*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.
“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?”
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”.
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 the...you’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.