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The Gates of Transformation: Book Four
Della Ann Boynton
The music was everything; a world within a world. The flute was the instrument and the music it created, the magic that tingled along every sense and carried the dream on its back. The dream was color; shadowy form that enticed and wrapped insistent fingers about the assembled crowd in the dinning hall. Lost in that world, the musician smiled languidly, unable and unwilling to stop playing and break the spell.
“He’s very good.”
"Hmm?" Jhan blinked, the spell broken for her at least. She turned to her dinning companion and smiled. “You wouldn’t know a good song, my tin ear love, if it slapped you in the face.”
Kile Helarion Dor grinned back at her, gentle, blue eyes unrepentant. “Guilty as charged. I suppose I’m bored. He’s been playing for an hour, it seems.”
Jhan swept a glance about the large stone hall and its row upon row of wooden tables filled with enraptured lords, ladies, and minor relatives of the Dor family. The old Duke himself sat on a raised chair heads above everyone else. His gray hair was cut military short and he was stuffed into a simple robe, a circlet of silver askew over his furrowed brow. The short, burly man looked as bored as Kile had claimed to be.
“I don’t think anyone will notice if we slip away,” Jhan mused. “The dinner is over. They’re only picking their teeth with the bones.”
Kile’s grin went sour. A big, muscled man, his curly, golden hair, and bright gold brows, made him appear almost larger than life. He was not the type of man usually seen sitting with a goblet in his hand, admiring musicians. In that, he was a mirror of his father, and Jhan felt that both of them would have been more comfortable in a uniform, bivouacking on border patrols.
“The music might hold them for now,” Kile warned regretfully, “but, as soon as you stand up, everyone will be looking at you, my dear wife.”
“Gaping at Karana’s emasculated prince,” Jhan concluded, a sudden, dark expression marring her beautiful face. It was an unwelcome memento of past pain and suffering that never quite went away. “You’d think that, after a year, they would be bored with that scandal and move on to something else.”
“They didn’t all show up tonight just to hear the flute,” Kile agreed softly.
Even with the light from the chandeliers hanging in the rafters above, and the light of the roaring fireplaces, the great hall was still left in chasing shadows. Jhan’s face, heart shaped and white skinned, was almost ghostly in that dim illumination. Her great blue eyes, as deep as mountain lakes, and her lips, as pink as flower petals, were framed by her mass of black, curly hair. Falling in soft trails over her shoulders and far down her back, her hair was stark against the bright red dress she wore. She would have been stared at even without her reputation.
“Leaving wouldn’t be polite to the musician, anyway,” Jhan sighed, hating how their troubles had managed to spoil even this simple event. She attempted to return to light heartedness, but her words rang hollow. “You’ll just have to suffer through, Love.” As he always did, Jhan knew, and gladly, for her sake.
Kile grunted in agreement and settled back into his chair, hand idly poking through a platter of bread pastries as he turned and began speaking to the man on his opposite side. It was a serious effort to pass the time. The man was a vapid court dignitary that Kile had absolutely nothing in common with.
Jhan’s attention returned to the musician in a desperate attempt to alleviate her sudden depression. She had been enjoying the music up until then, and had only suggested leaving reluctantly. After two days of scandalized looks, and the cold rebuffs from everyone from Duchess Dor to the serving maids, Jhan had looked forward to this diversion.
The flute player was a tall boy, hardly sixteen, but well grown and better than fair looking. His hair was short and copper colored. His eyes were intelligent and as gray as washed stones. Those eyes, Jhan noticed with a flush of uncertainty, were on her as he played. They seemed full of calculation, flickering away when Jhan met them directly. That intense look caused Jhan to momentarily forget about the music and to concentrate on the player. The boy was dressed in thick, woolen clothes with a foreign cut to them that Jhan didn’t recognize. He looked out of place among the casual Fall fripparies of the nobility and even the servants were better dressed than he was. With such talent, it was strange that he could be so poor.
The music ended, much too soon for Jhan, and everyone sighed in appreciation, clapping and throwing coins to the boy. He picked them up and then turned to bow low to Duke Dor. The Duke was, for his part, trying hard not to show his relief that it was all over.
“Excellent playing, Ahlen Kantori!” Duke Dor applauded reflexively as he rose from his chair. He absently tossed a silver coin to the boy and the boy caught the coin eagerly, grasping it tightly in his free hand. His other hand was curled possessively about his ornately carved pipe. He bowed again to the Duke, in thanks for the gift, before turning and leaving through a curtained door.
“Good.” Kile unconsciously echoed his father’s relief. He stood and held his hand out for Jhan's. “The hour is late. Let’s leave, while we can, and go to bed.”
Jhan took Kile’s big hand and stood with a warm smile. “Why, my Lord Kile, is that a proposition?”
Kile’s expression was almost wolfish, but he reddened a little around his ears. “I’m only attempting to do my husbandly duty,” he replied in an undertone, “as many times as I can.”
Jhan began to laugh, but then choked instead when an all too familiar face suddenly appeared at Kile’s elbow. From the tip of her perfectly styled blonde hair to the hem of her costly gown, Lady Caliya Mhar Frelen looked every inch nobility. Her light green eyes swept Jhan contemptuously. In sharp contrast, the smile she turned on Kile was all sweetness as she slipped her arm through his.
Kile looked down at the woman uncomfortably, sensing trouble. His polite voice was strained at the edges. “Caliya?”
“I thought that you came to the House of Dor to see your children.” Caliya pouted prettily. “They’ve been waiting all day for their father to play with them.”
Kile became contrite instantly and Jhan felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. When he turned to her apologetically, she knew her role already and managed a more convincing smile than Caliya's. “Go on, Kile. I’m still trying to work my way through that primer book Rehn gave me. I’m determined to learn to read and I don’t mind having some time alone to study.”
Kile kissed Jhan’s cheek lightly, all that was permissible in company, and allowed Lady Caliya to lead him away. Jhan watched them go angrily, knowing that Caliya was using the children deliberately to get close to Kile. The woman had long ago determined to have Kile as her husband and she wasn’t about to be denied her goal by Jhan. It was yet another battle, and another enemy, in the long succession of them that had been symptomatic of the entire year.
After their marriage, Jhan and Kile had lived quietly at Pekarin Fortress. Every five days, Kile had ridden to House Dor, on the outskirts of Sarvoy, to spend time with his twin daughter and son by Caliya. Jhan hadn’t minded, had even encouraged it, knowing how much Kile loved his children. When Duke Dor had suggested that they stay for Harvest Festival, Jhan had happily agreed, eager to escape the wagging tongues and the outraged looks of the nobility of Pekarin. Unfortunately, she’d only exchanged them for another hotbed of scandalized nobility and this new war with Caliya.
“How well they look together!”
Jhan felt the chill at her back, like the breath of a reptile, and she didn’t need to turn to know that Duchess Khami Eleni Dor was behind her. The Duchess was speaking of Kile, Caliya, and the two golden haired children who were laughing and talking as they walked under an archway of the hall and were gone.
“A family,” Khami continued pointedly, uncaring that her words were like a knife twisting into Jhan’s heart. “A man, a highborn lady, and two CHILDREN. Have you and my son been so happily blessed yet, Princess Jhanian Kevelt?”
Feeling suddenly very weary of it all, Jhan was unable to even be angry. Her reply was simple and devoid of the pain she was certain Khami wanted and expected to hear. “Kile and I can’t have any children, Duchess Khami. Surely he’s told you that?”
Jhan turned at last, ignoring courtly courtesy by refusing to curtsy or even to nod acknowledgment of the woman’s status. Khami noticed the slight and drew herself up, arrogantly furious. She was a big woman and it was obvious that she was the source of Kile’s size. Gray haired, she still tried to make herself look young by wearing a dress too low cut and too much makeup to hide her wrinkles. Her brown eyes were leveled at Jhan as if she could cut Jhan to pieces with them.
“Everyone knows and everyone knows why,” Khami replied pointedly. “Your marriage is a sham. Among the nobility, even a man and a woman couldn’t stay legally married without children.”
Jhan had already heard that cant far too many times already and she was able to shrug it off easily. “Is this the place to talk about such things?”
Khami tossed her chin dismissively, unconcerned with the lords and ladies who were slowly leaving the hall for other pursuits. “You’ve refused to meet with me in private,” The Duchess accused with a sniff of indignation. “You’ve ignored all of my invitations-”
“What invitations?” Jhan raised eyebrows in confusion, but then realized and nodded. “I suppose Kile didn’t want us to argue and sent your invitations astray.”
Khami’s face became congested with anger, visible even under her thick makeup, yet she kept it out of her tone, saying low and tight, “How like my son to avoid the matter.” She faced Jhan squarely. “I will issue my invitation personally then. I will receive you in my chambers, now, since your ‘husband’ is otherwise occupied at the moment.”
Jhan looked about them, hoping for rescue, but the hall was filled with strangers. She decided to save herself by going on the defensive. “Why not here?” Jhan demanded. “I’ll even save you the trouble of speaking. You love your son and you don’t want him to be married to a man. You’d much rather prefer that he were married to Caliya. Though not as highborn as your family, she is rich and has proven that she can have healthy children. You’re even going to say, ‘If you truly love Kile, you’ll step out of his way and let him live a normal life.’ Does that about cover all of it, Duchess Khami?”
Khami drew herself up even more, if that were possible. “You are rude and impertinent, but since you know my mind so well, have you also guessed that I’m going to dissolve your marriage in council before the season is out?”
Jhan was stung by Khami’s harshness and cruelty, but her reply was quick and cutting. “For a younger son of a landless Duke? I don’t think the council would bother. I’m also certain King Tekhal wouldn’t thank you for reminding him that I even exist!”
It was never good to make someone feel powerless. Khami jabbed a bejeweled finger at Jhan, eyes glittering. ”You may have had all traces of your manhood taken from you, but that will never make you a woman! What you are doing with my son is shameless and disgusting! Caliya is everything that you are not! She will make Kile see that! He will turn from you in the end!”
Jhan was shaken by her vehemence, but not by her words. Jhan didn’t have any doubts about Kile’s love and she knew that nobody could turn him away from her; they’d been through too much during the long year. Jhan managed a pitying smile for Khami and, for once, her anger didn’t rise to overwhelm her good sense.
“Khami, Kile loves me and I love him,” Jhan replied steadily, knowing that it was useless to reason with the woman, but feeling that it needed to be said. “Please, learn to accept that. I’ll never stand in his way when he wants to be with his children or his family. I’ll even live here if Kile wishes it, but I can’t keep on enduring your anger and your attempts to pull us apart. Believe me when I say, nothing you can do will separate us, least of all rescinding our marriage papers.”
“If you think that I will continue to be the laughingstock of this land-” Khami began to shout, remembered herself, and didn’t. “I will not have a thekling for a son. I will do what I must Kevelt!” Her sleeve hit Jhan in the face, deliberately, as she turned on her slippered heel and stalked out of the room.
Jhan’s eyes watered as she put a hand to her slapped cheek ruefully. No, she would never call Khami ‘Mother’. The Duke had given grudging acceptance, even a rough friendship on his own terms to Jhan, but his Duchess was another sort. Khami cared far more about her status and appearance at court than the happiness of her son. Jhan hadn’t any doubt that she would attempt what she’d threatened.
Jhan left the hall, avoiding the small knots of nobility; the people who would only want her among them because she was a princess rather than out of any real desire for her company. All of her friends were in Pekarin. In the House of Dor, she had yet to make one.
Jhan supposed it was her own fault. Protective of Kile, and unwilling to be displayed like a freak, she’d kept mostly to herself and avoided the many invitations to attend functions and parties. Jhan had wrapped herself in her happiness, and her love of Kile, and had shut out everything else. Now, cut from her cocoon in Pekarin, and thrust into the glare of strangers, she was being forced to deal with the consequences of her self imposed seclusion. Nobody really knew her and most only knew the legend that had quickly sprung up about her.
Why was it so hard for them to accept what she was? Even now, Jhan could see scandalized looks from guards and servants as she climbed marble steps and passed through ornate hallways lit by intermittent lanterns. She knew that she looked every inch a woman. Publicly, Kile had insisted that she was ‘complete’ in every way. Evian Perazii, healer of the King’s army, had attested to it after the marriage documents had been drawn up with the inevitable contesting.
It seemed that the ghost of Prince Jhanian would forever haunt Jhan. It was that man, who’s body she wore like an altered suit of clothes, that no one could forget. A warrior, a prince, a traitor, and a general of armies, even at eighteen his reputation had been formidable. It was his heavy shadow that never left Jhan and the shadow that everyone saw when they looked at her.
To Khami, and an unfortunate majority of people, Kile had not married a beautiful young woman. He had married a man emasculated by a dark enemy and driven mad into thinking he was a woman. That Kile loved her, proved only that the Duke’s son was either a thekling or a man enchanted into foolishness by Jhan’s beauty. Khami was determined to prove the latter.
The hallways leading to Kile’s rooms were empty and silent. Jhan’s feet tread the soft carpets like the padding paws of a cat; soft and indistinct. The three men she suddenly came upon, didn’t hear her approach. Recognizing the telltale blonde and blue eyed features of Kile’s brothers, Jhan stopped indecisively. They had their heads together, talking, and she didn’t like the frowns that they wore on their faces.
“I told you, the servant said that It was coming this way!” Khen, Duke Dor’s eldest son, was the tallest of the brothers and very burly. He had a crease between his scowling gold brows and a tightness to his mouth that Jhan had always considered a mark of hidden cruelty.
“Patience.” Jhaven was thinner and very handsome, despite his habitual cold and aloof expression. His hair, a little longer than was normal for a man, was a conceit. It was a mane of hot gold curls that women adored.
The third, and youngest brother, was Rhadel. Crouching and nervous, his hand kept straying to the hilt of a knife at his hip. He reminded Jhan of a weasel. Lean and smaller than his three brothers, he always looked like he was about to raid a hen house. “Mother will be disappointed if we don’t meet with Jhan,” he said anxiously.
“More than disappointed!” Jhaven agreed sourly. “I don’t think I want to suffer through any more of her incessant carping! I don’t see what the fuss is about anyway. If Kile wants to stick his-” he said something very foul and Jhan felt a flush run from the tips of her toes to the top of her head, “- in a cut man, that’s his business. He isn’t in line for the Dukedom or even a title! He’s a palace Captain!”
“Kevelt IS beautiful,” Rhadel agreed. “I wouldn’t mind a roll myself if It’s really, you know, as much a woman as Kile says.”
“Maybe we’ll all have a turn,” Khen suggested with an ugly chuckle, “if you like that kind of sport. We ARE supposed to frighten It away from Kile and drive It out of Pekarin and Sarvoy altogether."
Jhaven spat. “I don’t like your strange ideas, Khen! A few punches, and a kick or two, will be most effective, I’m sure.”
Rhadel smiled and Jhan almost expected to see chicken feathers sticking out of his teeth. “Maybe not too strange, Jhaven. Can’t tell me you haven’t felt a rise when-”
Jhan turned about as quietly as she could and hurried away, face flaming and tears stinging her eyes. It was hard to imagine that Kile was related to and had grown up with those men. Her gentle husband, always so careful and loving, made her bless every day that she awoke in the morning and found him lying beside her in their bed. It had been his gentleness, and stubborn patience, that had healed her after her long torture by Dagara Ku Ni. His love had made life worth living again. That his brothers imagined anything could force her away from Kile...! To leave him would have been like pulling out and casting away a part of her soul.
Startled, Jhan sank into a defensive crouch. She had been passing through an intersection and the dark shadow, that had moved from darker shadows, had seemed like something from the horrors of her memories. Breaking into a cold sweat, Jhan found it hard to relax and straighten, even when she discovered that it was Ahlen Kantori, the flute player, and not some nightmare sprung from the past.
“Forgive me, Highness, for frightening you.” Ahlen’s voice was as sweet as his flute and his smile was disarming. “Your husband, Lord Kile, has told me how much you enjoyed my playing. He requested that I play for you in a more private setting where you might enjoy the music without distraction.”
The unpleasantness behind Jhan evaporated all in an instant and she found herself smiling in return, loving Kile even more at the moment for his unfailing consideration. “I would like that very much,” Jhan told Ahlen eagerly. “It wouldn’t be proper,” or safe, Jhan added to herself silently, “for us to use my rooms. I’m not familiar with the house completely yet. Do you know of any place quiet?”
“I wouldn’t want to presume,” Ahlen demurred, but Jhan insisted. “Well,” he continued thoughtfully, “I practice in a small outbuilding they use for storing beast harnesses. It’s not a fit place for a princess, though. I’m reluctant to even mention it, but the quality of the walls makes the music swell wonderfully.”
Jhan considered the suggestion and the man offering it. He was young and not overly large. His open face reminded her of Rehn’s honest and forthright personality and the boy’s gray eyes were guiless. Knowing the face of evil too well, Jhan felt certain that Ahlen Kantori was nothing more than what he seemed; a flute player eager to please a princess and maybe earn some extra coins. Jhan mentally shrugged off her doubts and demons and nodded.
“All right,” Jhan agreed. “I don’t have anything to do at the moment and I would really like to hear your playing. I suppose there will be enough stable hands and servants around to keep anyone from talking if we’re seen.” And to deal with Ahlen if he was planning anything more than a private recital, Jhan thought confidently.
“At your service, Princess.” Ahlen bowed low and took the liberty of leading the way for Jhan.
Ahlen walked the long hallways and stairwells as if he’d been born at House Dor and Jhan felt a little foolish, knowing that he was as new to the place as she was. Jhan hadn’t even bothered exploring the house, keeping to her stubborn seclusion in order to avoid any confrontations that might ruin Kile’s holiday.
Jhan could hear the rise and fall of conversation from both the house and Sarvoy as they exited through an arched doorway and took the cobbled walkway to the stables. The night was unseasonably warm and a full moon sat low over the tops of the city. Every window was open to catch the breezes and the fragrant scent of late blooming flowers.
“Here, your Highness." Ahlen motioned to a low doorway that led into a very small, box- like room with a vaulted plaster ceiling. It might have been a chapel to one of their house gods at one time, but it was sagging with disuse now and Jhan could make out the water stains on the walls from leaks in the roof. The rich smell of leather was thick on the air, and Jhan could see the tidy chests of beast harnesses on the floor. Ahlen lit a lantern and sat it atop one of them close by her.
“Closing the door will make the sound resonate better,” Ahlen suggested.
Jhan almost hesitated, beginning to form a protest on her lips, but then she heard a man speaking with a stable hand nearby and a few other sounds that told her that several people were within shouting distance. Reassured, she closed the door, and went to sit on a wooden chest by the light.
Ahlen smiled and went to stand at the other end of the room near a window that was slightly ajar. Before Jhan could wonder why, he took up his flute and began to play. He chose a mournful tune at first, but then slowly let the notes rise and quicken. The music caught at Jhan’s senses, whirling about her in a mesmerizing melody that totally enthralled her. By the time Jhan noticed that the air was growing difficult to breathe, it was too late. She stood, stumbled, and then fell into a darkness filled only with two staring gray eyes filled with triumph.
Consciousness was elusive. Jhan felt as if she were ineffectually clawing
her way out of a deep, dark pit. It was too much like a coma or being buried
alive. She wanted to scream, open her eyes, or move in some infinitesimal way,
but her body was inert; detached from her desperate mind.
A warm hand, suddenly slapping softly at one of Jhan’s cheeks, was a lifeline of sensation. It gave her the impedes, the focus, to bring body and mind together. As she regained consciousness, that joining was like an inaudible crash, a painful breath under water, or the unnerving feeling of being propelled at an uncontrollable rate of speed.
Stiff and cold, Jhan mumbled, “All right, I’m awake,” but, the owner of the hand refused to believe her, the soft patting against her cheek continuing. Irritably, Jhan slowly opened her eyes to see who her tormentor was. The face of Ahlen, creased in concern as he crouched beside her, was Jhan’s first sight.
“What- What’s going on?” Jhan demanded shakily, entertaining the brief notion that she had somehow fainted and that Ahlen was helping her. Attempting to sit up, Jhan discovered that her hands and feet had been bound together just as her head began a sickly spin. Panic fought with nausea, but the nausea won, forcing Jhan to lay back down before she vomited.
“Lie still,” Ahlen warned belatedly. “I must have used too much of the sleep smoke. It’s made you ill.”
Ahlen rose, moving out of Jhan’s line of sight. Beyond him, she saw a dizzying forest of huge trees and the smoking remains of a campfire. Standing by the fire were three baku, saddled and loaded with supplies. They flicked long ears in interest, but displayed the calm patience of trail veterans.
“What’s happening-,” Jhan began to demand, but then had a split-second of instant clarity as she became aware of two things at once. Her surroundings were unfamiliar and her wine red dress, a gift from Kile, had been ripped. A large part of it was missing. The crudeness of Kile’s brothers, still fresh in Jhan’s mind, left her only one conclusion. Tears sprang to her eyes as she wailed in grief and shock, “You bastard!”
“I-I did not defile you!” Ahlen stammered in disgusted embarrassment. His words tumbled over one another in his haste to reassure her, “I’m not-not like that. I don’t want that from you, I swear it! I pledge to you now, that I’ll protect you as if I were your kinsman.”
Ahlen’s words lacked the power to calm the frenetic beating of Jhan’s heart. She knew how much words were worth. “I’ve been drugged, tied up, and kidnapped!” Jhan cried out. “How is that protecting me?”
Ahlen’s hands were twisting together in agitation, like a small, guilty boy, as he tried to explain. “There are many tales about you, Highness. So many, in fact, that it was difficult to know the truth from the tale. It was wisest to believe the worst of them until I could be certain that you were as harmless as you seemed.”
“Now that you do see, untie me!” Jhan shouted, as if her will alone could make him obey her.
Ahlen was clearly effected, but he didn’t move to comply. “I’m sorry, Highness, not yet.”
Ahlen turned from Jhan, as if he couldn’t face her fear any longer. He took a deep, shaky breath, as he crouched by a leather pack and began doing something she couldn’t see. Jhan heard a liquid pour and something being stirred.
Jhan didn’t waste the moment. She quickly began to twist the extra joints of her hands and feet, this way and that, to try and wriggle out of her bonds. She was confident that the leather couldn’t hold her, but, as she strained to stretch it enough to slip out, something cold and metallic, wrapped inside of the leather, cut into her flesh. Jhan cried out incoherently, her whole body heaving in a sob of helplessness.
“Don’t struggle!” Ahlen warned over his shoulder. “Those wires are sharp enough to slit your wrists.”
“Khami paid you to do this, didn’t she?” Jhan accused wildly. Her conclusion was the obvious one and Jhan began to curse the woman long and inventively, so much so that she grew hoarse.
Ahlen’s reply cut through Jhan’s tirade like a knife, sharp and unexpected. It brought her to a deafening silence. “I’m not under anyone’s orders.”
Turning to confront Jhan, Ahlen held a wooden cup in one hand. He wore a tight, unreadable expression on his face. “You are probably very thirsty after all of that,” he continued uneasily. “If you’ll drink, I’ll explain everything.”
Ahlen crouched and tipped the cup to Jhan’s lips. Jhan wanted to refuse, but her mouth was bone dry and there was an awful taste at the back of her throat. She half sat up and took a cautious sip. Discovering that it was only water, Jhan drank it down while she glared through her tears at Ahlen’s tense face.
“I am from Tabinya,” Ahlen began, his voice maddening in its slowness, “a mountain village Southwest from here. Every year, my family struggles to grow a tuber called bhie. If you grind it up, it makes a red dye. If you cook it well enough, you can eat it. My family is poor, very large, and cursed with an inordinate amount of women. I and my elder brother, Krey, are the only sons.”
Jhan jerked her lips back from the cup, sending it tumbling from Ahlen’s hand
as she exploded furiously, “You WILL be coming to the point?”
Ahlen’s face set hard against her outburst and his lips went thin as he picked the cup up and meticulously brushed at the dirt on it. “My tale is important, Highness, and you have little choice but to listen.”
Jhan lay back limply, closing her eyes in despair as Ahlen continued. “In my land, women are not allowed to till the fields. It is considered man’s work. My father and my brother Krey, barely managed the work themselves, but they were successful up until last year. Winter came hard and early and they lost the entire crop. We lived a lean year until the fields were ready for planting again. Our lives depended on that harvest. If it hadn’t been taken in and sold, we would have starved to death.”
Ahlen straightened and paced close by, shoulders hunched and chin tucked down. “I was born simple minded. I wasn’t able to help in the fields. The only skill I have ever learned was to play the flute. In desperation, my father took me and my sister, Ajha, to the temple of Scherial, the Earth Goddess, to beg that I be healed.”
Jhan opened her eyes and watched Ahlen pace. The sickness in her stomach was settling with the water and she was beginning to think coherently again. Ahlen was a boy. He wasn’t a match for her skill. She had to be still, she thought, and look weak and compliant. Sooner or later, she hoped, Ahlen might believe it and make a fatal mistake.
Ahlen was going pale now, jaw clenching with his angry indignation. “My father gave Ajha as a sacrifice; payment for my healing. The priests did something to her, drained everything out of Ajha while they chanted to the Goddess. I saw my sister shrivel and weaken before my eyes, even as I felt new life filling me! A veil seemed to lift from my mind and I suddenly came to understand everything around me. Seeing that I was cured, my father rejoiced and led me from the temple, leaving Ajha behind as if she were nothing to him!”
Ahlen stopped pacing and faced Jhan with a look of innocence lost. “I helped bring in the harvest and my family was saved, but I couldn’t forget about Ajha. When I could, I went back to the temple. The priests wouldn’t see me. Their servants told me that Ajha was to be sacrificed at the end of the harvest, next year, and that only the word of Tsarianna, the Sun God, or his priests, could free Ajha from my father’s bargain.”
“What has all of that to do with me?” Jhan kept her voice as weak as she felt, but the effort to keep from screaming at Ahlen made her head spin again. Her furious sarcasm was impossible to conceal. “You don’t really think you can find a god, do you?”
Ahlen surely hadn’t expected sympathy? His face said otherwise. His fists clenched in anguish and his words were to the point. “I was healed and my sister lies wasted. She is going to die because of me. I can’t let that happen! I must free her and you are going to help me.” Jhan laughed, short and sharp, but it was full of her tears and her rising hysteria. To sum up all that she was and all that she wasn’t needed only one word. “How?”
“You have Power,” Ahlen continued, unperturbed. “I must travel dangerous roads to reach the Tokhelan Desert to the West. There lies the temple of the Sun God, Tsarianna. Tsarianna is the father of our gods. His priests alone can order the priests of Scherial to release my sister! I have money as a gift-”
“A bribe, you mean,” Jhan cut in recklessly.
“Gift,” Ahlen repeated forcefully. “In your land, my music was in great demand. I was able to put money by very swiftly.”
Jhan was like a drowning person, wildly clutching at anything to stay afloat. She hardly knew what she was saying, desperate for anything that would make the boy let her go. “Why don’t you take your money and ‘gift’ YOUR priests? They’re probably just as willing to accept payment in exchange for your sister as any priest of the Sun God.”
Ahlen shrugged that away impatiently, looking insulted. “The lives of my people depend on the warm season. They believe that sacrifice will allow Scherial to hold off the cold of the Winter goddess, Sehahl, a little longer. The priests of my land wouldn’t jeopardize a good harvest for even gold! Only the word of the priests of Tsarianna will force them to release Ajha!”
Jhan tried, with all of her will, to lock up her terror and outrage long enough to try and reason with someone she hoped wasn’t a madman. Her voice was thin and rough, her fear spiking through it so that it wavered on the verge of being a sob. “I do have Power, Ahlen, but it’s locked up inside of me, and for good reason. It’s not a weapon, like a knife or a sword. It’s like... like the sun! No one can control that kind of Power, not even me if I try to use it. Please, believe me and let me go. People will be looking for me-”
“I’m sorry, Highness, but no, they won’t.” Ahlen was firm in that belief.
Jhan felt fear send adrenalin surging through her, making the blood behind her eyes pulse and turn her vision dark. She hardly heard her own whispered question over the drumming of her heart. “Why not?”
“I took a part of your dress and threw it on the skinned carcass of a bhetu,” Ahlen explained haltingly, perhaps disgusted by what he had done.
Jhan felt horror mix with her fear as she tried to remember what a bhetu was. Ahlen didn’t give her long to think, continuing, “I cut off anything that would liken it to an animal and tossed it into a lake. By the time they find it, they will think it is you.”
Jhan began to tremble uncontrollably. Neither Kile, nor anyone else, would be riding to her rescue; imagining her dead. Images flooded Jhan’s mind. Kile sunk in grief. Khami glowing in triumph. Caliya, sensuous and all too willing to give comfort. How many would truly mourn her? Aside from Kile, Jhan could only think of a handful.
“Nobody seemed to care for you.” Ahlen unknowingly echoed Jhan’s thoughts, making them even more bitter. “They said things about you that were shocking. We don’t have kings or queens where I come from, but it was strange to me that they gave you so little regard or respect. I was saving money for a guide or a guard to accompany me on my quest, but when I heard that you had Power, and saw that you were much alone, I decided to take you instead and keep my money for my offering.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense!” Jhan exclaimed incredulously. “I can’t guide you anywhere! I don’t even know my way around my husband’s home. Without that, or the Power, I’m useless to you!”
Ahlen’s face worked silently, weighing something, and then he shrugged and decided to tell Jhan the truth. “My people live by signs and portents from the gods. When I saw you, I doubted your worth as well, but I felt a shock, as if the Earth Goddess had put a hand on my shoulder. It’s Her will that I take you. I’m certain of it.”
“You ARE mad!” Jhan sobbed, her worst fear confirmed.
Ahlen bristled, offended. "No. I must take you, not out of madness, but out of a deeper understanding of destiny. I saw you and I knew that our fates were linked. I knew that I couldn’t go on without you. I know that it’s caused you grief, and that no one deserves it less than you, Highness, but I will try with all that is in me to bring you back to your home safely.”
With deliberate motions, Ahlen picked up a stack of clothing and placed it at Jhan’s feet. There was a thick brown coat, a rough woolen shirt, two black sweaters, a pair of brown boots, a scarf, a pair of gloves, thick socks, and a leather hat with a pointed top that drooped down and was decorated with tassels.
“I know this is shameful,” Ahlen began, swallowing and looking aside as if he were deeply embarrassed, “but I must ask you to put aside your woman’s garments and dress as a man. There might be trouble if men saw you traveling alone with only a boy for an escort."
“Do you think two boys, traveling alone, won’t appear to be an easy target?” Jhan protested, and then found defiance almost burning away her fear with its fury. “You can keep your clothes, Ahlen Kantori! I refuse to cooperate in any way!”
“You will.” Ahlen suddenly met Jhan’s eyes with a look that let her know that he held all the power, albeit uncomfortably. “The drink I gave you...”
Jhan cut him off vehemently. “It was just water!”
“No,” Ahlen corrected. He licked dry lips and explained slowly, “The water held the eggs of a water parasite. It takes several weeks, but the eggs will eventually hatch and the infant worms will eat you from the inside out. You can imagine the pain. The parasite can be found in the Lowlands as well as the mountains, but it’s rare here and only my people know the how to make the medicine to kill them.”
Ahlen’s next words were a clear warning. “Please don’t consider trying to escape to get the cure yourself. It would be impossible for you to reach my mountain home before the eggs hatch. The snows fall deep and furious this time of year and my people don’t like Lowlanders well enough to give you the cure if, by some miracle, you did manage to reach them.”
Jhan went white, hand clutching her stomach in horror. “You’re lying!”
“No, I’m not.” Ahlen’s eyes were steady. “You will travel with me and you will wear these clothes. I will give you a medicine that my people developed before we found the cure. It will keep the eggs from hatching, but not destroy them. I will make the medicine from scratch each time, so that you won’t be able to overpower me and get it yourself.”
It sounded like a lie, Jhan thought, but she couldn’t be certain and Ahlen knew it. “Don’t do this!” she moaned. “You’ll destroy what little life I have.”
“My sister means everything to me, Highness,” Ahlen replied unwaveringly. “She’s worth my life, and, perhaps, yours too.”
Ahlen stepped forward. “I’m going to untie you now,” he said. “Please don’t fight me, Highness. I-I don’t want to have to hurt you. Surely you can see that you must do as I say?” He was trying to sound firm, in control, but his voice was too nervous to be convincing. He untied Jhan warily, stepping back as if he feared that his threats might not mean much to someone with such a look of loss and despair.
Jhan sat with her face in her hands, ignoring Ahlen. She was free. She knew she could kill him before he could draw another breath. Did she dare? The story he told was outrageous, yet, maybe outrageous enough to be true. The thought of dying while parasites ate her insides made her sickness return. She would have risked anything to return home to Kile, done anything, but this was something she couldn’t defeat. Her hands shook as she began pulling off her ruined dress.
Ahlen was obviously relieved. He turned his eyes away, but he wasn’t foolish enough to turn completely, refusing to give Jhan privacy as she dressed in the clothes he had given her.
“I’ll go along for now,” Jhan warned as she coiled up her long, curly hair and tucked it into the cap she placed on her head with jerking motions, “but the moment I think that I’m not going to make it back to the man I love, Ahlen Kantori, I swear, I will kill you!”
Ahlen flinched as if her words were the leaded balls for the whip of his guilt, but his chin was set determinedly. An angry, impotent, princess wasn’t going to dissuade him from his course. He grabbed the reins of the baku and brought them forward. “The black one is yours. It has a mild manner.”
“You’ve tied them wrong,” Jhan noticed, hating that she was being forced to help her kidnapper in even that small way. Sniffling as she slowly stood up, she wiped at her nose and shakily stepped forward to reposition the leads that tied the animals together. “Parasites will be the least of my problems if I end up dead under the hooves of a tangled and panicking baku.”
Ahlen flushed, but he gave grudging thanks. “I might have wondered how a princess could know such a skill, if I hadn’t heard all the tales.”
Jhan felt a chill cool her anger, but trepidation didn’t quite replace it as she mounted her baku. Ahlen knew what she was, she realized. What he thought of it would become clearer later, but he seemed disposed to treat her as a woman and a princess for now. That was something, at least, though it didn’t make Jhan feel any better. She was too busy fighting to keep her sanity as her world cracked and crumbled all about her.
Ahlen stuffed the ruined red dress into a pack and then went about erasing any sign that they had ever been there. When he mounted his sand colored baku, tied in the lead ahead of Jhan’s, he didn’t tell Jhan where they were or where they were going. Jhan didn’t bother asking. Without knowing anything about the countryside, such information was useless to her and, at that moment of utter despair, she hardly cared if they were riding into the pit of Hell.
The trees stayed thick. After a few, painful scratches, Jhan roused enough from her traumatized state to bend almost double to escape low branches. Ahlen was following what was little more than a small animal trail, perhaps still trying to throw off any potential pursuers. When Jhan realized that, she was inclined to thwart him. She reached out and broke branches whenever she could and touched bushes, tree trunks, or whatever might hold her scent long enough to lead a tracking animal to them.
And if they found her and Ahlen had been telling the truth about the parasites? Jhan paused in her efforts, torn. If he was the only one who knew the cure, would he give up the secret if he were captured? Jhan stared at Ahlen’s determined back. He was so young and so obviously not willing to hurt her, yet what was she next to the life of his sister? Ahlen had made it very clear what price he was willing to pay to save that life. Denying Jhan the cure might seem like fitting revenge if she thwarted him.
Jhan let her hands fall helplessly into her lap. Her jaw tightened and her eyes went very dark as every step of her baku took her further and further from the only people who had made life bearable for her.
During the past year, Jaross had been there to lift Jhan’s spirits, forever lighthearted and joking; a soft- hearted ex- noble who wore his exile and Pekarin uniform well. Rehn and Bheni, married and expecting their first child, had made a home within their home for Jhan, always welcoming her with open arms. When her altered body had faltered, Master Healer Evian, had been there to heal her and to help her overcome the difficulties of a body made into a woman, yet not a woman entirely. Even gruff General Vek had contributed to her well being, teaching her to fight without killing and lending her a surprisingly patient ear whenever she had problems.
Jhan knew she couldn’t have born the ridicule, and the almost total rejection of her by the people of Pekarin, without the help of her friends. They had been her strength and her barrier, insulating her enough to find happiness with Kile.
Jhan fought the tears again, lips trembling despite herself. How could she live without Kile? He was the other part of her soul, the one who kept the nightmares at bay and the dark memories silent with his love. Without him, she could already feel her inner strength shattering and the fear replacing her hard won confidence. Captive, alone, and traveling she knew not where, it was all too easy to let the darkness of despair bloom and overwhelm her. It waited, that darkness; a ravening best ready to devour her hard won sanity.
“How long?” Jhan asked, too soft for Ahlen to hear. She raised her voice and asked again. “How long will this journey be?”
Ahlen cocked his head, but didn’t turn. “I don’t know, “ was his shocking reply. “I’ve heard that it takes a year and, for my sister’s sake, that must prove true. I’ve explained to you that I was only a half- wit only a handful of months ago. Though I know some things well enough, I still find most things as new and as strange as a baby would. I hope to find a guide before too long. Perhaps in Owell.”
Jhan felt chilled to the bone. A year? A year there and a year back? Two years away from Kile and everything she knew! Jhan couldn’t stop the tears now and she turned her head away to hide them, her shoulders shaking with her muffled sobs. She would find a way to escape, Jhan promised herself. She would find out whether Ahlen was telling the truth about the parasites, and, if she discovered that it was a lie, even Ahlen’s sister might not recognize what she left of him.
(Fire and Water)
“You don’t look like a boy,” Ahlen complained around a mouthful of salted meat. “You look more like a younger sister I dressed up in my clothes.”
Jhan huddled miserably on the opposite side of the campfire. It was cold and wet from an earlier drizzle of rain. The fire choked on the wet, and seemed determined to suffocate Jhan with stinking gouts of smoke despite her constant moves to escape it. Pulling the edges of her hood down to protect her ears from the chill air, Jhan buried her gloved hands under her arms in a vain attempt to keep them warm.
The light of the fire seemed to dance with the shadows of night across Ahlen’s face, leaving Jhan unable to read his expression. His tone of voice gave nothing away. “Perhaps, some dirt.”
“What?” Jhan growled warningly, but Ahlen thought that she hadn’t heard him.
“I said.. never mind.” Ahlen stared frankly at her. “Are you very frightened?”
“Of you?” Jhan lied scathingly. “No.”
“Sad, then,” Ahlen persisted, when Jhan wished with all of her heart that he would just shut- up. “I want to apologize, but I know that would be foolish. There’s nothing I can say that will make you feel better about this. Without my family, I feel very alone and lost; a baby in this wide world with only a handful of knowledge to see me through. For you, being much younger than I, it must be nearly as bad.”
Jhan refused to respond, staring at the uneaten meal in her lap. Ahlen was unperturbed by her silence, continuing doggedly, “I know that I MUST frighten you. I assure you, I don’t have any taste for a woman so strange. Despite your beauty and your title, I find it amazing that you ever found a husband.”
Jhan sprang to her feet, flinging her food across the fire and into Ahlen’s face. He ducked reflexively, wide eyed as Jhan shouted furiously, “So, there it is! I’ve been waiting for you to start in! Go on, say it! I’m a man pretending to be a woman and I’m the most disgusting creature you’ve ever beheld! The thought of my having been emasculated sickens you and you can barely stand to think of it! Go on! Take your best shot! I’ve heard them all!”
Ahlen was standing as well now, face stark white in the firelight and eyes astonished. His mouth had dropped open and he stammered like a fool until, finally, he regained his wits enough to form a sentence. “What are you saying?”
Jhan went numb and straightened, fisted hands falling limply to her sides. “You didn’t know?”
Ahlen was bewildered, a child trying to understand why up and down
were suddenly not up and down. “How did this happen? You are- were a boy? I would never have guessed! How could anyone have done such a horrible thing to you? What monster-” Ahlen suddenly ceased to speak, something occurring to him that caused him to, strangely, let out a long sigh of relief.
It was Jhan’s turn to be confused, having expected outrage, disgust, even violence, but never relief! It appeared to be a callous dismissal of everything that Jhan had suffered, yet something in Ahlen’s guiless face warned her that it was unintentional.
Ahlen spoke at last, haltingly trying to explain. “What happened to you is beyond what I can comprehend, knowing nothing of men or the world, and yet I can only feel glad to know that you are not the woman you seemed. Understand, I thought that I would have to protect you every step of the way and make concessions and accommodations for you. Now that I know of your tragedy, and your true sex, we’re free to travel as hard and as fast as two men might.”
Jhan recovered quickly, anxiously contradicting him. She held out her arms, displaying herself to him. “It’s true that this body wasn’t born a woman, Ahlen, but you can see for yourself how fragile it is. I’ve had three bad fevers over the last year, and several infections from-,” Jhan faltered and felt her face grow hot, but she stumbled on despite her embarrassment, knowing she had to for her own sake, “from trying to live as a woman and a wife. I WILL slow you down and you WILL have to make many concessions for me. You’re going to learn, very quickly, that you’ve made a mistake by taking me.”
Ahlen wasn’t convinced, inexperience and blind determination making him immune to sense. “I expected to travel carefully with you. That will take time. It’s the deference, honor, and arrangements expected for a woman, and a princess, that I chafed at the most. Now that I know none of that is necessary, it will make things much easier.”
“Will it?” Jhan was bitterly skeptical. She slowly sat down again, watching Ahlen warily. “I think you are very naive.”
“I am,” Ahlen agreed readily enough.
“Or you would know,” Jhan continued relentlessly, “that riding with someone who used to be a man, and now considers himself enough of a woman to marry, might be more difficult to bear than a haughty princess. Don’t you have any thoughts on that at all?”
Jhan wanted to make Ahlen either angry or sickened, perhaps enough to goad him into letting her go. She hadn’t counted on his naivete being so complete. He only shrugged, frowning at his own lack of knowledge. “My family never bothered teaching me our laws or customs,” Ahlen replied. “I would have to piece together what my half- wit mind remembers to find out whether what you are, or what you are doing because of it, is right or wrong.”
Jhan tried to form his opinion herself, knowing how easily it could backfire and make her captivity even more miserable. The small chance that he might release her made her reckless. “I’ll save you the trouble,” she said bluntly. “There isn’t anyone I’ve met who thinks that what I am, or what I’m doing, is normal. I’ve been hounded, ridiculed, and threatened with violence. Thekling, they call me, and maybe, if you look hard enough, it might be true.”
“Thekling.” Ahlen’s face tightened, mind latching onto something that disturbed him. “I remember that word. My Father once told me about such men, after they burned one on the Earth Goddess’s alter. He told me that it was an abomination against her creation.”
Ahlen came around the fire slowly and looked Jhan over as if she were an unfamiliar animal; openly curious and as wide eyed as any child. Jhan stared up at him, bracing for ugliness.
“I never looked closely. I was too embarrassed; afraid of shaming you. Under your clothes, are you-?” Ahlen attempted, faltering at the last moment to speak his mind clearly.
Jhan licked dry lips nervously. “I was shaped, by Power, to look as close to a woman as possible. Inside, I’ve ALWAYS been a woman, Ahlen. Together, mind and body, make a woman entire. I hope you’re not going to ask me to show you-”
“No!” Ahlen cut her off, trembling a little and revealing his immaturity. “I can see that you aren’t a man any longer. There isn’t any hint of it. What choice do you have, being as you are, but to live as a woman now? That you found a man to be your husband seems incredible to me, but not abomination. My Father spoke of men and men, not someone in your circumstances. I’m certain it isn’t the same at all.” He was struggling with the concept and Jhan wondered if he really knew what he was saying.
“Yet, if that’s true,” Ahlen continued as he paced, rubbing his forehead as if it hurt him, “I don’t know how to treat you; as a woman or as a man?”
Jhan followed him with her eyes, another hope of escape shriveling. “Any way you wish,” she replied wearily. “Just not cruelly, please. I’ve had enough of that, Ahlen.”
Ahlen came to a decision. “As a man, then, equal to equal." He turned abruptly, her last words registering all at once. His face creased in concern. “I’m not intentionally cruel, Princess, or should I call you Prince? I’m becoming very confused.”
“Neither,” Jhan insisted. “It’s meaningless to me. Jhan will do.”
“Jhan, then.” Ahlen nodded approvingly, but then scowled, angry with himself. “l heard the tales about your torture, and your battle with an evil man, but I thought, when they called you ‘Prince’ and said you were a freak, that they only spoke out of spite.”
“When you said that you couldn’t understand why someone would marry me, I thought you were insulting me because of what I am,” Jhan explained.
Ahlen looked contrite. “I was, forgive me, but I was speaking of your size and your poor weight. If a woman had been made like you, she wouldn’t have been able to bear many children, if any at all. Such a consideration is important in my land.”
Jhan suddenly turned away from him, ducking her head and closing her eyes. What was she doing? Why was she even speaking to him? This boy had ruined her life! If he wouldn’t free her, what did it matter what he thought of her?
“I’ve insulted you again,” Ahlen realized. “Forgive me. I can’t seem to stop my tongue from speaking my thoughts.”
That’s always been my problem too, Jhan thought, but kept silent as she lay down where she was and pillowed her head on one arm.
Ahlen banked the coals of the fire so that it ceased to smoke, and then unpacked blankets and an oiled leather canopy. He strung the canopy over Jhan and then lay down under it as well. He offered Jhan one of the blankets and Jhan took it silently, uncomfortable with the boy’s closeness. Only when she heard Ahlen begin to breathe heavily in sleep, did she allow herself to fall asleep as well.
The world was silver, flickering and shimmering like the highly polished side of a fine goblet. The sound of dice rolling and clicking together drew Jhan’s attention. A game board, with a star pattern drawn on it, was floating in the silver world. The dice were rolling back and forth across it, seemingly of their own volition. Jhan watched, fascinated.
“I’ve always liked the game,” a male voice said in Jhan’s ear. She turned, and then turned completely about, until she was facing the dice and the game board once more. The voice didn’t have an owner. “So unpredictable. Calculate the odds all you want to, it all comes down to chance.”
“And that means something?” Jhan wondered boldly.
“Blame whom ever you like,” the voice admonished sternly, “but your circumstances were all governed by chance.”
Jhan shook her head. It was a dream, of course, and she wasn’t about to let a dream voice tell her a lie. “Wrong. Choices govern our fate. I chose to let Ahlen Kantori take me down to the stables. I knew better, but I didn’t listen to my better sense. Ahlen chose to take advantage of my foolishness by kidnapping me. Chance had nothing to do with it.”
The voice chuckled. “Such wisdom! Remember it when we meet at last.”
The dice rolled towards Jhan and hit her on her breast. Jhan caught them before they could fall into the silver void. She realized then that her dream body wasn’t Tammy, or Jhan, but her new one. She had learned to accept it even in dreams.
“Who are you?” Jhan asked and then wondered if she were speaking to the voice or herself. Nothing answered and Jhan opened her hand, letting the dice fall. The game board spun downwards after them, caught them, and then held steady while the dice began rolling across it once more.
“I don’t understand,” Jhan muttered, suddenly waking up to dappled morning sunlight and piercing bird calls.
Jhan stiffly unwound from her clenched, fetal position under her blanket and crawled to the dying heat of the fire. With a hand numb with cold, even in its glove, she threw more wood onto the fire. Poking it with a long stick, Jhan stirred the coals until they began licking flames over the new wood. Only when the heat had begun to penetrate her clothing to her skin, did she look up and around to see what the new day would bring.
A figure was crouching on the opposite side of the fire from Jhan. She started backwards in surprise, strangling on a cry, but the figure was unmoving, regarding her with eyes that were as clear and as pale as the silver void she had dreamed of. He was slight, skin as white as snow, bare upper torso flat chested and obviously boyish. Even in the biting cold, he wore only a pair of leather sandals and a colorful scarf bound about his hips. His hair was translucent, like spun glass mimicking hair. The dappled sunlight caught in it and it sparkled in a long trail down his back.
“Ahlen!” Jhan shouted, not really knowing why she was calling to her kidnapper for help, but choosing the known against the unknown of the stranger.
Ahlen flung off his blankets and surged to his feet, blinking stupidly with sleep and rubbing at his eyes. “What? What is it? Has something-” then Ahlen saw the intruder as well. He didn’t reach for a weapon and Jhan felt shocked and angry, knowing then, at the worst possible moment, that Ahlen didn’t have one.
The strange boy was still unmoving, but he spoke now, his voice light and sexless. “I do not intend any harm. I am called Ixien. I am a Caefu from the Deep Caves.”
“One of the Fire People!” Ahlen exclaimed in wonder. “You are a long way from home!” he became instantly deferential. “How may we serve you?”
“I am in need of companionship,” the boy replied, but Jhan didn’t like the flat, emotionless quality of his stare. She couldn’t imagine eyes like that belonging to anyone who desired companionship.
"The Caefu worship the Ahnali, the spirits of fire,” Ahlen explained to Jhan, almost breathless with his awe. “My Mother used to tell me tales of them. The Caefu live by the volcanoes and are immune to their heat and flame by the grace of the Ahnali.”
Jhan wouldn’t accept that, dismissing it as more of Ahlen’s superstition. She felt forced to ask her own questions, needing desperately to know if her situation had just grown worse. “You aren’t Human,” she said to Ixien with her anxiety plain on her face. “What are you?”
“As much a half being as you are yourself,” was Ixien’s cryptic reply.
Ahlen broke in excitedly, like a lost child suddenly finding a parent. “By ‘companionship’ were you asking to travel with us, Ixien? I am in dire need of companionship on this journey as well .”
Ahlen seemed all too willing to accept the Caefu at face value and Jhan found herself stepping in quickly. She hated that it was up to her to be suspicious for her captor, yet she was well aware that if Ixien meant harm, then it would effect her as well as Ahlen. “How do you know where we’re going?” she asked.
“I listened at your last camp,” Ixien admitted. “I followed until I decided that it was safe to approach you.”
“Then you know that he kidnapped me,” Jhan pointed out, perplexed. “Didn’t that make it seem unsafe?”
When Ixien shrugged dismissively, Jhan felt herself go hot with anger and helplessness. “Your people are always taking and giving their females as if they were property,” Ixien replied coolly. “I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary that he should treat a half-man in the same manner.”
Jhan pointed a shaking finger at Ixien, voice unsteady, but seething. “Don’t ever call me that again! If you think that what Ahlen’s done to me is perfectly ‘normal’, then it says a great deal about you, Caefu! Don’t trust him, Ahlen!”
“I- I revere your people, Ixien of the Caefu,” Ahlen admonished, halting and uncertain, “but I ask that you refrain from speaking so roughly to my- to Jhan. Our circumstances are not the best and I don’t wish things any harder on...,” he stumbled for gender and Jhan grew even angrier, “him,” Ahlen finished lamely.
“As you wish,” Ixien conceded easily enough. When he straightened, he was barely four feet tall. He bowed and put hands together in a odd gesture. Jhan could see that his fingers had small claws. He was purely alien and he frightened her even more than Ahlen. At least Ahlen was Human and understandable. This creature was a mystery.
“I am also traveling to the Tokhelan desert,” Ixien announced in a formal tone. “I was sent by my elders to speak with the Sun God. I have never been outside of the Deep Caves and the world is strange to me. I am in need of your-”
“Terrific!” Jhan cut in wildly, throwing up her hands. Her words were punctuated by choking sobs of despair. “TWO idiots who don’t know anything about the world! At this rate, we’ll be traveling around in circles forever!”
Ahlen winced at Jhan’s outburst, but he chose to be deaf to her suspicions and criticisms, too obviously relieved to have found someone to help him. “I gladly accept your company, Ixien. Even though your are not traveled, I’m certain your wisdom must far surpass my own. I am in dire need of your help.”
“As much as I am able to give you,” Ixien offered.
Ahlen nodded in thanks, pleased, and then began pulling supplies out of a pack. “Join us in a meal then, Ixien.” he paused. “Are you able to cook?” Ahlen’s sudden question, directed at Jhan, took her by surprise.
Jhan wiped at her eyes, tossing her chin contentiously as she tried to regain her composure. “You can’t even cook?” she mocked. “Well, neither can I! Go ask your new friend if he can.”
“Caefu don’t cook their food,” Ixien replied seriously.
“Trial and error, then,” Ahlen sighed and pulled out a cooking pot from his packs. “I don’t relish eating dried jerky and pressed fruit cakes for a year. One of us had best pick up the skill.” He gave Jhan a look, but he knew better than to ask her to attempt it. Her stiff shoulders, and arms crossed tensely over her breast, told him how far he would get with such a request.
When the porridge was done, it was at least edible. Jhan forced hers down, knowing that she needed every bit of her strength for the journey. Ahlen nodded approvingly, barely concealing that he was pleased with how well he had managed at his first attempt at cooking. For a man who had only recently been a half- wit, every small step must have seemed a giant leap in his mind.
Ixien didn’t take the portion Ahlen offered him. “My strength comes from elsewhere,” he replied. “I need to eat, but rarely.”
Ahlen had that look of awe on his face again and Jhan felt a sense of dread. He was believing in some fairy tale that told him that Ixien was to be revered and trusted. Jhan didn’t have any such comfort. Having looked into the face of ultimate evil, she could see a hint of that coldness in Ixien’s dispassionate stare.
And what was Ixien? Jhan had considered the intelligent and powerful Sahvossa to be a singular oddity, but what if there were many such non- Human creatures in the world? What other creatures might they encounter that neither Ixien, Ahlen, or herself knew anything about? They were, literally, babes in the woods and Jhan couldn’t help the black despair that threatened to overwhelm her. Would she live to see Kile again?
The question hung in the air about Jhan, unanswered and unanswerable, as they broke camp and mounted the baku. Ixien rejected the offer of a ride behind Ahlen or atop the baggage baku. He walked with a tireless energy beside them as they rode down a trail that suddenly opened out into a well worn road, scored by the deep ruts of wagons.
The trees cleared back from the road and Jhan straightened her aching spine, glad that she didn’t have to bend over the back of her baku any longer. Almost immediately, she missed its warmth. Glancing at Ixien, Jhan envied whatever power gave him the ability to fend off the cold. Her frozen body idly wondered if he could share that warmth and then rejected the notion with a shudder of revulsion. She didn’t want the strange Caefu being near her, let alone touching her!
“This road leads back towards my mountain home,” Ahlen was explaining to Ixien. “We’ll skirt the foot of those mountains and then come to Owell in, perhaps, two days. Owell is a large trading town. I’m certain we’ll find some caravan or trader going our way.”
“In Winter?” Ixien’s voice was emotionless, but he didn’t need the tone in his voice to convey his skepticism.
Jhan watched Ahlen’s face become lost and very child- like, but that disconcerting look was quickly gone, replaced by one of false confidence. “Owell is where all trading roads meet,” Ahlen assured Ixien. “People travel in all seasons. There will be someone.”
“Why didn’t you play your flute for them, then,” Jhan wondered acidly, “instead of traveling all the way to Sarvoy?”
“They trade,” Ahlen explained shortly, “They don’t buy music.”
“Someone will know me there,” Jhan pointed out, as more of a taunt than out of any real hope. “They’ll know you kidnapped me. They’ll save me, for the reward if nothing else. I told you that I wouldn’t be anything but trouble to you. You won’t be able to show your face in Owell.”
“You won’t be able to show yours,” Ahlen agreed, refusing to be goaded into either fear or anger. “You’ll wrap your scarf about your face.”
“It speaks wisdom,” Ixien interrupted flatly. Both Ahlen and Jhan stared at the Caefu. “Sell It in Owell and mate with another. Perhaps your inexperience confused you when you mistook It for a potential mate, but it is certain to impede us if It is as well known as It says.”
Ahlen turned a dark shade of red all the way to his ears. “I never- Jhan isn’t a thing, Ixien, to be bought and sold like a bushel of bhie! Scherial directed me to take Jhan and that’s all the explanation I’m able to give you.”
“Don’t pretend to be better than you really are!” Jhan spat at Ahlen, face white with fury. “You infested me with parasites and then threatened me with death if I didn’t follow you! If you think that’s not as bad as selling me like a slave, then you are still the half- wit you claimed to be.”
“I’ve done what I must to save my sister,” Ahlen replied tightly. “If you would only come willingly... , but that is a foolish hope indeed. I don’t wish to fight all the way to the desert and back. I can only hope that you’ll tire of your sorrow and rebellion soon.”
Jhan gave Ahlen a smile with gritted teeth and lightning in her blue eyes. “If you think I’ll grow tired of being angry, then you don’t know me.”
“I don’t know you at all,” Ahlen agreed miserably, “but I am beginning to.”
Ixien walked on ahead of them as if their battle annoyed him. That caused Ahlen some concern. “I need Ixien, Jhan. Please don’t offend him. He may be the difference between surviving this journey and dying because of my ignorance.”
“He doesn’t know any more than you do,” Jhan reminded him.
Ahlen decided to be blunt with the truth. “He must know more than I do, Jhan, because I know absolutely nothing about the people, the lands, or the customs we will encounter. My own people are a mystery to me! Keep your temper, I beg you.”
“Or what?” Jhan wondered wildly. “What will you do, Ahlen, if I refuse to do everything you say?”
Ahlen hunched his shoulders uncomfortably. “My Father would cuff you for your insolence. My Mother would whip you with a switch for your temper and bad manners. I may not be above doing either.”
Jhan was so startled by his childishness and jutting lip, that she laughed, albeit bitterly. After the incredible torture and ultimate cruelty she had suffered at the hands of masters, this was the height of innocence.
Ahlen became angry and embarrassed. “So, I’m not a harsh man-”
“You’re not a man at all! You’re just a boy,” Jhan mocked, still laughing; on the edge of hysteria.
Ahlen cut off her laughter with words that were like a bucket of cold water. “Insult me, if you wish, but I have the medicine, remember?”
Jhan went quiet, eyes leveled at Ahlen. “Would you really let me die so horribly?"
Ahlen’s hands went into fists on the reins of his baku. “That would be your choice, not mine. As long as you stay with me, I will be able to give you the medicine.”
Jhan was at a loss, all of her emotions tumbling and falling into despair once more. “What do you expect from me, Ahlen? What you’re doing doesn’t make any sense. You’ll spend a year to reach the priests of this Sun God and then what? How will you get their answer back in time to save your sister?”
“They have ways of speaking to one another across the distances,” Ahlen explained.
“And if they refuse?”
Ahlen swallowed hard, but he was quick to reassure Jhan. “That won’t be your fault. I promise I’ll release you and see you back to your home safely.”
“So you said before,” Jhan reminded him bleakly, ”I doubt your ability to accomplish that feat.”
Ahlen turned his back on her and didn’t reply. He didn’t need to, Jhan knew, he had all the power and she had to go along no matter what. It opened old wounds that were still sensitive enough to fester and grow worse. The boy was riding with a time bomb and didn’t even have the sense to know it. He’d said that he had listened to all the tales about her, but more and more Jhan doubted he had paid enough attention. If he had, he would have known that only her slim grasp on sanity was keeping the world from being engulfed by her Power or, at the very least, her hands from killing him in one quick blow. If he had known, he wouldn’t have slept so well the night before.
“A warm spring,” Ahlen said in amazement as he dipped a hand into the steaming pond. “How can this be?”
Jhan dismounted from her baku and took a slow look around. “Seems more amazing that no one bothered setting up a house or an inn here to take advantage of it. It isn’t far from the road.”
Ahlen motioned to the thick growth all about them. “It was well hidden. The trees grow sickly here, but the brush seems to flourish. If the water were poison...”
“Not necessarily,” Jhan was quick to say. “Some plants have high tolerances for bad water. Dead animals might be a better sign, but I don’t see any.”
Ahlen had discovered the pond by stepping off the road to relieve himself. Shy, he had walked a little further than was necessary and had stumbled on the pond. It seemed an oasis, beckoning with its warmth in the bone chill of the gathering darkness of evening.
Ahlen sniffed his wet fingers cautiously. “Smells like bad eggs.”
"Sulfur," Jhan explained softly. “Not good to drink if its a high concentration.”
“Enough,” Ixien stepped forward, bent gracefully, and cupped a handful of water with the fastidiousness of a cat. He took a sip of it before Jhan or Ahlen could voice a protest. “Strange, but not poisonous,” was his verdict.
That was enough for Ahlen. “I’ll light a fire close by so that we can bathe and stay warm when we get out of the water.” He saw Jhan’s disapproving eyes. “If you’re still suspicious, we’ll stand watch, one by one, until we’ve all had a swim.”
“I do not swim,” Ixien announced.
“I’m not about to take a bath in front of you two!” Jhan bit out close on the heels of Ixien’s words.
Ixien and Ahlen both exchanged looks and then Ahlen looked down at his feet uncomfortably. “I don’t have any interest in you, Jhan. You aren’t a woman and, even if you were, you wouldn’t be the kind that I would find... good to look at.”
Ixien’s emotionless face went even flatter, perhaps his expression of bewilderment. “Is bathing a type of mating ritual among your people?”
Jhan wasn’t certain how to feel. After nearly two years of being told how beautiful she was, here was a man who had total control over her and yet thought that she was ugly. In one way it was a relief, in another it raised more questions about Ahlen’s immaturity. Jhan had been confronted one too many times by the brutish side of men to ever believe that she was totally safe with Ahlen despite his words. There wasn’t any way to tell when that innocent immaturity might vanish. She didn’t know enough of the boy Ahlen to know what the man Ahlen might turn out to be like.
“No, Ixien!” Ahlen was explaining in embarrassment to the Caefu. “Jhan was mutilated by an evil man and he is living as a married woman. It’s confusing enough for me without having to explain it, but he is reacting as a woman, embarrassed to show nakedness in front of men.”
“I don’t understand why nakedness would be an embarrassment for man or woman,” Ixien replied, “unless It is afraid of initiating mating from either of us.” Ixien leveled his clear eyes at Jhan with utmost seriousness. “That would be quite impossible between us,” he assured Jhan. “Caefu cannot mate with your kind.”
“Not that you had a chance,” Jhan seethed. “Or you either,” she shot at Ahlen.
Ahlen grew impatient. “Don’t bathe then, Jhan! I won’t let this blessed chance to get the dirt off of my skin go by because of your prudishness and temper. Sit in your dirt, if you want to, but you won’t get a chance again between here and the warmer deserts in the West, and maybe not even then from what I’ve heard about them!”
“Maybe if I stink badly enough, you’ll let me go!” Jhan shouted in reply and turned her back with arms crossed over her breast, all the more furious because she truly wanted to take a bath.
“Since we’ll all be smelling the same by that time, I doubt I’ll notice,” was Ahlen’s last retort before he gave up.
Ahlen began taking off his coat while he searched for wood to make a fire. When he had a good stack, and some set by to feed the fire, he patiently lit them and coaxed the flame until it was blazing warmth. Between it and the warm spring, the temperature of the air was fast becoming steamy and tolerable.
Jhan settled by the fire. Having wet a rag, she wiped her face and bathed any bare skin she could manage to reach without undressing. Ixien avoided the water and the fire entirely, standing off to one side and staring off into space as if he were a machine that had suddenly been turned off.
Ahlen began to undress to swim only after Jhan had deliberately turned away, but a sudden, strange voice stopped him. “I wouldn’t do that, if I were you, boy!”
Ixien twisted about, eyes wide. Ahlen grabbed for his clothes, half putting them on again before the owner of the voice emerged from the bushes. Jhan was already standing, knees bent and hands tensed to defend herself if she had to.
Dressed in a red robe and red boots, the man was very tall; a gaunt scarecrow. Not young, but not extremely old either, his lined face, marked by the sun, made his exact age indeterminate. His balding head caught the light of the fire and a tattoo, in the shape of a sun, marked the center of his broad forehead. A long, black mustache gave him a sad appearance, but his dark eyes were steady and eager as he approached them.
“That pond is quite dangerous,” the man continued, prudently stopping while they overcame their surprise. “I heard you arguing from the road and, knowing this spot all too well, I came to warn you.”
“Who are you?” Jhan demanded, not dropping her guard yet.
Ahlen had finished putting on his clothes. He stepped forward slowly, glancing at Ixien for guidance. The Caefu was immobile, face as unreadable as ever. “Who are you, sir?” he repeated as if Jhan hadn’t spoken. “What danger is there? We haven’t seen any.”
“My name is Theon Fomas,” the man replied. He lifted an arm with a burn along the underside of it. “I took this wound when I was foolish enough to swim here. There is some unquiet fire spirit at its heart. It sends up plumes of boiling water from time to time. I was lucky to come away with only this slight scald.”
Ahlen backed away from the pond, eyes wide with superstitious fear. “Can it reach us on the shore?”
“No,” the man was quick to reassure him. “It vents its anger only at the center of the pond.”
“So much for your bath, Ahlen,” Jhan said sourly. “I told you something was wrong. You’re lucky you weren’t turned into boiled meat in a pond soup!”
Ahlen nodded, swallowing hard, knowing that Jhan might have preferred that for him. “You’re right. I should have listened, but you’re younger than I am, Jhan, and I find it hard to believe that you have any more experience in such things than I have.”
Jhan scowled at him, not wanting to bear with Ahlen’s condescension on top of everything else. “I’m nineteen, by the way, but my mind is much older, Ahlen. Don’t judge me by my looks, ever.”
“Nineteen?” Ahlen was wide eyed again and Jhan was getting weary of that expression. “You’re not as small as Ixien, but you are so poorly grown that I would never have guessed that you were older than I.”
“Petite, yet beautiful,” the stranger interjected at last. With a disarming smile, he stepped closer, reminding them of his existence, “and not a man, though you’re sharp tongue would make one doubt a lady is under all those ill fitting garments. You’ll need to disguise yourself better than that to avoid any unwanted attention on your journey.”
“You’ll have to talk to my ‘Master’ about that,” Jhan replied through gritted teeth. She disliked the man instantly, though she didn’t know why. “This was his idea.”
Theon raised eyebrows. “A slave owner then?” he said to Ahlen. “I didn’t take you for a Lord, but I suppose you wouldn’t want to advertise your wealth with such a small escort. Forgive my familiarity, my Lord.” He gave Ahlen a small bow.
Ahlen sighed, eyes narrowing as if silently asking for patience. “I’m not a lord or a slave owner. Jhan likes to make jokes at my expense. This journey isn’t to his liking.”
Theon became confused. “His? Are you continuing your charade or are my eyes failing me?”
Ahlen began to explain, stopped, and then shook his head with another long sigh as he sat down by the fire. “Perhaps we should talk over dinner. If you would like to join our camp tonight?”
“I would like that.” Theon was pleased. He put down the heavy pack he had balanced on one shoulder and sat down next to it cross legged. “This is a story I would like to hear.”
The pond suddenly began to boil, with loud pops and hisses, as bubbles domed underwater and broke the surface in gaseous eruptions. Ahlen turned to look and then swallowed hard again. “Thank Scherial for bringing you in time,” Ahlen intoned reverently.
“You must be special to Her,” the man replied, strangely irritated. “I once worshiped Her and Tsarianna, the Sun God. I know how little they care about mortal affairs.”
Theon’s voice sounded bitter, almost resentful. Jhan thought that the man looked too calculating, the talk about Scherial putting a chink in the smooth facade of good Samaritan he was attempting to show them. When she looked at Ahlen, she was dismayed, but not surprised to see his trusting expression.
Ahlen was holding up his wrist. It was tattooed with a leaf design. “I was sealed to Scherial as a baby. I was born different. My people believe such children are touched by the gods. It has always seemed to me that She has stood close by me, guiding me.” Ahlen’s eyes lit on Jhan as he said this and she frowned at him, hating the faith that had driven him to kidnap her against all reason.
Theon twisted his mouth sourly. “I fell out of favor with my fellow priests. I wasn’t very good at keeping to their strict tenants of cleansing, abstaining, and fasting. I’m a more... liberal man with my pleasures. After I was turned out of the priesthood, I experienced the displeasure of the gods in the form of continuous ill luck. As you can imagine, I’m not well disposed towards them at the moment. I would appreciate as little talk as possible about such matters.”
“That would be difficult, as the purpose of our journey is to reach the Sun God,” Ixien finally spoke up. He crouched close by, staring at Theon in his disconcertingly blank manner.
Theon studied Ixien intently, frown lines deepening. “What are you?”
“Caefu,” Ixien replied.
Theon turned to Ahlen. “You seem the most normal of this group,” he said. “Perhaps, if you would tell me your tale, I might be less... disconcerted.”
Ahlen was reluctant. He gave a warning look to Jhan to keep silent as he began to speak, letting her know that he didn’t expect to tell all of the truth. “I am Ahlen Kantori, a farmer’s son from the mountains near Owell. I’m on a journey to the Temple of the Sun God in the Tokhelan Desert. My sister was given in sacrifice to Scherial and only the Sun God’s priests can release her from her fate. This,” he motioned to Jhan, “is Jhan. His tale is his own, but I will say that he is under my protection.” Jhan bristled at that, but she bit her lip and did keep silent, glowering.
“HE, again,” Theon interrupted, intrigued. “I would have sworn, on any holy relic, to the contrary when I first laid eyes on him.”
“Yet, he is a man,” Ahlen insisted. “One with a hot temper as well. I beg you to ignore any ill words he chooses to say. He has turned out to be mannerless before strangers.” Jhan was ready to explode. She sat down hard across the fire from Ahlen and glared at him, seething.
“Your business is your own, I suppose,” Theon replied with an arched eyebrow, “but what of this Caefu? Is it man or woman?”
“Again, a man,” Ahlen responded with a flush, perhaps wondering why the ex- priest cared. “His name is Ixien. He is a worshiper of the Ahnali and not Human, as you can see. He was sent on a pilgrimage to the Sun God by his people and he decided to journey with us. Though we seem very strange, I assure you, we are harmless, Theon.”
“And very interesting,” Theon added with a wondering shake of his head. He pulled his pack close to him and pulled out the cut up haunch of some beast. It was wrapped tightly in leather. “I’ll share my meat in exchange for a more elaborate tale and a warm place by the fire.”
“It is appreciated, thank you.” Ahlen smiled and took the meat eagerly.
Jhan scowled as she watched Ahlen take rough metal skewers from a pack, stab them through the meat, and place it over the fire to cook. Once again, Ahlen was taking another companion at face value and not asking the right questions. When he walked away to care for the baku, and Ixien had wandered a little away from the fire’s unneeded heat, Jhan felt Theon’s eyes on her intently.
“What is this Ahlen to you?” Theon wanted to know, voice soft and as slick as oil. “If not master, then...?”
“None of your business, I’m sure,” Jhan growled back and attempted to ignore him, staring out into the night with her back half turned to him.
“It could be,” Theon chuckled.
“Where were you traveling to when you just ‘happened’ on us?” Jhan wondered, ignoring his blatant interest in her.
Theon shrugged, caught off guard, but not disconcerted. “Not anyplace in particular. I’ve been a wanderer for many years now. But you, now you have soft hands and such pale skin. You’re not a farmer’s ‘son’. You’re not used to open skies and riding trails, that’s plain. It’s also plain that you’re not used to following anyone’s commands. Has he kidnapped you then? Are you some lord’s pretty son?” He lowered his voice and shot a look to see if Ahlen was looking their way. Satisfied that he wasn’t, he continued, “or daughter? Speak quickly and I may be able to help you.”
There was something in Theon’s voice that Jhan instantly picked up on. She knew, without a doubt, that rescue wasn’t on this man’s mind. He wanted her tale as eagerly as he had wanted Ahlen’s and Ixien's. It seemed he wasn’t above lying to get it.
Jhan’s temper pricked and she balled her fists, giving Theon a brief, scathing look before giving him her back completely. Ahlen chose that moment to return and mind the meat on the spits.
“You can at least do that much, Jhan,” Ahlen admonished her. “It doesn’t take any skill and I know you’re just as eager as I am not to have to eat burned meat.”
“You didn’t ask and I didn’t know I needed to do any such thing,” Jhan shot back indignantly. “I didn’t need to cook in Pekarin and I never learned anything about it before then.”
Ahlen sighed. “I was a half- wit and yet, even I saw my mother prepare enough meals to muddle through! Surely your Mother-”
“Never wanted anyone in her kitchen, let alone children under foot,” Jhan replied stiffly. “I was still living with her before- well, I’m not going to get into that! I don’t know anything about cooking, Ahlen, and I don’t really care to learn now.”
“You are so stubborn!" Ahlen exploded. “It can only ease your journey if you just let me show you a few basic-”
“I’ve told you!” Jhan shouted back. “I’m not interested! It takes patience and single mindedness and I don’t possess either of those qualities! You’re the cook, so face the fact!”
Ahlen gritted his teeth and Jhan could see his face flush red in the firelight. He calmed himself with an effort and managed to smile at Theon apologetically. “Two men will quarrel over domestic duties. Neither of us is suited to it. I hope my cooking doesn’t offend you too much.”
“I’m not a master at cookery, either,” Theon replied graciously, but he had listened avidly to their exchange and Jhan thought that his curiosity was too intense to be idle or well meaning.
When the meal was done, Jhan ate her portion, and then moved close to the fire to roll up in her blanket and go to sleep. She could hear Ahlen and Theon speaking in low tones. Ixien was watching like a cat in the shadows, seeming half- asleep and dreaming on his feet. Jhan wondered how she would ever be able to sleep with such companions, but she surprised herself by tumbling into dreams almost at once.
The sky was an ever changing bluish- purple, an indigo so perfect that it seemed poised to startle the mind by becoming a color never seen before by human eyes. The land stretching out beneath it was stark in contrast; rolling beiges and frozen browns in a landscape better suited to some harsh, Arctic tundra. Amidst this strange world, Kile sat on a rock of black obsidian, knees hunched up under his chin and broad arms locked about his legs as if he sought to keep his heart warm.
Jhan wasn’t shocked to see Kile. She knew she was dreaming despite the odd quality of reality everything seemed to possess. She climbed up the rock and sat beside her husband as if they had prearranged the meeting. He didn’t glance at her, his eyes hidden in shadow. She felt the hot heaviness of his anger and sorrow, burning her skin as it settled on her like a blanket.
“I’m blaming myself for what happened. I don’t need you to blame me as well,” Jhan whispered. “After everything I’ve been through, you’d think that I would have been more careful, more suspicious, more aware. I walked off with Ahlen as if I were an innocent!”
“They told me that they found your corpse floating in a lake,” Kile grated out from the cover of his knees. “I blamed my Mother, my brothers, everyone I could think of. In the end, I blamed you for letting it happen. All of that skill and all of that Power and you let yourself be killed! Half of my soul is gone. Half of my life. I can’t live like this. I won’t!”
Kile looked up at last, but he was staring off at the indigo sky. His eyes were hollows; sunken blue orbs in a gaunt face. “Maybe the gods are punishing me for having been with you,” he continued tensely. “No matter how you were changed, you were still a man. I struggled with that, always. It hurt me each time someone taunted you with it, but I knew, deep down, that I was hurting mostly for me. I felt ashamed. I never regretted my decision to be with you, but I never did shake the feeling that it was wrong.”
Jhan stared at Kile, trembling and fighting tears. “I wish that this were real,” she moaned. “I wish that I could tell you that I’m alive and to rescue me.” She shook her head sadly. “You’re only saying what my mind wants you to, my Love. You’re just a parrot for all my fears and doubts. I’m so sorry that my sub-conscious would like you to die of grief rather than be happy with Caliya. I suppose it’s just like me. Selfish. I’d better go now before I drown in my own self- indulgence.”
Jhan slid down the rock and her feet never touched the ground. She seemed to fall into the indigo sky, or perhaps a reflection of it in a clear lake. As the dream swirled away, like so much mist and fancy, and she settled into true sleep, Jhan heard Kile’s voice pursue her. It uttered one word. “Alive?” and then she knew nothing more.
Jhan sat up, blinking at morning light and trying to orient herself. The campsite whirled and then settled into puzzling images that her bleary mind tried to formulate an opinion about. When it did, her heart began to hammer and she staggered to her feet in shock.
Ixien and Ahlen were sitting together, hands tied behind their backs and ankles bound. Ixien looked indifferent, but Ahlen was flushed, afraid, and angry. They both looked disheveled, as if they had struggled, but they were both unhurt and Jhan presumed that they had been taken captive in their sleep.
Theon stood beside them, long dagger at Ahlen’s neck. He was grinning at Jhan and she knew the meaning of his leer well enough. “Time to find out what you really are! It’s my guess that you’re some nobleman’s daughter run off with her lover. If that’s the case, I’m certain you must have some money hidden in your packs.”
“You’re a thief?" Jhan’s full attention was on the knife at Ahlen’s throat. She knew what her life was worth if Theon killed the boy. The thought of parasites eating her from the inside out kept her standing still.
“In need, yes, a thief," Theon replied testily, as if insulted, “but even a good man would be tempted with such fools tottering about the countryside with a purse full of money and someone, perhaps, worth another to her rich father!”
“He is under my protection!” Ahlen shouted furiously and struggled against his bonds. A prick at the throat from Theon’s knife drew blood and Ahlen froze, swallowing hard and going pale.
“I’ll do as I please, despite your ‘protection’,” Theon laughed. “and I please to lift your ladies skirts. I may please to do a little more. I doubt that her virtue is untouched with a hot young man, such as yourself, about her.”
Theon shoved Ahlen onto his side with the rough side of his boot and strode to where Jhan was standing. His knife threatened her now, but she tilted her chin to look up at him, meeting his eyes. Theon was out of shape, she noted in an instant, and not trained to fight. His body was lean, but his muscles were flaccid and more used to softer pursuits. Jhan knew that she could kill Theon easily. Whether she could find the courage to do it was another thing entirely.
“Off with your clothes,” Theon ordered with a warning flick of his knife.
Jhan slowly pulled off her hood and her hair dropped out of its tight coil, falling into an untidy mass of curls down to her waist. She took off her coat as well, to give herself more freedom of movement, and let it fall to the ground by her feet. “Like what you see so far?” Jhan wondered bitingly.
Theon was looking dazed, tongue licking over his lips and eyes widening appreciatively. “I thought you were beautiful as a boy, but, even with the dirt on your face, you’re easily the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. You’re hair is like a piece of darkness and your eyes are like Summer skies... or those deep blue flowers that pop up in the meadows even when the snow is deep on the ground. I’ve never seen such perfect skin or such finely arched eyebrows.” His face set hard and his hand tightened its grip on his knife. “You’re the type of woman a man like me could only have by force. I don’t think I’ll waste the opportunity.”
Jhan smiled to confuse Theon, mind racing to remember every move that General Vek had taught her over the last, difficult, year. Careful, she told herself, look docile and afraid. Don’t give any hint... “You’ve already wasted your opportunity,” Jhan replied and her foot swung around like lightening and caught Theon on the chin.
Theon dropped sideways like a felled ox. Jhan grabbed his hand and twisted while her foot jammed into the man’s diaphragm. Easy! She pulled her kick at the last moment, fighting a deeper training than Vek’s that urged her to use every heightened muscle she possessed to drive her foot through Theon to his spine. Still, there was a sickening crunch and Theon was unconscious, knife falling from nerveless fingers.
Panting and shaken, Jhan turned from Theon and half ran to Ahlen and Ixien. She bent to untie them and Ahlen was instantly thrusting himself to his feet in shock and amazement. “How did you-”
“Later!” Jhan shouted at him. “Get our things on the baku and let’s get out of here!”
Ahlen was dazed, ignoring Jhan’s panicked pleas as he looked past her at Theon’s body. “Is he... Is he dead?”
“I don’t know!” Jhan replied, almost weeping as she began gathering things herself and snatching at the leads of the baku. “I don’t want to know!”
“We can’t just leave him!” Ahlen protested and started walking towards the body. Jhan rounded on him and he stopped.
“He was going to rape me, Ahlen!” Jhan shouted at him as she slapped the reins of his baku into his hand. “He was probably going to kill the both of you or sell you into slavery! If he’s dead, he deserves it!”
“No!” Ahlen objected as he gripped her arm to keep her from getting on her baku. “Look at you! You don’t want him dead! You’re terrified that you might have killed him! I’m going to find out!”
Ahlen gently pushed Jhan out of his way and she stood mutely, shaking even harder, as she watched him go and kneel by Theon. Ahlen felt for a pulse at the man’s wrist. When he didn’t speak, Jhan felt ready to collapse. “Well?” she almost shrieked the word.
Ixien was close enough to see. He was massaging his wrists, where they had been rubbed by the ropes, and looking at Theon with a surprising expression of anger. “He lives,” he said simply, and his sexless voice held a note of resentment for that fact.
“Then leave him!” Jhan begged. “Just leave him and we’ll be long gone before he wakes up.”
“If he wakes up.” Ahlen straightened and turned to Jhan. He looked bewildered, his image of her visibly rearranging itself. “Another tale about you proven true.”
Jhan climbed up onto her baku, but Ahlen was still standing by Theon, maddeningly refusing to leave. “We can’t abandon him. He might still die so far from help,” Ahlen pointed out.
“A man like that would have left you!” Jhan shot back vehemently.
“But I’m not him, or like him at all,” Ahlen continued to protest. “We have to help him.”
“This from the man who threatens to let parasites eat me alive!” Jhan taunted wildly.
Ahlen winced, but he refused to be goaded. Instead, he carefully wrapped Theon in one of the man’s own blankets, propped food and water within the man’s reach, and checked to make certain the man didn’t have anything broken that might keep him from seeking help. “Broken ribs and a broken wrist,” Ahlen announced after long minutes. “He should be able to travel.”
“Thank you, Healer Kantori!” Jhan seethed. “Now may we leave?”
Ahlen nodded. He picked up Jhan’s coat and handed it up to her as he led his baku to hers and attached its lead to his beasts harness. He looked pale and guilty. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t protect you. I trusted Theon because I didn’t know enough of the world, and the men in it, to be afraid.”
“You should listen to me!” Jhan railed at him, whitely furious and frightened at the same time. “I know the world, Ahlen, and I know the darkness in it VERY well!”
Ahlen nodded as he mounted his baku. “I will listen, but it seems,” he flushed, ashamed, “that you were able to protect yourself quite well without my help. It frightened you, but you still brought down a man much larger than yourself. I know that I couldn’t have beaten Theon in your place.”
Ahlen admitted that as innocently and as honestly as he did everything else, but Jhan could see that he was beginning to realize his own danger. The fear of being tied hand and foot, in some misplaced bid by Ahlen to feel safe, forced Jhan to quickly reassure him. “I’m not a fighter, Ahlen. I only did that as a last resort. I tried very hard not to kill him, even though I think he deserved it and more! You have the medicine. I can’t hurt you and go on living. I’m well aware of that.”
“Enough talk,” Ixien interjected. “This man has tried to take or freedom and stop me in my journey. If you had not brought him down, I should have had to attempt it.”
What that meant, Ahlen and Jhan didn’t know. Ixien had seemed as helpless as any of them. His expression, once again flat and as still as stone, gave nothing away.
“We’ll go,” Ahlen decided, but he was clearly upset, perhaps realizing at last that he knew even less than he had thought. His Princess had turned out to be an emasculated man, posing as a woman, with a killing skill. His new friend had proven to be a common thief, and his Caefu savior had hinted that he was, perhaps, far more powerful and alien than his diminutive stature let on. It was a great deal for a boy to handle amidst the difficulties of the quest he had chosen to undertake.
They rode back to the road, Ixien walking alongside, and the cold hit them like a blow. Jhan ducked low to keep her heart warm as it faltered and ached in her chest. She gritted her teeth and put on her coat and cap hurriedly, wondering, not for the last time, if she should have left Ahlen and Ixien tied up and escaped; taking her chances that Ahlen had been lying to her about the parasites. The awful image of herself dying in horrible agony in Kile’s helpless arms, stilled that thought almost at once. She had to stop thinking of what ifs, she told herself grimly, and concentrate on surviving.
(The Wolf Prince)
The road turned rocky and rutted. It climbed upwards at a wearying angle and the baku balked and complained bitterly. When a light snow began to fall, Jhan felt ready to complain along with them. She felt frozen to the bone and her strength was beginning to lose ground, even after a brief stop at midday to eat what was left of the meat they had cooked the night before.
Jhan wished that she could ask Ahlen if the road grew any worse past Owell, but she was certain he wouldn’t know the answer. It was left for her to ask Ixien, but Jhan was long in deciding to break her self imposed disregard of the alien Caefu. Misery drove her to it at last, and a need to reassure her body that there might be some relief for it up ahead.
The Caefu was walking beside Jhan’s baku and Jhan didn’t have to raise her voice much. Ixien gave her a bland stare, his feet sure footed on the rocky ground despite his inattention to his steps. “Yes?”
“Do you know what the land is like up ahead?” Jhan asked, unable to keep her distaste for him out of her voice.
“There is a vast lake,” Ixien replied, eyes looking ahead and catching the milky light of the sun. “Beyond it, mountains and rough travel. Beyond that, the deserts. Farther than that, I don’t know.”
“Does it get warmer?”
“The deserts are cold, at first, but I’ve heard they grow warmer the farther West one travels,” Ixien replied. “Still, Winter is Winter, even in the deserts.”
The throbbing ache of despair beat harder within Jhan, yet, she was stubborn. She huddled deep within her coat. Death was a familiar enemy, always tapping at her shoulder; trying to distract her from life. Jhan braced herself to ignore it and outwit it if she could.
They topped a rise towards late afternoon and the baku snorted and balked when they discovered a sharp descent down into a valley before them. The way was rocky and treacherous, the road broad, but covered in ice and slick snow. Jhan didn’t like it one bit. The way would be slow and she doubted that they would be able to reach the bottom of the valley by nightfall.
“Stop for the night,” Jhan protested when Ahlen kneed his baku to goad it onwards.
Ahlen pointed down into the valley, at the great city sprawled on the edge of a vast sparkling lake. “That’s Owell! We’ll be able to buy some supplies and, maybe, a room for the night. If we hurry-”
“One of the baku will break a leg!” Jhan swore. “See sense, Ahlen!”
Ahlen shrugged off her advice, motioning at her impatiently. “Put your hair under your cap and wrap your face in your scarf. These are mountain bred baku. You don’t need to fear that they will fall. Keep silent and follow me.”
Tiring at last, Ixien swung up onto their pack baku. He perched there, as uneasy as Jhan, as the beasts reluctantly went over the edge of the valley with angry grunts and flapping ears. Hiding her hair and her face, Jhan clung with both hands to the saddle of her baku, eyes wide and heart almost stopping at every lurch, stumble, and skitter of rock under hoof.
“Company,” Ahlen warned. “Be silent and keep your head down, Jhan.”
Jhan looked up angrily, ignoring him. Three riders, on imala, were resting on a flat shelf of rock to one side of the trail. Their imala were all russet brown, only the odd splotch of white or white hock to tell them apart. Their riders were all as different as their beasts were the same and Jhan became tense and wary immediately.
The rider in front was a large man dressed in dark red leather. His vest was decorated in gold spirals and his red leather pants were tucked into well worn, red boots. He wore a very long sword on his saddle and several daggers at his belt. A red scarf hung from his neck and it was studded with glittering pins.
He was definitely the leader, Jhan thought. He sat proud in his saddle and his eyes were a clear gold that seemed hot and challenging even from such a distance. His face was like the granite rocks all around them and his nose was like an eagle’s beak. Three scars ran deeply across each broad cheek and his hair was a rough mane of bronze cut straight at shoulder and forehead.
The young man beside him was shorter and slighter in stature, but not any less proud. He wore a long black coat, slitted in the back for riding, and his hands were hidden in black gloves. More disconcerting than his midnight colored clothes, were his contrasting scarves of crimson red. He wore one wrapped about his lower face and neck and one braided into his hair in a long trail down his back. That hair was as black as his clothes and it was a tangled cover for the part of his face that was bare.
Like his companion, he also wore a long sword and knives at wrist and hip.
The third figure was a woman, Jhan guessed, but more than that she couldn’t tell. She wore a cumbersome dress, but straddled her imala like a man. All else was covered in a shimmering crimson scarf that fell from the top of her head to the level of her waist, held in place by jewel studded pins.
“Pass them as wide as you can,” Jhan suggested nervously. “They’re armed. They might mean trouble.”
“With a woman dressed like that?” Ixien was doubtful. “They do not look ready for battle.”
“Theon didn’t either,” Jhan reminded him acidly.
Ahlen was of the same mind as Jhan. He steered his baku wide, watching the three riders warily. “Their imala aren’t a match for our baku on this road,” Ahlen reassured Jhan. “We can outrun them.”
“And maybe take a fall and die trying,” Jhan muttered in return.
“Useless to argue,” Ixien cut in sharply. “There is not another way.”
They managed to put a few yards between them and the strange riders, but Jhan still felt uncomfortably close. When they passed without incident, she began to breathe a little easier. She looked back and caught the eyes of the leader. The man was watching them idly, speaking in a low tone to the younger man beside him. He nodded to Jhan in acknowledgement, but Jhan could tell that his mind was elsewhere.
Jhan turned forward once more to watch the dizzying descent of her baku and to watch the sinking sun with trepidation. When an imala came galloping past her at breakneck speed, she was taken completely by surprise. Before she could react, Ahlen had jerked loose the lead between their baku and was galloping his beast after the imala.
“Ahlen!” Jhan was shocked, confused. She tried to make sense out of the wild galloping images in front of her as the rump of Ahlen’s baku careened down a loose scree of stone and came up even with the imala. The beast seemed riderless until Ahlen snatched at its reins and brought it up short, pulling it around. Then Jhan saw the veiled woman hanging onto the opposite side of the saddle for dear life.
Ahlen helped right her in the saddle. The woman bowed, as if gasping for breath, as he led her imala back to Jhan and Ixien. When her companions reached them, both the men looked furious.
“Foolish woman!” The young man shouted. “What would we have done if you had broken your imala’s legs?”
The older man held up a curt, commanding hand and the young man fell silent and sullen. The woman bowed even lower in her saddle, as if in shame, but the man was choosing to ignore her, turning his attention instead to Ahlen.
“My thanks, stranger,” the man said in a rough, growling voice. “Her imala stumbled and she hadn’t the skill to stay in the saddle. Her fumbling caused the beast to bolt. I am Obahn Om Sukhelan, Hyjar of Jykara. Prince, your people say. This,” he motioned to the young man,” Is Sael Ruon, Bhakali to me. The woman is my fifth wife, Zerain. For her life, I am indebted to you.”
Ahlen was clearly intimidated by Obahn’s title and manner. He stammered, cleared his throat, and then replied stiffly. “I am Ahlen Kantori. My companions are Ixien, a Caefu from the Deep Caves, and Jhan of- of Sarvoy.” Ahlen realized that he shouldn’t have said the last in the next instant, but seemed unable to think of anything else to say to recover from it. He finished lamely. “I don’t need your debt.”
That was a mistake, Jhan realized, as Obahn’s face turned red with anger. His eyes seemed to almost glow yellow in the sinking sunlight and his lips drew back over sharp, white teeth. “Are you such a great man, then, that I cannot be of any worth to you?” Obahn snarled.
“No, I meant-,” Ahlen began and then stopped when he found himself staring at Obahn’s back. The three strangers had ridden past and were going down the trail faster than was wise.
“That didn’t go well,” Jhan observed sourly. “They might actually have been of some use to us. They looked like they could handle themselves. We might have used that debt business to tag along under their protection.”
Ahlen rounded on Jhan. “Now you trust someone? They are barbarians, that’s plain! What makes them so much more trustworthy than Ixien or Theon?”
“Or you?” Jhan seethed. “If he thought he owed you something for saving that woman’s life, then it showed he has some sense of honor. Too bad you threw it back in his face!”
“How could I have known?” Ahlen demanded. “I doubt you knew it either!”
Jhan frowned and then shrugged, admitting, “I didn’t, I suppose, but I don’t think I would have responded so badly that he could only take offense. Maybe, ‘Debts are unnecessary between new friends’, or something like that, but not, ‘I don’t need your debt.’ What sort of thing is that to say to anyone?”
“So, you want to speak for me as well as tell me whom to trust?” Ahlen demanded. “Seems to me, if you are so wise in knowing good men from bad, you would never have let me kidnap you!”
Everything within Jhan tightened and she felt herself go cold. Violent images and violent reflexes were stilled with a great effort of will. She blinked tears as her temple throbbed and the world grew dark. She didn’t know how long she sat her baku like that, trying to find her way back to reason, but when she saw sunlight again and Ahlen’s pasty white face, she knew that she had frightened him.
“Don’t- Don’t say things like that to me again,“ Jhan managed to say. “You don’t know, or maybe you do now, that you are walking a thin line with me. I want to see my home and my husband again. Don’t taunt me so much that I forget that.”
Ahlen only nodded, but he didn’t tie their baku together again and he rode a little further ahead than was usual. Ixien’s comment on the matter was even and dry. “He should have left you behind. You will hinder us.”
“As much as I can,” Jhan promised, “until he lets me go!”
Ahlen chose to lag behind the strangers for safety, but they still managed to reach the gate of Owell just as the sun was dipping behind the curve of the lake. A huge arched affair stamped with odd glyphs, the gate was an unguarded hole in a tall, whitewashed wall that ran the length of the city, yet didn’t encompass it in any form of protection. It was made, rather, to impress travelers and to give the impression that, once through the gate, you were entering another world. Jhan felt that keenly. She didn’t need Ahlen to remind her to hide beneath her scarf and to try to look as much like man as possible.
Even in Winter, Owell was a mecca for merchants. Wide streets were lined with carts and stalls were filled to bursting with every item imaginable, and some beyond imagining. Brick buildings housed more permanent wares. Jhan could glimpse ship builders, wagon makers, smithies, inns, and taverns. Stalls were set up for beasts. Jhan spotted a compound of slaves, and she shivered at the sight of their hollow faces and looks of resigned indifference.
“How did they become slaves?” Jhan wondered, but neither Ixien nor Ahlen could give her an answer. Ahlen was just as bewildered as Jhan. Ixien didn’t appear to care.
Someone bumped into Jhan’s baku. Startled, she looked down as a drunk man looked up, blinking angrily and pointing a beefy finger up at her as if he were going to curse. He looked familiar. Jhan searched her memory anxiously to place that pig eyed face and those huge jowls, but his name escaped her. He wasn’t having any trouble recognizing her.
“Those eyessss!” The man slurred. “Only seen them once and never more on anyone! The Princess Jhanian!”
And then Jhan was past him, looking back and torn as to what to do. To shout for help might mean an ugly death from the parasites. To keep silent, would mean a long journey and, perhaps, death later on. The crowds, and a turn in the road, swallowed the man up and the moment was gone. Jhan reluctantly let go of it, knowing she had as little choice as before. She had to follow Ahlen.
They stopped at the edge of the lake. A long line of ships were tied to a great dock. Men loaded and unloaded merchandise even as the lanterns were being lit and hung from posts. Birds squabbled and whirled about as they searched for scraps.
“Wait here,” Ahlen commanded and dismounted from his baku. He tied its reins to a post and Jhan slowly dismounted as well, watching Ahlen walk to a sailor and begin speaking in low tones. The sailor was stripped to the waist, even in the cold, and burned dark by the sun. His woolly, bronze hair reminded Jhan of Bheni. The man nodded solemnly to whatever Ahlen was saying and then held up a quick flash of fingers that had Ahlen exclaiming in dismay. The sailor shrugged and walked away.
Ahlen returned scowling. “Their prices for crossing the lake are outrageous! I won’t be able to afford all three of us and the animals.”
Jhan had sat down on a low post, depression and anger making her lash out at Ahlen like a whip. “Then forget about me and go alone! Or take Ixien! He at least knows where you are going!”
Ahlen shook his head stubbornly. “Scherial has spoken to me and I won’t go against it. You must come, Jhan, even if we have to travel around the lake.”
Jhan looked skeptically at the vast lake. “That will take time.”
“It may, but we don’t have any choice now.” Ahlen untied his baku and motioned Jhan to follow. “I’ll get information before we leave the city, some supplies, and maybe a guide, if we’re lucky.”
“I haven’t been too lucky so far. I don’t know why that should change now,” Jhan growled under her breath, but pulled her baku after Ahlen with Ixien and the pack baku in tow.
Jhan looked anxiously about her, wondering if they would again run into the man who had recognized her. Lanterns were being lit on every street corner and inns and taverns were blazing light into the street from open doorways, but shadows lay heavy on everything as the sun gave up its struggle and sank behind the rim of the lake. Even if they did pass the man, Jhan doubted that they would be able to see each other.
Ahlen stopped at the porch of an inn and handed the reins of his baku to Jhan. “Stay here,” he ordered briskly. “I’ll go inside and see what I can find out.” He tried to sound confident, but his voice wavered and Jhan saw the uncertain boy Ahlen really was. She watched him go through the door hesitantly, eyes catching the light and showing his fear.
“Paid a fair price, but I didn’t bargain hard,” a man was saying to his companion as they strode onto the porch and headed for the door of the inn. “Who would with his reputation and that cold eyed boy at his side?”
“Beast Prince, they call him,” the other agreed as he settled his cloak under one arm. They were plain merchants and unremarkable, yet Jhan pricked up her ears, having nothing else to do. “They say he can change his form when he has a mind to.”
“Into a woman for his young man?” the first man chuckled.
“Needn’t do that!” the other laughed. “That young man has an Ekhal’s braid. That Obahn calls him Bhakali, apprentice, but even I can see what’s before my own eyes!”
“He has a woman!” the first replied skeptically.
“Maybe he enjoys both! Shape shifting would be quite the advantage, would it not?”
“As I said before...,”
Then they were through the door and Jhan was left with their words hanging in the air. Beast Prince. She thought of Dagara despite her best efforts not to. He had been able to twist and shape men into beasts, but they had still looked like men. If anyone could have had the Power to do it, it would have been Dagara. Jhan passed it off as idle talk, recalling Obahn’s dark anger and his almost yellow eyes. It wasn’t hard to imagine him a wolf.
Feet scuffed cobblestones as a man came to stand at Jhan’s elbow. He was broad, flat nosed, and his clothes were richly tooled leather. The short spike of hair on his otherwise bald head looked almost comical. His business wasn’t. “How much for the freak?” he asked, staring at Ixien.
Jhan flinched in surprise, quickly stepping away from the man. His eyes swiveled to follow her, looking her up and down intently as she replied, “He’s not mine to sell.”
“Pretty thing, aren’t you? Who’s YOUR master then?” The man asked impatiently.
“I don’t have one,” Jhan snapped back, becoming afraid now.
“What’s your business here then?”
“I don’t have any business.” Jhan tried to cover her fear with anger, but the man wasn’t fooled. Smiling casually, his hands flexed as he walked slowly about her.
“What do you want?” Jhan demanded, trying to put her baku between the man and herself.
“People get jaded,” the man explained with a shrug. “They’re always willing to pay good money for something new. I try to keep my eyes open and, well, here you are, a beauty and a freak openly breaking the law. You aren’t trading. Owell doesn’t allow vagrants. Seems to me that you’re free for claiming.”
“Take that one,” Ixien agreed suddenly, breaking out of his statue-like immobility. “It is a hindrance by It’s own admission.”
“I’m taking you too,” the man interjected.
“I would be deadly as a mate,” Ixien replied irritably. “Your people confuse easily, it seems. It is a wonder that you are able to breed at all. That one is of your species, at least, though It will not bear children either.”
The man looked startled and confused, replying vacantly, ”That wasn’t under consideration.” He collected himself with an effort and replied more strongly. “You may be too strange even for my customers. I’ve changed my mind. Go your way.”
“Ixien!” Jhan shouted in disbelief when the Caefu began walking away. He gave her a brief, bland stare over his shoulder, but didn’t stop. Jhan knew then that she was on her own. Turning her hands into fists, she faced the stranger. “Just try and touch me you-”
The man suddenly leaned forward and tossed something over Jhan’s head with the ease of long practice. The object clinked and glittered in the light of the lantern on the inn porch. The man moved quickly, yanking Jhan’s scarf off and pulling the necklace tightly enough to touch her skin. He spun around her, keeping her off balance, as he clicked a lock into place. Finished, he jumped backwards before she could aim a blow.
Something cold and hard was resting against a spot just below Jhan’s right ear. She scratched hurriedly at it, but the chain was well forged metal and the lock kept it almost suffocatingly tight against her skin. She tried to flee into the inn, her last hope Ahlen, but a strange vibration began almost at once from the object. It quickly became bone jarring and Jhan suddenly felt the world tip out from under her feet. She fell, eyes seeing the lantern and the darkness whirl and shimmer.
The man appeared in that crazy, spinning world, a stomach wrenching miasma of smiling face and glittering black eyes. “Come now. Don’t fight and you won’t feel so sick. The kaunut I placed against your ear will make any movement painful and nauseating to you. It’s a vibrating stone. I don’t know of anyone who knows why it vibrates, but we’ve found some very interesting uses for it. Keeping slaves meek is just one that suits my profession well.”
Jhan couldn’t even speak. Her head was vibrating in time with the stone and she found that the only relief was complete immobility. Lying flat in the street, she began to weep. The man didn’t take any notice. He lifted her up and threw her over one shoulder. Giving a jaunty pat to Jhan’s behind, he began walking down a side street and deep into the city.
“You shall call me Master Kelmus,” the man was saying as Jhan moaned over his shoulder, head almost hanging upside down. She felt as if she were on the deck of a ship in a violent storm, sea-sick and ready to vomit. “I expect you to say nothing else,” Kelmus continued. “I’m not interested in what you think, how you feel, or your objections to your new life; however long that might be. Doing as I tell you, and pleasing my customers, is all that is expected of you from this moment forward. Displease them or me, and I can put more than one kaunut around your neck. Can you imagine what more than one vibrating stone would do to you? Torture is one of its other uses.”
There was a cart with a harnessed baku. Several piles of groaning humanity lay inside and Kelmus checked on them briefly before swinging up into the seat of the wagon. He lowered Jhan onto the seat beside him, but kept a strong arm about her.
“Can’t have a little thing like you mauled by the likes of them,” Kelmus said as he urged the baku forward. Its hooves clopped on the cobblestone as it began trundling down another street. "Thieves, drunks, and deal breakers mostly. They make good fodder for the games. A prize like you, though, needs special treatment.”
Jhan gritted her teeth to keep from biting her tongue and tried to keep perfectly still, but the swaying of the cart made that impossible. She thought that she would pass out before too long. Her entire head was vibrating now and she couldn’t even clench her hands enough to brace herself from falling. The vibrating was interrupting her brains signals and her sense of equilibrium as well. She could only hang in Kelmus’s embrace, and suffer, as the cart trundled through one street and then another before leaving through a gate and going out into the snow powdered countryside.
Before too long, there was noise, light, and the smell of campfires. Voices shouted greetings and the groans from the cart intensified as hands pulled the occupants out and led them away. Kelmus swung Jhan onto his shoulder again and easily dismounted from the cart, talking to someone Jhan couldn’t see.
“We’ll have a game tomorrow,” Kelmus was saying, “Two of those new ones and that big, pale fellow from the North Ridges will do well, I think. This one? My own business. Something special that might wring some sympathy from the crowd and some extra coins.”
“You always know best,” a strange voice grunted.
“I do,” Kelmus agreed humorously.
Kelmus had been standing still during the exchange and the vibrating had lessened to a point where Jhan felt her senses starting to return. Before she could begin to react, Kelmus was walking again and the world went topsy turvy, trembling and spinning once more.
Kelmus turned abruptly. Jhan found herself looking down into a very wide and very deep pit. Torches at every corner of it lit the bottom fitfully and Jhan could just make out the shadowy form and glowing eyes of some beast. It snarled and leapt and Jhan had a disoriented view of a thing nearly five hundred pounds, eight feet long, and sporting long claws and sharp teeth like daggers. A tiger, Jhan thought for just an instant, but it was an ugly beast and had as little to do with a cat as a dog did with a wolverine.
“Mayga,” Kelmus introduced. “Undefeated champion of the pit for nearly a year now. That’s bad for business. People get bored if nobody ever wins. That’s where you come in. They’ll cry pity and forbear, but I’ll still try to throw you in. It’ll heat their blood and loosen their coins to see such a child thrown to my pet. If you’re lucky, someone will offer to buy you to save your life. If you’re not lucky, I’ll show mercy at the last moment and send my next fighters in after you to try and kill Mayga before she kills you. That strange creature I found with you, like a sliver of ice, wouldn’t have elicited a yawn, I think, or lasted a second to wet anyone’s appetite. You, now, you’ll have them raving.”
Kelmus turned from the pit and strode to where the torches and campfires were brightest. There was a covered wagon that was very large and very ornate. Kelmus swung up the steps and into a narrow doorway, pushing Jhan in before him before turning and closing shut a thick door.
The inside of the wagon was very compact and very efficient. A narrow bed was built into one wall like a shelf and a table and small stool were packed up against the opposite side. Every surface was scattered with scrolls and half open books scribbled with numbers and words. Thick carpets lined the floor and a very tiny, wood burning stove was tucked into the far end. It gave both light and almost suffocating warmth to the small space.
Sitting Jhan on the stool, Kelmus took his time pulling off his gloves and shrugging off his thick cape. His eyes never left Jhan and he seemed to be deep in thought. Finally, he crouched by Jhan and pulled off her coat. “Let’s see what we have here. I hope the rest of you is a darling as your eyes, boy. The crowd needs to feel truly sorry for you or it just won’t work.”
Seeing the two sweaters and the shirt, Kelmus impatiently removed them and then sucked in a deep breath. He chuckled and then pulled off Jhan’s hat. When her dark curls unraveled and fell down to her waist, he chuckled even louder. Bare to the waist and revealed at last, Jhan could only look back at the shimmering face of Kelmus and do nothing.
“Girl-but not a child by what I see,” Kelmus surmised as he removed Jhan’s boots, socks, and worn pants eagerly. His warm hand went between Jhan’s legs and he smiled into her eyes.
One more second, Jhan thought, as the world began to settle. One more second and she could gather enough strength and equilibrium to snap Kelmus’s neck. She groaned when he refused to give her that second.
Kelmus scooped Jhan up from her stool and sat her on the narrow bed. Hooking her legs with his arms, he pulled her about until it suited him, her head and shoulders resting against the wall of the wagon at a painful angle. Satisfied, he loosened his pants and the degradation began.
Kelmus was rough and uncaring. The slapping motions sent Jhan’s mind spinning and the gut wrenching thuds against the wall her head suffered, made her feel as if her body would disintegrate and fly away like paint in a centrifuge.
The pain was nothing, she’d suffered worse... far worse. The humiliation was harder to bear, and the shame as her body reacted with flaring pleasure despite the pain of the violation. Created as the ultimate torture by Dagara, it had been Jhan’s joy until that moment. Only now, long after her torturer was dead, did its original purpose make itself known; to squirm with pleasure despite anything that she might feel to the contrary.
Kelmus laughed at Jhan’s groans, sucking hungrily on her breasts. “Like it rough, eh? Like my poker stirring your little fire? Maybe I’ll keep you for myself, eh? Cheat Mayga and the crowd of their sport. Maybe, if you do some tricks for me. Will you do some tricks for Master Kelmus, hmm?”
Kelmus grew rougher, grinding himself deep. His arms lifted Jhan almost from the bed. He began to groan and pant, more foul words he had been about to say cut off in mid sentence.
Jhan was crying out in soft exclamations, the thudding against the wall threatening to knock her unconscious. She almost wished for it, hating how her body was raging and singing along every nerve despite the utter nausea that gripped it.
“Gods!” Kelmus groaned suddenly. “I’ve never felt anything... What are you? Gods!”
Stop! Jhan thought. How long could the man last, she wondered fearfully. It seemed to be going on for hours. She could dimly make out Kelmus’s face, sweating drops down onto her, eyes glazed and mouth hanging open as he gasped for breath. When he pulled her from the bed and they both crashed onto the floor, she thought he must be through, but the sickening rhythm continued until the darkness gathered at the corners of her mind and began to fold over her consciousness.
Everything stopped, finally. Kelmus was a warm weight atop Jhan and he seemed too exhausted to move. Jhan closed her eyes and could only feel thankful as the world pulsed and slowed to something bearable. It was at least an hour before Kelmus began to cool enough for her to realize that he was dead.
Jhan shuddered, tears flowing down the sides of her face and lips trembling in horror as she forced herself to search Kelmus. She found a ring of keys in the pants about his ankles and it was another, long stretch of time as she fumbled and found the right key to unlock her torturous necklace.
Things didn’t magically return to normal, as Jhan had hoped, as she threw the necklace aside. Her senses still pulsed sickeningly and her eyes refused to focus or see the room as anything other than a spinning confusion of images.
Jhan called Kelmus some inventive, foul names to give her strength as she pushed him off of her. He slid out of her with a disgusting stickiness that made Jhan vomit when nothing else had managed it. Not having eaten, it was only stinging bile.
“Come on!” Jhan urged herself through gritted teeth. “This is nothing! You sat and watched as Dagara cut open your legs and arms and snapped joints and-and-” Jhan stopped and swallowed hard, wiping at her mouth and pulling her clothes to her. She put them on awkwardly, too ill now to even know if she had put them on right.
Crawling to the door of the wagon, Jhan pushed it open. Pulling herself to a sitting position, she swung her legs outside and sat, poised there while her mind tried to make sense out of the world. Anyone could have been watching and she wouldn’t have known, Jhan thought. She couldn’t see to tell and her ears were ringing too much to even listen. She had to trust to luck, something that had never been hers, and simply run for it and hope that there wasn’t anyone to see and stop her.
Jhan slid down the steps rather than climbed and poured bonelessly onto the ground. It was very cold and her cheek was resting now in a patch of snow. That freezing slap roused her more than her danger. Prying herself up, she began a stumbling walk away from the wagon; hoping against hope that it was away from Kelmus’s companions.
Jhan lost track of time and distance. The world turned black and not only from the darkness of the enfolding forest. Repeatedly running into trees, falling, and sometimes crawling on all fours, Jhan refused to give up. Her fear gave her strength, driving her forward despite the fact that it was growing deadly cold and she had left her coat behind.
Jhan started and gasped, whirling and trying to see past the vibrating confusion behind her eyes. She felt people all about her suddenly and she could make out figures, first as blobs, and then as streaks of familiar red.
“Little General! Come and play!”
Jhan sobbed, frozen hands going to her open mouth as she turned about and about again. A red, hot, iron rod licked out of nowhere and caught her on the skin, searing and smoking. She recoiled, but another hot iron stabbed out of the darkness behind her. More irons thrust towards her, making her whirl and dodge in a sickening dance until she was ringed completely and not offered any escape.
“No!” Jhan closed her eyes, frantic. “This already happened. It isn’t happening now! I’m hallucinating.”
“You killed Theyu! I saw his body! Dagara had you squeeze him to death. You’ll pay for that!”
“Easy Grunar! You know our orders. Anything we like, short of killing him. You do that and-”
“Gyven’s very skilled.”
“No! I won’t remember that!” Jhan screamed and ran, heart pounding and mouth open as her hands searched ahead of her for obstacles. The voices followed her and she wondered if she were really running at all.
Hands caught her and held her down. A hand searched her naked body. What had happened to her clothes? She felt herself turned on her stomach and held by bodies much larger than her own. She knew what was next.
“I won’t!” Jhan bit her lip till blood gushed. “I won’t remember that!”
The shock of her teeth biting almost through her lip sent Jhan’s body and mind over the edge. She felt herself spasm in a convulsion and the soldiers of Dagara evaporated like the dream they were. The memory sizzled and burned as if it were acid. Jhan wept and slowly calmed, her violent shaking soon ceasing altogether.
“A rape, apparently." The voice was as disembodied as the voices of Dagara’s men, but Jhan didn’t recognize it as she had recognized theirs.
“Beautiful thing, even with that bitten lip.” Another strange voice.
“I owe a debt. You trained briefly in healing. Is this beyond your skill, Ekhal?”
“I am uncertain. He might be damaged inside.”
“This is an Ikhil, my Lord.”
Fingers touched impersonally and Jhan shuddered and groaned, begging whatever gods there were that this wasn’t part of the same hallucination.
“See. Here and here. This is a man, whether cut or born so, I can’t say, but it can’t be good to have been... ‘taken’ in such a place.”
“Are you certain? The breasts, the body...”
“There are plant mixtures that can cause such changes, my Lord. I can explain if you-”
“I don’t care to hear it, Ekhal! It is all filthy business to me. I only wish to know if you can heal It without troubling me or slowing us down. I only wish It to return to It’s master and report that I have repaid my debt to him by saving his creature.”
“I will try, my Lord.”
“More than try, Ekhal.”
“Yes, My Lord.”
Jhan was numb for a time, the voices flitting in and out beyond her ability to make sense of them. When they returned, louder and clearer, she felt hands on her again and wished vainly for the strength to open her eyes and defend herself.
“Not broken, Zerain, though I can’t guess how he came to be born this way. A mischance of nature, perhaps, or maybe there are others like him. See, we have one single joint in wrists and ankles. This one has the bone split up into many and there are many more muscles than normal. I can’t see how it works to advantage; I could easily snap them at any point. Still, they are very flexible, allowing hands and feet to act like springs; twisting in any direction easily.”
“I don’t care, Ekhal,” a low, husky, woman’s voice replied. “You spend far too long examining your patient, Sael. Be careful of your oath.”
“My oath is safe in my keeping,” Sael growled back warningly and there wasn’t a reply to that.
Movement, cloth rubbing against cloth, and the sizzle and smell of something cooking. Pungent incense mingled with grilling fish, both rousing Jhan from her near state of unconsciousness at last. Jhan blinked sleep encrusted eyes, trying to see in the dim light. Disoriented, she tried to make sense of the sheets of leather all about her, the glint of metal, and the figures that hovered at the edge of sight.
A tent, Jhan realized at last. She was lying among blankets and furs in a tent made out of hides. A metal brazier was positioned at the center, under a hole in the roof to let out the smoke, and a pan was being maneuvered over it with the frying fish being watched by a veiled woman. Zerain, Jhan recognized in numb amazement.
A figure was sitting by the open flap of the tent, half in and half out as if he didn’t care that he was letting in the cold. The red glare of a setting sun was dappling his bare face. Jhan didn’t know him until she saw the braid woven with a red scarf and the loose red scarf, set with glittering pins, the young man was passing absently through idle fingers. Sael.
Handsome, and maybe younger than Jhan had at first thought, Sael was whip thin and hollow cheeked. A proud nose gave his dark eyes intensity and they were set under brooding brows. His lashes were so dark that they made those eyes look lined with mascara. Sael noticed Jhan’s slight movement at once, looking at her with an alertness that told her he was ready for anything and not to make trouble.
Memory washed over Jhan as she struggled to sit up, trembling and lightheaded. Realizing that she was naked, she tried to pull a fur over herself, but fell back weakly when her senses refused to tell her how to keep her balance. The sickening disorientation of the Kaunut was gone, but she felt an odd, ringing numbness on the side of her neck where it had lain.
Zerain had finished cooking, slipping the fish onto a wooden plate and adding some roots beside them. Sael took the plate from her and made a sharp motion, signaling her to go. Zerain seemed stiff and unwilling to let him order her, but, perhaps, she couldn’t see a reason for staying either. She left with a slow, deliberate pace to spite him.
Sael shoved a water skin over to Jhan with his foot as he lowered himself, cross legged, to sit beside her. He put the plate and skin within her reach and covered her with the fur. His deliberate motion told Jhan she wasn’t about to be violated again.
“I want my clothes," Jhan demanded and was surprised at how hoarse her voice was.
“You weren’t wearing many of them when we found you dying in the snow,” Sael told her steadily. He moved a pile of clothing towards Jhan. She recognized only some of them.
Jhan hastily pulled on a shirt and her two sweaters before discovering a too large pair of pants that weren’t hers. Her face went hot, wondering how naked she HAD been.
Sael was aware of her embarrassment, despite his face being turned mostly away to give her privacy. “You had pants on, but they were ripped beyond repair,” he assured her. “Those are mine. You’ll have to belt them tightly and roll them up.”
Jhan did just that and put on her own socks and boots to warm her freezing feet. Feeling more secure, she tried to unobtrusively gauge her strength, wondering how much of the conversations she had heard had been real or an hallucination. Was she a prisoner? Would she have to escape? If only she could get rid of the ringing in her ear, she thought, she could think more clearly.
Sael was sitting quietly, but he moved to look at her again, body deceptively relaxed. He didn’t appear to be ready to ask Jhan any questions, as if her ordeal wasn’t of any interest to him. Instead, he waited, for what, Jhan wasn’t certain.
“Well?” Jhan finally prompted tensely. She tried to sit straight again, hands flat on the earth and feet braced as if she were on a rocking boat. She succeeded, just, but couldn’t help feeling as if she were about to lose her balance at any moment.
“You aren’t well, but my Lord Obahn’s patience has grown thin,” Sael offered in reply. “He intends to leave you in Okara, hoping that you will meet with your master? Companion? again and report that he has discharged his debt by saving you.”
Jhan leaned on one side and picked up the plate of fish and roots, asking dispiritedly, “Is this mine?”
Sael frowned and nodded. He watched her eat, Jhan not offering any reply till she had filled her aching stomach and set the plate aside. “Your Lord Obahn hasn’t saved me,” Jhan finally said, wiping at her mouth and pulling the furs and blankets over herself once more. “If this Okara isn’t where Ahlen is likely to go on the way to his Sun God, then I’m as good as dead.”
Sael didn’t ask the obvious question and Jhan stared at him, wondering why. Perhaps, he didn’t care. That seemed more than likely. It was also something she was growing used to. Jhan found that she couldn’t muster any outrage in response. After being kidnapped by Ahlen, because he imagined a goddess had ordered him to, Ixien’s whole hearted urging of Kelmus to take her, and Kelmus, at the moment of discovering that she was a woman, not considering any other action but to rape her, Jhan truly didn’t expect anything from Sael except another round of harsh, indifferent treatment.
So, it surprised her when Sael glanced briefly at the open flap of the tent and then said softly, “I know what you must be feeling now. When I was younger, I suffered at the hands of unkind men as well. Some think that, because we are what we are, that they can do as they please. I must do as my Lord commands, but where I may, I can help you.”
Sael didn’t know her past, Jhan thought. If he did, he wouldn’t be expecting her to fall apart because of one amateurish rape. Yet, despite her best efforts, Jhan couldn’t help thinking about her hallucination of Dagara’s men and the red hot irons. Kelmus’s filthy talk of ‘pokers’ and ‘little fires’ had probably unwittingly dredged it up from within her mind. After living through that, and many more such episodes of torture and degradation, a rough violation, however frightening and painful, wasn’t able to wound Jhan’s already jaded senses; at least not in a way that she could separate from the larger wound her mind had already been dealt by Dagara Ku Ni.
Shaking her head to clear it of dark memories, Jhan clenched her hands in the furs, replying tersely, “I don’t need your help. What that man did to me... I’ve suffered much worse.”
Sael wasn’t offended by Jhan’s rebuff. He seemed approving of her strength, nodding quietly, yet he didn’t looked wholly convinced that her words were anything other than wary bravado in the face of strangers.
Realizing that her pillow was a saddle, Jhan pushed backwards until it was a prop for her body. She let out a small sigh as she was relieved of finding her balance. “How far to this Okara?” she asked to bring the conversation back to less painful ground.
“A day,” Sael replied. “We’ve made poor time caring for you, and, now that you are awake, my Lord Obahn will be anxious to make that up at morning light. We’ll travel hard through tomorrow, stay the night in the rough country, and then meet with the Okarins in the safety of daylight. They are not a people to be trusted when there are only three riders and the smell of money about.”
Jhan gritted her teeth, face going hard. “And your ‘Lord Obahn’ is going to leave me with them? He must not care too much if I actually make it back to Ahlen to report his good deed.”
Sael didn’t look pleased either, but his shrug was stiff and accepting of something he must not have been able to change. “A debt is paid whether the recipient knows it or not. Obahn is fond of boasting. You owe this small journey, from your bed in the freezing snow, to his pride.”
Jhan closed her eyes and then opened them again, staring at a point past Sael’s shoulder. She was smoldering with anger and helplessness. “So, I was kidnapped by a stupid boy and dragged all the way to Owell, stolen by an enslaving rapist, escaped to almost freeze in the snow, and then saved by your lord because of a debt. Now I’m to be released in a town full of people you don’t trust, to await the man who kidnapped me in the beginning. I don’t see that my situation is improving any.”
“You are not dead,” Sael was quick to retort. “Do with that what you may, but I would consider that an improvement.”
Jhan wanted to be lectured to as little as she wanted to be comforted by this young man. She set her chin away from him. “I need to sleep. I’ll need my strength for the ride tomorrow.”
Sael stood up and looked down at her, considering. At last, with another glance at the tent flap, he said, “If you were kidnapped, and your father is a lord or an important man, you may be able to ask for Obahn’s protection. He is a Hyjar, a prince, your people say. He might feel honor bound to help you.”
Sael was trying to help her, Jhan realized, but her distrust and anger were too great to put aside even for a moment. “He might,” she replied bitterly, “but Obahn doesn’t have any way to help me. I have to find my way back to Ahlen. He-He has a hold on me. It’s useless to go into it, but I’ll die if I don’t reach him in time.”
Sael digested this information, trying to make sense of it, but, yet again, he didn’t pursue it with questions. It was so obvious that he fought with curiosity, that Jhan began to wonder if his silence was some sort of custom. He waited, as if giving her time to volunteer answers to his unspoken questions, but Jhan didn’t feel ready to oblige him. Finally, Sael settled his shoulders as if accepting ignorance, and Jhan watched him leave the tent, letting the door flap fall closed behind him.
Zerain re-entered the tent and began to unroll bedding. Her hidden face turned to Jhan as she worked and Sael’s reluctance to ask questions didn’t seem to pertain to her. “Ikhil,” she said softly. “I have never seen one before. I thought they were just old women stories. Were you born thus or were you cut?”
Jhan turned away from her, and the question, and pillowed her head on the saddle. She didn’t need a translation to know why Zerain had called her an ‘Ikhil’.
“Do you live as a woman or as a man?” Zerain persisted. “I could give you one of my scarves, if your bare face shames you.”
Jhan gnawed on her bottom lip and then released it abruptly when it shot pain through her face. She’d forgotten that it was already swollen and cut from her earlier bite. “Does YOUR face shame you?” Jhan asked tightly. “Is that why you wear a scarf?”
Zerain’s reply was proud, but tinged with another emotion that Jhan couldn’t identify. “I am Obahn’s wife. Only he, and those of his lodge, are allowed to see my face. I meant that, like an Ekhal, you might want to veil yourself from curious eyes and to signal that you are not a warrior.”
“What is an Ekhal?” Jhan wondered.
“One who doesn’t keep a lodge or a wife,” Zerain explained. “One who doesn’t have any interest in being a warrior. The scarf proclaims it so that a warrior will not make the mistake of challenging an Ekhal in battle.”
Jhan sank deeper under the furs and decided to be blunt. “I think you’re insulting me, though I don’t know why.”
“Offering you peace,” Zerain insisted, yet she didn’t sound sincere. “We are not in gentle lands and we may fight men before we leave you in Okara. I merely wished to offer you safety among Ekhal.”
“I am a woman, whatever you or Sael think to the contrary,” Jhan hissed, completely certain now that Zerain was insulting her.
Zerain, thankfully, didn’t pursue it further. She moved quietly about her duties and Jhan tried to sleep. The brazier kept the tent just above freezing, but the warm furs and blankets made up for it. Jhan tried to think of them as a warm embrace or a steaming tub of water, attempting to distract her mind from the worries of the next day and the inescapable replay of her recent ordeal. She had almost accomplished it when Obahn entered the tent, growling a loud command for Sael to stay outside and keep watch.
Jhan heard Obahn’s steps approach her. She tried to pretend to be asleep, unwilling to confront anyone else that evening. She could almost feel Obahn looking at her, her skin beginning to crawl as if it anticipated a crude touch at any moment. His body blocked the heat from the brazier and his shadow on her became so oppressive, Jhan almost gave up her pretense and opened her eyes.
“Such beauty,” Obahn said in his growling voice and Jhan firmed her resolve not to give away the fact that she was awake. “Shame that an Ikhil wears such a face.”
“My Lord?” Zerain's voice was full of daggers. Jealousy, Jhan thought, and the reason for the suggestion for Jhan to cover her face became clearer. “Surely such a being is as shameless as an Ekhal, but I did not think that you would-”
“Silence!” Obahn barked and Jhan was hard pressed not to flinch. “You are my youngest wife. You’ve not earned the right to be so familiar with me.”
“Forgive, my Lord,” Zerain didn’t sound convincing at being contrite, she was too proud. “If it is ‘keshun’, then I shall await your orders outside with Sael.”
“You try my patience, Zerain,” Obahn replied angrily. “Do you know me so little that you believe such as ‘that’ could stir me enough to forget myself?”
Obahn’s footsteps went towards Zerain and Jhan heard her sigh. “My Lord is strong and full of honor. Forgive me, that I wish you only for myself.”
“For now, you have me,” Obahn told her, his voice suddenly heavy and breathless. “You still have a son to bear for me, don’t forget, and I must plant the seed in your furrow. Keshun, Zerain.”
‘Furrow?’ Jhan mouthed, disgusted and growing even more disgusted when she heard the rather loud sounds of Obahn ‘planting’. She tried to cover her ears, muffling them between her hand and the quilting of the saddle, but the inexorable rhythm pursued her. It slipped between her fingers and melted into her dreams; dreams of Kelmus at first and then darker dreams of Dagara and a bed covered in black sheets.
(Racing into Darkness)
Jhan awoke, sore in every muscle, but stronger. She slowly climbed out of the furs and blankets to a frost filled morning like an old woman. She was alone and the contents of the tent had been emptied. A bowl of grain cereal sat close to hand and a brown cloak lined with fur. She ate, donning the cloak between mouthfuls. Finishing with both, she managed to stand and stagger out of the tent.
Obahn was standing far to one side in the morning light streaming through a break in the evergreen forest canopy. He was nursing a tin cup of something warm between his hands, staring off at nothing moodily while Sael harnessed the imala and Zerain bundled supplies. Sael was wearing the red scarf over his lower face and neck once more, the charms pinned to it glittering and clinking together as he moved. Zerain was a continuous flow of red gauze.
Jhan stumbled into a pile of skillets and cooking pans, scattering cookware with a loud clang and a grating slide of metal over rough metal. She recovered with difficulty. Though she felt better, and the ringing in her ear had faded to an almost imperceptible hum, she still found the ground underneath her feet as uncertain as the shifting sand on a beach. Grimacing at her weakness, she extricated her feet and crouched to pile the cookware back together again with one hand on her whirling head.
Obahn had half turned, his eyes catching the light and his scarred face unpleasant, despite the fact that it was ruggedly handsome. Pitching the contents of his cup aside irritably, he tossed the emptied cup to Zerain. She caught it deftly and added it to a pack she was lifting for Sael to place on an imala.
“Here,” Obahn growled at Jhan and pointed to a place at his side.
“Or what?” Jhan scowled darkly as she straightened with exaggerated care. She had been degraded and dragged unwillingly far enough. Desperate, despite the consequences, to regain some control over the mess that had become her life, Jhan ignored Sael’s alarmed, wide eyes, and Zerain’s hiss from beneath her veil. She crossed her arms over her small breast and stared at Obahn with what she hoped was defiance, rather than the fear and uncertainty she really felt. “Or what?” she repeated.
“Hmmph!” Obahn grunted and his eyes narrowed. He turned to her completely and caressed the hilt of his sword. “Are you challenging Hyjar Obahn Om Sukhelan, Ikhil?”
It sounded ritualistic and Jhan felt her stomach tighten. She lifted her chin and gave him the full force of her blue eyes. “I’m ill and weaponless. Challenging you isn’t my intention, but if you think you’re going to drag me somewhere, or try and treat me like an imala, well, I’ve had enough of that! If you want a fight, I’ll give you one!”
Obahn considered it for a full minute while Jhan felt sweat run down her sides. Finally, he shrugged, returning Jhan’s scowl with one of his own. “I see that you are brave despite being an Ikhil.” He gave Jhan a short nod. “I will stay my hand. I don’t relish dirtying my blade on one who is so obviously not a warrior. What are you called?”
Ahlen had introduced her when they had met above Owell, but she must not have been of interest to Obahn then. Jhan relaxed, a bit, and replied, ”Jhan Dor.” Two names signified common status. Three names nobility. Jhan had given Obahn what she considered her real name, stripped of all the titles and allusions to the old Jhanian that she hated.
“Jhan Dor,” Obahn repeated distastefully as if, the name being so short, she had announced that she were a slave or a wandering beggar. “You will travel with us to Okara, or take leave of us now and make your own way in this cold forest. Without supplies, I doubt that, even with such bravery, you could make it back to your lord.”
Finally a choice, Jhan thought bleakly, but too obviously a choice between death and death. “What sort of choice is that?” Jhan retorted, “How am I going to get back to Ahlen once you leave me in Okara? From what Sael’s told me, they don’t sound the charitable type.”
“Neither am I, Ikhil,” Obahn replied coldly. “I owe a debt. I will leave you with a few coins so that you may buy supplies. Returning to your lord will be entirely up to your own abilities.”
Jhan wasn’t naive. “I see what your plan is. I’m going to be the bait for the Okarins to chase while you and your people get safely away.”
Obahn’s jaw clenched visibly and his eyes were slitted in warning. “You accuse me of dishonor?”
“I’m not sure what YOU would call it,” Jhan replied, “but, you’re giving me my freedom with all the odds stacked against the chance that I’ll enjoy it for long.” She shrugged dispiritedly. “Still, it’s a chance I can’t refuse.”
“Though you look a woman, you speak as a man,” Obahn approved. Jhan put a hand to her mouth, looking down at the snow at her feet, as anger washed over her. She denied it an outlet. It was deadly clear that Obahn was too willing to draw his sword against such outbursts.
Obahn swung up on his imala and sat in the saddle with a leg crooked over the saddle horn, waiting for Zerain to pack the tent. Neither he nor Sael attempted to help as Zerain worked efficiently. The woman shrugged away a half hearted attempt by Jhan to help. Jhan wasn’t in any shape to have offered, but Zerain’s refusal was more out of pique than out of any sympathy for Jhan’s weakness.
“You will ride with me,” Sael told Jhan, reaching down a hand to help her onto the back of his imala. Jhan had to rely on Sael’s strength to get her seated and then she was obliged to hang onto the back of his coat in desperation. As the imala began to move, everything began to see- saw before her eyes alarmingly.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Jhan forced through gritted teeth not a mile down the road.
Sael’s shoulders twitched at the threat, but he didn’t take his attention off the narrow trail they were trotting down. “Stare at one spot on my back,” Sael suggested. “Concentrate only on that. It isn’t uncommon for people who have never ridden to become sick at the motion of an imala.”
“It isn’t that,” Jhan groaned as she attempted to do as he suggested. “That kaunut that bastard put on my neck is still making me dizzy somehow.”
“That’s not good,” Sael replied worriedly. “I don’t know much about them, but what I’ve heard never told about any permanent damage.”
“I hope I’m not the first.”
Jhan struggled with the sickness for another mile and then gave in, tugging at Sael’s sleeve. She could feel her face going white and her hands beginning to shake. Her voice was weak in her own ears as she begged Sael to stop. “Please, I have to get off!” When he ignored her, she slid off the back of the imala, stumbled, and fell to her knees as she vomited her breakfast onto the frozen ground.
Jhan collapsed onto her side and then rolled away from the mess she had made; waiting for the world to stop spinning and the red haze to leave her eyes. It was only a moment, but a moment where she took chilling notice that the imala hadn’t stopped for her and that the sound of their hoof beats was getting farther away.
Jhan rolled to her feet with a sob and blindly ran after them, ignoring the tipping of the earth under her feet and the sparks of color bursting behind her eyes. When she ran full tilt into the rump of Sael’s imala, she grabbed the flail like tail and dug in her heels. It honked plaintively and whipped its head back to bite her, breaking stride. Jhan took that opportunity to grab it by the nose and squeeze. It stopped, eyes alarmed, but quickly became obedient.
Jhan couldn’t see Sael, her head bowed as she tried not to faint. She wanted to shout curses at him for all she was worth, but she began to weep instead, unable to find the strength. When his hand touched hers insistently, she tried to pull away, ashamed of her weakness and her need for such indifferent people to help her.
“”If you do not get on,” Sael warned, “I will have to leave you. My Lord and his wife haven’t stopped. My place is with them.” His voice was neither cruel nor indifferent. It was urgent and full of concern for her. Sael didn’t want to leave her. That surprisingly small show of compassion gave Jhan the strength to move, release the imala, and allow Sael to pull her up behind the saddle once more. He wrapped her arms about his waist and squeezed her hands in a silent command to hold on.
They galloped, but it wasn’t for long. Just when Jhan thought that she would either faint or die, Sael slowed his imala down to a steady walk, falling in alongside Obahn and Zerain. Neither of them commented, but the air was heavy with Obahn’s displeasure.
Sael wetted a rag from a water skin and silently handed it back to Jhan. The water was very cold. Jhan shivered as she wiped the sickness from her face and where ever it had splattered her clothes. Grimacing at the smell and the taste in her mouth, she wondered what to do with the filthy rag. Sael took it from her and tossed it aside into some bushes.
Jhan sat back on the imala and kept her tenuous balance by gripping the baggage straps. It was foolish, she knew, but she couldn’t help her unreasonable reluctance to touch Sael even to save herself from a fall. It was, not only the aftermath of her experience with Kelmus, but a fear of all men that had been planted deep within her by Dagara. Sael had yet to show her that he could be trusted. Still, despite her aversion, she couldn’t help the slow sagging of her body as the whirling, ringing of her head took its toll. She was as surprised as Sael when her cheek finally rested heavily against his back.
Sael reached back to Jhan when she began to lose her seat altogether. His grip was firm and hard as he pulled her across his lap. She wanted to struggle, to protest, as he brought her upright in front of him and held her against his chest. He smelled of imala and too many campfires, but he was warm against her back and Jhan found herself relaxing against him, unable to do anything else. Closing her eyes against the sickening rhythm of the imala, she set herself to endure the ride.
The sun seemed stuck in one position, Jhan thought, as she urged it to set with all of her flagging might. The landscape remained the same, a dark forest blanketed in snow under a gray sky. It gave the entire day a nightmarish quality that threatened to go on forever. When Obahn finally judged that it was time to make camp for the night, and they brought the imala to a halt, Jhan couldn’t shake the sensation that she was still traveling.
Sael dismounted. When Jhan didn’t make any effort to do anything but lie over the pommel of the saddle, he reached up for her and pulled her down, lowering her gently to the ground. Jhan stretched out, face down, and gripped the earth with her fingers until the sickly vibration in her inner ear calmed to something bearable.
Zerain was putting up the tent, softly humming a tune, while Obahn and Sael unloaded the baggage, stepping around Jhan as if she were a rock in their way. Jhan ignored them in return, not bothering to stir from the freezing ground until she smelled the spicy flames of their braziers and the aroma of cooking meat. Then, she sat up, gripping her head and moaning as it began to throb from hunger as well as the stress of the day.
Obahn had gone into the tent with Zerain. Sael was busy with the imala, taking off their harness and tossing grain into feed bags. Jhan watched him in the lowering gloom. The scarf was like a wall, not inviting conversation and giving back nothing of Sael’s mood. With only his black eyes to look at, Jhan found it hard to say anything. Finally, she settled on simplicity. “Thank you, Sael.”
Sael looked at her then and said nothing in reply for so long that Jhan became uncertain. When he suddenly moved forward and gripped her arm hard, she flinched and raised a hand to defend herself. His grip loosened at once and he helped her to her feet.
“I am sworn Bhakali to Obahn,” Sael said at last, tight and low. “It isn’t my place to help you. It isn’t my place to do anything without my Lord’s orders. Fortunately for you, I am also Ekhal.”
Jhan backed away warily, rubbing the place on her arm where Sael had grabbed her. “I don’t understand what those words mean. Why are you angry?”
Sael’s next words weren’t an answer at all. “Did you choose to be made Ikhil?”
Jhan’s face went hard as she forced her shaking senses on Sael’s eyes, trying to fathom what it was he wanted from her. “No,” she replied truthfully. “I wanted this body to be a real woman, but what I received was some madman’s best attempt.”
“I don’t think you give him enough credit,” Sael bit back.
“You didn’t know him. I did.” Jhan half turned from Sael, hugging the cloak about her and trying not to let her mind go back into memory.
“I am your opposite.” Sael came around to make her look at him. “You want to be a woman and cast off your man’s body. What I want is to be a man entire. I desire to have a lodge, a family, and the scars of a warrior. I want to have a warrior’s heart and a warrior’s strength. Instead... I am Ekhal. It means that there isn’t any woman in the world I wish to have in my arms. It means that I will never have all those things that I desire. I have a soft heart, a maudlin gentleness that stays my hand and makes me feel sorry for ones like you. You owe your life to it, but this woman’s part of me has ruined my life.”
“What are you trying to say to me?” Jhan didn’t know how much longer she could stand there and, at the moment, the last thing she wanted to hear was this strangers life story. It didn’t have anything to do with her, she thought. She had enough of her own problems. “Why tell me any of this?”
“So that you understand how close you are to being cast into the snow again. Obahn doesn’t forgive weakness. He certainly doesn’t make allowances for it, debt or no debt, Jhan Dor.” Sael’s eyes were hard. “I am his Bhakali; his apprentice and sworn man. He can order me to do whatever he wishes and I am sworn to obey. If he were to know that I am helping you because of my Ekhal weakness, he may become angry and order me not to again. In his hearing, don’t speak to me. Don’t thank me. We are strangers and we must remain so in my Lord’s eyes.”
Jhan finally had to sink into a crouch and brace herself with her hands on the earth as Sael turned to finish with the imala. “You’re ashamed of having compassion?”
Sael’s back stiffened, perhaps taken by surprise that Jhan had cared only about that part of his revelation. “In my land,” he replied, “We have clan loyalty, oaths till death, and many blood feuds. Our land is very hard and war is common. A man takes many wives and fathers many children. We often die young with a weapon in our hand. To be Ekhal, not a warrior, and unable to father children for the clan, is a tragedy. To be Ekhal, and to also have a woman’s heart, is shameful.” Sael came to the point, cruelly blunt. “You are not of my clan. I should have less regard for you than an animal in the street.”
Sael finished with the imala and turned to Jhan. “Enough of this talk. I have explained what you must do and why. It is the custom of my people that men don’t ask personal questions of each other or speak of ourselves. I can’t even keep faith with that, you see, but must prattle like a gray beard over his drink.” Sael shook his head sharply and his eyes betrayed a grimace. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. My people are rid of me and I don’t have to struggle to keep faith with their ways any longer.”
With that cryptic remark, Sael began to stride towards the tent. “Come. You will need to eat and rest well before the morning.”
“I can’t.” Jhan replied angrily. “If you would stop talking about yourself for a moment you might realize that I’m about to collapse!”
Sael returned, more irritated than contrite, and took hold of Jhan’s already bruised arm, pulling her to her feet. She tried not to lean against him, but she was forced to, one step nearly toppling her over into the snow.
“Don’t beat yourself up over me,” Jhan seethed as Sael half carried her into the tent. “I’m not used to compassion anyway.”
Sael didn’t reply. Obahn’s eyes were on them. Instead, he put Jhan down, gently enough, on top of some furs and blankets near the brazier. Jhan piled the furs on top of herself, shivering there until the heat made a dent in the bone chilling cold. Only Jhan’s ears and hands continued to feel frozen and she lamented her lost gloves and hat. Running her stiff hands through her dirty, matted mass of black curls, Jhan had a thought. “I at least need a hat.”
Obahn blinked at Jhan from across the brazier. Zerain, cooking their dinner, was blocking Obahn’s sight. He had to lean sideways to see her. “A hat?” he repeated roughly.
“Well,” Jhan clarified softly. “I would rather have the Okarins think that they’re chasing a boy. It might make them a little less eager to catch me.”
Obahn grunted and smiled grimly as he tossed her a fur lined cloak with a hood. His eyes flicked to Sael, but Sael wasn’t looking at anything but the shadows the braziers were making on the tent walls. “If being made Ikhil gives such bravery, then at least one Ekhal should consider it.”
Jhan wasn’t being brave, she knew, only grasping at every advantage she could to stay alive. She could have said a great many things then, most of them aimed at Obahn’s cruel plans for her, but she pressed her lips together and only opened them to eat when Zerain handed her a plate of fried noodles, strips of meat, and a dried, caked vegetable with an orange hue. She had to conserve her strength, she knew, and wasting it arguing with a man like Obahn was worse than stupid.
Stomach full, and the awful taste in her mouth washed away, Jhan curled up under the furs and blankets until she didn’t have to look at her companions. Closing her eyes tightly, she tried to form some plan for the morning. Try as she might, though, she kept coming back to the same realization. Jhan didn’t know where they were. The forest was identical in every direction. Even if she could somehow find her way, Jhan knew that her inexperience was as deadly as any enemy.
“If my Lord is interested in Jhan Dor, then perhaps you should keep him with you,” Sael’s voice was low, but Jhan could hear it clearly above the crackling flames of the brazier.
“Why do you think that I’m interested in that?” Obahn was irritated.
“You stare, my Lord. Doesn’t that indicate interest?”
“Are you jealous, Ekhal?” Obahn’s voice changed to threatening. “You shouldn’t be. That creature has far more chance than you’ll ever have of being in my bed. It at least has the form of a woman.”
“A beautiful woman,” Sael agreed, unperturbed, ”but you mistake me. I am not jealous. I’m only looking out for the interest of my sworn lord. If you leave the Ikhil with the Okarins, I doubt you will ever see him alive again.”
“I’m more interested in our lives, Ekhal,” Obahn snarled back. “It cuts above any curiosity I might have for that creature. Besides, It is only curiosity. A game, I suppose. I keep trying to see the man that I keep hearing. Jhan Dor speaks to me as if It were a prince to command and It confronts danger with open eyes. I find that I respect that and that it makes me regret what I have to do with the creature. Yet, it is necessary. Jhan Dor must be the distraction for the Okarins while we get safely away.”
“My Lord,” Sael’s voice was stiff with his feigned obedience to Obahn’s will. Obahn wasn’t deaf to it.
“You are sworn to me, Ekhal,” Obahn warned and the danger came back into his voice. “My son allowed you your eccentricities, but I will not! You willingly gave me your oath and you will keep that oath till my death or your death. If it is you this creature ‘interests’, I will have your head on a pole, Sael Ruon!”
“I swore an oath to your dead son as well!” Sael snarled back. “If you think anything, even such as that, can shake me from that oath, then you may kill me now and I will not lift a hand to stop you.”
Silence, long and oppressive. Finally, as if both men had measured each other down to the last atom, Obahn growled in irritation. “I trust in your oath, Ekhal. It seems to be the only custom of our people you are not willing to break.”
“My Lord,” Sael returned, as chill as the night air.
Jhan had tensed, expecting violence. When normal sounds began again and Zerain began to hum a tune as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, she allowed herself to relax at last. Jhan didn’t attempt to figure out what they had been talking about. These people were complex and violent in their emotions and actions. She felt thankful to Sael for trying to help her once more, but Obahn’s accusations put another face on it. If both of them were interested in her, she had one more thing to be afraid of. A small part of her was looking forward to parting company with these mysterious, veiled people in Okara, despite the danger she knew she would be facing without them.
Jhan forced herself to sleep. Her body was ready, but her mind still wanted to find a solution to the morning’s life threatening dilemma. In seeming retaliation, her mind turned her anxieties into nightmares.
She was running in her sleep, Jhan realized. Voices called, whooping and shouting behind her; hunters getting sight of their quarry. Night was gathering. The darkness was her friend this time, offering protection in its shadows among the low skirted evergreen trees and the tumbled boulders. In the dream, Jhan knew that she only had to keep ahead for a little longer.
Which way? Panic overtook Jhan as she turned and turned about again, not certain if she had run in a circle and was now facing her pursuers. When she heard them call out again, frighteningly close, she was able to run in the right direction, but the fear that she would turn about once more, made her slow and uncertain. Too slow. They were going to catch her!
“Did you know that tree trunks all have a curious property?”
The voice was in her ear. Jhan stumbled and struck out at the air around her. Her eyes, trying to pierce the quickly falling darkness, sprang with tears. Nothing. Nothing touched her and her eyes couldn’t find the owner of the voice.
“Touch one. Go ahead. You’ll find I’m right.”
“What?!” Jhan shouted, choking on a sob. “Where are you! Why don’t you just get it over with?”
“Over with?” the voice was puzzled, but compassionate. “I’m afraid it’s only started.”
The darkness fell completely and Jhan stumbled forward blindly, hands outstretched and feet shuffling on uneven ground. When her hands barked up against a flat surface, she caught her breath. Fingers searched and felt the smooth, glossy surface of wood. A house? Had she found some sort of shelter? Her hands fumbled for a knob, found one, and turned it eagerly. She entered and found herself... Jhan choked on another sob.
She was home. Pekarin fortress. Her and Kile’s small apartment. That was her white fur rug over the hardwood floors. On the wall, was the painting of a meadow of wildflowers that Bheni had done for her as a wedding gift. In the room’s center, the glossy table and chairs that she and Kile had picked out together at the wood wright's shop. Against the far wall, separated from the room by a gauze curtain; the large bed that Kile had insisted on.
“Such a puny woman!” Caliya was trying to pull one of Jhan’s robes about her ample figure with little success. She was completely nude, her hair in a mussed, blonde, tumble about her shoulders. Her face was flushed with recent excitement. “What you ever saw in that sexless ‘stick’, my love, I’ll never understand! Well, once you grow used to a real woman, it will be better, I promise you.”
Jhan was frozen in the doorway, unable to move or speak from hurt and shock. Caliya was looking right at her, but she didn’t appear to see Jhan at all. The woman decided not to bother with the robe and she began to dress. “I’m going to tell my Mother of your decision right away, Kile,” Caliya announced happily. She laced her dress and then briskly combed out her hair as she continued, “She’ll be so pleased that we’ll be a family at last! I’ll return as soon as I may!”
Caliya gave the curtained bed a sweet, triumphant smile and then... walked right through Jhan and out of the doorway. Jhan gasped as something cold sliced through her. Whether it was Caliya’s passing or her heart breaking, she couldn’t tell, but it roused Jhan from her immobility at last. She walked towards the bed as if she were going to her own death.
Sprawled in his usual fashion, face down among the blankets and sheets, was Kile Helarion Dor. He wasn’t asleep. His eyes were staring as if from a skull at nothing at all and his jaw was clenching and unclenching as if he were going to shout his pain to the world. Slowly, Jhan lowered herself onto the bed, pouring out beside Kile and meeting his red rimmed eyes. He blinked, narrowed his eyes, and then looked as if he were going to be sick.
“I knew it was wrong,” Kile grated. “Now, not only do I feel like dying, but you’ve come to haunt my dreams as well.”
“Are you dreaming?” Jhan replied shakily. “I thought I was.”
“The dead don’t dream.” Kile’s voice went as flat as his expression.
Jhan sighed and rolled onto her back. Propped on her elbows, and tear filled eyes looking up at the plaster ceiling, she asked accusingly, “What were you trying to do? Forget me?”
“Forget you?” Kile echoed. “How can I forget half of myself?”
“I didn’t know what else to do,” Kile admitted bleakly. “I did it for the children. I didn’t want to deprive them of their father. I thought that I could just... go along with it; sink myself into a false life so deeply that I could forget about what really living, what real love felt like. I’ve been with a lot of women. If you close your eyes... well, a man can be with anyone if he doesn’t look too hard. I couldn’t. Not with Caliya. I kept thinking that she wasn’t you. I’ll have to tell her. Mother will be so disappointed. Lord Frelen is her Father. Mother was so looking forward to mingling our money with his through marriage.”
“Dhasra,” Jhan found the name springing from her lips, something her mind must have been working on all that time suddenly coming to the fore. Lord Frelen’s name had been the catalyst.
“What?” Kile blinked at her and Jhan turned to face him, her nose an inch from his, excitement welling up.
“Dhasra was the man who saw me in Owell!” Jhan remembered his small eyes and his large body. It had frightened her when she had first walked the hallways of Pekarin with Rehn. He had introduced himself as the master of Lord Frelen’s hunting birds.
Kile was going very pale. He was shaking his head, jaw clenching again and eyes closing tightly. “No! This is a nightmare! A trick of my mind! A cruel punishment for what I just did with Caliya.”
“What’s wrong?” Jhan demanded. She wanted to reach out and touch her love in concern, but her hand passed through him. He started and his eyes flew open as if he could feel it anyway.
“Dhasra came to me,” Kile explained as if to himself, going over the story as if he had said it over and over in his own mind one too many times. “He told me that he had seen you in Owell. No blue eyes like yours, he told me. There wasn’t any mistake.” Kile shook his head sharply again, his face twisting in pain. “He was drunk. He admitted as much. The man is always drunk! I wanted to break him between my hands for giving me that flicker of false hope. I knew it was just that though. I saw your body. I know that you’re dead! Now I’m torturing myself with these fantasies-”
Jhan left the bed in one motion, back turned to Kile and arms across her breast, holding herself tight. “This is my dream. I’m the one trying to give myself a fantasy of false hope. I’m going to be left in Okara in the morning. I-I’m very sure I won’t live long after that, or at least, not in a way I would call living. My mind couldn’t find an escape. Now it wants to hide in dreams. This isn’t real. You can’t be my white knight, Kile. I can’t pretend that you’re going to save me.”
Kile didn’t say anything. Jhan turned to look at him and found him and the entire apartment gone. She sagged in her dream and began walking again, trying to find the point where she could wake up and face what she had to face.
“You sleep like the dead, Jhan Dor,” Sael’s voice startled Jhan awake and she sat up and threw off her furs all in one motion. Too quick, her blood couldn’t keep up and her head spun. Jhan put a hand to her forehead and blinked rapidly until her eyes focused enough to see Sael, veiled and brooding, crouching easily beside her.
“Morning already?” Jhan groaned angrily and then pressed her lips into a thin line. Today she was going to be left with the Okarins, she reminded herself. Today might as well have been the day of her execution.
“I tried to dissuade my Lord Obahn from his decision,” Sael told her grimly. “He wouldn’t see the wisdom of my argument.”
Jhan didn’t thank him, remembering that part of the conversation too and that Sael might have his own reasons for trying to save her life. "I didn’t expect any last minute reprieve.” She managed to stand, looking around at the empty tent. “Nice of you to let me sleep, but don’t I get a last meal?”
Sael handed a bowl of cooked grain to Jhan. She took it and, since she didn’t have a spoon, she used her fingers to get the cold, stiff cereal into her mouth. Sael watched her without comment until she handed the now empty bowl back to him.
“Can you use a weapon?” Sael wondered doubtfully. “I might be able to-”
“I am a weapon,” Jhan told him, cutting him off, but despair was in her voice and he could hear it. Leaving Sael to trail behind her, Jhan walked from the tent with leaden steps. After her dream filled night, she hardly felt that she had slept at all, but what sleep she must have had seemed to have been enough to allow her inner ear to heal. The ringing had stopped and, Jhan discovered, the ground stayed steady under her feet. That was something, but Jhan didn’t allow it to give her any false hope. The cold was biting into her even under her thick clothes and she still sensed that she wasn’t completely well.
Zerain took down the tent and everything was packed in efficient silence. Obahn looked on edge, one hand on his sword hilt and his face scowling at nothing but his inner thoughts. Sael paced restlessly, checking and rechecking the harness on the imala. Jhan could only stand about idly, an outsider to their thoughts and plans. When Sael mounted his imala and held his hand down to help her mount behind him, Jhan felt relieved to finally get going, and then, in the next instant, fearfully wished that it had all taken longer.
“How much further?” Jhan asked in a low voice.
“Hours,” Sael replied evasively. “Hard to tell in this terrain.”
Jhan studied that terrain, the heavily skirted evergreens sunk deep in tumbled rocks and powdered with snow, the hard earth spotted with hardy bushes, and a blue sky peeking through the few non evergreen trees that had dropped their leaves. Those leaves were a sodden mess under the imala’s hooves, slippery and rotting.
“I’ll never find my way,” Jhan whispered dejectedly to herself.
“You weren’t trained as a man.” Sael couldn’t help a tinge of contempt in his voice. “I’m a ‘no man’s bastard’ and an Ekhal, but I was still taught what every man should know of forest craft, hunting, and fighting.”
“I’m not a man,” Jhan replied absently, not wanting to talk, but to concentrate on thinking up some plan that would help her.
“But you were born one,” Sael persisted. “I know that, even among your people, they follow the same custom.”
“You don’t know my people,” Jhan bit back.
Sael paused and then said carefully. “You were trained as a woman,” he didn’t frame it as a question and Jhan remembered that asking personal questions was against custom. “You were always treated as one by your people, even before you were cut.” That begged for a denial, a reply of some sort, but Jhan refused him.
“Give It peace,” Obahn growled curtly, “and me mine, Ekhal.”
“I’m not an ‘It’,” Jhan exploded, “and I’m not a man.”
"Hmm," Obahn breathed and then shrugged. “Call yourself what you will. I suppose it doesn’t matter in your case. By your looks, you never grew to full manhood anyway. Still, I wouldn’t have expected someone with your fierceness to hide behind the title of woman.”
“Women can be fierce too,” Jhan replied, but Obahn only barked a laugh and rode ahead.
“I’ve never seen him indulge such speech from anyone before,” Sael informed Jhan thoughtfully. “He’s left a trail of dead men who dared to be so blunt.”
“I’m not a threat,” Jhan guessed ruefully. “He probably thinks of me as a little dog, yipping and yapping.” When Sael looked back at her blankly, Jhan sighed. “Obahn thinks I’m puny, impotent, and therefore funny.”
It was so difficult to gauge Sael’s expression behind his scarf, but his dark brows knit. “I didn’t intend insult.”
Jhan shook her head. “You’re just morbidly curious, like everyone else,” Jhan sighed. “Most people are far too shocked and disgusted by what I am to get to the questions usually.”
“For Ekhal it is the same.” Sael’s eyes lightened and she thought he was smiling bitterly. “People don’t wish to know what we do or what we are.”
“That’s like saying, getting your feet wet is the same as drowning,” Jhan retorted, “but maybe you can understand why I don’t want to talk about it.”
Zerain was close enough to hear, her veiled face turned towards them. Jhan could tell that she had her chin tilted arrogantly. “Half men, the both of you. One of you cut and the other one as good as cut. That my husband should have such in his company... You are lucky he is in command of his outrage or you would both be tied out for the birds to eat.”
“Until you have his son, you are not any better than we are,” Sael whipped back. “Half- woman!”
That stung. Zerain flung her head back and then spurred her imala ahead to ride by Obahn’s side. Sael swore under his breath and Jhan raised eyebrows at the descriptive filthiness of it.
“I can’t have children either,” Jhan felt the need to say, as stung as Zerain. Her face grew hot with her flush of inner pain. “It was cruel to say that to her.”
“She forgets her place,” Sael replied defensively. “She is only a minor wife, but she fancies herself princess if she has Obahn’s longed for son. If she is unable to, she won’t even be a wife. She’ll be reduced to a maid for the other wives. A half-woman. I only spoke the truth she already knows.”
“Still,” Jhan persisted.
“I also cannot have children,” Sael told her, and she could see that it was painful to him. “The three of us are more alike than she would care to acknowledge. A band of misfits with a prince at our head. The Okarins may laugh themselves into a stupor rather than challenge our lack of strength.”
“I don’t suppose I can hope for that.” Jhan was bleak.
“No,” Sael said, as if it needed a reply.
The rocky terrain, slick with patches of ice and wetted by a sudden downpour of rain and sleet, slowed them down considerably. They rode into Okara near mid-afternoon and only one or two men sauntered out of hide covered houses to investigate the intrusion.
Jhan hid within the hood of her cloak and gripped the saddle of the imala, eyes already searching for an escape. She counted ten lodges, wisps of hearth fire smoke coming from their tops. To the right, her way was blocked by a half -frozen stream. To the left, she was blocked by rack upon rack of fish being smoked. Jhan’s only clear route was returning the way they had just come.
A pen of furry baku blew steam into the air at the villages center. The beasts looked old and ill used and their hooves were sunk in dung and mud. Baku never liked to run. They were too heavy for it. If she was going to be pursued, Jhan thought, it would most likely be on foot.
Sizing up the men, Jhan felt confident that the heavily furred and clumsy looking men wouldn’t be a match for her speed. Endurance might be another matter entirely though, and Jhan wasn’t at all certain that she would be able to outdistance them in a long race. She would have to be as clever as a fox, Jhan thought, and find a way to either erase her trail or hide until they gave up looking for.
Having finally formulated a plan, Jhan knew that she couldn’t waste any more time. “I’m going now,” was her only farewell to Sael as she slid off the back of the imala. Jhan stumbled as she tried to regain her balance. It still wasn’t what it should have been, but it was well enough to run.
Obahn had heard Jhan’s dismount, turning in the saddle of his imala, eyes keen. “Give her gear, Sael.”
Sael dropped gloves, too large, into Jhan’s hands, a scarf, and a small pack of provisions. Everything was patched, worn, and obviously not of importance. The small bag of food was only a token. None of them expected her to get far and they weren’t going to waste their supplies on her.
Jhan bundled the things into her arms and turned to hurry away. Obahn wasn’t about to allow that. Three more Okarins had come from a house, converging with the others as they approached. Obahn spoke very clearly. “Money for your trouble and food for your journey, Jhan Dor. Give my regards to your lord. Tell him, our debt is settled.”
“Go to Hell, Prince Obahn,” Jhan seethed equally loudly.
Obahn didn’t understand her reference, but he knew a curse when he heard it. He stiffened and his hand went to his sword. Calloused fingers stroked the hilt only momentarily before falling away, Obahn deciding that personal revenge wasn’t worth the disruption of his plans.
Obahn shifted in his saddle to face the Okarins. “We are only passing through to meet some of my warriors to the West,” he told them. “Since it is only a short distance, we will only require a few supplies from your people. Come and I will tell you our needs.”
Jhan glanced at Sael, but he wouldn’t return her look and he didn’t say anything. What could he say? In silence, Jhan turned, hurrying out of the village and back into the forest. Once she reached the cover of the trees, she began to run.
Jhan’s body, changed by Power, had the flexibility of a cheetah. She fairly flew over the ground. Unfortunately, that ground felt uncertain under her feet, as if it threatened to tip at any moment. Compounded by the wet leaves and slick patches of ice, Jhan’s exceptional reflexes were the only thing keeping her from falling face first.
When her energy was finally spent, Jhan slowed to a fast walk, hand to her aching side and breath gasping in and out of her burning lungs. She watched her feet, trading speed now for stealth, making sure she left as little trace to follow as possible.
As to which direction she was going in... Jhan at first tried to keep her eyes ahead and not allow the forest to make her turn right or left to avoid trees and rocks. She quickly found that impossible. Following the sun, she was even less successful. There were simply too many trees in the way of the sky. Remembering the nightmare where she had run in circles, Jhan finally halted, sitting on a fallen log to think and rest.
“Did you know that tree trunks all have a curious property?” The voice from Jhan’s dream came to her again, but so distinct and ‘present’ that she stood, unnerved, and actually looked about as if she could find who had spoken.
There wasn’t even a bird call. The forest was eerily silent except for her own breathing. Jhan walked over to a tree and touched the trunk with a gloved hand, feeling foolish; grasping at straws. The bark was rough on one side, tracked by insects and covered in a thin moss. On the other side, it was still rough, but clean of moss and insects. And that meant?
Jhan went to two other trees to be sure and found the same condition on all of them. What did it mean? The fourth tree didn’t have that condition and neither did a fifth. Why? Jhan backed up from them and gave that area of forest a wider look. The trees were all in shaded darkness. The sun rose in the East, Jhan knew, and the wind mostly blew from the West. Okara was West. If the sun reached the trees in the morning and mid afternoon, and then was mostly blocked by the mountains to the West in the later afternoon, it would follow that the plants and the insects that fed on them would prefer one side of a tree over another. It would also follow that the trees that were bare on both sides never saw the sun.
Jhan smiled grimly. Follow the moss. How she had known about it in a dream, she couldn’t be sure, but it was turning out to be good advice. She would at least not walk in circles now. With that worry gone, the rest piled up for attention. Soon the sun would set and the cold would settle in for the night. Jhan knew that she would have to seek a shelter, some place closed in and small where she could use her body heat to survive the night and to hide from her pursuers.
Jhan began walking quickly again, eyes scanning the forest for shelter. When nightfall began to creep into the forest, and she still hadn’t found anything, she began to be anxious. She hadn’t heard any sounds of pursuit, but death was at her shoulder, waiting for her to make a mistake. In the end, Jhan decided that stopping for the night would be that mistake. While she was moving, she was warm. She doubted that she had enough body warmth to carry her through the night without shelter, fire, or anything other than her clothes and her cloak for protection.
Jhan peeled off a glove and flexed her fingers in the cold air. She touched a tree trunk experimentally and felt the flaking bumps of the hardy moss. It would be her only guide in the darkness and Jhan wanted to be sure that she would know it when she touched it.
Wishing she felt more confident, Jhan took a last rest on a fallen tree and opened the provisions Obahn had given her. In the bag, Jhan discovered a few hunks of dried meat and several pressed cakes of fruit. Enough for two meals. The money Obahn had spoken of was conspicuously absent. Jhan wasn’t surprised. Obahn had known that he was sending her to her death.
After eating a quick meal, Jhan took a deep breath and began walking again. Her next rest, she knew, wouldn’t be until sunrise. She set herself an easy pace and hoped that it was enough to keep her ahead of the Okarins. She almost doubted that they were even following her and then put it from her thoughts. If she wanted to live, she had to assume that they were.
It began to rain, light and icy, and Jhan gritted her teeth and pulled the leather hood of her cape up and over her face. As the sun set, and the darkness became complete, the cold became bone numbing. Combining with the wet, Jhan could hardly feel the fingers she ran over the bark of the trees she passed. Several times, she paused to make sure, holding her hand under her cape until it warmed enough to regain some of its feeling.
The uneven ground became treacherous with the wet. Jhan stumbled and fell time and time again, scraping knees through her pants and adding bruises on top of bruises. With every step, she grew more fearful that she would fall and break a leg, or tumble down into some unseen ravine, yet she knew that she couldn’t stop. The cold was becoming too intense.
Towards midnight, the rain turned into snow. The gentle flakes were deceptively beautiful as they drifted down through the trees. The wet ground froze and patches of ice formed over puddles. Jhan’s legs, wet and then frozen in turn, were becoming as numb as her hands. She could feel her feet burning in her boots.
Jhan’s body begged to sit down and rest. It was hard to deny it. The pain of that longing became exquisite, a siren song she had to ignore with every ounce of will within her. She drew on a strength that had been honed in the long torture filled days of her captivity with Dagara Ku Ni. He had taught her to suffer and to endure anything, because she had never had a choice not to. Under his cruel hands, she had learned to leave her body behind and to escape the pain that had never ceased. Jhan reclaimed that skill, using it to drive her body forward while her mind stepped back and closed itself off from everything it was feeling. Her body would keep walking this way, Jhan knew, until she died on her feet.
“Jhan?” The voice reached Jhan distantly. She kept walking and the name, her name she slowly realized, kept being repeated urgently. When hands took hold of her, Jhan felt a heavy weight anchor her, stopping her inexorable forward momentum.
There was heat, delicious, burning heat that worked its way through wet and frozen clothes to equally frozen skin. Jhan’s boots were pulled off, along with her socks, and the blocks of ice that were her feet were bathed with something wet and hot. All of Jhan’s clothes were removed in the end, and blankets were piled all around her. She felt softness beneath her and warmth on her face. Jhan fell asleep, not caring who had saved her.
Jhan opened sleep encrusted eyes. Smoke, from the glowing coals of a campfire, danced in lazy spirals up to a hole in the roof, filling her nostrils with its acrid scent along with the rich aroma of cooking food. Beyond the fire, was a stone wall flickering with shadows. Jhan moved her head slowly, following the wall with her eyes until she realized that she was in a very small cave. The narrow doorway was blocked by the mournful face of a baku standing outside in the cold. The baku was black. Jhan recognized it as her own.
“Ahlen?” Jhan breathed and sat up stiffly, pulling blankets tightly about her in trepidation.
“Here.” Ahlen stepped from his own bed of blankets, putting aside a metal cup steaming with a hot drink. “How are you feeling?”
“Like a piece of meat that was left in the freezer too long,” Jhan replied weakly. “How did you find me?”
Ahlen crouched so that he wasn’t between Jhan and the heat of the fire. The roof of the cave was low and he couldn’t stand comfortably. “You found us. I was tending the baku outside of the cave when you appeared, walked towards me, and then walked past me as if I hadn’t been there.”
“I’d been walking all night,” Jhan explained. “It was so cold. I think I passed out on my feet and my body didn’t have sense enough to fall down.”
After spending time with dour Obahn, Sael, and Zerain, it was odd to be confronted with Ahlen’s open face and its childlike expressions. “Tell me what happened,” Ahlen demanded in a rush. “Tell me why you disappeared that night in Owell. Weren’t you afraid of dying? How did you get so near Okara? Why didn’t you try and return home?”
Jhan silenced Ahlen with a hard look and then her eyes searched the cave. When she saw Ixien, sitting straight backed and unconcerned in a dark corner, she felt a flush of anger so hot that it rivaled the campfire. “Didn’t he tell you?”
“What?” Ahlen wondered, perplexed. “All I know is that I bought supplies and came out to find you missing, Ixien as blank as a khurie stone about where you had gone.”
“He let a man take me away,” Jhan explained in a clipped, dead tone. “That man was going to feed me to some sort of monster in a pit, but he found out that I was a woman and decided to rape me instead. I managed to escape. Obahn and his people found me and took me with them to Okara. Obahn set me up to be a decoy while he escaped the Okarins notice. The Okarins aren’t above robbing their customers, I’ve heard. I ran as far and as fast as I could.”
Ahlen had gone white. He slowly turned to look at Ixien. “Is this true? Did you let a man take Jhan away?”
Ixien finally showed one expression; annoyance. “It was determined to hinder our journey. I did not know what the man intended, but I thought we were well rid of It. I am still of the same mind, Ahlen Kantori. We do not need an unwilling companion.”
Ahlen’s jaw worked and then he looked back at Jhan, pain in his eyes. “You-You were raped?” When Jhan nodded, he sat down heavily, his face going into his hands. “I swore to protect you. I should never have left you with Ixien. His ways are not ours. He doesn’t understand...”
“Are you defending what he did to me?” Jhan could hardly believe it and then she pressed her lips firmly together and turned her face away. It was a long, tense minute before she could speak again. “I’m a thing to him, Ahlen. Property to be handed over. An inconvenience. If you excuse that... you’re even crueler than I imagined.”
Ahlen’s voice came tense and low, begging her to understand. “I need him, Jhan. I couldn’t have made it this far without his help. What he did to you, it horrifies me that he could think so little of you, but I can’t turn him away. If I do, I might as well sit out in the snow along with you, because we will die anyway without his help.”
Jhan wanted to strike him with all of her skill. Her anger and helplessness were almost more than she could bear. Ahlen sensed it, moving back from her to crouch near the opening of the cave. Without a close target, Jhan regained her self control with a shudder, hands clenching in her blankets and head bowed against her knees.
Ahlen waited a long while for her to calm down. When he thought it was safe, he spooned a thick stew, from an iron pot over the fire, into a wooden bowl, stuck a piece of flat bread into it, and poured a hot, spicy smelling drink into a tin mug. Bringing it over to Jhan, he stretched out his arms to put it into her reach, but kept himself out of that reach at the same time.
Backing away, Ahlen crouched nearby again and watched her with a pained expression on his face, saying, “This isn’t turning out the way that I thought it would.”
That brought Jhan up from the concealment of her arms. Her face, red from anger and silent weeping, flushed hot again as she skewered Ahlen with her blue eyes. “Are you so innocent? What WERE you expecting?” Jhan’s voice lashed Ahlen with her contempt and outrage.
Ahlen’s face flushed too, but not from anger. “The world is so cruel and strange. I didn’t know I would have to rely- I thought I could protect you. I thought honor, determination, and the Goddess would be enough to see us all through.” His face shook and went pale now. “When you told me what you were, and even knowing that you were married, I never imagined that you could have been made enough like a woman for a man to- to be with you. I didn’t know that I would have to guard you against that, especially after the way you defeated Theon.”
Jhan held her blankets tight against her. “You undressed me. You tell me if I’m enough of a woman.”
Ahlen nodded stiffly. “I am inexperienced in such things, but, yes, If you hadn’t told me, I might not have guessed. I-I know that you can’t forgive me. I don’t think I will ever forgive myself, but it doesn’t change anything. I know that I still have to take you with me.”
“Your sister is worth so much?” Jhan shouted back in anguish.
Ahlen flinched. “Yes, to me she is, but there are other considerations that make it impossible now for me to turn back.”
Ahlen was reluctant to say. Finally, he offered a short explanation. “The Goddess Scherial is helping me. I feel it. She wishes me to be successful. The gods are cold and indifferent to our lives Jhan. That Scherial should take notice of me and help me-”
“So you believe!” Jhan cut him off. “You’re deluding yourself, Ahlen. It’s all superstition and nonsense. You’re just trying to justify everything you’ve done to make yourself feel better and to reassure yourself that you’re doing the right thing. Well, I won’t let you do that! A goddess didn’t make you kidnap me and take me away from everything that made my life worth living. A goddess didn’t poison me with parasites. A goddess didn’t leave me with someone like that!” she pointed a stiff finger at the dispassionate Ixien, ”To be given to the first man to come along so that he could rape me!”
Ahlen acted as if each of Jhan’s sentences were a blow, but he firmed his jaw resolutely and refused to be cowed. “For one that has Power, you are curiously blind to what is possible in the world.”
Jhan closed her eyes tightly and simply tried to breathe through her emotions. Finally, she opened them and stared at nothing, totally defeated. “You should have let me keep on walking.”
“I need you. I need Ixien,” Ahlen replied as he began rummaging through a pack. He took out a bundle of cloth. “Here. Your pants were ripped. You’ll have to wear a pair of mine. Your other clothes are there, next to you.”
Ahlen turned his back on Jhan and she slowly dressed, not telling Ahlen when she had finished. He continued to sit with his back to her, hands doing something in front of him. Jhan turned her attention to Ixien. “I won’t forget what you did to me, Caefu.”
“I am capable of defending myself,” Ixien replied distantly. He seemed to be staring through Jhan as if she were as unimportant as the cave walls all about them.
“I’m not that kind of person,” Jhan explained grimly. “I meant, when you need me, and you will on this long journey, I won’t be there. I want you to know what it feels like to be that helpless. I want you to be just as afraid as I was.”
“It isn’t even winter and you nearly died walking in the night,” Ixien replied. “You are weak and disfigured. I am one with the elements and the Ahnali have given my people abilities. I will never require help from one such as yourself.”
“Never say never,” Jhan warned darkly.
“Never make threats to those who are stronger than you,” Ixien returned.
“Enough,” Ahlen tried to sound commanding, but failed. He turned about and held a cup out to Jhan. She took it questioningly. “The medicine,” Ahlen explained, “for the parasites.”
That made Jhan’s anger go cold. She drank the mixture tentatively. It tasted like tea, an odd under flavor pungent, but not unpleasant. She tossed the empty cup back to Ahlen. The coldness had reached her eyes and he couldn’t meet them.
Jhan ate her food and sipped at the hot cider like drink in its tin cup. Warm and with a full stomach, she felt almost human again. She didn’t feel as if she had nearly escaped freezing to death. Her body was too good at recovering. Her mind fervently wished for something to be wrong, some weakness she could claim that would force Ahlen to stay in that cave until she could pull herself back together.
“We need to get moving.” Ahlen forestalled any argument by beginning to drag their baggage out of the cave. “Maybe, if we hurry, we can catch up to Obahn.”
“I was trying to escape the Okarins,” Jhan reminded him tersely. “You don’t want to run into them without any weapons. Besides, Obahn isn’t indebted to you any longer. He considered saving me repayment enough.”
Ahlen shrugged, tossing his words over his shoulder as he left the cave. “We’ll avoid Okara and shadow Obahn. If he is still traveling in the same direction as we are, it would be foolish not to follow him.”
“Why should you stop being foolish now?” Jhan muttered.
Ixien stood in one, fluid motion, and walked out of the cave after Ahlen. Jhan glared after him. It didn’t help her to know that she had been right about Ixien from the start. He had secret reasons and secret plans that didn’t have anything to do with companionship or ignorance needing a guide. Jhan was certain he had picked them for a purpose, or at least Ahlen. He’d already shown how contemptuous he was of Jhan, and how willing he was to get rid of her. Those emotionless eyes had regarded her in a calculating manner that put Jhan on guard that he would attempt to get rid of her again.
Weighted with the burden of that knowledge, and all that she knew was before her, Jhan wanted to curl up in her blankets and refuse to move. When Ahlen returned, it took all of her will to get to her feet and allow him to wrap those blankets up and pack them with the rest of their gear. She covered her anguish by putting on her cape and gloves; bracing herself to go back out and face her enemy, the cold.
“How are you feeling?” The question was perfunctory, Jhan knew. It didn’t matter what her answer was, Ahlen was still going to leave.
“Sore. I’m not used to walking. Some of my skin feels tight, like a sunburn.” Jhan looked down at one of her hands. It was the hand that she had left out of its glove to feel for tree moss. The skin there was red and dry.
“I don’t see any frostbite,” Ahlen declared after leaning closely to look. He straightened and motioned towards the mouth of the cave. “We have to go, Jhan.”
“No, we don’t,” Jhan replied. “It’s your decision.” but she went anyway, knowing that it didn’t make any difference.
It was near mid-day, Jhan realized, as she stepped into the sun dappled clearing at the mouth of the cave. The cave opening was only a tumble of rocks along a hillside. Even though it was straddled by the roots of several large trees, it was still plain for anyone to see, and that disturbed Jhan. The Okarins could have found them easily. She began to doubt again that they had followed her at all.
The baku were saddled and slung with baggage. Jhan took the reins of her beast and patted it absently on the nose before she mounted and settled in the saddle with a sigh. Her legs were so stiff and sore, Jhan knew, that she wouldn’t have made it two yards on foot. It was a relief to rely only on her balance, as shaky as that still was, and to augment her poor warmth with the baku’s furnace like body heat.
Ahlen mounted his sand colored baku and took the lead. Ixien, wraith like and inscrutable, stayed on foot, walking easily over the uneven, rocky ground. His skin and hair became almost translucent when the dappled light touched him and that made him seem more ethereal than ever.
It wasn’t long before Ahlen stopped, staring about them with a frown. Jhan rode up even with him. “What is it?”
“I only know to follow the road,” Ahlen admitted. “If we can’t do that, I’m not sure how we can find our way.”
“Follow the moss,” Jhan suggested.
Jhan pointed to the moss on the side of a tree. “It grows on the East side. I used it to walk in the right direction last night. Just use it to go West now.”
Ahlen accepted that, but he didn’t look as if he felt any easier. “That still won’t show me how to avoid the Okarins. There’s a narrow pass through the mountains. Their village nearly blocks the way.”
“Nearly?” Jhan repeated.
“So I’ve been told.”
“You’re the leader,” Jhan reminded him unsympathetically. “You make the decisions and you find us the way. You know I’m not about to help you.”
“Yes, I do know it,” Ahlen replied sourly, but accepted his responsibility and urged his baku back into the lead.
They hadn’t gone a yard, when Ixien, who hadn’t stopped for their indecision, came hurrying back. “Off the trail! There are men coming our way.”
They pulled into a thicket behind a fallen, giant tree. Ahlen dismounted to obliterate their tracks. The ground was too hard to allow for many marks and he only had to scatter handfuls of snow and dead leaves to cover them. Nobody questioned the feeling that they had to hide, least of all Jhan.
“Cover their noses,” Jhan quickly suggested. Jhan covered the nose of her own baku with a corner of her cape and Ahlen grabbed the bridles of the other two and brought their noses against his chest. They all held their breaths, hoping that the baku wouldn’t give away their position.
A dozen men came striding along the trail. Faces tanned and weathered like leather, the Okarins had slitted, glittering eyes, and down turned, hard mouths. Even in their heavy furs, they moved swiftly, eyes on the ground as they cast about for tracks. Jhan took one look and then closed her eyes, shivering and terror stricken that they might be discovered.
“There.” One Okarin pointed a gloved finger at the ground. “Other tracks as well, covered over, but fresh. Too muddled to make out much, but I think they are heading West.”
“They couldn’t have passed us in the night. “ Another man stood straight and looked about, a hand stroking a short, black beard. His narrow eyes scanned the forest about them. “Probably travelers trying to slip past Okara, or maybe heading to Osira Southwest. It’s still worth a look. Trading's been too slim to let any travelers get by. Yaku! Take four, back trail, and try and find them. We’ll continue after this one. The tracks are still plain. Tell me again, Mikona, how beautiful this one’s face was.”
“Like the sun, or the bright moon,” another began to say as they split up and headed in different directions. “Eyes like the jewels we dig up, rare and a hue of blue no man has ever seen. Hair, black as night skies, and curled like the pelt of a prize baku. A woman, I was certain, though she tried to hide in a cape...”
The voice drifted and then was lost behind trees. Jhan didn’t move or open her eyes until Ahlen touched her arm in concern. She flinched away and glared at him. “They’ll see, quick enough, that we aren’t down the trail. They’ll come back.”
Ahlen nodded. “We need to get far away before that happens.”
“They know this place. We don’t,” Jhan retorted in despair. “There isn’t much hope, Ahlen.”
“I will protect your honor,” Ahlen insisted as he mounted his baku and they left the trail, heading further into the forest where the leaves and debris hid their tracks.
"Unarmed?" Jhan mocked darkly. “How will you be able to save my life if they find us?”
Ahlen’s face was set with an expression Jhan hadn’t seen before. It was suddenly more mature. “I said your honor, but I will try to save your life as well.”
Jhan understood his meaning then, but Ahlen spoke as if he were parroting words from memory, something he might have heard in childhood. If the moment came, Jhan didn’t have any confidence that Ahlen could carry out his promise.
(Teeth of the Cold)
The trees grew thick and the boulders larger the closer they approached the mountains. Jhan was torn between being glad and being apprehensive. On one hand, they had ample cover to avoid the Okarins. On the other hand, they couldn’t see those self same Okarins. The forest was worse than a maze. A wrong turn could, too easily, lead to enemies rather than dead ends. Ahlen relied on the moss to find their direction, but it was a poor guide to find their way through the increasingly treacherous ravines and ridges of stone that began to block their way. Jhan thought of the straight, easy road she had taken with Obahn, but tried not to long for it as she was forced, again and again, to dismount and walk a difficult part of the journey.
Exhausted, Jhan saw a flat stone and sat on it, the reins of her baku in one limp hand as she sagged and tried to get a full breath. The air was becoming thinner, but Jhan knew that it wasn’t only lack of air that was causing the sudden burning in her lungs and the beginnings of a dull ache below her navel. She was too familiar with the signs of sickness by now to even attempt to delude herself to the contrary. It seemed that Kelmus wasn’t to be forgotten just yet.
Jhan looked up and saw Ixien staring at her with his crystal eyes. Ahlen, unaware that she had stopped, was still trying to get his baku and the pack baku over a rocky scree. Jhan pressed her lips into a thin line and glared defiantly back at Ixien as she stood and began to face the same scree with her baku.
The fever started towards evening. Jhan felt sweat bead on her face, chilling in the cold air. She pulled her hood up to hide the red flush of her cheeks and the sick, glitter in her eyes. She wanted to stop and make camp, her lips moving as they tried to utter the words, but she knew that they couldn’t stop. The darkness was their friend. They had to hide within it to get around Okara. It was something that didn’t need saying. Everyone knew where their best chance lay.
When they topped a rise, they spotted the hearth fires of Okara to their right, wisps of smoke dancing in and out of the trees. They were close, too close for Jhan’s comfort. Ahlen must have thought so too. He turned left and they took an even more treacherous route down the mouth of a ravine. It was several long hours before they found a way for the baku to climb out again.
It was Ahlen now who sat down heavily on a fallen log, head bowed and body a barely outlined shape in the darkness. “I don’t feel well,” he muttered, “and I don’t think we’ve moved forward a foot in all of this time. The Okarins knew what they were about when they built their village. Their road must be the only passable one.”
“We must return to the road,” Ixien agreed. “We must travel through Okara, buy enough supplies to satisfy them, and then continue. If it is the Half- Creature they want, then you must give It to them, Ahlen Kantori.”
“I won’t allow that, Ixien,” Ahlen growled back wearily.
“Consider,” Ixien returned, dispassionately logical, ”You told me that your goddess had expressed her wish that you take It-”
“I have a name!” Jhan exploded, fists clenched.
Ixien continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “-with you on your journey. Perhaps this is the reason. Perhaps your goddess knew that you would need It for just this moment.”
Ahlen was silent and still. Jhan wondered, outraged, if he were actually believing Ixien, and then, he let out an exasperated, half- strangled noise and Jhan heard him begin to pace. “It doesn’t work like that Ixien. Jhan will make her purpose known all on her own. That is the way fate works. She may give herself willingly to the Okarins to save us, or things may take a bad turn and it will happen anyway, but I mustn’t CAUSE them to happen.”
“But you took It because of your goddess,” Ixien persisted. “How is that different?”
Jhan could hear Ahlen stop pacing, but he wasn’t in the mood to argue semantics in the cold and dark. “It just is, to me at least, Ixien. Accept that.”
“I don’t think I want to stand around why you decide my fate in front of me,” Jhan seethed. “Let me make the decision. I hate to say it, but I think Ixien is right. We have to go through Okara and hope we don’t get skinned before we catch up to Obahn.” Jhan gave Ixien a hard look. “Sorry, but I won’t be handing myself over to them to make things easier for you.”
Ahlen groaned and Jhan heard his joints pop as he stretched. “Let’s go then. We’ll have to take the ravine back to the village.”
Jhan wanted to groan as well, but she bit her still healing lip instead and used the sharp pain to keep her feet moving and her mind alert. As she fell in behind Ahlen and they began the long journey back, she used her time afoot to catch handfuls of mud and rotted leaves and rub them everywhere she could reach. She turned her cloak inside out, doing without the inner fur lining so that she would look as far removed from the woman the Okarins had first seen as possible.
By the time they reached the end of the ravine and topped the rise overlooking the Okarin village, Jhan was a filthy boy on a sweated baku. The stench alone was enough to keep anyone’s interest at bay, Jhan thought, let alone her mud smeared appearance.
“We can only hope that we look poor enough not to bother with,” Ahlen said as he looked back at them. There was a full moon and it lit them up where they stood on the rise. Ahlen blinked at Jhan’s strangely dark skin and then flared his nostrils as he caught her stench. Ixien glowed ghostly pale and looked even less human than usual. “or too strange,” Ahlen finished.
“I think anything we have is enough for them,” Jhan warned. “Just give them enough money to make them leave us alone, Ahlen.”
“It’s for Tsarianna’s priests,” Ahlen lamented stubbornly.
“It’s for our lives now,” Jhan snapped back. “Don’t be stupid.”
“You fear for yourself,” Ixien observed. “We wasted time in the wilderness to save you from them. We could have entered their village, paid what was needed to satisfy them, and been on our way long before now.”
“Do you really think those men on the trail were interested in trading?” Jhan snarled back.
“They were perusing you,” Ixien was relentless with his facts. They were all true, but cold blooded in their conclusions.
Ahlen wasn’t ready to be that compassionless. He shook his head sharply. “Enough! We’ll take our chances. I doubt they will recognize Jhan now and they might not think that we are the wandering travelers they’ve been searching for.”
“Always the optimist,” Jhan mocked.
“Enough, I said,” Ahlen’s voice was different, Jhan thought as she mounted her baku and followed him down towards Okara. He sound ill. What would happen if both of them became too ill to travel? Left up to Ixien to care for them, she could guess what would happen.
They entered the village very early in the morning. Jhan held onto a slim hope of riding through while everyone slept, but a man was standing watch and he called the alarm to the others. Once again, Jhan saw the slow shuffle of heavily furred men coming out of their hide houses. She ducked her head into her cloak and tried to twist her face into a suitably ugly expression.
“Grain for the baku,” Ahlen called to them. “Dried fish and meat, if you have it, and at least eight cakes of fat.”
“Kioni root,” Jhan whispered to Ahlen. “Lopnar herb.”
Ahlen looked at her only briefly, puzzled, but knew that he couldn’t argue now. He repeated Jhan’s request loudly. A man nodded to the others, as if he were the leader, and then stood and stared silently at them while his men gathered together what Ahlen had asked for.
“Bad time for travel,” the man finally said when most of the supplies had been handed up in neat bundles to Ahlen. “Storms come down the pass. Wipe out the road for days, sometimes weeks.”
“We’re meeting warriors down the road,” Jhan whispered.
Ahlen swallowed. “We’re meeting warriors down the road,” he repeated loudly, but his voice held a note of uncertainty. “They’ll get us through.”
The man grunted, curious to have so many travelers meeting warriors or not fooled at all, it was hard to tell from his leathery face. “Many lean bandits,” the man continued. “Bad if you’re carrying fine goods or enough money to interest them.”
If he was relying on Ahlen’s innocence to give them away, he was disappointed. Jhan was holding her breath, ready to lash her baku into a gallop if Ahlen should reply the wrong way. When Ahlen said, ”We’re poor travelers. Pilgrims to the Sun God. We’re relying on His good graces to see us through,” Jhan could hardly stop her sharp exhalation of relief. “My brother needs the Sun Priest’s healing prayers. He has a wasting disease. I suppose you can smell him even from where you’re standing.”
The Okarin flared his nose and then wrinkled it distastefully. “On your way then. We don’t want sickness here.”
The Okarin held up a gloved hand, but it was creeping, as if he thought Ahlen might give the wasting disease to him along with his money. He didn’t tell Ahlen the cost of the supplies. Ahlen simply began dropping coins into the man’s hand. He stopped twice and twice the man refused to close his hand. At last, fuming, Ahlen swore at him. “That’s nearly all I have!”
“Winter is hard for travelers and Okarins,” the man replied diffidently, closing his hand at last. “Safe passage becomes expensive after the first snow. After true snowfall, it becomes impossible.”
It was a threat and Ahlen didn’t wait to argue any longer. He kicked his baku into a lope and Jhan and Ixien trotted after him. Ixien easily stretched his small legs, but when Ahlen didn’t slow down after a time, he lightly sprang up onto the pack baku.
The forest opened out into a flat plain covered in short, frozen grass. On both sides, and far ahead, they could just make out the jagged peaks of a mountain chain, backlit by the moon, and the very faint ghost light of dawn. A well worn road cut straight ahead, obviously the only way through.
“I smell rain,” Ixien said. Jhan looked back, hearing a note of anxiety in his voice, but he was barely discernible from the darkness. She had noticed that he didn’t like to get wet. “There is a storm up ahead.”
Jhan turned around in her saddle and tried to see something in the gloom, a shelter of any sort. “This weather is terrible, rain one moment and then snow the next,” she grumbled. “Freezing at night and off and on warm during the day. It’s impossible to guess how strong that storm might be. I think we should wait until it passes us by.”
“As we move up towards the mountains it will get colder,” Ahlen replied. “Then it will just be snow. I’m used to snow storms. I know how to deal with them.”
Jhan felt the sting of dirt getting in her eyes. She took off a glove and used her clean hand to wipe at it. The hand was chilled at once. It set her to shivering. The thought of snowstorms, after a walk in less cold had nearly ended her life, wasn’t as appealing to Jhan as it was to Ahlen. “You’ll have to give me more of your clothes,” Jhan told him as she replaced her glove. “I’m going to need them.”
“I should have asked for that when we were in Okara!” Ahlen swore.
“You were out of money,” Jhan reminded him with a shrug of acceptance. Ahlen’s face went closed and Jhan’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “You didn’t give him all of your money?”
“Of course not!” Ahlen retorted and then couldn’t help a tight, self satisfied smile. "He didn’t even get a fourth of it.”
“You’re learning fast.” Jhan wasn’t praising him. Knowing too well what it was like to have innocence ripped away to be replaced by distrust and fear, she could spare pity even for Ahlen, her kidnapper.
“What were the plants and the roots for?” Ahlen wondered.
“Fever, and something I have to take care of,” Jhan replied evasively.
Ahlen wouldn’t leave it at that. “You know that I’m ill then. I didn’t expect concern from you.”
Jhan’s hands tightened on the reins of her baku. She couldn’t let the chance to lash Ahlen with her anger pass. “Actually, it has to do with my rape. The man wasn’t very clean. You can use some of the herb for your fever though, if there’s enough left over.”
Ahlen was silent. Jhan could feel him trying to understand what she was talking about. Finally, he gave up, his inexperience too acute. “I suppose there would be problems from that,” he said at last, uncertain. “He must have hurt you, treating you as a woman. Are you in pain? I didn’t even think to ask back at our camp. I simply don’t know enough, Jhan, to know what to ask you. I have to admit that I feel uncomfortable talking about it as well.”
“I don’t want to talk about it either,” Jhan replied irritably. “Just let me take care of it. I know what to do.” The truth was crueler. Jhan didn’t want to enlighten Ahlen. She preferred that he squirm and feel as guilty as possible in his ignorance. He had seen her nude with his own eyes, but he was falling prey to the same disgust and fear that every man experienced when he thought to much about what Jhan was and how it had been accomplished. The added sex, and forced sex at that, into the confusing mix was sending Ahlen’s thoughts in, obviously, more disturbing paths. Jhan wished that their circumstances were good enough to enjoy it. As it was, she could only manage irritation, and a deep bitterness, as she hunched as near as possible to the baku’s warmth and looked ahead for the first sign of the storm.
All the baku tired and balked, snorting and flapping their ears wearily. Ahlen forced them on, thinking of the Okarins, probably, and how they might decide to follow and test Ahlen’s assertion that they had taken almost all of his money. When a finger of dawn topped a mountain at last, they were able to see a scattering of boulders on the otherwise flat plain. Ahlen headed for it with a defeated curse.
Jhan was seeing more than the boulders. She squinted and shaded her hand against the light just as the hissing of rain and sleet came to her ears. The wall of the storm broad sided them. The baku honked in alarm and pulled against their bits. Jhan heard Ixien shout and Ahlen cry out in surprise. Jhan thanked the impulse that had caused her to tie the animals together before they had reached the Okarin village.
Now the lead was a lifeline. Expertly, she dug her heels into a soft spot on the baku’s side; the kidneys. Her beast jumped and pulled wildly against the bit, but Jhan drove it relentlessly forward with her heels.
The rain and wind lifted off Jhan’s hood and stung her face, washing the mud into her eyes and nose. It didn’t matter. She could barely find a space to breathe and she couldn’t even open her eyes to see in the freezing rain. Gritting her teeth, she forced the baku towards the tumble of rocks. Unable to see, she relied on the baku’s own instincts that told it to get out of the weather, and the beasts’s sharp senses, to lead it to the three imala she knew they would find there. Just before the storm had hit, she had spotted the familiar pattern of skins that marked Obahn’s tent and the wisp of smoke curling into the dawn sky from among the shelter of the boulders.
There. Jhan passed one boulder, and then another. The rain was partly cut off, but its force sent it over the rock’s barrier, still pelting them. When they reached the flapping doorway of the tent, Jhan dismounted and stumbled inside, uncaring whether Ahlen and Ixien followed. Ixien was only a heartbeat behind, wildly shoving past Jhan in the doorway and sending her falling forward. She caught herself on one knee, pushed her wet hair out of her face, and looked up to see Obahn and Sael confronting her with bared swords and alarmed faces.
Ahlen came in last, dragging packs along with him. When he saw the swords as well, he stopped, the rain still splattering his body. “Prince Obahn!” he began and then choked and swallowed.
“Again we meet, but now, it seems, you are in my debt, Ahlen Kantori,” Obahn intoned gravely.
“I don’t think so,” Jhan chattered through blue lips. She moved to a brazier on her knees, pulled off her wet gloves, and held her cold hands to the heat. “I think you owe me. If I understand your custom right, I saved you from the Okarins. They followed me, after all. I could have refused to leave you. I could have given myself to the Okarins right then and there. Instead, I lead them away. You owe me, Prince Obahn.”
Obahn’s scars stood out sharply in the light of the brazier’s as his face suffused with blood. “And how shall I repay that debt?”
“Shelter, until we are well and the storm stops,” Jhan kept her voice even and matter- of -fact, trying not to look at the sharp edges of the swords that were still aimed at them.
“The storm hit us as soon as we left Okara,” Obahn snarled. “You can’t expect us to remain here after it ends, nursing invalids!”
“No,” Jhan agreed, ”and I wouldn’t want to waste time here either. I was more in mind of joining your company until Ahlen is well enough to lead again.”
Silence. Ahlen was growing wiser. He didn’t protest with assertions that he wasn’t as ill as Jhan was making him out to be, holding his pride and childish honesty in check. He bore with Obahn’s pointed scrutiny and Sael’s deceptively relaxed alertness that warned that he was only waiting for Obahn’s orders to slay them all.
“And if you have a death sickness among you?” Obahn wondered at last.
Jhan shrugged as she peeled off her sodden cape and then began working off her boots. “Then we’ll all get sick and die. Would you sacrifice your honor to whine about ‘what might be’?”
A sharp intake of breath from Sael, but Jhan knew that she was heading in the right direction. She managed not to shrink from Obahn, just, as he took two steps to tower over her, fingers white knuckled on the hilt of his sword. When a bark of laughter came all at once, she flinched, but held her ground. “I suppose, being what you are, death is hardly a thing to fear,” Obahn said, sheathing his sword and crouching comfortably, “but I still find your courage astounding. It has won you a place here, but, be warned, It won’t win you anything else from me. The journey I’m undertaking doesn’t allow for unnecessary baggage.”
Jhan let out a slow sigh and looked over to Ahlen and Ixien. Ahlen was looking back at her, puzzled, but grateful. Ixien was too busy using a cloth to wipe the water from his skin to understand his good fortune. He was reacting as if the water was painful, grimacing and shivering until he had himself completely dry. His hair hadn’t soaked the water up at all. It still sprang in a loose fall down his back, mimicking glass perfectly.
Jhan wasn’t so fortunate. Her hair was a sodden, freezing mass all about her, a wet blanket that was chilling her to the bone. Surprisingly, it was Sael who sheathed his sword and offered her cloths to dry off and Sael who stirred up the braziers and added more coals to them. Zerain, who's duty that should have been, was a dark shadow, silently cutting meat into a pan as if nothing out of the ordinary had transpired. Only the jerking motions of her hands betrayed that she was upset, her face hidden in a cloud of veil. Jhan knew how the woman felt about her, imaging her a rival, but Jhan would have preferred a woman’s touch then, even Zerain's.
The storm lashed at the roof of the tent and rain dripped down, here and there, along with tendrils of cold. A low howl of wind was an unnerving counterpoint to the stillness inside. Jhan wrapped blankets and furs about herself and curled up, trying not to imagine what it would have been like to be outside on that plain without even a tree to cut the storm.
Slowly, feeling came back to Jhan’s body. The long ride, through the night and that morning, caught up with her, aches and pains from strains and cuts making themselves known. The fever began to gain momentum as well, and Jhan felt it prickling her skin with heat. She forced herself to eat the grain and meat dish Zerain had cooked for them and drank a great deal of water to combat the fever.
Ahlen had already fallen asleep in a corner, one hand shading his eyes from the light of the braziers. His breathing wasn’t good, Jhan noticed, and he seemed flushed and sweaty. Ixien had fallen asleep as well and Jhan came to the realization, just then, that she had never actually seen the Caefu sleep before. She wondered if he were ill as well, and then, close on the heels of that, wondered how long Obahn would tolerate three sick people using up his supplies.
Obahn and Zerain retired to a far corner, wrapping themselves up in furs. When Jhan heard, clearly, what they were doing, she pressed her lips together and deliberately turned away. That brought her face to face with Sael. He was sitting, cross legged, as he oiled his sword with a clean cloth, eyes intent on Jhan and not the blade in his lap. It came to Jhan that Sael might want something from her, something she might have to fight to keep from him.
“I am Ekhal,” he said as if guessing her thoughts.
“Meaning?” Jhan wondered tightly.
“You are not of interest to me.”
“Good.” Jhan made as if to lay down and go to sleep, but then she realized that there wasn’t going to be a better time to do what she had to do. She sat up again, but Sael misinterpreted the motion.
“You doubt me?” Sael unwrapped the red scarf from the bottom of his face. Jhan was struck again by how young he was. He seemed so self-assured and serious, it was hard to remember that he was a young man. “I’ve told you. I am unable to be with women.”
“Thekling?” Jhan surmised, but she wasn’t put at ease.
“Yes, that is what your people call me,” Sael sheathed the sword and put scabbard and blade aside, “though that word has a dirty sound to it.”
Jhan searched through Zerain’s packs and found a little pot that she used for brewing tea. Jhan went aside, rinsed it out, and then filled it with clean water from a skin. Putting it on the brazier to boil, she took out some of the herbs and the root she had made Ahlen buy in Okara. Crumbling them into the hot water, she caught a faint, acrid whiff as they reacted with the water.
“I’ve found,” Jhan said absently, “that people can do anything if they can give themselves a good enough excuse. Say what you like, I’ve learned not to trust anyone.”
“You are not adept at listening,” Sael replied angrily. “I can’t keshun with women.” That was putting it bluntly. Jhan could see that he was embarrassed, but she didn’t give him any sympathy.
“Why what?” Sael was even angrier now. “I don’t think I can make it plainer, Jhan Dor.”
“Is it that you don’t like them?” Jhan persisted as she stirred the herbs with a wooden spoon. “Are you frightened of them? Is there a problem... physically, and you just can’t do it at all with anyone-”
“Stop!” Sael hissed, still managing to keep his voice down. “Who are you to ask me such questions?”
“I’m the person you’re asking to trust you, remember?” Jhan raised eyebrows pointedly.
Sael’s face went closed and he looked down fiercely, long enough for Jhan to take the pot from the fire to cool. Finally, Sael forced out a reply. “There is nothing within me that... responds to women,” he clarified. “An imala won’t mate with a baku. They sense that they’re not for each other. It is the same with women and myself. But, you know that. You must, being what you are and wanting what you want. You desire men, just as I do.”
“No,” Jhan admitted, wincing at that unexpected, painful subject. “I don’t ‘want’. Not since I was first tortured. I can...,” she flushed, embarrassed now too, “ enjoy keshuning as much as anyone, but I don’t feel any need to, any desire for anyone, man or woman. If I never had it again, I don’t think my body would care.”
Sael shook his head, backing away from that stark candor. “Enough, I won’t speak about such things. It isn’t proper. “
Jhan shrugged. “It’s to the point, Sael. You’re telling me to trust you because you only feel desire for men. I hate saying this, but, stripping away my soul, which is a woman’s, and everything that was done to me, I am still a man.”
Sael was quick and adamant. “There is nothing that you are that I desire, Jhan Dor. You are beautiful, and intriguing, but I don’t sense the man that you were. In any case, I am sworn to Obahn till death. That oath demands that I answer only his needs and commands. Since my Lord Obahn isn’t Ekhal, I have done the same as swearing chastity till death. It is an oath I will never break; certainly not for an Ikhil.”
Jhan used a cloth to take the cooling pot into her hands, her attention shifting from the conversation to the task at hand. “Nothing you say will ever convince me, Sael. I’m sorry, but, if you knew even a quarter of what I’ve been through, you’d understand. Now, I have to be alone and I need... I need you to not watch and to take your assurances and oaths to another corner of the tent.”
“So you may drink tea?” Sael’s tone was incredulous.
“I remember hearing you say that you had trained as a healer,” Jhan recalled. “Surely you know what kioni and lopnar are used for?”
Sael did and he looked contrite at once. “I’ve taken them. They are powerful drugs and not to be used lightly. Are you certain that you mixed them in proper amounts?”
Jhan nodded. “I’ve had similar problems. I’m married, you see, and this body doesn’t always accept my attempts at being a woman.”
“Ekhal have such problems as well,” Sael said, “Though I do not subscribe to the practices that cause them, rape makes it unavoidable.”
Jhan saw the darkness pass across Sael’s face and she felt a momentary communion of pain with the young man. They had both suffered cruelty it seemed and he would understand, perhaps, more than Zerain, what she needed. When she remained silent, hopeful, holding the pot in her hands, it didn’t take Sael long to comprehend.
“Of course,” embarrassment made Sael’s pale skin redden to his ears and he mumbled as he rummaged through his packs. Finally, he fashioned a tool for Jhan and handed it to her gingerly. When he turned away, Jhan couldn’t help but be grateful.
“I know you don’t want me to thank you,” Jhan glanced to where Obahn was still busy with his wife, “but I don’t think anyone can hear. I can’t trust you completely, but you’ve shown me that you can be kind.”
There wasn’t a reply. Jhan could hear Sael moving away to give her privacy. Using the mixture and the tool Sael had given her, Jhan administered the herbs as she had to. It was uncomfortable and stinging, but that killed the bacteria that Kelmus had forced into her. Cleaning up with cloths, she drank more of the stinging potion. It settled uneasily in her stomach, but Jhan could feel it already beginning to work.
The embarrassment of the treatment in the midst of strangers, and the heavy weight of her fever, conspired to cause Jhan to experience an agonizing flashback to Kelmus and a grinding depression. More than ever, she felt used and helpless, a rag doll being ripped between cruel hands. The intuitive bravery she had shown Obahn, had been a thin veil over her fear and desperation. In reality, she felt as small as a mouse among lions, lions who were all thinking about snapping her up and making her an easy meal. Kelmus had only exposed the lie that she had some control over the situation. His degradation had been a culmination of inner destruction that she couldn’t deny any longer. Something inside of Jhan broke, and she felt the hot tears of loss, as she tried to hide from the pain in sleep, wondering what would be left of her to wake up to.
“Jhan Dor,” Obahn’s rough voice, and even rougher, the sole
of his boot, prodded Jhan awake.
Jhan blinked blearily, rubbed at her eyes, and reluctantly sat up out of the warm cocoon of blankets and furs. The fever had banked, but she felt dead inside, mind as numb as the cold of the storm that still howled against the top of the tent. Her hair had dried into a rat’s nest halo about her and she pushed it dejectedly out of her face as she looked blankly at Obahn standing above her.
“Your lord is ill. He calls for you.” Obahn motioned towards Ahlen, still lying where Jhan had last seen him.
Jhan might have retorted to the easy assertion that Ahlen was her lord, but she found anger a stranger and the words lost on her tongue. She only nodded wearily and moved stiffly to Ahlen’s side. Ahlen’s eyes were open and watching her. “What is it?” Jhan asked dully.
“I’m sicker than I thought,” Ahlen admitted softly. His face was drawn and hollow around the eyes. “Can you make the fever medicine for me?” He glanced past Jhan’s shoulder to the others. “Somehow, I don’t think Lord Obahn, or any of the others, will help me.”
At the mention of the medicine, Jhan’s mouth drew into a taught line. “I didn’t use it all.”
“What is it?” Ahlen wondered with a concerned frown. “Has something happened?”
“You’re acting as if we’re friends,” Jhan replied evenly and looked away. “You’re asking me to help you, but, if I want to go on living, I HAVE to help you, don’t I?”
That disturbed Ahlen. “I never wanted to hurt you, Jhan. At first, it was just my simple minded childishness that put my sister’s life above everything and everyone. Now, its my Goddess’s choice that I take you. I think, If the choice were mine again, I would set you free. I have Ixien now, after all, and Obahn, if he’ll let me follow him. He’s going to the Sun God himself, did he tell you? Something about his dead son, but he wouldn’t say much more than that.”
“Do you think any of that makes me feel better?” Jhan demanded. She clasped her hands together in her lap until her fingernails drew blood. It was the only thing she was in control of.
“Don’t,” Ahlen gasped and started to touch Jhan, to stop her. She flinched away and glared at him.
“I thought I was free, you see,” Jhan explained tersely, “in control of my destiny. The man who tortured me, filling my nightmares, was dead. I was married to the man I loved and I had good friends. There were troubles, but everyone has them. Even when you kidnapped me, I thought, I can still speak my mind. I can still argue with you and maybe change your mind. After Kelmus, I tried not to think how easily I had been handed off to a rapist. When Obahn took me up and then left me behind as bait, I still deluded myself into thinking I was still in control. After last night, when I had to ask Sael, a stranger, to help me do something that- that still mortifies me, I finally stopped lying to myself. I’m still a prisoner. I was never free. People can still take me and use me however they please. I’m too weak and too frightened to stop them.”
Jhan wiped at tears on her cheeks, sniffling a little. “Where I come from, people are more civilized. We’re taught to be kind, generous, and to always think of the other person. There were bad men; I suppose there are everywhere, but they were the exception. We had strict laws that protected everyone. I was taught that killing, even to save yourself, was wrong. Even hitting or hurting anyone, was very wrong. This land is hard and the people in it harder. They seem to do violence on a daily basis and never think twice about it. I just can’t do that Ahlen and, because I can’t, I’m always going to be a target; someone’s prey.”
Ahlen gave her words careful consideration, seeing how much she was distressed, but, in the end, he didn’t have any easy reply. “Women are never in control in my land, but we have strict laws and customs to protect them. I would protect you, Jhan, but you know how long I would last against Obahn or Sael. I’m sorry. At this moment, you are not any better than a slave and that pains me. I’m not indifferent. Please believe that I’m not.”
Ahlen shifted onto his side and coughed a little before continuing. “I think that you’re frightened, Jhan, perhaps too frightened to remember your strength. With me, you have to hold your hand, but with those others, you may act as you wish.” He glanced surreptitiously towards the Caefu, but he was still sleeping. “Even where it concerns Ixien. I won’t have anyone abuse you, not ever again. The Goddess never commanded that.”
Jhan looked down at her bloody hands. “I don’t think you were listening, Ahlen. I am skilled enough to kill everyone in this tent before they could lift a weapon. Knowing that is one thing. Being able to be cold blooded enough to do it is another. It’s not in me, Ahlen, and I hope it never will be.”
Ahlen clearly didn’t believe Jhan about the extent of her ability, but he didn’t take time to further erode her confidence by saying so. Instead, he revealed a little more about himself. “I was a simpleton, Jhan. The other children used to taunt me and throw stones. When I grew older, and not much wiser, the village men would make sport of me when ever they found me out alone. I was always strong. I caught them off guard and beat one man to the ground. After that, they grew wary and left me alone. One show of strength was enough to protect me. After seeing you defeat Theon, I certainly wouldn’t ever challenge your skill, Jhan. If you’re afraid of Obahn and his people, or even Ixien, show them what you are capable of. It is nature for beasts to attack the weak. Don’t be weak.”
“You still don’t understand,” Jhan retorted with an exasperated shake of her head. “I kill, Ahlen. Easily, if I’m not careful. Do you recall when you confronted me in the hallway at House Dor?” at Ahlen’s nod she nodded as well, to drive the point home. “I was a breath away from breaking your neck when I recognized you. I have reflexes that were honed with torture. Control of those reflexes is always uncertain.”
Ahlen grew even more flushed and not only from the fever. He wiped at new sweat on his brow, his mind thinking back to how close he had come to never starting his journey. Jhan stood and looked down at him bitterly. “I’ll get your medicine,” she said. “It IS the only thing I can do.”
The storm broke up the next day. Sunlight streamed through the flap of the
tent and Sael was the first to go out, suspicion on his face. After long minutes,
he returned, wrapping his scarf about his face and nodding in relief. “The
sky is clear all the way to the mountains.”
“Thank the gods!” Zerain intoned as she began packing.
Obahn stood grimly and strapped on his sword, gold eyes piercing Ahlen. “I hope that you are able to travel.”
Ahlen was packing his things as well. He looked up nervously. He was still fevered, but the medicine Jhan had given him had kept it from getting worse. “Good, mountain air can only improve me,” he replied confidently.
“And your companion?” Obahn nodded to the Caefu. Ixien was sitting as if in a stupor, but, slowly, he began climbing out of the tent and into the sunlight like a starving man suddenly spying a feast.
“His people need light,” Ahlen explained. “They live in the brightness of lava and volcanoes. My mother used to tell me tales that they would die if left in the darkness too long.”
Obahn’s eyes lit on Jhan last. He hadn’t said two words to her after she had demanded repayment for his debt. She had thought that it was only anger, but she saw something else in his eyes that she didn’t like. She wondered if he would bother with revenge now.
“See that you don’t end up having to repay a debt to me, Jhan Dor,” Obahn said warningly. “My repayment would be far more costly.”
He didn’t wait for a reply as he strode from the tent, but Jhan didn’t have one for him anyway. She quietly helped Ahlen pack and then helped him carry those packs out of the tent. Sheltered by the boulders, the baku and the imala had weathered the storm in a miserable huddle. Still wet and irritable, they munched hungrily at the grain Sael fed them, honking in protest when harness and baggage began being loaded on top of their wet backs.
Looking about for Ixien, Jhan saw him perched on top of a boulder, face turned towards the sun and a contented expression on his face. He did seem to suck energy from the light. Already his skin had lost its sallow color. Now it was almost glowing whitely. Jhan wanted to doubt her eyes, find some other comforting explanation, but she’d seen too much to refuse to believe completely.
Zerain finished with the tent. After it was packed, a sodden wet mass, they all mounted the baku and imala, even Ixien, and began their journey once more. The plain, swept clean by rain and sleet, had lost its stubble brown appearance. Now it was covered in hardy green grass so short that it was almost impossible to tell it from moss. The sky was blue, almost cloudless, and the mountains were stark and wreathed in a veil of mist.
There was still a dull ache below Jhan’s navel, but it was much better. Her fever had broken. It was strange not to feel, physically, as bad as she did mentally. In the cold morning, with a brisk breeze tousling her tangled, black hair and the sun shinning down, Jhan could only feel darkly depressed. It was as if a piece of the darkness had burrowed deep down inside of her. It hid there, hating her returning health and the bright morning. That part of her almost wished something would happen to spoil the day- almost. When Obahn began looking about them nervously, Jhan began to wonder if her thoughts had taken on reality.
“Is something wrong?” Jhan asked Sael quietly.
While he traveled, Sael had kept to the rear of the group and Obahn to the fore. He rode his imala with a straight back, his long black coat and black gloves giving him a dangerous appearance. That and the scarf made him hard to address, but Jhan felt, strangely, more comfortable speaking with him then she did even to Ahlen. By his own admission, Sael shared something with her. A point in his life when he, maybe, had been as helpless as Jhan was now.
“Bandits roam this land,” Sael replied, his eyes sweeping the plain and his hand on the hilt of his sword. “They prey on the traders and travelers that cross here in the Spring, but they don’t all slink away at the first hint of Winter. Some of them have permanent dens.”
“So, that’s why,” Jhan said with a knowing grimace. When Sael raised eyebrows at her she gave him a sickly smile. “I thought that Obahn gave in too easily. He could have reasoned his way out of being in my debt. I was just desperate, saying anything. Now I know that we’re just here to help him once more. The bandits might not attack this large of a group or, if they do, Obahn now has some spare bodies. He can throw us at them and hope our dying takes long enough for you to get away.”
It was plain that Sael hadn’t considered any of that. “Obahn is honorable,” he told her, but his voice lacked conviction.
“He’s been perfectly honorable,” Jhan agreed, “but he can certainly twist it into his favor.” Her voice filled with mock sympathy. “Don’t worry about it, Sael. I’m just used to being used. I can spot the signs pretty quickly.”
Sael was offended. “Where is your bravery, Ikhil? What would you do differently? You act as if you didn’t have a choice.” Sael’s eyes pierced her fiercely. “You could have stayed out in the storm.”
Jhan glared back, stating the obvious. “We would have died.”
“Even death is a choice,” Sael pointed out.
“Not for me,” Jhan countered.
“That also is a choice,” Sael persisted, “It doesn’t help you to wail and complain because my Lord Obahn takes advantage of it.”
“So, you think I’m just feeling sorry for myself,” Jhan bit back. "Whining?"
“Certainly,” Sael replied seriously, but his eyes crinkled as if he were finding humor in it. “You faced Obahn and spoke to him as if he were no one, least of all a Hyjar. You’ve lived to tell about it. You demanded he repay a debt that he didn’t even owe to you, and, though he might have had ulterior motives, he’s done your bidding. Even Ahlen, the man you claim you are enslaved by, cries out for your help as if YOU were HIS lord. I-well, I find myself speaking to you as if we were equals; as if we were lodge mates of the Ekhal. Even now, I prattle to satisfy your demand for knowledge. There is something about you, some noble temper, that can’t be denied. You are far from helpless! This journey may not be your desire and, yes, terrible things befell you, but those are things to over come. Even this Ahlen isn’t invulnerable. He seems a child to me. Surely you can over come a child?”
Obahn looked back, noted Sael’s inattention, and barked an order in their language. Sael went red and pulled his imala away from Jhan, falling silent and becoming diligent again. Jhan didn’t notice, suddenly lost in her own thoughts. Her eyes were on Ahlen riding ahead of her. Sael had handed something back to her, but Jhan wondered if she could accept it. He was asking her to believe that she did have some control over what was happening to her, that she could still make choices, and that she did have the power to stop and not go a step further.
Jhan imagined herself sliding off of her baku and sitting down on the road. What would they do? Obahn had left her behind before, she was certain he would do it again. Ixien would keep on going as well. Ahlen would threaten her with the parasites, but, as Sael had said, death was a choice. It wasn’t one that Jhan could accept, but it still had the power to dispel some of her helplessness. To know that the ultimate choice was hers, something that she hadn’t had with Dagara Ku Ni, lifted the darkness over her soul enough for some light to touch her and warm her cold fear.
That warmth stayed with Jhan throughout the day. When they stopped to make camp, away from the road, she felt more confident about standing among her companions. She was even able to help lay out the tent to dry without feeling a shrinking fear of abuse.
Without the tent, they made camp out under the stars. Zerain used precious coals to make their fire, in the absence of any wood on the plain, and they all gathered closely around it as night fell, breezy and cold. The imala and the baku made a welcome wall of warmth against that chill, but everyone was still obliged to huddle under layers of blankets and furs to keep off the drafts.
Zerain was too cold to bother with an elaborate dinner, but nobody had the strength to complain as she dished out the dried meat she had soaked in hot water, seasoned with some sort of spicy plant she had found along their road. She also managed to griddle tough pieces of flat bread on the backside of a heated pan. They all used that to soak up the meat juices that had cooked into the water.
“You will freeze to death,” Sael stated. Jhan turned her head, thinking he was speaking to her, but saw that he was staring at Ixien curiously. Sael spoke out of envy, Jhan thought. Sael was wrapped in only his black coat, spurning the blankets as if being cold was a weakness he wasn’t willing to admit to in front of them.
Ixien sat away from the fire, eyes drooped in the torpid manner that came on him when there wasn’t any light. He had eaten only a little, ignoring the bread in favor of the meat. Now he spoke as if he were half asleep. “The Ahnali, the fire spirits, protect me.”
“What do you give them in exchange?” Jhan found herself asking, knowing that Sael wouldn’t.
“Peace,” Ixien replied cryptically as he curled up on the hard ground to sleep.
Ahlen, still fighting his sickness, took more blankets than anyone else, moving as close to the fire as he could before lying down to sleep. Sael looked from Ahlen, to Ixien, and then to Jhan in speculation as to what Ixien’s words meant, but Ahlen was already falling asleep and Jhan had nothing to offer him. She moved close to the fire as well, feeling the cold creeping around her face and neck, and tried to find a measure of privacy under a flap of fur.
“I will watch first,” Obahn was saying to Sael. “You will watch second. These others I won’t trust to take such a duty.”
“My Lord,” Sael replied.
Jhan was surprised when Sael made his bed close to her, his back nearly touching hers. She couldn’t help her discomfort, even knowing that it was necessary in such cold. They had to sleep together for warmth’s sake. Ahlen was only an arm length away and Zerain and Obahn had made their bed close enough to him to touch. Still, she found herself tensing and staying awake even after Sael’s breathing softened in sleep.
Obahn and Zerain were talking. Jhan strained to hear them, wanting to know more about her forced companions, but she couldn’t hear a word, the wind carrying them away. Zerain signaled the conversation was at an end by beginning to hum a low tune. The lilting sound, and the whistle of the wind over the plain, were a lullaby to Jhan’s tense nerves. She fell asleep despite her trepidation.
Jhan awoke first, the coals of the fire making a bit of light in the misty
dawn, but too low to give any real warmth. She was forced to shed her cocoon
of furs and blankets, to stand and stamp until her blood began to move once
more. The sudden noise was enough to wake Obahn, who started up away from the
warmth of his wife with a hand on his bared sword at his side. He blinked rapidly
until he focused on Jhan, and then he grunted sourly and stood up as well.
Zerain yawned and replaced her veil before turning to face the company, arranging her heavy skirts properly as she moved to the fire and began stirring it up with a blackened poker. Expertly, she began cooking a thick porridge. The smell made Jhan’s mouth water and her stomach growled for the feel of its warmth. She had almost decided to settle by the fire again until it was done, when Obahn uttered a furious curse.
Sael was propped up against some baggage, Jhan saw, his chin touching his chest in sleep. The look on Obahn’s face made Jhan straighten and move away, knowing what was coming. Zerain had paused as well, hand frozen in the motion of stirring, veiled face turned to watch the scene with an almost eager tenseness.
Obahn took his sword and reached out with it , touching Sael’s shoulder with the point. Instantly, Sael awoke and lifted his own bared sword to menace Obahn. They stood there, wills sizzling like oil and water, and then Sael lowered his sword and carefully stood up. Obahn hadn’t lowered the point of his blade and he seemed torn as to whether to plunge it into the Ekhal or not.
Obahn stated the obvious, as if he could hardly believe it. “You slept on watch.”
Sael’s black eyes, over the edge of his scarf, were full of shame and, when he carefully unwrapped the scarf from his face, so was his expression. He re-sheathed his sword and stood stiffly. “I don’t have an excuse.”
“Why would you think that I would accept one if you had?” Obahn snarled. He sheathed his own sword with one violent motion and then twisted his fists into Sael’s coat, shaking him violently. Sael staggered when Obahn released him, but was unprepared for the cracking, backhanded blow that Obahn delivered to his face. He went down on one knee and then thrust himself up again as if he were at attention.
“You have only been under oath to me for a short time,” Obahn snarled, his eyes glittering. “I’m not Hagen to let you hide among my wives. You are a man, even though you are Ekhal! If you fall asleep on watch again, I won’t wake you. I’ll simply cut your shameless head from your worthless body!”
Sael nodded stiffly and then moved past Obahn to care for the beasts. He passed Jhan. She could see a corner of his mouth tremble before he began wrapping his scarf about his face once more.
Zerain had held up a bowl of porridge as if mocking Sael, but he didn’t take it. Obahn took it instead and ate the porridge as if it were gravel, his eyes glaring after Sael. “If I didn’t need him...”
“Why do you need him?” Zerain wondered softly, but Jhan was able to hear despite the sounds of Ahlen and Ixien rising from their beds to see what was going on. “You hate all Ekhal, as a warrior should, and yet you’ve taken this one’s oath, not as a mere guard, but as Ekhal and Bhakali.”
“We’ve made a bargain, he and I,” Obahn replied as he handed her his empty bowl. “He demanded the oath of me in payment. I don’t know why.”
“To shame you in front of your people, perhaps,” Zerain guessed. “He blames you for Hagen’s death.”
Obahn shrugged. “Sael seeks only death, little wife, but that desire serves my purposes. Don’t concern yourself with things not of the hearth.”
It was obvious that Zerain was angered by Obahn’s flippant dismissal, but she held her tongue as Ahlen sleepily moved to the fire to get his breakfast. She spooned it into Obahn’s empty bowl and handed it to him absently. Ixien didn’t join them, wandering away with his face turned up to the morning light. Jhan was reluctant to get her breakfast with Obahn so apparently still angry, but, when Obahn finally strode away for private business, she crept to the fire and settled nervously with the bowl of porridge Zerain handed her.
“What happened?” Ahlen asked Jhan around a mouthful of food. “What was all the shouting about?”
“I don’t think these people need a reason to fight,” Jhan grumbled, not wanting to talk about it. “It doesn’t concern us.”
Zerain heard, her face turning towards Jhan. She seemed to approve of her reply and nodded as she began cleaning up, banking the coals to gather up.
“I can help,” Jhan offered.
“It is woman’s work,” Zerain replied, stressing ‘woman’.
“Help me instead,” Ahlen asked Jhan. “I’m still not strong on my feet and a night out in the cold didn’t help.”
Jhan nodded silently, not feeling too well herself, but unwilling to face Zerain’s blank scarf another second. Speaking to Sael was difficult enough. Speaking to Zerain was like speaking to a red wall.
“I am asking you,” Ahlen thought to say. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
Jhan blinked at Ahlen with a puzzled frown, mind still on the scene with Obahn, Zerain, and Sael. She shook herself and her reply was only a bitter grimace as she bent to help pack blankets. When Sael and Obahn returned from harnessing the beasts, she helped them pack their gear as well. It was far better to do something, she knew, than to be left standing with her own miserable thoughts. Ixien was of another mind. He stood as still as a statue, oblivious to any of them.
“Is something wrong with him?” Jhan wondered, almost wishing that Ahlen would say that there was.
Ahlen shook his head, only glancing briefly at the Caefu. “He hasn’t spoken to me since we met with Obahn. I was surprised when he replied to Sael’s question. I might have offended Ixien, but I can’t think how. Maybe he’s as sick as we are and conserving his strength. I don’t know.”
“I wouldn’t care about offending him,” Jhan said tightly.
“I do,” Ahlen admitted. “If Obahn decides that I’m well enough to cut loose, we may be depending on Ixien’s guidance all too soon.”
“Then keep looking ill,” Jhan insisted waspishly and turned away to bring up their baku.
Sael had the leads of the baku. He handed them to Jhan without glancing aside from his contemplation of the road. A large, red mark was purpling his left cheek. His gloved hand rose to inch his scarf up, as if to hide it or to keep the cold off of it.
“Are you all right?” Jhan wondered softly.
Her question made Sael furious. His jaw jumped and his eyes skewered her. “I am not a woman to ask such a question of me!”
Jhan backed away, unconsciously pulling the baku with her. Her fear must have leapt into her eyes. She heard Sael say something else, but she was leading the baku away to put distance between her and any violence his anger might put into motion. When a hand touched her elbow to stop her, she swung without thinking, her fear unloading along her arm like a suddenly released spring. She heard a crack! and then she was backing away with the reins tangling in her fingers and those fingers raising to her face in horror.
Ahlen was standing before her, Sael behind with a shocked look in his dark eyes. Ahlen was looking equally incredulous. In his hands, he held a pack saddle, a wooden affair with prongs and leather lines to secure it to a baku. Jhan’s blow had hit it squarely and broken it cleanly in two! Ahlen was holding it up and Jhan turned, shrinking, to see Obahn staring as well, his eyebrows raised and a hand rubbing his chin in amazement. Zerain stood with a pot poised to place into a pack and Ixien was eying Jhan with calculation.
“I-I was-” Ahlen faltered as he folded the two pieces of the pack saddle together. “You were walking past me with the baku. I only wanted to stop you. I-I’m sorry if-”
Jhan swallowed hard, slowly lowering her hands and fisting them as if they had betrayed her. “I was afraid,” Jhan explained, keeping her voice low and only between themselves. “I told you... I feel so helpless and afraid. I thought Sael was going to hurt me.”
“Helpless?” Ahlen looked down at the pack saddle and shook his head, perplexed.
“I could have killed you,” Jhan choked. “And me by killing you.”
That was something Ahlen didn’t want to think about. “I’ll tie the saddle together. Maybe we can still use it.” He walked a short distance away and crouched to begin working on it.
“You are trained as a warrior,” Obahn finally spoke up. He seemed pleased. “You moved like a master. That blow was quicker than I could see and deadly. Where did you learn this? I’ve never known anyone to use their hands as weapons.”
“I’m ill,” Jhan replied, lowering her eyes and beginning to tremble with reaction. “I was surprised and lost control. It’s not something I would want to repeat. I’m not a warrior. I’m not a fighter of any kind.”
“You didn’t strike me as a coward, Jhan Dor,” Obahn retorted. “And you dissemble if you attempt to convince me that you aren’t a warrior. I’ve only seen the one move, but I can easily tell that you must have trained for years. If you wish to dishonor yourself by playing a womanish Ikhil, that is your business, but know that I will not tolerate it in my company. I have need of warriors. I left enough women at home.”
Obahn mounted his imala and turned it towards the road. Sael was left staring at Jhan and Jhan stared back. It was a moment before Sael collected his thoughts enough to ask, ”That blow was for me, wasn’t it? You thought that I was grabbing you, attacking you maybe?”
“I’m terrified, always,” Jhan replied and left it at that as she mounted her baku, rubbing at the sore part of her hand that she had used to break the saddle.
Zerain tied her last pack to her imala and mounted, joining Obahn. Sael was slower, moving at last and turning to help Ahlen finish with the saddle. Tied together with leather strips, Ahlen slung it hurriedly over the pack baku and loaded on their supplies. Mounting his baku, he looked for Ixien.
The Caefu was staring off at the mountains ahead, oblivious to anything that had just transpired. He had an expression on his face that Jhan didn’t like. It was fervent determination; an almost fanatical look that didn’t bode well for anything or anyone that tried to get in his way. It was only there for a moment, but that was long enough. When he finally responded to Ahlen’s third call, he only blinked and went as blank as stone, as he mounted atop the baggage on the pack baku.
“I think you’ve shown them now,” Ahlen said in an undertone to Jhan as he rode his baku knee to knee with her.
Jhan gave him a tortured look. “Shown them what? That I’m some sort of warrior that Obahn can use or that they should leave me alone because I might kill them? I thought I could control it, Ahlen. The only thing I’ve shown is that I can’t when I’m really afraid. Next time, it might be your head I put my hand through and not a saddle.”
That quieted Ahlen and Jhan urged her baku up ahead of him to deepen that silence. She knew that she hadn’t shown Obahn anything. Men were too arrogant, she knew, too sure of their own strength and superiority. Obahn would never dream that someone like Jhan could ever be a match for him. Sael? He was another matter. She knew that she had earned his respect. Whatever he intended, Jhan was sure he would think twice about it now. Yet, Jhan didn’t feel safe. The only safety she had ever felt had been in Pekarin, in her husband’s arms.
By nightfall, the mountains didn’t seem to have moved any nearer, but the air had turned colder and the plain had grown rockier. They made their camp by the bank of a half frozen stream, everyone grateful to set up the tent, fill it with blankets and furs, and warm their bodies by the braziers Zerain lit.
Zerain made a stew of dried meat and vegetables and served it with pressed fruit cakes. After a long day’s travel, everyone was silent, shoveling food into their empty stomachs; dazed with weariness. Ixien curled up and slept at once. Ahlen nodded over his bowl of food, trying to finish it before sleep claimed him. Jhan sat next to him, still waiting for feeling to come back to her frozen feet and the hands she had curled around her hot bowl of stew. She couldn’t seem to stop shivering. Every spoonful of food was a contest of determination as Jhan tried to get it to her mouth without spilling it.
Zerain and Obahn were seated on the opposite side of the braziers. Obahn sat with his legs stretched towards the brazier and his body propped back on his elbows. Zerain sat behind him, patiently working a comb through his shaggy hair. He accepted her ministrations as if she were a servant, familiar and ignored. His gold eyes were on Jhan instead, contemplating what, Jhan didn’t like to think. She tried to avoid looking up and meeting those eyes, afraid that noticing him might make him bold enough to speak what was on his mind. When Sael approached, and crouched by the brazier near Obahn, Jhan couldn’t help a sigh of relief as Obahn’s attention shifted to him.
Sael was silent for a long moment, but Jhan knew that he was supposed to be on watch, and that he wouldn’t have dared Obahn’s anger without some reason. Finally, with a clinking of charms, he shifted and said a word that made Jhan shrink into herself. “Keshun.”
Obahn sat up and Zerain backed away. Obahn leaned close to Sael. “Tell me, Ekhal,” Obahn’s tone was biting, knowing that Ahlen and Jhan were there to hear him, ”Did my son ever honor the oath of Ekhal you took with him?”
“You’ve asked me that already,” Sael replied.
“I ask again,” Obahn insisted.
Jhan glanced at them from under her eyelashes. She saw the deep pain in Sael’s eyes and their tense bodies confronting each other. “No, he didn’t,” Sael replied at last. “He only swore it so that he could take me into his lodge. There wasn’t any other way, he being a warrior and I an Ekhal. We were barred from swearing as clan brothers because of that, but you already know the law my Lord.”
“I do,” Obahn said and then, with ill concealed disgust, ”but, in the end, my son did take the oath of clan brother with you, despite the law!”
“And shamed himself. Everyone knows the tale, my Lord. It doesn’t need repeating.” Sael stared into the fire now, his hands twisting together as he recalled a black memory. “He didn’t take me into his lodge as some honorless warriors do with Ekhal. It wasn’t like that and you do him a dishonor by thinking it.”
“How was it then?” Obahn exploded, face twisting in fury. “Are you saying that you took the oath of Ekhal with a man who never intended to honor it? Are you telling me that Sael Ruon, no man’s child and every man’s bed mate, chose to be chaste for the rest of his life?”
Jhan glanced at Ahlen. He was fully awake now, digesting what Obahn and Sael were saying, slowly working it out in his head and beginning to understand. She saw a disgust that matched Obahn’s grow on his face and a fearful wariness creep into his eyes. More of Ahlen’s innocence was being lost, Jhan knew, and marveled that he could so quickly hate what Sael was and still be completely indifferent to what she was. It was her appearance of being a woman, she knew. Sael’s shared manhood was far more threatening to Ahlen.
Sael was getting more than he bargained for. Jhan could tell by his voice. He might have wanted only to embarrass Obahn, though why, Jhan couldn’t guess. Obahn must have realized it as well and was determined to turn the tables on Sael. Sael tried to retreat. “It isn’t good to discuss such things in front of the others. I am sworn to you. I will honor that oath as I honored it with your son.”
“Why come to me now?” Obahn demanded. He spat aside and it hissed into the flames of the brazier. ”You forced me to take your oath as Ekhal. You knew that I would never call for you to honor that oath. If, as you say, my son wasn’t Ekhal, and you swore to be chaste, then why is that chastity a burden to you now that you are with me?” Sael rubbed at his eyes and let out a long breath. “You forced me to swear the oath of Bhakali, though I was training to be a healer. You wished to save yourself disgrace and still have me accompany you on your journey. Forcing you to swear Ekhal was my revenge. Chastity is a small price to pay.”
Obahn surged to his feet, hand grabbing for his sword. “Your oaths are the root and branch of my grief! It was the oath you swore with my son that estranged us! It was you who made him die thinking his father hated him!”
Sael straightened slowly, a hand on his sword hilt as well. “I wished for a lodge. Hagen gave me his,” he replied in a dead tone. “We were friends.”
The red scars on Obahn’s face stood out like streaks of blood and his eyes seemed to bulge from their sockets. “Enough! You will never ask keshun of me again! Why you even thought that I would-”
Sael seemed to shrink within himself. “I must offer. We are sworn.”
Obahn showed his teeth and it wasn’t in a smile. “You may have made me swear Ekhal with you out of revenge, but you were wondering all this time whether I would really call upon that oath! You asked keshun to shame me before these others, but also to quiet your fears. Keep on wondering, Sael Ruon, I will not ease those fears.”
Obahn took Zerain’s hand and led her away to a corner of the tent. They lay down together, probably for more than warmth, Jhan thought sourly. Sael stared after them bitterly and then he marched out of the tent to attend to his watch. That left Jhan with Ahlen. She glanced at his troubled face and then rolled up into her blankets after putting aside her bowl of stew. She tried to turn her shoulder to him and make it clear that she didn’t want to talk, but Ahlen was too upset to care.
“He- Sael- is the one my father warned me about... thekling,” Ahlen said in a low, tight voice. Fear crept into that tone. “I’ve been alone with him. He could have- anything could have happened! He’s looked at me... I didn’t understand those looks. What if he-”
“Ahlen!” Jhan interrupted harshly. “Go to sleep! I’m exhausted. Sael isn’t going to do anything to you. He’s vowed to Obahn. He’s chaste. Weren’t you listening?”
“Yes, I was listening!” Ahlen retorted, angry that she was shrugging off his fears. “But how do I know how honorable he is?”
“He’s had me alone enough times,” Jhan reminded him, wearily trying to reason with him. “I was even naked... He never tried to do anything.”
“But-But you’re... He wouldn’t be interested in you,” Ahlen finally finished.
“Thanks!” Jhan growled and tried to pull a fur over her ears. Ahlen reached out tentatively and pulled it back.
“What if he comes in while I’m sleeping?”
Jhan sighed. “I can’t see Sael trying to rape you in a tent full of witnesses. Of course, after what happened to me, I think it would be just what you deserve. Don’t cry out to me for help.”
That shocked Ahlen and left him speechless, but, as Jhan tried to sleep, Ahlen’s fearful tossing and turning made it elusive. It was several, long hours before he finally drifted off and Jhan was able to sleep herself.
“This is the one, Tagara,” a dream voice said, tickling Jhan’s ear. Jhan grumbled in her sleep and tried to ignore it.
“Yes, she is small enough, Togo,” said another, feminine voice.
“Too small. Too troubled. Too sad,” a guttural voice interjected.
“Hush, Minyah,” the feminine voice chided. “That is why we chose the other as well. He will help her free Selaya and us as well.”
“Shall we take them now?” The first voice, eager.
“No, be patient,” the feminine voice urged. “They will come to us soon enough.”
“Wake up Jhan. We must be going.”
“You wake Jhan. I don’t want to loose my head.”
Jhan started awake, sitting up to confront who ever might have been foolish enough to try and touch her. She saw Sael standing a foot away and Ahlen sitting closer, still in his blankets and looking irritable. Everything had already been packed and taken outside. Someone, probably Zerain, was tugging at the tent pegs as if she intended to wrap them all in it.
“There,” Ahlen grumbled in satisfaction as he slowly rose.
Sael grunted and walked out of the tent, distant in his scarves and black clothes. Ahlen stared after him with narrowed eyes, saying to Jhan, “I don’t know how you could have slept through all of that.”
“All of what?” Jhan replied around a yawn, feeling miserable. She stood reluctantly, letting her blankets slide off, and gasped in shock when she discovered that the tent was freezing. Zerain had already taken out the braziers and the tent flaps were wide open.
Ahlen reached down and retrieved a fur. He threw it about Jhan’s shoulders. When she had grasped it tightly about her, he crouched to roll up the rest of the bedding. “I spent all night thinking,” he finally said.
“I know,” Jhan retorted sourly. “Your tossing and turning kept me up.”
“I was considering leaving Obahn and his people,” Ahlen continued impatiently.
“You mean Sael, don’t you?”
“Particularly him, yes,” Ahlen admitted.
“It wouldn’t be the first stupid thing you’ve done.”
Ahlen looked up at Jhan for a long minute, either trying to hold his temper or considering how to continue in the face of her insult. Finally, he replied evenly, “I asked Obahn why he was traveling to the Sun God. I thought that if I knew, it would decide what course I would take.”
“I thought he wouldn’t tell you,” Jhan recalled.
“He did this time. I suppose he knows us better.” Ahlen straightened with the rolled bedding in his arms, looking down at Jhan intently. “He told me that he was going to ask Tsarianna to call up the shade of his dead son, Hagen. The boy died of a fever when he and Obahn were very angry with one another. Obahn wishes to apologize, to make peace with Hagen’s spirit."
“Obahn expects to find a real god where we’re going?” Jhan was incredulous. “You at least expect to have to deal with priests! I can’t believe Obahn is even more superstitious than you are! It just doesn’t seem right. He must be playing some game...”
“I didn’t consider that. The other things he said were more interesting to me,” Ahlen continued. “He said that Sael wants to join Hagen’s spirit in death. If the Sun God grants Obahn’s petition, he intends to- to commit suicide as soon as Hagen’s spirit materializes.”
Jhan was amazed and sickened. “That’s ridiculous! No, horrifying. Maybe we SHOULD leave. If they’re that crazy-”
“You don’t understand!” Ahlen interrupted. “Those were all very good reasons for staying. Obahn isn’t going to the desert for frivolous reasons. He won’t turn aside. I can trust him as a guard and a guide. Sael still disturbs me, but now I know that I’m protected against his perversion. He longs for a dead man and he’s sworn to Obahn. Obahn has assured me that breaking that oath merits death.”
Jhan shook her head and rubbed at her eyes. “I must have been tired to sleep through that and breakfast.” Her stomach growled and she added plaintively, “Don’t I get anything to eat?”
Ahlen handed Jhan a few grain cakes that he had set aside for her, and turned to leave the tent with his burden of blankets and furs. Jhan nibbled on the cakes awkwardly as she tried to keep the fur about her and follow Ahlen. Zerain was just outside. She muttered something insulting under her breath, as she brought the tent down with a practiced flick of her wrist and then began folding it.
There was a stiff wind. Jhan finished her breakfast, huddling with her back to the wind, as Ahlen packed the baku and then brought them forward. The imala were restless, not liking the weather and more nervous than the sturdy baku. Sael had his hands full keeping them in order, his coat and scarves flying as he turned sharply, this way and that, to get them saddled and loaded with their baggage. Obahn stood on a slight rise of rock, staring out towards the mist covered mountains as if planning strategies. Ixien was pacing, uncharacteristically showing his impatience.
Jhan found herself staring at the snow capped mountains as well. If the cold alone didn’t kill her, she thought bleakly, then, if what Sael suspected was true, thieves might. The journey was just beginning. Already she had survived death a handful of times. Fear, abuse, and the torturous trail were taking their toll on her; paring down her body and her spirit. What would be left of her if she managed to live through it and return to Kile? Would he still see the woman he loved?
Jhan pressed her cold hands against the spare bones of her face. The cold was devouring her flesh, despite her best efforts to eat enough to thwart it. When she frowned, she felt a line crease between her brows, deep and brooding, and a pinch to the corners of her mouth from keeping her lips closed on the screams she wanted to utter. When she lowered her hands, and clasped them tightly together, she felt more certain than ever that she wouldn’t have to worry about what Kile would think; her body wasn’t going to survive the mountains.
Jhan turned and took the reins that Ahlen handed her. She could have done any number of things just then. She remembered her promise to Ahlen, that she would kill him if she ever thought that she wouldn’t survive the journey. Looking into Ahlen’s eyes, Jhan couldn’t find the will to carry out that threat. She hated Ahlen, but, strangely, not enough to kill. Failing that, she thought, why not just refuse to go a step further? Why not sit and let the cold have her? Why bother with the hard climb to the top of a mountain when she knew that she was going to die there?
Ahlen was still meeting her eyes, maybe understanding that she was loosing her nerve and falling prey to utter despair. “I will see you safe,” he promised, but it was hollow and he knew it.
Jhan tightened her hand on the reins of the baku. “I know I’m not going to make it,” she said at last, to herself more than Ahlen, “but I’m too angry and stubborn to give up. That would be too much like letting you win.”
“I’ll give you all of my extra clothes,” Ahlen told her anxiously, ignoring her verbal attack. “I was born in the mountains, remember? I don’t feel the cold like other people.”
“It won’t matter,” Jhan assured him, “but you can do what you like. I’m just the victim, remember?”
Jhan mounted the baku, pulled her hood down around her ears, and wrapped her face in her scarf. Hugging the fur about her, she still felt as if she were standing in ice water. Ahlen chose not to reply to her, knowing there wasn’t anything he could say. From the look on his face, Jhan knew that he was thinking the same thing that she was, that he was taking her to her death. Still, there was a set to his shoulders that spoke of his higher authority. He was sidestepping responsibility and guilt by laying the blame on his Goddess.
“We will reach the mountains by mid-afternoon, if we keep a steady pace,” Obahn assured them. He mounted his imala. He didn’t need to say that, anyone not keeping that pace, would be left behind, but it was implicit in his grim, gold eyes and the hard set of his mouth. “Once we reach the mountains,” Obahn continued, “we must all be alert. We must move quickly, not stopping to rest until nightfall. The pass is short, three days, but treacherous if the weather should turn against us.”
Sael took the rear guard behind Jhan. Ahlen rode before her with Ixien keeping pace on the pack baku beside him. Zerain trailed behind Obahn and he took the point, separating himself by several yards. Jhan gritted her teeth as they began a bone jarring trot. The baku, used to being tied rump to rump with leads, were anxious and hard mouthed about being separated. Jhan fought with her contentious baku, cursing Ahlen for not allowing the leads. He wasn’t sure of her temper or her mind, she knew, and didn’t trust her enough to be so close to her deadly hands.
When they reached the skirt of the mountains, Jhan was relieved when the loose stones and cracked, narrow trail forced them to slow down. The incline of the trail, however, and its narrow confines, soon had Jhan gritting her teeth in misery again. The wind whipped down the trail from the mountain tops and she felt her heart slow and beat sluggishly to keep from turning into a block of ice. Sael heard her gasping and saw her huddle down close to the warmth of the baku.
“Obahn’s warrior,” Sael said deprecatingly and knitted an eyebrow at her. “Little bird bones and hardly any flesh to cover them. This will be hard for you, I think, and maybe impossible.”
“You’re angry,” Jhan surmised acidly, “and you’re acting as if I’m trying to be something I’m not. I don’t think I’ve pretended to be anything but a frightened, weak woman since we met. If you want to be angry, then go bother Obahn or Ahlen. Obahn’s the one who keeps calling you names and Ahlen’s the one who hates you for being a thekling. Oh, sorry, an Ekhal.”
Sael scowled and hunched his shoulders. “I understand Obahn. He only speaks the truth. I’m not a warrior and I don’t have the strength and the heart a man should have. Your Lord Ahlen... I understand him as well. I’m used to men hating me for what I am; even fearing me. You, I don’t understand, and that is what makes me angry.”
“I’m not a mystery,” Jhan growled back, turning her head towards him to keep the wind from lashing into her eyes. “What you see is what I am.”
“Is it?” Sael was skeptical. He had to raise his voice to be heard, but there wasn’t any fear of the others hearing. Jhan was a few yards behind Ahlen and Sael was almost riding on her baku’s rump. “What do I see? Undress you and you’re a beautiful woman. Look closer and you’re a man. Dressed, you look tiny and weak, yet when confronted, you strike like a warrior. You stand before prince and warrior and speak your mind, yet you tremble, cry, and whine like a woman from dawn until dusk. You are contradiction itself and I don’t understand you.”
“Why does that make you angry?” Jhan wondered tightly. “Is it that Obahn tells you to be more like me; someone so obviously flawed?”
“That would be the half of it,” Sael acknowledged. “The other is that you are so obviously highly skilled and yet, you are so afraid.”
“Cowardly, you really want to say, am I right?” Jhan corrected.
“I did not say it,” Sael retorted quickly, but he looked away too.
“I’ll say it for you then,” Jhan said with a shrug of indifference. “I am a coward. My temper makes me seem brave. It stops a part of my brain that wants to run and hide, and makes me do outrageous things. When you’re like me Sael, so very small and weak, you tend to feel very close to death. So close in fact, that it often doesn’t seem far enough away to bother trying to avoid it. So, I get angry. I stand up in front of Obahn and shout and dare. I talk to my kidnapper as if I actually had the power to argue with him. I ride my baku up a mountain at the beginning of winter. I trade words with you, a man who could slit my throat, I think, and not worry about it too much afterwards. There is simply a point where it doesn’t matter, Sael, and I reached that point some time ago.”
“May I ask?” Sael was still averting his eyes and his tone took on a hint of the ritualistic.
“Go ahead,” Jhan replied. “Maybe, if we keep talking, I won’t notice that I’m freezing to death.”
“How did it happen, that you became Ikhil?”
Jhan sucked in a cold breath. “That’s a long story. Do you think we’re friends, that you feel comfortable asking me that?”
Sael didn’t reply and Jhan tried to reason it out herself. Finally, she said, ”I’ve been told that I bring out the worst in people. I make them crazy with my contradictions and my temper. You’re not the first person who wanted to understand me, but I would like to know why.”
“I see in you something that I want in myself,” Sael managed uncomfortably. “A keenness. An edge. We say that those who aren’t afraid to look into the eyes of the Goddess of Death are true warriors. You not only look. You stare. You stare and you ride to meet Her as if you didn’t have any choice but to confront Her on your feet, not cowering back by our last camp.”
So, Sael had seen her hesitation there as well, Jhan realized. She swallowed and pressed her chapped lips together. It took her a moment to gather her thoughts and then she sighed. “I don’t have the cold bloodedness to kill every one of you,” she said intently, wanting him to know that part of her so that he would give her peace. “I guess that’s one of the choices you were talking about. Lacking that, I find myself unable to stop from being dragged up this mountain by my kidnapper. What you call staring into the eyes of death, is simply resignation.”
Jhan’s mouth quirked in a self-deprecating smile full of pain as she continued, “Or maybe it’s a stubbornness that will never conceded defeat, despite all the odds to the contrary.” She gave Sael a sharp look, suddenly understanding. “Are you looking for the bravery to face your Goddess of Death, Sael? Is that what this conversation is all about?” Sael blinked as if he feared to cry. “You know.” It wasn’t a question.
“Ahlen asked Obahn about it and Ahlen told me,” Jhan admitted. “Take it from me, Sael, suicide isn’t the answer. I’ve tried it enough times... It seems sweet, a rest of some sort or an escape, but it isn’t really any of those things. When you realize what you’ll lose... birds singing in Spring, the colors of a sunrise, flowers pushing up through the snow after Winter, a child’s smile- well, I suppose you would just call that woman’s weakness, but that’s worth any amount of torture or pain to me, Sael. Maybe that’s where my stubbornness comes from. My body keeps wanting me to give up. It begs, cries, and fears pain. My mind reminds me that there’s something beyond the pain. So far, it’s been the stronger.”
“I don’t seek rest or escape from pain,” Sael replied sternly. “I seek my Lord Hagen. It’s him I wish to die for- to join in death.”
“Why?” Jhan was amazed.
The light skin around Sael’s eyes reddened, but he’d asked her to be open with him and he couldn’t be any less. The words came out choked, almost unclear in his embarrassment. “Because I loved- love him.”
“That’s quite an admission for one of your people, isn’t it?” Jhan mused, and then bitterly, “My story doesn’t come cheap. It’s very painful. Tell me more about yourself and I’ll consider it repayment.”
“We are not lodge mates,” Sael growled, rejecting the idea as offensive. “You are Ikhil and I am oathed. Men do not share such confidences.”
Jhan was almost enjoying being cruel to him. "You’ve just asked me a very personal question, Sael. I think I should be the offended one.”
Sael worked over that, but it seemed the knowledge he wanted was worth more to him than custom or his own reluctance. He cleared his throat and began, but Jhan quickly realized that he was saying as little as possible. “I was learning the hunt from older Ekhal. We are sometimes allowed to shadow the warriors and their Bhakali. The Heir, Lord Hagen, was learning to hunt as well. We spooked a haynuk. It was old, with very large horns. I took chase alongside Hagen. Our imala were sure footed and we outdistanced the others in the forest. Hagen’s imala tripped up on a root and threw Hagen before the haynuk. It charged him and I... I was in time to spear the beast clean through the heart.”
“So, you saved the life of Obahn’s son,” Jhan prodded, demanding more. “You’d think he’d treat you better.”
Sael’s eyes went very dark. “Hagen owed me a life debt and asked what I wished for repayment. I told him it was only my duty and that, being Ekhal, I was beneath the custom where a prince’s son was concerned. He didn’t leave it at that. He pursued me to the Ekhal lodge, even going inside! Such a thing is shameful for a warrior. He demanded to repay me. He said that his honor was at stake. He was so intense, so very handsome, and so full of youth. I loved him from that moment.”
Sael didn’t seem inclined to continue. Jhan prompted again, impatient to know the depths of this man. “But, he died.”
Sael nodded. “He refused to forget the debt. As repayment, he gave me what I had always wanted. In the face of his father and all the warriors, Hagen took the oath of Ekhal with me, even though he wasn’t one. He took me into his lodge among his wives and we were friends. I felt I had a home, a place at last. Obahn took it badly, of course. He and Hagen exchanged words and then spoke not at all for some time. When Hagen broke with custom to make me his sworn clan brother, I thought Obahn would either kill Hagen or me.” Sael shook his head as if at some harsh pain. “Hagen stopped all the fighting by dying of an illness. I was tossed out of his lodge at once, but Obahn was there to take me up again.”
“And now he’s going to the Sun God to apologize to his son’s ghost?” Jhan wasn’t sympathetic. “Why would he take you? Why let you join his dead son when he didn’t want you two together in life?”
"Atonement?" Sael replied hollowly, but he clearly didn’t believe it.
“You’re not willing to tell me everything,” Jhan accused, but his obvious emotional agony was leaving a bitter taste in Jhan’s mouth. Revenge, even where words were concerned, wasn’t going to make her situation any better. It only made someone else join her in her misery.
“What good will it do you to tell you more?” Sael was deep in his own pain and careless of Jhan's. He was clearly alluding to the fact that Jhan wasn’t going to make it over the mountains and that, what he wanted to know, was more worthwhile since he would.
“How can you expect me-” Jhan began to shout back, but Sael spoke over her, just as angry.
“Always you talk,” Sael exploded. “You cry like the woman you claim to be, facing this challenge of honor crawling on your belly! I only asked you to share some wisdom with me, but instead you seek to shame me, to cause me to speak of what should only be my business!”
“I cry, because I have the right to!” Jhan bit back in protest. “The cold may be going to kill me, but I intend to point out to people what bastards they are, and that what they’re doing is hurting me horribly, till my last breath! That you should complain-! You’re going to be as much to blame as Ahlen if I die! You’re standing by and watching it happen! I think, asking for a few answers from you, hardly matches the ‘shame’ of treating me as if I were Ahlen’s pack baku, and allowing him to do whatever he wants with me!”
“You belong to him just as I belong to Obahn,” Sael explained, a tick along his eye and his sharply knitted eyebrows the only display of his outrage not hidden by his scarf. “Obahn can order me to jump off of this mountain and, because he has my oath, I would have to do it. I would no more expect you to stop or help me than you should expect me to help or stop you.”
“That must seem completely logical to you,” Jhan hissed, turning her face away so that the wind stung it. After a long minute, she firmed her shoulders and then faced him again, eyes cold. She only wanted to end the conversation now. Horror, she thought, would be as good a way as any to accomplish it and make Sael leave her alone. “Do you really want to know what happened to me or do you just want to know why I’m still alive afterwards?”
Sael took great care in asking his question, wanting an answer that cut to the heart of his own problem. “You found great courage, courage to face death and to win.”
“You don’t want to win,” Jhan pointed out.
“I do,” Sael insisted. “but what we consider winning are different things. It is your daring, I want, your fearlessness with it.”
Jhan motioned up ahead to Obahn. “This body used to be just like Obahn's. It used to be someone to be feared and respected. A man called Dagara Ku Ni took it, for revenge, and made it into this. “
Jhan touched her breast convulsively, hand shaking as she continued harshly. “I don’t remember being Jhanian Kevelt. I only know what others have told me about him. What I do remember is being this, Jhan, and being tortured, day in and day out, for the amusement of a palace of criminals and sadists. Dagara was an artist of torture. When he realized that his tricks were getting stale, he delved deep within me and found out my one desire; to be a woman. He used it for my final torture, cutting me, healing me with his Power, and leaving me this shadow body; this wisp of air and darkness mimicking womanhood. It is contradiction. With one blow, I could kill you. With one negligent sweep of your hand, you could snap any bone in my body or even kill me easily.”
Sael was horrified. “Like Obahn?” he repeated in disbelief.
“Like Obahn,” Jhan insisted, “I can’t explain it so that you can understand, but I was NEVER Jhanian Kevelt. I have always been a woman. When I awoke and found myself a man, I would have done anything to change it. What Dagara did to me... I still have nightmares, but it IS what I wanted when all the horror is pushed aside. It actually made it easier to live afterwards. Courage had nothing to do with it, or daring. Love, maybe. My husband and my friends helped me want to live. They were my strength when even my stubbornness wasn’t enough.”
Jhan saw disgust in Sael’s eyes. “How could a man marry you, knowing what you were and what had been done to you? Was he Ekhal?”
Jhan scowled. “No, he wasn’t! I told you and, well, you’ve seen for yourself. I’m a woman where it counts. Love is strong enough to reach across any boundary, Sael, even that one. You should know that better than me!”
Sael was still confused, but not as horrified as Jhan would have wished. He ended the conversation, saying determinedly, “Love gave you your courage, that is the only thing that is plain. Perhaps mine will be enough to aide me when the time comes.”
Sael pulled his imala up sharply to put distance between them, as if he couldn’t deal with their stark candor any longer. Their conversation left Jhan just as disturbed. Her thoughts were on Kile now and not on her chances of survival or her dark memories of Dagara Ku Ni.
Jhan traced the memory of Kile’s face in her thoughts and felt her heart throb, painfully, as she recalled the light in his blue eyes and the way his mouth would lift when he grinned at her. Jhan recalled waking up on lazy Spring days to find him entangled in white sheets, sun glowing on his long, hard body; his gold curls tumbled all about his strong face.
Kile’s big arms were safety and his love was a haven. The thought of never feeling either of them again made Jhan groan and bite her lip. She’d spoken the truth better than she’d known. It was her love of Kile that was making her go on, the slim hope of returning to him that was making her grip her baku and steal its warmth; hoping to survive long enough to do just that. Courage had nothing to do with it.
Jhan’s baku trudged up the mountain path sure footedly, but it grew as tired of the wind in its face as Jhan. Taking the bit, it gave a start of speed and caught up with Ahlen and Ixien, lowering its nose behind their baku’s rumps to escape the cold. Ixien didn’t give any notice of Jhan’s presence, but Ahlen glanced back briefly in concern.
“Are you well?” Ahlen called back to Jhan.
“No, of course not!’ Jhan returned irritably, having been shaken out of her thoughts by the baku’s sudden, bone jarring trot.
Ahlen almost looked ready to ask Ixien to help Jhan, even opening his mouth, but he closed it in the next instant, knowing it would be futile. Ixien was having as much trouble with the cold as everyone else. He had wrapped a blanket about himself. His inner warmth wasn’t proof against the biting wind that whipped against him. His face was buried and his eyes mere slits over the edge of the blanket.
“You should put on more of my clothes,” Ahlen said to Jhan as he leaned over to rummage in the pack baku’s baggage. He pulled out a long, thick sweater and then leaned far back to hand it to Jhan. She took it and lowered her fur to put it over the two sweaters and the cloak she was already wearing. Wrapping her fur about her again, she tried to leave as little skin as possible bare to the weather.
“It’s not going to matter,” Jhan said as she tried to warm herself up again.
“Pile all the clothes on me you want, but it’s my body that has to keep me warm underneath it all.”
Ahlen frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s the way Dagara made me,” Jhan explained bleakly. “Small and light. He didn’t want any fat getting in the way. He allowed some on hip and breast, but that was only for aesthetics. Muscle was more important.”
Ahlen shivered in disgust. “This man... horrible! That he had the ability to do such things is monstrous!"
Jhan shrugged. “The point is, that cold burns fat fast and furious. I can’t eat enough to keep up. It’s too much like bailing a boat with a big hole in it during a storm.”
“I don’t know anything about boats,” Ahlen replied.
“Never mind. “ Jhan wrapped her scarf about her face more tightly, leaving only her eyes exposed. Ahlen looked troubled, but his gaze soon returned to the person he’d been studying when Jhan had first approached; Zerain.
Ahlen’s face was stung red by the cold, but Jhan could see another kind of flush there as well. Ahlen’s jaw tightened and released to whatever inner thoughts were disturbing him. Zerain was only showing Ahlen her back, but her full scarf was plastered to her body by the wind and there was a feminine outline to see.
“She is Obahn’s wife,” Jhan reminded him, wanting a reaction and getting one. It confirmed her fears. Ahlen was beginning to know that he was a man. The innocent boy who had kidnapped her, and promised to guard her virtue, was gone at last. The time had come to see what the man, Ahlen, was going to be like.
Ahlen was nervous, embarrassed. “I said nothing!”
“You don’t need to,” Jhan replied, goading him. “Have you seen under her veil?”
“No!” Ahlen shifted in his saddle uncomfortably and then asked, “Have you?”
“No,” Jhan admitted. “She might be ugly, though I think Obahn is far too proud to marry someone like that. They certainly didn’t marry for love.”
“No,” Ahlen agreed distantly, eyes going back to Zerain’s tantalizing outline. “He treats her harshly; disrespectfully.”
Jhan went angry and sour. “What’s new about that?”
“My people don’t treat women like that!” Ahlen snapped back. “They are the bearers of life. They risk themselves to give us sons. They keep our homes and raise those children. How could we not have respect and honor for them?”
“Your father didn’t give much respect or honor to your sister,” Jhan pointed out.
Ahlen winced. “No, he didn’t, but he thought that it was necessary. Without sons to till the fields, there couldn’t be homes, wives, and families. He told me that Ajha went willingly.”
“How old was she?” Jhan wondered.
“And she made a decision like that, at twelve?” Jhan shook her head sharply. “I don’t think anyone that young could know what they were doing.”
Ahlen looked back at her, forgetting Zerain. The pain in his eyes was overwhelming and Jhan knew that she had made a mistake. Her anger had only reinforced Ahlen’s determination for his quest. “I didn’t think so either. That’s why I’m doing this, Jhan. She didn’t know. She couldn’t have. It wasn’t right, to trade her life for mine as if she meant nothing.”
Black despair raked across Jhan’s mind and she bowed her head, not wanting to see Ahlen’s pain any longer. She had wanted to hurt him, make him feel a fool. Once again, her need for the only paltry revenge she could exact, had backfired. Jhan had only herself to blame.
They stopped for the night under a shelf of rock that had a natural wall curving in a semi circle. It protected them from the wind and gave their tent a firm foothold against any sudden storms. Jhan left everything to Ahlen and huddled so close to Zerain that she interfered with the woman lighting the braziers. Zerain finally pushed her roughly aside with a muttered oath, but Jhan was back at once as the first coals caught and burned warmly. She almost put her hands into the flames, jerking off her gloves with her chattering teeth. For a long while, she was oblivious to anything but the sizzling ache of her body, as it slowly defrosted, and the dragging pulse of her laboring heart.
Zerain used a wooden bowl to mix flour and water for her flat bread. She tossed oil onto the back of a pan with a practiced flick of fingers and heated it on the brazier Jhan was huddling near. Once it was smelling sweetly, she patted a flat round of dough and tossed it onto the pan. It sizzled and cooked quickly. Daring burnt fingers, Zerain used the tips to flip the flat bread over to cook on the opposite side. Jhan watched her make one after another with one hand, while her free hand made a thick soup in a kettle. Cutting squares of dried vegetables pressed in some sort of fat, she warmed these in a pan.
Serving the food to the hungry men all about her, Zerain seemed serene and competent; in her element. When she served Jhan last, the proud tilt of head and her quick motions made up for her lack of features. They said, as plainly as words, that Zerain had a place and it was as a prince’s wife. Jhan was nothing, a nobody huddling at her hearth side. It was hard to believe that so much could be conveyed by so little, but Zerain managed it. A clear warning and a snub at the same time. A hint that she was disturbed by Obahn’s interest in Jhan, yet confident that she was woman enough to keep it only interest.
Jhan bore with Zerain, ignored her even, as she concentrated on eating everything within reach, keeping it down, and trying to absorb as much warmth as the brazier would allow. When the tent finally began to warm up from the press of bodies, and the baku and imala tethered along its walls, Jhan was able to part with the brazier and crawl under furs and blankets. She hid her head under them as she tried to keep the warmth she had gathered.
“The night is black,” Obahn muttered. “The wind is fierce and the cold deadly. Even a thief wouldn’t be foolish to walk these narrow trails in such weather. I won’t command a watch.”
“My Lord,” Sael’s voice was relieved.
Bodies moved and Obahn called to Zerain. Jhan heard him speaking to her as they moved away to their bed. When silence fell, Jhan began to drift into sleep, exhausted.
“Let the Ikhil go,” Jhan heard Sael say close by in a low voice. “Jhan will die otherwise. What good will that do you?”
“I don’t wish you to speak to me, thekling,” Ahlen’s voice replied, edged with low grade fear and disgust. “Jhan is my business. I intend to make sure she lives.”
“She?” Sael echoed acidly. “You don’t even know what he is, if you say that.”
“I know. It is hard to remember it.”
“What good is he to you?” Sael persisted.
“Jhan has saved my life. There was a thief he defeated. He helped me find you. Even with Ixien’s help, I know I wouldn’t have made it this far without your Lord Obahn’s good graces.”
“He doesn’t have any good graces and you should remember that well, boy,” Sael bit back. “He has his reasons, never fear... or maybe you should.”
“Jhan said the same.”
“Then he has some wisdom,” Sael paused and then said intently. “What hold do you have over him? Why doesn’t he just snap your neck and return to where ever he came from?”
“I thought it was against your custom to ask questions,” Ahlen growled and it sounded like he was wrapping up in blankets, preparing to turn his back on Sael and end the conversation.
“You’ll find, if you continue with us, that I’m not very good at keeping custom.”
“Jhan doesn’t dare kill me, if he wants to go on living. That’s all you need to know, thekling,” Ahlen snapped. “As for why I’m doing it. He knows why and he knows why I can’t let him go.” Ahlen became impatient. “I don’t want him to die! I wish none of this had been necessary! It’s my Goddess I have to answer to, not you.”
“A goddess?” Sael wasn’t skeptical. He sounded superstitious and he became swiftly silent.
Jhan was glad of the silence. She didn’t care what Sael thought and certainly didn’t want to hear her tragedy retold. She closed her ears and mind to it and sought sleep with single minded intensity.
Jhan felt little shocks of cold on her eyelids, on her cheeks, on her mouth.
She opened her eyes and saw Kile looking down at her. He kissed her mouth again
with a frustrated intensity, but his lips were passing through her and she started
up at the unnerving vision of his face sinking into hers.
Kile was huddled inside of a very small, hide tent filled with furs and a little iron stove that glowed red with banked coals. Jhan was lying beside him. She should have been warm, but she felt nothing, her body obviously walking in dreams again. Realizing this, she groaned in pain and turned away.
“Don’t go!” Kile begged. “I’m not asleep this time. I know it! I’ve been sitting up, thinking.”
“I’m the one that’s dreaming,” Jhan hissed, tears trailing down the dream image of her face. “I keep torturing myself with this! It has to stop!”
“Jhan!” Kile begged, almost weeping himself. “This isn’t a dream! I-I don’t have that much imagination!” he laughed, choking, almost hysterical. “You know me. Thick headed. Single minded. I realized in Sarvoy after- after Caliya. I know I can’t dream something this colorful!”
“I can,” Jhan said with a shiver. “Usually, its nightmares. I suppose this can count as one, though.”
“It must have something to do with your Power,” Kile reasoned. “You’re bringing yourself to me somehow. I can’t really explain it, or even understand it, but it must be true.”
Jhan did look at him then, unable to stop herself. He looked worn, she thought, hollow eyed and red with travel in cold weather. His hair was a tangle and he was wearing thick clothing. A bruise colored his forehead. Jhan reached out a hand in concern and sobbed as it passed into him. Jerking it back, she clutched it to herself, feeling its insubstantialness.
Kile touched his own forehead, frowning. “I went to Owell, trying to find out if anyone had seen you. A man named Okrin said that his master, Kelmus, had been playing with some pretty boy in his wagon. Later, he’d been found dead and the boy gone. He described you. Your blue eyes again. I knew then, knew I wasn’t going mad.” Kile’s frown deepened. “The man then tried to knock me unconscious, to use me in some sort of game he had outside of town. Luckily, I have a hard head and that man is serving his master in death now.”
“It all sounds so real,” Jhan breathed, but she wasn’t fooled. “It’s good to see you Kile, even if it is only a dream. It’s worth the pain it causes, and the hopelessness.”
“It’s not a dream,” Kile argued desperately. His hands clenched. “I wish I could touch you! At least who ever has you is treating you well.”
That was the proof, Jhan thought. She knew that she was worn to the bone, hair matted, and face streaked with dirt. She was wrapped from head to toe in clothes, blankets, and furs, but here... She looked down at herself. She was wearing a wine red dress, the same one she had been captured in, and she was clean, hair a tumble about her, and skin pale and glowing.
“We are in the mountains,” Jhan muttered as if trying to conjure up reality. “I’m freezing to death. I don’t even know if I’m going to wake up in the morning. I’m not safe and I’m not being treated well. That’s why I’m dreaming this. It’s the only way I can escape them.”
“The mountains?” Kile face twisted in misery. “I’m so far behind! I’ll never catch up!” He rose in a half crouch and threw open the tent flap. “Jaross!” he shouted. “We have to leave now!”
“I’ve been humoring you this far, Kile Helarion Dor, but this-” Jaross had stuck an exasperated face into the tent. In an instant, that face transformed from exasperation to shock. “Jhan?”
Jaross was looking right at her, Jhan realized. If this was a dream, why would she want Jaross in it? He’d never been more than an irritating friend to her. “Caliya didn’t see me,” Jhan said numbly, trying to reason with herself.
“Maybe you didn’t want her to. You do hate her,” Kile replied. “It’s not a dream, Jhan.”
“I can’t believe that. I can’t! It hurts too much!” Jhan fled them, tent and astonished faces dissolving; turning into a spinning soup of colors and confusion. Jhan couldn’t bear the burden of thinking that Kile would be forever following too far behind to help her. Her despair alone would kill her, she thought. It was far better to think herself alone and far better not to rely on anyone but herself to see her through.
“She’s blue!” Ahlen’s panicked voice cut through Jhan’s dream. She awoke, but couldn’t manage to open her eyes or do anything other than listen to the voices around her.
“Here, wrap the coals from the braziers and put them around Jhan,” Sael ordered, sounding calm and competent.
“They are too cool,” Zerain announced, her voice just as cool and unhelpful, “and I will not light more. We have just enough coals to see us over the mountains. We must not waste them in a useless attempt to save an Ikhil.”
“She is right,” Obahn agreed. “Using up our coals would only keep the Ikhil alive until we broke camp, then the cold would have It again. The Ikhil has always been weak and unfit. Such a creature was never meant to live.”
“No!” Ahlen protested, shocked. “You can’t mean that!”
“I do,” Obahn retorted. “Prolonging the inevitable is only cruelty and a waste of our supplies. Sael, take Jhan outside and let the cold end the Ikhil’s suffering.”
“I- It isn’t an honorable way to die,” Sael objected. “My Lord-”
Obahn was quick to cut him off with a searing challenge. “Use your sword on Jhan then and finish it now, if you think It is more deserving of a warrior’s death.” There was a pause, and then a harsh laugh. “Your knife, Sael Ruon? I think the Ikhil has shown enough bravery that It shouldn’t be treated like a lame imala! Are you afraid to dirty your sword?”
“No.” Sael was tense, but defiant. “I think Jhan has been brave enough that he merits a chance at surviving this.”
“Then who is the knife for?” Obahn snarled.
“To cut strips of leather,” Sael replied. “I will tie Jhan onto his baku. He will not trouble our journey and he may live or die as he can.”
“Why?” Obahn demanded.
“Why, my Lord?”
“The death sign is in the Ikhil’s face,” Obahn continued. “What is Jhan to you that you refuse to see it?”
Sael was well aware of his danger. Obahn was questioning his oath now. Sael’s reply was careful. “You’ve told me that Jhan is an example I should learn from. I haven’t finished my lessons yet.”
Cryptic, but Obahn was through wasting time in argument and was certainly not going to waste time questioning Sael’s meaning. He took it at face value instead, grunting his displeasure and muttering a curse. “We can’t wait any longer. We must break camp. I need your sword arm free, Sael. Let the Ikhil freeze to death on the back of a baku, or in the snow outside our tent, so long as you are not involved in it any longer.”
Jhan felt herself lifted. Someone, perhaps Sael, carried her out of the tent. The cold hit her like a wall, savaging away what little warmth she had. She gasped, the world spinning. She thought that she had lost consciousness again, but the voices around her, shimmering syllables at first, solidified again into recognizable words. There was another argument going on. The cold slipped fingers under all of Jhan’s clothes and tried to steal her life as quick as a thief in the night.
“I will take her.” That voice sliced through all the rest, distinct and clear. Jhan didn’t recognize it.
Jhan was lifted up. She wanted to struggle, imagining herself being given up to a stranger, but her body was as unresponsive as if it were already dead. Arms went about her and hands slid under her clothes. Jhan sobbed weakly as those hands softly moved over her breasts and then pressed themselves against her breastbone inbetween them.
The warmth started slowly, like thousands of electric shocks; not painful, but tingling all along Jhan’s skin. The hands were the warmest, placed over her struggling heart. When that warmth reached all the way to her fingertips and to her toes inside of her two layers of socks, Jhan groaned in pleasure, feeling as if she were being immersed in a hot bath. Death retreated reluctantly, with a promise to return, as Jhan began to feel like flesh and blood again.
Jhan's mind drifted amidst her pleasure, touching unexpectedly on her dream of Kile. She lingered over it, wondering at the way her mind had woven such a masterful dream to keep herself from knowing that she was dying. It had seemed so real; Kile so much Kile and Jaross... very much Jaross. Kile had said everything she had longed to hear. Rescue was on the way. He still loved her. He was faithfully pursuing her on the slimmest of leads because of that love. Jaross, that was stranger, and harder to explain, but she knew that dreams rarely had rhyme or reason.
Jhan had dreamt stranger when Kile had taken her through the Rhenwall Pass in Winter. She had nearly died there too, but it had been that or face the soldiers of the Dark King on the plain. They had traveled in half days, making numerous camps to warm Jhan up while men broke through the snow to continue. During those stops, Jhan had often been delirious, still suffering the effects of her captivity. Most of her dreams had been of escape; strange, comforting, warm landscapes where she had felt alone and safe.
Often, one dream had intruded on another, and Jhan had found herself confronting nightmare figures from memory. Each time, Kile had seemed to appear in those dreams. Jhan remembered them clearly still. He had held her and chased those nightmares away with the power of his anger and love. That her subconscious would still try to bring him to her rescue in her dreams wasn’t so outlandish when she remembered that.
Reality had to be faced, Jhan told herself firmly. It didn’t feel as if she were going to die just now, but her problems weren’t going to be dreamt away either. Jhan brought her mind back to the here and now with difficulty, forcing herself to think about who held her and how she was being kept warm and alive. Reluctantly, she finally managed to open her eyes.
Jhan found herself in the saddle of her walking baku. Disoriented, she clutched at the saddle horn. Snow drifted all about her and frost and ice were everywhere. The baku’s breath steamed and its fur was matted with its own frozen sweat. It plodded, miserable, at the rear of the company.
Ahlen was riding ahead, leading the pack baku. Obahn, Sael, and Zerain were riding ahead of him. That left... Jhan stiffened and turned her head. Ixien’s crystal pale eyes met hers dispassionately. He was shorter than she was, but holding her with surprising strength, his small arms locked about her and his tiny body cushioning her against the jolt and sway of the baku beneath them.
“Get your hands off of me!” Jhan grated, her voice thin, weak, and unable to convey her outrage.
“That would not be wise,” Ixien replied evenly. “My heat is all that is between you and death.”
It was true. Jhan felt his inhuman heat pulsing and flowing over her. The snow was steaming on them both and the cold wasn’t even making Jhan shiver. “How?”
“It is difficult to extend my energies thus,” Ixien complained in way of explanation. “I was required to eat quantities of food and to absorb as much light as possible. One is not inexhaustible and the other is not constant.”
“Why?” was Jhan’s next question, full of suspicion.
“Why?” Ixien echoed.
“I could hear them talking earlier,” Jhan told him, her voice quavering unsteadily as she forced it from her parched throat. “They were going to leave me out to die. Isn’t that what you wanted?” It felt incredible that she had to remind him of it. Was she so far beneath Ixien’s consideration or compassion? Maybe, not being anything like his own people, they all were.
“Why did I save you?” Ixien clarified with his maddening blandness. “That is your question?”
“Yes,” Jhan seethed.
“You have become of worth,” Ixien replied simply. “Ahlen needs you as a voice between himself and Lord Obahn. Without you, we may be left behind. That would be detrimental to my goal.”
“I think-” Jhan hesitated as she felt the word haze. She breathed through the moment of disillusionment until the world came into focus once more. She forced herself to continue, wanting to know. “I think you’re overestimating my worth to Obahn. I seem to recall that he was telling Sael to run me through with a sword.”
“That is when he thought that you were dying.” Ixien explained logically. “Now that you are not, and not likely to now that I have you in my care, he will once again show mating interest towards you. He will allow you, and Ahlen and I, to accompany him because of that.”
“Mating interest.” Jhan felt her stomach tighten in nausea. “Did Obahn tell you to leave when he thought that I was dying?”
“No. He needs us until he leaves the mountains,” Ixien told her. “We swell his numbers and give the thieves pause. Once that danger has passed, he will not have any use for us. His interest in you will give him reason to keep us with him.”
Jhan wanted to throw off Ixien’s arms, slide from the baku, or better yet, throw him off. Fortunately, she wasn’t so far gone that she couldn’t regain control of her emotions. The mountains were much higher and much colder than the Rhenwall Pass. Without Ixien, death would come swiftly. This wasn’t the place for hysterics.
Jhan turned to stare straight ahead of her, body rigid with hatred for the little Caefu. So cold and calculating. So totally alien. That she owed her life to him now, made her feel even more ill. “I don’t even know why you’re going to the Sun God,” was, at last, all that she could find to say.
“I was sent by my people,” Ixien replied. “I have a task to perform. I must accomplish it. I WILL accomplish it. That is all I will say.”
“You haven’t said anything!” Jhan lashed back. That was the reason she hadn’t recognized his voice when he had taken her to save her life. Ixien hadn’t spoken to anyone for longer than she could recall.
Ahlen heard Jhan’s last, accusing shout, and looked back. Seeing that she was awake, he pulled his baku back until she and Ixien came close. Leaning over, he handed Jhan a few grain cakes laced with strips of jerky and a skin of water that had been kept thawed by his baku’s belly. When Jhan took them, Ahlen’s hand paused before drawing away, as if envious of the heat that surrounded her.
“I won’t ask how you are,” Ahlen wisely told her. His face was creased with worry and his eyes were full of guilt and helplessness. “You look terrible. Even with the heat, there’s a blue tinge around your eyes and mouth. You look bloodless. I think you were close to meeting the gods.”
“Close to DYING,” Jhan stressed hoarsely, strength to even be angry almost beyond her. “Don’t try and make it sound pretty.”
“I wasn’t-” Ahlen sighed, huddling into his coat and scarf. “It’s just a saying,” he finished lamely.
There was a bitter silence and then Jhan thought to ask, “What about the medicine for the parasites? It’s been days now. I would hate to survive the cold just to get eaten alive.”
Ahlen looked confused for only a split second, but it was enough for Jhan to realize the horrible truth. “You lied, didn’t you?” she shouted it, her weak voice rallying to match her outraged disbelief. “It was all a lie! I knew it! I just knew it! You bastard!”
Jhan wept, long and hard. She ignored everything as her mind closed in, seared by anguish and horror and the knowledge that the truth didn’t matter. It was too late to turn back. Even having come this far, and with Ixien’s help, the mountains might kill her yet. To try and return alone, unaided, even in high Summer, was a mad dream that Jhan didn’t even bother contemplating. Ahlen didn’t need his parasites to hold on to her. Jhan’s life was still dependent on remaining his captive.
“It was the only way,” Ahlen was explaining, his voice a distant buzz. “The stories that I heard about you frightened me. I didn’t have any idea what sort of person you might really be. I’m sorry for all the pain that its caused you... I-” There was a choked sound and a harsh sob. Ahlen was weeping now as well.
Ahlen’s guilt was only a background cacophony of noises to Jhan, her mind playing for her all the missed opportunities when she could have simply fled, hurting nobody, and escaping all the suffering she had endured so far.
“Your people are strange to me,” Ixien commented obliquely. “They seem so disordered and prone to their base instincts, always caught up in mating rituals and emotional exercises that cause them to be irrational and non productive. It is a wonder that your people rose to any semblance of society.”
Jhan began to turn, a cry of rage ready to spring from her lips, but Sael’s sharp command to halt forestalled her. Startled, Jhan fought a way through the blinding cloud of her despair and anger to see Sael wheeling his imala away from a cart buried in the snow. He drew his sword with a clatter of metal against scabbard and his eyes were wide as he rode to Obahn.
“Fresh; one day, maybe,” Sael was saying. “Bandits for certain.”
Ahlen was wiping at the tears that were freezing on his cheeks, looking up from his gloved hands to shakily see what Sael was talking about. When the line started up again, with a nervous gait, Jhan saw Ahlen’s face as he approached the cart before she did. He went pale and his mouth went slack with horror. It prepared her a little, but not adequately for the butchered bodies tumbled in the remains of the broken cart. They were all men, eyes sunken and faces frozen in shocked expressions; realization of their own deaths.
The sight was like ice water and Jhan began to shake from head to foot. Instantly, she forgot about everything, but the fear that she might not only be attacked and killed, but worse, become the captive of someone else. It was immediate danger that didn’t allow for the luxury of wallowing in despair or thoughts of revenge. It had to be faced now.
A black bird flapped lazily by to investigate the bodies, but they were too frozen to interest it for long. When it flapped awkwardly back into the sky, Zerain made a sign in the air. “A bad omen,” she said in the stillness.
Obahn looked over at Sael and his words carried back to Jhan easily. “Now we will see how willing you are to use that sword, Ekhal!”
“You doubt my oath?” Sael snarled back.
“I doubt your ability not to be spitted should it come to fighting!” Obahn returned harshly. The scars on his face stood out as he scowled at Sael fiercely. “When the blood spurts from a wound that you have caused, we will see if a woman lives under that scarf or a man!”
“I was born a man!” Sael’s hand tightened on the hilt of his unsheathed sword until his knuckles went white. It was hard to tell, because of his hidden face, whether it was from anger or fear.
Obahn chuckled darkly, maybe guessing the latter. “There is a difference between being born a man, Ekhal, and acting as one.”
“Obahn,” Ahlen interrupted, his voice sickly. He wasn’t ashamed to show that he was afraid. “I’m not a warrior. I was never trained to fight.”
Obahn shot Ahlen a contemptuous look. It was obvious that he didn’t care whether Ahlen lived or died and his words expressed it clearly. “If a warrior comes at you, it will be up to you whether you kill or be killed.”
“I- I only have a knife.” Ahlen gripped it uncertainly. It was a long knife with a sharp edge, but he had used it mainly to cut meat and to repair harnesses.
Zerain pulled out her own knife. “It is my only weapon as well, but I will use it in my Lord’s defense.”
Obahn was pleased by her fierceness. Ahlen was mortified. He continued to grip his knife fearfully, eyes darting wildly all around them in trepidation. Jhan was looking around in fear as well, but she didn’t worry, like Ahlen, about how she was going to defend herself. She could hardly stay upright enough in the saddle to keep her back from touching Ixien’s hated body. In a fight, she knew that, not only would she be less than useless, but she wasn’t even sure if she would be able to muster the will to WANT to defend her life.
Sael fell back to ride even with Jhan, but it wasn’t because he was worried about her. Instead, he was looking around in agitation. Sael even went so far as to stand in his stirrups, coat fluttering like black wings in the light, cold wind, as he attempted to get a better look at the rises of rock on each side of them. “There could be caves anywhere,” he muttered to himself. “This is a good place for an ambush.”
As if his words had called the bandits to action, they burst from the top of a shelf of rock, jumping down towards them with curved blades slicing the air. They wore white furs from head to foot, in order to hide among the drifts of snow, and their eyes, peeking out of slits in their hoods, were the only part of them visible.
Sael’s imala jumped sideways, startled, and Jhan felt Sael’s leg driven hard into the side of her baku. Sael cried out, swearing, as he reined his imala aside sharply. His beast’s rump came around into Jhan’s baku full force.
Jhan flung herself free of the saddle as her beast stumbled and then fell. Landing hard, but unhurt, Jhan crawled quickly out of her baku’s way as the beast rolled, surged up again, and almost trampled her as it galloped past. Ixien, remarkably, was still clinging to the saddle, but he wasn’t any match for the baku. Both of them disappeared down the trail in a flurry of rock and snow churned up by the baku’s large hooves.
Sitting up in the snow, Jhan felt her head spin and her lungs constrict as the cold rushed in to fill the void left by Ixien’s heat. It stung like fire, too much like burning for Jhan to bear. She lurched to her feet and tottered forward, in a stiff legged walk, as she mindlessly sought an escape from the pain.
Sael was shouting again, driving his imala into the bandits fearlessly, Obahn at his side. Swords slashed and bright, red blood sprayed onto the snow while men cried out in pain, death, and challenge. It seemed impossible that two men could hold back so many, but the trail was too narrow for a full assault. Unable to overwhelm their prey, the bandits were forced to squeeze forward and hinder each other, making themselves easy targets.
Zerain sat as still as stone, body straight in the saddle of her nervous imala, as she watched with anxiety clear in every line of her veiled form. Her knife was clutched tightly in one hard fist, as if she longed to ride forward and sink it into an enemy.
Ahlen was on the ground, standing beside Zerain. He must have thought to help defend her, but he was, instead, battling with his baku and the pack baku. Smelling blood and wide eyed at the struggling men, the panicked beasts were attempting to flee after Jhan’s baku.
A sword opened Sael’s arm from shoulder to wrist before he parried and opened an attacker’s throat. Jhan, halfway to Ahlen and Zerain and the trail beyond them, stopped at the sight, sickened. When she saw Sael’s knees tighten and his imala lash out with iron shod hooves into a bandits face, she nearly vomited as the dead man took on the semblance of a smashed, red fruit.
Obahn was fighting calmly and expertly, stabbing and slashing as if he were striking wooden targets on a practice field. His eyes were as keen as his blade and his lips were shaped into a smiling snarl of enjoyment. To Jhan, he had always seemed on the verge of turning into a beast, but the battle was proving that he didn’t have to turn into a beast to act like one.
“Honorless-!” Zerain’s half swear of desperation stole Jhan’s attention from the fighting and her own freezing body. Zerain was struggling wildly to keep her seat in the saddle while she slashed at a bandit who was attempting to drag her off of her imala.
Ahlen wasn’t in any shape to come to Zerain’s rescue. He was kneeling on the ground, one hand on his head while the other was tangled in the reins of the baku. They were in full panic now, fore feet planted and tugging at Ahlen so hard that he was being dragged, inexorably, across the icy rock of the trail. Ahlen’s hand on his head was bloody. The bandit must have slipped past the defense and struck him, preferring to deal with easier prey than Obahn and Sael.
Jhan stopped and stood, watching numbly, as the bandit disarmed Zerain at last, cuffing her hard as he threw her to the ground. In a moment, Jhan realized, he was going to disappear with Zerain into the rocks, never to be seen again. What her fate would be, among a band of ruthless men, wasn’t hard for Jhan to guess.
As if she were being forced to watch a horror movie, Jhan was unable to block out the replay of memory; the long days spent in the hands of masters of cruelty. In the beginning, she had longed for a flicker of sympathy, a guilty look, or an ounce of humanity in the faces of Dagara or his men. That hope had proved futile. Her torturers had never shown an instant of remorse. That Zerain might be about to face even a shadow of that torment was too much for Jhan to bear. Whether she liked the woman or not was irrelevant. Jhan simply couldn’t allow any living creature to go through the pain, in body and mind, that she had.
Jhan lurched forward, her frozen muscles like lead weights, as she began to run. Her heart skipped beats, aching as if it were going to burst, as she reached Zerain’s attacker and came to an abrupt halt. Jhan’s vision blurred, but she was still able to spin about, her foot coming around to take the surprised man in the mouth.
What the bandit had expected from such a small, and clearly unarmed, attacker had obviously not been a kick in the face. He howled in surprise, staggering away from Zerain, as he spat blood and teeth. He looked as if he were going to fall, but then he regained his senses and whipped his sword out as he lunged at Jhan, shouting curses.
Jhan couldn’t find her balance. She stumbled backwards and fell to one knee. It saved her life. The bandit’s blade sliced the air where her neck had been. When the blade came around again, Jhan rolled, came up, and kicked out. Her inner ear hummed and she felt a sickening nausea grip her. Her blow missed and she fell to both knees as the last of her strength left her.
The thief straightened and grinned, looking down as Jhan panted and wiped at her eyes to clear them of their haze. His blade came up and Jhan flinched, feeling almost glad that it was going to be over.
The sun chose that moment to come from behind the snow swollen clouds. It sparkled on the mountain tops and made the mist about the peaks a beautiful combination of blue and pink. Jhan watched the spectacle over the bandit’s shoulder, preferring that to be her last sight rather than the cruel eyes of the man about to kill her.
Ahlen suddenly appeared to block that grand vision. Jhan blinked at his white, frightened face, as he seemed to take the bandit by the shoulder. It was an almost friendly gesture, but it ended violently. Ahlen pulled that shoulder back as he buried his knife blade into the man’s heart, reaching around to the man’s front to drive it home. The bandit started, looking down in horror as his sword fell from nerveless fingers. When he collapsed sideways, dead, Ahlen let him fall, staring down as if he couldn’t believe that he had done such a thing.
Silence reigned. The fight was over. The bandits all lay dead. Ahlen fell to his knees and vomited while Zerain picked herself up from the ground as if she were still dazed. Obahn had dismounted from his imala. He thrust his bloodied sword into the snow to clean it of blood and gore and then used a dead man’s back to wipe it dry. He looked very pleased, still grinning fiercely to himself.
Sael went to Ahlen, pulling out a rag. He held Ahlen from toppling over while the man continued to vomit. Finally, spent, Ahlen turned to thank his helper, but, when he saw that it was Sael, he twitched away and said something under his breath. Sael stood, eyes hard, as he dropped the rag he held by Ahlen’s hand.
“Keep it,” Sael told him sternly, “I’ve already emptied my stomach.”
Black birds began settling on the bodies, unconcerned with the living as they began their feast. Jhan looked away and then slowly began to sink to the ground, her knees feeling suddenly boneless as she distantly wondered if those birds would feast on her after she died.
“Not yet, Ikhil!” Obahn growled as his large hand caught Jhan under the arm and lifted her to her feet again. “It seems I am in your debt once more!” For saving his wife, or trying to, Jhan thought hazily, too weak to even cringe from the smell of blood on Obahn’s body.
“Like a bundle of sticks!” Obahn muttered distastefully as he propelled Jhan to some unknown destination. “How did you survive this far?”
“My Lord?” Sael was gripping his bleeding arm, his body swimming before Jhan’s eyes like an image in a kaleidoscope.
“Heal It!” Obahn ordered simply as he handed Jhan over into Sael’s arms.
“We will need to camp,” Sael began, “Make a fire and wrap the coals-”
“To be attacked again?” Obahn spat aside and his spit froze against a stone. “We need a more defensible position. A cave perhaps.”
“Jhan won’t live to see it,” Sael replied tersely. “Without the Caefu, it wouldn’t matter even if he did.”
“I am here,” Jhan distantly heard the sound of Ixien’s voice mingled with hoof beats. He had regained control of the baku at last and returned. “Give Jhan to me.” It was the first time he had ever used her name.
“In time for our victory, but too late to win it,” Obahn snarled accusingly. “I do not like you, Caefu. You are honorless.”
“You words are nothing to me,” Ixien replied evenly. “Will you let Jhan die while you strive to insult me?”
Jhan was lifted into the saddle without further argument, and Ixien slipped his hands under her clothes. She gasped as his warmth spread throughout her body, but she didn’t revive. Everything stayed distant, half in and half out of dreams; shadows against the whiteness of her sight. She felt the baku moving beneath her, but it was a long time before she could do more than hang limply in Ixien’s arms.
They rode away from the smell and sight of death and the feasting birds, hoping that there weren’t more bandits at some camp up ahead, waiting for their fellows to return.
Jhan heard Zerain say something to her, and then again, repeated. She understood the words with difficulty. “I owe you my life, Ikhil. That doesn’t sit well with my pride.”
“Ahlen saved you,” Jhan mumbled, wondering if she had said it loud enough for Zerain to hear. “I-I fell... failed.”
“The attempt was made, nonetheless,” Zerain replied. “You nearly died for me. You have shown that you are worthy of respect and honor.”
“Honor,” Jhan hissed, closing her eyes. “It’s all you talk about.”
“It’s all that matters,” Zerain retorted, as if Jhan had shown herself to be a fool.
Jhan shut everything out, trying to reclaim some of the world out of the fog gathering around her mind. That was hard to do, swaying in the saddle with her senses still reeling, but, at last, when she opened her eyes again, there was color and form and something besides the whiteness. That something was Sael, riding slightly ahead. He had shed his black coat and had pulled his sleeve up, patiently sewing up the wound on his arm. It was a clean slice, but it bled copiously until he had the lips of it shut.
Obahn was riding on the other side of Sael, watching his cool demeanor with approval. “It would seem that your are somewhat of a man, Sael. You fought well.”
Sael stiffened, ducking his head until his black hair hid his eyes. “I am not a warrior, Lord Obahn. I kill because I must.”
Obahn grunted sourly. “Your father would-”
“My father raped my mother, got her with child, and then would not acknowledge me!” Sael exploded. “Don’t speak to me about my father, my Lord Prince!” Zerain handed him a strip of cloth and Sael took it with a jerk and began wrapping up his wound as he continued, “My mother lived only until I could care for myself and then she took her own life!”
Jhan couldn’t believe Obahn’s cruelty. The man slitted his gold eyes and said, “No father would have acknowledged an Ekhal child.”
Sael went hard jawed, but he acted as if he had heard that one too many times to let it sink too deeply. “My mother never pointed my father out to me or spoke of him, so deep was her shame, but nothing would have changed if she had. I can’t change what I am, even for a father’s name. I am as the god’s have made me.”
“Ill made you,” Obahn returned acidly and Ahlen, walking along with them, gasped at the blasphemy as Obahn kicked his imala into a trot and rode up ahead.
“They fear nothing, not even gods!” Ahlen swore and Jhan saw him make an odd gesture in the air, maybe some sign to ward away evil.
“Foolishness,” Ixien grumbled in Jhan’s ear. “What has any of this to do with our danger or our goal?”
Jhan could almost agree. It was foolish to hash over old grievances when bandits might descend on them again. It seemed that Obahn couldn’t pass up a moment to harass Sael, despite their danger. Jhan wondered at that and wondered, not for the last time, how there could be such hate between them when they had sworn to be together until death. It was obvious that Obahn needed Sael’s sword to defend him, but why Sael’s? Why not another warrior’s? Why take an oath and bring a man he so obviously despised and hated? So many unanswered questions about them and Ixien, Jhan thought wearily. The mystery kept her from thinking about her own situation, almost.
They found Ahlen’s baku and the pack baku up ahead, forlornly standing on the trail. They weren’t stupid animals and it hadn’t taken them long to realize that the ones who fed and cared for them had been left behind. Not a good situation on a bare mountain. Given time, they would have thought it through enough to return on their own. Ahlen spoke to them gently and patted their noses to calm them enough for him to take up their leads and mount his baku. With obvious relief that he wouldn’t have to keep on walking, Ahlen fell in line behind Jhan and Ixien as they continued down the trail.
“You are not well,” Ixien said suddenly in Jhan’s ear. “You remain cold to my touch.”
“My head hurts,” Jhan complained softly, more to herself than to Ixien. “I can’t see straight. It almost feels like that kaunut, but nothing’s that bad.”
“You must not cease to be,” Ixien said, as if that were only common sense and Jhan had a choice. “You are needed.”
“I know you aren’t saying that to make me feel good,” Jhan replied, her voice breaking and going hoarse. She coughed hard and felt her lungs constrict painfully. Her insides were tight, throbbing almost, and her skin felt dry to the point of cracking; stretched like dry leather over her aching bones. Instinct warned her that she wasn’t going to make it much further.
“I need to eat and drink something,” Jhan said when she could speak again. “I’m burning up everything from the inside out just to keep warm.”
“It is good that you have made another debt between you and Obahn,” was Ixien’s oblique comment. “His mating interest could not be sustained looking as you are now.”
“That’s all you think about,” Jhan coughed again. She was so weak that it caused her to almost fall from the saddle.
Ixien caught Jhan and easily pulled her back into his arms as if his fifty odd pounds obeyed a different physiology. The claws on the ends of his fingers, so much like a cat’s, scratched her inadvertently as he slipped them back under her clothes.
“It is all YOUR people think about,” Ixien felt the need to reply. “It motivates almost everything you do.”
“Zerain would say honor does,” Jhan rasped, barely able to have the last word, “but you can argue it with her. I’m too far gone.” She closed her eyes then and, though she hated it, she let Ixien worry about keeping her alive and in the saddle as she drifted off into the white haze again.
The storm came over the top of the mountain peaks like a white, falling cloak
of death. They could see it approach, horror stricken, as they scrambled to
find shelter. Obahn galloped ahead, taking a turn of the trail at breakneck
speed. He returned almost at once, shouting for everyone to hurry as he fought
with his imala. All the beasts began to panic on the narrow trail and it wasn’t
difficult to get even the baku to break into a ponderous trot.
Jhan felt the jog of the baku, but she didn’t attempt to discover what was going on. It was just one more danger in a long string of them. They either made it or they didn’t and Jhan’s comforting numbness was far better than fear. Only when the wind ceased abruptly, and things began to echo, was it enough to capture her attention. She roused herself, reluctantly, as she was lowered into warm furs and blankets near a brazier that Zerain had just lit.
They were deep within a cave, the brazier and an oil lamp the only light. The animals were shuffling and sighing a few yards away and Sael was using rocky outcropping to string their tent up as a barrier against them.
The fierce cold was gone, left behind on the surface. Deep within the cave, it was a survivable temperature. Coupled with the warmth of the animals and the braziers, Jhan hardly felt the lack of Ixien’s warm embrace. The Caefu had deserted her, curling up in the darkness to conserve his own strength. Ahlen and Zerain had taken his place, sitting almost touching Jhan on each side to add their body warmth.
“Keep all the dung,” Zerain was telling Sael. “We will run out of coal if the storm keeps us here for long. I will only use the cooking oil if I must.”
“Food?” Obahn asked.
“We stocked well,” Zerain replied confidently. “There is still good stores of jerky and pressed vegetables in fat. Salty provender, but it will keep us alive easily. I will make a thick stew and use some of the wine to help the Ikhil. He needs one solid meal before we must conserve what is left.”
“Agreed,” Obahn grunted and turned away. He took out a cloth and began cleaning his sword meticulously.
Sael wasn’t so calm any more. Finished with the animals, he sat cradling his arm. After a moment, he took off his sword and put it aside, unwilling to look at the blood on it, let alone clean it off. Now that the fighting was over and they were safe, his adrenalin had finally run out, leaving him obviously disturbed.
“It seems that I owe you a debt as well as the Ikhil, Ahlen Kantori,” Obahn said suddenly as he finished with his sword and sheathed it. His words were stiff with formality, but clearly filled with annoyance at the way things had gone. “You joined with the Ikhil to save my wife.”
Jhan heard Ahlen’s voice answer with a quaver of deep emotion. His body tensed beside Jhan, and she wished that she could manage to turn her head, or even open her eyes wide enough to see him, but her body failed to respond. “Jhan distracted him,” Ahlen said, “otherwise, I wouldn’t have had the chance.”
“You saved me, as did the Ikhil,” Zerain insisted.
Ahlen was trembling now. “Please, don’t speak of it! My people are peaceful farmers. We don’t kill one another!”
“Can’t you see that you are sickening him?” Sael interjected furiously, “and me. We don’t glory in the kill as you do, My Lord.”
“Phuthar, Sael, until I give you leave otherwise,” Obahn ordered through gritted teeth, one finger pointing at Sael in warning.
Sael fell silent. He pulled up his knees and wrapped his arms around them, burying his face into the tight knot of his body as if his scarf wasn’t enough to conceal his anguish and shame at his own weakness.
“I have given the order of silence,” Obahn explained to everyone. “Don’t attempt to speak to him. He is unable to answer.”
Ahlen was surprising in his outrage, considering how he felt about Sael. “Must you give such an order?”
Obahn measured Ahlen sharply, as if he suspected that Ahlen was challenging his authority. “Sael is mine and of my people. I have shown him remarkable restraint until now. Another warrior would have beaten him for speaking such insolence or even cast him out.”
“Our way is the way of battle,” Zerain added, quietly proud. “There isn’t room for those who would cower from the fight or those who would refuse to hold a sword altogether and hide among women.”
“Such a one would be welcome among my people,” Ahlen said, almost defending Sael, but then he stammered lamely, “if- If he were not perverted.”
Sael’s head came up at that and his eyes were twin pools of black warning, but they flicked away to his lord as Obahn replied, ”Your people know peace. My people have lands that are coveted by others. To refuse to fight them threatens our existence!"
Ahlen let out a slow breath, suddenly realizing that he was on dangerous ground and that it wasn’t wise to argue with such volatile people. He turned away, ducking his head, and said only. “We have different ways.”
Obahn grunted, accepting Ahlen’s withdrawal from his challenge with contempt “And different lives that bred them, mountain boy. Those vermin back there weren’t trained warriors and you and the Ikhil performed worse than I could have imagined, even though you still managed to save my wife. There will be much worse where we are going and not any room for the weak of heart.”
“He is only a foreign boy, my Husband,” Zerain said, as if trying to distract Obahn. “Don’t waste strength arguing with him.”
“I am a man,” Ahlen bristled.
“You have shown it today,” Obahn agreed. “You were able to kill a man and our numbers gave the thieves pause enough for Sael and I to block them from a full assault.”
“Jhan was right, then,” Ahlen realized and unwisely spoke it aloud. “You do need us. It wasn’t just for a debt that you took us along.”
There was a silence heavy with waiting, everyone wondering what Obahn would do in the face of that insult. Jhan found herself holding her breath and then let it out slowly along with her trepidation. What did she care what happened to Ahlen?
Sael chuckled, appreciation of Ahlen’s innocent daring. It cut like a knife through the silence. Obahn wasn’t amused, Sael’s mocking laugh like a springboard as he strode forward and sent the Ekhal sprawling with a single blow. When Obahn spun back to Ahlen, breathing hard and hand white on his sword hilt, his eyes seemed to glow beast yellow in the light from the brazier.
“They didn’t believe me, my people!” Obahn shouted at Ahlen, at everyone, at a hated memory. It echoed on down into the depths of the cave. “They called me mad and turned away from me, even my warrior brothers! Only one person stood to be my guard. An Ekhal! It didn’t even shame them!”
Obahn went to Ahlen and Jhan could smell his tanned leather clothes and the reek of imala as he leaned close. “Truth, Ahlen Kantori,” Obahn choked out in fury, “ I do need you. I need you to hold a weapon and I need your Jhan to get well enough to fight again. There are too many dangers to rely on only one Ekhal.”
Ahlen’s fear was so tangible that Jhan almost believed that she could feel it pulsing against her. He swallowed audibly, but he was adamant in his beliefs, even before someone who might possible slay him in the next instant. “I am going to the Sun God to save a life, not to take lives getting there.”
Obahn spat aside and moved away. “When a man is threatened with death, such words become mist. You will fight Ahlen. You have already proved it.”
No one spoke after that, as if afraid of drawing Obahn’s attention to themselves. That made the shuffling of the beasts, and the scraping and clatter of Zerain making dinner, almost deafening.
After a long time, Ahlen’s shaking stopped and his breathing became nearly normal. Sael recovered as well, gathering himself off of the floor as he cradled his arm and nursed the purpling bruise on his cheek at the same time. Drawing away from everyone, he buried himself in some blankets near his imala and seemed to sleep.
“It is unusually warm in here,” Zerain dared to comment at last. “It seems to come from the back of this cave. Could there be fire spirits living there?” Her voice was tinged with superstitious anxiety.
“Let’s not find out,” Ahlen whispered absently, his mind still on his confrontation with Obahn. “Let’s just thank them for Jhan’s sake. I don’t think she would be alive now, otherwise.”
“She,” Zerain mused. “Always you return to saying she. You are a boy if you don’t know the difference.”
“What does it matter?” Ahlen sighed, grateful to be distracted. “Jhan is woman enough to the eye, as she’s told me enough times. The man she was is nowhere to be seen. I tire of trying to keep it all straight in my head.”
“A woman births children.” Zerain was haughty now, delivering her information as if Ahlen were an ignorant child. “You shame all women by comparing us to an Ikhil.”
“Her own people allowed her to be a woman among them,” Ahlen informed Zerain wearily, too tired to watch his tongue. Jhan heard Ahlen’s words through her haze, her cracked lips almost smiling in anticipation as his tongue continued to trip along foolishly. Jhan wondered if she were going to get her revenge on him after all before she died. It all hinged on whether Obahn’s people cared about such things. A slim hope, but she had little else.
“They called her Princess Jhanian,” Ahlen continued, as if his common sense had been left back in the snowstorm, “and Jhan was not only married to a lord, but had been the brother of the King of Karana-”
Obahn had straightened and turned, his face an unpleasant red color. “What are you saying? This-this creature is a Prince of the Blood?”
Ahlen stopped his rambling and Jhan wished that she could gather the strength to see his face. He was shocked, realizing his stupidity at last. He tried to recover, too late, his words slow and difficult. “I, yes, Jhan WAS a Prince of Karana.”
“And how did such a person come to be with you?” Obahn demanded.
“Our business is our own.” Ahlen tried to prattle Obahn’s custom of minding one’s own business at him, but Obahn wasn’t to be turned aside so easily.
“You’ve just made it mine,” Obahn told Ahlen in a deadly tone of voice. “I wondered at Jhan’s noble bearing and HIS fighting skill. It all makes sense now. What you’ve done, dragging a member of a royal house after you as if he were the lowliest slave, merits death, Kantori.”
“Even a prince that’s been cut to be a woman?” Ahlen was brutal in his desperation, tossing aside his insistence on calling Jhan a ‘she’ in his effort to convince Obahn of his point . “What use is such as that to any kingdom? They despised Jhan and called what he was a perversion. Jhan’s marriage to a lord was shocking to them; outrageous. When I took Jhan, so great was he reviled by his own people, that I didn’t expect anyone to even to try and find him. I wasn’t disappointed, Prince Obahn! I never once saw any sign of pursuit!"
Obahn considered it, pacing with a hand rubbing at his chin thoughtfully. “Married, to that? For what reason would any man do such a thing, especially a lord? Surely not for his- for It’s pretty face? How would there be children? Did this man have other wives?” By returning to calling Jhan ‘It’, Obahn’s verdict was already clear.
“He had two children,” Ahlen remembered uncomfortably.
“Only two?” Obahn was amazed. “To risk such a bending of nature when he’s only begun to father children-” Obahn cut himself off abruptly and then turned to Ahlen, perplexed. “Strange people. I will not take issue with this. Jhan may be a prince, but, as you say, It’s worth has been removed. The matter IS none of my concern in such circumstances.”
The conversation was at an end, the danger once again over for the moment. “The food is done,” Zerain announced quietly, and then added when Ahlen ignored her, sitting rigid and dazed by too many brushes with death. “You must help, Ahlen.”
Ahlen stirred himself and Jhan felt herself lifted from her furs and blankets. She felt Ahlen’s arms hold her upright, her head resting against his breast. The room shimmered and then steadied. Jhan found herself looking at stew on the end of a wooden spoon. She opened her cold bitten lips and took it into her mouth. It was bursting with flavor and very warm. She swallowed it greedily and then opened her mouth for more. Zerain fed her like a baby, holding a cup of hot wine for her to drink in between bites.
Jhan ate until her stomach hurt and then forced a few bites more. Bloated, she sighed and turned her face away when Zerain tried to get in one last bite. The woman relented, sitting back on her heels to begin cleaning up. The food worked its way into Jhan slowly, but the hot wine was quicker. When she began to feel like being alive again, she looked up at Ahlen’s face.
“How do you feel?” Ahlen wondered, his face full of his guilt.
“The only thing that is keeping me alive is my hope of returning back to my home,” Jhan rasped out with all of her flagging strength.
“I exaggerated so that he wouldn’t kill me,” Ahlen admitted in a tense whisper, glancing nervously to where Obahn had gone to sit down.
“No, it wasn’t exaggeration,” Jhan retorted and then coughed weakly. When she could breathe again, she continued angrily. “It was the truth. I know it. They do all despise me. I AM a half creature of little account to everyone... everyone except one man, Ahlen, and he’s the man I want to return to. Try not to take even that away from me.”
“Did you hear everything?” Ahlen’s guilt deepened, patently hoping that she hadn’t.
“I heard enough to-” Jhan broke off as dizziness swept over her. “I’m feeling drunk; fuzzy,” Jhan groaned.
“No, but my skin feels tight, like there isn’t anything left of me," Jhan noticed with distress.
“Your eyes are dilated, even in the light,” Ahlen observed anxiously. “You need to keep on eating.”
“I can’t, not yet.” Jhan sank deeper under the furs, gathering strength to voice her outrage at Ahlen further. “At least it’s warm in here.” “The storm is a strong one,” Ahlen told her, letting her head come to rest on a rolled up blanket. He moved a little away to get his own meal. “We may be here for a few days. You’ll need them to recover.”
“I’m good at recovering, but even Ixien couldn’t help me through that last bit.” Jhan was brutally frank, accusing Ahlen harshly, “You’re going to be burying me along the trail, and you know it.”
“No.” Ahlen said that one word with all stubbornness, unwilling to face anymore death.
“Are you going to stop it somehow?” Jhan lashed back sarcastically, turning her cold chapped face away. “One part of me wishes that you could, but the other part is glad that you can’t!”
“Why did you try to save Zerain?” Ahlen’s question was strange and desperate, his face white with the need for Jhan’s reply.
Jhan was confused, her mind slow to change gears. “Why ask?”
“On the trail, you were so full of pain, despair, and anger,” Ahlen reminded her. “You had just found out that I had lied to you. You were nearly in death’s arms and you knew it. Why did you risk what life you had left for Zerain? She has done nothing but insult and ignore you.”
Jhan found it hard to think about it. She much rather preferred screaming her outrage at Ahlen than trying to delve into her own psyche. His eyes, though, were so compelling, that she couldn’t help but reply. “I remembered how I was tortured by men like those bandits and I couldn’t let the same thing happen to Zerain. I didn’t care about myself at that moment. Was it noble? Was it brave? It doesn’t really matter now, but it might be nice to die thinking so.”
“I-I was terrified,” Ahlen admitted, almost choking on his words. “I couldn’t do anything... until I saw that thief trying to kill you. I let go of the baku and I killed him to save you, not out of anything noble or-or brave, but because of what I had done to you; all that I took away. I killed that man because I knew that I couldn’t live with the guilt of having taken your life as well. I couldn’t let you die then. I’m not going to let you die now.”
“You are still so innocent!” Jhan exclaimed and then shook her head in exasperation, hating how her gentler side wanted to feel sorry for the man. “You’re just like a baku; stolid, stubborn, slow, but willing to bear a burden to its last drop of life. If I could forget all that you did to me, which I can’t, I might have liked you.”
“You’re a flame,” Ahlen returned, eyes distant. “beautiful like the flame, but all consuming, hot, and destructive.”
“To myself,” Jhan growled deprecatingly, “forcing myself to go on, despite knowing what the end will be.”
“You don’t see it do you?”
Jhan felt unconsciousness plucking at her mind, trying to make her forget her anger and her need to figure out what Ahlen wanted from her. She rallied briefly to voice her confusion. “What?”
“I’ve become nothing but a moth to your flame,” Ahlen explained. “Women have a set role in my culture, in Obahn’s, in yours. Even men have a set role. We both must act in certain ways, perform our certain duties. We expect these things, expect them of each other. I stepped outside of that when I defied my father and went to save my sister’s life, yet I still defer to my set role. I will still act and do things as if I were still on the farm in the mountains.”
“Except for the killing part,” Jhan grated.
Ahlen’s jaw jumped and then he nodded stiffly. “Yes, except for that. You aren’t what anyone expects. You are a cut man, pretending to be a woman. You act as if that were normal and call yourself woman, yet you don’t act as one, or as a man for that matter. You are something else. A flame, as I said, burning me; burning my conscience. As a man, I fear what was done to you, but there is something in you that makes me want to protect you and treat you as the woman you claim to be. I can’t just take you and use you on my journey as I had wanted to. You’re too good at reminding me that you are just as worthy of life as my sister. I can’t fight for her right to live and ignore yours any longer.”
“And all of that means?” Jhan wondered blearily as she began a long, slow spiral into needed sleep.
“We’re going to be companions from now on. Once we reach the other side of the mountain, you are free to do as you please.”
“And your goddess?” Jhan struggled to ask.
Ahlen forced the words out with difficulty. “If She truly wants you to be with me, She will find a way to convince you. I’m done ruining your life. When you risked your life for Zerain, despite everything, I knew that you deserved better treatment, even from a Goddess.”
The pain of that lashed Jhan back to consciousness. She managed a bloodshot glare. “That’s all very nice, but you’re acting as if I had a choice. When you told me that you had lied about the parasites, I already knew that I still didn’t have any choice but to follow you. I can’t return on my own and, I know that my ‘flame’ doesn’t burn you enough to make you take me back now.”
“Then Scherial has already spoken to you.” Ahlen sounded awed.
Jhan felt sickened. She stopped fighting unconsciousness, throwing herself into it’s soft oblivion with all of her heart.
Jhan slept through the night and the next day, allowing herself to wake only
long enough to relieve herself and to eat the myriad meals Zerain forced on
her. Those meals ended with the inevitable hot wine and some herbs that Sael
mixed into it. Those herbs seemed to open Jhan’s constricted blood vessels,
making her heart pump more strongly, as they relaxed her enough to let the food
and wine restore her depleted body.
Jhan was dimly aware of talk, animals moving about, and people walking to and fro in tasks or shear boredom. Little by little, though, those small sounds and motions began to fade away, until even the light winked out of existence.
She wasn’t sleeping, Jhan realized, not alarmed yet. It had happened too gradually to be surprising. She was only wearily puzzled, her mind almost annoyed to have to do anything but attempt to stay asleep. She almost convinced herself that Zerain had thought the cave warm enough to let her meager store of coals go out while they slept, but the silence was too deafening. There should have been any number of sounds. When she finally sat up, blinking and trying to see in complete darkness, she understood then that something had gone terribly wrong.
When Jhan had been Dagara Ku Ni’s prisoner, he had used to take his time changing her eyes to suit him. Blind during that time, Jhan had been forced to crawl about, feeling her way to obey his laughing orders. Her dreams had taken on such a quality of reality lately that she could almost fool herself into believing that this was just more of the same thing. A nightmare to wake up from.
Jhan waited expectantly for Dagara to say something horrible, or for his guards to attack her, but nothing of the sort materialized. She had a long time to feel her clothes, her gloves, and to touch her hood. She noticed that blankets and furs were gone, but that it was soothingly warm wherever she was. The floor was stone and her hands, searching timidly, felt nothing in any direction. Familiar smells; beast, brazier, cooking food, dirty bodies and dirty clothes, even the odd, spicy scent Zerain always wore, were conspicuously absent. There wasn’t anything to tell Jhan where she was or what might be about to happen.
After another long stretch of time went by, Jhan sighed. “If this is a nightmare, it’s boring.”
Sael’s voice came from the darkness, startled and tight. “Jhan? You’re here as well?” Jhan felt his hand brush her, but she pulled back. When his voice came again, it was almost boyish with his anxiety. “I’m afraid this isn’t a nightmare, or even a dream. I think someone has taken us prisoner.”
Jhan took in a sharp breath, coming fully alert at last. “Who? How?”
"Bandits, probably,” Sael replied. “We must have been taken in our sleep. As to the why... surely you must guess?”
Jhan sobbed, curling up in a ball of misery on the stone floor. “Then it is a nightmare,” she wept, “and it’s only just begun!”
End Book Four