Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Plot Thickens

*waggles eyebrows* Yes, some interesting bit of set-up is occuring here, for in the future. Both in these two's relationship and in some antagonism.

Hang the Guildsmen and gut the shamans. Then shall this land be free.

--Fay-el Shikarin, Battle of Brakir’s Peak.

“Yes? What is it?”

Arioch hesitated at the threshold. Leslan’s scowl intensified. “What do you need?”

The burly Healer reminded him of his first commander. With a voice husky from years of kolinar smoke, the Settar-born man had radiated authority and power. Not one recruit had risked challenging him. Arioch felt very much like a novice recruit under Leslan’s penetrating gaze.

“I wanted to ask you a favor,” he said.

The Healer’s eyebrows arched. “Like what?”

“Athelia and I are to be married today and--” Arioch caught himself standing at attention, feet together, and forced himself to relax his stance. “--I’d like to leave early.”

Leslan studied him again. “Did you take the serenia to Lord Akbar?”


“And the herbs I asked for—“

“Are already bought from the market and in the storeroom.”

“Don’t interrupt me.”

Arioch dropped his head and muttered, “Yes sir,” before he realized what he had done and snapped it up again.

Leslan’s eyes held a hint of humor, but he didn’t comment on it. “Go home.”

Arioch stared at him. “What?”

The Healer gave him a dismissive wave. “Go to Athelia. Get it over with and come back tomorrow at midday.”

“Midday…?” he bit his lip to stop the sir.

Leslan’s face creased into a grin. “I am quite certain you won’t sleep well tonight.”

His face warmed. Oh. He looked away, but heard the Healer’s rumbling chuckle.

“Thank you.”

“Just go already.”

Arioch didn’t wait. Ambris snorted at him, tossing his head. He grinned, sliding into the saddle. “No hard ride this time.” He leg reined him away from the hitching post. A gentle nudge at his flanks spurred the stallion into a canter, and then into a full gallop.

The wind tore at his hair. His eyes teared, changing the golden dunes into an undulating, amber sea. His throat burned; he could taste sand in his mouth. After a few days riding in this, Arioch could understand the abundance of the linka. As soon as he had earned enough silver from Leslan, he would buy the linka fabric for Athelia.

Ambris slowed without guidance, whistling a challenge at the dun gelding in front of Athelia’s cottage. Arioch chuckled and slid from Ambris’ back, tethering him to the same post, though at a distance from the shaman’s horse. He patted the sweaty flanks. “He doesn’t want to fight you, you old warmonger.”

Ambris stamped a foot, nipping at the drab gelding. Not that he was even close. The old horse gave him one disparaging glance and then returned to the water trough, ignoring the war-horse completely. With another laugh, Arioch left them there and stepped into the cottage.

Dirkan stood in the main area, one hand resting on the curved arm of the chair. The other hand played absently with the tip of an auburn queue dangling on the right side of his face. Its edge rubbed against his elbow. The rest of his hair had been shorn close to his scalp. He glanced up at Arioch’s approach.

“Well now, I half expected you later in the day,” the shaman commented. His eyes glinted like sunken emeralds in his weathered face.

“Leslan allowed me to come home early.”

“I see.” Only a shaman could make a simple response sound cold, suspicious, and superior at the same moment. He stepped closer, peering at his face.

Arioch could feel the man’s Gift, weak compared to most Eastar children, but enough to make him a shaman in Lodear. He kept his gaze directed away. The shaman stood there for a moment more, huffed once, and then returned to his place by the chair. Without eye contact, the shaman could not discern his feelings with the Gift.

“Where is Athelia?” Arioch said.

“Getting ready, my boy.” Again, the tone made “my boy” less an affectionate term, and more like the teacher scolding a naughty pupil.

Arioch forced his features impassive, but his eyes narrowed. They held each other’s gaze briefly, mutual dislike flickering in their respective looks. He broke the silence. “I will tend my horse then, and return in a moment to get ready as well. Would you like me to tend to your horse?”

Dirkan shook his head. “My thanks, but no.”

“Then you will not be staying for the evening meal.”

The shaman’s eyes narrowed, but he remained silent. That had been a statement, not a question. They both were aware of that.

Arioch dipped his head in a curt gesture, and then left the shaman stewing. Stabling Ambris, he had to agree with the war-horse. Their dislike of the shaman was mutual.

When he returned, Arioch found Dirkan had retreated into the kitchen. His differences with the shaman fled at the sight of Athelia. The plain white of her gown accented the rich brown curls cascading over her shoulders, and made her amber eyes into gold. An overlay of linka fabric, embroidered with a skilled hand, changed the simple garment into a distraction.

He refocused his attention on her face. She nibbled at her lip delicately, wringing her hands together in a nervous motion. When he called her name, Athelia glanced his way. “Where’s Dirkan?”

“Not far.”

She raked a hand through her hair and looked away. It shivered at her touch. I wonder if it’s as soft as it looks. Arioch blinked, shoving the traitorous thought aside. “You look very...” When she glanced at him, he froze. “Uh...I mean—what I said before...”

Puzzlement flickered in her eyes. “What is it?”

She had stepped closer to him. Much too close for comfort. “Endry thinks—he thinks you’re...and I—I’d have to...” His voice trailed off. Dismayed that what he thought and what he said didn’t line up, he tried again. “Athelia, I—I think...”

Dirkan cleared his throat as he stepped into the main area. “Well now, I see everyone is present. You said to keep it simple, Arioch?”

She stepped back, folding her hands in front of her. The tightness in his chest loosened. “Aye, I did.”

The shaman shrugged. “Good. I need to return home before dusk.”

“You’re not staying to share a meal with us?” Athelia said.

Dirkan’s gaze flicked to Arioch, smoldering with hostility. “No.”

She glanced at Arioch and then Dirkan. Confusion spread across her features. Smiling to ease the tension, Arioch moved between her and the shaman, one hand resting protectively on her shoulder.

Athelia glanced at the hand on her shoulder, and then slid her gaze to him. Puzzlement flickered. Arioch shook his head. He focused on Dirkan. “I don’t wish to keep you then.”

His response cut through the air. “I’m sure you don’t.”

Dirkan withdrew a flask of shaman’s oil and poured it into a shallow basin on the worktable. Dabbling his fingers into the pungent mixture, he tapped Arioch’s right wrist and then Athelia’s. He guided them to stand side by side, right hands clasped. The spots anointed with oil rubbed against each other in this position.

The oil did not hide the feel of her warm skin against his wrist. Nor obscure the herbal shampoo in her hair. And the strands of silken hair brushing against his shoulder and tickling his neck were a definite diversion. Arioch did not hear much of the shaman’s recitation. His senses snapped to attention at the word “child”.

“Say again?”

Dirkan scowled at him and sighed, his air that of a martyr. “May Kree bless thy womb with child. Thy husband with vitality. That lad and lass may grace thy house, and enrich thy lives with blessing.”

Endry’s child. His contentment shattered. Athelia had made her feelings all too clear.
Arioch’s mood slumped beneath the realization. He ignored the rest of the ceremony. Most of it was superstitious drivel anyway. A Fay-el used taxes for income; a shaman used religion. There was no difference between them.


He snapped out of his reverie. “Yes?”

Athelia smiled hesitantly. “You’re supposed to kiss me,” she whispered.

Oh. He dipped his head and brushed his lips against hers. His hand shifted from her shoulder to her back, pulling her closer. Her scent wafted around him, light like morning glory. And then he jerked back. Heat rose into his face. “I—I’m so...”

She slipped her hand into his. Her smile was strained, eyes flicking to the shaman at their side in silent warning. Athelia rested her head against his chest. “I’ve waited so long for you. And now you’re mine.”

Arioch forced a grin onto his face. She wasn’t speaking of him. Curse that bloody Endry! Dirkan’s chuckles snapped his attention back to the shaman. The man shrugged, stuffing the flask back into his pack. “I will leave you two. Until the day dawn.”

“And the Star arise,” Athelia answered. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay for the meal?”

Arioch glared at him over the top of her head. Dirkan’s eyes narrowed. “Quite sure. Farewell.”

Arioch didn’t relax until he heard the soft thump of the door. Athelia pulled away from his grip. “What’s wrong with you?”

The heat rose into his face again. She had noticed the kiss. “I didn’t mean to do that. It’s not like I’ve been married before.”

She scowled, eyes sparking with anger. “That isn’t a reason for treating Dirkan that way.”


“Don’t play innocent with me. You said something to him. He always stays to eat with me, and blesses the house too. I need all the help I can get.”

“I’m here now. You don’t need his help.”

“Of all’ve only been here three days. How can you make promises like that?”

Eyes narrowing, Arioch settled on a cushion, leaning back against the wall with his arms crossed. “I am bound to Endry, and through him, to the child you bear. Do you question my honor? My loyalty?”

“No...I just—I don’t think you...” Athelia snorted. “You’re so difficult!”

“I told you that already.” He stood again, stalking to the door.

“Arioch, can’t you listen to me? This is not the army any longer. You can’t treat everyone as an enemy.”

He paused. Rested his hand against the doorframe. “You have never seen war. Nor dealt with traitors. I will protect this child, by whatever means I think are necessary.”


Glancing back over his shoulder, Arioch said softly. “One maxim I learned early in my career. Don’t try to train an old war-horse.” He sighed. “Quit trying to train this one. I am who I am.”

He heard the resigned sigh. Her gown rustled behind him, and then her hand rested on his shoulder. “I should be grateful. It must be hard for you.”

Arioch shrugged and moved out of her reach. “I swore. I obey.”

“And that’s all.” Her tone was flat.

“Aye.” He turned to face her. “I will sleep here.”

Athelia bit her lip. “But it’s...this is your—our wedding night.” Her cheeks reddened again. “It doesn’t seem at all fair.”

“I will manage.” His smile was soft. “Sleep well.”

Her mouth opened to protest, and then shut again. “I have more blankets, if you need them.”

“Thank you. Goodnight.”

Athelia took a step, glanced back at him, and then disappeared into her room. He smiled again and sorted the blankets into a decent pallet. After sleeping with Derk-ra howling out of sight, this was easy to withstand. He curled up beneath the last blanket, feet tucked away from the cooling air, and slept.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

DB cont

Yep, next chapter already. :)

Hopefully, I can finish up the rough draft of this by February of 2010 but who knows...sometimes I can speed up the pace and finish a story fast. Sometimes, every chapter is a struggle.

Chapter 4

“Kinda scrawny, aren’t you?” the Healer said.

Arioch swallowed his pride, though he clenched his hands at his side. “Aye, but I can work.”

Leslan took a step toward him. Sure and who sent you then?”


The man paused, head cocking to the side like an inquisitive bird. “You don’t say.”

The Healer turned away, rummaging in a drawer. Arioch caught himself standing at attention, his feet drawn sharply together. He released the breath he had been holding, and forced himself to relax.

Leslan stood as tall as Arioch, but with broader shoulders and a stocky build that advertised his strength, even if the gruff Healer wanted to hide it. This, combined with a mane of tawny brown hair, made him more lion-like than human. He radiated authority as strongly as Endry.

Leslan turned to face him again. “Can you read?”


He glanced him over. “I suppose you take orders, even from a Healer?”


“You’ll do, for now. Come back tomorrow morning, and we’ll see how it goes.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t.” Leslan shook his head. “It’s for Rometh’s sake I’m even bothering with an Eastar.”

“You don’t believe the stories, do you?”

The Healer snorted. “Poppycock. Of course not. It’s that most Eastar don’t stay in one place for long.”

“I’m marrying Athelia.”

“That means nothing either. You could still uproot her and leave.”

Arioch bit back a sigh. There was no convincing him it seemed. “Tomorrow morning?”

“Aye. Good day to you. Until the day dawn.”

Arioch blinked. It had been a long time since he had heard the traditional invocation. “And the…the Star arise.”

Leslan’s eyes narrowed. Arioch hurried out. More questions. Everyone he ran into seemed to be suspicious or questioning, even Rometh.

With what scanty silver that remained after paying the shaman, Arioch ate a meal at the inn. He stayed in the corner of the common room, with his back to the wall, as far from the other villagers as possible. They studied him, squinting in his direction or muttering among themselves but, more importantly, they left him alone.

Retrieving Ambris, Arioch hurried back to Athelia’s cottage. Amber light gleamed in the windows, beating back the drooping wings of dusk. He stabled Ambris again, did his best to shake the sand from his boots and clothes, and then stepped into the entryway. Prudence suggested informing her he was here, before proceeding any farther. Arioch rapped a knuckle against the inside of the door. “Athelia?”

Rustling in the main room preceded a sigh. Athelia appeared, glancing at his disheveled appearance with a frown. Her hair was bound up again. Arioch felt a twinge of disappointment, which he brutally shoved down.

“Have you eaten?” Athelia said.

This conversation feels familiar. “At the inn.”

“Several hours ago?”

“Yes.” He bit his lip to keep from saying ma’am. Arioch felt like a little boy reporting to his mother with torn clothes and a bloody lip. Athelia didn't scold him, however.

Shaking her head, she gestured to the washroom of before. “By the time you’re done, I’ll have something for you.”

“You don’t have to fix me anything.”

“You’re entirely too thin.” She waved a hand at him. “Go on.”

Arioch didn’t bother arguing. It never worked anyway. Once a woman got an idea in her head, no amount of work would get it out again.

He scrubbed at the sand and grime as best he could. The water was cool, which he appreciated, but not very helpful beyond that. The grains clung to his hair, dotting the black in uneven splotches. His skin itched. With a sigh, Arioch left it as it was and crossed into the kitchen.

Athelia looked up as he stepped into the room. She shook her head. “You really must get a linka.”

He shrugged. A familiar burn fluttered in his chest. Turning his head, Arioch coughed once, but did not yield to the burn beyond that. Athelia set a plate of food in front of him. He was too hungry to take notice of what it was.

When he had finished eating, and returned the plate, Arioch headed back into the main room. Athelia followed. She studied him thoughtfully. “Arioch, could you come here.”

He glanced at her over his shoulder. “Why?”

“I want to see something.”

That didn’t make him feel better. “What?”

With an exasperated sigh, she moved closer to him. Athelia wrapped her hand around his wrists and brought his arms up. Arioch stiffened. “What are you doing?”

“Trying to guess how much fabric I need.”


“For a linka,” she snapped. “Unless you like tramping sand all over the house.”

He felt his face flush. “Sorry.”

Her tone softened. “It’s fine. Eastar doesn’t have the winds as bad as we do here.”

She stepped back. Her gaze turned introspective. He saw her tick off numbers on her fingers, mouthing some measurement under her breath. Athelia turned away. “How did things go?”

Arioch shrugged. “The blacksmith, Rometh. He likes you a lot.”

Athelia chuckled. “You could say it that way.”

“He invited us to come over after the...” he hesitated. “After the wedding.”

Her shoulders twitched. He knew she had winced, even without seeing her face. Changing the subject, Arioch continued. “Lord Akbar is different, but endurable. And I spoke to Leslan, running errands and such.”

She glanced at him. Her eyebrows arched. “Leslan? The Healer? He’s not too fond of Eastar.”

“Aye.” Arioch raked a hand through his hair. “I wish Rometh had mentioned that before I went over there.”

“I see.” The edge of her mouth twitched in a suppressed smile.

Arioch pretended not to notice, though he couldn’t resist a quick jab. “The shaman said three days. Is that all right with you or...”

Athelia cringed visibly this time, and then faced away from him again. Her voice was soft. “That’s fine.”

The upper hand on her wasn’t very pleasant. "Athelia, I--" The burn in his chest flared again. He winced and bit his lip. When it eased again, though not by much, he relaxed. “I’ll go back into town tomorrow. Do you need anything?”

She glanced at him. “Some linka fabric, about three yards I would say. I don’t keep that on hand.”

Mentally, Arioch counted the silver in his bag. Not much at all. “How much do you think that will run?”


He glanced at her. She smiled. “There are several traders. All of them like to gab, and to wheedle on prices.”


Athelia shook her head. “Don’t pay more than five for a yard. And mention that you’re from here, or going to…be married soon.”

Arioch ignored the subtle pause. “Why?”

“Strangers get doubled prices.”

“Friendly place,” Arioch muttered under his breath.



Athelia studied him again. Arioch knew she could not have heard him, but the steady look unnerved him.

The burn expanded in his chest. A bird of fire, spreading hot wings across his ribs.

Arioch winced, beat it down, but this time, it did not ease. Rubbing the ache over his heart, he clenched his teeth against the rising cough. He tried to force it down again, without success, coughed once, and knew it was a mistake. One became two, and then transformed into a miserable coughing fit.

“Arioch? Are you all right?”

He waved a hand at her, but could not answer.


“Moment...” he wheezed. “Give me…”

He felt her hand on his shoulder, guiding him into the chair. Slumping there, he gasped and coughed until he regained control again. Athelia hovered near him. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.”

“What happened?”

He shook his head. No way to explain. “Nothing. I’m fine.”

She didn’t look convinced. “Arioch...”

“I said I’m fine,” he growled.

Athelia’s frown made him want to cringe. “No, you’re not. But you are stubborn.”



He glanced at her. “You said difficult before.”

“That too.” She crossed her arms over her chest, scowled for a moment, and then sighed. “Sleep here again.”

“I will not.” Not out of pity.

“You will.”

Arioch stood. “I won’t.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Yes, you will.”

“I will not!”

“You don’t have to shout.”

Arioch clenched his teeth against the hot words rising to his mind. If she were one of his fellow soldiers, he would simply curse and glower until one of them relented. With Athelia, it was not so simple.

She tsked at him. “I’m sorry that I care what happens to you. You are going to be my husband in three days.”

He cringed. She continued without pausing. “I thought, because of that cough, it would help if you slept where it was warm and clean. My mistake.”

Arioch glared at her. “I don’t like pity!”

“I don’t like shouting!” Her face flushed. Arioch couldn’t stop the grin. Her blush deepened, and she looked away.

“I’m sorry,” Arioch said softly.

Athelia glanced at him. He repeated it.

“Th-that’s quite all right. I should have…you don’t have to stay with me, yet.”

“I want to.”

She blinked, studying his face. Arioch cocked his head. She was acting as if she didn’t believe him. “You’re kind, even when I shout.” The blush returned. Arioch liked it very much. “And you’re lovely in your own right.”

Her eyes snapped to him, widening. “I am not.”

“Endry has never chosen an ugly woman.”

Her face fell. “Endry thinks I’m comely.”

Arioch caught the emphasis, though he couldn’t guess why. “Aye. I’m sure he does.”

She turned away. “The blanket is on the chair, if you need it.”

When she walked toward her room, Arioch called out to her. “Good night, Athelia.”

She sighed. “Good night.”

Arioch curled up in the same place as before, but did not fall asleep right away. He complimented her, and she acted like he had hurt her feelings. Arioch snorted.

Women. Who could understand them?

Friday, June 19, 2009


Wow, it's been a long while since I posted on this thing. I knew it had been a good month For your patience, here's another chapter of Desert Blood. A little hint of tension and foreshadow here, and hopefully, still an interesting story unfolding. :)

Hail to Lodear—compass of the north; --

Arioch slid into near wakefulness. He expected the bugle to sound any moment. There was no need to rise until then. He shifted, trying to burrow back into the pleasant dream. The ground beneath him did not feel like dirt.

He opened one eye. A cottage? Rubbing a hand across his face, Arioch sat up. It took him a minute to remember. Endry...Lodear...Athelia. He stretched. A blanket slid away from his shoulders. Arioch smiled, plucking the edge of it with one hand. A woman’s touch.

He frowned. No, that was wistful thinking. She had no feelings for him. He snorted. Not as long as Endry was alive.


He jumped and swiveled, popping his wrist for the dagger he no longer wore. Athelia grinned at him, oblivious of the motion. “I thought I heard you moving around. There’s some water to wash up over there.” She gestured to the right. “I don’t know if you eat breakfast or not, but I made some kolinar, if you want it.”

“That would be fine.” His voice rasped from sleep. Arioch winced at the sound.

“Good. See you in a minute.” She disappeared into the kitchen again.

Arioch stood, stretching again. Sleeping on the ground, or even a floor, would never be as comfortable as a bed. Though either one beat sleeping in the saddle. That he had done too often, and did not plan to repeat it. He folded the blanket and set it aside.

Crossing into the room Athelia had mentioned, he found it enough for his needs. A basin, bit of cloth, and urn rested on a plain shelf against the wall. A piece of polished glass, set in a frame, sat beside them. The splash of cold water on his face helped him shake the bleariness off.

He frowned at his reflection in the glass. Bits of hair rebelled against his touch. Some of it twisted back enough to make his scar look twice as big as it already was. Arioch ran his fingers through the unruly hair, covering the scar.

He checked his reflection again. Good enough. Satisfied, he stalked back into the main room and then headed to the kitchen.

The smell of freshly-brewed kolinar led him better than a lodestone. Athelia smiled when he stepped through the threshold. She set a mug on the table. Steam curled in wispy tendrils above the rim. During his career, the pale green blend had been the only thing that kept him going on rough days.

He sipped at it carefully. Sighed. Athelia chuckled. Arioch ignored it. The warmth spread through his chest. The tension in his shoulders evaporated. “Ah, you’re much better than Marik.”

Athelia sat down opposite him, holding her own mug. Her smile was visible over the rim of the cup. He noticed her hair for the first time. It cascaded past her shoulders, unbound. The sunlight glinted against her hair, outlining golden highlights spreading through the silky strands. He swallowed and looked away.


Arioch kept his eyes focused away from her. “A fellow soldier in my company. He used to make the kolinar in the morning.”

“Used to?”

“He’s dead. Hybrid.”

“I’m sorry.”

Arioch shrugged. “It’s part of being a soldier.”

He sneaked a peek at her. She studied him. Concern flickered in her amber eyes. Standing, he set the mug on the counter. “Thank you, Athelia.”

“You’re welcome.” Athelia set her mug beside his. “I have some work to do. I’m going to be busy.”

He shrugged. “That’s fine. I need to go into town.”

“Oh?” She disappeared into the workroom.

“Present myself to the Lord, take Ambris to the blacksmith, arrange for the shaman--little things.”

There was a pause.


“The Lord, it’s Lord Akbar. He’s Lady Madine’s husband. I’m sure he’s expecting you.” He heard her rustling about.

The pause was odd, but she didn’t expand on it. The thought of Lady Madine made him wince. It couldn’t be helped.

The war-horse drew eyes. Arioch could feel curious and hostile gaze alike burning into his back as they passed through the town. He eyed his surroundings with curiosity. Though these were Mara as well as he, the people here were distinctly Lodear as well. Each of the four provinces of the Mara retained their independence, while still serving beneath the reigning Fay-el.

The houses were circular, like Athelia’s home. A faint tinge of smoke wafted out of a small hole at the top. High, sloping roofs, carefully thatched, sloped down to meet the adobe walls of the buildings.

The lower born dressed in plain clothing, fashioned from the few cattle and sheep they maintained in the arid land. The higher born, however, were easy to spot.

Twisted gold torcs were visible on their bare forearms. A hint of scarlet or deep purple graced their finely cut clothing. The two groups did share one thing: the linka.

Man, woman, rich, and poor—all wore the filmy fabric. Some clutched it to their faces as a shield against the blowing sand. Others draped it over their shoulders and head as protection against the heat. Though familiar with the linka, he had never seen them out in such profusion in his homeland, save during a drought.

The ring of hammer on anvil drew him to the blacksmith’s shop. Dismounting, he rapped a knuckle on the door. The smell of burning buffelgrass and coal, the latter imported through the Crossroads port, made him grimace. He coughed and knocked again.

A gibberish of tone caught his ear. At first guess, Arioch assumed it was the sound of the blacksmith at work. The wind could twist sounds into odd things. He had heard screams on the wind many times. He shivered, though the day was warm. Best not to dwell on that.

The gibberish repeated. Scowling, Arioch led Ambris around the building. In the back, a smaller building, with walls on only three sides and thatched roof, housed the blacksmith's shop. The assortment of equipment scattered here made the swinging sign above the opening unnecessary.

The blacksmith hunched over his fire, a set of tongs in one hand. He glanced up at the soft thump of Ambris’ hooves. “Ay tul ute to cumay urah-nid.”

Arioch blinked. “What?”

The blacksmith plunged the tongs into a bucket of water. Steam hissed in writhing tendrils. He withdrew the spear point, as Arioch recognized it now, and set it on the anvil. Straightening, he knuckled his back and grinned at him. “Ah, not from Lodear, I take it?”

Arioch shook his head. “Eastar.”

“I see. Pardon for confusing you.” He raked his hand through a thick mop of chestnut hair. “I am Rometh. What can I do for you?”

“My horse’s shoes. And if you could direct me to the shaman.”

“The shaman?” His eyebrows arched. Stubby fingers clasped the proffered reins, leading the war-horse into view. Though the mass of muscles on his shoulders and back proclaimed his profession, Rometh stroked Ambris’ neck with surprising gentleness. “Ah, a fine stallion you have here.”

“I think so.”

Rometh smiled at him. He ran a hand over Ambris’ legs. The well-trained stallion lifted his foot at the blacksmith’s urging. “Iron shoes. A war-horse, I take it?”

“Aye. He has carried me through many battles.”

“You have a good eye for horseflesh.”

Arioch smiled. “He is a fine horse by his own right.”

Rometh nodded and bent to his task. After a moment, he glanced at Arioch. “His shoes aren’t loose. Did you need them replaced?”

“No, removed. He won’t be in battle for some time yet.”

“Ah, you plan to settle down here then? Or passing through?” He led Ambris aside, tethering him on a hook set in the wall.

“My—betrothed--is here. I plan to marry her now that my tour of duty is over.”

Rometh squinted at him. “Are you the Arioch that Lady Madine has been blabbing about?”

Arioch resisted the urge to wince. “Aye, Athelia is my betrothed.”

Rather than scowling, Rometh’s grimy features creased into a grin. “Well now. ‘Thelia has needed to settle down for a while. What with her family all moved away or married. Ack, that girl has been holding out on me though.”


“Why, she never said a word about you. Me and Talena have had her over a few times, and she never breathed a bit about a soldier down in Eastar.”

Arioch shrugged. That would take some explaining.

Rometh chuckled. “Got the jitters, eh? Don’t worry. Woman folk make things a heap easier. I take it that’s why you want the shaman?”

He nodded. Rometh gestured toward the center of town. “If you head to the middle, there’s the well and all. Go left from there until you see the only hut with Derk-ra crests hanging by the door. That’s him. Dirkan is his name.”


“Pleasure. Be back in a point or so and I’ll have Ambris fixed up for you.”

Arioch stepped away, but stopped short at Rometh’s call. “Once you two get settled, you should come over sometime. Talena would love to meet you, I’m sure.” Rometh chuckled, “And her sweet cakes are worth the entire trip, I assure you.”

Arioch smiled. “I’ll tell Athelia.”

“Good. Take care.”

Arioch left the blacksmith behind. The shaman proved to be an easy matter. A jingle of coins, mention of a private joining, and they had a date set. The most dreaded part of his visit was all that remained. The lord’s manor was even easier to find than the shaman’s hut.

He stood at the entrance warily. It rose before him like a menacing giant. A long great hall, surrounded by outlying roundhouses, though smaller than the homes in the village. A lone sentry at the door checked his approach, barring his way with a lance. After exchanging curt questions, and even sharper replies, the man retreated inside. He returned and gestured for Arioch to follow him.

They stepped through the wide hall. That he had to leave his sword behind irked him more than he cared to admit. His feet rapped against the stone, no matter how softly he walked. Tapestries on either side, framed by lunes, displayed the lord’s family line. The lunes themselves advertised his wealth. Few could afford the glass spheres The Guild fashioned the lunes, placing a light within the transparent globes. Arioch could not fathom how that was managed, but knew it to be true. Endry had kept several scattered throughout his chambers.

The hall ended in a broader room. A slightly raised dais had a plain chair resting atop it. The lord was waiting for him there. Arioch dropped to one knee, head down. He sneaked a peek at the lord from his position. The man stepped toward him slowly.

Lord Akbar proved to be slender where his wife was portly. His sallow, drawn features compounded with his thin nature to give him a sickly appearance. His fine clothing was the hue of a faded rose, gilded with golden embroidery.

He fingered a ruffle at his sleeve, sniffing as if about to sneeze, before stopping a few feet in front of Arioch. “Well? What do you want?”

The squeaking tone in Lord Akbar’s voice made him wince, but he held his temper in check. “To swear fealty to the Lord Akbar of Barea.”

“Ah, I see. Well, swear.”

“I usually swear on my sword...sire.” The last had to be forced out.

Lord Akbar snorted. A heavily-adorned dagger, useless as a weapon, clattered on the ground. “Go on.”

Arioch picked it up, turning it pommel out, and recited the oath without feeling. The Lord replied in the same bored monotone. As Arioch rose from his stance, however, Lord Akbar fidgeted. “Now then, Arioch you say? What is this about you and Athelia?”

“She is my betrothed, milord.” Arioch resisted a sigh. Lady Madine must have told him. “My time did not end until recently. I came to claim her as soon as I was able.”

“Yes, well, she never even mentioned you.”

“We thought it best.”


“Aye.” Arioch would not be prodded into explaining the situation.

Akbar nodded. The gesture resembled the bobbing head of a crane. Arioch looked away to hide his dislike. “May I depart, sire? I have work to find.”

“Yes, yes. Go on. Just curious.”

Arioch left the manor house at the fastest pace he could without offending. There had been a definite point to those questions. Why should the lord care about the marriage of a commoner? It didn’t make sense. He’d have to ask Athelia about it later.

Arioch paused. Then again, maybe not. He would wait for now, bide his time and see what he could puzzle out on his own.

When he returned to the blacksmith’s shop, Rometh met him, rubbing at his ash-streaked hands with a cloth. “How did your ordeal with Lord Akbar go?”

“He seemed...curious on my relationship with Athelia. I can’t fathom why.”

Rometh shrugged. Was that a true reaction, or just reticence to share with a stranger? Arioch studied him closely, but couldn’t tell. “Is Ambris ready?”

The blacksmith grinned. “Right as rain. He pranced about when I put him in the pasture. Must feel lighter on his feet now.”

“The pasture?”

“Lord Akbar’s messenger stables are next door. They don’t mind sharing the pasture with my customer’s horses. And I give them a good price when I shoe their horses. Poor things get ridden much too hard.”

Arioch smiled. “And the messengers?”

“Yeah, them too.”

Arioch wanted to chuckle, but he chose not to. “Do you know a place that might need extra help?”

Rometh cocked his head. “What can you do?”

Swing a sword, trample an enemy, lead men to their...
He cut that line of thought short. “I’m not weak.”

“You’re not strong either.”

Arioch scowled. Rometh shook his head. “I have eyes. You were ill not too long ago.”

He started. “Where did you get an idea like that?”

The blacksmith smiled. “That horse proves you are a soldier, but if you served until now, your skin would be darker. You don’t strike me as a deserter. Ya must have been wounded or ill before.”

He shrugged. “Perhaps.” Rometh was uncomfortably close to the mark. “You haven’t answered my question.”

“And you haven’t answered mine, but a man is entitled to be left alone. Ya might try the Healer.”


“He needs someone to run errands, hold people steady sometimes, and...I assume you read?”

Arioch nodded.

“Good. Leslan will like that. I’d give it a try.”

“Thank you, Rometh.”

“Thank me by taking care of ‘Thelia, you hear?”

“Of course.” Arioch left before Rometh could question him further.