She Who Swallowed the Moon

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Chapter 7

She used the staff as best she could, hobbling in an effort to keep the weight off of her shattered leg. But En’zul have mercy on her, it was nearly impossible. Her movements were painfully slow, toes straining with every step. Alateraz had no intentions of slowing down for her either. He marched between campfires in brisk strides.

They passed the toppled statue of O’fyon and followed the crevasse until they reached a campfire void of people. She looked all about the area but found no sign of Sarlen or any other elves for that matter. She also didn’t see any sign left over from her battle with the bandits.

Alateraz kneeled down before the fading fire and threw on another log to satiate its hunger.

When she finally managed to hobble over, she stopped to catch her breath. “I’m not a quickling,” she stated, far more meekly than she would have liked.

He didn’t bother to look at her as he sat down. “You grow old quickly, don’t you?”

She flinched at the unusual response. Under her breath she mumbled, “What does that even mean?” She tried to ease herself down to the ground but her knee was too weak. It buckled out from under her, sending her forward into the fire. Alateraz just managed to grab her arm and pull her into his chest before the flame could catch her clothes.

Her eyes met his, the amber glow of the fire reflected in them and then she saw her own reflection, dark hair and tan skin surrounded by the flames. She spun sharply away and sat stiffly on the ground beside him. “Ma areth,” she whispered.

She expected some snarky retort from him. Or at least, a snide, bitter comment. When he didn’t even reply, she took a cautious peek at him. His gaze was steady on hers, firm and analytical. Beneath his hood, the firelight deepened his already golden skin.

It wasn’t until his gaze averted that the breath she’d been holding slipped free.

Another elf stepped in front of the fire, two bowls in hand. But he stood there for a long moment, staring at Zahirana then at Alateraz. “Atisha sent me with food.”

Alateraz replied coolly, barely giving the other man a glance, “Set it down on the ground.”

When he didn’t move, Alateraz glared up at him. They exchanged silent stares until the younger elf relented. “Alateraz. Can we talk? Alone?”

He stared, tilting his chin downwards to glower impatiently.

The youth set down the bowls of food next to Alateraz and cleared his throat. “Our journey westward is foolish. If we try to--”

“No. You have spoken your thoughts already. I have made my decision.”

“Sir.” He straightened his spine.

“Do not question my authority.”

He huffed breathily. He took a few steps back then turned sharply on his heel. He quickly sauntered off into camp without further argument.

Alateraz’s attention dropped down to the crackling fire.

It soothed her worries that perhaps Alateraz didn’t completely despise her. It seemed as if he spoke to everyone rather harshly. Zahirana eyed the pair of pristine daggers he wore and the chainmail beneath his plate armor. It was the finest craftsmanship she’d ever laid eyes on. Whoever they were, they had to be rich. The thought that maybe they were elves from the islands of Vireluen crossed her mind. No one had seen them since they closed their borders to outsiders. Had something changed since then?

He peered over at her, brows pinched.

“I’m a little hungry,” she admitted. Although, she was more than a little.

He scooped up the bowl and passed it to her.

She smelled the earthy scent of root vegetables and minty herbs. Her mouth watered as she realized it had been over a day since her last meal. For her clan, it might be longer. How could she eat knowing that her people were somewhere in the wilds alone and suffering. How could she eat after so many people died because of her childishness?

“Your tears are wasted.”

She felt the tear then, as large as the raindrops during the wild’s flooding season.

“Your clan is waiting.”

“I’m not crying for the ones who were saved. I’m crying for the ones we lost.”

“You need your strength. Eat.” Alateraz stared into the fire, the weariness of his gaze matching in harmony with the thinness of his lips. The edges of his mouth were pulled down into a hard scowl. He seemed almost carved that way, discord and foreboding. He hadn’t moved, hadn’t taken a bite from his own meal.

It might have been the campfire or the veil of exhaustion but she swore Alateraz had fangs when he spoke to her. They were sharp canines like that of a wolf’s except he looked very much like an elf. Except he didn’t. Not really. In fact, none of them really seemed like normal elves. Were elves of Vireluen so different from the nomadic tribes in Amitra?

Silence settled between them. The fire’s hissed and the waking nightlife filled the air with their distant hoots and chittering. She couldn’t stand the silence. Especially with her own thoughts being as loud and dark as they were.

“Ma’thum medila ar.” Zahirana watched his expression carefully, a small test as to who or what he was. “Ar ris eluin, tu’ar? Ar elvenin.” She ate a small spoonful of soup to feign innocence.

He stared at her from the corner of his eye, the campfire flickering in his gaze. “I do not speak elven. You will have to use the common tongue if you want to talk to me.”

Strange, indeed. If they weren’t elven then what were they? Their eyes reflected in the night just like elves. She couldn’t see much of their face with their hoods always drawn but they didn’t appear to be humans. The fangs were unnerving but maybe it was her mind playing tricks on her.

But to not speak elven? It was blasphemy. It was the only way to pray to the Keepers of Fate. Did he even know the Keepers of Fate? It was impossible to read the old texts without knowing any elven.

She took another mouthful of soup and asked casually, “Are you their Ris-Asala? Their leader?”

“Do not ask me questions about my people.”

She rolled her eyes but nodded her head in understanding. It was common for clans to be secretive to outsiders, even other elves.

“Can you believe I’m supposed to be my clan’s leader someday?” She laughed, louder than she intended. “The gods ‘chose’ me or some nonsense.”

“What makes you think the gods chose you?”

She tossed a shoulder up in disregard. “I was born during an eclipse so the clan’s shaman decided that it was a good omen. The fact that I possess magic sealed the deal.” Zahirana shook her head and added, “Sarlen would have made a much better leader than me.” A hollow ache carved itself into her chest. Saying his name aloud left a sourness on her tongue.

“That’s a strange way to force someone to lead when they do not wish to.”

“That’s what I kept telling everyone.” Zahirana rolled her head back and stared up through the canopy at the specks of star dust across the sky. “It’s where I got my name. Devourer of moons. Well, that’s the closest translation, I suppose.” She glanced over at him and narrowed her eyes in anticipation. “Za’hira. You know, the moon goddess?”

He narrowed his eyes back at her in challenge. “No, I didn’t know that.”

They had obviously never associated with other elves. She couldn’t recall seeing them at the Oristhaslu, the gathering of all the tribes. Then again, Zahirana never paid much attention to those meetings anyway.

Keepers of Fate forgive her. She was an idiot.

She leaned forward and turned her head towards the fire. “You’re not an elf, are you?”

He huffed, lips curling and it was the first smile she’d ever seen him make that wasn’t bitter. “Get some sleep, quickling. We will talk more in the morning.” He got to his feet, his meal completely untouched. “We will head north. If we find your clan, then so be it.”

“Zahirana?” Another elf approached, his hood drawn but the fire illuminated much of his face. He was dusted with freckles, and his eyes were glimmered with green light. “I am called Suledin. Atisha asked me to show you to your tent.” He kneeled down next to her, closer than she expected.

Alateraz narrowed his eyes, glaring at the youth. “Tell Atisha that our guest has been spoiled enough.”

“Atisha is determined that our guest heal.” His flickering gaze never left Zahirana. “I shall take you to your tent, if you don’t mind.” Suledin flourished his hand out for her.

“Thank you,” she whispered, shocked to be treated so kindly.

Alateraz stepped closer which drew the other elf’s attention. “No, I will take her. You tell Atisha that she is done spoiling the quickling. There are greater concerns that need her attention.”

Suledin smirked, a breathy chuckle behind it. “My, how unlike you, Alateraz. I thought you would feel burdened by such a task.” He swept the heat of his gaze back to Zahirana, voice softer, “Maybe some other time.”

Her face felt warmer. The campfire felt hotter than it did before.

Suledin rose to his feet and swaggered back the way he came. He glanced over his shoulder though. The same playful smile was on his lips.

“Follow me, quickling.”

“I didn’t finish my soup,” she muttered but Alateraz was already marching towards a cluster of small tents. She slurped down what she could then hesitated again. She sat the half-empty bowl next to his then staggered to her feet. She used the wooden staff to steady herself with muttered curses under her breath.

The least he could have done was to help her stand.

She shouted after him as she hobbled through camp. “I don’t really need a tent.”

Alateraz stopped at one of the small tents, furs and cloth thrown together to make a simple sleeping space. He stared at her broken gait with mild-disinterest. “Atisha will wake you in the morning.”

“If someone else needs the tent,” she huffed before her chest heaved down a quick breath. “I can sleep outside. I’ve done it countless times before.”

“Rest. We leave at sunrise.” He let the tent’s entrance fall shut then strode deeper into the encampment.

Zahirana crawled into the tent, soft furs layered that cushioned the hard earth beneath it. She eased down against their familiar scent. But she missed her own caravan, the furs and skins molded into her form, the scent of smoky cedar that still lingered in the walls.

She tugged her hair free from its braid and gathered the black tresses to her nose. She could just barely catch the traces of sandalwood her brother used to perfume their hair.

Sarlen. Where was he?

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