaggle of young, married women returned and hurried her away. None were needed.
* * *
Lhaurel waited impatiently in the exact center of the greatroom, thick leather ties hanging from her left wrist—the bonding ties. Her hair was arranged in a beautiful net of braids and beads that spread down her back like dunes. She fingered her blue dress for perhaps the hundredth time, feeling the fine material and wishing she could scratch without appearing nervous. She would have preferred the dress be green, but blue was the traditional color of a bride.
All around her, the clan stood in neat rows, warriors in front, women and children behind. She stood alone, open and exposed.
The reality of it all hit her with the force of a storm wall. She’d put on a brave face for Saralhn earlier, but she had been right. There was no way out of this. Standing here in front of everyone, waiting for her first glimpse of the warrior to whom she would be bound—this was the beginning of the end.
She was devoid of shufari. It was the only time in a woman’s life that her status was not openly displayed about her waist. In that moment she was nothing, a woman devoid of identity and life until her new husband arrived. When he did, she ceased being an individual and started being a possession. It was her last silent moment of freedom.
Lhaurel sniffed and swallowed hard, though her mouth was suddenly dry. She ground her teeth together, refusing to cry. Crying was a waste of pure, precious water. Instead she stood erect and raised her chin, putting on a smile. She saw Saralhn standing behind her husband, but the woman’s eyes were dutifully looking elsewhere. Toward where the bridegroom would enter.
Lhaurel glanced around the room at the assembled clansmen, unable to look where they were looking. Maryn stood next to her husband, Cobb, the older couple looking stern and resolute, as always. Portly Jerria, with her gaggle of children around her, snatched one of them as they ran by and put the offending child back in line where she belonged. Lhaurel had spent nearly five full fortnights with that family before Jerria had asked Marvi to pass her along to another one.
A small group of children, all younger than eight years old, stepped forward as an older woman produced a set of thin reed pipes and began to play. The melody was a familiar one, played at every bonding ceremony. The notes of the song echoed in the large room, the effect being a broken duet. A call and then a distant echo. The children began to sing, though Lhaurel couldn’t distinguish the words. A wash of jumbled emotions spread through her, so mixed up Lhaurel couldn’t begin to pick out any one in particular.
From behind and to the left of the assembled crowd, hand drums began to pound. The sounds rang out in the sandstone chamber, echoing off the walls and amplifying the notes of Lhaurel’s pounding heart. Beads of sweat formed on Lhaurel’s brow as the crowd directly across from her parted and the Warlord led his procession, eight warriors forming a tight ring around her chosen husband.
Lhaurel tried to catch a glimpse of the hidden man, but the warriors around him stood too close together for her to make out anything but the standard brown of cloth and leather. A hard look from the Warlord, who had noticed her rebellious act, dropped her back on her heels. But she refused to lower her gaze.
The Warlord cut an imposing figure, full of hard lines and with a face as impassive as stone. His graying hair was pulled back into a topknot by a simple cord adorned with a metal pin shaped like a sword. He walked with the grace of a warrior but the poise and air of one who had lived with authority as a mantle since youth.
Growing up, Lhaurel had often thought the man arrogant. Looking at him now, she revised her earlier opinion. It wasn’t arrogance. It was condescension. She almost took a small step backward as his gaze fell upon her once again. She realized that she was chewing on her bottom lip and stopped herself.
The crowd around them watched the ceremony impassively as the procession passed through a hallway of crossed swords and then parted, revealing the warrior hidden at their center.
Lhaurel couldn’t push back the rush of despair that washed over her. It was Taren.
He smiled at her with a crooked grin, though there was no levity or humor in the look. His perfect brown robes and thick leather groom’s vest were at odds with his bald pate and scarred hands. A long leather cord trailed down from his right hand. The sealing dagger hung at his waist.
Lhaurel’s breath caught in her throat, and she fought a wave of panic. Her eyes sought out Saralhn, who gave her a small nod of encouragement. She could do this.
With a start, Lhaurel realized that the Warlord had come to face her and that the procession had arrayed itself around her, forming a half circle. The warriors’ faces reflected a range of emotions, from pride to solemnity. Lhaurel’s pulse quickened, and color burned on her cheeks. She felt hot and cold at the same time. The cloying smell of sweat and drink hung heavy on the air. Lhaurel clutched at her dress with both hands to keep them from shaking.
The Warlord began to speak. “Two hearts, two hands, two lives entwined.” He grabbed Lhaurel’s left arm and held it up alongside Taren’s right. The leather thongs hung in the air between them, rocking back and forth like pendulums. “Two becomes one through the bonds of time. Two to become one, flesh of their flesh, heart of their hearts, blood of their blood.” The Warlord pulled the sealing dagger from Taren’s waist and slashed it across her left wrist in one swift stroke.
Lhaurel gasped. The pain was hot, incredibly hot, though the wound was shallow. Deep red blood poured from the wound, ran down her arm, and dripped from her elbow onto the sand. She almost expected it to hiss and steam. Instead it pooled and formed a dirty puddle.
The Warlord grabbed Taren’s right arm and flipped it forward so the palm faced him. Four distinct scars stretched across his wrist, the one closest to his palm faded with age. Four scars meant four wives that had gone to the grave performing their greatest duty, bringing more sons into the world that could protect the warren from the genesauri and the other clans. At that moment, Lhaurel saw the scars as tributes to four women only remembered through the number of their sons still living.
Among the warriors, the scars were worn as badges of honor. Lifeblood pumped through the wrists. A cut too deep could lead to the loss of a hand or even their lives. Jenthro had years of practice, and no one, man or woman, had died from the sealing cuts for years.
Helplessness spiced with fear sank into the pit of Lhaurel’s stomach. Blood pumped from her wrist and dripped into the sand. The last four women married to this man had died.
“His blood in her veins,” The Warlord continued, slashing Taren across the wrist beneath the fourth scar, “pumping to her heart. Her blood in his, sealing the union. Flesh to flesh, heart to heart, blood to blood.” He pulled Lhaurel’s wrist up and pressed her cut against Taren’s, wrapping the leather thongs around them both. She felt the older man’s blood mingle with hers, hot and sticky, pumping through the slit in her wrist and down into her arm. She could smell the salty tang of it in the air. Less blood came from his cut than hers.
“And thus are they sealed.”
It was done. The music ended.
A murmur arose from the surrounding watchers. Hands were raised into the sky, palms forward, exposing scars of varying degrees of freshness in a token salute. Tradition named it a gesture of honor and respect.
Lhaurel bit her bottom lip against the pain as Taren raised their bound hands high, nearly pulling Lhaurel from her feet. Even with her abnormal height, he towered over her.
“Hail the union!” Taren shouted into the chamber. His voice echoed and reverberated over and over until it was joined by other warriors’ voices, shouting exultation to the heavens.
Lhaurel looked down toward the ground and swallowed hard against the bile welling at the back of her throat. Blood dripped over taut leather.
The echoes rose to a frenzied, cacophonous pitch. Then the sounds fell away, dying in a ragged succession that left the last note a broken, hollow thing. Lhaurel looked up and blinked, noticing that the assembled watchers had turned from her and Taren and were looking toward the northern side of the room. She turned in the direction they were looking.
A red-robed figure walked forward with the gait of a much older man, as if his presence there weren’t unusual at all. He was one of a group of strange men who wandered the sands without a home and called themselves Roterralar, or wanderers. They weren’t outcasts but something far more odd, always garbed in red robes and steeped in rumor and suspicion. The crowd parted with tones of fear and amazement, affording Lhaurel a complete view.
The Roterralar walked forward with a determined expression, his eyes hard, though there was a smile on his lips. He seemed to be favoring his right side slightly, taking a dragging limp forward with that leg while walking normally with the left. And behind him he dragged the body of a sailfin.
The eight-foot-long behemoth was clearly dead, but even still, Lhaurel struggled to hold back a gasp of fear. It came out as a mixed gasp of fear and amazement, echoed throughout the room by a half-hundred throats. Even though the sailfins were the smallest and most plentiful of the genesauri monsters, few there had seen one up so close. Fewer still could look at this one without a wave of fear and confusion.
Jerria’s face hardened, and one of her smaller children started to cry. The woman had lost her first husband to a sailfin pack during the previous Migration.
Lhaurel fought back her own wave of pain and memories, though her thoughts had grown clouded with the blood loss and pain.
“What are you about, man?” Jenthro shouted, cutting over the small hum of amazement that had overcome the onlookers.
The man took another few shuffle-steps forward, dragging the corpse behind him, careful to avoid the poisonous purple spines of the sail on its back.
“Well, aren’t we all excited on this happy day?” the Roterralar said, meeting Lhaurel’s eye and inclining his head slightly.
Lhaurel looked away, hoping that no one had noticed her breech of protocol.
Jenthro gestured and a number of warriors surrounded the man. They were careful to avoid the sailfin corpse. Even dead, the small genesauri was not something anyone wanted to be close to.
“What are you about?” Jenthro repeated, his tone hard.
“Well, I thought you should know the Migration has started.”
He said it so unconcernedly. Lhaurel blinked, looking for humor in his expression. Who would joke about something like that?
“The Migration is over a fortnight away,” Taren spat. “everyone knows that.”
“But where’d the sailfin come from, then?” Lhaurel said quietly.
Taren yanked on their bound arms to silence her, nearly knocking her from her feet.
Lhaurel stumbled but caught herself as Marvi voiced the concern Lhaurel had already expressed. No one stopped her. She was the Matron and above all but the Warlord. Lhaurel swallowed her anger, fighting the onset of a strange dizziness.
“I killed it, obviously. Where else do you get a sailfin corpse? It’s not as if I could trade for one down in the Oasis, could I?” The man’s tone made more than one of the assembled warriors finger their swords.
Taren snorted. “You expect us to believe that pile of goat leavings? Few can boast of killing a genesauri.”
The red-robed man smiled, an expression that didn’t come close to reaching his eyes, and stood resolute, so different from the impression he had given during his entrance. His young face was plain, his hair the standard shade of brown, but his calm while being completely surrounded and heavily outnumbered belied his youth. Lhaurel doubted he was much older than her own seventeen years, but he acted as if he were the most senior warrior present.
“We can argue about that until we all turn back to sand and dust, but it doesn’t really change anything. Open your ears. Can’t you hear them coming? The faster ones will be here in just a few minutes.”
Silence killed the soft hum of voices with the effectiveness of a plague. Even the smallest child in the group lay still, listening for the terrifying keening of the wind passing along a sailfin’s spine. Lhaurel glanced at the people around her, seeing the same fear in their expressions that she felt within herself. Saralhn, standing by her husband, was as pale as bleached bones.
“I don’t hear anything!” Taren snapped after a moment. Lhaurel tried to ignore the irritated tugs on her wrist as Taren gestured for the warriors to grab the Roterralar man.
“I hear it!” Someone in the crowd shouted.
Other shouts joined in, but Marvi hushed them with a forceful command. The warriors who had been stepping forward to grab the man hesitated, listening again.
Lhaurel heard it then, a soft sound carried on the back of the winds outside the warren. The keening notes of a sailfin pack. Terror washed over her.
“Everyone to their tasks!” Marvi shouted, her thunderous voice echoing throughout the chamber and making everyone jump. “Cobb, take three warriors and secure the water urns.”
Everyone hesitated, frozen in the moment of fearful, stunned recognition. Lhaurel blinked, her mind refusing to comprehend what was going on. Her world had come crashing to an end wrapped in blood and leather, and now the genesauri were coming? Sands take her, the genesauri were coming.
“Move!” Taren yelled, pulling Lhaurel forward by the tethers on their wrists.
The crowds burst into motion, scurrying into the warren like ants into their hole. Lhaurel watched in detached amazement as mothers grabbed their children, herding them toward rooms to gather their possessions while their husbands assembled with the other warriors. She noticed Saralhn turn to leave only to be yanked back by her husband, who shouted something unintelligible at her before shoving her back toward one of the cavern exits.
Lhaurel watched it all with strange curiosity while being pulled along by her left wrist. She wondered if loss of blood was affecting her thinking.
“Get me out of this thing,” Taren demanded, dragging Lhaurel over to Jenthro. He reached for the sealing dagger in Jenthro’s hand, still wet with blood.
Jenthro backed away, holding the dagger out of Taren’s reach. Lhaurel stumbled forward, righting herself with difficulty as Taren tried to snatch the dagger anyway.
“Tradition dictates an entire night need pass to seal the bond,” Jenthro said with a grin that bore no humor. “Figure it out yourself.”
Lhaurel blinked. Was the Warlord seriously suggesting they run all the way to the Oasis bound like this?
“Please,” Lhaurel stammered, part of her terror cutting through the mental slowness caused by loss of blood. “Please, take it off.”
“Oh, enough!” Marvi snapped, walking forward with a drawn dagger. “We need him.”
Without turning to face her, Jenthro backhanded her across the face. Taren growled in frustration but stopped reaching for the dagger. Marvi spat blood into the sand.
Lhaurel felt a fleeting moment of pity for the woman. Marvi outranked everyone there and could even speak for the Tribe in meetings in the Oasis, but not even she could hold a weapon. Lhaurel wondered what they’d do to her if they ever found out she practiced the sword forms in secret on her own. Still, she was grateful Marvi’s actions had overshadowed her own pleas, but both were unimportant with the genesauri coming.
The Roterralar watched them from next to the sailfin corpse, running a stone over the edge of his blade. The steady rasp was an eerie accompaniment to the swelling screams of the approaching sailfin pack.
Lhaurel struggled to focus, shoving aside the growing dizziness and mental slowness just as warriors began to return to the greatroom.
Old Cobb limped forward, leading a small group of warriors who bore the water urns affixed to wooden poles between them. Women returned with their children, bearing heavy packs of all their possessions. Even the smallest child carried something, be it a favored toy or a sack of meal. Lhaurel caught a glimpse of Saralhn at the back of the group, carrying a pack that was far too large for her small frame.
Taren tugged at their bound wrists with a frustrated growl. Red blood dripped into the sand.
“Alright, everyone!” Jenthro shouted. He drew his sword and accepted a light pack from one of his sons. “Make for the stoneways! If the Migration has started early, maybe the rains in the Oasis have passed as well.”
From the back of the room, someone screamed.
Sailfins burst up through the many caverns that opened into the greatroom. Their massive dorsal fins shone sickly grey, each of the supporting spines a deep, rich red tipped in yellow. A prick from one of those spines was death. Hovering a few feet off the ground, the monsters crashed into the assembled group like sandtigers among sheep.
A woman screamed and disappeared amidst a storm of flashing, twisting teeth and flesh. Long, serpentine sailfin bodies twisted around victims, massive maws taking limbs or torsos in a single bite.
Chaos took the group. Taren leapt to his feet, cursing, and yanked Lhaurel up behind him. He shouted out unintelligible orders as he yanked the dagger from Jenthro’s stunned grip. With barely a pause, he slipped the dagger between their bound wrists and cut the bonds free, cutting into Lhaurel’s already-wounded wrist in the process. Grabbing a sword from a passing soldier, Taren dashed into the fray, not looking back at Lhaurel.
Lhaurel struggled to her feet. Her limbs shook and trembled. Blood pooled everywhere, staining the rust-colored sand a deeper, more vibrant shade of red.
A sailfin flew by her, skimming across the ground and then back up into the air with a strange crackling noise, grabbing an old man by a shoulder and taking him to the ground beneath its massive weight. Lhaurel couldn’t help but scream, her mind and memories shouting at her to run.
Lhaurel stumbled toward one of the exits, trying to ignore the chaos and carnage around her. A single thought kept her moving, pushing past the dead and dying around her. The stoneways. We’ve got to make it to the stoneways. Run!
Someone crashed into her, knocking her to the ground. She fell hard, cutting her hands on the rocks and sand. The wound on her wrist added to the red on the sand.
Must get up. Stoneways. Make it to the stoneways.
She froze halfway to her feet. Saralhn stood directly in front of her, struggling with her massive pack. From the side, a sailfin turned and, spotting the struggling woman, flashed toward her, mouth agape. Lhaurel shouted a warning, but the sound was lost in the chaos and confusion. She looked around, hoping to spot anyone who could help. A nearby warrior dashed by, glanced at the scene, and ignored it, fleeing down the cavern with a stream of others. To face the genesauri was death. To flee—run—that was the only chance at life.
Lhaurel glanced to her left, toward the narrow passage only a few paces away. She could make it if she ran quickly enough. The narrow passage would slow the sailfins’ pursuit, giving her a chance. From there she could make it to the safety of the stoneways as fast as her legs could carry her.
The sailfin drew closer, a faint keen sounding from its vibrating fin.
Lhaurel got to her feet, a surge of adrenaline shooting through her, rushing through her veins like early morning frost, pushing her up despite the fear. She looked up at Saralhn and then back at the narrow tunnel to her left. Lhaurel was not a warrior, despite her clandestine training. She didn’t even have a sword. But she wasn’t going to let Saralhn die undefended. She wouldn’t abandon her.
Lhaurel raced across the ground, spraying up sand. To the side, the water urns burst, spilling their contents across the sand and mingling with the blood. Saralhn looked up, finally dropping the pack so she could stand. Her eyes went wide with fear, terror freezing her where she stood as her gaze fell on the sailfin bearing down on her.
Lhaurel wasn’t going to make it. She was going to watch Saralhn die, and there was nothing she could do—
Suddenly the Roterralar was beside her, his red robes the exact color of blood. He matched her pace, a sword in each hand.
“Here!” he shouted, tossing her one of the swords.
Lhaurel snatched it out of the air without thinking. Tradition and rules be damned to the seven hells. The man spun to the side, tackling Saralhn out of the way just as the sailfin would have struck. Lhaurel kept running forward, sword tip leading the way.
The blade dug into sailfin flesh, the momentum of its forward progression tearing the sword from Lhaurel’s grip. Lhaurel crashed into the rest of the creature’s long, muscular body, spinning and dropping to the rocks and sand. She got to her feet almost instantly, adrenaline still pulsing through her, terror giving her a mental acuity she never would have had otherwise.
She found her sword still sticking from the sailfin’s body. She ripped it free as the creature twitched, writhing on the ground and threatening to stab her with one of its poisonous dorsal spines. She brought the sword down on the sailfin’s back, cutting deeply into the flesh until it struck something hard. Again and again she struck, terror, adrenaline, and fear driving her, cutting into the beast long after it had stopped twitching.
Heaving lungs forced her to stop. She paused, sword held in front of her with a shaking, trembling hand. There was red on the hilt, lots of red. She didn’t know if it was hers or the sailfin’s. She looked down at the broken, mutilated corpse in front of her and immediately felt sick.
She looked away, and her gaze fell on Saralhn and the Roterralar man, standing on the other side of the sailfin corpse. His expression was unreadable. Saralhn’s was a look of horror.
Something cracked against the back of Lhaurel’s head. Pain exploded through her consciousness, and she fell, sword dropping from her hand. She blinked once and then faded into darkness.
“There was a time when these people would not have let one of their children come within a thousand spans of me. Now they provide me with one, Briane. One whose presence is a constant reminder of their desperation.”
-From the Journal of Elyana
“Well, you’ve gotten yourself into a fine old mess.”
The voice resounded as if from a long distance away, though upon reaching her ears, it echoed in them like a beating drum. Her thoughts bounced around her head and left her swimming in confusion. Eyes fused shut, sight and senses gone, Lhaurel struggled to form a coherent thought.
Where was she?
Lhaurel tried to think but couldn’t focus. The salty tang of blood and sweat hung heavy in the air. She tasted blood on her lips. All she could feel was pain, pain everywhere.
Boots crunched against sand and sounded against the rock as someone approached. She tried to move but was restrained. Someone pressed a waterskin to her lips, and she drank gratefully, regaining some clarity of thought despite the pounding, throbbing pain in her temples. She took another drink, and the pounding faded slightly. Whoever was there turned and walked away a few steps.
She noticed, for the first time, the orange glow behind her eyelids. Realization hit her with the force of a storm. She’d been strung up on the rocks—bait for the coming genesauri horde. Those sun-blasted, fever-stricken Sidena had finally done what they’d threatened to do all these many years. Lhaurel had finally pushed their tolerance too far. She tried to fight down the terror, though she didn’t have the strength left to fight her bonds. Her head throbbed every time she tried to move.
The footsteps grew closer. Maybe they were here to watch.
Sunlight blared down on her, burning her pale flesh and searing her eyes, and she blinked them open. Two involuntary tears leaked down her cheeks and mingled with the dust and sand that clung to her face. There was blood there as well, both old and fresh, but the tears did little to wash it away.
A shadowed silhouette blocked out the sun.
“Who’s there?” she asked. Her voice came out as a rasp.
A man smiled down at her, and even through the pain she noticed he had a wonderful smile. His face was plain, and he was far from the most handsome man she’d ever seen, but his smile was surprisingly endearing. Foolish girl, she thought, you’re about to die and you’re concerned about his smile. Think! Figure out how to get out of this!
“I’m trying to decide whether I should just leave you here.” The Roterralar dropped to his knees on the stone next to her, leaning down so their faces were only a foot or two apart. How had she not recognized him before? He smelled of rust, earth, and sweat, though his breath carried a cloying freshness to it, as if he had been chewing herbs. “In fact, that is what Taren and the others would want me to do. I mean, you’re the one they caught with a weapon. They’d want me to let you get eaten, flesh stripped from your bones bit by bit. I’ve seen the sailfins do it before. They peel the skin off you first.”
His voice was jovial, as if he were telling a friend a favorite tale or even a joke, but his eyes were hard grey stones, locked onto hers, reflecting none of the levity with which he spoke. It left her suddenly cold despite the sun beating down upon her.
Lhaurel swallowed and almost choked on phlegm. It hurt to cough.
“Or I could save you,” he continued in the same light, conversational tone, “Give you the chance to make amends for my intervention on your behalf. The choice is yours. You can stay here and be diced into fodder not fit for swine, or you can let me save you.”
Lhaurel didn’t respond. She had no reason to trust him. No reason to even speak to him at all.
“You’ve got about two minutes before the genesauri get here.”
Lhaurel lay there, torn in the agony of indecision. The stories spoke of the Roterralar as wanderers, nomads that somehow managed to survive the Migration out on the sands on their own. For sands sake, that’s what their names meant. Mothers whispered to their children of strange deaths and accidents attributed to these men. A calf born with two heads was the work of a vagrant Roterralar. A child sick with fever after one passed through the camp was attributed to the evil glare a Roterralar had given the child when he’d run across his path. At least, the mother would warn, the Roterralar hadn’t eaten him. They were said to do that. It was also said that the Roterralar could make themselves appear a hundred feet tall and disappear into the sands, or else ride on the backs of the genesauri. And they would kill you as soon as look at you.
The sun beat down, burning her eyes and scorching her flesh. Blood throbbed and pumped from her wrists and ankles where the leather cut into her flesh. The silence was deafening—the silence that heralded the last few moments before the sailfin pack burst up out of the sand and descended upon their prey. The genesauri were coming, sands take them. Her fear of them outweighed any distrust. The indecision passed in a sudden moment of release.
“Fine,” she said finally.
“First, you must swear a blood oath to the Roterralar.”
Lhaurel blinked, though the effect was lost through her squinting.
“You have about one minute left.”
Her clan had left her behind to die to aide in their own escape. Honestly, she couldn’t blame them. She’d violated their laws and traditions. “Fine, I swear by the blood within my veins that my loyalty is now and forever to the Roterralar.”
“You don’t really mean that, but I’ll hold you to your oath.”
The man rose to his feet, appearing for a moment as if he were encompassed by a shroud of red-grey mist from the sun’s brilliant radiance behind him. He pulled out a dagger, knelt, and cut Lhaurel free. Rising and putting fingers to his lips, he let out a shrill whistle that tore at Lhaurel’s eardrums. An echoing response came almost immediately, but from above them.
Blood flew back into her limbs with a rush, leaving them prickling as if she had stepped on the spine-covered shell of a rashelta. The smell of sweat and blood grew stronger when the bonds fell away. She arose on shaky limbs, taking the hand that the Roterralar proffered when the pain threatened to drop her back to the ground. Her head ached, and she couldn’t seem to keep her balance. The man’s grip was like iron, keeping her on her feet
“Did Saralhn make it?” Lhaurel asked, steadying herself and letting go of his hand.
“The girl we saved.”
“I don’t know.”
It would have been worth it if she’d saved Saralhn.
Something large passed in front of the sun. A creature of talons and feathers plummeted toward the earth, a streak of mottled brown and grey and yellow.
Lhaurel shrieked in a combination of surprise and awe as the creature spread its wings and reared in the air.
Clouds of dust sprang up beneath the creature’s powerful wings. With an ear-shattering cry, the creature extended massive, taloned feet and alighted on the ground, standing with its head easily a span above Lhaurel’s.
The man walked up to it and gently stroked the mottled plumage.
The creature’s wings raked back in a sickle shape on either side of its long body. Black orbs, deep, dark pools of intelligence, studied her over the top of a hooked yellow beak.
The majesty took Lhaurel’s breath away and, for a moment, at least, made her pains somewhat lessened.
“This is Skree-lar,” he said, holding out a hand.
For the first time, Lhaurel noticed the leather harness buckled around the bird’s torso.
“And it really is time we left here.”
As if to accentuate his words, the high-pitched wail of a sailfin pack ripped through the air.
The man didn’t wait for Lhaurel to respond. He seized her by the arm and dragged her over to the bird. She had completely underestimated the danger of this unknown man. His grip was strong, but she resisted despite the pain, and he stopped pulling immediately.
She glanced to one side, contemplating making a run for it.
He followed her gaze. “Don’t be an idiot,” he said, glancing out over the rolling dunes with narrowed eyes. “You can come with me and take a chance at living or stay here and welcome certain death. And it seems a pity, really, for you to have chosen to come with me already just to hesitate when confronted with something out of the ordinary.”
He vaulted up onto Skree-lar’s back, the bird having hunkered down into the sand so he could do so. His hands moved in a blur as he took leather leads from the harness and attached them to rings hidden in his robes. That done, he again reached down and offered her a hand.
Lhaurel hesitated. She could run and try to make it on her own. If she made it into the warren the Sidena called home, she could lose the sailfins and then try and make it to the Oasis on her own once that pack had passed. She dismissed that plan almost immediately. She wasn’t about to brave the sands on her own with the genesauri loose. It was the same reason she hadn’t left to join the outcasts, the same reason she’d never simply run away. She feared the sands and the demons they contained. She hesitated a moment longer.
A moment too long. The man lost his patience and seized her arm, pulling her up behind him as if she were no heavier than a small child. Just as she landed, the sand ruptured and spewed out a geyser of sand, and a sailfin burst into the air.
“Hold on!” the man shouted, and he gave a sharp, whistling trill.
The bird spread its wings and launched into the air.
Lhaurel awkwardly seized the man around the waist, feeling hard muscles beneath the cloth of his robes. She found herself blushing furiously and berated herself silently at the foolishness of it all. What was she? A girl or a woman?
All further thought was blown from her mind as the bird drove its wings downward in a single, powerful stroke that pushed it higher into the air.
The sailfin gave chase, sinuous serpentine body twisting into the sky as if it were swimming through the air. A row of black dots extending backward from the corner of the jaw seemed to crackle and spark the higher it rose into the air. Twice as long and almost as thick as the bird she rode, the sailfin’s scream grew to a frenzied, cacophonous pitch.
Lhaurel wanted to scream, wanted to will the bird to fly faster, fly higher, but the sailfin matched the bird’s beating wings surge for surge. Another sailfin burst out of the sand, flying upward. Two more followed, then half a dozen more a few seconds later.
The man swore under his breath and urged the bird onward with his hands and another pattern of whistle bursts.
The original sailfin was gaining on them. It was only a few inches away from the bird’s gleaming talons, jaws agape as if it would attempt to swallow them all in one bite. Lhaurel looked down into the creature’s gullet, seeing rotting flesh and yellow-stained teeth as long as her hand.
Skree-lar flapped harder, its wing beats strong and shallow, yet stiff and uncomfortable.
Fear tightened Lhaurel’s grip at the man’s waist.
Suddenly, the sailfin seemed to fall away.
An awful sound filled the air like bone scraping against rock. It took her a moment to realize that the sound was the man laughing, distorted by the wind. If her hands hadn’t been locked around his waist, feeling the rise and fall of every wheeze, she wouldn’t have believed it.
“How can you laugh at a time like this?” she asked, swallowing a mouthful of dust and sand that left her in a fit of coughs. Her pains returned as the adrenaline and fear faded.
By way of response, the man gestured down. The sailfins hovered nearly four spans below them, stationary in the sky except for the strange undulations that made up their normal movements. With each beat of Skree-lar’s wings, Lhaurel was taken higher. The genesauri remained where they were. One of them seemed to swim upward toward them but only wriggled in place. It hissed, a high-pitched, grating sound, and then the pack turned and dove back into the sand. Scores of dorsal fins rose up out of the sand as the others descended into it, the rest of the pack welcoming back its companions.
“Why aren’t they following us?” Lhaurel shouted, keeping her mouth close to his shoulder to avoid the dust and wind.
“Look!” he shouted, gesturing.
Lhaurel glanced where he pointed and then turned her whole head to take in the sight. A handful of the massive birds of prey, riders on their backs bearing long, metal spears, sped along the desert floor. High above them, more of the rider-bearing creatures circled in complicated aerial patterns. Light glinted off the ends of spears clutched in the riders’ hands. With shrieks that rent the air, the birds and their riders descended upon the sailfin pack.
Who were these strangers? She’d never seen so many Roterralar before—in fact, she’d never seen nor heard of more than one being in the same place at any given time, nor had she ever heard anything, even legends, about these mysterious bird-warriors.
“That’s why. Now shut up and hold on!”
Lhaurel started to reply angrily, but then a sudden thought struck the barb from her lips. She was flying on the back of a giant bird!
She looked down again, taking in the dunes, the violent struggle of life and death going on beneath her, the dizzying height. Over a hundred spans in the air, her only support was the man to whom she clung and Skree-lar’s broad back. It was a moment of fearful wonder that she couldn’t fully fathom. Her grip tightened even further around the man’s waist.
They climbed high into the air, wheeling to the northeast and keeping the sun to their right. The sight and sounds of battle passed from her view. The man guided the bird with a few tugs on the harness and the occasional odd pattern of whistles.
Lhaurel was fascinated by the ride, though it was far from comfortable. The stiff wing beats brushed up against her already sun-baked thighs, and her skin was being torn at by the rushing wind and sand. Yet all discomfort vanished each time that she glanced down toward the ground. Sand stretched as far as the eye could see, rolling and cresting in endless waves. Even during the periods of safety when the genesauri hibernated beneath the sand, the desert was a constantly changing labyrinth of dunes, sand, and death for several thousand spans around the Oasis. Some of the dune fields moved over fifty spans in the course of the months that the genesauri slept, making them impossible to map.
The ground was firmer, less sandy, from the cave-filled plateaus the Rahuli people called warrens outward to the Forbiddence, the massive, grey-brown stone mountains that rose as sheer cliffs in a perfect circle around the Sharani desert. Full of scraggy bushes and hard, cracked earth baked hard over eons of constant heat, the plains there were generally safe from the genesauri, but there was little food to be found. And absolutely no water.
It was an intimidating yet awe-inspiring sight. She glanced southward, back toward the shallow cliffs where her clan held refuge during the Dormancy. She wondered again if Saralhn had made it to the stoneways safely. Skree-lar banked to the left, compensating for a sudden gust of wind that took him off course.
The thrill that ran through her had nothing to do with fear. This was freedom. To pass through the skies, move through the limitless currents of space—it defied reason and time. It was exhilarating. Pure, unadulterated joy.
The man let out a series of whistles and clicks, and Skree-lar banked to the left even more. Far on the horizon, massive cliffs reared up against the sky. Lhaurel peered toward them, ignoring the searing sun on her flesh and the fine grit of sand that cut into it and irritated her many cuts and bruises. The cliffs seemed to pierce the sky, thrusting upwards, striving to meet the clouds, almost as tall as the Forbiddence. The sides of the cliff were straight. Sheer. Impenetrable.
Within moments, they were circling the massive plateau, dropping incrementally closer and closer toward the top of the stone.
“Brace yourself,” the man shouted against the wind.
Lhaurel laughed in exhilaration, her overwhelming emotions lending a note of hysteria to her actions.
Skree-lar screamed a note of answering joy as it flared its wings a few spans from the stony surface, pinion feathers bending backward with each stroke of its wings, tail curling inward, slowing it further. Talons stretched outward, grasped onto stone. They slammed forward with the force of the landing.
Unprepared, Lhaurel almost knocked the red-robed man from Skree-lar’s back, but the man had braced himself as he had admonished her to do. Instead of knocking him free, her grip around him suddenly loosed, and she tumbled free of the bird’s broad back, rolling down one wing and sprawling in the rock, afire with pain. She picked herself back up again with a curse, checking the new cuts and bruises that now graced her sun-scorched flesh and crisscrossed other, less recent injuries. The euphoria of flight faded in a wave of dull, aching pain. The cut on her left wrist dripped a steady stream of blood onto the deep, red rock. It mingled with the dust there, making a slurry of reddish paste.
The man looked down at her for a moment, an odd expression on his face, and then his mouth split into a grin, and he started laughing. It was a deep, throaty laugh, full of mirth, though dusted with something aloof and condescending, simultaneously different and similar to his earlier wheeze.
“What are you laughing at?” she demanded, her annoyance burning away the pain and soreness that had been threatening to take her to her knees up until that moment.
She had definitely passed her breaking point, being so confrontational. Cruel experience had taught her to hide her emotions as best she could. An emotional explosion like this back with the Sidena would have earned her a whipping. She was loath to live through one of those again.
The man stopped laughing but grinned at her, hopping down from Skree-lar’s back.
The bird screeched and shambled off across the stone a short distance. It was far less graceful on the ground than it was in the air.
The Roterralar walked up to her, stopping only a few feet away. He was barely as tall as she, but his suddenly iron visage made him seem all the more imposing. “I am the man who saved you. I have every right to laugh when I please. There is so little humor left in our world, Lhaurel, that I take the opportunity when I can.”
Lhaurel took a half step back from the intensity of his words and the sudden light that flashed in his grey eyes.
He matched her step, keeping his gaze locked onto hers. “You didn’t have to catch the sword. I could have saved the girl on my own, but you had to go and take the sword yourself. Ask yourself why. A decision like that doesn’t just happen. You already chafed at their rules and traditions. You have to live with the results of you own actions.”
Her temper flared at being called a fool. If he could have done it on his own, then why had he offered her the sword? Why hadn’t he simply done what he, as a man, was supposed to do and protect the women and children of the clan? It was obvious. He’d done it to see what she would do. It angered her even more knowing that he was right. She felt, ironically enough, as foolish as a Roterralar suffering from the sun fevers. She’d wanted to fit in, but the things she wanted—desires originally inspired by the outcasts, of all people—were incompatible with the lives the Sidena lived. And as much as she wanted to be a part of something, to not feel alone anymore, she didn’t want to be a part of that.
“Did she live, at least?” Lhaurel asked. She knew she’d already asked the Roterralar, but she had to know.
The man shrugged. “I saw her get out of the warren, but I didn’t follow them to the Oasis. I had other things to attend to.” Lhaurel felt a moment of pride and satisfaction rush through her. At least her actions had meant something.
“What is your name, anyway?” she asked, only then realizing she didn’t know it. She simply thought of him as “the man,” or “the Roterralar,” as she’d always called the red-robed fanatics that wandered into the warrens.
The man smiled again, spreading his hands wide.
“I am of the sands and stones. I am he of the aevians, a warrior of the sands and metal that make up our world, a man of the Rahuli people.”
Lhaurel glared at him. Pain damped what little patience she had left.
His smile widened. “They call me Kaiden. And I am sorry for this.”
He nodded, and before Lhaurel could move, rough hands grabbed her from behind. Something was placed over her mouth and nose, a cloth of some sort that smelled of the small purple flowers that grew in the Oasis. She struggled, but the grip around her shoulders and neck was simply too strong. Her muscles grew weak, and her eyelids grew heavy. She blinked rapidly and tried to scream, but all that came out was a ragged moan.
Behind Kaiden, Skree-lar clicked his beak and made a soft chirping noise. For some reason, that made her want to smile.
* * *
For a moment, Khari ConDeleza, Matron of the Roterralar, felt a flash of annoyance and disappointment as the girl slipped slowly toward unconsciousness. Despite the girl’s wounds and obvious weakness, Khari had hoped to see at least a little vigor from the girl. She’d given the men careful instructions so that the girl would have ample opportunity to fight back and resist. But—
The girl suddenly dropped, pulling the sword from Rhellion’s belt as she fell.
That’s the spirit.
The girl was slow to react, slow to move, and a normal enemy would never have been able to take Rhellion’s sword from him, but Khari had instructed him to let it happen beforehand. That was, if the girl had enough gumption to actually try something.
“Stay back,” the girl said, eyes darting to the three men who had drawn swords and advanced on her.
Kaiden stood back to one side as he’d been instructed to do.
The girl took a step back, legs shaking visibly, though the sword point didn’t waiver.
Khari watched from one side, curious to see what the girl would do. There was no way off the top of the plateau except for on the back of an aevian.
As instructed, Rhellion moved forward, a sword given him by one of the other men held low. “Calm yourself, girl,” he said. “There’s no need to fight.”
The girl stepped back again.
Rhellion’s face hardened, and he raised his sword. “Put that down, girl. You wouldn’t want to hurt yourself.”
Rhellion thrust, and the girl batted it aside.
Khari raised an eyebrow. The girl knew the basic sword forms. Rhellion swung back, and the girl batted it aside again, twisting the blade so the blow was deflected and allowing the girl a chance to reset. True, it was slow, but the move was executed perfectly. Khari stood upright and drew her own sword, striding forward.
“Your form is sloppy,” Khari said curtly.
Rhellion backed away and allowed Khari to stand facing the girl. For a moment, the sword dropped, and the girl’s face scrunched in confusion. Then Khari raised her sword and pointed it at the girl.
The girl raised her own blade.
Khari, obligingly, went on the attack, though slowly and deliberately. The girl responded with perfect form, her face intent with concentration and a little fear, though her movements were stiff. She really did know the basic forms. How had she managed that? Khari pushed her harder, and the girl’s defenses broke, unable to match Khari’s speed. Khari batted the girl’s sword aside and dropped her own sword onto the girl’s shoulder, the razor-sharp edge against her neck. The girl’s eyes showed white with fear and confusion. Khari felt a twinge of regret at what she was going to have to do next, though it would be for the girl’s own good. She hated having to break the new recruits. There were few of them, only three in the last decade, so she was not in very good practice, and a breaking was an extremely discriminating process.
“You will learn that nothing is the same here as it was in your little clan,” Khari said in a flat voice made all the more powerful for its lack of emotion. “Forget everything you have ever learned, and you might survive life here. Forget your pride. Forget that you can even think for yourself. Your life begins and ends at my whim now.”
The girl gulped, trembling either from fear or the effect of adrenaline wearing away.