Seven Rivers 1.5

Michael opened his eyes to utter blackness. At first he experienced fear and disorientation, and then his brain caught up with his environment. He was sleeping on a low cot in a room at Master Hohkan’s house above the shop where they had met that afternoon. As the darkness began to resolve itself into shadowy shapes, he wondered what had awakened him. Everything was silent, even the street outside. It must be very far into the night.
Gradually he relaxed, and just as gradually realized that the night was not as silent as he had thought. Someone was moving about downstairs. He could hear items moving around. At first he thought perhaps it was not late at night but early in the morning, and Hohkan or a servant was getting an early start on the day. He lay still and listened carefully, identifying through the wooden walls the sounds of people breathing evenly in deep sleep. He had fallen asleep to those sounds, noting how many there were. He had learned not to fall asleep until all of the others in his vicinity were there first. Habits gained from bitter experience would not leave him even when those around him seemed harmless.
He was able to account for everyone who was present when he fell asleep. The movements downstairs were those of an intruder.
He rose from his cot with the stealth of long practice. Having used his cloak as a blanket, he had no need to dress or assemble himself. His precious Claws never left him now, and were strapped to his thighs within easy reach of his hands. He seldom traveled with a large pack anymore, subsisting with a small pouch of essentials and living off the land as he found it. He was prepared to be ready at any moment, and so this time he was.
The wooden floor in the hallway creaked at the slightest movement, but Michael had become skilled at making his movements seem like the natural sounds of a building settling from temperature changes. With what speed such stealth allowed, he crept down the hallway past the room of his host and the jolly wife he’d been introduced to earlier. The next door was their black-haired daughter with the gray eyes who had flirted her lashes at him throughout dinner. Across from her was the small boy who had peppered their strange guest with questions, and then the servants at each side of the main stairs. He descended into the darkness.
As he approached the front room, where the Hohkan’s business took place, the sounds became more distinct. Someone was in there, moving things around. There was the distinct sound of something being packed into a bag, and set out near the exit. Someone was stealing from the shop!
Michael had not known Hohkan for a day yet, but he was a guest in this house and he felt certain obligations toward the man who had fed and sheltered him. A burning rage began to rise in him, despite his best efforts to stifle it. How dare someone take from an honest tradesman! Despite everything he had been through, despite every hardship and starving day, Michael had never once stolen from an honest man. He had never vowed not to; his conscience simply would not allow it.
He unhooked the Claws from their leather straps and gripped them firmly in his fists. He felt his intent flow into their long metal blades and knew that, though he could not see it, those blades had shifted color from dull steel to shimmering blue in his right hand and smoldering red in his left. The cloak that enveloped his body caught the cold on one side and the heat on the other, and he knew that whatever was on the other side of the curtain that separated him from the pilferer in his host’s shop, he was ready for it.
He made no more noise than a moth as he slipped past that portal and into the spicy space beyond. He could hear more clearly now the movements in the room. He paused to listen and wait for his eyes to adjust to the change in the texture of darkness here.
He knew from earlier in the day that the shop was filled with curiosities from the jungles of the southern continent, as well as practical items for journeys of a less exotic nature. Coils of rope and bolts of burlap rubbed cheeks with spotted and striped hides of every color, and jars of resin and fragrant oil. Containers of animal tusks and bones rested underneath dried spices and herbs. Silks of the finest weave nestled in boxes of saava – that wood which was now extinct and so much dearer to have at hand. There were riches in this room, indeed. Michael spared a passing thought for why Master Hohkan did not keep it better guarded.
At the very front of the shop, a patch of thicker darkness was moving. It was small and lithe and obviously experienced at its dishonest work. Michael crept forward, barely breathing as he watched the figure set an object on the counter, then turn and begin to cut into a coil of rope nearby. The creature was not only stealing, it was set to ruin goods that it was leaving behind! The rage bubbled farther up until he could feel it heating the pit of his stomach. His muscles tensed as he moved closer so he could have a better angle of attack.
The figure finished its task and bound up the cut ends of rope, then slung the shorter coil over its shoulder, swinging it towards the pack Michael could now see outlined in front of the open door. Enough starlight illuminated the objects there; all practical and none worth as much as the treasures he had passed on his way to accost the stranger. Perhaps the thief was preparing to escape with those riches last…
Michael’s fists tightened on the handles of the Claws as he prepared to end the burglar’s miserable life. His knees descended into a crouch to better match his opponent’s slight stature; a trick he had learned to catch a foe off guard – reveal one’s true size only when required. His muscles pulled together for the final surprising spring.
“You see what you wish to see, and not what is.”
The softness of the voice cut through the burning injustice he felt towards the figure, and he paused for the barest second, wondering if this was some trick. It was a feminine voice, no louder than a whisper, and yet filled with a kind of music.
“You have learned to leap first and ask no questions. This is not in your nature, Mal’i-ni’mal.”
Friend of my friend, she had said, in the language of his desert brethren. She set another object on the counter, which was already filled with such things, and turned to a string of dried meats, pulling it down. She selected another string of meat, and one of herbs, and wrapped them carefully before stowing them in the pack by the door. Michael stayed motionless, tensed at the edge of attack.
“I will answer the question you will not ask, and that is that I am no thief. I come with things Hohkan can sell, and I take what I need until the exchange is even. No more. No less.”
Michael gave no answer, but felt a doubt creep into his mind. His muscles loosened of their own accord. He couldn’t trust this person, but he also felt he shouldn’t mistrust them.
The two figures shared the darkness in silence while the one continued to fill her pack and place things from her pouches and pockets onto the wide counter, until it was full of oddities. Michael could see the sheen of gemstone carvings and the gleam of metals. There was a curve of oiled wood adorned with feathers, and near that an unmarked jar with a plain stopper. His hands were no longer gripping the Claws with white knuckles and his knees had straightened to a comfortable standing position. He watched her continue the bizarre exchange of goods, incurious and unspeaking. After a short time, she finished her work, tied up her pack and turned to him.
He couldn’t tell anything about her in the shadows, other than she was about a head shorter than he was. She wore a short cloak with a hood and long pants rather than a skirt. Her posture was loose and confident and her movements were graceful and efficient.
“You are a chick within the shell, too scared to peck and greet the light.”
Michael felt a flicker of interest at her words, despite the sting of the insult of cowardice she had directed at him. He felt that he should counter her in some way, but found that the words slipped away, and kept him silent.
When he did not answer after several moments, she turned and hefted the pack to her shoulder, gathering the coil of rope under her other arm. She turned to him, silhouetted against the outside. “I go South, if you were waiting.”
Michael suddenly understood. “You are Kailee the Mad!” His voice was like the rough caw of a bird softened with the stillness required by the dead of night.
She shrugged, “There are some who call me so. I am myself and no other; no other is I.” She stepped away from the shop door. “If you are staying, I need to lock up behind me. Hohkan keeps many treasures.”
The tall young man breathed out a sort of relieved decision and slid the Claws back into their leather sheathes, where they became dull metal once again. He took a step towards the door, and then turned back toward the counter. He lay a single gold coin upon the surface and turned again to go.
Kailee chuckled, “He will know that is not from me. I do not deal in coins.”
A sudden unfamiliar perverseness engulfed Michael and he moved back to place another coin beside the first before leaving.
As the woman locked the door behind them, the two coins gazed up at the ceiling like a pair of shining golden eyes in the darkness.

Seven Rivers 1

The pain was still so raw that he could barely talk. His wounds had long healed during his stay with the Rochat, but the pain remained. He had lost the other half of himself, and he would never recover from that. He croaked words out to the man behind the counter.
“I need a guide South.” The harshness of Michael’s own voice no longer bothered him, but the other man started back slightly.

“Nobody goes South, mister.”

“Somebody will,” Michael answered, and turned to go to the next caravan station, leaving the man behind him blinking in confusion at the abrupt exchange.

“Wait, mister! Not so fast, young’un, hold on, hold on!” Michael paused at the curtained doorway and half-turned back into the dim room. The searing desert sun behind him made the face within the hood of his cloak a mystery. He said nothing, waiting for the other man to continue.

“Now, young man, I can see you’re in a hurry but forgive an old caravan master his old bargaining habits. Sit, sit!” He waved a beringed finger at a low stool near a cozy table in the corner, which had been set with tea and biscuits. Michael remained standing, his hidden eyes assessing the robed figure before him.

“I do not have the time for bargaining.”

A wide, white smile greeted this assertion, and the smaller man bowed . “Then, good sir, you pick an awful time to visit G’Shak-a. The sun is highest and all shops will close now until dusk. There will not be a soul upon the streets except for takh’ti,” he used the Rochati word for those whose wits had left them. Michael had heard it aimed at himself recently and grimaced with cheerless humor inside the protective gloom of his hood. He took a slow deep breath, remembering the lessons he had learned on his journey, and forced himself to take a moment of rest. He glided like a shadow to the table and sat on the offered stool, making no more noise than a breeze in the night.

“I am Caravan Master Hohkan, sir, at your service. Please, accept my hospitality and we may speak of the Great South.” He began the elaborate preparation of tea while Michael reluctantly removed his dusty black gloves, laying them on the table next to the steaming cup which was placed in front of him. He tried not to look at the band of black which encircled the middle finger of his right hand. It was the physical manifestation of his loss, his failure.

“I am called Nainan Bakhmalshi,” Michael answered the man’s unspoken question with the Rochati name he had taken while wandering the desert. It meant ‘Sorrow’s Brother’. He then pushed the hood of his cloak away from his face. His skin had darkened with his months in the desert, but was still quite pale in the places the sun had not struck. His hair had grown long and hung like black snakes to his shoulders; one streak of white, he knew, rested in the center of his forehead and curled like a feather to disappear amidst the darkness. He kept his striking golden eyes fixed on the repast in front of them, though he knew it did not hide their uniqueness.

“That is a sad name, sir. Let us rest and speak.” The older man held a plate of savory biscuits towards his guest and Michael took one hesitantly. It was still hard for him to consent to be a guest anywhere outside his Rochat family, after having been through his ordeal in the far northern Varani lands. The very thought of that race of villains caused the pit of his stomach to go cold with fear and his head to grow hot with rage. He struggled to control what used to be so easy to keep in check; he had long been able to ignore the dark blood in his veins but they had awoken an inner nature he could no longer deny. He mentally wrestled and shoved the feelings back into their iron room deep within his psyche, slamming the huge bar across doors he had built as a last defense against the shadows. As the phantom clanging of metal echoed around his skull, he realized Hohkan had been speaking while he battled inner demons.

“… of course the exotics of the South intrigue and enthrall anyone who has seen them, smelled them, been privileged enough to hold them, but the journey is so dangerous now that nobody will send a caravan that way anymore. The trade is much in demand, but too many do not come back! Tell me, good sir, is it treasure you seek? There are easier prizes to be won, and if it is adventure, why I can send you with caravans full of …”

Michael cut him off. “Master Hohkan,” his rough voice rattled the delicate teacup in its saucer. “Pardon my interruption. I can assure you I have discovered treasure enough in my travels, and more adventure than anyone wants.” The weariness in his voice was palpable in the dim, sweet smelling room. “I will not be turned from my purpose, and that purpose is to go South. If no caravans go there, then I will go alone.” Somehow the solidity of his fatigue turned to emptiness on the last word, which floated across to his host like the vapor rising from their tea.

Hohkan was silent for a moment, gazing across at the man who looked younger than himself but spoke with so timeworn an air. Michael felt the gaze but did not raise his eyes to meet it, instead nibbling at the biscuit, which was rich with butter and herbs and went so well with the spicy, sweet tea that he lifted to his mouth.

“I see why they call you Sorrow.” The older man’s voice was quiet and full of something Michael didn’t care to interpret. “Please do not take offense; there are so many young men who come through because they hear of wonders and adventures beyond measure, and those who seek such things rarely find anything but death and disappointment. I think … if I may be so bold, that perhaps you have already found these things.”

Michael was silent. He had only just contained his torments and had no wish to awaken them again. Hohkan munched silently along with his companion for a while, then took a deep breath as if coming to a decision.

“Only Kailee the Mad is fool enough to explore the South Lands since the caravans stopped. We do not deal with her except to buy the oddities she brings back. She has been gone for two months now; it may be more than a week before she is here again.”

The inward groan that Michael stifled shook his entire body. Another delay! Goddess curse this blasted southland with its slow pace and weather too hot to walk in! Curse the endless exercises he had endured to get his mind back into some kind of order after the Varaine had twisted it up to the point of insanity. He had to hurry, felt compelled to get to his destination as fast as possible. The small black doubt that lived behind his brain whispered that it could already be far too late…

He realized that his breath had become swift and shallow, making a noise almost louder than the bits of biscuit that dropped from the hand that had crushed it into crumbs. He forced himself to breathe slower and more deeply, setting his jaw and concentrating on the physical feeling of the air going in and out of his body. He rolled the little crumbs around in his fingers for a moment, focusing on their rough-smooth feel against his dry skin. He gained control once more, and looked around for a way to clean up the mess he had made. His gaze met that of his host.

Hohkan’s eyes widened, and Michael knew that it was his own strange eyes – the bright color of a gold coin and with pupils almost like those of a cat – that caused a reaction in the other man. The caravan master raised his hand reassuringly and nodded his head.

“Young man, I will not pry into your past, nor delay your future. This Kailee has a reputation for turning up in the least likely of places at some of the most opportune of times. If your paths are to cross, I feel you will not have long to wait. Come, we will finish our meal and take our mid-day rest. You are welcome to a hammock in my back room, and if it is needful you will come to supper as well.”

The Brother of Sorrow nodded, dropped his remarkable eyes to the table, and took another biscuit.

Seven Rivers 2

“I am too broken to love again.” Michael’s voice was matter-of-fact. He wanted this conversation over with. His golden eyes gazed fixedly into the fire, but reflected none of its warmth.

“I am not asking to be loved. I am hoping to be a companion to you.” Kailee’s voice was softer, but just as pointed as his own.

“You hope for less than you deserve.”

She laughed lightly, “Oh, I know that. But so much of life is accepting defeat that hoping for anything at all is a triumph!”

He sighed and looked away from the fire, allowing himself to lose his gaze in the ghosts of flames that danced before his dazzled sight. He heard movement beside him, and felt a small warm hand rest itself on his own. He almost pulled away, but willed himself to remain still.

“Michael. I know that you seek the mate of your soul. You are a broken heart but know that we all are broken hearts. If you hide and protect the break and do not use your heart, like a bone which is not set well and is not used, it will warp and heal wrong.” She took a breath and when he glanced up at her, she was looking into the far distance and he could tell she was listening to an inner voice, “You cannot let the dark ones win your heart. They have stolen parts of you which will not be returned. Live, and remember, and fight them.” He watched her come back to herself and when she turned toward him, their faces were inches apart. She waited, her deep green eyes calmly gazing into his own golden ones.

He felt his heart beating fiercely, as if he had been running from something for far too long. He could feel the back of his mind roiling but couldn’t interpret it. His throat tightened as she leaned toward him and their lips met.

At first, all he felt was the physical touch of them. Her lips were soft and warm, and the light down of her cheek brushed against the tip of his nose. It was less frightening than he had thought it would be. He closed his eyes and pressed in a bit.

Suddenly it felt as if a knife had been thrust deep into his chest, and he reeled back in shock. His eyes flew open and he gazed incredulously down, but there was nothing there. Kailee smiled gently at him and tilted her head.

“What is wrong?” he gasped out, pressing his hand to his sternum. He could still feel her lips on his, somehow more vividly than the phantom pain.

“My love, you begin to feel again.”

“I … I don’t think I want to…”

She leaned in to him again, and just before their lips again met, she whispered, “But you must…”

This time he felt the kiss throughout his whole body, as if it were a sledgehammer knocking down the sturdy walls he had built around the core of his being. He felt the blood rushing to every long-forgotten corner of himself, flooding every painful place he hadn’t dared to touch. He began to sob, even as Kailee continued to kiss and hold him. His body wracked with the violence of his reaction to her gentle embrace. He gripped her too hard, feeling like she was a rock in a bitter sea and if his fingers were not strong enough, he would be lost forever. He buried his face in her soft shoulder and let the storm break over him.

 

When morning came he awoke on his side, facing a rebuilt fire. He was still fully clothed and his eyes ached as if he hadn’t slept at all. But when he searched inside himself he found only an endlessly flat, calm sea. His whole body was in a state between numb and awakened; his every sense seemed alive. His first deep breath was full of the sharp homey smell of wood smoke and he realized it had been a long time since he had taken pleasure in such a simple thing. As he sat up, Kailee came back from the stream with a damp cloth in her hand. She squatted beside him, smiling slightly.

“Today is new, and so we must wash away the night every morning.” Without seeking permission, she began to gently wipe his face with the cool rag. He was too calm within to jerk back from her touch as he normally would have, and the way she was touching him felt… nice. Nothing had felt nice in what seemed like forever. Not since he and Murud had….

He found himself remembering their last encounter without pain. The morning sun had streamed into their room at the Varaine palace. A servant bustled in the background, ignored. They had kissed and made love in a casual way, reveling in their newfound freedom. The knowledge that it had ended so soon after that didn’t taint the memory as it had only yesterday.

Kailee finished, and her cool hand rested on his hot one, bringing him back to the moment to gaze into her tranquil smiling face.

“I have never seen you smile before.” she said, and he discovered that his cheeks were raised in an unfamiliar expression.

“Thank you.” He couldn’t express the depth of his gratitude with mere words, so he took her face in his hand and kissed her, feeling for a moment the familiar stab of sorrow but allowing it to fade into the background of what came next.