Wow, it's been a long while since I posted on this thing. I knew it had been a good month but...wow. 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.”
“He’s dead. Hybrid.”
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.”
“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?”
“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.