Dec 17 2012 4:00pm
Out on February 19, enjoy this sneak peek at Blood’s Pride by Evie Manieri:
Rising from their sea-torn ships like vengeful, pale phantoms, the Norlanders laid waste to the Shadar under cover of darkness. They forced the once-peaceful fisher folk into slavery and forged an alliance with their former trading partners, the desert-dwelling Nomas tribe, cutting off any hope of salvation.
Now, two decades after the invasion, a rebellion gathers strength in the dark corridors of the city. A small faction of Shadari have hired the Mongrel, an infamous mercenary, to aid their fledgling uprising—but with her own shadowy ties to the region, she is a frighteningly volatile ally. Has she really come to lead a revolution, or for a more sinister purpose all her own?
This thrilling new epic fantasy is set in a quasi-Medieval Mediterranean region, drawing together the warrior culture of Vikings, the wanderlust of desert nomads, and the oracles of ancient Greece. Blood’s Pride is an intricate, lush book full of taut action, gut-wrenching betrayal, and soaring romance.
Excerpt from the manuscript, The History of the Shadar, by Daryan (Daimon, ninth of that name)
You may believe this work you now hold in your hands to be an abomination. You may believe that in writing these words I have committed an unforgivable sin— but I will not waste ink and paper justifying my actions; I will say only that if I do sin against the gods, I pray that they will visit their wrath upon me alone. I pray they will spare their people more suffering, for they have already had too much heaped upon them.
This is my memory. When it happened I was a new baby, swaddled and hidden from the world, and though I did not then have the words to describe it, that does not stop me from remembering. I see it when I close my eyes, far away at first, then growing nearer and nearer, until I can smell the blood and the smoke and taste the salt spray on my lips.
The fishing boats came in on the dawn tide and the fishermen and their wives and children busied themselves unloading the eve ning’s catch. It was a chill morning in the Shadar, the air still cold from the desert night as the sun came up over the sea and etched the peaks of the bordering mountains in gold. The ships were unloaded quickly and silently, everyone helping each other to pile the catch onto carts and haul it to the place where the women would clean and salt the fish while their fathers and husbands and brothers slept.
They glanced up from time to time at the temple, the red rock promontory towering over the northern end of the city. The ashas, the consecrated priests and priestesses of the Shadari, moved through the labyrinthine corridors hollowed out by ancient and mysterious hands, fulfilling their secret offices, gathering in the roofless chambers to inscribe prayers in the sand for the gods to look down upon. The gods winked back at them from the night sky and moved the sands in answer to their prayers, and so the ashas prayed confidently, content in the unfaltering routine of their work, content with the tithe baskets that overflowed with offerings. In a few months, the ashas would descend to the city by their hidden staircase to choose candidates for the initiation rites, to lie with their spouses and foster out their infants. The people on the beach felt secure knowing that their ashas had their gods’ wishes firmly in hand.
The last nets were stowed and the Shadari started for their cozy homes. Soon the city would stir in earnest, with those who tended the vines and the groves and the animals rising and starting for the hills and the day’s work.
One fisherman let his fellows walk ahead of him and lingered alone on the beach, gazing at the beauty of the sun on the sea until his eyes could no longer bear such brightness and he turned his back, feeling the warm rays caressing the dark curls on his head. He looked at the sleepy Shadar, with its crooked rows and circles of gold- tinged white houses, and marveled at how lucky they were that their gods had given them such a place to live. He looked up to the sky to give thanks to the gods before the sun chased them to their rest, and then he turned to look one last time at the endless stretch of the Sea of Misfortune.
And he saw that he was no longer alone.
A ship— no, three ships— were sailing for the Shadar. The fisherman’s sharp eyes picked out the three black spots, and realized these were much larger vessels than the simple fishing boats of the Shadari or the Nomas. As they steered into the harbor the fisherman could see that the great sails were in tatters and the ships were badly damaged. Odder still, he could see no one about, not in the rigging, nor on the decks: they were ghost ships. Yet they stayed in tight formation, one leading the way, the other two just behind.
A chill ran up the fisherman’s spine and he shut his eyes tightly, hoping that when he opened them, the ships would be gone.
But they were not.
All that day the Shadari gathered on the beach, coming and going as their tasks permitted, gossiping, speculating, fearing, hoping. A thousand times someone volunteered to take a boat out to where the ships had anchored far off the shore in the deep water, to welcome the visitors to the Shadar. But each time the fears of their neighbors won out and they waited all together, doing nothing. They looked to the temple, wondering what the ashas thought of the new arrivals, hoping they would descend to the beach and give their people guidance, but they remained hidden.
The day passed slowly and as the sun began to slide behind the mountains, the fishermen prepared their boats for the night’s catch. Phantom ships or not, there were fish to catch. As the gods began to show a faint presence in the sky, the drums called out the eve ning prayers. Life continued.
But the fisherman who had first seen the ships had not lost his uneasiness, and as he examined his nets, he kept looking out to the empty decks of the three ships. They looked as if they had come through storms and rough waters, as if they had been battered against rocks and tossed upon forbidding shores. Their crews must have seen the wide- open jaws of terrible beasts and smelled the seductive perfume of strange flowers. The Shadari did not cross the sea, and they did not cross the desert beyond the western mountains. The Shadar itself had always been enough for them. What calamity could have inspired a journey such as these ships had endured?
He waited for the stars to come out and watch over the Shadar; it would be all right then.
As the fisherman looked at the magenta sky, he saw a black splotch like a stain on the horizon, a shadow forming over the sea which spread and grew larger until he saw not shadows but black shapes: great flying creatures. The fisherman recognized them at once as dereshadi, the beasts that carry the souls of evildoers down into the depths of the earth after death. Phantoms swarmed from the bowels of the ships, crawling across the decks and into the landing boats and mounting the flying beasts.
The phantoms were giants to the Shadari. Their pale skin was the color of death, marred by oozing purple sores; grime matted their seafoam- white hair. They had the hollowed cheeks and gangly limbs of the starving, but they held aloft great, gleaming swords.
“Eshofa’s children!” a woman screamed, naming the damned children of the goddess of traitors, and the city exploded into chaos.
These beings who appeared like walking dead, like living corpses, descended upon the Shadari like the wrath of hell, killing indiscriminately, splashing the town with red blood. They spoke not one word, made not one sound, as they moved in perfect tandem like a school of flesh-eating fish. Those Shadari who managed to inflict wounds saw their adversaries’ blood flow the silver-blue of a shark’s fin, but not for long, for the invaders thrust their swords into the fires and seared their wounds closed, and all the while they kept on fighting.
From the backs of their flying beasts, Eshofa’s children, the Dead Ones, stole food and carried it back to their ships. The Shadari screamed out to the ashas, beat their drums and clawed at the forbidding sides of the plateau, pleading with those above, but the temple remained silent and dark.
When the sun rose again, the Shadari were free. The invaders had returned to their ships, leaving the burned buildings and the dead and dying as evidence of their coming.
The Shadari beat their drums and looked to the temple, but still no help came.
When the sun set the Dead Ones came again, this time fortified by their plundered booty, and the Shadari suffered as before, crying out to their ashas for help, defenseless without their protection, lost without their guidance. Silence was the only response.
On the third night, the invaders came again, but this time as the dereshadi spread out over the Shadar, the drums that the Shadari had been beating day and night finally received their answer. The Shadari came out of their hiding- places, rushing into the streets. Now, at last, the ashas would use their magic, calling up the desert sands to swallow their foes. The Shadari crowded out into the streets and onto the beaches, climbed to the roofs of their homes, looked hopefully up to the temple.
The fisherman stood on the beach, brandishing the spear that he had used countless times to pluck food from the waters; now it had tasted blood of a different kind. The fisherman gazed up at the temple, flushed with hope as he picked out the white- robed figures gathered on the roof, standing in a line along the edge high above the beach, lit by the moonlight for all to see. The bedraggled defenders raised a cheer, and fists were brandished in triumph.
When the first body plunged into the sea, sending up a column of white foam, the fisherman blinked. When the second body fell his eyes opened wide, and he stared in horror. The ashas—their protectors—were killing themselves.
We learned later that the ghostly invaders, the Dead Ones— Norlanders, they called themselves— watched with equal amazement as one by one the priests stood on the edge of the cliff and leaped into the sea. The long voyage from their frozen homeland had been fraught with dangers, but the pathetic, disor ga nized re sis tance of the Shadari had restored their confidence in this venture. Already they were picturing the mines they would dig to extract the black ore, that miraculous substance which had brought them to these unsuspecting shores. Already they could smell the sulfur from the smithies where they would smelt the ore into metal laced with their own pure blood. Already they could feel the great swords in their hands, swords that would obey their own ers’ thoughts as well as their hands: the secret property of the black ore only they had learned.
One by one, the drums ceased beating. The silence of the Dead Ones was complete.
“There he is,” she told Jachad, in her ageless, sexless, expressionless voice.
Jachad stopped beside her and dropped his pack down onto the desert sand. He followed the gaze of her eye across the gray sweep of the dunes and isolated clusters of rocks and on up to the mountains in the east, where he saw a black shape winging its way toward them from the great square shape of the temple. Each majestic sweep of the creature’s wings etched an arc against the silvery pre-dawn sky. Its long tail snaked out, piloting like a ship’s rudder, while the needle-sharp claws on its hind feet raked the air. Mounted on its back on a broad leather saddle was a figure draped in a shimmering white cloak.
“Well, I certainly hope that’s him,” Jachad replied, “because if it’s not, we’re in real trouble.” With a practiced flourish he unwound the gauzy scarf from around his head and ran a freckled hand through his shock of bright red hair. Then he turned to his companion, frowning. “You’re sure you want to do it this way?”
In place of an answer, she reached into a hidden pouch inside her grimy multi-colored robe and brought out a small bundle swaddled in a scrap of red cloth.
He said, “You can’t even be sure he remembers—”
She tossed the bundle to him.
“Careful!” he cried, snatching the object out of the air and clutching it to his chest. He held it there for a moment, pressing it against his heart. Then he unwrapped the package with nervous fingers and held the contents up in front of his eyes. The cork of the little glass bottle was still sealed up tightly under a thick layer of wax, and the bottle was half-full of a syrupy dark-red liquid. Jachad sighed with relief.
“You could at least tell me if it works,” he said, looking over at her. She wore her cowl low over her face, but he could see the faint glow of her silver-green eye. “If he’s fool enough to try it himself, I’d feel better if I knew it wasn’t going to poison him.”
“You’ll both have to take your chances.” She turned away and left him behind without a backward look, resuming their eastward trek toward the Shadar alone.
“This won’t take long. Don’t get too far ahead,” he called after her. But the stillness of the desert deadened his words and if she heard him, she made no sign.
Jachad called up an oily film on the palm of his right hand and flicked his fingers over it to spark up a little fireball, not much bigger than a marble. He worried it between his fingers. He knew it was in his own best interests to avoid a confrontation now, but he still felt a little cheated. It was sure to come sometime, and when it did, he wanted to be there.
Her long strides had already carried her some distance away by the time the beast dropped to a graceful landing among the rippling dunes and its rider extricated himself from the complicated harness. Jachad forced himself to turn his attention to his Norlander client. The tall man wore the cowl of his white cloak down around his neck and his gloves tucked into his sleeve; he wouldn’t need them until the sun crested the horizon. True to form, his long white hair was pulled back and bound with a leather cord and the hilt of an enormous broadsword rose from behind his right shoulder. But Jachad also noticed that his pale skin lacked the slight iridescence—like a fish’s scales—that his people, the Nomas, had always admired in the Norlanders, and that the flesh under his luminous silver-gray eyes sagged as if he’d been losing sleep.
“King Jachad?” rasped the Norlander.
“Lord Eofar,” he answered, smiling. He opened his right hand and the little fireball snuffed itself out in a wisp of black smoke. “It’s good to see you. You got my message, I see.”
“I did. Thank you,” said Eofar. His features remained so still, his face so rigid, that Jachad found it hard to believe his lips could move at all. The words he spoke fell to the sand like lead weights, devoid of any life or expression. It was no mystery why the Shadari still referred to them as “the Dead Ones” even after all these years. “I didn’t expect you to come personally.”
“Oh, but this is a very special commission. Plus, I had some other business out this way.”
“Don’t your people need you?”
Jachad laughed. “I would have thought you knew by now not to take my title too seriously. We Nomas need a king about as much as a snake needs a pair of boots.”
The Norlander took a moment to unhook a waterskin from his belt and take a long drink, then he put his hand to his throat and massaged it. “It’s very dry out here.”
Jachad knew what Eofar expected, but even though this transaction would earn more than his tribe had seen in the last half- year, he still hesitated. “We can speak Norlander, if you prefer,” he forced himself to say.
<Ah, thank you,> Eofar answered at once, only this time his words made their way directly from his mind to Jachad’s without any of the mechanics of sound. Jachad wouldn’t have minded so much if that had been the extent of it, but everything Eofar felt came along with the words: an assaultive jumble of relief, anticipation, anxiety, excitement, fear, and a host of other emotions too subtle to name, all accompanied by swirling colors and strange images. For reasons no one really understood, some people—most notably, the Shadari—couldn’t speak Norlander at all: the words and emotions simply didn’t register for them. In Jachad’s opinion it was one of the few ways in which they were fortunate. He pressed his knuckles to his temples and tried to stay focused. Surely the Norlanders did not experience each other with such intensity; life would be unbearable.
<No thanks are necessary,> he said. <I’m sorry to drag you out here to the desert, but the garrison’s supplies aren’t due to be delivered for another few weeks, and your letter said it was urgent.>
<No, I’m glad you suggested this,> Eofar assured him. <With Frea running the garrison now, nothing happens up there without her knowing about it. And I don’t want her to know about this.>
<Lady Frea is in charge of the garrison?> As a rule the Nomas kept themselves well informed, but somehow the caravans had missed this important bit of information. <Then, is your father—I hope the governor’s health has not declined?> said Jachad, trying hard to project nothing but mild concern. The Norlanders apparently had no trouble lying to each other, but he could never be certain of carry ing off even the most innocent of deceptions—and in this case, he had no wish to share his feelings about old Governor Eonar with his only son.
<My father’s still alive,> replied Eofar, his distress coming across like a splash of muddy ochre. <Frea has been running the mines for a long time, really. The only difference now is that we don’t have to pretend Father’s still making the decisions. That and she gets to bully the slaves all she wants.>
<What about your other sister?>
<Last time I was in the temple, she looked nearly of age. I would have thought your father would have sent her back to Norland to be married by now.> The sooner the better, Jachad thought to himself. At least, he hoped it was to himself.
<She’s still here,> said Eofar, but his emotions were so murky that Jachad felt this subject was even less to his liking than the last.
<Well, we didn’t come here to gossip, did we?> Jachad asked briskly. With a suitably dramatic flourish, he produced the little bottle and held it up between his thumb and forefinger. <Shadari divining elixir, as requested. It was rare even before the invasion, forbidden to any but the Shadari ashas, who used it to see into the future. Many speculate that the ashas took it when your people invaded and the visions somehow drove them to their famous leap. I can’t verify any of that, of course, but I will guarantee you that this is the absolute genuine article. As far as I know, it’s the only bottle to be had anywhere in the world.>
Eofar’s eyes shone more brightly as he examined the merchandise. <It’s not even half- full,> he said, but his attempt to feign disappointment was laughable; his desire was reaching out like a pair of grasping hands. <You didn’t say in your message how much you wanted for it.>
<I’m asking thirty- five.>
Jachad shook his head apologetically. <Eagles.> He felt Eofar’s dismay and pressed his advantage. <If we could negotiate the price in imperial ore instead of currency—>
<That’s impossible.> The words dropped like iron ingots, dark and hard. <Frea has every ounce accounted for. The mines haven’t been producing well lately. The emperor’s ship is due any day now and we’ve only eight swords out of twenty-five ready to send back to Norland.> He reached beneath his cloak and pulled out a fat little purse. <I have thirty-one. I can’t get any more right now without asking my father or Frea. Maybe in a few months . . .> His words tailed off.
Jachad scratched his head and desperately tried to conceal the fact that he had been prepared to take twenty- five. Finally he said, <All right, thirty- one it is. And one back to you for luck, so that’s thirty. We’ve known each other a long time, after all.>
Eofar’s surge of relief nearly knocked Jachad backward. He wrapped the little bottle back up in the scrap of cloth and held it out with a smile. Instinctively Eofar reached for it. His hand came close enough for Jachad to feel the chill radiating from his skin before they both remembered themselves and pulled back.
<Sorry,> said Jachad. <I forgot you weren’t wearing your gloves.> He deposited the little package carefully in the sand between them. Eofar picked up the bottle and left the purse lying in the same spot for Jachad to retrieve.
<Thank you, King Jachad.>
<Oh, no need to be so formal. And thank you, for a good bargain.> He flipped opened the purse and tossed a coin to Eofar, who caught it neatly in his pale hand. <Frankly, I could use the cash. The gathering is coming up in a few days and I have my eye on a perky little second mate with a fondness for bracelets.>
<The gathering,> Eofar ruminated as he undid the clasps of his cloak and carefully tucked the bottle into the pocket of his shirt. <It only lasts a few weeks, and then you’re apart again. The women go back to sea in their ships, you men go back to your caravans in the desert, and another half-year goes by before you see each other again. I can’t understand why anyone would choose to live that way.>
<No, you’d rather be under each other’s feet all the time, wouldn’t you?> said Jachad. <Nomas men love the desert, and our women love the sea. That’s the way it’s always been. It’s pointless to ask either one to change.>
<You could compromise: spend some time in the desert and some time at sea— and all of it together.>
<Oh, that would make for a happy family, wouldn’t it? Taking turns being miserable.>
<I still think there must be some of your men who would rather be with their wives than live in the desert, and women who would rather be with their husbands than on a ship.>
<Some do, of course,> Jachad answered, trying to mask his impatience with extra good cheer. They’d had this conversation before, and his answer was always the same. The bargaining had gone as well as could be expected up to this point, and now he wanted Eofar to leave so he could catch up with his companion. He certainly did not want to waste his time defending his people’s customs to a Norlander yet again. It was bad enough that once he reached the city he would have to contend with the open hostility of the Shadari, who even after twenty-odd years still blamed the Nomas for failing to come to their aid against the Norlanders.
He began walking casually toward Eofar’s triffon, hoping Eofar would follow. <It does happen, once in a while—there’s no law against it,> he continued. <Sometimes it works out; sometimes it doesn’t. People should be able to do what they like with their own lives, don’t you think?>
<I suppose so,> said Eofar, following Jachad to his mount. She lifted her massive head from between her front paws and sat up as they approached. Jachad patted her coarse fur, examining the small, round ears protruding from tufts of longer fur, the deep eye-ridges and long snout. With the ashas’ secret passage in and out of the temple lost to history, the triffons were the only way to come and go, and Jachad was forced to ride on one of the creatures each time he came to negotiate with the governor for the garrison’s supplies and sell trinkets to the soldiers. He had grown accustomed to it over the years; the last few times, he had even opened his eyes.
<Good girl, Aeda,> Eofar said as she bent her short legs slightly to make it easier for him to mount. He buckled himself into the harness and took up the reins, then stopped suddenly. <Who is that?>
Jachad turned and pretended to look where he was pointing. There was no sense in denying that they were together: Eofar’s sharp Norlander eyes could easily spot her smeary footprints leading away, even in the tricky half- light. Jachad reminded himself that the best lie was simply an edited version of the truth. <Oh, she’s just a business associate. I’m escorting her to the Shadar. She has some scars on her face, so I sent her on ahead. I know how you Norlanders feel about that sort of thing. I didn’t want to upset you.>
<Should I ask what her business might be?>
<Only if you want to know,> said Jachad.
<No, I suppose not,> Eofar answered. <“Let all so afflicted . . .”> He trailed off.
<What? Oh, nothing. It’s from The Book of the Hall. Norlander scripture.> Eofar stared thoughtfully across the sands at the dwindling figure. <Did you know that in Norland they take deformed babies and injured soldiers and people like that out into the forest and leave them there to freeze to death? It’s said that if Onfar— our god of life and death— decides that a person is worthy, he heals their affliction and sends them home again.>
<Yes, I had heard that,> Jachad said, clamping down on the anger this unexpected disclosure elicited. <And how many has he judged worthy so far?>
Eofar answered without looking away from Jachad’s associate. <None.>
Jachad tapped his fingers together to disguise the little sparks sizzling between them and stepped back, out of the way of Aeda’s enormous wings. <The sun’s coming up. You’d better be getting back.>
Eofar whistled to his mount and she crouched low, then sprang into the air. A moment later the Norlander and the triffon were winging their way back to the temple. Jachad watched until their shadowy figures blended into the temple’s stark façade.
Then he scooped up his pack and ran after his companion.
He tracked her easily, though her footprints had shifted away from their original easterly direction. He began to see gaps here and there, as if she were stumbling, then the trail veered even further from due east and Jachad, looking round, saw the reason why. She was heading toward a low circle of sandsmoothed boulders a little to the north. He stopped and watched as she stumbled and fell to her knees a dozen paces from the stones. Reflexively he started toward her, but before he had gone very far she was on her feet again and a moment later, she had disappeared behind the rocks.
The dawn breeze whisked across the desert and rustled through Jachad’s brilliant silk robes, offering him a greeting, a whispered welcome to the new day. The sand at his feet swirled and shifted, and the sun’s first rays glowed behind the smudgy mountains. Jachad Nisharan, king of the Nomas, dropped his pack into the sand and knelt down to pray to his father, the sun god, Shof.
Absolute privacy, every day, at dawn and dusk, without fail: that was the condition she had imposed on him, the same condition she set for anyone who desired her ser vices, and in the two weeks she and Jachad had been traveling together he had scrupulously honored his promise.
The wind began to gather strength, blowing westward from the sea.
He looked at the rocks and wet his lips. Dire warnings echoed in his mind. He had been putting off this moment, but they would reach the Shadar before sunset and he might never have another opportunity. He had to see for himself; if he let this chance slip by, he might as well have stayed with his tribe on the other side of the desert.
He stood up, and as he edged toward the rocks, the wind died down and the sand hissed back to the desert floor. Jachad dropped his pack and silently slid through a narrow space between two of the boulders.
He saw her immediately. She was laying face-up, her eyes closed, half-buried in the sand. The long fingers of her right hand were extended, scratching deep grooves into the dirt. He watched as a tremendous convulsion ripped through her and then left her lying flat on her back again, but now completely motionless. He dropped to his knees and crept forward.
Her soot-black hair, roughly tied back with a rag, spilled out from beneath her hood, contrasting ghoulishly with the gray glimmer of her skin. His eyes traced each scar on her face: the straight white seam on her broad forehead, the crescentshaped mark on her hollow cheek, the jagged line that distorted the delicate shape of her thin, blue-tinged lips and pulled them up into a perpetual smirk. The cord of the eyepatch over her right eye split her features into separate sections, making her face look like something that had been broken, then clumsily repaired. But beneath the scars and the eye-patch, Jachad could still see the face of his former playfellow, the fourteen-year-old girl she had been nearly eight years ago.
“Meiran?” he whispered, reaching out his freckled hand to stroke the strands of black hair away from her damp forehead. He could feel a faint coolness rising up from her pearly gray skin. But the instant he touched her she bolted upright and her hand shot out and grabbed him by the throat.
“Who’s there? Who are you!” she cried, one hand choking him while the other groped blindly at the air.
“It’s me!” he gasped, trying to pull away from her, but her grip was too strong. Then he felt her fingers scrambling near his abdomen and suddenly she had his knife. Panicking, Jachad struck his hands together and orange flames licked over his palms. “Meiran,” he shouted hoarsely, “it’s me, Jachad!”
She released his neck but lunged at him, and her knee caught him squarely in the chest, knocking him flat. As the point of his own knife came screaming toward his face, he threw up his arms and a sheet of flame burst to life in front of him.
She recoiled from the crackling heat, falling backward between his scrabbling legs, and the knife went flying from her hand. It landed in the sand, out of reach.
“Meiran,” he shouted again, crawling backward away from her, “Meiran, remember where we are—it’s me—”
She drew back, panting heavily as she fell onto the sand, and Jachad, still reeling, watched as she drew in an unsteady breath, then snaked her finger beneath the black eye-patch and slid it over the silver-green left eye. It was the dark brown right eye, rounder and slightly larger than the one on the left, which focused on Jachad briefly before sliding away.
He exhaled in a long, relieved sigh and flopped down onto the sand in front of her. She sat across from him, staring at nothing, her scarred face expressionless. The desert silence pressed down on them.
“It’s a lot worse than it used to be, isn’t it?” he asked finally, but Meiran spoke at exactly the same moment, saying, “You broke your promise.” And then: “That was a long time ago.”
“I know,” he admitted in response to both of her statements. She didn’t look particularly angry; that was something. “Seven years. You can’t blame me for wanting to know if you’re all right. Seven years without a word—for the first three, we didn’t even know if you were dead or alive. Then when word got around about this new mercenary . . .” He trailed off, watching her face. “More than once I thought about trying to find you.”
He saw her lips part, but then they closed again, biting down on what ever she had been about to say. Jachad’s skin prickled: he had come very close to getting her to say something she hadn’t wanted to reveal.
“But I figured you knew how to find me if you wanted me,” he continued, as if he hadn’t noticed her reaction, “as evidenced by the fact that you’re here. I’m only trying to understand you. You turn up at my caravan after all these years—just when the Shadari have put out the word they want to hire you, and with a bottle of elixir, just when that’s needed—without any explanations.” He got up and went to retrieve his knife, watching her from the corner of his eye as he slid it back into its sheath. Her breathing had slowed and her arms hung heavily at her sides; for the first time, she looked weary. But she was listening. He wandered back and sat down. “So, have you ever tried to find a cure?”
Her eye stayed fixed on the sand. “I have better things to do.”
“What things? Things like going to the Shadar?” Jachad asked, allowing himself a hint of sarcasm.
“I’m being paid to go—and you’re being paid to bring me, remember?”
He laughed. “You can’t possibly need what ever money the Shadari slaves have managed to scrape together for their uprising—after all, you’re supposed to be the greatest mercenary anyone’s ever seen. In all of these years you’ve never lost a fight. You’ve done everything from commanding whole armies to besting champions in single combat. You took the tower at Treborn with a dozen men in a single day, after King Grayson had laid siege to it for almost a year. To this day, no one has figured out how you got the Chastian army out of the Kabor Pass.” He smiled proudly. “Our Meiran.”
She looked up at him. “That’s not my name.”
“Well, neither is ‘the Mongrel,’ and I’m certainly not going to call you that. Meiran is a good Nomas name—and you never minded it before.” He ran a hand through his fiery hair.
She grunted noncommittally.
“Would you like to hear a funny story?” he asked, conscious of holding her attention at last. “It’s about your pact with demons. They say that at dawn and dusk you sneak off and sacrifice a baby. You cut out its heart and eat it before the heart stops beating. Of course, babies aren’t generally easy things to come by on a battlefield, but apparently”—he paused for effect—“you travel with your own supply.” He grinned, and finally a dry, scratching sound that might have been a laugh escaped her. Jachad felt his freckled cheeks flush and he snapped up a few spits of flame and playfully flicked them at the ground.
Then Meiran stood up, brushed the sand from her robes, and replaced her cowl. She led the way out between the rocks and he recovered his pack and slung it over his shoulder. They struck out again for the mountains, Jachad trying to match his shorter strides to hers, until he stopped suddenly.
She walked on without him for a few paces, but then looked back.
Trying to ignore the cold knot in his stomach, he forced himself to voice the question he’d been too cowardly to ask before now. “Why go back, Meiran? Tell me, why now, after all this time?”
The sun was just beginning to crest the mountains, painting the tops of their low bluffs in molten shades of gold and copper. With her back to the sun, he could see nothing of her except her stark silhouette.
“There’s a story I’ve been waiting a long time to hear,” she said after a moment. “I want to hear it now.”
He went to her as she turned back to the mountains. “And then what?” he asked, standing in front of her. Peering beneath her cowl, he saw her brown eye sweep over the landscape before her, taking in the low mountains that were hiding the little white houses of the city; the temple, carved by ancient hands or even more ancient magic out of a single mass of living rock; and beyond them all, the shining ribbon of the sea.
“I’m going to end it.”
Blood's Pride © Evie Manieri 2012