Friday, December 12, 2008

Desert Blood: Chapter 2

A little late--but here is the next chapter, and I expect the third one on Monday. I will remember this time. :)

Though Athelia did her best to draw him out, Arioch did not cooperate. He answered in curt, one-word replies to her gentle questions. He never asked her anything.

After cleaning the dishes, they retreated to the main room. Athelia shivered, rubbing her hands over her arms. The desert radiated stifling heat in the day, but when the sun set, the heat evaporated. She bent down, tucking sheaves of tightly bound buffelgrass into the hearth. A cheery fire soon warmed the small room. When she turned away from the task, Arioch stood at the door.

"Where are you going?”

He glanced at her. “The barn. I thank you for the meal, but I doubt you want me to stay in your house. At least, not yet.”

She winced at the reminder. “I’d like to talk to you.”

One eyebrow arched. “You want me to stay?”

“No, but I do want to talk.”

His expression turned surly. “I can answer your questions tomorrow as well as tonight.”

“Can’t you talk to me for a little bit?”

He humphed and stepped away. Crossing the room, he turned to face her, his back to the fire. “Well?”

“You can sit down.” Athelia gestured to a pillow. Those served for chairs in a Mara household. Arioch frowned, but he obeyed. The tension in the air made the room feel cold. The silence was oppressive. She cleared her throat. “You came here from Eastar?”

“Aye. I came at Endry’s summons.”

“Do you always obey Endry?”

He flicked a glance at her. “He is my Fay-el.” His tone suggested there was no arguing with him.

“Did you know him long?”

“I have served him for a...few years.”

Athelia caught the hesitance. Her eyes narrowed. “How old are you?”

“Does it matter?” The impassive Arioch cleared his throat, eyes flicking to the side. “I have not asked you your age.”

“I’m eighteen, if that means anything.”

He winced. She pressed him again, “How old are you?”

“I served Endry for twelve years, after joining his army at the same age as you.”

Athelia’s eyes widened. She could add the numbers. “You’re thirty?”

“On the Harvest Moon.” His eyes flicked away from her, landing on the basket of books. “You read?”

She wanted to bristle at the surprise in his tone. Most women never bothered to learn their letters. “Aye, I can. Though the Old Dragonian is beyond me.”

“I see.” Arioch turned his head. She saw him hide a yawn.

“Are you tired?”

His eyes jumped to her. He shrugged. “Some. My horse and I rode through the night.”

“From Eastar?”

The edge of his mouth curved upward. “Aye, we left yesterday at the dawn.”

Athelia refrained from questioning him on that. Between Eastar and Lodear was a three-day journey, four if you rode at a sedate pace. But he was implying he had done it in two. She changed the subject.

“Do you believe the prophecies?”

Arioch shrugged. “I trust my sword, my horse, and my strength. I do not trust in things I cannot see, be they Kyda or tales of Eyrie.”

Athelia shivered. At least he had not used Azrael’s name. The Lord of Eyrie was not a name to fling lightly. She did not believe every legend. But, there was no need to take chances either. “I have a book with prophecies, but I don’t understand them.”

He grinned. “Few do.”

“No, I mean,” she shook her head. “They’re in a language I don’t know. I’ve heard those from Eastar know more than Common.”

“Aye.” He glanced at the window, his mood visibly darkening. “We know of many things beyond the Rim.”

“May I get that book for you to look at?”

His gaze returned to her. “Tonight?”

“Well, maybe no tonight exactly.” She felt the heat of a blush rising in her face and scrubbed a hand across her cheeks, looking away. “Could I just give you the book, and you could explain it to me later?”

Arioch shrugged. He stretched out half onto his side, propped on one elbow. “I doubt I could dissuade you.”

Feeling the rise of heat in her face again, Athelia hurried into her room.

A small window, set with imported Aquila glass, streamed the starlight in silver bands across her plain bed. Her most valuable possession rested at the foot of the bed. A cedar chest, it was filled with items that she wanted to preserve. A pile of neatly folded blankets, some of which had been sewn by her grandmother and great-grandmother. The wedding gown that her mother had worn, her sister, and now she was expected to use someday. Sooner rather than later.

Athelia shoved the thought aside and dug deeper. A stack of dusty, crumbling books snuggled in safety between two thick quilts. She retrieved the bound parchments and then paused. The barn would not be warm. Not that she cared that much, but he had no more choice about the situation than she did. After picking up a blanket, she headed back into the main area.

Arioch’s head was down. He had slumped onto his side, his head cradled on his hands. One glance at his steady breathing, and she knew he was asleep. Should I wake him? Athelia hesitated, bending over his form. If she did, he would be irritated. And then to send him out into the barn, where it was cold and, she wouldn’t do that to him.

Unfolding the blanket, Athelia draped it over him and stepped back. He muttered in his sleep, a line of words she didn’t recognize, and then stilled. She stepped away. Arioch slept on. Athelia left him there.

Returning to her room, she undressed and slipped into the sheer fabric of a linka. The thin, almost silk-like substance, woven from plants that only thrived in the Mara Desert, clung to her like a second skin. At any other time, she would not have minded. The fact that a man slept a mere room away, however, made her very uncomfortable. She satisfied her dread by draping a nightgown over the linka. It meant she would be a little warmer tonight, but she could sleep at ease.

That settled, Athelia set about preparing for bed. She pulled the pins and tight braids free, allowing her hair to fall free. It cupped against the middle of her back. The writhing curls made it a nuisance to comb, but she managed with gritted teeth against the pain radiating in her skull. She washed her face and slid beneath the coverlet on her bed.

Athelia stared at the roof above. The starlight streamed and rippled over the drab eaves. The shift from gray to black to a dark silver reminded her of Arioch’s own variable expressions. She shook her head. If she spent the night thinking about the situation, she would never get any sleep. Lady Madine would spread the word better than she ever could.

Athelia shivered. What if he asked for his right once the child was born? He could. She did not love him. Endry would always hold her heart. How could she bear this soldier instead? She shifted to her side. Closed her eyes. She needed to rest.

Tomorrow, she had to start working on Lady Madine’s gown and check on the spring. The last storm had left the shallow pool miry and unfit for drinking. She needed that water as much as the herbs she had planted around it.

She sighed. Why had Kree done this to her? She was dutiful in burning incense, lighting candles, and even sending the occasional bit of silver to the shaman. It should satisfy the goddess of women and land. Kept her safe on both important areas. And yet, this had happened. Athelia recited the Pleas, and fell asleep muttering a prayer.