Desert Travelers VI

continued from here


 

In the end, Miriam took two women with her when she left Prince Raymo’s castle. The prince was unfortunately, regretfully, unable to provide her with any additional mounts, he apologized, but he was generously able to share some supplies. Since neither of the slaves looked particularly strong or healthy, she had them ride whilst she led the bird through the dunes. It was slow going, as expected.

Hareshi was a thin girl with dark hair that hung long over her eyes which were a similar dark shade. She seemed to Miriam to be meek and terrified of her own shadow, and wondered what she had done to warrant mistreatment, as none of Raymo’s other slaves appeared to be in the slightest bit malnourished or injured. The second, Mireko, showed no immediate signs of injury.

They departed the castle in mid-morning, once Miriam was certain they were adequately prepared for the journey. Her passengers initially were wary of riding while she walked, but obedience won out in the end, and they climbed hesitantly aboard the bird.

Miriam spoke little to her companions as they walked, focusing her mind on any potential dangers that might be about. Sandstorms had troubled her little while she traveled alone, thankfully, but she knew the warning signs from her time with the caravan.

They stopped at mid-day, at no particular place. Miriam suddenly felt as though her feet would not take another step, and the bird was seemed quite agreeable about resting. She helped her companions down, then unfolded a blanket suitable for seating and spread it on the ground. “Sit,” she commanded, and they both did.

The meal was simple travel food, some dried meat, a bit of bread and cheese, and some water. Both Hareshi and Mireko stared at it, wide-eyed, until Miriam confirmed that they were, indeed, permitted to eat it. Even then, they hesitated briefly, biting into the bread slowly, afraid she might change her mind.

Once all the Tauese slaves returned to the Kingdom of Tau, they’d be set free, to do whatever they might please. Ideally, to return to their homes. To say such a thing to Raymo, the other princes, or even to the Holy Sultan, would end their willing cooperation. Not even the slaves were told that they’d soon no longer be slaves.

“Did you say you were born near the ocean, Mireko?” she asked, attempting to begin casual conversation. Neither slave would speak unless first spoken to, although Miriam vaguely suspected they might whisper to one another while they rode. Hareshi had little memory of her past, but Mireko seemed to recall it quite easily. Another mystery.

“Yes, my lady,” Mireko replied. “In a village near Shintau. My mother was his lordship’s maid, and my father one of his farmers.” She paused suddenly, as though afraid she had spoken too much.

“I know Shintau,” Miriam said, conversationally. She knew it well. Her sister had married a nobleman from the coast, and would likely be Lady of Shintau one day. She had spent a beautiful summer there, before she herself had been wed.

“I…I don’t remember a lot of it,” Mireko admitted, quietly.

“What do you remember?”

“The smell of the salty ocean,” she answered after a moment of thought. “The cry of the gulls, and the soft, hot sand. Not like this sand. Different.”

“Have you ever seen the ocean, Hareshi?” Miriam asked, and though she spoke gently, the young woman seemed surprised by the question.

“I…I don’t know…,” she said quietly, and then frowned in thought. “Well…maybe.” She paused, and then added on, “my lady,” at the end.

The sun was high in the sky, the temperature soaring. Miriam finished off her stick of dried meat and drank a gulp of cold water. “We will rest now,” she told the girls, “and continue once the sun has set. I must send a message.”

 

***

 

They waited a day, and then another, and on the third day, Theodore rode into camp. Ted had a young boy, not yet in his teens, in the saddle behind him, holding on for dear life. Danu was tending to princely duties, but Marcus watched him ride up and waved a hand in greeting. Ted halted in the center of camp and dismounted.

As he had no wife, Ted had not bothered with bringing servants or attendants on the journey, and he was thus easily able to dart off on smaller journeys. His mother was distantly related to the Desert people, somewhere that Marcus was never clear on, and so he was fairer of hair and skin than most of the Tauese people, making him a magnet for many young ladies, although he had no current favorites. He grinned at Marcus as he approached, and turned to coax his companion down from the bird.

The boy was thin and dark haired, with wide eyes that peered out at them all with a sense of wonder and astonishment. He wore a thin silver collar around his throat, identifying him immediately as a stolen slave.

“Oh, it’s great to be among friendly faces again,” Ted said as he greeted Marcus, shaking his hand vigorously and briefly embracing him. “Please tell me you’re not planning to pull up camp in the next hour; I could use a rest.”

Marcus shook his head, finally pulling his arm away. “No, we’re here a few days more, I think. Waiting my lady’s return.” He glanced meaningfully toward the boy.

“She’s not back yet?” Ted asked, missing the unspoken question. “Is everything all right?”

“She sent me a message that she will arrive soon,” Marcus answered, “and she has a companion or two. As do you, I see.”

“Oh, right,” Ted said, and put an arm on the boy’s shoulder. “Do you think his highness is free? I’d like to get the ceremonial part taken care of quickly.” He said ‘his highness’ with a grin so contagiously mischievous that Marcus found himself grinning back.

“Let’s find out.”

Danu was not free, he was rarely free these days, but he was happy to interrupt his meeting with the Desert Lords who accompanied them all. Marcus had never managed to remember any of their names, and considered himself lucky to avoid them as much as possible. Danu would have been pleased to dispense with all the formality, but if he was going to call himself a prince, the Desert Men expected formality and ceremony, even in a camp, and so they all persisted with ceremony.

Even though the heat was high enough to boil one’s blood in one’s own body, Marcus was thankfully already dressed in a relatively formal outfit, with a jacket of all things over top his long sleeved shirt, which had the advantage of hiding all his sweat stains at least. He took his place near the ornate chair they’d dragged across the desert to serve as Danu’s throne, and watched as Ted and the small boy he’d brought with him made their way into the tent.

“Your highness,” Ted said with a gracious bow, sinking to one knee as though he was within an ornate palace rather than a canvas tent in the desert. He drew his sword and held it out. “I am at your service.”

Danu had an expression partway between amused and bored. “Welcome back, Theodore of Yantau. We are…pleased to see you returned without injury.” He paused. “You are without injury, yes?”

“Indeed, your highness!” Ted replied, dramatically, as though gravely insulted. “Nary a scratch upon myself – or my charge, either. If I may?”

“You may,” Danu allowed, for he had also not failed to notice the boy, who was meekly kneeling beside Ted. “Who do you bring us?”

“Your highness, I bring this boy from the palace of Prince Aram. He was a bit reluctant to give him up, but, as he is clearly Tauese, the Holy Sultan’s paperwork convinced him.” He patted the boy on the back; the boy nearly fell over from the force of it. “Tell his highness your name.”

“Ben, master,” the boy mumbled quietly.

“From where do you come, Ben?” Danu questioned, his voice lowered to conversational levels.

“This one was born in Jantau, near the forests, master,” the boy replied.

The tent was filled with quiet whispers amongst the Tauese. Ted smirked. Marcus heard his heart beating in his ears. Danu himself seemed stunned, almost pale. He recovered quickly, before the Desert Men could notice.

“A splendid place,” he said instead, and set his eyes on Ted. “Has he been harmed?”

“No more than any other, your highness,” Ted replied, his voice now appropriately serious rather than dramatically flamboyant. “We had a somewhat treacherous journey, but we both survived with nary a scratch, as I said.” He paused briefly, and then continued. “I should gladly continue to oversee his well-being, if you would allow it.”

“So be it,” he agreed.

With the ceremony completed, they left Danu to his meeting with the Desert Men and returned to the camp’s open space. “Let me help you get set up,” Marcus offered. “I’ve got a handful of servants with nothing to do since Miriam’s been away. You both probably want a bath, and help putting up a tent.”

“How long as she been gone?” Ted asked, concerned filling his face.

“A few weeks. She returns soon; until she does, we are staying here. I’ll tell you more later, when we have some privacy,” Marcus answered in a low voice. “In the meantime, I’ve got four servants and you’ve got none, so you might as well have some help.”
They’d been walking, and now approached his tent, where he found, as expected, that neither of his male servants were presently occupied. With little difficulty, he persuaded them to help in setting up Ted’s tent, and preparing a bath for each of them. With slightly more difficulty, they urged Ben toward the bucket of water, promising not to harm him.

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Desert Travelers V

continued from here


The sandstorm ended late in the afternoon. As he left Danu’s tent to return to his own, Marcus saw the desert sunset begin to paint the sky a multitude of colors. Around him, the others were digging out of their tents, checking on their animals and making ready for the night. Having been delayed for two days, some might wish to begin travelling at once, but the damage would have to be assessed before Danu would make a decision.

At his own tent, Marcus found all the servants well. The women were already beginning to prepare the evening meal, while the men checked on the supplies and animals.

“Will you dine here tonight, milord?” the maid called Emmaline asked after he had confirmed their health. They were stirring some concoction he could not easily identify over the fire outside the tent. It smelled delicious.

Danu had seemed pleased to dismiss him and not ordered his return, so Marcus felt safe in replying in the affirmative. “I think I’ll wash up and change clothes,” he added. “Could you ask Tim to bring me some water?”

“Yes milord, I’ll tell him now,” she said, passing the spoon to the second maid, named Anna.

His clothes being the same ones he’d slept in the night before, Marcus was glad to be rid of them, and disrobed immediately upon entering his tent. He shook them heartily to dislodge most of the sand, and then, when Tim entered the tent with a bucket of water, passed them on. “I don’t know yet if we’re going to be staying a day, but these could use a washing,” he said. “Put them wherever it is they need to go.”

“Yes milord,” Tim answered, exchanging the bucket for the laundry. “Do you want more water?”

“No, this will be good enough for now,” he answered. “There isn’t time for a full bath, just a washing up and a rest before dinner. Come and fetch me when they say it’s ready.”

Orders received, Tim bowed and left the tent. Marcus turned his attention to the bucket he carried. The water was warm, not from being heated but from sitting in the hot desert suns, even encased in barrels. He found some soap and contented himself with washing his face and hands, and then combed out his hair. It was long, grown past his ears, but he had neither the skill nor patience to give himself a haircut, and so left it alone for now. He changed into a relatively clean pair of breeches and tunic and decided to rest until dinner.

His own tent was much more sparsely furnished than Danu’s, with only a mattress on the floor for sleeping and a few pillows instead of a luxurious pile of cushions. He had his trunk, but it was filled with clothing and a few other items rather than expensive, well packaged wines. The mattress was easily large enough for two people, for his lady most often shared his tent when they were together; alone he could easily lie flat on his back and spread his limbs wide, which he did now.

“Ah, Miriam,” he mumbled aloud, for his mind had travelled to her. “I hope you know how to stay safe in sandstorms.” He shut his eyes, let his mind wander, listened to the silence now that the wind had faded, and began to drift into sleep.

He saw a castle, a massively large building in the midst of the desert. He saw a lady, dressed simply in a gown made of linen, perfect for traveling, a silken scarf wrapped over her head to protect her from the sun. She walked through sands – calm sands – leading a tall bird behind her. On the back of the bird rode two young females – he couldn’t tell if they were children or adults – dressed in plain linen shifts, with linen wrapped over their faces. His mind’s eye went to the woman’s face and saw that it was, indeed, Miriam. Her eyes bore into his mental vision, her expression determined and somewhat angry. He could guess why. If she had rescued slaves, she was most likely angry about their mistreatment. Her determination was an attempt to determine his location.

He opened his mind to her, let her sense him. And she opened her mind to him, and, although he had no map of the Desert and little knowledge of the territory, he knew now where she was, and how long it would take her to travel to him.

And he knew something else.

He awoke when Tim returned, gently shaking him to wake him. He sat upright at once, sweating in the heat.

“Are you well, milord?” Tim asked, worry in his voice.

“Yes,” Marcus said at once, although he did not feel well. “Is supper ready?”

“Aye,” Tim replied, “that’s why I’ve come to wake you.”

“Tell them to hold it,” he said, scrambling to his feet. “I need to see his highness first. We need to stay here a few more days.”

Desert Travelers IV

continued from here


 

As had been promised, Miriam found herself in the castle’s great hall once more at mid-morning. The tables had been taken away, making the huge space feel even more spacious than it had at supper the night before. Raymo sat in an ornate chair, dressed in luxuriously fine silk clothes – loose fitting trousers and billowing shirt, a cape draped over one shoulder. He was surrounded by a small group of servants and clerics.

“We have spent some time going over our records in an attempt to identify our slaves’ origins, but to little avail, I’m afraid. Most were purchased via markets, and the traders who sold them to us were not adept at keeping records themselves.” He shrugged briefly before continuing.

“The Holy Sultan’s Parchment commands us to allow you to question each individually, in your own tongue. Have at it, my lady.” He gestured to the two dozen slaves assembled before them, standing in lines.

Miriam cast her eyes over the crowd, mind drifting as Prince Raymo droned on about who had been most beloved and he would be sorry to lose. Each of the slaves had hair a shade darker than the fairness of the natives. Surely at least some of them were of her own people.

The Prince had seemed to stop talking, and so Miriam began her speech in her own language, hoping at least some of them might understand her words.

“Good morning,” she greeted. “I am Miriam, daughter of the sky, child of Lord of Mintau, emissary of the King of Tau. His majesty has commanded that his people be returned to him, his people who were taken against their will, against his will, to be slaves in these Desert Lands. The Holy Sultan, as he is called, has agreed to these terms. All those who can be proven to be Tauese shall be returned to the homelands. I, as his emissary, shall carry out this order.”

Introductions over, she moved on to the slave standing nearest her. “Where were you born?” she asked in her own tongue, and, when he showed no sign of comprehension, repeated it in the Desert language.

“In the castle, milady,” he replied with some confusion, her speech undoubtedly incomprehensible to him and so he had no idea why he was being questioned. Disappointed, Miriam dismissed him. In a similar manner, she dispensed with half the line, none of them understanding her language or providing a satisfactory answer. She pushed aside her feelings of panic and concern, choosing instead to retain the appearance of calm, even if she did not feel it.

At last, she came to a woman, thin and dressed in threadbare clothing. Unlike most of the others, she showed more immediate signs of mistreatment – a recently formed bruise on her cheek, a few scratches on her bare arms.

“I don’t remember,” she answered, quietly, but in the tongue Miriam had been hoping for. As though terrified, the young woman seemed to shrink behind her dark hair, which fell limply into her face. “I’m sorry.”

“How long have you been here?” Miriam asked, somehow managing to sound both calm and reassuring despite her pounding heartbeat.

The woman was surprised to be asked a second question, for none of the others had been. She raised her eyes from the floor for the first time, and blinked a few times. “Um…a few months, I suppose. Maybe six?”

Raymo had leaned forward on his throne, and the clerics, servants, and guards in the room, who had been muttering quietly amongst themselves, were suddenly dead silent and attentive. The room was quiet.

“What is your name?” Miriam asked.

The slave returned her eyes to the floor. “Hareshi,” she said quietly. “They call this one Hareshi.”

Simultaneously, Miriam felt her heart sink, her blood boil, and a queer sense of success. Hareshi was the Desert word for ‘eight.’ It was not a name, but a number.

Desert Travelers III

continued from here


A restless night passed in the tent, Marcus sleeping little despite Danu’s comfortable cushions. He fell asleep shortly before morning, and woke to the sound of the howling winds beyond the tent.

Danu had slept peacefully, thanks to the excess of wine before bed. He had been drinking more often since the trip began, Marcus knew. He also knew that, without the wine, he would sleep far less, so he said nothing in protest. To be apart from Miriam these past few weeks, knowing she was likely safe, was difficult enough. He preferred not to think of his friend’s troubles, which were far worse.

“It seems the storm still rages,” Danu said in lieu of morning greetings. He had fixed a pot of tea over the small brazier, and now held out a steaming mug. “Seems it may be a serious one.”

Marcus took the mug, inhaled the sweet vapors. “Indeed so, your highness,” he replied with exaggerated formality. He looked down at the mug. “You should have woken me.”

Danu frowned, swallowing the last of his own tea in a single gulp. “Do you think these winds blow strongly enough?” he asked.

Marcus shrugged, sipped the hot tea, ran a hand through his hair. “Did you send the guards away?”

“To their own tents,” was the answer. “They did not protest. If they’d remained, they would be neck deep in the sand, would they not.”

Marcus sighed deeply and set his mug on the floor beside his seat. “I shall check,” he offered, and reached inside his tunic to touch the crystal he wore on a leather cord around his neck.

His awareness expanded to include more than his own body. He felt the prince’s presence, a short distance away from his own. He felt the faint hints of protective magic on various objects within the tent, and on the tent itself. Although not possessing any magical ability himself, Danu had been gifted with a great deal of protective magic before embarking on this journey.

Beyond the tent, there was a space free of both magic and life before other tents appeared. The storm, though vicious, was indeed not magically created, only a terrifyingly destructive force of nature. With patience and detail, Marcus examined the camp. Life forms were huddled within tents, wisely taking shelter. He sensed no one near enough to eavesdrop.

He returned his awareness to his own body, and then sat with his eyes shut for a moment more, using only his ordinary, earthly senses. He felt the soft cushions beneath him, smelled the steam floating up from the tea, felt his heart beating in his chest. At last, he opened his eyes to the sight of Danu, studying him with mild concern, which he was attempting to hide.

“You didn’t have to do that,” he said, worry in his voice that he tried to disguise with rebuke.

“Forgive my not asking permission, your highness,” Marcus replied. He lifted his tea, and sipped it calmly. The hot beverage entered his body and warmed him. “We are quite alone.”

It seemed as though a weight lifted from his shoulders, so dramatically did Danu sigh with relief. “I therefore hereby order you to refrain from any further ‘your highness’!” he said then.

Marcus allowed himself a small smirk. “I’d have thought you would be used to it by now.”

“Never!” was the vehement reply. He poured himself another mug of tea. “I sometimes think I should rather be a street urchin than a prince. It was only ever Hareah who convinced me otherwise, who made nobility bearable.” He paused to drink.

Marcus said nothing, only sipped his own tea.

“Anyway,” Danu went on, “I meant to discuss your lady, not mine.”

“I admit to some concern,” Marcus answered, at last lowering his mug, “but Miriam can take care of herself quite well.”

“Oh, I know,” Danu assured him. He sighed. “Some days it feels as though the world and all those in it are drifting farther and farther away from me.” He paused to sip his tea, then settled into the cushions. “Three weeks into this wretched wasteland of a country, and I still don’t know why anyone would choose to be here. Slavers, thieves – why do they return with what they steal from us, instead of staying away?”

“I imagine they are rewarded for it,” Marcus answered. “They may have families here, or lovers.”

The answer seemed to satisfy Danu, at least for the moment. They listened to the winds blow, saying nothing for some time. “I wonder how long this storm will last.”

Desert Travelers II

continued from here.


The castle was so large that it was visible from a day’s journey away, acting as a beacon for the weary traveler.

“Indeed,” Miriam commented to the bird she rode, quite aware that it was not likely to answer her. “Indeed I may be crazy. The trail grows fainter by the day. But this may still lead me to the princess.”

She climbed aboard the bird and began her journey, moving closer and closer to the castle. Briefly, critically, she glanced down at herself. In no shape to see a princess, nor even to be in polite company. How her mother would scold! Knee-high leather boots, in the style of a man. A single skirt, with neither petticoats nor corsetry. A nearly threadbare, now sand-covered tunic. Her hair a mess, sitting astride this bird-mount, also covered in sand. Not ladylike at all. Her mother would never have understood, but the princess might. If she was here.

The servant-slaves (they wore metal collars, so she knew they were not in bondage willingly), gaped at her with wide-eyes, though they dared not speak. Or perhaps they were not able. The Sultan’s paper was enough to persuade them, for even if they could not read, they might recognize the seal upon it.

Miriam’s understanding of the local dialect was improving, but still imperfect. She’d declined the offer of a translator for this solo excursion, just as she’d declined any companions of any sort. The men who greeted her with low bows managed to convince her that they would inform the castle’s ruler – she was fairly certain that ‘Prince’ was his title – of her presence. They directed her toward some female slave-servants dressed in barely more than their collars.

The girls – they were scarcely old enough to be called women – led her to a spacious chamber made of stone, with a bath cut out of the floor, lined with colored tiles. Already it had been filled with hot water. Their eyes widened as she undressed, eyeing the mage’s tattoo between her breasts. Miriam was not sure if they knew what it meant or they were merely fascinated by its presence.

They had brought her baggage, and so after she had bathed and one of the girls brushed out her long hair, Miriam was happy to change clothing and leave her dusty travelling clothes to be washed. She had packed a single corset, but no petticoats (it was too bloody hot for them anyway, she thought), and with the help of the girls, wore this under her dress. She often attempted to convey both highborn lady and powerful mage in the same dress, and for this one, a dark blue gown of silk, arcane symbols were embroidered on the bodice and hems. For her own countrymen, this would have been enough, but here, she was not sure if she would present as anything other than exotic foreigner. That might be good enough, however.

Soon after, the female slaves left, and were almost immediately replaced with a well-dressed male servant. He addressed her as “Madam,” a generic respectable title as he naturally did not know her pedigree, titles, or marital status, and spoke in her own tongue, so heavily accented she could barely understand him and might have preferred he spoke his own. He informed her that the Prince would welcome her presence at…some sort of meal, perhaps? She was not clear.

For politeness’ sake, Miriam nodded as though she understood the offer, and then followed the man through cool and dark cold corridors for some time before emerging into a large open hall. Tables were set up in a horseshoe shape around the edge of the room, and at the center sat an ornately dressed man in an ornate chair she presumed to be the Prince in question.

As she followed her guide down the hall, Miriam let her magical senses wander and explore the space. Undoubtedly, the Prince employed mages of some sort, and she faintly sensed their presence as well as ancient spells of protection on the building itself. She frowned thoughtfully, wondering if the mages’ auras were so faint because they were not very strong, or because they were hiding themselves and their power.

The Prince was fair-haired, like most of his people, his hair so fair as to be nearly white, and his eyes a deep green. Most of the people at his table had similar coloring, although some of the servants were darker. Miriam knew that her own dark blue eyes and darker hair would mark her as exotic enough, even if her dress had been plain.

At last she reached his table, and, remembering etiquette lessons of many months prior when she had entered the desert nation, did not curtsy or kneel as her own customs and princes might demand, but bowed low, extending her right arm as she did so. She remained in this bent position for the requisite amount of time and then rose slowly to find the Prince’s green eyes peering at her with some curiosity.

The Prince spoke in his own tongue, but slowly, so that she might easily understand him. “Welcome to my hall, Lady Traveller.”

With the same formal words, she answered. “I am called Miriam, your highness. Thank you for seeing me.”

“I am called Raymo,” the Prince replied, for now that she had given her name, he must give his own. “Twelfth son of the twelfth son of the Fourteenth Holy Sultan.” There was only mild pride as he recited this title. He held up the parchment she had brought. “Said Sultan’s words are not easily ignored.”

The servant who had led her to the hall stepped forward to retrieve the paper and return it to Miriam, who slipped it into a pocket of her skirt. “I hope you might be of assistance, your highness. My King,” and for ‘king’ she needed to use her own tongue, as there was no equivalent here, “is anxious that his people might be returned to their homeland.”

“A long journey, is it not?”

“Indeed, your highness. I travel alone presently, but I will rejoin my own prince and his caravan. They will, I assure you, provide adequate security on the journey.”

Prince Raymo appeared thoughtful for a moment, and then gestured with one hand toward the tables. “I will assemble them all for your inspection on the morrow. For now, please do join our meal.”

She bowed her thanks, and followed her guide to a seat at the far end of the prince’s table. She found herself seated beside an elderly white-haired gentleman who introduced himself as Torim, and called himself an adviser to Prince Raymo.

“I once traveled across the desert in my youth to visit the Borderlands,” he remarked as the soup, a clear broth with vegetables and mutton, was served. “I learned a bit of your language then, but I’m afraid it has since mostly been forgotten.”

“I suppose you have little chance to practice it here,” she replied politely, and sipped at the soup. It had a good flavor; clearly Prince Raymo did not lack spices.

“None at all,” Torim replied with a chuckle as he sipped his own soup. “All I remember is ‘how do you do.’”

His accent was not horrible, Miriam reflected, although the phrase itself was old fashioned. She smiled at him, and contented herself with bland but genial conversation for the rest of the evening.

Desert Travelers I

[This has nothing to do with anything else I’ve ever posted.]

The caravan was moving slowly over the arid plains, a gentle breeze scattering the sandy soil. Lost in his own thoughts, Marcus at first did not notice the boy making his way toward him, opposite the flow of traffic. He pushed back the hood of his cloak when he recognized the boy as one of Danu’s more trusted servants. Sam, he was called, and his presence needed no words – he would not have come save on an errand from the prince. Marcus raised a questioning eyebrow; the boy nodded, inclining his head slightly in the direction he had come. Digging his heels in, Marcus urged his mount forward.

Although he certainly could have ridden in a carriage, and it might have been wise to do so, Danu rode a bird as the rest of them did. With great reluctance, he had consented to the crowd of bodyguards insisting on his protection. They admitted Marcus into the circle without question, and kept a respectable distance to allow for somewhat private conversation. As Marcus approached, the wind gusted, and Danu, a thoughtful frown on his face, dispensed with pleasantries and asked directly the question for which he had summoned his friend, “Is this wind your lady’s doing?”

Miriam could, and sometimes did communicate via magical winds, but Marcus had not considered this possibility. He shut his eyes for a moment, feeling the warm breeze, as the birds lumbered slowly onward. The breeze, like the air, was hot, but it lacked the spark of magic the lady in question would have imbued it with had it been her doing. Occasionally, the magic was well hidden, but it would have made itself known with his own searching. After a few moments, he opened his eyes and shook his head.

“It is not,” he reported. A sudden, stronger gust punctuated this statement. “There is no magic in this.” In a lower tone, he added, “You may wish to consider making camp and preparing for a storm, your highness.”

Danu frowned, both at the honorific and the knowledge, and then nodded. “Better safe than sorry,” he agreed, and waved a hand. One of his bodyguards, seeing the gesture, began to spread the word, and a short while later the horns were blowing, signaling the caravan to halt. Danu pulled his mount to a halt, and the others followed his lead. Within moments, servants and guards alike were rushing forward to help him dismount.

“When you are settled and secure, come to me,” he said to Marcus by way of dismissal, and turned to tend to other matters. Marcus nodded his agreement, and turned his mount.

Although Miriam had departed, she had left behind their servants and most of her luggage, choosing to travel alone and unencumbered by additional baggage or companions. Now in his household he had her two maids, another manservant, and the boy who drove their wagon. He returned to this wagon to see that preparations were already underway. The boy and the man were driving stakes in the ground to keep their tent secure while the girls were securing the birds and the wagon as best they could. This would not be their first sandstorm – previous ones had taught them well how to prepare quickly. Marcus did what he could to help, as quickly as he was able, and then ordered them all into the tent with their provisions.

“I will be with his highness,” he informed them. “Stay within until the all clear sounds.” They were happy to follow this advice. Amidst the swirling sands, Marcus ran through the camp and then quickly passed through the flaps into Danu’s tent without waiting for permission.

A strong gust of wind chose that moment to slam into the tent, rattling a few of the glasses and sending a few grains of sand dancing over the carpet at his feet.

“I thought you wouldn’t make it,” the unlikely prince commented. He had removed a glass and a bottle from a well-insulated trunk, and was pouring himself some wine. “Care for a drink?”

Having securely tied the tent flaps shut, Marcus nodded, taking a deep breath to calm himself. He brushed the sand from his breeches, tunic, and jerkin, and rubbed his hair with his fingers. “Seems this may be a long storm,” he commented, removing his cloak and setting it aside. The wind again battered the canvas walls. He cast his eyes over the tent. “Alone, your highness?”

Danu frowned as he handed over the glass of wine. “Precious commodity when one is considered royalty,” he noted, and then sat down amongst the pillows beside the trunk, waving his arm for Marcus to join him. “I should gladly give it up – everything about it, and take on whatever I needed to – if it meant she was safe again.” He took a gulp of wine.

“I know,” Marcus replied unnecessarily. He sat, sipped from his own glass.

“Do you – have you heard at all from Miriam, since she left?”

He considered. “Not often,” was the answer. “I suspect her ladyship is busy.” He paused to drink before elaborating. “No concrete messages, really, only a sense of general well being and vague location, often in a dream, or when I am near to sleep, or just waking up. The last one was nearly a week ago. She travels south, as she said she would. I do not know if she has met with success or failure.”

“But you know she’s alive.”

The words were not spoken with reproach, or anger, yet Marcus sensed both within them. He studied the carpet at his feet, and when he looked up at last he saw that Danu was filling his wine glass again.

Gran’s Explanation

Please read Cassie’s First Kill first. This will make way more sense if you do.

II

“Well,” Gran said, stepping over the pile of neon-green blood that was oozing out of the monster’s body. “Not bad.”

Cassie was breathing heavily, struggling to calm herself. “What was that?” she demanded. “What did I just kill?”

They met in the middle of the street, the body of the dead monster between them. Gran had picked up the dagger that had fallen into the street, and was wiping the blood and skin on the side of her nightgown.

“That is a monster,” Gran replied, “from ancient times, hell-bent on chaos and destruction. Nobody knows, or maybe nobody remembers where they came from.” She paused now to scratch her head thoughtfully.

This was a simplistic non-answer as far as Cassie was concerned. She blinked dumbly at her grandmother and tried again. “Why is everyone else in the city asleep? Other than because it’s three in the morning.”

Before Gran could answer, a crowd of small creatures appeared from across the street, emerging from the relative darkness of the night. They looked mostly human, with each wearing an identical orange jumpsuit and carrying a small bucket, but they were only about three feet high at the most, and they had purple skin. One of them was wearing a cap, sort of like a squashed baseball cap, and he broke off from the group and came over to salute.

“I’d like the daggers back, if you don’t mind,” Gran said, bypassing any other form of greeting or explanation.

The little man nodded, and turned his eyes, which were the same color orange has his jumpsuit, toward Cassie. He said nothing, but his expression was curious, and his stare made her feel oddly.

“My granddaughter,” Gran explained, to which the man nodded again. He straightened up and saluted, this time directing the gesture toward Cassie, and then, before she could respond, he turned away to rejoin his companions.

“Okay,” Cassie said when he was out of what she presumed was hearing range, although perhaps the creatures had better hearing than humans. “Now I’m really confused.”

She was about to say more, but at that moment her body chose to remind her that it was probably closer to four than three in the morning, and she interrupted herself with a yawn.

“Also really tired,” Gran said with a nod. “Let’s get home, and I’ll explain things after we’ve both had some sleep.”

*

 

It was nearly ten thirty when Cassie awoke, glad that it was Saturday and that she had neither work nor classes to attend. For a few minutes, she thought everything must be normal. Buttons was curled up at the foot of her bed, and lifted his eyes only briefly to see her.

She rubbed her eyes to clear away the sleep, and her hands smelled like the most disgusting thing she had ever smelled in her life. How had she…?

And then she remembered.

There had been a giant green monster.

The smell had been everywhere.

She’d killed it. She looked at her hands and remembered what it had felt like to hold the leather-wrapped handle of a small dagger, to throw the missile toward a target, and destroy it with that action.

What was it?

She needed a shower. Even though she hadn’t touched the monster, the smell seemed to stick with her. Grabbing shorts and a t-shirt, she slipped across the hall to the bathroom and turned the hot water on, full blast. She scrubbed herself with three different kinds of flowery, girly soap and washed her hair twice. Finally, the scent seemed to be a memory rather than a reality.

Ma was in the kitchen, folding laundry. She’d been up and to the Laundromat already, because she was an early bird and Cassie had slept so late. Gran was nowhere to be found.

“Well,” Ma said. “Slept late today, huh?”

Cassie shrugged as she rummaged through the fridge, hoping something amazingly delicious would emerge and demand to be eaten. No such luck.

“I had trouble sleeping,” she said vaguely. Ma hadn’t been awake last night. Did that mean she didn’t know about the monsters? Gran hadn’t explained that, either.

Figuring she was stuck with cereal, she took out a carton of milk and stared at the cereal cabinet for a few minutes before deciding on a brand. “Where’s Gran?”

“She said she had an errand to run,” Ma answered. She placed the latest folded towel neatly atop the pile of towels. “Wouldn’t tell me where.”

Cassie poured the cereal and the milk, the sound of which brought the cat, as expected. Buttons sat at her feet, occasionally meowing in hopes of a treat. She was silent for a while as she ate, only half-listening to Ma talk about her plans for the day. When she was finished, she poured the last of the milk into the sink and rinsed out the bowl.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Ma said as Cassie turned to head back to her bedroom. “Gran left a note for you. She said it was ‘top secret’ and wouldn’t let me open it.” She frowned. “I’m hope the two of you aren’t getting into trouble.”

“What trouble would Gran get into?” Carrie asked innocently. She took the envelope Ma held out. It was sealed.

Ma didn’t answer, but was frowning disapprovingly. Doing her best to act nonchalantly, Cassie opened the envelope.

Inside were several folded up copies of city bus schedules. A few stops were highlighted in yellow and circled in red, and on the back of the last one, Gran had written ‘Meet me!’ with the same red marker. It was a spot several miles and two bus routes away from the apartment.

Cassie looked up from the papers to see Ma’s curious expression. “She wants me to meet her somewhere,” she said, holding up the bus schedules. “I guess I should head out soon.”

“Weren’t you going to study today?”

“There’s always tomorrow,” she answered with a shrug. “And, maybe this thing with Gran won’t take all day.”

“What do you have to meet her somewhere else for?” Ma wondered. “You live in the same apartment.”

Cassie had no idea.

 

A good hour and a half later, she got off the bus near the edge of the city. It wasn’t quite the end of the line, but it felt like it. The neighborhood was mostly warehouses and a few offices, and since it was Saturday, pretty deserted. Cassie got off the bus by herself, and saw no other humans nearby.

For a few minutes, she stood on the corner, wondering if Gran would appear from nowhere, somehow aware of her arrival. Gran hadn’t said what time to meet, which made sense as she hadn’t known when Cassie would wake and prepare to leave, but she probably had a copy of the bus schedule, and the bus ran somewhat infrequently on the weekends.

A few cars drove past, obviously on their way to further destinations outside or inside the city limits. Cassie began to feel a bit exposed when the third car slowed as it passed her, and decided she might walk around a bit. Maybe Gran had found a bench or something to sit on.

The bus stop was in front of some sort of industrial building, long and white, only one story high. It took up the entirety of the block. For lack of any direction, Cassie began to walk down the sidewalk directly in front of it.

She wore comfortable sneakers for walking, a baseball cap to keep the hot sun out of her eyes, loose-fitting shorts, and a t-shirt. Because it felt more secure and mobile than a purse, she carried a small backpack over one shoulder. The temperature was warm, but an occasional breeze helped to make it bearable. The industrial park was basically devoid of trees or tall buildings, and the lack of shade meant that she was soon warmer than she might have been in the downtown.

In a few minutes, she reached the end of the block, and still saw no sign of Gran. She sighed heavily, and a sudden gust of wind chose that moment to cool the air. It brought along a scent, however.

It was not the same as the monster she’d felt the night before, but it was still unpleasant. Cassie felt a chill run down her spine despite the warm weather. Was it a monster? Did they come out in daylight? What was she supposed to do? Gran had taken back the daggers. What if Gran was in some sort of trouble?

She was paralyzed with fear for a few minutes, wondering if she should head home or head toward the scent, and wondering at the same time if she’d imagined it. What if it wasn’t a real smell, but a memory?

The bus heading home probably wouldn’t come by for at least another hour. Unless she wanted to walk or call a taxi, there wasn’t much chance of Cassie getting home quickly. Running away wasn’t really a viable option. And if Gran was in danger and Cassie did nothing? Ma would never forgive her. She’d never forgive herself.

Cassie blew out a breath, straightened her shoulders, and started following the scent. It seemed to be coming from behind the white building she was in front of.

She turned to face it. A driveway, leading to a rear parking lot, was to the right of the building, a few steps ahead. Cassie began to walk down the drive. The entrance to the lot was blocked by a guardhouse and a pair of gates that opened and shut for employees or visitors. On the weekend, however, the guardhouse was empty, and Cassie easily walked around them.

The smell grew stronger as she rounded the side of the building. Before her stretched a vast expanse of pavement, sectioned into parking spaces with yellow paint. Every so often, a tall streetlight promised illumination at night. There was still no sign of Gran.

She followed the smell. It grew stronger, but also seemed to change. It led her to the very far side of the parking lot, where a small grassy area gave way to the thick cover of trees. The scent grew sweeter and more pleasant. Cassie hesitated a moment, and then entered the tree-filled area. It was cooler and darker in the shade, and the sweetness of the odd smell mingled now with the smell of grass and woods.

A few steps further, and Cassie saw a small stone building amidst the trees. Not much larger than the guardhouse in the parking lot, it seemed to have no definitive purpose. There were no wires for electricity leading to the building, and it didn’t seem to have a door. Since it was unusual, and unusual things seemed to be the norm lately, Cassie walked toward it.

There was a door, on the opposite side, an old wooden thing painted white, as was the rest of the building. The roof was flat, and with odd protrusions that made Cassie think of a castle roof. There were no windows, so she could not see inside, and so, for lack of anything else to do, she knocked on the door.

 

The door creaked open, moving inward, and after a moment, Gran’s wrinkled face and bright blue eyes peered out. “Oh, there you are!” she exclaimed upon seeing Cassie. “I thought you were going to sleep all day.”

“I thought you were going to meet me at the bus stop,” Cassie replied. “What is this place? What’s going on? Are you going to explain things to me now?”

“Of course,” Gran replied, “that’s why I brought you here. Come inside already!”

Inside was small, as expected, and dimly lit. Along each of the four walls were bookshelves filled with ancient-looking tomes. In the center was an old desk that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a monastery of Bible-writing monks, with a wooden stool beside it. The only light was what appeared to be a battery powered desk lamp, aimed toward the desk for reading. Also as might be expected, it was dusty.

Cassie stared at the space, momentarily pausing in her questions. Books usually meant answers. Usually.

“You should probably read some of this stuff yourself,” Gran said once she’d shut the door again. She waved her hand to include all the books around her. “Normally, that’s how it would work. Normally. Well, in the old days, anyway. I guess things haven’t been normal for a while.” She shrugged, and waved a dismissive hand. “It’s faster if I explain the basics to you first, and you can read later.”

“Read,” Cassie echoed, mentally adding the books here to the amount of reading her classes required. “How…how long would it take to read all these? How many…?”

“I forget the number, and it’s not important,” Gran said, again waving a hand. “We’re getting off track. Let me start at the beginning.” She cleared her throat for dramatic effect. “Ever heard of the Watchers?”

“That’s a kid’s story,” Cassie remembered. “Dad used to read it to me.” Gran nodded, gesturing for her to continue, so she went on. “Something about a secret society of people who defended a city from monsters.” She paused. “You’re not telling me that’s real?”

Gran cleared her throat again. “A few hundred years ago when the city was founded, there weren’t many people here, as you can imagine. The land was filled with wild animals, and some other wild things. The animals were no big deal, they got hunted into extinction or driven away from the city, but the other wild things… well, those were harder to defeat.”

“Other wild things, like the monster last night?”

“Similar,” Gran agreed, and continued her story. “At first, the settlers were decimated. The wild things were immune to any weapons they had. Guns, in case you were wondering, don’t affect these monsters. Every night, they’d come out and kill a few dozen humans before the sun came up. They built a wall, a stone wall, around the city, and that seemed to slow the monsters, at least a little.

“It got so bad, they were thinking of giving up the settlement and moving back to a normal sort of land, and some people did, but before the rest could leave, a huge blizzard came through and made it pretty impossible to travel. The rest of the town was stuck until spring. While they were suffering through the winter, and the monster attacks, one of the settlers whose name was never written down ran into a funny little creature with purple skin who looked almost human.”

“Like the ones from last night.”

“Yep. These things don’t talk, so we don’t know what they call themselves. Some people call them goblins, or elves, or dwarves, or hobbits, but we’ve never settled on an established name. Anyway, the purple guy gave that settler a sword, and even though the settler didn’t know the first thing about fencing or anything like that, he was able to ram the blade into the monster’s face and kill it the next time one showed up.”

“They had never tried that before?” Cassie wondered.

“They had!” Gran replied, holding up a finger. “Some of the settlers were soldiers, and you know how soldiers had swords even after they invented guns, so he had a gun, and after his gun didn’t work he tried the sword. The blade just kind of bounced off the monster’s skin. This settler knew that, but the special goblin sword or whatever you want to call it, it went in.”

“So it must have been a special metal,” Cassie concluded. “Some sort of ore that the…purple men knew how to work with that the human settlers didn’t?”

Gran shrugged. “Nobody knows. They’re not giving up their secrets, and nobody knows why they decided to help us. Over the years, the cooperation between the humans and the dwarf things grew. They gave more weapons, and taught some people how to use them. Swords, daggers, scythes, all sorts of blades. Bows and arrows, you name it. Only things given to us by them were able to defeat the monsters. And for some unknown reason they’ve never explained, the goblin guys always clear away the dead monsters.”

“Do they…eat them?”

Gran shrugged again. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

Cassie took a moment to take in this information and think. “Okay. This would all sound like a crazy…children’s story, to be honest, if I hadn’t actually seen the monster yesterday.”

“Hmm,” Gran agreed. “Seeing is believing.”

“But why did I see it?” Cassie asked. “Why did most of the city sleep through that, and why didn’t I?”

“Goblin magic,” Gran said, and at Cassie’s skeptical stare, she shrugged again. “The story goes that after things had settled down in the city, people started complaining about the monster attacks. Even though they were almost always defeated, a monster would show up probably a few times a week, and it made life pretty difficult. The noise and the smell and all that would end up waking up most of the city, and having a city full of people with their sleep disrupted made things a little difficult.”

“So the purple people did magic on the humans who wanted to sleep,” Cassie concluded. “Seriously? Magic?”

“Magic, science, I don’t know how they did it, I don’t know what they did. Like I said, they’ve never explained themselves.”

“Okay, so why did I wake up last night? Did they take the…spell, or whatever off of me? Or is it some sort of inherited….” She trailed off.

“Something like that,” Gran said quietly, and pretended to be interested in some of the books on the walls.

“Dad. This is how my father died. This is why Ma doesn’t want to talk about him. This is why I never got a clear story. Dad was one of these monster fighters…wasn’t he?”

Gran sighed, climbing into the wooden stools. “The resistance to the goblin magic or whatever you want to call it seems to be inherited. The settlers who first volunteered to fight the monsters grew old and died off, but their weapons were handed down to their children, and their children’s children. All children are covered under the goblin’s magic; it’s only once they come of age that they’ll stay awake nights.”

“So Ma doesn’t know about the goblins.”

“She knows,” Gran said, “but she doesn’t want to. She’s been told the stories, of course, because sometimes your Dad wouldn’t come home after a battle right away, and there was always a risk that he wouldn’t come home at all.” She paused, silent a moment.

“She’s never seen a monster, but she knows the stories, and she knows your Dad and I were telling the truth.” After another moment of silent thought, Gran added, “Things have been quiet for many years. For a long time after you were born, there weren’t any monsters. Your parents almost forgot what it was to live that way, the same way most people forgot about the monsters. Lately, though, it seems there’s been an uptick.”

Sighing again, Gran lifted herself off the stool. “It’s not an easy burden, Cassie, and I’ll understand if you’re not interested in that sort of life. We can ask the goblins to let you sleep the way the rest of the city sleeps.”

“Who else is there?” Cassie asked. Gran looked confused, so she elaborated. “You and I can’t be the only ones in the city who don’t sleep through monster attacks. Who else is there? How many of us are there?”

Gran looked thoughtful. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “The city’s grown since its founding, not only in population but in size. We had to spread out, so to speak, and we were never that closely involved with one another anyway. I honestly don’t know if we’re alone.”

“So if I was to ask for ignorance,” she concluded, “it would be, maybe, just you?”

“In this section, probably,” Gran agreed. “The scent of a monster doesn’t travel that far, so a Watcher in the next district probably wouldn’t be aware of one in this district anyway.”

Cassie was quiet for a moment, letting a million thoughts wash over her. “Well, it won’t be easy, if I have to read all these books along with all the reading I have to do for school.” She waved an arm around. “Plus working. The monsters don’t attack every night, do they?”

Gran shrugged. “Not usually,” she answered, “but it’s picking up lately.”

“All the more reason I should help out, then.”

 

(to be continued)