Author’s Note: This chapter is dedicated to Norma Peters, the wonderful person who has given so much of her talent to illustrate it. Happy Birthday, Norma! --K
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”—Oscar Wilde
Sabre was in near panic, and nothing anyone could say or do would calm her. Gravitt had taken his horse from her before noon, and swung himself into the saddle without even bothering to thank her for saddling and warming it up for him. While she was used to his lack of gratitude for everything that she provided, it was most disturbing when he’d shown up dragging Darian behind him. His harsh “do it” to her as he held the child in his arms from atop his horse was her cue to force her son to sleep before they left for parts unknown. As usual, Gravitt had offered no explanation, no expected time of return, no nothing. Even though she knew the boy wouldn’t know what happening to him gave her little comfort. She knew she should be used to Gravitt’s lack of details, it went with his lack of a human soul. But he had never just taken off with her child before, and with everything as strange as it was in Vane she couldn’t help but fear the worst. Her sense of helplessness against her master surged forward again, adding to her worries. Gravitt is soulless, but I pray, despite his threats, that he would not kill his own child…Not out of spite, surely not... please, Goddess!
She shook her head, thinking of that moment again. It was becoming harder to 'force' Darian to sleep—she wasn’t sure why. Of course, his powers were starting to develop, and she had been tired lately, but it still didn’t make much sense. He wasn’t growing that fast, was he? Nothing seemed to make sense anymore, least of all anything having to do with this trip to Vane. The freedom, no Philip or Marcus, the man in the Tavern, the special room…
Although her mind was in a far distant place and darkening with worry, Sabre had spent the entire day in and around the stables awaiting Darian’s return. At first she had tried doing every chore she could think of, praying for something to keep her mind occupied. When those ran out, she began pacing blindly from one end of the barn to the other in anxiety. One, two, four, then finally six hours passed as she worked without rest until exhaustion began to creep up on her and, totally drained, she felt her legs start to give out from under her. Somehow, over the hours, food had become distant and unimportant and she had not bothered to return to the Guild for lunch or dinner. In her mind she knew this was just adding to her fatigue, yet in her torn heart it seemed irrelevant.
Hours later found her still in her current position--sitting cross-legged on a hay bale outside the barn, watching the horses wander about in a newly constructed corral. Off in the distance she could see some workers starting to build another one, and they were being ordered around by the same woman that Brinson had shown some interest in earlier.
She frowned to herself, feeling a pang of guilt after her little display on the giant bay that morning. For an instant she almost stood to walk out and apologize to the dark haired woman, who had clearly doubted her ability to stop the horse. But then, she decided against it. Brinson was all that she had, and no snotty Vane-taught girl who looked like she hadn’t brushed her hair in three years was going to take him from her. Besides, she had that handsome man in the mage’s robe following her around. Did she really need two?
Although she had been angry at him after the incident with the girl, Brinson had made it his mission to stay with her all day. His presence was comforting, but even his kind words, jokes, stories and songs hadn’t been enough to take her mind off Darian. About an hour ago he had announced he was going to find the two of them something to eat, and with a touch of his hand to her hair, he left. She hadn’t even nodded a response to him; her eyes and her mind were transfixed on the distance, hoping, praying, that she would see them coming out of the forest’s shadows at any second.
Brinson… She smiled as she thought of him. He was her oldest and best friend, and in many ways the only family she’d known. Although she would trust him with her life, she also knew he was a romantic idiot. Gravitt’s threats didn’t deter him, and her warnings were usually ignored. Sadly, there had been too many close calls when he wouldn’t listen to her, far too many.
Even as children, whether as slaves to the Setin or hired ‘friends’ by Ziggratt for the animal that had become their master, he had always been more than kind to her. She would always remember their first night in Briggatt; the walls were dark, the bed was strange, and she couldn’t sleep. He had snuck into her room and had tried to put her mind at ease with an old Prairie song. He has the most beautiful voice…
The first time he’d tried to kiss her he had learned the hard way that her warnings were meant to be taken seriously. She fought a smile as she remembered the smile on his face as he had leaned forward to sneak a quick peck on her cheek, and the dazed grin he’d given her as he tried to pick himself back up off the floor afterwards. But even that had not deterred him.
Of course, when it was time for Darian to be born he wouldn’t hear of not being there with her. As it started, the midwife (who was really just Gravitt’s cook) had tried to force him to leave, but he adamantly refused. After the old woman had placed a thick sheet over her, Sabre had begged him to leave, out of fear for his own safety, though she really didn’t want him to go. He must have sensed the dilemma in her voice, and took a hold of her gloved hand as he sat next to her, promising to stay for the whole ordeal.
Then, by intent or accident, just as the pains started to become unbearable and the baby about to come, he touched her forehead. Whatever he felt at that moment, she didn’t know and he’d refused to tell her, even to this day. Somehow he had managed to shake it off and remained there with her, still holding her hand with the same gentle strength as before. She would always see that moment in her dreams; those gentle tawny eyes shuddering with horror at the obvious agony she was in and, she suspected, he had just experienced.
Later, when her son was asleep and she was resting, she tried to yell at him, but couldn’t bring herself to do it, and ended up crying instead. There was so much to consider! What to name the baby? What kind of life had she brought him into? What would Gravitt do about all of this? Would he kill the child? Would he see the boy as a threat on his seat of power? Would he just bide his time until he could exploit his own son? What if something happened to her? She didn’t want Gravitt raising the child—he would turn him into a killer. She was scared; and she begged Brinson to stay with her that night. He smiled as he vigilantly brushed her hair until she found slumber, and then slept on the floor next to the bed without even so much as a blankei>As mad as he makes me sometimes, I know I could never live without him. He’s become my other half, even though I didn’t want it to happen, it’s not fair to him, to either of us...
Footfalls began to separate themselves from the din behind her and drag her out of the all too bitter memories. She turned her head to see Brinson, walking quickly towards her and carrying a large basket in his right hand. The fine clothing he had been wearing since they arrived in Vane might make him look respectable to others, but to her, he appeared a bit silly and out of place in them. Even in the distance, she could see him smiling, and knew just by the swishing of his ponytail that he had gotten into some kind of mischief. Sometimes he needs more watching than Darian. He came closer and sat next to her, smiling at her as he opened the parcel.
“I brought you something.”
She jumped off her spot on the hay bale and trotted towards him, still suspicious of the smile on his face and, for the first time that day, noticed the grumbling of her stomach. “I hope it’s food, I’m starving.”
He smiled as he sat down on the hay-covered ground, motioning for her to do the same. As she did, he placed the basket between them and grinned even wider. “Yes, I got food, but managed to pick up a few other things as well.”
She moved closer to peer into the parcel, but he pulled it away. She scowled at him. “Well are you going to show me or not?”
He laughed, pulled a box wrapped in a bright black ribbon out of the basket, and handed it to her. “I went to the Festival and hit some of the vendors, and found this. I thought you might like it.”
She pulled the ribbon off the small box and, opening it, looked down at its contents. Within lay a small wooden necklace, its pendant in the shape of a galloping horse, the carefully carved mane flowing over the curved back. Sabre turned it over in her hands, admiring the way light seemed to play within the wood’s dark grain and polished surface. She looked up at him in surprised wonder; no one had ever given her jewelry before. “Its beautiful…”
He grinned at her. “I got Darian something, too.” From the basket he produced a hand puppet in the shape of a dog, its soft brown rabbit fur and bright button eyes bringing radiance to her face as she looked at it. Brinson gave a little fond laugh. “After all, he keeps saying that he wants a puppy.”
Sabre smiled, as she put the necklace on, fumbling with the clasp a little. “He’ll love it.” Then her face clouded as she looked at him. “Where did you get the money—for all this?”
The blonde man shrugged as he brushed her hair. “Gravitt gave me some. He insisted that I appear as a gentleman, and gentlemen spend money. Don’t you think, my love?”
She leaned on his shoulder, shaking her head as she smiled in disbelief at how impossible the moment seemed, yet delighting in it. “Well, I guess.”
He reached back into the basket. “Enough chat, let’s eat.” Yet there was something in his smile that promised her there was more to come.
Brinson had bought what seemed to be a meal and a half to Sabre--meat, fruits, bread, and even some cake for dessert. She couldn’t remember ever eating that well, and with him for company, she almost forgot about Darian. As they finished their dinner, she asked in wonder; “So was all this from the reception, the big party you were telling me about?”
He shook his head, “No, there isn’t one tonight. Only every other night—I guess even Vane can’t afford more than that. This came from the vendors. I still can’t believe just what they have to sell here—anything you could ever want!”
“We’ll have to go again, the three of us —when Darian gets back, or tomorrow. The quick pass we made yesterday wasn’t nearly enough time to look at anything.” A worried look crossed her face. “I wish they’d get back. He’s been away an awfully long time now.”
He nodded, finishing a bite of cake. “We will, and Darian will be fine, Gravitt’s got plans for all of us here, you know that. Even if we don’t know what they are yet.” He paused, “Sabre…are you all right? I’ve never seen you as tired as you have been the past few weeks.”
She grimaced, “I don’t know what’s wrong. I’ve never felt like this.”
His words were edged, but he held the anger in his voice in check as he asked, “Gravitt hasn’t…I mean…you don’t think you’re…”
She said quietly, the distaste for the entire topic surfacing in her tone. “No, he hasn’t, and certainly not recently enough, so no, I’m not pregnant.”
Brinson seemed relieved and quickly changed the subject. “Oh, by the way, I know our ‘master’ is going to make me go to that reception tomorrow. He only let me off the hook for the first one since I only had my riding leathers, nothing he wanted me to be seen in at anything so fancy. Do you…do you want to come with me? We could buy you a dress. I’d love to take you.”
She shook her head emphatically. “I don’t want to be paraded around like some prize mare in front of the entire city of Vane. I can’t stand these people anyway. They keep their women unarmed and half dressed. Its disgusting!”
He glared at her, “You really should give this place a chance, Sabre. You should see the Library, its unreal! I’ve dreamt of coming here my entire life, just to see that place. These people aren’t bad; they are just different. They feed intellects rather than horses or sheep and they value education rather than money.”
She scoffed, “Really? If that was true, then the place wouldn’t be covered in gold and silver, and people would dress normally.”
“To them, this is normal and has been for a thousand years. We are the ones that are different.”
“I know that!” She looked away from him; he was right, but there was something about Vane she didn’t like. She wasn’t sure what it was, but having her sword taken away from her at the gate certainly did not make her happy from the start, and the people here seemed to be both soft and arrogant—a combination that confused and bothered her.
He leaned back on his elbows, and looked up into the dusk as he pleaded to her. “Sabre…come here, please?”
She moved closer to him, and he sat up. “What?”
“Sit here, with me? For just a minute?” He said, patting the ground between his legs.
She smiled. At least they had some time to be alone, and with the sun going down, the Blue Star’s light was more than inviting. She sat where he asked, leaning her back against his chest and feeling his breath on her neck. He is a romantic idiot, but I can be, too…up to a point, anyway.
He pulled at her hair, twisting small pieces of it in his fingers so delicately she closed her eyes with a soft sigh. After a long moment, he whispered, “I have another surprise, my love.”
She turned to look back at him, “What?”
“I bought something else at the market, too. For us.”
“What is it?”
Lifting her slightly, he reached into the inner pocket of his shirt and held out two black silken gloves, the light dancing as it shifted and bent while passing through the thin material.
She shook her head at him sadly. “I can’t wear those. They’re too thin, not to mention two sizes to big.”
“Not for you, for me. The man that sold them to me said they are almost fully resistant to any magic.”
She crossed her arms over her chest nervously, “Brinson…I…”
“Shh…don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you, and these won’t let you hurt me,” he said as he pulled them on.
At first she feared it would be like Gravitt’s touch… cold and unfeeling…something that made demands and only took. But it wasn’t… It wasn’t anything like that. She leaned back on Brinson again and felt two fingers brush against her neck. She winced, wondering what had happened to him. Apparently it was nothing for then he put the back of his hand on her cheek. She turned around and faced him, tears in her eyes. “You can touch me!”
His smile was faint, as he held up his hands. “Yes, but only with these…and I still can feel a faint tingle, although nothing too…bad.”
She kneeled in front of him and whispered, “Touch my face. Touch my face like you would kiss me.”
She closed her eyes and felt him do as she asked; a tender sweep of her cheek, then a touch of two fingers to her lips, and pushed opened her mouth to brush against her tongue. The soft gloves then moved to touch ever inch of her face, as if tracing the lines of her life. She shivered in a strange kind of excitement, and heard him give a small whimper in return.
Opening her eyes she looked at him in wonder; he seemed so sad, yet ecstatic at the same time. Putting his hands tenderly on her arms, he leaned her back, helping her to lie down on the dry hay next to him. He crouched over her, kissing her with his fingers again, and then trailing them, still moist from her mouth, down onto her neck.
Again his hand found her face, and she felt it trembling ever so slightly. Another touch to her lips, and then he whispered, “Sabre…oh Sabre…I love you…”
She smiled up at him, seeing his eyes bright and wide, and then taking the hand from her face she gripped it and wove her fingers around his. He kissed their hands, still bound together, and then leaned over her again. Still keeping their hands knotted, she felt him slowly pull on her shirt with his free hand until it came free of her belted riding breeches. She looked down and watched with an almost worried anticipation as he fought with the lowest button on it, then the next few, and finally the top one.
She raised her head up, watching in wonder as his fingertips ambled along her abdomen; the silken gloves just exciting her more. She fell back again, letting him support her, as his hand began to gain more confidence in its quest. It was like nothing she had felt before—as if his touch was burning her, waking her mind and commanding her at the same time. His breath was ragged as it escaped his lips, and his hands shook even more, but laid her palm on his cheek to tell him it was all right.
Just as his silken-covered fingers dared to roam higher, a sudden ruckus from behind jerked them both erect. Hoof beats, heavy ones, and they were getting closer. Sabre pulled herself to sit up fully as she tried to close her blouse with her hands and hide the flush in her face. Brinson was staring at her, seeming both mesmerized and desperate as his attention was torn between her and the approaching horse. The source came closer and the animal stopped only a few feet from them. She knew who it was without having to look—only one enormous beast made such noise, and dragged a foot when he cantered. She swallowed and tried to shake the strange dizziness from her head as Brinson touched the back of her neck one last time.
Gravitt glared at them as he let his mount step forward and stretch its neck down to a small pile of hay near them. The huge man growled, “Well, one of you get over here and take this brat off my hands and stable the idiot horse.”
Sabre stood up, and let a sigh of relief escape her lips as Gravitt slid the sleeping child from his lap into her eager hands. He was still fast asleep; probably the work of Philip or Marcus. In the darkness she did her best to check him for cuts, bruises or other afflictions, but could find none. Thank the Goddess…
Gravitt dismounted, gruffly throwing the reins of the horse to Brinson. Sabre gave him a gentle smile as thanks, but a second later she was regretting that small sign of gratitude. Gravitt growled at her, “Put that child down, and get yourself back over here. Quickly! I don’t have all night.”
Reluctantly, she followed his orders. She couldn’t tell what he wanted, but he didn’t seem to be angry. She placed her son on the hay bale she had been sitting on earlier and returned to her master.
It happened too fast for her to realize what he was going to do. Her hair was pulled, and an elbow slammed into her stomach. She felt herself fall to the ground and land on her knees. With a grunt, he grabbed her collar and hauled her back to her feet, the breath that had been knocked from her lungs still fighting to come back. Half a second later, his vicious hands pulled open her unbuttoned shirt, and she felt something cold and metallic pressed between her breasts. Whatever he does, I will not cry. I will not cry. I will not cry.
Gravitt sneered down at her, twisting the blade of his knife against her skin. His voice was quiet, but his words carried the volume far louder than any scream. “So you little slut, did you forget that I own you and that bastard child of yours? Did you forget what I promised to do to any man that touches you without my permission?! Or to you?!”
Sabre kept her gaze focused far ahead of her master, ignoring his question and trying to put out of her mind the fact that he just might kill her right there. She had asked Brinson long ago to take care of Darian should anything ever happened to her. At least that detail brought her some comfort, since pretending this wasn’t happening certainly wasn’t doing much good.
Gravitt growled at her, “I’m talking to you, you little whore! Answer my question!”
She looked at him and said calmly, the words coming from her heart rather than her mind. “Go ahead, kill me, Gravitt. Get it over it. Quit playing your stupid games.” I hate you. You can’t even give me an honorable death.
He snarled as he grabbed her hair again, this time licking the side of her neck. As she flinched from the monster’s dominating false affection, a glance behind him yielded a glimpse of Brinson, who was watching the entire scene in horror, obviously torn between terror and a desire to attack Gravitt.
The cruel man ran his rough hand in the same spot that had just recently felt Brinson’s delicate touch. “Don’t you wish you do this? Don’t you wish you could touch her the way I can? Do you want to watch me tame her? She can be rather…wild. You might learn something.” She closed her eyes to steel herself as she saw his free hand unbuckle the belt around his waist. Darian, please…stay asleep…
Brinson looked like he was about to cry as he tepidly stepped forward, the horse following him. His tone was a twisted staccato as he pleaded, “Gravitt, no. Wait. It was my fault. I’ll take the blame. Please.”
Brinson…no…just let him finish his bullying…
A noise behind her stopped Gravitt--the sound of the bumbling gait of her son. “Mommy!” He called as he approached the three adults. “Mommy! We went on an adventure!”
The footsteps behind stopped. “Mommy? Are you playing again? Can I play, too?”
Gravitt snarled as he sheathed the knife, releasing his brutal grip on her, and gave his next command in a harsh whisper. “Cover yourself before your bastard sees you, bitch!”
She pulled her blouse together, straightened up, and turned to her son, “Oh, we were just talking Darian. Come on, let’s put Brutus away. Ok?”
Brinson held the reins out to her, and kept his glare on Gravitt. She knew that look; hatred was seeded in those delicate dark eyes, and it was an emotion that frightened her coming from the quiet blonde man. Yes, Brinson was certainly capable of being enraged, and their master knew just which buttons to press.
Her friend spoke quietly, “Take it out on me, Gravitt. You shouldn’t need to beat up on a woman to get your thrills.”
Gravitt looked at her, “Get out of here and take your son!” She walked away, but glanced back at her friend. She was only a few feet from them when she heard their master laugh as he stopped as turned to take out the rest of his aggression on Brinson. “How noble and chivalrous of you, Loverboy! You want the blame? Do you think you’re man enough to take it? I’ll give it to you in spades!”
Sabre wanted to go back, or even just look back, but getting Darian out of the crossfire was foremost in her mind. As he bounded happily around her, she couldn’t take her mind off the man that she loved, and who was out there taking her lashes for her.
As they walked into the well-lit stable (the glow globes common in the Guild were used here, too) she quickly put the horse in its stall and tossed some hay over the door. A yelp from outside brought her mind back to the reality of what was happening just a few feet away. Darian looked up to her and asked, “Mommy, what’s Brinson doing?”
“He’s talking to Gravitt. We have to stay here. It’s private.” She spoke these words solemnly, and prayed her son did not understand the tone.
“Yes,” she said quietly, petting the nose of Gravitt’s enormous horse, who had been aptly named Brutus. She grabbed a brush from a pile someone had carelessly left on the floor near the animal’s stall and went inside, after reminding Darian not to follow her.
Hiding from her son on the far side of the horse in the darkness, she pressed her face into his neck and wept. Everything she had ever wanted had almost come to her that night, and now in the distance she heard those dreams being broken again. Gravitt had almost killed her; had almost raped her in front of Brinson and her…their…own child. For what? Spite? What claim did he have on her feelings? He could own her, but not her soul, her heart, and how they made her feel! And Darian? What would have become of him if Gravitt had killed her? She wasn’t so sure that monster was going to let Brinson live through this, and that was her fault. What would she do without him?
Brutus either sensed her discomfort or was curious as to why the small human was leaning against him and turned his head to nuzzle her. She scratched his withers and he rubbed her again. It wasn’t much comfort, but it was something. Oh Brutus, you’ve got to kill him for us…throw him or something…please…
Darian’s voice called into the stall, “Mommy, are you done? Can we brush Matze next?”
It took a moment for her to compose herself enough to answer him, and even then it was strained. “I’m done, Darian. Let’s go see if Brinson and Gravitt are done talking. Then we can look in on Matze”
She climbed under the horse’s neck and gave him one final pat before she left him with his hay. Lifting Darian up into her arms brought her some joy, but she still dreaded having to step outside of the stable. Keeping her son turned from what was going on behind him, she tried to engage him in conversation, hoping that from the door she could at least see what was happening to her friend.
Gazing into the distance as she talked to her son, she saw that Gravitt was using more of his intimidation tactics than his abuse ones; she almost breathed a sigh of relief as she watched Brinson be berated, rather than beaten. She saw their master take something from him—she guessed it to be the gloves—and shake them in his face. Then, with a dry mouth, she asked her son, “So tell me about the place you went to.”
“It was big. And metal. And it smelled funny.”
“Like old and rusty and stuff.”
“Oh. What did you do there?”
“I got to walk around. I didn’t have to sleep until we came back.”
“Were Philip and Marcus all right?”
“Yeah. But they weren’t happy.”
“Why not? Did they tell you?”
“No, but I think it was because of the Bird Man.”
“The Bird Man?”
“He looked like a bird. And he smelled funny, too.”
She stopped talking and forced the last of the tears down her throat as the conversation in the distance abruptly ended. Suddenly, Gravitt grasped Brinson's shirt, swiftly driving his knee into the other's groin with all the strength he could muster. The smaller man was lifted several inches into the air by the impact as his breath was pushed from his lungs in surprise, his eyes popping open in shock and agony.
Darian interrupted her instinct to run towards him, “I gotta ask something, Mommy.”
She nodded, still watching her best friend, her lover, writhe on the ground in pain as her own heart broke.
“Gravitt told me a secret today. He told me that I am his nephew. What does that mean, Mommy?”
The question caught her off guard, and as a curt response formed on her lips, Gravitt turned to look directly at her and a sinister smile crossed his lips as if to say that he was glad she had seen what he had just done. You are going to lie to your own child and then use him as part of this?! I swore I’d never claim you as blood, and I will keep that promise!! Still, she had to find an answer to satisfy her son. “It means…it means just that he is looking out for you, that’s all.”
“Oh. Then why is it a secret?”
“Maybe because people in Vane are a little strange.”
“Oh. I kinda like it here. Its very pretty.”
“Yes, it is.”
She shook her head as she watched Gravitt laughing callously as he relished the sight of Brinson curled up in unspeakable pain. Then, carrying on as if nothing had happened, the huge man turned back to him and said, purposely keeping his voice loud enough for her to hear, “I expect you at that reception tomorrow, Brinson. See if that engineer girl will go with you—she seemed to like you and could prove quite useful. We are moving ahead with the plan and I’ll need your…expertise.”
Darian either heard the angry words from outside or sensed her distress and started asking, “Mommy? Mommy? Mommy are you mad at me? I didn’t wanna go.”
She choked on her words as Gravitt finally left, wandering in the direction of the city gates. “I’m not mad, Darian.” Not at you, anyway.
Clutching her son tightly to her side, she ran to Brinson the second Gravitt left her line of sight. He had managed to sit himself up, but was clearly still in misery. Although she couldn’t know what it felt like, she did her best to sympathize.
“I’m sorry,” was all he said as he looked up towards her, but didn’t meet her eyes.
“No, no need to be sorry.”
Darian looked between the two of them, confused and anxious to get away from the tension. “Mommy, put me down.”
She set him on his feet and watched as he walked a few yards from them, looking sad and bored until a lightning bug flew by, giving the boy an innocent distraction from the reality of malice in the world around him.
Under normal circumstances she would have given a motherly smile at her son, but her attention at the moment was focused on the man who sat on the ground in front of her, taking in short, shuddering gasps of air. She stooped down to him and saw his jaw clenching in frustration. She knew what he was thinking…after all this time, there was some way, and while it wasn’t perfect, it did work. Maybe they would find a way, a real one in here Vane. In the meantime, they could at least touch, but it had been too short—far too short.
She whispered his name, “Brinson…”
He just shook his head, and repeated, “I’m sorry.”
She put her hand on his face and whispered into his ear, “I love you.” I want to be with you…even if it has to be like that… “Thank you, for trying.”
He smiled at her, with a small wisp of that soft, shy smile he usually wore, but she knew he was troubled. With a sigh he whispered, “I love you, too. You know that.”
Darian followed his prey and as it flew off, leapt between the two adults. He pulled at Sabre’s still lose shirttail and said with a pout, “Mommy! I’m hungry.”
“Gravitt didn’t feed you?”
Rage filled her eyes, and she saw Brinson shake his head in disgust as he painfully hauled himself to his feet, leaning forward slightly as though afraid, or unable, to stand straight. She put on a smile for Darian as she said, “Then we need to find you something to eat, don’t we?”
Brinson reached into his pocket and handed her some silver. “Get him some dinner and I’ll meet you back at the Guild.” His eyes softened, “Besides, I have that surprise to give him.”
Darian jumped excitedly, his thick dark-auburn hair bouncing with him. “A surprise for me? What is it?”
The blonde Tribal laughed, “You’ll see. But only if you’re a good boy for Mommy.”
“I will be! I promise Brinson! I promise!”
Sabre smiled at him again as her hand brushed his arm, “See you soon.”
The Festival’s market yielded a healthy meal for Darian, and after having to drag him away from a crowd watching an acting troupe, Sabre headed back to the Guild to finally go to bed after a completely exhausting day. The entrance to the Manor was as busy as it ever was, as if the City of Vane never went to sleep. Mages, visitors, students and servants were bustling around, but fortunately no one bothered her as she led Darian back to their room with promises of returning to the festivities tomorrow. I wish I had his energy…and this being tired all the time is getting old…
She turned the key in the lock of the door, and held Darian back as she instinctively checked the room for intruders. Finding none, she let him in, and then followed. Her son made a dash for his favorite spot—the large windows where he could see the world of Vane rush around below. Before she could shut the door, Brinson appeared. He was holding the basket from before and seemed to be in a better condition that when she had left him by the stables.
She whispered, as she quickly shut the door, “Where’s Gravitt?” We don’t need a repeat of earlier…
“Out. I heard him leave ten minutes ago. Did you get him something to eat?” He asked, gesturing towards her son.
At the sound of the familiar voice, Darian ran from his perch to the man, interrupting the conversation. “Brinson! Where’s my surprise? I’ve been good!”
He smiled at the boy, “You’ll get it when you get into bed.”
Sabre nodded to her friend in response, and turned to her son, who had begun yanking on her sleeve. When Darian had her attention, he stood upon his tiptoes, and motioned for her to lean over. She did so, and he began whispering into her ear. With a nod she laughed and pointed to the narrow door on the room's far wall. “Go ahead, Darian, I showed you how the chair works.” With that he scampered off to the bathroom, tugging at the rope that held his trousers snug to his waist.
Brinson gave a wane smile as the boy left them and reached for Sabre’s hand. “I’m sorry.”
“You keep saying that, and I keep telling you it’s not necessary.” She looked at him tenderly, seeing the sadness in his eyes magnified by his glasses. “You know how I feel about you. You know that I love you. Maybe someday we can try again, but for now, we at least have that.”
“Sabre…it’s not the ‘at least’ part...” He paused as he took his glasses off, and then wiped his eyes. “It’s everything.” He hesitated for only a moment, as he replaced the spectacles. “I want…and call me greedy for this, I don’t care…I just want one night with you. No Gravitt. Just us. I just want to brush your hair, and watch you dance. I…thought we might have that here—in Vane. But I guess we can’t. Gravitt still controls us, no matter how laid back he’s pretending to be.”
She touched a hand to his cheek. Oh Brinson, you romantic idiot, you wonderful romantic idiot…
He whispered then (in their native language so if Darian did manage to catch some of it, he certainly wouldn’t understand) and his tone grew more hateful and distraught than she had ever heard. “It’s not fair, dammit! It’s just not fair! I want to kill that bastard in his sleep! I want to hear him scream in agony for everything he's ever done to you! For all the pain he's caused, all the lives he's taken! Just because he has the power doesn't mean he has the right to do what he's done to us.... I want him to know that just because he’s bigger than us and immune to our only defense doesn’t mean that he can do—do what he does to you! You’re not his slave! You’re not his whore! You’re not any of those other horrible things he calls you! You’re—“ His voice cracked as he reached for her hands, “You’re the woman I love, and to whom I have pledged my affections. Goddess, I want to marry you, Sabre! But even if I was allowed to, I fear I am a failure by the very canons we were raised under! I cannot even protect you, and that is the foremost duty of a Tribesman to his wife!”
She folded her arms around his skinny waist, letting him bury his face into her shoulder. Her gloved hands rubbed his back soothingly as she whispered, “Brinson…I love you, too. You have been the only friend I’ve ever known, and you have protected me, and cared for me. Remember the time I told Gravitt I was pregnant and he beat me so badly I couldn’t move? You carried me to my room and took care of me. And then, when Darian was born, you were right there. I was so scared. I didn’t know what was happening, but you got me through it. You took up my duties for how many weeks? Even though it meant your doing the job of two, and not once did you complain or even let me repay you for it!” She lifted his chin off her shoulder and brushed the drying tears with her leathered fingers, “You’ve done more for me than anyone else ever has, my love. As far as I am concerned, I share my life with you, Gravitt or no Gravitt.”
The noise of Darian giggling as he ran the water in the bathroom broke the moment and allowed Brinson to compose himself. She touched his face as he straightened up, but he still held onto her as the boy came back into the room.
“Time for bed, Darian.” She said as she released herself from Brinson’s embrace.
The child hustled over to the cot that was set-up for him and took his shoes off. “Ok. Then I get my surprise, right?”
“Right,” Sabre said as she put him on the bed and pulled his faded and patched pants off. Even his shorts have holes in them…I need to buy him some new clothes…
Darian slid his shirt over his head and handed to her. “It’s hot. I just want my shorts.”
She nodded as he laid down into the bed and she tugged the covers up on him. Brinson stood behind her as he reached into his shirt and produced the dog puppet. “Woof!” He said as he made the toy open its mouth.
The child squealed in delight as he reached for the gift. “A puppy! Is he for me? Oh Brinson! Thank you!”
“You’re welcome,” the man responded, a genuine smile growing on his thin lips. “What are you going to name him?”
Darian thought for a minute. “Misha!”
Sabre smiled as her son used one of the few words of her true language she had taught him; it was one of their secrets. Brinson gave her a soft look, “He knows what that means?”
“I had to tell him, since we keep using it.”
Darian nodded enthusiastically as he pet his new friend. “Mommy says it’s a secret.” The boy looked between them, “But can I tell Brinson?”
“I think he already—“
Brinson cut her off, as he kneeled down, and asked in a low, overly curious voice. “What does it mean, Darian?”
Darian looked around suspiciously before giving the answer in a conspiratorial whisper. “Love.”
“Oh, but there’s a secret about it, too. Do you know what that is?”
Darian shook his head and his dark eyes widened in anticipation.
“If you say Misha before the name of someone you care about a lot, it means ‘my love’—but you only use that for very special people.”
Darian smiled as he snuggled his toy, and as the blonde man stood up, he asked: “Brinson, you gonna sing for me?”
Sabre saw her friend’s face melt and supplied the words for him, “He’s not feeling well tonight, so say good night and you’ll see him in the morning.”
“Good night! Misha Brinson!”
Sabre smiled at the innocent misuse of the word, and walked her friend to the door. Poking him playfully on the chest, she repeated what her son had said, which returned the quiet smile to Brinson’s lips.
She watched with an affectionate melancholy as he walked the short distance to his own quarters. Once she was sure he was in his room, she resigned herself to the fact that she was exhausted, and lay down, but she couldn’t sleep. Even though the bed was soft, and the room was warm and dark, her mind kept repeating what Brinson had just said. ‘I want to marry you, Sabre…’ Those were words she had never expected to hear, ever. Even her parents had told her she would never be able to bring them honor by marrying. It was not a happy memory, but it surfaced, and no simple shake of the head could stop it from reminding her of what she truly was…
Sabre ran into her family’s tent crying. Even at only eight years old, she had learned the hard way that she was ‘different’ and hated it. She hated hurting people, she hated the looks she got, and the whispers she heard whenever she was near. But most of all, right now, she hated her brother. She hadn’t gone more than a few feet into the cool shadows of the large tent before she felt her mother’s hand touch her shoulder and looked up at the woman. She envied her mother. She was so beautiful. She had the prettiest yellow hair, and she could touch people without hurting them.
“What happened, Sabre?”
“Mama, what does ‘freak’ mean?”
The response was stronger and far more bitter than she had expected. “Where did you hear that, my daughter?”
“Ashu called me that! He told me to run away because I was a freak. He said I wasn’t fit to share his name!”
Her mother looked horrified as she pulled the girl carefully, but securely into her embrace. “Why did he say these things, Sabre? What happened?”
The words came out in a single breath. “Kuna and Ashu were playing and I wanted to play too and they wouldn’t let me so I got mad at Ashu and I wanted to hit him and Kuna grabbed my arm and he fell down!” She paused, taking in a deep breath. “He was awful still.”
“But he’s okay, right?”
She nodded, her eyes suddenly wide in worry over how her mother would respond to her having hurt the other child. Her voice was muted as she replied; “Yes Mama, he woke up when Ashu shook him, but Ashu screamed at me and called me a freak and told me-- ”
Her mother seemed to give a brief sigh of relief, then looked at her sternly, cutting off the rest of the harried sentence. “Ashu may make you mad, and say things he shouldn’t, but you shouldn’t hit him, or anyone else. And you’ve got to be more careful. You know that.”
Still crying, she said angrily, “He’s mean!”
“He’s your brother, Sabre. He may make you angry and make you want to hit him, but someday you’ll be grateful for him. Besides, I imagine you’ve done the same thing to him.”
Sabre ignored her mother’s gentle chiding. “But I just wanted to play and I hurt Kuna!”
“I’m sure Kuna will be fine, and Kinashua will get a talking to when he gets home.”
“I guess….. but I still..” Her voice fell silent as she saw the tent’s entry flap slowly pull open behind her mother’s back.
Dark eyes peeked through the dimly lit home, and Sabre stopped crying and started chanting, “You’re gonna get in trouble! You’re gonna get in trouble for not letting me play with you!”
Her mother didn’t even have to turn around. She just said sharply, “Kinashua, come here right this minute and sit down!”
He did so, and Sabre noticed he looked rather sad and more than a little fearful. Ohhh, He’s gonna get a spanking!
“Tell me what happened.”
They both started to speak at the same time, but their mother held a hand up to Sabre. “I’ve heard your version. It’s his turn.”
Her brother rubbed his arms nervously. “We were playing—me and Kuna—and well, you know how Sabre can be. She just walked up and tried to take over, like she always does. I didn’t want to get shocked or hurt again so I told her to leave.”
Sabre interrupted, “Kuna wanted to let me play! Kuna is nice! You should be more like him!”
Her mother nodded to her, interrupting any response her twin could have made. “Perhaps, but he’s the only brother you have and you have to take him for who he is, just as he needs to do the same for you. You are his only sister, you know.”
The words seemed to burst out from the small boy. “She’s a freak, Mama! She’s going to kill someone one of these days! Everyone knows that!”
Anger flashed in the woman’s eyes as she stared at her son in disbelief, “Where did you hear such a thing, Kinashua?!”
He shrunk back at her tone, but didn’t respond.
Sabre noticed a hint of desperation in her mother’s voice as she grabbed the boy’s arm. “Tell me!”
He stammered, “Some of the elders of the tribe. They didn’t see me but I heard them. They told Daddy he should get rid of her.” He paused. “Daddy said no.”
Sabre knew her mother was fighting tears as she asked her son, “Do you honestly believe what you have just said about your sister?”
“I…I didn’t, I mean….”
Sabre stared at her brother. She knew she was going to cry again. She could taste the tears.
“You are also Gifted, Kinashua. Does that make you a freak as well?”
He considered a moment, then looked at Sabre sadly, and shook his head. “I… I don’t think so. Am I?”
Ignoring his question, Mama continued; “You two are going to bring great pride to our name and to our tribe. Both of you are special in your own right, and you must embrace these Gifts you have been granted to succeed! I can’t see how you can do this when you can’t even be in the same camp without staring a fight, let alone if you think of your sister as less than your equal!”
Ashu lowered his head as their mother took her knife off her belt, balancing it in her hand carefully for a moment. “Sabre, I want you to do something for me. Remember the Mage we brought you to last year? Well, he said that you might be able to heal with your gift. I want you to try doing that, all right?”
Through some sniffles, “Yes, Mama.”
Sabre watched in amazement as her mother pressed the blade’s tip into her forearm and, with a firm grimace, pulled it downward, slicing deeply through her tanned skin. The blade cut quickly, leaving a slim yet bloody incision.
She ignored the blood that began to stream down her arm. “I want you to think happy thoughts, Sabre. Think about when we go riding. Think about when Ashu tickles you. About how you feel when one of us hugs you and tells you how much we love you.”
Sabre smiled, memories of happy moments coming back, and she felt her tears drying up.
“Good girl. Now, when you are ready, touch my arm. Keep thinking those happy thoughts. Concentrate on that feeling. Hold your talent back. Now let just a little of it out, not too much, now.”
Slipping the gloves off, she did as she was told, doing her best to focus and grip the energy she felt rise within her. It was hard, and it felt funny way down deep inside her. She could feel the sweat as it began to drip down her forehead. She closed her eyes in tight meditation; trying to recall the happy rhymes and stories her mother had told her. She was going to do this right. She was going to do something good. And the tingle she felt as her fingers were pressed against her mother’s arm told her she was doing it.
She heard Ashu gasp and then her mother pulled away from her. “Sabre, open your eyes! Sabre look!”
She did. She had done something good! The cut was gone, not even a scar remained to mark where it had been. Her voice was soft and filled with wonder: “That hurt a little bit.”
“Magic can hurt when you use it and don’t know much about it. You will have to be careful and work awfully hard, but I’m very proud of you, Sabre.”
Ashu smiled at her, “I am too.” His dark eyes looked off in the distance as he said, “I’m sorry, Sabre.”
“Me too, Ashu.”
She looked up at their mother. She was smiling, but that changed too quickly. Another figure appeared behind them and her mother got up in response to some unseen signal or expression. A few hushed words passed between their parents and the two adults stepped outside and walked around to the back of the tent. She could see their shadows through the heavy fabric and her mother was gesturing wildly and holding an angry tone, but she was too far away to hear what was being said.
Ashu tapped her on the shoulder. “I hate it when they fight.”
“They are fighting about me, aren’t they?” Sabre asked as she pulled her gloves back on.
He shrugged as he traced a finger in the dirt floor. “You know I really am sorry, Sabre. I didn’t mean what I said. I was scared. I didn’t like seeing Kuna like that. He’s my best friend.”
She nodded sadly, “I was scared I had really hurt him, Ashu. He’s my friend, too.”
His voice grew playful as he hesitated for an instant, then began teasing her, “I think you like him.”
She scowled at him, “No way.”
“I think you’re going to marry him!”
She threw some dirt from the cleared earth near the fire at him, “Shut up, Ashu!”
He laughed and tossed a tuft of grass back at her. “Kissy kissy! Sabre and Kuna!”
Sabre glanced back at the two shadows outside the tent. She heard muffled crying and watched as her father tried to comfort her mother with his embrace. Moving closer to the side where they were at, she listened to what they were saying. She motioned for Ashu to join her, and he did.
“Lycasa…of course I told them no! Sabre is our child, and just like every other child she was created out of love! She has every right to live among our people. But we have to accept that she will…just have a different life than most of us.”
Her mother was still crying as she spoke. “She could be taught—she could be taught to help people instead of hurting them.”
“Perhaps, but we don’t have a trained mage around to do that. You know she can never marry or have children.”
“What if we took them to Vane? Rauchic—that mage—he said they might know what to do.”
“That is a long trip. It would have to be in the summer…but my love, I don’t know if theywould help. Everything I’ve heard about that place says they don’t take kindly to outsiders. They look down upon people like us.”
“Our children are famous for their Gifts! Tribes and mages from all over the Prairie come to see them! Surely someone in Vane has heard of them.”
“We can’t decide this right now.”
The words turned to silence as the adults just held each other in the shade of the tent. Sabre shook her head. She wanted to cry, too. Ashu’s teasing was bothersome, but that wasn’t what had hurt her. She had heard her father say that she could never get married, and that was one of the many things that was expected of all of her people. It was something sacred, and something she couldn’t ever have.
Ashu looked at her gently, “Why are you sad, Sabre? I said I was sorry.”
“No, Ashu, you were right. I am not fit to share your name. Daddy said I could never get married. Just because I could heal that cut doesn’t mean that I am cured. Maybe I should run away.”
“No you shouldn’t, Sabre! When you were lost in the woods Mama and Daddy were so scared!” He leaned over to her and whispered, “Daddy even cried! He didn’t think I saw him, but I did.”
Sabre sniffled as she shook her head, the bright hair atop it swishing tiredly, “But Ashu, I’m never going to be like everyone else. I’m never going to be normal. I’m never going to get married. I’m never going to make Mama and Daddy proud.” She paused, and then sobbed, “I’m never going to live up to my name or our family’s name!”
She was surprised with she felt his arms wrap around her, but still cried into his shoulder. He pat her on the back and said gently, “Yes you will, Sabre. I know you will.” He pushed her up, “I wanna show you something.”
She lifted her head and looked at him in puzzlement. “What do you want to show me?”
He just smiled, his dark eyes calling her to trust him. “Come with me.”
Sabre wiped her face and followed him out of the tent. Ashu led her to a tall tree on the edge of their camp. It stretched high above their heads and gave off a sweet smell from the yellow flowers that speckled the boughs.
“Daddy showed me this,” the boy said as he picked something off the bark and held it to her. “He said that this is what Mama’s name means.”
Sabre looked at what he had taken from the tree—it was a long, skinny bug with hairs that stuck out everywhere. “Ew, Ashu! That’s gross!”
“No, it’s a special bug. It’s called a caterpillar.” Still holding the bit of bark he picked a leaf off one of the lower branches and turned it over for her. “See that white thing? They go into those and they sleep and when they come out they turn into butterflies.”
“Really?” She asked in wonder.
“Really,” he said with authority. “See, this is what Mama’s name means—caterpillar; hidden beauty.” He looked at her, a warm, genuine smile forming on his lips as she took the bug from him. “Daddy said when she was little she looked more like a boy than a girl. Now he says she is the most beautiful woman in the Stadius Zone. He said that men from a dozen other tribes tried to marry her, but she didn’t want them. She wanted to marry him. He said that he is very lucky to have captured his caterpillar.”
Sabre smiled at him, showing that same charismatic smile as the bug crawled between her fingers. Ashu was so smart, and Daddy told him all the special things, probably because he was a boy. “That’s so sweet.”
“Yeah, it is.” He put his hand next to hers and let the bug crawl back onto it, then set it back on the tree. “You know, I think you’re a like a caterpillar, too. I think someday you’re going to grow up and be something really special.”
A noise from outside Sabre’s room called her attention to the door, and she jumped off the bed to open it, praying it wasn’t Gravitt looking for someone to beat on. Carefully hiding herself, she peeked out and saw three very mismatched men just down the hall. The biggest one was incredibly drunk; she could tell that by his loud and slurred words and wild gestures at the other two. The one dressed in a wizard’s robe knocked on the door, while the light haired one wearing simple traveling clothes tried to support his intoxicated companion. The magician’s hair was soaking wet, and he didn’t look very happy. He banged on the door again. Once. Twice. Finally it opened and a blonde woman came out wearing a nightgown. There was a discussion in quiet tones, until the drunk piped up, “Jettica…I know why now! She cheated on him! That’s what its about!”
The mage looked even more annoyed, and with a cross of his fingers knocked the big man out with some kind of sleep spell. The woman stepped into the hall as the two men dragged the drunk inside, and then followed, swearing out loud at the lot of them.
Sabre shook her head in disgust at the entire display and turned around to see that Darian was starting to stir, awakened by the idiots in the hallway. His eyes didn’t open, but the small child tossed. Knowing that if he woke up he would probably not want to fall back asleep, she sat on his bed, facing him, and away from the door. A tune formed on her lips; one that had been sung across the Prairie for generations. She found the words and began:
Past far distant hills, and ‘ore silent fields
The Goddess will sigh, sending the gift that she wields.
With a gift of her love, her grace and her song
She reminds us of hope, and our hearts grow strong.
Sleep my sweet dove, ‘O sleep my bold hawk
And dream of the wind, as it sighs past the rock.
Dream of the love, I have for my child
Dream of a world, both gentle and wild.
The boy had returned to his deep slumber before she even began the second verse, giving her a chance to just admire him. As she finished the song, a soft, yet slightly off key tenor voice behind her joined in on the last line. Startled, she jumped up off the cot and turned around, her hand instinctively reaching for her sword on her back, but it was not there. Did I leave the door open? How careless! Dammit! I am not fit to be a mother!
Backlit by the lamps from the hall, she began to size up the man standing there. The strange magical lighting outlined his form and prevented her from making out his features, but she decided even bare handed he would not be much of a match.
A few inches shorter than Brinson, but not as skinny…he smells like ale…he might be drunk….and he wears the robe of a Vanetian. He’s probably as weak as a child, but he might be able to cast a spell on me...
Finally, after she had stared at him for a long moment he spoke. “Your singing is lovely. I’m sorry if I frightened you. I know that song, but it has been years since I have heard it.”
“Thank you. My mother used to sing it to me,” she said as she let a glove fall to the floor—just in case.
Stepping only slightly into the room, he didn’t seem all too threatening, but in the darkness, and with Darian, she was not taking any chances. “You are from the Prairie Tribes, then? I know some of the language.”
“Yes. It sounds like you know a lot of the language to sing that song.” Keep your guard up...
“Maybe I do. I have studied many subjects.”
Sabre snorted at his arrogance. “Of course you have. Now, may I ask who you are, or if you can step back into the light so I can see for myself?”
His tone was cocky--almost put on--and she didn’t like it. “Am I scaring you?”
“No. Nosey men don’t scare me—especially ones short enough for me to smack in the face. Tell me, do you make it a habit of walking uninvited into women’s bedrooms? Or did you just decide to go slumming tonight?”
He laughed. “Touché. As fast as ever with that razor wit of yours, Sabre.”
She stopped. She had not told this man her name. Who was he? Had he been following her? Her curiosity was piqued. “How do you know who I am?”
“It was just a guess. You know, the Prairie Tribes have always fascinated me. Would you be so kind as to indulge me in answering a few simple questions?”
“That’s a new way to get a girl’s attention. My son is trying to sleep. Can we take this discussion somewhere else?” She picked the glove up and pulled it back on. She could just hit him if she had to; he seemed to be more idiot than threat.
The man stepped aside and motioned for her to lead him out the door. As she began to walk past him the light of the hall lit fully on his face and she gasped, and then gawked at him. He looks just like…Daddy, but with short hair. Ashu? No, it couldn’t be; Ashu would never come here. He would never dress like this man. He smiled softly at her, his hand reaching up to push his wet hair back into place as he looked back at her. Those eyes… large, dark, sad eyes…there was no mistaking him now. “Ashu?” she whispered.
“Yes, Sabre. It’s me,” was the simple response.
She jumped forward, forgetting her deadly Gift for the first time in years as she threw her arms around him. “You’re ARE alive! I knew it! I could feel it!”
As he embraced her, she ran her fingers through his wet hair, searching for something—something very important. The questions spun out of her in excitement. “Your colors? Where are they? What are you doing in Vane? Why are you dressed like this?”
He gave a sad smile as he suddenly pulled back, and she saw him frown at someone, or something, down the hallway over her shoulder. Ashu took her hand and started to lead her in the opposite direction from whatever was distracting him. “I live here. Come on; let’s go to my room. We have a lot to talk about.”
She glanced back through the open door at Darian’s peaceful form and closed it silently. Deciding that he wouldn’t notice if she was gone for a few hours, she nodded to her brother. “All right.”
Although Ashu’s room was just down the hall from hers, it was certainly of a higher caliber than even the special quarters she had been given. The doors to the suite itself were covered in gold leaf proclaiming the angelic symbol of the House of Ausa. She looked at him and teased, “Either you’re somebody important or you’re sleeping with somebody that is!”
He glared at her, in almost a way that told he was offended, but then shook his head and smiled as he pushed the door open. Inside was a parlor, with two rooms flared off of it. The large fireplace on the far wall was already burning, and the lamps of the room were lit. Apparently Ashu had people who did things like that for him. Maybe he is important after all. He pointed to the door on the right. “This way.”
Sabre stared in amazement at the size of the bedroom alone. It was nearly twice the size of the one she had been given, and exquisitely furnished. A huge bed—she wondered exactly how many people could sleep in it—rested against one wall with its dark curtains pulled back. The sitting area held two couches and as twice as many chairs, some of which her brother was obviously using as his closet, although a large wardrobe could be seen next to the bed, looking oddly empty. Boxes were open and spewing papers, clothes, books and other things; she didn’t even notice the desk until she saw its legs peeking out under its stack of books. He has turned into a slob.
Looking on the walls she saw some pieces of artwork; mostly landscapes, but the object hanging above the fireplace caught her attention. It was a weapon of superb quality--a shining metal crossbow.
“So, what do you think? Lots of space for just me.” He said as he closed the door behind them.
“Yes. I hope you clean it sometime, though. I’m almost afraid to walk across the floor.”
“I know it’s a mess, but I just moved.”
“Mess…dear Brother is an understatement.”
The mage laughed and then wrinkled his nose as he raised his sleeve and sniffed himself. “Give me a minute, Sabre. I want to change out of this—I reek of beer.”
“I noticed. I don’t mind. Who cares that you were drinking? Though I think your coordination might need some work. I think the point is to get it ‘inside’ you?”
“I do, and I wasn’t drinking. That half-wit Kyle was so drunk that he poured his pitcher over my head, and thought it was hilarious! He said I wasn’t celebrating enough. Like I had any thing to…” He shut his mouth with an almost audible ‘snap’ as he pulled the robe and then his shirt off. When he turned around, Sabre noticed some lash-like scars on his back, nothing large, but still enough to raise her suspicions. Had these people here in Vane hurt him? Did they pound and thrash their students to teach them their lessons?
Ashu was ignoring her stares and continued talking as he took his shoes off, “Anyway, Alex and I had to drag him out of there once the brawl started, and he kept trying to run back into it. I’ve never known anyone who enjoys a good bar fight as much as Kyle. Anyway, his wife was not happy with any of us. Now give me a minute to wash some of this off and change clothes.” He picked a clean (she hoped) shirt and a towel off the floor and disappeared behind a small door at the far end of the room.
The names are familiar. I’ve heard them before, several times, but where? Sabre thought to herself as she walked to the fireplace and stared at the weapon that had commanded her attention when she first entered the room. Examining it closely she saw it was crafted entirely out of white gold, with some sort of clear crystal accenting the metalwork. As the flames from below flickered, the crystals in the bow picked them up, causing the whole thing to glow in an eerie way. Cautiously, she reached a hand to touch it, and found even through her gloves there was some sort of magical sensation.
He came out from the bathroom, his hair slicked back and dripping wet. As he pulled on the fresh shirt he noticed her infatuation with the crossbow. “Magnificent, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Where did you get it?”
“I found it. I thought about giving it to Alex as a souvenir, but well, I really like the thing. Besides, he can’t shoot it as well as I can.”
Sabre’s brow furrowed in thought. Yes, the names are dreadfully familiar. She turned to him and said, “Alex and Kyle? As in the Heroes? I had heard they were here. I didn’t realize you knew them so well, Ashu.”
“Heh, yeah I know them all pretty well.” He hesitated before finishing, the smile on his face changing. “Sometimes maybe too well.”
He was smirking in a way she couldn’t read, but when he brushed his hair up, something clicked…the portraits in the taverns…they weren’t exact, but…. and the songs…the songs about the Heroes…and the magicians in the group, suddenly a light went off within her head.
He winked at her, clearly reading her statement. “I… I had to change my name when I came here, Sabre. They call me Nash, now, I guess that’s all I’ve been known as for a long time.”
She whispered in disbelief, “Nash of Vane? The Hero?”
He grinned, “That’s me, for better or for worse. And the new Premier of the Guild, effective Saturday.”
Sabre nearly leapt into the air in excitement as she hugged him again. Her brother was not only one of the Heroes, but he had succeeding in proving his adulthood according to the customs of the tribes; he had lived up to his name. Such an event would have brought on a celebration within the Tribe, and he would have been allowed to marry. She silently prayed her parents knew this; it would bring them much joy, even from beyond death. “Oh, Ashu! I always knew you would fulfill your name! I knew it! I’m so proud! Mother and Father would be, too!”
“I…. I don’t know, Sabre. I’ve done a lot of things that I’m ashamed of.”
She pulled at him, trying to resist the temptation to embrace him again. “I want to hear everything! But not here, I saw some kind of garden outside from my room’s window…with a pool and everything. Please, let’s go there? These walls are starting to drive me insane.”
Rays from the Blue Star waltzed upon the water, giving Sabre and Ashu just enough light to relax by. Seated on a bench next to him, he kept her enthralled with his story of how he had gotten out of the tent that night by calling the storms, their downpour extinguishing the last of the fires that had consumed the tents and legacy of their tribe. Then, in a soft voice, he spoke of how he had followed their mother’s map to Vane. He told her of his studies at the Guild, how he came to apprentice under the last Premier, his adventure and his latest appointment. He included the bad times—those which were left out of the songs and stories she had heard—the times when he'd let himself fall under the dark master's sway and let his selfishness and weakness rule his life. It was clear that he was not proud of those times, but she knew that he had learned from them. She smiled as he bragged about his years here at the Guild and his adventure; he had certainly earned the right to. Finally, after an hour of speaking of himself, he turned to her as he blushed, “Sorry, I tend to ramble.”
“No, it’s a wonderful story. She smiled as she gave him a gentle nudge; "And it's nice to see that some things haven't changed.” She paused for a moment, though not enough for him to respond in. “ Just one question, no one here knows who you really are? The Storm Child of the Prairie?”
“No, I couldn’t even keep my name, I’d have been kicked out at best if they’d known who I really was. But that is changing Sabre. They, we… aren’t going to be the self-righteous, elitist city Vane used to be. We’re going to welcome everyone, I’ve already seen it start, and with Mia leading us, it will certainly continue.”
She noticed he spoke the name ‘Mia’ with a bit of plaintive reverence, and chose not to ask about it. “But then why don’t you just tell them. It could be inspiring.”
“I plan to, and soon. But please, Sabre, don’t say anything to anyone about it until I do. I want it come from me, and some people need to be told before others.”
“I won’t, I promise.” Gravitt again entered her mind and she added, “But maybe you shouldn’t say anything until after the Festival, though. There are many people who have come to it that would take advantage of… me to use you, to exploit you because of this—some people who might even harm to you and your city, or even to the Guildmaster. Vane might understand, but some of its visitors…well…you just can’t be sure of anyone’s motives these days.” Please Ashu…not with Gravitt here…he’ll use you as tool in whatever sick plans he has for this place…
He coughed, clearly uncomfortable with her observation and diverted the conversation to a different avenue, “So you have a son…you are married then? To that blonde man I you nearly ran over with your horse this morning?”
She said sadly, “No, Brinson is just my friend. He is not my son’s father.”
Her twin clearly sensed her distress, “I’m sorry if I’m touched on an uncomfortable subject—from what the two of you said to each other earlier today I just thought…”
Sabre shivered, and prayed he didn’t see it. The thought of being committed beyond life to Gravitt made her ill, or worse, but she couldn’t tell him the truth. She realized she didn’t have any other choice; there simply wasn’t time to be creative. As distasteful as it was she had to use the cover story Gravitt had given her, even though it meant that she would have to lie to her own brother. “Was married. My husband is dead.”
“Don’t be, it was more of a business arraignment than a marriage. Hell, it didn’t even last long enough to be called either. You don’t need to feel sorry, there was little love lost when he decided he’d rather be dead than married to me.”
There was a profound sorrow in Ashu’s dark eyes as he said, “You mean you married him but you didn’t even love him?”
Sabre hesitated, the words tasting foul in her mouth. “Oh, perhaps on some level I did. I don’t think he cared for me much. Adventuring was his first love; horses were his second, so at best I was a distant third. I knew that from the beginning.”
“That’s horrible, Sabre. I just can’t imagine—“
She cut him off with cold shrug, refusing the reassuring hand he’d tried to put on her shoulder. “When you’re like me, Brother, you take what you can get.” A pause and then with a smile she said, “What about you? I’m sure you’ve have plenty of choices as to who holds your affections.” She laughed briefly; “Maybe even some competition? Or does it change from week to week? Surely that gigantic bed was meant for more than one person!”
He said acrimoniously, “There was girl, once. One that I wanted to marry—but not any more.”
He considered a moment before he said simply, “I lost her. My own damn fault.”
She heard the finality in his voice and decided not to probe further, at least not at the moment. “I’m sorry.”
Ashu quickly changed the subject. “How old were you when you married?”
“Barely sixteen. Too young.”
“Sixteen…I had just earned my apprenticeship. Sabre, I wish I had been there.”
“Yeah, me too,” she said, almost pitifully.
Ashu looked away from her. “I wonder, Sister, and I know I am being too nosy, but how… how is it possible that you have a child? I mean, well…you know.”
She smiled at him, hoping he wouldn’t see how forced it was: “No, you are not being nosy. My…husband was immune to magic—all kinds, direct and indirect. His…. Brother…” her voice grew cold at the statement, “is the man I traveled here with…Gravitt of Briggatt. He is the same way…immune, I mean.”
“What is ‘fascinating?’”
“Their family’s inherited immunity to magic, and the ability to repel its effects. I’ve never heard of that before. It would make an interesting study.”
Ashu seemed intrigued, “Your son, does he have his father’s ability?”
“No, I believe he has inherited mine, but it’s still too soon to tell.”
“How old is he?”
“He’ll be four in July,” she said, and then added despondently, “I am so afraid for him, the first signs are there… I’ve already started to cover his hands.”
Ashu shook his head returning his hand to her shoulder, “Sabre, I promise I’ll do whatever I can for him and you. We have resources here—volumes of knowledge and mages that know everything there is to know about magic, centuries of learning and knowledge.” He took her hand, “After all these years…it’s the least I can do. I believe that I owe you my life, Sister.”
She shook her head, rejecting his last statement. “When I realized it was really you, I knew you would want to help. And you owe me nothing, but thank you, Brother.”
He gave her a wide smile, “What did you name him?”
“It’s a pretty name.”
“I wanted to name him after Father, or you, but…my husband didn’t like it. He didn’t want a Tribal name for his child.” She glanced away from him. “He’s… was… funny about that.”
Ashu looked like he didn’t really know how to respond to her comment, but he grinned at her and said, “I can’t wait to meet him! I can’t believe I have a nephew!”
“I’m sure he’ll adore you.” She grinned back, a mirror image of the one he gave her, “He’s got the curse, you know.”
He stood up and stretched, walking a few steps from where she sat to check his appearance in the reflection of the water. “He has? Poor kid, I guess Mother wasn’t wrong about that.”
“No, she wasn’t. When you came up behind me in the hallway, I thought I had seen Daddy’s ghost.”
Turning back to her he smirked, “It’s the curse—although not a bad one, I mean we’re just a whole family of extraordinarily handsome men.”
A playfulness Sabre thought she had long forgotten suddenly filled her as she jumped up and threw all her weight against him, pushing him into the pool. She laughed hysterically as he tried to catch his balance by flapping his arms, and then finally surrendered to gravity by crashing into the water face first. A moment later he resurfaced, and she shouted, “Yes, but the real curse is that they all know it!”
He swam to the edge and held a hand up to her. “Help me out. These clothes weigh a ton.”
Standing over him, she crossed her arms over her chest, “I’m not falling for that one, Ashu. I still remember that trick you pulled on me when we were six.”
The pool was shallower than she had thought, because in a second Ashu was standing at his full height and the water only at his waist. He smirked, made some sort of gesture at her and then next thing she knew she was floating a few inches above the ground and being pulled towards him. He snapped his fingers to break the spell and she hit the water, landing hard on her backside. She pushed her way to the surface and scowled at him, shaking the water from her hair and trying to keep it from gluing her shirt to her body. “You’re not playing fair!”
He laughed, and splashed some more water on her. “Of course not! I’m your brother, I’m allowed to cheat now and then. Come on, let’s get inside. We’ll both catch our death of cold staying out here all wet.”
Dressed in one of Ashu’s old tunics (which was more of a dress on her) and sipping some very welcomed hot tea, Sabre found herself more relaxed and content than she had been in years. Sitting in front of the fire in his room it seemed almost natural; in her mind she pretended for a moment that they were on the Prairie again, talking in front of a campfire. In the third outfit she had seen him in this evening, Ashu still looked different to her, though. He seemed too regal to be the little boy who would throw bugs at her and scare her horse with his thunder when their parents weren’t looking.
As her brother sat down next to her, now dressed in old baggy pants and a shirt (she guessed they were what he usually slept in), he said, “You know…when we were out on the Prairie looking for the Black Dragon cave, I asked around about you.”
She smiled over her tea. “I don’t live there anymore, I haven’t for a while now.”
“I guess not, but still, I figured around Tamur someone might have heard something, or known what had become of the Setin.”
“They are still around.”
“I figured that. What did they want with you?”
She gave him a harsh look, “What do you think they wanted?”
“Sabre, I’m sorry. I just…never mind. How did you get away from them?”
She gritted her teeth. She was not going to tell Ashu about being a slave. He’d want to interfere, or try something noble--something that could get him killed. So again, she lied to him. “I ran away one night.”
Ashu nodded as he stirred his cup and shifted the conversation slightly. “I made friends with some people from Pao on that trip.”
Sabre responded flatly, “Yeah, they are still around. No one really bothers them. Many of the other Tribes have died out, though. People have been hunting them down.” People like Gravitt…
“This…this discussion saddens you, Sabre. Why is that? Do you want to go back? To the Prairie?”
“I don’t know what I want, Brother. I’ve found you now and I should be happy, but neither of us are the people we were.”
“We were kids, Sabre. People change as they get older.”
She could tell by his tone that he was dodging her statement. “Perhaps, but not so much in eleven years that sometimes, like right now, I feel I don’t know you.”
“We’ve both been through a lot. Do you know what it took to get to Vane? To leave the Prairie? I was the only one left, Sabre. I checked—everyone was dead! They killed even the youngest babies.”
“I know and I’m not faulting you,” she said as she placed the cup on the table in front of the couch.
He looked at her, “I still wish you had stayed. Then we could have come here together.”
“Vane is a nice city, and I’m sure you love it since it’s your home, but I would have been miserable. You know that. And if it had gone other way--if you had been caught too--who knows what would have happened to us? At the very least we would have been prisoners of the Setin.”
He said gently, “Well you would have gotten in a lot of trouble if you had run off like you used to do. You used to scare Mom and Dad when you did that, something awful.”
“I don’t do that anymore.” I want to…but…
A long silence held, finally she said with a grin, “Ashu, I have a confession to make.”
“My friend Brinson won a mare from a very drunk Vanetian back in December. The owner told him that she was a gift from the Guildmaster. I have to tell you this because Brinson gave me that horse, and when we got here he realized that you were the man he beat at cards! So, now in knowing that she was yours, I want… I need to give her back to you.”
He shook his head, “Mia bought me that horse without knowing how high strung she was—she never was a very good judge of horseflesh. He laughed as he continued; “She still can’t tell the difference between a stallion and a mare. Anyway, I never really could ride her, not like she deserved to be ridden, and I lost the bet. She’s yours, Sister.” He smirked, “Besides, I’m sure you ride her better than I do. You always did.”
She leaned back on him and looked up, “Yeah, but you could make me fly.”
“Maybe we can do that again.”
“I’d love to.” She turned to face him, “What was her name? The horse, I mean.”
“She didn’t have one. Vane’s never gotten into the habit of naming horses, I guess I just sort of got used to that.”
Sabre gasped, “Ashu! That is bad luck! You should know you never ride a horse without a name!”
He shrugged, “I’ve grown up with different superstitions, here.”
She scowled. “I wouldn’t take it so lightly. You lost that horse. What else bad happened to you? You said you lost the girl you loved. Did she die?”
“Stop it Sabre! No, she’s not dead! She’s just…never mind! Just stop it!”
“See, it all comes back to the horse. Watch yourself Brother, you know it takes seven years to break a curse.”
Angry brown eyes met shocked blue as he spat, “Sabre, I don’t believe in that crap anymore! I don’t believe that by braiding my hair I will bring pride to my family! I don’t believe that in dancing a certain way we will have a good hunt! I don’t believe that you need to strive to become the ideal of your namesake, or that that doing so makes any difference in who you are! And I certainly don’t believe that by riding a horse without a name your luck will be terrible!”
She felt her face go white as she asked him, “Then what do you believe in?”
“I believe in hard work. I believe in the greater good, whatever the hell that may be, and I know that someday we can achieve peace throughout Lunar, and that it will start right here in Vane where everyone is welcome to study magic!”
“Those are values, Brother, new ones, but not beliefs. I guess you lost the ones our parents gave you, then, when you found your new home… and forgot the ones you were born to.”
“No I didn’t. If I had, would I have told you who I was? You would have never figured it out otherwise. You looked right at me, Sabre. You looked right at me and rode away.”
She brushed her hair back; the ends of it still wet from the impromptu swim. Guilt filled her and she said quietly, “Ashu, I’m sorry. We shouldn’t fight.”
He touched her shoulder, regret in his eyes and voice. “No, we shouldn’t Sabre. I’m sorry too.” He sighed, “It’s late. I’m tired and you’re tired. And even if you’re not, I’m more than a little confused right now. How about we pull the blankets off the bed and sleep on the balcony outside? I must confess that the walls get to me sometimes, too.”
She smiled at him. “I’d love that.”