Maejo took a step closer. I pressed my back against the side of the wagon.
He smiled. “Can’t go anywhere, my lady.”
I wondered where Karane went off to and why he thought it was a good idea to leave me behind with this starry-eyed stranger.
Maejo leaned against the wagon side.
“You and that soldier–he’s your lover?” he asked.
I stiffened. “Karane is my friend. Neither he nor you have the right equipment for me.”
He frowned and straightened. “What do you – oh. Oh.” He took a step back. “Apologies, my lady. I did not know.”
“How could you know?”
He rubbed the back of his neck with a clumsy hand. “I have the worst luck with women, I swear.”
I patted him on the arm and chuckled. “It doesn’t hurt to try, Maejo.”
“Says someone who never gets turned down, I bet.”
I snorted. “I get shot down plenty. Plenty of women prefer men, you know. Most of them do.”
He sighed. “I guess so.”
In the distance, I heard hooves galloping north and frowned. Someone was leaving in a hurry.
Something terrible was about to happen or had happened. I felt it to my bones.
“I should find my friend,” I told the mercenary.
“I’ll come with you, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure,” I told him.
I hurried towards our wagon, my heart in my mouth.
“Karane!” I called and pushed the flaps at the back of the wagon apart. “Are you sleeping?”
I got no response.
I climbed onto the wagon bed and lit the oil lamp we had taken from the dead thieves. The flame flared brightly then settled into a more sedate glow. I held the lamp aloft by the handle. The light swung wildly against the underside of the bonnet. I looked around. There was no one there.
“Maybe he’s off exploring,” Maejo suggested as he looked around the wagon bed.
“Maybe,” I murmured doubtfully. “I should find the nuns.”
“They’re with Althin,” Maejo said.
“Ah. And where would she be?”
“Come with me. Bring the lamp please.”
I crawled to the end of the wagon bed and handed him the lamp. I jumped down from the wagon bed and followed him towards the bonfire.
The bonfire was crowded. I could smell roasting meat. My stomach gurgled.
“Althin’s wagon is over there,” Maejo said and pointed directly ahead.
We moved along the edges of the crowd. He handed me the lamp.
Althin’s wagon was large and colorful. She had painted the bonnet with splashes of bright red and blue and green. The wagon itself was painted a bright orange.
Maejo went to the back of the wagon and knocked on the wagon bed.
“Who is it?” I heard a woman’s voice call.
The flaps at the back were pulled apart and the caravanner poked her head out. “Well?”
“This young lady needs to speak to the nuns, ma’am.”
Ohna poked her head out. “Yhera? What is it?”
“I can’t find Karane, Ohna.”
Ohna cursed and jumped down from the wagon bed, followed closely by Lhara’h. Lhara’h unsheathed a dagger.
Althin stepped down more slowly. “Put your weapon away, fool. I don’t want to frighten my customers.”
Lhara’h scowled but shoved the dagger back into its sheath on her left hip.
Ohna stepped closer to me. “You think he’s gone?”
“I don’t know. I have a terrible feeling, that’s all. I heard hooves galloping north a while ago.”
She frowned. “You think the kidnappers are back?”
“How could they be?” Lhara’h hissed. “How would they know where we are?”
“I don’t know!” I hissed back. “Maybe I’m being foolish, but I have a terrible feeling that I am not going to ignore.”
“Maejo,” Althin said. “If you know what the young man looks like, then go quietly and see if you can find him.”
Maejo saluted her and whirled about, stalking off into the dark.
“You looked in our wagon?” Ohna asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “He isn’t there.”
“Hm,” Ohna said. “Let’s split up and see if we can find him, shall we, before we panic?”
I found myself flushing with shame. Ohna always made me feel like a child.
Althin thrust her arm through mine. “Come with me, girl. We’ll look around to the west.”
We did not speak as we strode between two wagons and headed west along the tall grass.
“He could have found a willing body for the night,” Althin said.
I swallowed thickly. “Maybe. I hope so.”
“But you think it unlikely?”
She nodded. “Let’s keep looking then.”
We walked into the grass calling his name. Each minute that passed increased my sense of panic. Finally, we had wandered about a sepek west before Althin drew me back and we returned the way we had come. She led me back to her wagon. Ohna, Lhara’h and Maejo were there, milling about.
“He’s gone,” Lhara’h stated coldly and turned her head to spit.
Ohna took a step towards me. “You said you heard hooves headed north?”
“Yes,” Maejo answered for me.
“Towards the capital,” Ohna said and nodded.
“We’ll never catch them with the wagon,” Lhara’h pointed out.
Ohna nodded and sighed. She scratched along her neck.
“You can leave your wagon with us,” Althin suggested. “See if you can catch up to them. We’re taking a barge from a small village by the name of Tilsjen.”
Thunder in the distance startled me. The air was thick with the promise of rain.
“We should leave soon,” Ohna said. “The rain will wash away their tracks.” She turned to me. “You stay with the wagon and drive it to Tilsjen. We’ll meet you there.”
Lhara’h took hold of the back of my neck and squeezed hard enough to hurt. “Shut. Up. Do as you are told.”
She let me go and I gasped, my eyes filling with tears.
They turned as one and disappeared into the crowd.
Maejo took a step toward me. “Are you alright?”
I swallowed my rage. “Yes. Thank you.”
Althin sighed. “Get some rest, girl. Maejo will keep an eye on you and your possessions.”
“Thank you,” I said and turned, making my way back to the crowd and along its perimeter. I found our wagon again just as Ohna and Lhara’h mounted up and galloped north.
I climbed onto the wagon bed. “You might as well climb up, too, Maejo. It will soon be raining.”
He came up without a word and settled at the edge of the wagon bed. He tied the flaps back from the opening and sat crosslegged facing out.
“I hope your friend is around somewhere,” he murmured.
I lay down on my pallet and closed my eyes. For a long time, I just lay there, listening to the sound of voices coming from the direction of the bonfire. The air grew cooler, and a fresh breeze blew through the wagon bed, rifling my hair, drying the sweat along my brow. I swallowed thickly the need to weep.
When had Karane become an anchor for me? I felt as if his absence would pull me apart. I pulled my blanket up to my chin.
“Eda,” I whispered, calling my father. “Please…what do I do? I am miserable with the nuns. They treat me so poorly…”
I turned my head. He was staring out into the night.
Thunder boomed. In the next few seconds, the first of the raindrops pinged against the side of the wagon. Soon, rain began to fall in earnest. After that, the night grew quiet as the crowd dispersed.
I closed my eyes. I prayed to my father and my mother and the God Kahi.
I fell asleep while praying. I dreamed.
In my dream, I was a child again. I was living with my grandmother since both my parents were in the military. My grandmother looked so young in my dream! I ran into the cottage from outside, my arms full of wildflowers.
“Oh Yhera! They’re beautiful,” my grandmother gushed and bent to take the flowers. “Where do you want me to put them?”
“On the table, Aya-sa! On the fireplace mantle, too!”
“How about in your room, on the bedside table?” she suggested.
“Well, come and help me put them in vases,” she said and walked into the kitchen.
It was then that I saw the shadow near the fireplace. When I turned my head and looked at it directly, it seemed to coalesce and become more solid. I took a few steps towards it. As I approached, the shadow became my father’s body and face.
“Eda!” I gasped.
He smiled tenderly at me. “How’s my Yhera-girl?”
“Is it you?”
“Of course, Yhera. It’s your Eda.” He squatted until he was eyelevel with me. “You asked a question, girl. What will you do about the nuns?”
I cocked my head. “Nuns, Eda?”
He reached out and pushed the hair from my face. “Look at you, all dirty.” He smiled. “I gave you all the tools you need to succeed, Yhera. You don’t need those nuns. You have yourself to rely on.”
He pulled me to him and hugged me warmly. I could smell clean sweat on him and the musk of the oils he used on his hair.
“When are you coming home, Eda?” I asked.
“I’ll always be here, my Yhera. All you need to do is seek me out.”
I woke up slowly. Tears meandered from my eyes down my temple to my hair. I wiped them away with cold hands.
I turned my head. Maejo was still there, cross legged like some statue. Outside, the sky had begun to lighten. I could hear people moving about. Rain fell in a steady patter.
“We’ll be leaving after breakfast,” Maejo told me without turning around.
I sat up and unplaited my hair, combing my fingers through it before I re-braided it.
“Did the nuns return?” I asked.
“Haven’t seen them.”
I crawled to where he sat. “I think I’m going to continue on by myself.”
He looked at me. The skin under his eyes was bruised. He looked pale. “Alone?”
He turned towards me. “Let me come with you, Yhera. I’ve been trying to find an adventure since I left home.”
I grimaced. “Adventures fall short of expectations.”
“Even so,” he said.
“Didn’t you sell your sword to Althin?”
He snorted. “She’s my mother, and I wouldn’t mind leaving her for a bit.”
“I thought you were a mercenary.”
“I dress like one and I act like one while we travel. But I’m only the caravanner’s son.”
I crossed my legs and smiled at him. “I wouldn’t mind your company, Maejo. But I feel I have to warn you, things are going to get dicey once we get to the capital.”
He nodded. “One can only hope. We should get some breakfast.”
I nodded and crawled back to the crates, removing two cloaks from the top crate.
“These cloaks are treated for rain,” I said and handed him one.
I fastened the cloak at the collar bone. He followed suit.
Pulling the hoods over our heads, we jumped down into the early morning. Rain pattered against my hood as we hurried to the bonfire. People were standing and eating around the hissing, smoking bonfire. I waited at the periphery while Maejo went to get us some breakfast. He returned shortly with two bowls of boiled grains with dried bala berries and roasted tza nuts. It was bland but hot and filling.
We ate as we walked back to the wagon.
“I’ll stay with the wagons until we come to the village,” I told him. “Then I’ll take off.” I smiled at him. “You are welcome to join me.”
He whooped and hugged me with one arm. “You won’t regret it, Yhera.”
“I should hope not,” I told him as he dropped his arm.
We finished our meal as the first of the wagons set out in a line.
We went back to the wagon.
I fed and watered the lir’tah.
Maejo hopped up onto the wagon seat and I climbed onto the other side. The lir’tah were restless. Maejo drew back on the reins.
“Steady,” he murmured to the beasts.
It took the better part of a quarter of an hour before we were moving, bringing up the caravan rear.
“Can you tell me what is going on?” Maejo asked me.
“In respects to what?”
He gave me a look. “Don’t play dumb with me, Yhera.”
I sighed. “We are part of the Resistance.”
He leaned towards me to hear better. “No kidding?”
“If you speak a word of this, Lhara’h will gut you.”
He blanched. “I won’t!”
“Karane is the Empress’ nephew–“
“Your friend is Karane Truvesto?” He gaped at me. “Goddess preserves!”
“Why didn’t he fight them?” he demanded quietly. “He’s a trained soldier. There was no sign of a struggle anywhere I saw.”
“He’s been poisoned. It’s slow-moving, thankfully, but he needs those men who kidnapped him. They have the antidote.”
He pressed his lips together and looked away.
“What?” I asked.
He shrugged. “It’s just — what if those men are lying to him? What if they don’t have an antidote? What if it’s a way to control him while they need him?”
I went cold inside. “We hadn’t thought of that. At least, I hadn’t.”
“I’m not saying that is what is happening, but if it occurred to me, it surely occurred to them.”
I looked away. As the day grew older, the sky cleared and became a bright cerulean. The sun rose in the east, its fingers reaching out across the land. Already, it was almost too warm. No breeze blew.
The land was filled with tall grasses and copse of deciduous trees. We rode through an area trampled by hooves, the grass long dead. Caravans had been coming this way for hundreds of years. If we headed north, we would come soon upon the grain fields. Before we came near the grain fields, though, the caravan headed west towards the river. We were too far still to see its wide muddy waters. A bit further south, and the Kahi emptied into Lake Cera before it meandered south and west. It forked into two near the Dhya, heading west to empty into Sene Lakes. Its main branch traveled through two nations and changed names twice before it emptied into the sea far to the southeast.
When I was a little girl, my father taught me about the great Kahi River, the longest river in the known world. He promised me that one day we would travel its length and see wonders I could not imagine.
I swallowed thickly.
I pushed away thoughts of my Eda and wondered if it had occurred to Karane that the kidnappers had lied to him. It had not occurred to the nuns, or they had chosen not to share that idea with me.
“What can he do, I wonder?” I asked Maejo.
“You mean for Karane?”
“We can go to an empathic healer – the Royal family employs one.”
I thought of the poison wreaking havoc in Karane’s body.
“We should find him,” Maejo told me. “We should get him a healer and soon. We don’t know how much damage has been caused already or will be caused until the poison is flushed from his body.”
I had never even met an empathic healer. They were employed by only the wealthiest of denizens.
“And a regular doctor can’t help him?”
He looked at me. “Not unless the doctor knows what type of poison was given, and I venture to say Karane doesn’t know.”
“No. He doesn’t.”
“Then our best bet is an empathic healer.”
I took a deep breath. “He’ll have to go to the palace and reveal that he’s been poisoned. Questions will be asked.”
“I don’t doubt it,” he retorted. “But what else can we do?”
I looked away from his sharp gaze.
We drove until the sun was high overhead, it’s fierce light glaring down upon the land.
Althin called a break after midday.
I hopped down from the wagon seat and groaned. I was stiff and tight from sitting for so long. I stretched my lower back.
“They’ll be lunch,” Maejo told me. “Stay with the wagon. I’ll go get us our meal.”
I went to the back of the wagon and climbed onboard. The thieves Lhara’h and Ohna killed had owned leather hats to keep the sun at bay. I found one of these and plunked it down on my head. It stank of sweat, but I didn’t care. I had begun to burn along my cheeks and the bridge of my nose.
I found a currycomb and hopped down from the wagon bed, walking around to the front. Pushing all thoughts of Karane from my mind, I began to brush the lir’tah down. The animals groaned with pleasure. The dust fell off their scruffy hides. Lir’tah had thick, coarse hair. It was hard to brush them, but it gave me something to do.
Maejo returned soon with two bowls of stew and some hunks of caravan bread.
“Thank you,” I murmured and took a bowl from him.
Caravan bread was unleavened and mostly tasteless, made with some salt and water and nothing else. It was easy and cheap to make and convenient.
Maejo and I stood and ate in silence.
The stew was flavorful and spicy. There were thick chunks of turies as well as pieces of tah’lir meat and aromatics.
“Who cooks?” I asked. “It’s a good stew.”
He smiled. “My mother. It’s part of the caravan fee to pay for two meals a day.”
“I didn’t pay.”
He nodded. “The nuns did.”
I handed him my empty bowl. “How long before head out?”
“Soon,” he said. “I’ll be back.”
I felt full and sleepy, but I knew thoughts of Karane would keep me awake. Had the nuns reached him?
I took the curry comb and climbed onto the wagon bed. I found a second hat for Maejo and met him at the wagon seat.
“Thank you,” he murmured and dropped the hat onto his head.
By the end of that day, we were halfway to the river. According to Maejo, it would take the better part of a week before we reached Tilsjen.
The caravan traveled only about 25 sepeks in a day. As the days piled one upon another with no word from the nuns or Karane, I grew morose and sullen. I venture to say Maejo probably would not stay with me after we got to Tilsjen.
We rode in silence most of the days. Maejo would start to make conversation but would give up after a few grunts or monosyllabic responses from me.
He was always patient and kind with me.
By the fourth day, we reached the first of the villages along the Kahi River. The first village was too small; the barges did not stop there. The villagers poured out of their huts to see the caravan drive through. Althin called a halt. The wagons set up in a long line. Goods were sold and traded for several hours before we set off north once more.
I took the opportunity to walk up and down the long line of wagons to see what was in the offing. Maejo stayed behind to look after our supplies.
All manner of goods were sold by the merchants: cloth, pottery, dried herbs and spices, weapons, instruments. One merchant sold blank notebooks and pens and inkwells. I purchased three booklets from him, two pens, and an inkwell with some cakes of dried ink. I had a vague idea that I wanted to write down what was happening in my life at the time. Not that I would say anything to the nuns if they ever returned. I fully meant to go on ahead alone or (if he was still game) with Maejo. I was sick of Lhara’h’s abuse and Ohna’s mistrust.
The notebooks were covered in dyed leather and bound with thread. Each had about fifty pages.
Maejo was yawning and leaning to the back of the wagon.
“Why don’t you nap?” I asked.
“If you don’t mind.”
I shrugged. “Go ahead. I’m going to keep an eye on the wagon.”
He thanked me and crawled onto the wagon bed and found the first of the pallets. He was softly snoring within seconds.
I hopped onto the wagon bed and set my purchases on the floor. I chose the bright blue notebook.
Karane is missing. Again. This time Lhara’h and Ohna have gone after him. I stayed behind with the wagon and made a new acquaintance. Maejo. He’s a good companion, even though I am not. I am so worried about Karane, I’ve become a pill. A real tash-tash. Maejo is very patient with me and kind.
I heard Lhara’h’s voice and abruptly closed the notebook, grimacing with I thought of the ink smudging. I pushed the three notebooks, the pens and the stoppered inkwell into my travel bag.
I hurried and jumped off the wagon bed.
The nuns were talking with Althin. Their lir’tah were lathered and struggling to breathe.
Ohna looked my way. She beckoned.
I made my way over.
“Did you find him?”
She grimaced. “No. We’re going to sell the wagon to Althin here. Gather your belongings.”
Lhara’h took a step towards me.
I squared my shoulders and faced her. “What? You mean to murder me now?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Get. Your. Belongings.”
“No. I’m not going with you. I’ll continue on my own.”
“Yhera–” Ohna began.
“No. I am heading to the capital, where I will meet my connections and continue to assist in any way I can. I came and delivered the message to you, as I was tasked to do. You can go on ahead without me.”
Ohna locked gazes with me.
I lifted my chin.
Ohna sighed. “Fine. Then stay with the wagon and return it to the nunnery when you get to Da’hrisjah.”
I relaxed. “I will.”
Ohna nodded. “We’ll trade these lir’tah for rested ones.”
All three strode away from me, towards the wagon.
I followed more slowly.
I watched as Ohna and Lhara’h filled their saddlebags with dried meat, tza nuts and dried fruit from our supplies.
“You should have enough left,” Ohna told me.
Maejo stood off to the side, speaking quietly to Althin.
The nuns saddled and bridled two fresh lir’tah and I tied their mounts to the back of the wagon. I turned my back to them and began to rub the animals with the rag before I used the currycomb.
“Are you sure about this?” Ohna asked.
“Yes. Thank you for all you’ve done for me.”
She looked unconvinced but nodded. “Take care. We’ll see you in Da’hrisjah.”
“Maybe,” Lhara’h added with a mean smile.
I rolled my eyes and turned away. I continued brushing the lir’tah until the hoofbeats dissolved into the distance.
Maejo came to stand beside me. “Are you alright?”
I shook my head. “Goddess. I wish I knew what I was doing!”
He put his hand on my lower back. “I’ll be with you and you’ll be with the caravan. Nothing will befall you.”
“I was on my way to becoming a nun,” I told him. “Now…I’m not sure what is to become of me.”
He patted my back. “We’ll figure it out, Yhera. You’ll see.”