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Smoke and Rain

By VS_Holmes All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Fantasy

Excerpt

Chapter One

The 17th day of Lumord, 1251

The City-State of Vielrona

ARMAN'S SKIN PRICKLED WHEN he stared at the women across the room. He edged between the lines of cots, trying to focus on the injured. The three dozen refugees brought in four days ago had dwindled to a score, despite his mother's help. He straightened a few blankets and refilled a water pitcher before looking up again. Six figures were clustered around the open window. They seemed unaffected by the cold breeze. The tallest glanced over, meeting his eyes. Heat chased ice up his spine. It was unpleasant, but a deeper part of him enjoyed it, like the burn of alcohol down his throat.

He shook the sensation away and forced himself to approach the women. He used the term 'women' loosely. Laen were never simply women. In his twenty-three years he had never even seen one of the gods' creators from afar. Now half a dozen of them stood in his mother's inn. Arman hastily combed a hand through his blond curls and bowed awkwardly. “Excuse me, Lady Liane.”

Her silver eyes slid over him in absent acknowledgment. “Liane is fine.”

“My mother said you were welcome to stay as long as you need. Vielrona was once a guard-city for your people, and we will act as such.” It doesn't matter if centuries have passed and we have nothing to protect you with. He pushed the negative thought away, hoping the Laen could not read minds.

Liane scanned the injured filling the room. “We cannot stay.” Once the Laen had been worshiped. Centuries ago, however, the very gods they had created overthrew them. Those gods, and their human armies, hunted the few Laen left alive. Liane’s hard eyes turned back to the youngest Laen, bundled in a cloak. “We thank you, but no place is safe anymore.”

Arman followed her gaze to the youngest woman. She looked no more than thirteen, though he supposed she could have been decades older. Her companions were concerned, perhaps distantly angry, but only she showed fear.

It could be her youth. Arman noticed the armor glinting under her cloak. She was the only one thus protected. He stepped back instinctively, paling under his tan. Her presence, even rumor of it, would bring armies down upon his city. “There is a road,” he gestured, “from the western wall.” His hand shook. “It is narrow and rocky, but few use it. It would be safer,” He spoke to Liane, but his eyes had not moved from the younger Laen. The others seemed to ignore the conversation. He felt Liane's eyes narrow on him. Arman held his palms up, as if surrendering “I won't tell a soul, I swear.”

Liane stared at him a moment longer, then gathered their few belongings. “We have four guards some days, even weeks, behind us. If they come through, you may tell them our path.”

“How will I know them?”

Liane looked back, exasperated. A lesser woman may have rolled her eyes. Her hand snaked out and gripped Arman's brow. Cold spread from her hard fingers before he could pull away. With it came an image, the woman's memory, perhaps. Arman jerked away and stumbled back a few steps, his jaw clenched.

Liane nodded once to him before sweeping past him and out of the room. The others filed after her. When the last had disappeared, Arman fell to his knees and emptied his stomach into a washbasin.

Φ

The dim common room of the Ruby Cockerel was deserted. Most patrons sought other alehouses since the Cockerel's rooms had been turned into a makeshift infirmary. Arman was glad for the quiet. He downed a mug of cheap tar-whiskey and poured another before sliding onto a bar stool. His yellow-green eyes were dark.

A week ago he had joined a scouting troop to investigate an ominous cloud of smoke over the hills to the south. They had expected the remains of a summer fire, perhaps a small raid. Instead they found a massacre. Their ally-city, Cehn, had been razed. The attack had been swift and thorough – less than fifty had lived. Among the survivors in the governor's manor, however, had been the six Laen. Arman had no doubt they were the true target behind the attack.

He took a slow sip, allowing the sting of the alcohol to clear his head. When the gods overthrew their creators, the world had fractured. Some said it was the aftermath of killing the most powerful creatures, others said it was the Laen's last defense.

The girl who had just left was not any Laen. She was what both sides of the war had been seeking.

The oak door of the common room door banged and heavy boots sloshed across the floor. “Fates, this rain is horrid. Picked up out of nowhere.”

“Hey, Wes.”

A large-boned young man slumped into the seat next to Arman. His tan was several shades darker than Arman's, and heavily weathered by the heat of a smithy. He jerked his blocky head at the ceiling. “They still here?”

Arman shook his head. “Left a few minutes ago.”

Wes suppressed a shudder. “Probably them that made the rain. Hide their trail and all.”

Arman rolled his eyes and stood to pour Wes a mug of ale. “You know they can't play with weather. It was strange having them in the house, though.”

Wes accepted his mug with a nod of thanks. “The idea gives me the winders.”

“I am all for them winning the war, but that feeling when they look at you – like jumping into the Halen in winter.”

Wes eyed his friend. “I never had that. Granted I didn't live with them. If we're not careful you'll be chasing after them.”

Arman snorted and finished off his tar-whiskey.

“So why are we drinking tonight?”

“You're drinking because you tracked slush all over my mother's floor and you know she won't yell at you if you're tossed.”

Wes glanced guiltily at the floor. They had known each other for almost as long as either had been alive, and Kepra Wardyn was as much Wes' mother as she was Arman's. The smith fished a towel from under the bar and began to boot-slide it across the wet floor.

Arman's mouth twitched at the sight. “You are better than a lady's maid, Wes. You ought to do away with the smithy and take up a job here.”

Wes growled. “And what would you do at the forge without me? You have no head for business. You'd be lost.” He shuffled carefully back towards the bar to gather the worst of the mess. “Why are you drinking?”

Arman glared at the cloudy dregs of his drink, as if they had caused his confusion. Wes did not strictly count, as he was closer to family, but Arman had promised not to tell anyone. “It's nothing important. Seeing all those people upstairs brings the war home. Most will never wake up. It is strange to think it was so close to us.”

“They won't come here, Arman.” Wes' muddy eyes were earnest. “We have nothing they want.” He took several deep swallows of his ale. “Fates, your mood is enough to make a man drink.”

Arman fixed Wes with a pointed stare. “They were here, Wes. The same ones that brought the Miriken into Cehn. It isn't stupid to be worried.”

Wes shrugged and drained the rest of his mug. “Suit yourself. I should get home, I need to start working on that piece for Reskle tomorrow.” He buckled his cloak again. “Will you be by tomorrow?”

Arman nodded. “I have to finish the jewel-work on that hilt.”

“You're seeing Veredy tomorrow night though, eh?” Wes waggled his eyebrows suggestively from the doorway.

Arman's laugh scratched in his irritated throat. “Hopefully. There's still a lot to help Ma with, though. Out with you, you're letting the rain in.” He winced as Wes' exit rattled the glass in the windows. He found a clean towel and went over his friend's slush trail, his gaze distant. He had not lied by saying the massacre had brought the war home. Violence was not a stranger to him, but battle caused a different violence than the city streets. The war had been reawakened by a rumor. Arman had barely been walking when the news first arrived. The bloodshed against the Laen started again. This time, the gods were looking for a woman called the Dhoah’ Laen. She would be more powerful than all her foremothers and some said she could mend the world. The reality of such a creature was dubious at best, even in cities that supported the Laen. After twenty years and thousands of deaths, it was hard to hope.

Arman scrubbed his face with a groan. “The Miriken are looking for her, Wes.” His voice was low. He needed to tell someone, even if it was just the empty common room. “The Miriken are looking for the Dhoah' Laen, and she was in my mother's house.”

Φ 

 The 20th Day of Lumord, 1251 

 The City of Berrinal 

Bren decided Berr was not a beautiful country, but its timelessness grew on a man. It was wedged between the curl of mountains running along the eastern coast and the rocky shores of the ocean. They had left Mirik two months ago, and had been in Berr for the better part, and Bren was growing used to their hosts.

He sat in the rear of a small rest house, the closest establishment to an alehouse the Berrin had. His feet were propped on a narrow stool and he held a large mug of hot ucal, the fermented seaweed drink preferred by the locals. His staff bearer sprawled similarly beside him. While both men wore the brown uniform of Miriken soldiers, with a green and vermillion stripe stitched on the breast, Bren's was newer. His ever-increasing height forced him to be outfitted more often than any man had a right. The heavy copper emblem hanging from his neck, however, was old and worn. The center shone from the number of times he had rubbed a thumb over it during prayer or thought. He fiddled with it absently now. “Korir, you should ask for a foot rub." His voice was low. The gray landscape lent itself to silence, and the Miriken were reluctant to break it.

Korir snorted. "I would be as likely to get a man as a woman. I've had too many surprises this journey already." The Berrin cared little about whether one was born male or female to fulfill certain gender roles. This led to several confusing and embarrassing situations when the more rigid Miriken had first arrived.

"It will be a relief to be back among our own city girls." Bren's grin was roguish.

"Are you growing tired of the new culture already, Corporal?"

Bren laughed. He had practically run to the ship when they received orders to sail for the mainland, eager to set his feet on anything other than Miriken soil. Bren was about to order another drink when a head popped through the door to the main room of the ale house. "Corporal Barrackborn, Milord King asks for you."

Bren handed Korir his mug. "Here, I might be awhile." The streets were haphazard and winding. By the time he arrived at the top floor of the embassy manor his cloak was coated in a thin dusting of salt. Though Mirik was an island kingdom, her men's seafaring was shamed by the Berrin. The latter lived and died by the waves, and the sea filled every aspect of their world, from patron gods to officers' titles in their army. Bren tidied himself and pulled the leather cap off his short, auburn hair. He rapped on the door softly.

"Milord King? Corporal Barrackborn here."

"Come in." The voice was distant.

Bren kept his head down as he shut the door behind himself. "You asked to see me, milord?" He was careful with his words. Though Azirik was never anything less than intelligent, the man's single-minded drive could be described as insanity. Now the king sat at his desk, peering at scattered military maps. His long hair had been laced with gray since Bren could remember, only the crown still a light red-brown.

"We are leaving Berrinal within a week. The negotiations finalize tomorrow. Save the hideous pomp, we are free to leave anytime afterward. I need a troop to move west. I sent Lieutenant Gransa south several weeks ago to hunt down rumors about Laen in Sunam. Cehn was defeated, but they lost the creatures. I want you to lead a second troop west, to cut off their escape in Athrolan."

"I am honored, milord, but would Lieutenant Serik not be more suited?"

Azirik's bright blue eyes flicked up to Bren with an unreadable expression. "Serik has been gone a week."

Bren forgot himself. "What, by Toar, does 'gone' mean?"

Azirik rose and walked to the window, ignoring his soldier's insubordination. "I do not know if you noticed, Barrackborn, but Mirik is not what she once was."

Bren had noticed, he would have been a fool to not. War changed Mirik, even in the two decades of Bren's own life. He had witnessed it all from the soldiers' barracks where he had been raised. None dared mention the fall of the city, but Azirik would have to be blind not to see what his declared war was doing.

"Many lesser families sought safer cities years ago, when I first honored the gods with our dedication."

Bren did not break the long silence that followed the king's statement.

"Barrackborn, the capital is closing. All the higher born have fled the kingdom. Enough of our soldiers have family in the lower nobility. Serik was one, and he tried to follow his parents. The desertion was punished properly two days ago." He paused. "You are promoted to Lieutenant. You leave in four days at the head of Serik's troop. They are your men now."

Bren bowed his head. "Thank you, milord, I am honored to do all I can for the gods."

Azirik was silent again. He finally looked up, as if remembering Bren's presence. "You may go."

Bren bowed and showed himself out. He had wanted to finish his ucal, but now he just wanted air. Though an orphan, he had worked hard to educate himself. He knew serviceable economics, and if the higher born were fleeing the city, it did not bode well. The economy would be in waste and the common folk would starve. The commoners were the backbone of any city, and without them the city would fall.

He steadied himself as a particularly large wave made the ground lurch under him. The constant rocking of the Berrin capital, perched upon natural seaweed-supported islands and constructed rafts, wore on Bren's nerves. He pulled out a tattered bundle of cheap paper bound in canvas. With his advancement in the army he had found it useful to record his thoughts before writing formal officer's logs. Perching on a wall at the edge of the ocean, he dipped a metal camp-quill into the ink.

Milord King made me Lieutenant of the Eighth this evening. This promotion is exciting, but I fear for the causes. I am told my predecessor deserted to be with his family, who, like many others, is fleeing the country. I never question my king, or even considered the logic behind the war. I know once I began I could not stop. Questioning orders is not my place. If Mirik cannot support this war, then what will become of us? Soon I will lead a troop into Athrolan, hunting the Laen. I know I will have honor in destroying them, but I cannot say if the gods will care, or if Mirik will be rewarded for her dedication and sacrifice.

Φ

The 22nd Day of Lumord, 1251

The City of Vielrona

The quiet clicking of Arman's pliers distracted him from the eerie silence. Though quiet was preferable to the groaning of the injured refugees, he could not shake the feeling that he was surrounded by the dead. He leaned back to shed more light on his work. The hilt in his hand was intricate and the carefully placed garnets and topaz glittered under the single lantern. Though his father had been a true bladesmith, Arman's talents ran closer to artist and jeweler. Wes had taken over the heaviest smithing. Tending to the survivors had cut into Arman's work, but he found it was peaceful to work while he stayed through the night. He was tightening the wire wrapping around the hilt when ragged breathing cut through his focus.

A woman in a corner by the hearth tossed in her sleep. Arman poured a mug of water and crept over to check on her. Her dark hair was tangled across her furrowed brow. One white-knuckled hand clenched the sheets.

Nightmares. He had no doubt most of the survivors would have them. He crouched beside the cot and dipped a cloth in the cool water of her washbasin. She muttered incoherently as he wrung it out and draped it over her forehead. Her face was the rich brown of the Sunamen, but her pale forearms told him she was not native to the desert. He pressed a finger to the place just below her thumb that his mother had shown him. He was not sure what to feel for, but her heartbeat was strong, if fast. Dreams, even nightmares, are good. It means she will probably live.

Once her movements had settled, he returned to his seat. The room was quiet again, but he was distracted. He fingered the wood handles on his jeweler's pliers, thoughts drifting. A few of the survivors had woken, though most were too ill to be truly aware. Between festering wounds, exposure to the cold desert night, and dehydration, it was a wonder any had lived to see Vielrona. His musing was finally interrupted by familiar sounds drifting from the kitchen below. Arman glanced outside. It was dawn.

After a minute the door opened quietly. His mother moved from cot to cot, her fingers feather-light as they checked pulses, fevers, and bandages. Her smile was warm when she glanced up at him. “How are they?”

Arman wrapped his work and tools. “Well. It was a quiet night. That man's fever rose. He barely stirs.” His expression was grim. “That girl, there, she had a nightmare an hour ago. Settled when I put that cloth on her forehead though.”

Kepra's face softened when she followed his gesture. “No doubt she has heartbreak. She wears a betrothal ring.” She squeezed her son's hand. “Off with you, Wes will wonder why you're late.”

Arman changed into a clean shirt before taking the stairs two-at-a-time. He grabbed a pear from the hanging basket at the end of the long bar, biting into it as he left. He licked his thumb and pinched the wick of the lantern hanging beside the inn's wooden sign.

The streets were just beginning to bustle, but Arman navigated easily. As a child these streets had been his playground. The market spread across the northern end of the Lows and a wide cobbled street cut a swath through the jumble of stands. Arman sidled through a few narrow streets then ducked under a cloth roof of a knife stall. Wes already perched on a stool too small for his bones. He glanced up with a grin. “Morning!”

Arman nodded back, his thoughts still hazy from lack of sleep. “Did you sell the branch-hilted one yet?”

Wes sighed. “No, but Megg is eying for her suitor.”

Arman made a face at the name and finished his pear. “Which one?”

Wes cackled and laid his whetstone aside. “The richest, you are to be sure.” He examined the edge of the blade he held. “Speaking of gossip, did you hear the street-talk yesterday?”

“What now?” Arman tossed the core of his pear into the ditch along the edge of the street. He ignored the curious stare his friend shot him and set about unloading more wares.

“Mistress Jehan said you were taking up with the Laen. Said they asked a favor.”

“And where would she have gotten that?”

Wes looked at him as if he had been dropped on his head as a babe. “Her boy cleans the privies on your street.”

“I know. All the Jehan's lie, Wes. They made up that tale that you were marrying the widow of Burrow-heel.”

Wes rolled his eyes. “She's about as fetching as my cousin's bull.” He flashed a wicked grin. “Her son, though – he's the proper combination of tall and narrow.”

Arman let out a short laugh. “If you ever finish the dagger with the jasper pommel perhaps you could give it to him.”

“Handsome sons aside, Arman, I worry when people talk. Saying you spoke with them is one thing – what is this about a favor though? The Jehan's lie, but the whole Lows do not.”

Arman had not been to the market since returning with the survivors. He was happy to be back, but the easy banter was a bit too pointed for his tastes. He elbowed Wes sharply. “Now you sound like the Jehan's.”

Φ

The 23rd of Lumord, 1251

Screaming was the only sound, blood the only scent. Rough hands ripped at Alea and she stumbled. Beside her Ahren thrashed on the ground, his body opened by a sword. The women her foster-father had hosted were clustered near the center of the oasis. They are Laen. They will help. It was desperation, not certainty that cemented the choice. She staggered towards them, eyes fixed on their silver-tinged forms.

Her thrashing legs flipped her out of bed. She gasped, choking on the memory of smoke and fear. Her body poured sweat, but gooseflesh crawled up her limbs. Distantly she realized she was screaming.

“Settle, my lady. You are safe. Settle.” The woman's voice was low, the language different.

Careful hands pressed on her arms. Alea blinked into focus. Her head was pounding. With a steadying breath she took stock of her surroundings. The room was plain, but well built. Her's was one of several beds lining the walls. An infirmary room then. She turned to the woman whose hand still rested on her elbows. Her hair was more gray than brown and her dark eyes were kind. “Hello.” she spoke Trade, the common tongue of the northern kingdoms.

Alea jerked a nod to show she understood. “Where-” her parched throat cracked and burned.

The woman smiled. “You are in Vielrona, your ally city. This is my inn and I am Kepra. My son helped bring you and the others here.” She helped Alea climb shakily under the coverlet again and lifted a mug from the nightstand to Alea's left. “Drink this, but slowly. Too fast will make you sick.”

Alea did as she was told. It was bitter and hit her stomach like a blow. When she had finished, Kepra offered another mug of water. “You need to drink. You have been very ill. Your fever is breaking through. I am terribly sorry for your losses.”

Alea saw her eyes flicker to the ring on her smallest finger and followed her gaze. Aching despair flooded her and she turned from the proffered mug. She did not want to eat. If only I had not woken, had not been found.

“You need to drink, to eat.” When Alea still ignored her, the women put the mug on the bedside. “I will check on you often. One of us is always here.” She rose, but paused before going back to the seat by the window. “When my husband passed I thought I could not go on. Sometimes, though, the happiness you find after great sorrow is all the sweeter.”

Alea rolled over, her back to the woman. In a moment the silence was broken by the terribly familiar sound of needlepoint. Alea buried her face in the covers and tried to weep. With Cehn they took my past and with Ahren they took my future. There is nothing left. The tears would not come. Let me leave this foreign place. Let me see my ihal and Merahn and Ahren again. She repeated the litany until sleep took her and memories played havoc with her dreams once more.

Φ

The 27th Day of Lumord, 1251

Arman was grateful some survivors had recovered enough to move out and find work. Watching three people, however, felt awkward. He fiddled with a loose fitting on the stiletto’s handle. It was a fine piece, but he had made better. He ran a cursory glance over the sleeping forms. The cold-itch walked up his spine again and he shuddered it away. He understood the reaction to having the Laen in his house, in this room. It should have faded by now. He scowled at Wes' words the night the Laen left with their precious burden. I will not run into the woods after them. Still he harbored a nagging curiosity over the strange women.

He glanced out the window, measuring the moon's height with mental thumb-thickness. Any moment now she'll start her nightmare. It will last two minutes. His hands suddenly froze on his work. She was found in the manor, just like the Laen. She might have seen something. She might know more. The interest bordered on morbid, but not unnatural, he told himself. They gave him a memory, the image of the pale man. It was natural to be curious.

Right on time the girl began to toss. Her foreign words were muttered and fearful. And angry. He laid his work aside and crouched beside her bed. He rested a hand beside her ankle. His mother said dreams – even bad ones – were the soul's way of making you face things, helping to understand a deeper part of yourself. Arman was inclined to believe, but this girl had dreamt horrors enough. He shook her foot gently.

She came to screaming. Her eyes rolled, and strings of sweaty hair made her look wild. He held his hand open, peaceful, and tried to look as gentle as possible. At least my hair is yellow, and not brown like the Miriken who attacked her. Her gaze flitted from the open window, the beds, the door. He could see it was not random, but calculated. Finding her bearings. It took a moment, but her eyes finally rested on him. They were gray.

He offered a slight smile with a cup of water. “You are safe. This is Vielrona. I am Arman.” He stopped himself from telling her it was just a dream. It was real to her, once.

Her shaking hands spilled water across the coverlet, but her eyes narrowed when he reached to help.

“How long?” Her words were raspy and her accent odd, but understandable.

“How long have you been here?” He kept his voice low and calm.

Her head jerked in a nod.

“Ten days. Your fever broke the night before last.”

“Who else?”

He felt his calm expression falter. “I do not know who you might have known. We brought the survivors here and have tended you. This is my mother's inn. She said you woke to her, but you may not recall.”

“Brown hair, kind eyes.”

Arman grinned at her description. “Yes. Do you need more water?”

She looked around, the strength on her face crumbling. “I want to sleep.”

“I'll make you tea. It will help.”

When he returned she had straightened her covers and was wearing a shawl wrapped around her head. Right, all Sunamen wear head cloths. She looked calm until he met her eyes. A storm of fear and despair brewed there. He hoped he would not be there when it broke.

Chapter Two

The 29th Day of Lumord, 1251

The Boden Province of Athrolan

AZIRIK SCRATCHED AT THE raw skin of his brow. The heavy bronze of Mirik's circlet was familiar. The warm copper of the gods' Crown, however, chafed at Azirik's flash and mind. The past years seemed surreal to him. His thoughts had always tumbled over on another. Now, as he sat his horse, watching tents dismantled, there were voices among his thoughts. They had not been there before. He had not wanted Mirik's throne, and his abrupt ascension at 23 found him unprepared. Almost twenty years later he still felt swept by the inertia.

“Milord king, message from the south!” A young man rushed up, his dull clothes flecked by a horse's foam. He fell into a bow, still panting. “Cehn has fallen!”

“And? Did you find the girl?”

The boy nodded. “She is with others. They sheltered with the ruling family.”

“Was she destroyed?”

“No sir. They escaped. They still move north.”

Azirik waved the boy away and looked down at his reins. He hated the Laen because that is how it was in Mirik. The gods were worshiped and the Laen were evil. His personal detestation, however, began when he took the throne. His lover had dashed his every certainty with one sentence. “Azirik, I  am Laen.” If such a thing occurred now, he would have ordered both she and her son executed. He had still been reeling from his father's death, however. Their son was sent to the barracks and the woman allowed to flee. The next morning, Mirik's crown still unfamiliar on his brow, he declared war on her entire kind.

Azirik nudged his horse forward, trotting to the head of the forming line. Most kings would give encouraging speeches at the beginning of a march. Azirik remained silent, even when his men greeted him or brought news. His mind was already too busy. The gods' voices trickled through the Crown they had gifted him. A Crown existed for each of the three pieces of the world. That of the human's world was lost with the last of the Laen's ancient guards, and the Laen surely had their own. Azirik had announced that the gods' had given him theirs in acknowledgment of Mirik's devotion to their cause.

“It was to keep us on track.”

“Excuse me, your majesty?” His captain paused as the king rode past.

Azirik had not meant to speak aloud. He ignored the man and burst into a lope. If all went well, the Laen would be eradicated by the end of the next year. And then what will you do? This war is all you are. He shook the thought away and motioned for the army to move out.

Φ

The 30th Day of Lumord, 1251

The City-state of Vielrona

Arman knew better than to ask around about the Laen, but for a man of few means, information was not easy to come by. He sat on the stone wall that served as the bank of the river that bisected the city. Wes' questions had bothered him more than they rightly should have. Are they really the last? How can women so powerful be hunted to extinction? His eyes roved the silhouette of the buildings. Centuries past one of the Laen cities had been nestled deep in the mountains and Vielrona had been it's citadel. Now, when they need guards the most, they are helpless. Remembering the image Liane had given him, he realized that was not strictly true. The man in the memory was alone, though, and as fearsome as he might have been, he was not a true guard of the Laen.

They had disappeared generations ago. Arman picked at the moss between the stones. The thought of the Laen still made shivers march up his arms. He wondered when the man would arrive, and if the strange sensations would stop. Only part of him would be relieved. Another part, one that still wanted to listen, wide-eyed, to traveling storytellers, would miss the feeling. Perhaps growing up in Vielrona makes one respect the Laen differently. In the distance the taller building of the Guildhouse dimmed its lights. The twenty men who made up the Guild, Vielrona's governing body, had been working later. Arman supposed an attack on their allies was cause for concern, but he wondered if the meetings had touched on the survivors, or the group of women who had left a few days before.

He absently flipped through the canvas-bound book he used for blade designs. He found his fingers sketching the pale man and his gray horse that Liane had shown to him. Short, rough lines detailed the horse's mane and a fur cloak. Smudges colored the winding tattoo on the rider's face. Two graceful curves became the ivory horns that curled from the man's temples.

Arman held the book away, squinting. Wes is going to think my tastes are turning to men, like his. He snorted and folded the book away. It would be dark soon. He heaved a sigh and pushed himself off the wall. Answers would have to wait.

The sky felt closer than in the desert. Alea stared unseeing out the narrow window. Everything felt too close and real compared to home. It is like the world is suddenly naked before my eyes. She could not even bring herself to wonder at the future. There was only the present now. Her chest was hollow, raw, as if everything tender that lived there had been scoured out. Arman's brisk footfalls on the cobblestones below heralded his return from work. She listened as the door slammed beneath her and he let out a dramatic shiver. His boots pounded up the stairs and paused outside her door for a moment. He did not knock, however, until he returned from his room.

“Come in."

He shouldered open the door, smiling as he saw her by the window. "Good that you're getting some air. You want supper? It is chowder. I could bring you some up."

She frowned at his boots, as if they had asked her the puzzling question. "I am not certain what chowder is."

"Ma's chowder is better than any you have ever had!" Arman's grin faltered. "Though if you have never had any, that might not be the boast I meant." With a promise to return shortly, he disappeared.

Alea peered around the room. She was the only occupant now that the remaining survivors were well enough to be afford privacy. Do I remain in this room out of convenience or convalescence? A wooden tray clattered onto her bedside table and startled her from her drifting thoughts. It held a bowl of creamy soup dotted with white and green vegetables.

Alea nodded her thanks and tested the food warily. The flavor was hearty and simple, but good. Her stomach’s rumbled response startled her. I don't even recognize hunger anymore. Eating, living, are such trivial things.

“It occurred to me that I do not know your name.” Arman pulled a chair up beside her bed.

“Lyne'alea ir Suna.”

He frowned. “Suna – isn't that the surname of the lord?”

“Cehn's ihal was Ahme'reahn ira Suna.” The rolling, guttural sounds of the Sunamen tongue were sweetly familiar, but brought bitter thoughts.

"You are Sunamen?"

"Of course." The only people who considered me such are dead. It was only when she caught Arman's wince that she realized she had spoken the thought aloud. "Forgive me. I did not mean to share that."

"I wasn't certain, with your coloring. You look Athrolani."

She finished the soup under Arman's curious gaze. "When the ira took me into his household I had no known history." She remembered a specific group of survivors, the reason for the attack, but the memories were jumbled and she had no wish to dwell on the bloodshed. The sharp shadow of a headache flickered suddenly across her brow. She hissed and pressed the heel of her hand into her forehead.

"Are you alright?"

"A headache. I get them often. I just need rest."

"You have been sleeping better?"

Alea drew back, wrapping her arms around her middle. The question was intimate and uncomfortable. "I'm afraid I need more rest. Thank you for the meal."

When he had gone, she eyed the empty beds surrounding her own. The sight of the stripped mattresses was macabre. She remembered the bodies sprawled across them. Blood soaked into the beds' stuffing. Staring eyes clouded. Voiceless mouths cracked, dried under the sun. Her fingers ached from trying to claw her way out.

She blinked. Her teeth had made crescents on her knuckles where she had bitten her fingertips I'm safe. Many people lived, have moved to different houses to recover. None of that was real. She forced herself to climb under the coverlet and face the door. Sleep was a poor choice with memories so close, but anything was better than being awake.

Φ

The 34th of Lumord, 1251

The City-state of Vielrona

The water on Alea's nightstand lacked the tang of desert water. Her stomach rumbled when she had finished. The bustle of the city reached her ears through the open window. As foreign as the people and streets might have been, the sounds were the same. She peered out the window. Migrating birds looked like tattered black lace over the gray sky. Right. He said it was autumn soon. She was not certain what that meant outside of the most abstract sense. The desert had seasons, but really only the two. She rose shakily, finding a sun-warmed basin and pitcher by the wardrobe. The feeling of sick and sweat left her body as she washed herself and braided her hair. She felt clean in the way one only could after sweating illness from her body. In a chest at the foot of her bed was a dress that looked suitably sized and a plain black scarf.

Downstairs the inn seemed quiet, so it was with shaking steps that Alea descended the stairs. Sunamen architecture was delicate, designed to take advantage of any breeze. This inn was sturdy and plain. She paused at the foot of the stairs to rest, gripping the banister in one narrow hand. Arman sat at the bar in the rear of the common room. One foot tapped against the foot-rail, the other was hooked around the leg of his stool. He hummed absently as he peeled potatoes. Behind him, Kepra bustled about, stacking clean mugs and bowls.

“Good afternoon.” Her voice was pinched and nervous, and she was well aware how ill-suited the saffron dress looked.

Kepra's smile bloomed as she caught sight of her patient. “My dear, I am glad to see you about.”

“Walking is not as difficult as I feared.” She glanced around at the empty chairs. She dreaded a crowd. “Will things be busy tonight?”

"Not for a another two hours probably. It's the farmers' sons and guardsmen who come most often and they aren't free until evening-fall. Did you wish to stay upstairs?"

Alea lifted a shoulder in a shrug. She did not truly care who the patrons were, but it would be rude to say so. She edged over and took a seat two stools away from Arman. She was relieved he did not rush to her side to help, despite her uncertain steps. She was barely seated when Kepra slid a steaming mug across the counter. “This should steady you some.”

Alea watched the swirling tea for a moment. “Thank you. For the tea. And your care.” She hoped the words sounded sincere, but she could hear the flatness in her voice.

“Ma's one of the better midwives in the Lows. Even if she give you draughts that takes like cow's urine and feel like pond muck.”

Alea stared at him in surprise. The description was accurate, and it sounded like something one of her foster-brothers would have said.

“Arman!” Kepra flicked her dish towel at her son. “Neither of you are the worse for it, and you would do well to remember your manners.” She took the potato from his hands. “Perhaps you could get our guest some food. I doubt she came down here for the company.”

While Arman did his mother's bidding, Alea glanced at the common room, noting the mixture of local wood and Sunamen sandstone. "Your people traded with us often. The combination is interesting." Her comment was more to change the subject than from actual interest, but Kepra either did not notice or chose not to comment.

"Vielrona would be much poorer without trade. She's a convenient place to stop between Berr, Athrolan and Sunam. That reminds me, those who have recovered are welcome to take work here, if they are staying. Something for you to think about."

Alea caught the meaning underlying the words. If you stay in Vielrona you will earn your keep. It was only fair, she supposed. Allies or not, the city-state had risked herself by harboring the survivors.

Arman added a plate of chicken and greens to the bartop before her. He waited until she had almost finished before breaking the silence. “If you wish for some fresh air I would be happy to show you the city. Or, if you would rather, there is a porch upstairs. I could show you the landmarks from there.”

Alea fiddled with her fork. She did not care about the city, though surely it was interesting. “I think I would rather keep to myself, if it's all the same to you.” She felt his frustrated expression. She rose. “Thank you for the food, both of you, but surely you'd prefer I not keep you from your work.” Her retreat up to her room was slow.

“Milady ir Suna.” Arman caught up to her at the top of the stairs. “I know you have suffered, I know you have nightmares. You should distract yourself, come see the sights. You are recovering well and ought to put the attack behind you.”

His expression was open and friendly, but bitterness filled her throat. “Suffered? Nightmares?” The words were thick with anger, but she kept her voice low. “You think I should be glad I survived? I have no history, no family. My only hope at a future was to marry my foster-father's son, and now both are reduced to sand-weathered bones!” Her vision darkened at the edges. She was overtaxing herself, but she could not seem to care. “Until you understand those losses, Master Wardyn, perhaps you should keep words like 'ought' and 'should' from your speech!” She ducked into her room and slammed the door.

The emotions she had ignored raged, released by her angry words. Her weakened legs finally failed her and she stumbled. She caught herself on the edge of her bed, praying Arman had not heard her fall. She crawled to her chamberpot, heaving until nothing was left in her writing stomach. Please let him not hear this. In Sunam discussing one's emotions was common, but showing them was not. It was something only young children did, who knew no better. What does it matter if you act like a child? Neither ihal or Ahren are here to see you. You are not Sunamen, not truly. Fear welled in her gut again and she choked on the sobs that exploded from her chest. Memories of her foster siblings tumbled through her mind, each image ending the same, with blood stained sand and clouded eyes.

Alea was no stranger to isolation. It was not in the usual sense -- she had friends in Cehn. Few had been close, but Alea never minded. Instead it was the isolation of the mind. Life was a play she watched. It was an engaging one, to be sure, but still separated from her by an invisible wall. She once asked her foster father about her past. The response was vague and spoken with as much concern as if he remarked on poor weather.

Now that bubble surrounding her had burst and she was raw from the strange new breeze buffeting her mind. It did not matter that others had no such barriers. It did not matter whether it protected her from the world. She would rebuild that wall. Perhaps it protected the world from her.

She did not know how long she stayed curled on the floor, trembling and weeping. Muscles cramped when she finally pushed herself upright. She could not bring herself to get back into bed. For better or worse, she had survived. There was little sense or probability in spending the rest of her life in bed. I need air. She always hated closed spaces, especially when panicked. Remembering Arman's offer, she stepped quietly into the hall. It was deserted, but voices drifted from the common room below. The aforementioned patrons must be arriving. At the opposite end of the hall from the main staircase was a narrow door. Finding it unlocked, Alea opened it to find narrow stairs winding up to the smaller third floor.

A door to her left bore a child's scratched letters. Arman's room. Another door opened onto a porch. It was barely more than a ledge, but looked out over the front of the inn. Alea folded her arms on the open rail and tilted her face up to the sun. The warmth felt better than she expected. The city before her was smaller than Cehn, and cradled in the northern foothills of the mountains. Most of the surrounding builds were two-storied, the lower half built from thick beams or stone and the upper with plaster. Many rooftops sported moss and most houses had kitchen gardens. Plowed fields lay just beyond, bordered with a low stone wall. A river wound through the city. Across a bridge were larger houses built of stone and official looking buildings. Alea supposed she was in what Arman had called the Lows, and the other buildings were a separate district.

She was suddenly aware of someone watching from the porch's doorway.

Arman had remained quiet, but smiled when she turned around. “It's a nice place to think, isn't it?”

“I always like to be someplace high when I have too many thoughts. It makes them seem smaller, perhaps.” She looked down at the rail, picking at the weathered wood. “I am sorry for my words.”

“As am I. I have seen my share of violence, but it was long ago.” He gestured to a wooden chair, the cushion of which he hastily beat clean. “We've lived here since I can remember. I can't imagine what you see, looking at it with new eyes.”

Alea looked out at the city again. “It is greener than I am used to. And cold.” She frowned. “You are not part of Athrolan, though, correct?” The vast kingdom was something of an enigma to Alea. Sunam occasionally received news, fashion and metals from its northern neighbor, but nothing as formal as an alliance.

“No. We are not a part of Athrolan, Berr or Sunam. Vielrona started as a guard city for the Laen. Most just consider us outlaws now. We have a lot of fine craftsmen here, though, and make decent trade.”

“What is your work? Do you innkeep with your mother?”

“I design and sell blades. My father was a bladesmith and when he passed my friend Wes took the clients. He does the actual forging, but has little skill for business or art.” He faltered. “Did you study in Sunam?”

She frowned. “The ihal was very strict about our studies. He wanted each of us to learn as much about the world as we could. I enjoyed economics and learning about plants and trees – we had so few in the desert.”

“What of history? That was always my favorite.”

“It was not mine. Ihal said we must learn the past, however, so we would not make the same mistakes.”

“Is that why he sheltered the Laen?”

Alea's breath hitched. How could he know about the Laen? Her foster-father had done everything in his power to hide the truth about the strange guests that arrived three days before the attack. She had known from the beginning that the attempt was pointless. And we were repaid our kindness with death. “Maybe. He said he had news for them, something about their first visit years ago. I do not remember them coming before, perhaps I was too young at the time.” She glanced over. “Sunam was divided in its opinions of the Laen. Is Vielrona a sympathizer?”

It was Arman's turned to frown. “I would like to think so.”

“How did you know about the Laen in Cehn?”

Arman glanced at her, his brows raised in surprise. “They came here, too. We brought them with the survivors. You were too ill to be awake, I suppose. They left shortly after arriving here.”

Alea shook her head. She knew what their presence meant. “It does not matter if they only stayed long enough to use your privy. The Miriken will know. They knew in which wing of the manor the Laen stayed. It was the oldest part of the building, designed to be a stronghold. We used it for the children.”

Arman winced. “They attacked there first.”

“And yet the Laen still survived.” Alea tried to keep the frustration out of her voice, but fell far short. She looked away. “I am sorry. I am not opposed to the Laen. I never truly had an opinion either way. They survived, protected themselves, as my family was cut down around them.” She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. “I'm not certain whether I want to speak about it just yet.” She rose carefully. “Thank you for talking with me. Perhaps when I'm ready you could show me the city?”

“Of course. Can I do anything to help?”

“Just….” She drew a shuddering breath and turned away. “I wish you had left me for the vultures.”

Φ

The 36th of Lumord, 1251

The Oasis of Cehn, Sunam

Sand hissed under the horse's hooves as An'thor trotted north. He was silent, but alert. His eyes fixed to the ground. His clothes were made for bitter cold and glaciers, but the hardy leather and many layers were suitable for the dry heat of Sunam. The swath of sand abutting the mountains was hard-packed, closer to his native tundra than desert. Far easier to track when the sand doesn't move with each breath of wind. He tugged the silk wrap that normally insulated his jacket tighter around his face. The Sunamen had the rich tan skin that protected them from burning, but An'thor was not so lucky. His skin was a clear white, the blood vessels a visible purple network just under the surface. Being born in a country where true summer lasted only one of the 49-day months made him less accustomed to sunlight.

Like the Laen, the Nenev were a race from centuries past. A people of ice and progress, their minds turned like gears. Isolated, they had become mostly legends, but they were rarely heroes in the tales. A tattoo curled from his bicep, up his throat and across the left side of his face like an eddy of wind. The black ink had long ago faded to an ashy gray from age and weathering.

He rode steadily, noting where hooves had kicked aside rocks or scuffed the parched earth. Seven horses. Two fewer than when we were separated. He had found one body three hours before, the simple arrow notably Miriken. He wondered how many Laen would be left when he finally caught up with them in Cehn. His horse's head hung low, and his gray coat shone with sweat. He looked as tired as An'thor felt. “Almost there, Theriim. We'll rest when we reach the city.” He rubbed the weary animal's neck. He felt more guilt from the failed promises to his horse than those to himself.

When he had first joined the warriors escorting the Laen, there had been dozens of the women. Their protectors were a surrounding shadow, unseen, but always present. A week ago, however, a skirmish with the Miriken had forced the Laen to break ahead while their guards bought time. Now An'thor feared separating may have cost the Laen too dearly. He understood the Laen's adherence to balance – he had seen too many things rise, fall, and rise again to disbelieve that life came in great cycles.

With his gaze fixed on each irregularity of the ground, it was several moments before he saw the smoke. The early autumn day was hot, and the horizon was shrouded in heat haze. Despite the ripples distorting the air, An'thor recognized something was wrong. He urged his gray mount into a lope, his stomach clenched in certainty at what awaited him. Wind moaned as it whipped through the still smoldering city at the edge of the oasis. Loose sand and ash rasped across the sandstone and burnt wood. Even the lower levels of the ira's manor were razed. “This was a massacre.” His voice was low, and his horse's ears twitched in response.

Bodies littered what he assumed was the main street. Those who had survived the initial attack and the flames that followed had been methodically killed as the army moved out. An'thor's gaze slid over the light clothes of the residents searching for a gray dress, a cloak. His eyes picked out marks that  told him the manor was attacked first, and he nudged his mount into the private courtyard. The horse drank deeply from the sputtering fountain and An'thor eyed the bodies sprawled across the stones.

The household's staff had tried to make a stand, and just inside the ruins of the building were the ira and his sons. Still no Laen. Could they have escaped this? A darker thought of capture followed on the first's tail. No bodies does not mean they are safe. Children's bodies were scattered in garden behind the manor and a pregnant woman had fallen several paces further. An'thor was accustomed to violence, but he did not enjoy it. He forced himself to search each building before finally admitting the Laen were long since gone. He finally dismounted to examine the tracks leading east from the city. His legs ached as he crouched to touch the marred sand. I'll rest when I know where they've gone. It was a promise he rarely kept. Hundreds of hoof prints from the Miriken disturbed the ground. He noted the ridges where wagons had followed and winced. “They easily could have been captured.” He examined them for a few more paces then whistled for his horse. If the Laen were captured, he would follow.

He turned to see his mount nosing a pile of horse dung on the road north. He frowned. The desert sun made quick work of any moisture. The bodies littering the city were already desiccated after a week. He nudged the dung with the metal toe of his boot. “This can't be more than four day's old.” His gaze inched over the road's bricks. It was less obvious than the open ground, but he could see where sand had been scuffed away. His careful paces turned into a jog as he followed the trail further north. No more than a score of riders, many bearing stretchers, if he gauged the depth of the prints correctly. The pile of rubble by the roadside bore several carved words. A league marker. He brushed the sand away, tilting his head to read. He could decipher little of the language, but he recognized a name: Vielrona. He had heard of it years ago, but it was little more than a town. His pale cracked fingers paused in their exploration. A square of gray linen was wadded into a crevice. Leaving a note was too great a risk, but a tattered piece of a dress was enough. He swung himself onto Therrim's back once more. He knew better than to pray, but the familiar weight of despair in his stomach told him they sorely needed hope.

Φ

The 37th Day of Lumord, 1251

The City-state of Vielrona

Alea began to see the sense in exploring the city. Her strength had returned, if not her spirit, and the confines of her room were becoming just that – confining. When Kepra arrived to collect Alea's breakfast dishes, the younger woman stopped her.

“Mistress Wardyn, might you know where your son is? I thought I might accept his offer to show me about.”

Kepra smiled. “He is in the market, but often comes home for lunch. I will find you a cloak.”

When she had gone, Alea pulled on the set of clothes she had been borrowing. She was growing used to wearing breeches under the shapeless dress, and though the black scarf was shorter than the jahi she usually wore, it was serviceable. In the same chest she found stockings and ankle boots. She had only worn sandals in Cehn, but the colder mountain air made her glad for the extra protection. A cloak awaited her on the bench by the common room door. This inn has become my shelter. Outside of here is the world, and I don't know whether I am ready for the world again. She took several minutes arraigning it before stepping out.

Sunlight hit her eyes with painful brightness. She blinked, keeping a firm grip on the door's latch while she tilted her face up to the cloudless sky. Her eyes snapped open when she heard Arman's voice on the other side of the gate.

“Good morning milady.” His smile was wary, but kind. “I'd say you want to see the city this afternoon.”

She nodded once and waited while he ducked inside to grab a stuffed roll. He reappeared, mouth full and humming tunelessly. “This road is East Twist,” he explained around the bite of roll. “If you ever are lost you can just ask for it, or for the Ruby Cockerel.”

Alea peered up at the sign Arman indicated. She had never had to worry about getting lost. She stopped just outside the gate, staring at the houses around her.

“Are you alright?”

“Cities look larger from their streets than they do from a window.”

Arman tilted his head. “Did you never explore Cehn?”

“No. None of us did. The ihal and his eldest son occasionally went on diplomatic errands, but that was rare. We kept to ourselves.”

Arman shook his head. “I cannot imagine that.” He pointed at her borrowed cloak. “Tie that about you and don't mind the stares. People have been curious about those we brought back.”

Alea did as he suggested, relieved that she did feel less exposed. She lifted her chin and drew a deep breath. “Alright. Lead on.” She tried a smile, which Arman returned happily before turning back up the road. His long legs took one step for every two of hers, but he chose an easy pace. The road curved sharply and spilled onto a wider street. The houses were narrow and seemed to overhang the passerby, but that was not what made Alea stop again to stare.

“Everything is green. There are even plants on the roofs. Vines are everywhere.” She was surprised at the low sound of her own laugh.

“Just wait a few more weeks – the hills turn red and orange before winter.” Arman nodded up the street with barely hidden impatience. “Shall we walk past the markets?”

Winding narrow paths navigated the booths, and Alea was glad for the slower pace their turns forced. There seemed to be no reasoning behind the market's layout, but a pattern arose as Arman guided her through the chaos. The stalls closest to the fields were those that traded in fruit, livestock, and farming tools. Household wares were the next circuit in. Deeper still one could find cloth and finer wares. Arman explained that his own blade stall was within the last.

“Do you craft at the stall or just sell your work?”

“Just sell. Across the river is the district called the Rattle where most workshops are. My friend Wes lives there above our forge.” He glanced over as she steadied herself on stall's wall. “Perhaps you would like to see the river and take a rest?”

“Please.” The market was lively, but Alea's energy was fading. Everything was so different from her home. It is as if Cehn was a wonderful dream and now I've woken to this disorienting world. She followed Arman to the low wall that ran along the river. It was quieter there, the muttering of the river covering all but the loudest of the market sounds. Arman perched on the wall, letting his feet dangle over the water.

Alea sat carefully on the wall, peering down at the river. “In Cehn we had a spring that made the oasis, but no rivers. You are lucky.”

“It is too cold now, but in the summer we often swim further up river where it's deeper.”

Alea turned to him in surprise. “Swim? Does everyone learn here?”

He grinned. “You either learn young or your friends push you in until you do.”

Alea's comment was cut short by a friendly shout.

Two young men approached from the center of the market. The first, darker man called his greeting again. “Arman!”

Arman stood as they drew close, taking each of their arms and clapping their backs in turn. “I was wondering how long I could avoid you two.” He turned to Alea. “Milady, this is Kam --” he gestured to the man who had first spoke, “and Wes.” He nodded to the broad bladesmith. “Lyne'alea ir Suna is from Cehn.”

Kam's tanned face split into a cheerful grin. “Milady Lyne'alea!” He bowed lavishly over her hand and grinned at her surprise. “It is our pleasure.”

Wes nodded his white-blond head. His gaze was respectful but curious. “Welcome to our city.”

She could feel her face flushing from the attention. Having rarely left the ihal's manor, often the only people she saw were family and other household workers. Meeting so many people in just a few days was making her dizzy. “Thank you.”

“Kam is a locksmith, and I've told you about Wes.” He glanced at the latter man curiously. “How are you away from the forge? I thought you needed that blade finished by tomorrow.”

“The patch in the bellows gave again – I had to send it to Heggins this time. It will be at least tomorrow afternoon before we can have it back.” His gaze flicked to Alea again. “Have you had lunch?”

Arman nodded. “Just finished before we left. I was going to show her the rest of the city.”

“We're headed to an Upper bar. Will we see you later?”

Arman nodded. “Tonight.”

Kam and Wes were soon lost to the swirling market. When they had gone, Alea turned to Arman. “They seem like entertaining gentlemen.”

Arman scoffed. “Wes is decent, though he has a filthy tongue. Kam loves women too much.” He jerked his head in the direction of the finer houses across the river. “Shall we continue? Do you need to rest more?”

“The exercise is nice, as long as we walk slowly.” She patted the scarf, assuring it was in place. Arman led her to where his favorite drinks were made, both alcoholic and otherwise. He bought them both a mugful of a green juice that tasted like the scent of freshly cut leaves. Arman finished his in a few gulps, but Alea nursed hers as they crossed a narrow bridge. The streets were quieter, lined with stone houses. Alea realized that despite her initial judgement, the city was small. The whole of it could have fit twice into Cehn proper. Even the cluster of stone buildings that Arman told her made up the official halls of the Guild were compact. They crowned the simple city well. Like Cehn's golden sandstone had been fitting in the desert, Vielrona's gray stone and dark wood blended into the surrounding foothills.

“There is a garden in the Guild's walls that is a nice place to walk.”

Alea paused to lean against a wall. “I think I might need to turn back.” She glanced at the sky. “Will it be dark soon?”

“Not for another two bells, but if you're tired we can go another day.”

“I'd like that.”

“Let me see if I can get a ride back.” Arman flagged down a small empty cart headed towards the Lows. “Tomas!” When the driver slowed his donkey and raised his hand Arman placed his hand on the seat's edge to haul himself up. “Mind driving us home?”

Tomas' hand stopped him. “Begging your pardon, Wardyn, but I will not have her on my cart.” The man's steely eyes pinned Alea in place. “Allies or no, you endangered the city bringing them back. I don't care that your girl there was just caught in the war – she was with them and I'll not bring the Berrin down on my family.” He paused, shaking his head at Arman. “And you taking up with them? They'll be the death of you. That is how their kind are.”

Arman fell back, frowning. “Good day, then, Tomas.” His dazed tone told Alea he was as surprised as she. He was silent a moment then turned to her. “I am sure he just doesn't like strangers.”

“He does not like the Laen, Arman.” She looked down, allowing the dark hair that had been pulled loose from her braid to hide her eyes. She had expected cultural misunderstandings, but in a city sympathetic to the Laen, Tomas' fear worried her. If he fears the Berrin will come here, does that mean I am still not safe? Could the bloodshed follow them here too? She straightened, pulling a faint smile onto her face. “I would prefer to walk anyways.”

Φ

The sun's warmth disappeared almost with its light, and Arman shrugged deeper into his cloak. The bar Wes frequented in the Upper district was a fair walk away, but the distance usually sobered them up before they reached home. Arman heaved a sigh. Tomas' words irked him. That is how their kind are. He had assumed many in Vielrona were neutral on the Laen, but now he wondered if his assumption was wrong. Is my fascination really that odd? He had heard plenty of tales when he was younger, but so had almost every child.

He glanced to the north where the rolling hills of Athrolan stretched into blackness. Somewhere the Dhoah' Laen camped in the wilderness. She was young and hunted. There was a time that Vielrona would have welcomed her, raised our walls, and armed ourselves to the teeth to protect her. He kicked at a loose cobble with an angry growl. If I am odd for wanting to do so still, then damn me, I don't care.


Chapter Three

The 38th Day of Lumord, 1251

The City-state of Vielrona

WALKING THE BREADTH OF the city made Alea's muscles ache and she dressed slowly. She had awoken early, and took the time to re-braid her hair and tidy herself. The mirror hanging in her room was made of copper, not silver like those she was used to, but she knew the differences she saw were not due to the material. She was paler and her features sharper. Her eyes were dark caverns in her face. “Alea your eyes, they are darker.” Ahren's last words to here were faint in her memory. She wondered if she would ever recall the events fully, or if she wanted to. What she could remember was horrible enough. With an irritated glance at the mirror, she adjusted her makeshift jahi. It was pointless to still wear the garment -- the sun and wind here were far less than the desert’s. Still, it was one more layer between the new world and her tattered mind. Her wall was almost complete. She straightened herself and followed the clattering of pans downstairs.

The inn's common room was deserted in the morning, and Alea paused to admire the space anew. She had briefly wondered at the wealth required for Kepra to own such a space, but the simple furnishings made her realize each piece was hard won. She peered at a stylized metal sun hanging above the door.

“Arman's father gifted me that when I told him I was bearing his child.” Kepra's soft voice was warm, as was the hand that touched Alea's shoulder briefly. “I thought it made the place homey.”

“My ihal had this tiny statue on his desk. It had been his wife's favorite. Whenever he held it there was such light in his eyes.” She looked down.

“Breakfast?” Kepra bustled back into the kitchen. “How did you find the city?”

Alea sat quietly, her fingers brushing the wood of the bar. She felt vulnerable, open, but it was refreshing as it was uncomfortable. “I thought the market was interesting. The food smelled different. I like the spices you use.” Her throat was tight. “I feel a bit lost. I am used to whirlwind days.”

“I would welcome the help, if you wish to keep busy. I have more vegetables that need peeling and cutting.”

Alea knew her smile probably looked desperate, but she could not keep the happiness from her face. She hastily tied on an apron and followed Kepra into the heat of the kitchen. Noontime was accompanied by loud men, sweaty and dusty from the fields, and Arman with a small canvas-bound book. He smiled at his mother and, noting the crowd, chose a stool at one of the kitchen counters. He sat, book open, with a cheap quill in one hand and a mug of stew in the other. He was mostly finished when Alea coughed softly from the farthest corner.

“What are you working on?”

Arman choked on his potato, breath wheezing for a moment before he turned to peer behind him.

Alea perched on a stool by the stove. Her hair was bound up under her scarf and flour marked her cheek where she had brushed it away in the midst of preparing dumplings.

“A design for a client.” He raised his voice. “Ma?” When Kepra glanced around the doorframe he continued, “You did not enlist milady to cook, did you?”

“Perhaps you could ask her yourself, Arman. Do not be rude.”

Arman turned back. “You don't have to earn your keep, you're still recovering. And you could eat in the common room.”

Alea looked down, smiling. “Business with keep my thought away. There are too many loud men out there and the kitchen is warm.”

Arman still looked surprised when he cleared his dishes. At the doorway he paused. “If you want something more suited to you, there is a library I would be glad to show you.”

He was gone before Alea could respond, but she turned the thought over in her mind for many minutes. Her foster-father had a library of his own, and she had been gifted with books. What titles await me in this city?

Kepra's voice cut through her thoughts. “I just have to clean. You seem lost in thought – do you need to rest?”

“Arman mentioned a library.”

“Of course. I'm afraid we only have two books of our own, but the Guild's library is extensive. Were you thinking of visiting tomorrow?”

“I was.” Alea swept the counter top clean and began to scrub the wood. “My foster father gave me a poetry book. The collection here might have new ones.”

Kepra stared at her a moment, brown eyes thoughtful. “May I ask you something?”

A note in her soft tone made Alea pause. The fingers that had been picking at a stubborn piece of dough stilled. “Of course.”

“You were wearing gold and a ring on your finger. Arman said you were in the garden of the manor. You speak of your foster-family and your ihal with the same love. May I ask who you are?”

Alea stared. She had been told by many who she was and what she would become – an intelligent girl without valuable history who would make a good wife for a wealthy commoner. She had been lucky that her foster-brother agreed to marry her. None of those things mattered now. Alea opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again, this time with a more stubborn look on her face.

Kepra leaned forward and touched her hand. “If it is difficult to answer, don't. It may deserve some thought.” She took the dish towel from the younger woman's hands. “I can finish up here.”

Alea thanked her then rose. She stopped just outside the bubble of noise from the other patrons. Her wall was strong and thick. Normally she kept her vitriol in check, expressing it as a bitterness easily disguised as wry wit. Every wall has chinks. When something wormed its way through the defense, her anger lanced out, cold and crystalline. “I am Lyne'alea ir Suna.” Her steady voice belied her shaking hands. “I am the foster-daughter of Ahme'reahn ira Suna, ihal of Cehn. I was to be the wife of his second eldest son, Ahren. Our city was attacked a week before my wedding. Everything I ever knew, ever could have been, is gone. Thus, I am gone. I am only certain of my name, which is borrowed, and that nothing will ever be as beautiful as it was before.” She kept her composure until she closed her bedroom door.

The sobs that took her were deep and gasping and she wondered if she could ever stop. She slid to the floor, leaning back against the door. It was solid, which only made the familiar things in her memories feel less substantial. Her gasps were only slightly less desperate when she heard measured footfalls on the stairs. She bit down on her sleeved wrist to muffle her noise. The attempt was in vain and she heard a hand press to her door. “Milady?” Arman's voice was gentle.

She did not respond. It was almost dark, but she had not lit the candle by her bed. I could be out.

“Ma told me you seemed shaken.” He paused. “Are you there?”

She cleared her throat. “I was just resting.” It was obvious, but she was grateful he afforded her the lie.

“I am sorry if I made these first few days hectic. I am not good with grief. Do you want me to let you alone?”

“I don't want to be alone.” She wondered if the words were too soft for him to hear. She rubbed the marks her teeth had left on her arm. “Your talk is comforting.”

There was a rasp of rough fabric on wood as he eased onto the floor on the other side of the door. “I've had a share of grief, but nothing like yours. If I lost Vielrona I would feel like I lost which way was north.” He sighed. “I have heard things about what bringing you, let alone the Laen, here could do, but I see you sitting at my hearth and I wonder how people could be so cruel.” He paused, as if to check she was still listening. “Would it make it better if you learned the reason the Laen did not protect your family? If you learned your loss was not in vain?”

“No.” Her voice cracked. “If I learned we saved the world, it would still hurt just as much. My family was my world.”

“I'm sorry, then. I don't know how to make it hurt less.”

“Thank you for talking to me. I think I can sleep now.”

He rose with a groan. “Very well.” He was part way down the hall when her door creaked open.

She peered into the dark corridor. Her eyes were luminous and rimmed with red. “Arman, would you show me the library tomorrow?”

His smile was careful. “Of course. I can bring you on my way to the forge.”

She ducked back into her room with a quick thanks and lit the candle by her bed. She undressed and slid under the coverlet. Arman words had helped. She closed her eyes and thought of home. There was the spicy scent of the wood and curtains of the manor. Merahn's laughter as she held her firstborn. Alea smiled at the memory of Ahren's quick wit. They had taken a walk in the garden without escort, despite the customs.

His dark eyes had glinted when he saw her, presenting her with a hair comb wrought of silver and studded with onyx and lapis. He had just returned from negotiations in Vielrona and had found the gift in their market. “It matched your eyes,” he explained with a smile. “I am sorry our wedding continues to be postponed. I would imagine you're anxious.”

Alea laughed as she often did, then. “I have waited years,
Ahren. What is another month?” His hand sliding over hers had surprised her, as had the kiss on her brow. “It is only until the rains come.”

She had not understood the sorrow in his eyes when he had pulled away, thinking it was only from desire. “Alea, you know there is a war on?”

Ihal mentions it every day.”

Ahren's face grew serious. “Do you remember anything from before?”

“I was half a month old. How could I? This family is all I am.”

Ahren sighed and looked up at the fading light in the desert sky. “I will protect you. I know how precious you are.”

“Precious to you?”

He had answered only by squeezing her hand. Now, half asleep, Alea's mind paused on that. The image of Ahren's face dissolved into his expression when the attack began. He had the same sorrow in his eyes, haunting with the knowledge behind them.

Φ

The 39th Day of Lumord, 1251

“The tomes await, milady!” Arman knocked on her door before trotting downstairs. Alea finished braiding her hair and hurriedly tied her boots before rushing after him. Arman turned, half a biscuit in his mouth while he pulled on a cloak.

She smiled at him briefly before looking away, but she knew he saw the shadows under her eyes. She was quiet and kept half a pace behind him as he wove through the crowd. She began to recognize the locals by their honey-colored hair and tan skin. She could feel gazes pause on her when they normally would have slid over Arman. She wished her borrowed cloak had a deeper hood.

Arman opened the Guild's wooden gate for her and showed her up a paved walk to a small building. “I will come by when Wes and I take our midday meal. If you're tired I can show you home then.”

She nodded, hand on the door-latch. “Enjoy your work.” It had been rare that she was alone in Cehn, with such a large household. Now that she had little to occupy her time she found herself unsure how to simply exist in her own thoughts. Especially when they are so dark. The low room was filled with scattered shelves and boards holding maps and charts. The hearth was lit, but low, and she hung her cloak beside one of the chairs before perusing the tomes. There seemed to be little order to the books' placement. Several books were piled haphazardly atop the shelves. She frowned at the titles: A History of the Gods, The Way of the Earth, and In the Name of Balance: the Teachings of the Laen. Chills rolled down her arms. Arman is not the only one to think there was much more to the attack. The thought made her uneasy.

Turning she saw a new account. Between Desert and Mountain was a dry retelling of Vielrona's political sparring with Athrolan to the north and Sunam, to the south. She was about to close it when one of the illustration made her pause. It was the Minister of Vielrona meeting with the ihal of Cehn. She traced the artist's rendering of her foster father's face. His eyes were calmer than that, and his hair was always bound back under his jahi. She almost smiled, though, at the familiar face.

She shut the cover gently. She never appreciated history, preferring modern poetry and music. She chose a few volumes of nature-centered verses before retired to the chair. There were several pieces she enjoyed, but by the time Arman arrived at midday, she was ready to return to the inn.

Φ

The 46th Day of Lumord, 1251

Alea was absorbed in a book on Vielronan plants when the door opened abruptly. After close to a week visiting the library, Alea was familiar with the collection. It was close to supper and she expected Arman. Instead a tall, unfamiliar man blocked the door.

 He paused when he saw her, then doffed his cloak. “Forgive me, miss. I did not know this space was being used.” He took a step closer so he was lit by the torch at the door. Like most Vielronan he had pale hair and gold skin. His long locks were loose and threaded with gray. The lines of a life will with sorrow and joy were etched around his broad mouth and fierce eyes.

“I was just passing time,” Alea answered. “You are welcome to your business.” She turned back to her book, only to be interrupted again.

“I know everyone in this city, by face if not by name.” His broad hands rested on the back of the chair opposite her's. “I do not think I am familiar with either of yours.”

Alea closed her book carefully and straightened. “I am Lyne'alea ir Suna. I am staying with the Wardyn family.”

The man regarded her searchingly before nodding. “When I said I was not familiar with your name or face, I did not mean I did not know them. I know where you came from and how you arrived. I am glad you have found our city hospitable. Perhaps soon we can have a better conversation.” He lifted a roll of maps from a shelf flanking the hearth, and with a smile, headed back towards the door.

“May I ask you name, sir?” Alea stopped him as he was fasting his cloak. He bowed his head. “I am Gluan Herdingman. Have a good night, miss.”

Φ

Alea barely listened to Arman's excited recounting of his day while they headed back to the inn. She glanced up, startled, when he asked what troubled her. “I'm just distracted. I met someone in the library today – Gluan Herdingman. He said he wanted to speak with me.”

Arman's laugh was closer to a snort. “Milady, that was our Minister. His curiosity got the best of him, I think. He is a good man, if abrupt.”

Alea paused on the bridge. The bells behind them drowned out most of the noise. It was as if the world had paused for breath. Her profile was lit by the sun setting in the south as she raised her face to the fresh wind gusting down the mountains. She leaned over the side of the bridge, peering at the dark water. The banks had been reinforced with thick blocks of dark gray stone. Small, scraggly shrubs had found hold between some of the older blocks and grew precariously over the river. “This is beautiful.”

She must not see the sewage from the Upper culverts. He smiled. “You said the desert had no rivers?”

“I read about Sunam's capital. Flood waters from the other side of these mountains meet the sea there.” Her eyes traced the path along the river and she glanced over. “What lies up there?”

Gooseflesh rippled up Arman's arms at her words. “The ruins of the city Vielrona was built to guard.”

“The Laen city?”

He nodded. “Very few ever visit it. It feels like a grave.”

She gathered her skirts and headed down the road. “Arman, you know the biggest difference between home and Vielrona?”

“The sand?”

She laughed. “Besides that. It's the layers.”

“Layers?” He shoved his hands in the pockets of his cloak.

“In Cehn, everything was layered. We wore layers of fabric, our doors and windows were layers of wooden lattice and drapes. Our hair was done up in curtains of braids and charms under our jahi. Even the sandstone of our buildings had layers of gold and red and brown. In Vielrona you have more colors, perhaps – green and blue – but it is simple. It is a different kind of beauty.” Her hands animated the descriptions.

Arman grinned and wondered if she knew how well her words described the difference between the Vielronan people and her own. They stepped through the gate to the Cockerel when a sharp voice came from the doorway.

Arman raised his hand in greeting. “Farrow, I've not seen you since last winter. How has the clerk's life treated you?”

“Well, so far.” The man was older than Arman by a few years, his hair closely cropped. His cream tunic bore the city's insignia on the right breast. While he was well-groomed, scars peppering his hands and a long mark over his left brow designated him a former common lad. “When the Minister had me draw this up, I offered to run yours myself.”

Arman grinned. “Glad I could see you.” He turned and motioned Alea forward. “This is Lyne'alea ir Suna. Milady, this is Maren Farrow, an old friend.”

Farrow nodded to her, his gaze reserved as he handed her a folded letter. “This is for you, miss.” He glanced at Arman. “Might I speak with you?” Arman stepped aside to allow Alea past. When the door shut behind her Farrow looked down. “Watch yourself.”

“Excuse me?”

“The world is not the same and you are only making it worse.”

“What are you talking about?”

“First the Laen in your inn, now you're keeping her about?
Her family sheltered them, Arman. There's already talk.” He rested a hand on Arman's shoulder. “Think of Veredy, if nothing else.”

Arman shook the hand off. “It was good to see you.” He watched Farrow retreat up the street. When he stepped into the inn Alea was perched on a stool, letter open before her.

“I'm sorry about that.” Arman jerked his head at the parchment. “What is it?”

“A summons to appear before the Guild with the other survivors tomorrow morning.”

“May I?”

Her hands shook as she handed him the letter. The words were carefully neutral and made no mention of any rumors, but it still made Arman's skin crawl with unease.

Later, Arman dug through the chest at the foot of his bed. His family was not wealthy, but his father had often read to him from one of the few books they owned. It was Arman's favorite as a child, and he suspected they were his father's favorites too. At the bottom of the chest was a slim book wrapped in several layers of cloth and stuffed in a pair of boots he had long outgrown. He unwrapped it carefully, callused fingers catching on the soft material of the cover. It was beautiful. The plain brown was detailed in gold and green. A small portrait was inlaid in the cover underneath a thin sheet of clear mica. The man in the picture glowered at Arman with eerie yellow-green eyes.

Arman thumbed through the pages as quickly as he could without damaging the delicate parchment. “Page 18,” he reminded himself. Finding the page he sat on the bed and reread the words. He almost had it memorized once.

“Laen are powerful, creators of gods, made of sea and storm, ice and lightning. Beside them stands another race, as mighty as the Laen are calm. Guards made of fire and earth, filled with the rage of earthquakes. They are the Rakos. The Laen marked their hearts and claimed their souls.”

Under the passage was a note by the scribe. It mentioned that the Rakos were all but extinct. Their whole hearted defense of their Laen came with a cost. Most died in battle. Others disappeared into the wilderness. Some bred with humans, but their children were unremarkable. As the Laen dwindled so did their protectors.

Arman turned back to the image on the cover. The man could pass for human if one did not look closely. It was something in the set of his mouth, the depth of his eyes, that gave his monstrous nature away. Arman could see how many thought Vielronan people might have more than a bit of the Rakos in their ancestry – the gold hair and ruddy skin echoed the deeper tones of the portrait. Ancestry or not, your blood is all but useless. He shook his head. You can't even inspire faith, and when the Laen need you most, you're gone.


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