14-Sacrifices

I spent the rest of the day in the saddle, riding a few steps behind Druskin, rather than be trapped in box dragged by horses. Lunch had been mercifully short since we were trying to make it to Gar Morwen in four days. Brell, her legs tucked under her gracefully, had turned to Quill and said, “You must have wonderful stories in your line of work.”

To which Quill had replied, “I suppose,” and went back to eating as if he hadn’t noticed the barely veiled invitation to spin heroic yarns for a rapt audience of pretty women.

Too polite to openly pry, Brell had turned to Eliah. Eliah, whose glance at the guards betrayed where she would rather be, had obliged Brell with a hunting story so gruesome even Quill and I had to stop eating at parts. After that, Brell turned the conversation toward customs of the different clans.

Astride, I enjoyed the cool weather and the clouds that rolled across the skies. And the solitude. I wasn’t the only leanyodi to ride, but I was the only one to ride the entire afternoon. The horse was a tough, stocky icon of Angari breeding, and I knew he was fast and agile despite his short body and legs. I itched to take him into the moors and find out just what a nimble Angari horse could do…but I didn’t.

We stopped only once that afternoon, a brief halt at a crossroads that had Druskin leaving the Countess’s coach to see what was the holdup. We were moving again just a few minutes later, and Druskin had returned to his place without saying a word. The first few days of our journey would be on the moors of the Wuhn. When moors turned to hills, we’d be close to Gar Morwen. Then the hills would drop into lowlands and Gar Morwen would sprawl before us on the banks of the Juni River like a tea party in summer.

We stopped about an hour before sundown in a place where the land sprawled flat from the road and then rose in a little bluff that shielded the spot from wind and prying eyes. The grasses were beaten down, as if everyone who used this road stopped here. Squat trees lined a burbling stream at the edge of the bowl. As soon as the carriages were positioned in a circle around the bowl, the guards started taking the horses there to drink.

I turned my horse over to a guard with a pat, then quickly cleaned up at the stream. Patting myself dry before my stripes could bloom, I joined the leanyodi as they bustled around turning the tents into comfortable rooms. Quill was prowling the camp with Druskin, and Eliah was working with the guards as if she’d been born Angari. I helped lay thick woven rugs on the tent floors and set out the cushions for the Countess’s bed. We set a brazier in the center of the tent where a hole in the canopy would vent the smoke. A folding stool, a trunk of the clothes specific for the journey, a small table to hold a pitcher and bowl for washing, all materialized as if we’d be spending more than just one night here. By the time we were finished the sun had set and several fires burned in the circle.

We ate a dinner of dried meats, fruits and cheese. Everyone was tired after the day of travel, but one of the leanyodi produced an instrument with strings and a long neck and began to strum. The soft notes ventured into the night like a doe, gentle and wrapping themselves in the darkness rather than disrupting it. A moment later one of the guards appeared from the shadows carrying a woodwind of some sort. He sat beside her and played a haunting harmony to her melody. I leaned far enough back from the fire to watch the stars while I listened. The music made me think of being alone on the moors, with nothing but the stars and memories of people lost for company. Movement caught my eye and I noticed Galo walking to meet Druskin between our fire and the next. They exchanged a few words, I saw a smile touch Druskin’s lips, then they parted. Druskin coming toward us and Galo continuing on her way to the next fire where Hadella was laughing with a couple of the other leanyodi.

Druskin approached the Countess and whispered something in her ear. She nodded, the firelight glinting on the gold combs crowning her tower of hair, and I saw her lips form the words, “Thank you.” Druskin walked away and the Countess saw me watching. She smiled at me, “Guards are set, the moors are quiet.”

I tipped my head in acknowledgement and looked away. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the Countess take a breath and survey the camp, almost as if checking to see if each person was alright. Or to see if anyone was watching her. Perhaps both. Her hands were in her lap, and when she finished her sweep of the camp, she turned her eyes to the fire and just…hollowed out. It was an effort not to openly look at her when I noticed the glitter of a tear in her eye. I thought I knew the look. The music continued, weaving its soulful melody through the camp, underscored by the crackling of the fire and occasional chirp of insects’ hardy enough to brave the cool spring night. The tear slid down the Countess’s cheek and splashed into her hands. The splash seemed to startle her, her hands closed quickly and she returned to herself, but she gave no other indication that she’d wept. Her body didn’t flinch, she didn’t wipe her cheek, but tipped her face up slightly to encourage the breeze to dry it for her. The last notes of the woodwind faded and silence stretched through the whole camp as everyone took a breath and collected themselves.

Another song started, merrier than the first. Brell started to sing a ridiculous rhyme about a warrior trying to learn how to farm but using all the tools wrong. The others clapped in time with the music, even those from other fires, a few joining in on the chorus when it came around.

When the song ended the Countess rose and headed to her tent, I jumped up to go with her before anyone else could. The inside of the tent was warm and folded in gold shadows by the light from brazier, I secured the flap behind me. The Countess stopped before the brazier and held her arms out to the side for me to undress her. I joined her, undoing the buttons down the front of her coat and then slipping the traveling habit off her shoulders. If she was surprised that I was the one who had followed her, she didn’t show it.

“Do you often ride for an entire day?” she asked while I folded the coat and set it atop the trunk.

I nodded, “If I have somewhere to go, or someone to hunt, it isn’t uncommon to ride all day.” All day, every day, for weeks, sometimes.

“Before the tribes were united, the Wuhn warriors would ride like terrors across the moors day and night. If they weren’t going to battle, they were practicing for it. I haven’t had time to ride like that since I was small.”

I loosened the laces of her long, heavy, skirt and let it drop, then gave the Countess a hand out of it. “Do you miss it?”

She sat down on the folding stool, her thick undershirt and riding breeches a purple so deep it was nearly black in this light. I knelt to unlace her boots. “I do,” she admitted, “A little.” She wiggled her toes as soon as her feet were free. “Not enough to deal with days of soreness from riding when I’m no longer hardened to it.” Not right before arriving at Gar Morwen and dealing with days and days of dances, meetings and feasting culminating in her wedding. She stood up and started wiggling out of the breeches while I opened the trunk and pulled out a long night shift. “Nothing compares with the moors. On horseback or on foot. I love them. Even though I did more studying than riding growing up, since my father knew he’d be passing his title to me. Which turned out well, since he passed it on much sooner than he anticipated.”

I handed her the shift and she slipped it over her head. “I’m sorry.”

She shrugged, but the movement was a lie. “He got sick.”

I motioned her to sit on a little folding stool again so I could take down her hair.

She obliged. Changing the subject, she said, “Did you always want to be a mercenary?”

“No,” I carefully removed the decorative fanned combs crowning her hair and started hunting the pins that held her hair-tower. “I wanted to train my horse to walk on his hind legs.”

She laughed, “That’s all?”

“I wasn’t an ambitious child,” I replied. We fell quiet, and I searched for the right words to draw her out. For a part of me I could offer to comfort her. “When I was sixteen my family was driven from our home by raiders. We fled into the night and moved from place to place for two years before we found a place to put down roots again.”

“I’m sorry,” said the Countess, softly.

“It’s like home in many ways…but it isn’t the same. It isn’t the place where I was born. I still miss the scent of the air, the color of the sunset…” I trailed off, my fingers still busy pulling at pins. I let the longing show in my words…and my silence…it was real enough. And I knew the Countess could sense it washing out of me. I pictured the sea, the cliffs dotted with white where the albatross nested. I could hear their trilling cries and smell the salt on the cool breeze. “We did what we had to in order to survive. Became what we had to in order to survive. Most of the time I don’t mind it. But there are times when everything I left behind crowds in so close I can’t breathe.”

The Countess was sitting very, very still, her attention focused on me standing behind her.

I ran the fingers of one hand through her hair, shaking it loose and confirming I’d gotten all the pins. “Then I remind myself that the truth is that I’m free, I’m alive, and those are precious things I cannot squander.” I dumped my fistful of pins on the table and picked up the brush. “I think,” I said carefully, “that if I had been born on the moors, they would leave a gaping hole if I had to leave them.”

“Have you ever been in love?” she asked abruptly.

I stopped mid-stroke. That hadn’t been where I wanted the conversation to go. “Have you?” I countered.

“You first.”

I resumed brushing. “I don’t have time for love like that.”

She swiveled to look at me skeptically. “Too many people to hunt, gold to earn?”

“Far too many and too much,” I replied brightly.

“I don’t believe you.” She looked me over and I propped my hands on my hips, motioning for her to turn back around. She ignored me. “I don’t believe you,” she said again, looking into my eyes so intently that I looked away. Seers.

I flexed my fingers and deflected, “Do you have a lover who would kill to keep from sharing you with another?”

She snorted. Actually snorted. Well, then. “By Tirien’s golden hair, no. No…Though Adorjan has tried to be that. He might have real feelings, but I’ve never been sure if they were for me or my power,” her voice grew soft and she let me push her back around, “I don’t have time, either. Marriage is such a quagmire of politics that I was putting off dealing with it.” A sigh. “My uncle, the King, loves me…he loved my father enough to trust him with his sister. The Wuhn are one of the original tribes, and one of the most powerful. I could have my pick of lordlings, truly…but I knew I would have to pick very carefully. When he asked me to do this treaty for him, it seemed right.”

“I think you are very brave,” I said carefully. “It is no small thing to leave everything behind, even if you aren’t going far, and will come back sometimes. It won’t be the same as it was.”

She didn’t reply for a long moment while I brushed out her long, black hair. When she did speak, her voice was faint, “Thank you.”

*

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