Let's play a game
Fantel wasn’t sure how much time passed as she sat beside the pallet where Rashari lay sleeping, swaddled like a babe in furs. He looked pale and dirty, dark hair matted close to his scalp and lower half of his face obscured by thick stubble, but his breathing was deep and steady and his mouth was relaxed and easy in restful slumber. His left arm was out of the covers, resting against his side and swathed in pungent bandages from finger tip to just above his elbow. The slightly acrid scent of the healing poultice tickled her nostrils and Fantel tried to work out if she could recognise all the medicinal plants used by their scent. She gave up eventually. She had never had much of a head for the healing arts, but what she did recognise assured her that the ogdegre healer was competent. He’d used scimknot for the swelling and Dandl leaf to draw out infection from the blood.
Fantel was dozing lightly when Rashari stirred. She woke immediately. Rashari was twitching in his sleep, eyelids jumping as a slight frown carved a shallow furrow between his brows. His cracked lips parted on a quick inhale and his eyes flew open. Fantel put a restraining hand on his chest before he could do more than look around wildly.
“All is well,” she murmured, aiming for a soothing tone. “We are safe.”
Rashari turned his head and blinked wide, unfocused eyes at her. He tried to speak but could only manage a hoarse croak. Fantel lifted the carven drinking cup of water from the well to his lips, helping him sit up with one hand curved around the back of his head. He managed a couple of awkward sips before fumbling the cup away.
“Where?” He croaked, looking around in confusion.
Fantel helped him settle back down before answering. “We are the guests of the O’da tribe. Their healer has seen to your arm.” She allowed herself the tiniest flicker of a smile. “There will be no plant pots in your future, I am afraid.”
He stared at her, struggling to take this in. Then his gaze sharpened and he fought to pull his right hand free of the furs covering his body. “What happened?” He asked, sounding alarmed as he reached toward her neck. She was confused for a split second, then his fingers brushed, feather light, against the edge of the bandages covering her shoulder. Sharp concern cleared the fog from his eyes. “What happened to you?” He repeated more sharply.
Fantel raised her uninjured shoulder in a slight shrug. “The miasma fell as we crossed the steppe. There was a Steppe Bear.” She shrugged again. “I have some small injuries but nothing that will not heal in a few days.” She looked at him. “I am not fragile.” Unlike you, she refrained from saying. Humans were terribly fragile creatures compared to the Chimeri.
Rashari frowned at her, having the uncanny ability to hear the words she did not say as clearly as those she spoke aloud. He didn’t rise to the bait however. Instead he looked around the small healing hut with renewed interest. The walls and ceiling lintels were lined with bunches of dried herbs and alcoves set into the mud walls contained mortars and pestles, glass and ceramic bottles of ointments, tinctures and assorted medicines. “Where’s Smith?” He asked after a moment, voice still raw.
“He is undamaged.” Fantel told him helping him take more water. “I saw him last, outside entertaining the tribe children.”
Rashari glanced at her sharply then scoffed a half-aborted laugh. “He’s always been a bloody show-off.”
A few moments of comfortable silence passed by. Rashari fussed over his left arm and fidgeted under the fur blankets. Fantel sat quietly and considered her next words carefully. She needed to ask him about the human woman and the djinn, but more than that, she had made a promise – if only in her own mind – that once Rashari was safe from the alraune curse she would tell him the truth about Anoush. She was surprisingly daunted by the prospect. It was not that she feared his reaction -she did not – in fact she had no doubt that his primary reaction would be concern for her, but all the same, she was worried. Worried that he would be hurt that she had not told him sooner, that she had in fact not trusted him with her suspicions and then resisted telling him the truth once she had confirmed her worst fears. That she could offer no real justification for her lack of trust only made things worse. She did not blame him for any of it, therefore her reticence, which had seemed so natural before, now seemed like churlishness.
“Where are my clothes?” Rashari asked, startling her from her thoughts. He looked around him again, eyes darting over every nook and cranny. He looked worried.
“I do not know. They may be beyond repair.” Fantel admitted. “The O’da have provided clothes for you.” She retrieved the small bundle containing a woven shirt of rough green and blue wool and a sturdy pair of leather trousers – roughly cut to fit a human’s much shorter stature –there was also a leather belt to cinch in the waistband of the trousers. Rashari took the clothes absently, not even bothering to inspect them. “What about my coat?” He asked. “The Heart of Anoush was in my coat pocket.” He added tense and urgent.
Fantel blinked. She had not thought of that. Nor had she thought about the precious scion stone fragments she had been carrying in her own coat pockets. She rose from the floor. “I will go and find out what happened to our belongings.”
The tribe was engaged in the communal night meal when Fantel stepped out of the hut to find that the sun had set and darkness was drawing in like a lilac curtain around the edges of the settlement. I’tan greeted her warmly and offered her a seat at her bench and a trencher of delicious smelling stewed meat when Fantel approached. When Fantel explained that Rashari was awake and that she was looking for their coats, as they had been carrying some important items in them, I’tan arranged for their coats and boots to be retrieved and handed Fantel a bowl of broth for Rashari. Communal eating was a foundation of ogdegre culture and to take a meal away from the group was considered a grave insult, but I’tan assured her that in this instance no insult would be taken if she chose to eat in privacy with her human. Fantel took this to mean that the O’da were wary of Rashari’s presence – a willingness to aid a sick human not equating to trusting said human – but under the circumstances she was grateful for that lack of trust.
She hurried back to the hut, juggling their coats and boots and the food. Gently she woke Rashari who had fallen back into a light doze while she was gone. “Here eat this. You will need to get your strength back quickly.” She handed him the bowl of broth, laying both their coats, tattered but freshly cleaned, across the pallet bed. “The O’da burned the rest of our clothing – it was too badly damaged -but they salvaged our coats and boots.”
Rashari balanced the bowl of broth in his lap and reached for his coat, rooting in an inside pocket, expression pinched until his questing fingers obviously found what they were looking for. He sagged in relief, releasing a gusty sigh. “Thank the gods. I was afraid we’d come all this way just to lose the blasted thing.” He didn’t withdraw the Heart of Anoush but instead pushed the coat back down to the end of the pallet, as if, now that he knew the stone was safe, he wanted nothing more to do with it. Fantel could not blame him for that. A quick search of her own coat pockets assured her that the fragments were still there.
“I’tan -one of the O’da who saved us from the miasma,” Fantel began, knowing that she should tell him about Anoush but instead choosing to broach the other matter first, “Told me that there is another human -a woman – in the area.” Fantel met his eyes, Rashari growing still, wooden spoon half way to his mouth. “There is a djinn with this woman. The O’da are concerned.”
“Bollocks,” Rashari said and Fantel sighed.
“You know them.” It was not a question. She had already known he would, even if she had wished otherwise.
“I already told you about the djinn who attacked us when we landed out here.” Rashari said. “I’m sure I did.” He added when Fantel arched her eyebrows pointedly. “There was another glider following us. Two people got out after we crashed – that is after we landed – one was a djinn and the other may have been a woman. I didn’t get a good look.”
“You did not tell me this.” Fantel told him with some certain.
“I did,” he insisted. “In fact I think it might be the djinn’s fault we ended up in that nightmare forest. He chased me into the miasma and the next thing I remember there’s a giant plant trying to eat me.”
Fantel absorbed this but did not comment. Djinn were inherently chaotic beings and unlike the chimera they did not obey the laws of the Great Echo. Their magic thrived on violence and strife. It was entirely possible Rashari was right and the djinn had had something to do with their arrival in the alraune forest.
“Do you know this djinn; is he another enemy of yours?”
“You don’t have to say it like that,” Rashari muttered mulishly. “Not everyone I meet wants me dead. Sometimes complete strangers have it in for me too.” Still pouting Rashari rolled his shoulders in a dejected shrug. “He said his name was Jacques or something, and no, I’d never seen the blighter before. I think he might be a mercenary.”
Fantel nodded thoughtfully. Generally the djinn preferred to stay in Battlan but when they did leave and travel to the human lands they often did so as mercenaries and sell-swords. “Perhaps this djinn has been hired by the human woman as a guide? Much as you co-opted me to guide you safely to the Adaline Fault.”
“I asked you.” Rashari shot back, annoyed. “You make it sound like you had no choice in the matter.”
Once more Fantel almost smiled, this time in apology. “Fair point. You have an odd way of asking for help, but I accept that I did choose to be here.”
“Hm,” Rashari hummed darkly, “You realise that the woman is most likely Ruthy? Even given the simply staggering amount of nonsense we’ve endured so far, there is no other woman -human or otherwise –I can think of who would have reason to be out here and after us.”
“What can be done?” Fantel asked.
Rashari rubbed his good hand over his face, scratching at the stubble over his jaw. “I honestly don’t know.” He admitted shoulders slumped in abject dejection.
Fantel’s brows rose sharply. “You are giving up?”
Rashari turned to look at her, expressive mouth curved in a sharp downward arch. “I don’t know what is going on, Madame Chimera. And you had better believe that I’ve spent every one of my lucid hours trying to make sense of this mess. Ruthy is always ahead of me, but I don’t know what her end game is. The Heart of Anoush is at the core of all this, but I don’t see the connection. I don’t know how to make it all fit a pattern. How is Ruthy connected to DeLunde – is she connected to them? Or is the fact that DeLunde has restored my father’s old laboratory just a bizarre coincidence in all this? How can I plan a counterattack when I don’t know what battle I’m fighting?” Real fear glittered in his dark eyes as he looked up at her. “Madame, I can’t see a way out this. I stole the stone because I thought -like an arrogant bloody fool -that I could stop it from falling into the wrong hands. Now I think all I’ve managed to do is throw myself into an elegantly wrought trap and it will be me, blind idiot that I am, who will hand deliver the Heart of Anoush to my enemies.”
Fantel opened her mouth, confession poised on the tip of her tongue, when she froze, every nerve in her body snapping with instant tension. Her vision darkened, like a veil had fallen over her eyes and her blood went cold. She tasted dark, angry magic on her tongue at the same instant the first whisper of acrid smoke scorched her nostrils. Shouts of alarm could be heard from outside. Fantel leapt up and bolted out of the hut. Rashari called after her, but she did not heed him.
Just beyond the walls of the O’da settlement the trees were on fire –and they burned with green flame. “’Ello there luv,” A voice purred. Fantel whirled. There was a burned hole in the wall and a djinn stood just before it, staff held loosely in his right hand, his white hair gleaming in the sickly glow of the fire. He grinned, wide and bright, teeth sharp as a litnim. “What say you an’ me play a little game, eh?”