Ladaan Barak Aksheil looked upon the passing wagons with disinterest evident on his features. He was a tall man for a resident of the Wasteland, and of the typical lean build. His was the sort of face that, when graced with disinterest, grew thunderous. His disinterest sprouted from the lack of anything interesting the merchant had for the past three visits. And Aksheil was not one to stay long interested in anything. The owner of the wagons, the merchant Mida, stroked his graying beard with worry over this fact.
"Barak, lord, surely there is something…?"
Aksheil sniffed, resting one hand on the hilt of his scimitar in a seemingly subconscious movement. "I've seen the quality of your wares, both human and inanimate. I doubt you've got anything amazing left to steal."
Mida put on a smile; whether or not it was forced, the Barak never knew. The fat merchant stabbed at his ear with a thumb in Wasteland fashion. "Please, I'm no brigand. In any case, I know what will interest you."
He called out something in a thick dialect Aksheil only caught bits and pieces of. Two sandalwood-skinned guardsmen halted one of the wagons carrying women, silk billowing from the windows.
The chieftain arched an eyebrow at Mida. "Another woman? Merchant, don't bother, I've enough look-alike concubines-"
Mida cut him off, somewhat rudely with a wave of his hand, knowing smile in place. "Ah, but I'm sure you'll like this one. I found her up north of the mountains in Torr. You're lucky I'd rather have the money than the woman."
The mention of the pale-people's land perked Aksheil's interest, though he dared not let it show. He continued his expression of boredom and crossed his arms over his tunic and leather coat. Boredom would get him a lower price.
One of the two men went inside the wagon, and a woman inside started shrieking immediately. No, the Barak corrected himself, they were words she was spouting, though he vaguely knew the language. Minutes later, the man dragged out a woman, and the second man jumped to help him, narrowly missing a well-aimed kick from their strange charge.
The chieftain's eyes were immediately drawn to the length of fair hair and the wild blue eyes. The tangled mass - entirely charming - was blown about in the wind like spider legs, and tossed in her furious struggle with her captors like a defensive mare. Metal glinted around her face, and suddenly he saw the abnormal ears, and thus the piercings in them. By the sands! What sort of woman was this, long-eared and pierced? A - what did the pale people call them - lar?
The men struggled to bring the woman over, and Aksheil was finding it harder to conceal his interest. By the time she was thrown at his feet, his mouth was agape. Mida was grinning from ear to ear. That practically ensured he paid full price, that grin did. But Aksheil was thinking that full price might be worth it.
"Does she meet approval?" the merchant asked, knowing quite well that she probably did. Fair-haired and blue-eyed women were much sought after in the Wastelands.
Aksheil said nothing, having closed his mouth to consider a could-be buy.
The merchant chuckled, pulling something from deep within his robes; he held a star-shaped badge made of layers of tough leather. Scraps of fabric fluttered around it, showing how it had been torn off clothing. Mida held this up for inspection.
The Barak tapped the badge, bearing the insignia of a mountain and crescent moon, somewhat glad to be drawn away from the bewitching woman. "Does this mean something to me?"
Mida looked startled. "My lord, she was wearing it!"
Aksheil continued his misunderstood look. The merchant sighed and launched into explanation:
"This is the sign of the Northlands, of the country that tops the continent. This one is of the galae, the ghostly women who sing as they ride into battle!"
Understanding dawned on the Wasteland warrior, and he looked to the glaring woman at his feet with new respect. All tribes of the desert hated the pale people for their spinelessness, but they all respected the skill of the galae - and summarily mourned the lunacy of the long-eared peoples for teaching women such warring arts.
"I see," he said thoughtfully, stroking his stubbly chin. "Stand her up."
The woman screamed some insult at him when she perceived this order - she did not know his language, after all - and the men hauled her up.
Aksheil frowned, now noticing her immodest garb. "What is she wearing? This is not silk."
Indeed, she wore studded leather over most of her body. The shameless woman, she let the shape of her rump and legs show quite clearly. If he bought her, this would change. Leather and shapely attire were not for women, the former not at all, and the latter at least not in public.
Nonetheless, he was intrigued by the fury in her eyes. She had not yet been broken; she had not yet learned the natural superiority of men. This too would change.
"Your name?" he asked in Torric, the default trade tongue of the wastelands; might as well know.
She was silent a few moments - debating? Translating? He didn't know. He didn't really care for her mind anyway.
"Rashlaen ni'Loraen, aide of the Galae General." She tossed her head fiercely, as a wild mare might toss her mane. She stood straighter. Perhaps she was hoping to scare him out of the sale, the silly woman.
She was military, she was rather pretty, and she was untamed. Aksheil knew he had to have her then. She had issued a challenge.
"Two camels," Aksheil said to the merchant, starting low.
Mida scoffed, and both men thus ignored the indignant screeching of Rashlaen. "Two? Mihek! Ten, and some Ladaan leatherwork besides."
The bargaining went back and forth for some minutes. The galae, Rashlaen, screamed obscenities at them both; Mida, as her owner, should have silenced her, but he was too busy. Aksheil would do so himself when she was his property. It was a breach of courtesy to do any such thing until that time.
They finally settled on three camels, two fine war horses, and some sturdy leatherwork. He had just broached the subject of throwing in the equipment that came with Rashlaen, but she managed to make herself heard on this matter.
Furious to the point where she was beyond screaming, she glared right into Aksheil's eyes. To his credit, he didn't so much as flinch, though he was sure he'd never like to meet her with a without a weapon in hand from that look. He'd have to tread carefully around her while she was still wild.
"If you sell my things," she started in Torric, "I'll never stop seeking your death. I swear on the honor of the Queen General."
A cliché threat, but he could see she meant every word. He shrugged, but not too quickly; best to let her think he had thought about it first, so that she would not expect him to give into her demands easily in the future. "This is acceptable. Make it up in work, and I'll not sell your things," he replied in similar Torric.
This seemed to satisfy her in a way he didn't understand. Maybe the frank tit-for-tat of it kept her lodged in reality, for she then stood by quietly, looking away from the people around her, and to the forest of tents beyond them. Her profile was drawn of clean, straight lines. A handsome woman indeed.
"Then it is settled."
Aksheil nodded to the merchant, and ordered over one of his clansmen to gather the payment, and another to prepare his tent. The ruddy-faced man blinked dumbly at Rashlaen for a moment, but was sent running off at a threat and kick from his Barak.
At last, he turned his attention back to the woman he'd just bought. He couldn't resist putting on a smile, speaking in Ladish. "You are rough, Northwarrior, but I think you can become a woman yet."
"Ii t'lornla'i ci min. Ii lornla'i ci t'kala." I will not bow to you. I will bow to no man. That was her reply, no matter that neither of them understood the other's words.
Rashlaen had known she was doomed from the moment she found herself surrounded by the fat slaver and his saber-wielding eunuchs. Ten to one were poor odds, even if the one was an elite galae officer. She had suffered more shame in two months than in a hundred and fifty years of life; she was stripped of her weapons, her horse, and most of her armor. She was lucky not to have lost more, the small luck that was with her.
No, she thought bitterly, not luck, but shrewdness. The slaver knew she'd be worth more untouched. And now her celibate (and free) life up until then was surely about to end. She'd been bought by one of the barbaric men of the Wasteland, the type of men all those who bore the mountain and crescent moon of North Meikshoreai abhorred and freely raised arms against.
She saw that he was a strong man, perhaps as much so as he thought he was. He had likely given his multiple wives many fine sons. She'd bear him a girl if she could, just to defy that lakale. Bastard.
On second thought, she wouldn't. Any girl child of hers would suffer the same humiliation.
Once the man with the leather coat and ornate but somehow utilitarian scimitar delivered the promised goods of her sale (she hated 'her sale,') he informed her of what she already knew; it was useless to run, there was nothing but sand for days in every direction, etc. etc. If Rashlaen had the courage to take death over shamed life, she would have run when there were no longer hands holding her back. As it were, she was a coward, and knew herself so.
Rashlaen let the man lead her back to his tribe's encampment in silence. She took the opportunity to note her surroundings; figures dressed in long red robes milled about carrying buckets and baskets, their faces covered; these were the women, and Rashlaen was about to be one of them.
The men were under no such confinement. They walked around with free beards and eyes, striding around like they owned the place - which they did. Their overweening pride made the galae's blood boil, and her hands itched for the hilt of her sword to chop them down to size. Alas, she was unarmed, and Alder was a cruel place.
She was somewhat surprised to see them approach the largest of the felt tents in the camp. The two armed men at the entrance saluted in what she considered a lazy manner. Her guide returned it in an even lazier manner. Where was the discipline around here? Weren't they fighting for their lives every day in these lixos-forsaken deserts?
Rashlaen was quite stunned when he held back the tent flap for her. She didn't think such men as he were courteous enough, however simple the gesture was.
No matter. She made a show of breezily brushing past him, intent on letting him know that she knew his true colors.
She missed his grin.
The air inside of the tent was thick with heat and incense. One lungful and Rashlaen's head was spinning. She swayed on her feet.
Two veiled women came out from behind a curtain and took her by the arms, gently. To hold her up perhaps? She imagined the men of the Wasteland would find it disrespectful for their women to fall down in their presence.
The man seated himself regally on a pile of cushions and picked some fruit off of a low table at his side. Rashlaen in that moment realized her mistake; this was no ordinary clansman. This was the Barak, the leader. Her head swam with new possibilities, each as unpleasant as the last.
"I bid you, go with the women. They will return you to me shortly."
Too dizzy to help otherwise, she allowed the women to tug her toward the curtain they'd come from. The Barak disappeared from her view.
Aksheil swirled wine around in his cup thoughtfully, studying the dark waves. Every moment he did the same to his new woman, she seemed even more beautiful, and not just for the novelty of her hair and eyes. Her skin was a different shade completely from the humans up north, a different kind of sunless color that glowed. If there was one thing he'd change about her (besides her attitude, which would change soon enough,) he'd make her softer. By dint of her lifestyle and his careful studying, he could tell she was sinewy and wiry, not nearly as pleasurable to hold as a fleshier woman.
He heard a musical sound of derision from the direction of the women; he laughed, and heard her angry reply, quickly shushed by the others. She really was a wild mare, and who better to break a wild horse that a Ladaan chief?
Aksheil had eaten another handful of fruits before Rashlaen was brought before him again. He could immediately tell the difference; her sweaty skin had been cleansed, her rough hair brushed and layered about her shoulders, and she was no longer wearing the boyish breeches and leather, clothed instead in red silk. The two-layered loose tunic, dress like, came down to her bare feet, where golden rings circling her right ankle signified that she belonged to the Barak. She was a vision of loveliness.
The women who brought her in darted looks at each other, clearly nervous, hoping their work was to be appreciated.
"Leave us," he intoned, waving them away with a careless hand. He stood.
Rashlaen took a step back, the gold rings clinking. He swore he saw something akin to fear flash across her unveiled face; an interesting notion for such a notorious species. Perhaps the men of the lar just weren't as masculine as those among the humans?
He smirked, and the fear-like emotion faded away to anger. Her eyes twinkled when she glared, amusing and attractive at once.
"Don't touch me." Her voice was as cold as the home she'd left.
Aksheil chuckled low in his throat. "Not your decision, milha."
Her brows dipped in confusion of the unknown word, and she momentarily forgot her anger. From this, the Barak deduced that she was a curious woman, a trait that would do her no good. No matter. He would oblige her.
He put the 'endearment' in simpler terms. "Wife."
Her eyes widened, then narrowed, confused and flustered. "I didn't agree - I didn't - it isn't legal-"
"I'm the law here. I say it is," he snapped, no longer amused. Why could she not accept the situation? He'd bought her, and her novelty would give him power. Why could she not understand this?
The galae had not noticed how he'd come closer until his hand shot out, aiming for her arm. She went into action then, as she had been trained, to defend herself. With one arm she batted away his hand, and Aksheil was too surprised to react as he should have, and even less ready to counter her defense when the heel of her other hand shot out and cracked hard against his nose.
The Barak let out a muffled yet furious cry, clapping his hands to his bleeding nose. He glared over at Rashlaen, already planning her death. She was too much trouble, no matter her novelty. No woman ever willingly laid hands on a man and lived.
Rashlaen, looking at his glare, was very aware that she'd done something very wrong. She'd drawn blood from the chief of the tribe. She was at once terrified for her life, triumphant that she'd halted him, and angry that he thought he could try it in the first place.
As a last defense, she explained her oaths to him.
"You don't know," she started, trying to keep the wavering from her voice, "What I swore to my general, so I'll tell you why this isn't legal. I took oaths of-" she wondered over the word for 'celibacy' "I swore off men, children, family, in trade for fighting and secrets of the Legion."
This did not seem to appease Aksheil, although he did look a little less angry; at least his nose wasn't bleeding so profusely. She thought, I could reset that for you, but didn't think he would appreciate the gesture. As an afterthought, she added more to her speech.
"Galae warriors, we aren't good women. We cook little, mend only our own clothes. We make bad wives, worse mothers. It's my duty to fight off men that desire me, not matter whether I like them or not, not matter my condition. Barak, trust me, you do not want me."
He was looking at her curiously now, as if what she'd said had really reached him. Perhaps he understood her now, understood what evil he had been planning to commit.
"This is the truth?" he asked.
She recognized the shock in his person. He had a hard time believing her vows, it seemed. That was a little less surprising.
"Every word. My Queen's honor."
Aksheil had never understood the use of a woman as a ruler, but it seemed to work for the long-eared people. What he was shocked over was how the galae Queen and her Legion compatriots could swear off men. How did such a society survive? It was the duty of women to bear their men children. This was unnatural and inconceivable!
The question was, was she telling him the truth. In the Wasteland, women died for lying. He did not think it was so in her homeland, so he could not be sure. But then, they held their Queen dearly, and the woman had sworn on her honor. He knew honor to be as important to them as to his own people, so in that respect she was not lying.
She was not lying to him, Aksheil decided. Unfortunately for her, her vows had no hold upon the wife of the Barak. All they meant was that he could not have her killed for resisting him and still sleep well at night. He would have to subdue her somehow, and subdue her quickly.
The chieftain resumed his tall, manly posture, and with a deft thumb cracked his nose back into place; he could ignore the pain. He looked at Rashlaen in a new light, with new respect. He had forgotten that hers was a warrior breed, accustomed to living as men and not women. Of course she didn't understand the ways of women, being so far removed from them.
A thought struck him. "I'll make you a deal. Good?"
She looked at him uncertainly. "Depends on the deal."
She was already thinking that she would refuse it, he could tell.
He started again. "If, now, we fight to first blood, and I prove better by winning, I take you as my wife. Good for honor and Queen?"
She had hardly thought beyond his words. "What if I win?"
Aksheil grimaced; the only logical thing would be to set her free. He could be conniving, tell her this, then if she won, just tell his tribe to give her nothing so that she would have no choice but to turn to him, surrounded as she was by desert. But that way did not appease his honor. It stank of the Dani tribe's manner.
He did not like his own answer. "I give you your things, enough food, water, and a servant guide you back to mountains; then you go as you like."
Rashlaen's face relaxed; this seemed to meet her approval. If she won, she was free. If she lost, she was his.
"I agree. Fight?"
Aksheil fell more naturally into this discussion. They would take their places in the horse enclosure, her unveiled body kept away from prying eyes, and would fight unmounted with a lance to each of them. Neither would wear armor. Both of them were trained as horsemen, so fighting on foot would leave them only their natural skills.
Rashlaen went away to step again into her breeches, and Aksheil sighed, removing his own leather protection and spiked helmet.
The galae reappeared soon enough, calmly straightening the gloves on her hands. Aksheil found it strange that he could see her attractiveness even in such unflattering clothing; the cool confidence of being in her element, as opposed to the nervousness of before worked wonders on her bearing. She was now busily tying back her hair.
The Barak smiled, despite himself. She would make a better wife than she gave herself credit for. Indeed, he was certain he would win this battle. Men were simply stronger than women. Even a half-trained swordsman could go against such a woman as she and win so long as he managed to use his strength.
She nodded politely at him, and he led her through the other tent compartments to the enclosure that would see their bout. He was already envisioning the feel of her skin.
Tied to one side of the enclosure was Aksheil's own stallion, and Rashlaen's mare, which he had bought with the rest of her belongings.
The lar seemed surprised at this. "You bought also Maeha?"
He nodded, strode over to the weapons beside his stallion, and chose two sturdy lances. One he tossed over to his opponent, which she deftly caught. Skilled wench.
They circled around the enclosure for some minutes, each sizing up the other. The Barak noted the cold calculation in Rashlaen's eyes; war was her art, and she was dead serious about it. There was no subtle appreciation for his form in her eyes, as there was for her's in his. This would be a close fight.
Aksheil saw an opening, her foot sliding ever so slightly in the sand; he charged. Rashlaen, without loosing her composure, slid to the side in a somewhat ungainly manner, showing the opening had told true. The chieftain flicked the point of his lance toward her belly, but she knocked the blow away with her own lance and swung an unexpected leg around for his head.
A sound brought them both to a stop mid-action. Someone inside the tent had tripped over a table laden with dishes, and in the distance there were horns and battle cries.
A guard came stumbling into the opening in time to find a puzzled galae warrior watching as Aksheil darted for his horse.
"Barak, the Dani-"
"I know. Get the women and children here, and the veterans as guards."
His blood boiled. The Dani, true to their nature, had followed the merchant train to the Ladaan's camp. His people were in danger for their cunning, and his own stupidity; it was the kind of thing he should have expected.
Just as the chieftain had swung up onto the back of his stallion, he saw Rashlaen leap gracefully into her own saddle.
He narrowed his eyes. "What are you doing?"
She shrugged. "Your enemies will not spare me, not like this. It's what I owe to you and me to fight."
It was beyond his need to protect his tribe to make her stay, and he was curious to see her fight - safely, not against him.
He nodded to her, and they were off through the gate the guard opened for them. Though Aksheil was no longer looking at her, he noticed her removing something from a saddlebag. Then, he heard the horn.
All other sounds seemed to silence in lieu of that ghostly call, as if they dared not be heard over it. The horn took precedence over all other noise, even the hoof beats of the horses and battle cries of the Dani. It sent shivers up his spine, and made him afraid to look at her. The Ladaan they rode past turned away, covering their ears and shaking. If he wasn't so shaken himself, he would have screamed at them for showing fear only at the sound of a horn. As it were, he knew very well that it wasn't just any horn; a galae was going to battle.
The call of the horn died out, but the performance wasn't done. Then came the singing.
Aksheil did not know the language, but he well understood the terrible beauty in the notes and unknown words. A frosty hand enclosed his heart, but it was not fear. Only sadness. Did her own singing affect Rashlaen so? Did the galae always go into battle with such sadness hanging over their heads? How could any man fight to such a song?
The first of the Dani riders was coming up. Aksheil found himself numbly drawing his scimitar, holding it ready in one hand, raising the buckler on his reign-arm against the poised arrow of the oncomer. He rode close, heard the arrow thud into the hide-covered wood, then dropped the arm and swung out with his blade. The man fell headless, and above the screams of other dying men was Rashlaen's song, chilling his heart and numbing his movement so that they were mechanical and fatally effective.
He chanced a glance over to her now, and went breathless at the sight he saw.
Her hair was tearing free of its bonds, flying out behind her in the desert winds. Her mouth was open, blaring out her ghostly, terrifying song. Her own buckler was covered with arrows, showing how many men had made her their target. Her scimitar was crimson with blood, leaving maimed men in her wake. He watched her engage a rider with a saber, trading three blows apiece before she raked the tip of her blade through the man's chest and up to his shoulder, nearly detaching his arm in a spray of blood. It speckled her face like crimson roses, and she didn't even blink. Above all, she was singing.
Perhaps she'd been right. Perhaps such a bloody warrior would make a bad wife and mother. How would he ever step naked into such a demon's layer?
Aksheil felled another opponent with a numb swing. A Wasteland horn sounded a retreat - the Dani were leaving.
"Take their horses!" he called out in a hoarse voice. His clansmen, both mounted and unmounted, wordlessly went to do his bidding, running and riding after the felled Dani's steeds with rope. Only then did he notice that Rashlaen had stopped singing. She twitched her reigns so that her mare brought her up to him. Her face was blank.
"About the fight?"
She likely knew the answer he was about to give her.
"Too much blood this day. Tomorrow we fight."
He was in a mood he himself didn't understand. He knew his face said he was angry over something, but he didn't know what. Inside he just felt dead, as if he'd lost his closest friend. For all he knew he had, but yet knew nothing about it. Was this the power of the long-eared people?
He turned in his saddle, alarmed out of the galae's trance, and saw the lar fire an arrow at the feet of one of his men. She screamed something else in her native tongue and spurred her mare towards the hapless man, confused and stumbling in the sand.
He was angry again. "You stop!"
Aksheil kicked up the speed of his stallion and met Rashlaen just as she'd dismounted. In a lithe movement he did the same and roughly grabbed her arm. She turned furious eyes on him.
"What do you mean by shooting my kin?" he demanded.
She pointed an accusing figure at the man in the sand. "He was ready to loot this body! Others are doing the same, and I'll not stand it! Once dead, they're just-"
"I like it no more than you," he quickly interrupted. "Yes, they're dead, not enemies, but we will still use their things. You may not have noticed, but resources are scarce in the Waste. You will not stop them. We will hold rights over all dead tonight."
She looked surprised to hear this, but Aksheil was suddenly in no mood to speak with her. He simply turned and remounted, cantering towards his tent. He would deal with her after he'd had some time to think.
"Parl!" she cursed under her breath, kicking the sand viscously with one foot.
Left to her own devices, Rashlaen wasn't sure what to do. The Barak had left her, seemingly angry; she knew it would be unwise to bother him anytime soon. The other clansmen didn't so much as look at her a they went about their grisly work of stripping the bodies of metal, food, and excess equipment. When they were done, the dead men were left only in their tunics and trousers.
It made her blood boil that they did this and that she couldn't stop them. What bothered her more was the frank necessity of it. She admitted that there was little to be found in the deserts, but was far from happy about it.
A woman came to call her to the Barak's tent an hour later. Her pride tickled that she, a galae and Queen's aide to boot, had been summoned, but she brushed it off as unfounded.
The heady incense had dissipated somewhat. Aksheil, as was quickly becoming her vision of him, was laying haphazardly among his cushions, looking more thoughtful than anything else.
"Sit," he bade her. For lack of anything else to do, she did, across the low table from him; a safe distance.
"I think," he started levelly, "That it's best you stay as my guest tonight, and we will settle you future on the 'morrow. Good?"
"Yes." She'd rather sleep under the Barak's protection than in another tent without it. She didn't quite know the limits of the Wasteland men.
"Settled. Eat?" he offered her a tray of fruit. She declined.
She spent a dreamless night worrying. The next day, they fought.
Aksheil was sour as he watched Rashlaen secure her things on her mare's saddle. If he could say that she cheated, he would've. But she didn't. His only saving grace was that no one from his tribe had witnessed his defeat, so he lost no standing with the others.
He had heard of the joy some had found in setting their horses free, no longer bound to human troubles. He found no joy in setting his woman free, especially after giving what he paid for her, and then some in food and precious water.
He was sour.
"You stay?" he asked, knowing full well that she would decline this offer with a mocking laugh and musical sentence in lari.
"I will not stay," she affirmed with a thankfully blank face. She was acting as though she didn't blame him at all. It must have just been a face.
He felt displaced and womanly, letting her go. He should have stopped her, pulled her off that horse and taken her then. But he would not. Barak Aksheil had too much honor to break his own promise. And so, she rode.
The horse enclosure's gate was open, and she had steered her horse in that direction (alone, as she had also declined the use of a guide,) but she stopped. She looked back at his angry face, a thoughtful look on hers. There was some smoldering of respect in her eyes, and it was that respect which let him continue:
"Take this," he said suddenly, tossing one of the gold anklets at her, one adorned with a red ruby carved with the Ladaan's crest. She caught it as deftly as ever, confusion knitting her brows.
"If any man stops you, show him that. They'll let you go."
He offered her an only half-forced smile, causing her brows to arch higher. "But you return it someday, ha?"
She did not smile, but there was amusement in her eyes. "Ki," she acquiesced, tucking it away and turning her horse once again to the horizon.
Then she rode off for good, without so much as a glance back.
That was Leeba, his first concubine, asking after him in her gentle way. He admitted to himself that he had been out of sorts of late. Damn galae.
"I'm fine." All except seeing only honey-toned skin and dark hair, when by rights I should now be enjoying the pale, fair-haired beauty I let ride away three days ago.
"Ki." Leeba, as ever, was content with his answers.
The next morning, Aksheil received a package. A quivering messenger brought it to him while Leeba served him wine and fruit. Up until then, he had been having a relatively good morning. That was about to change.
The messenger placed the wrapped bundle at his Barak's feet and then scuttled away, knowing it was bad news.
Leeba wore an ill-concealed frown as she handed it to him. Aksheil took up her frown, but made no effort to conceal it.
The bundle was wrapped in the rough cloth of the Wasteland, stitched shut. It felt heavy in his hands for being so small, and he got the sudden thought that he wasn't going to like what it held. The Dani crest stitched on the front didn't help his thoughts.
He ripped the weak thread apart and carefully unwrapped the hidden object. A golden sheen filled the room, and then a twinkle of red spotted his face.
Aksheil tossed the thing away and shot up from his seat, fists and teeth clenched. He mumbled obscenities under his breath and ran a hand through his hair, furious beyond belief.
The nerve of the Dani chieftan! To capture someone under his authority, then send back this challenge - all after they'd been soundly defeated the other day? That was cocky. Aksheil did not like this at all.
If that chieftan thought that Lada Aksheil was going to take that lying down, he was fatally mistaken.
"Falesh!" he roared to a guard outside, "Get me an entourage. Arm them well."
Leeba helped her lord dress in his leathers and helm, completely silent. She never said goodbye when he rode off to probable battle. It was not her place to say so.
Rashlaen was not in the habit of being stupid. That was, until she found herself surrounded by that damn merchant in Torr. From then on, she did nothing but stupid things. She should not have struck the Barak, should not have fought the Dani that attacked the Ladaan. She should not have ridden off into the desert without the guide the Barak offered. She should never have sought supplies in that encampment she came across, especially while pretending to be male. Oddly enough, Wasteland men didn't take kindly to that. More so when that woman masquerading as their sex had killed their kin. If I get out of this, she promised to her Queen General, I'll not be a coward anymore.
She suffered little hope that she would escape the ten men guarding her.
In truth, she didn't know why she was still alive. Rashlaen was quite sure her crimes deserved death, yet she still lived, mostly unharmed and still chaste. The galae was properly puzzled.
Of the few things she was sure of at that moment, one was that the chieftain of the Dani knew what he was doing, even if she didn't. He'd grinned as he took the anklet that was a gift of passage from her hands, clammy despite the desert sun. She imagined that the anklet would be sent back to the Barak as a challenge, but she didn't understand why she needed to live for that. She wasn't fool enough to believe Aksheil would come to collect, just to answer the challenge.
She was beginning to feel rather hopeless.
On top of having been captured and having her warhorse and belongings taken away – again – they had the nerve to put her in the white cloth of their stupid subservient women. She was planning out how best to take revenge at that very moment, debating between shaving them, castrating them, or both. That was her little consolation.
She heard a commotion outside her tent. She would have gone to see what the reason for it was, but she had been forbidden to show her face outside the tent or suffer a blade to whichever part of her did show. Normally, she was not in the habit of following the orders of humans, but she wasn't stupid, either. She was far outnumbered.
Two voices began speaking to each other. She thought she recognized one of them, but they weren't speaking a language she was familiar with, so it was hard to tell. At first, they were civil enough, though she detected an undercurrent of mistrust. Then the mistrust was no longer and undercurrent.
She could not tell exactly what was being said, but she imagined that insults were being slung. A man barged into her tent and grabbed her roughly by the arm. He dragged her out and threw her at the feet of the Dani chieftain. From her bed of scalding sand, she managed to get a good look at the feet of the other man, and recognized the boots. She gasped Aksheil's name and flushed with embarrassment. He had come for her! But why?
"That's her," the Ladaan said, though Rashlaen wouldn't have understood him.
"Well, you can't have her back. She's killed my clansmen, and then walzed up dressed as a man to get supplies. She's mine by right of blood."
Aksheil angrily shook his head. "Blood! That was a battle in which your clansmen died! You cannot call bloodfeud in an honest battle, and there was no subterfuge."
The Dani chief snorted. "What about her cross-dressing? Nevermind, I will not take council from a Ladaan dog. You will not see her again, yet you may eat birds which have feasted on her."
The Barak angrily put a hand to the hilt of his scimitar. "The woman is under my protection! She's my property, and you must release her before we do battle, as you so obviously desire. Do not think that I don't see this as the challenge it is."
The Dani sneered and motioned to the man who had brought out Rashlaen. The burly individual picked her up again and returned her to her tent. Aksheil watched them go with a frown, and grudgingly met her gaze before she disappeared. She looked shamed, but unharmed.
"Fine," he snapped, looking back to his enemy-equal. "You will have blood, if that is what you wish. Come," he motioned to his Ladaan escort, and they trooped away and to the rest of their force. They mounted their horses once at the outskirts of the Dani camp.
Rashlaen saw none of this, but assumed that negotiations were over when she heard no more argument. She felt somehow…let down. Aksheil had taken the trouble of showing up, but seemingly had not acquired her freedom. But, what was she hoping for? Why should a Wastelander fight for a woman who rejected him?
Her tent was intruded upon yet again. She threw her best glare at the Dani chieftain.
"You," he said in Torric, "are very valuable. I can take my clan's vengeance from you, and take the opportunity to destroy the Ladaan as well."
The galae aide spat on him, which earned her a hearty blow that knocked her out.
When she came to, she smelled smoke. Fearing the mind-muddling incense Aksheil had used, she quickly stood and searched for its source…but there was none. The smoke smelled of burning hair, and she knew that the Dani were being attacked.
There was a faint orange glow all around her, and the screams of the dying was like a familiar opera, but in a foreign language. You knew what was supposed to be happening, but somehow were surprised to see it come about.
Her body ran on autopilot.
She flew through the tent flaps and looked left and right for a weapon; a fallen Dani tribesman provided this. It was a plain and unadorned scimitar, but Rashlaen could care less. She had blood to taste.
Aksheil had not thought to disperse men to look for the northwoman when they rode into the Dani camp. His men knew better than to kill her, and blond hair was hard to come by. She looked too different for them not to recognize her. But more than that, he should have feared the Dani killing her after he left. But he was too focused on avenging his honor and that pf his clan – perhaps that was his flaw, but it was also his strength. The clan came first, and all else second.
The Barak had not bothered to count how many Dani he had killed. Maybe he was subconsciously looked for Rashlaen. Maybe his coming to the Dani camp had nothing to do with his sullied word of protection. Maybe it had really all been for her. No, he thought. No. This is what I came to do, to teach these dogs their lesson!
Whatever his reason for coming, he finally saw something worth calming his mind as he rode past the chieftain's tent.
Aksheil was once again struck with the terrible beauty of the galae woman. Her hair fluttered around her head with the heat of the fires his clan had set to the Dani tents. The surely once stark white Dani dress she wore was stained red in large, dirty patches. The long, wide sleeves and hem from the knees down were torn off completely, baring her pale arms and shins. Moreover, he caught sight of her in time to watch the deadly Dani scimitar in her hand flash and sever an attacker's head in a smooth, liquid movement. There was a hellish orange glow about her whole person. The terrible burden of war was upon her, and all he could think was that she shouldn't have had to bear it. He thought – quite surprisingly – that he wanted to save her from it. This beautiful creature before him shouldn't have to look at everything through cold eyes, fearing for one thing or another if she should lax her attentions.
Her steps faltered, and Aksheil could imagine why; expending one's hate was a satisfying, yet at the same time exhausting act. She was on the border of collapse.
Rashlaen's limbs were burning from her furious exertions. The fine scimitar in her hand was finally showing her its weight. Her arm felt like it would fall off.
She heard two sets of feet, maybe three: more enemies. Always more enemies in this forsaken desert.
She urged her tired body on to a defensive position, glancing around to locate her foes. A man on foot came at her. Someone else mounted slew him before he could reach the galae officer. She breathed a sigh of relief for her rescuer. She so wanted to sleep.
The man dismounted. She couldn't make out his features, but was sure he was Ladaan. His gentle, calloused fingers eased the hilt from her raw fingers, and she let him. Her knees gave way, and he caught her. Such a kind Ladaan…She blacked out.
Wind whistled through her long ears. Sand prickled her eyes. Her tongue felt like moist velvet. And her joints ached.
A hand held out a ladle of water. She drank greedily despite its lukewarm temperature.
"Who-" she said in lari.
"It's me," came Aksheil's voice, surprisingly gentle.
Rashlaen felt reassured. She matched his Torric. "Was it you?"
Silence reigned. Rashlaen labored to open one eye and glance around. They were alone in a hastily-erected low-strung tent. She surmised that they were in open desert.
"The battle?" she croaked.
He gave her more water. "We won. What's left of the Dani are without a chief. Does that satisfy you?"
No, actually. It didn't. "There was a woman," she started slowly. "An old woman. A grandmother. She was with a small boy, and she was crying. Oh, she was crying, the tears were muddy on her face. She was screaming too, and brandishing a blade at me. I didn't kill her, Aksheil – I couldn't, but others might have. Maybe she's already dead."
The Barak listened in silence, unsure of where the story was going, but sensing it was important to her.
The galae continued. "They have no one to protect them now. I know I'm a hypocrite, I was killing their men, but…but…"
Aksheil smiled down at her, but sadly. "You're too nice. I don't think you hear that often, but its true. I can't explain to you why, but this is how it must be. Here in the Waste, there are things you must to do survive, no matter what. That's why no tribe holds bloodfeud with another because of a battle. It's what we have to do."
He sighed. "You really aren't fit to live here."
The lar looked to his eyes, daring falsehood to be there. "Does that mean…you'll send me back?"
He paused. Aksheil had before him a set of options. Rashlaen was in no shape to put up much of a fight – he could take her there, break her will, bind her to him for the rest of their lives, or…he could nod his head, give her a guide, and set her free. He was not a man to lie to himself – it was a hard decision.
He nodded. "And you'll let me give you a guide and supplies too, if you know what's good for you."
They exchanged smiles, and though Aksheil knew he'd done the right thing, he was still regretful.
The next day, her horse was packed, she was once again in her horrendous leathers, and armed to the teeth. So were the two men he was sending with her.
His own little war band was packed and ready to finish their journey to the Ladaan camp. Aksheil and Rashlaen, mounted, faced each other.
"I'm not going to tell you to stay," he said, earning him a small but genuine smile.
"And I'm not going to ask you if you came just for me."
He had no reply.
"But, I will tell you this. You are my friend, Barak Aksheil. You could never by my love. I don't know how to love. But there are your wives who love you, and your clansmen who love you."
The galae twitched the reigns of her horse so that she moved closer to Aksheil. He wasn't sure what he was expecting, but her grin certainly wasn't it. And neither was the brief, fierce kiss.
And then she was gone. She turned her horse towards the mountains, so very distant and unseen, and galloped off, her guides following. She never looked back, and her wild hair, blowing out behind her, was spectacular.
Aksheil looked down to his saddle, closed his eyes, and grinned.
"To love a northwoman is folly," he mumbled.
The war band rode on.