A young woman with a mystical ability has her world turned upside down.
A virgin caught sight of herself in the mirror. Brielle knew it was vain of her to stare at her reflection, and forbidden, but it was curiosity more than vanity that held her gaze.
A pale face framed by long, dark hair stared back at her from the tarnished silvery surface. At least, it seemed pale when compared to the dark complexions of her guardians. Deep green eyes darted around, making sure none other was watching. The dimness of the room beyond the firelight seemed to conceal shadows that lay in wait.
Brielle scanned the corners with her Sight, just in case. When she was done, she glanced once more into the forbidden mirror. And she accidentally Sighted into her own gaze. Which is exactly why reflective surfaces were forbidden her.
She peered only for the briefest of moments, but what she saw would haunt her for a long time.
A dark plain lay before her. On the plain, scattered around in no particular order, was an army. They stood, or reclined, or lay, apparently at ease. But around them, strewn about randomly, was the remnant of a battle. Shields and weapons, armor and tent frames, every element of an army's equipment could be seen. Except that which perishes in flame.
This army was in no condition for battle. Yet on the horizon another army marched, blurry in the distance. It headed their way.
Brielle averted her eyes from the mirror, her mind already racing to process what she had Seen. From her training she could understand much of the Mind Sight:
The plain was her mind; the soldiers and their equipment her mental and physical readiness. What she didn't understand was the army on the horizon. For that, she had only her instinct to judge by. And her instinct told her she was woefully unprepared for the battles she soon must face.
"What were you thinking, girl!?" Rosalinda admonished when Brielle mentioned the incident from the night before. Brielle's teachers and, long ago, her parents, had pounded into her the need for transparency in everything. The lie was the worst offence in all of Araus. So when she told her tutor, Rosalinda had no reason to doubt her. But often with the truth came a consequence.
"You are part of an ancient heritage, with honor all through your line! Do not be the one to tarnish your family's reputation, and mine with it!" Brielle waited for her to finish ranting. She knew her tutor was only concerned that she not embarrass or injure herself. For all her shouting and blustering, Rosalinda visibly cared deeply for her.
When she finished, Brielle spoke up. "What does it mean?" Rosalinda looked sharply at her student, then her face softened.
"You tell me."
Brielle swallowed, then told her what she had figured out the night before, ending with "The only mystery is the purpose of the approaching army."
Rosalinda thought for a moment. It was something Brielle liked about the older woman. She never rushed into anything.
"I believe the army symbolizes the troubles that will soon come your way. This could be intellectually, in your studies. Or it could be emotionally, suggesting something might happen to your family or a difficult relationship may form. It could be physical, in the form of illness or injury. The possibilities are nearly endless. The best action to take at this moment is to apply yourself to your schooling and prepare for anything that may happen." Brielle nodded at the wisdom of her teacher's words. She would have to work hard and not dwell on the future.
But one thing was certain. Her life was not going to be easy. Which wasn't anything new.
Brielle kneaded the dough, pushing and folding until her arms were sore. No matter how many times she did this, she never got into the rhythm of it. The heat from the clay oven and the newly risen sun combined with the damp morning air to coax perspiration from every pore. A long, straight hair escaped from its messy bun, and dangled over the dough, threatening to dirty the whole batch. She blew it out of her way and continued kneading, trying to ignore the sweatiness that would soon show through her undyed underdress.
When the dough was finally kneaded within an inch of its existence, a voice shook Brielle out of her straying thoughts. "Enough. It's about time for your morning lesson." Leaving the dough on the kneading board, Brielle turned and rushed out of the kitchen area, across the grassy courtyard, and into the narrow hallway that contained her little room.
After splashing some water on her face and hastily pulling on her overdress, Brielle pulled out her messy bun and redid it neatly, holding it in place with a single pin. It would be a mess again by the noon meal, but that didn't matter. She was meeting a new teacher today, and wanted to impress her.
She was inside of her room for barely five minutes before she was out again, all but running to the classroom in the main courtyard, opposite the one that held the kitchen.
She swept out of the hallway, took a sharp right, went three doorways down and slowed before entering the doorway in the corner, buttressed by twin columns that supported the building. The moment she stepped through the doorway, it felt like entering another world. Rather than the simple, minimalist stone structure of the rest of the compound, this two-storey room had walls paneled with a light wood inset with mahogany that accented the circular murals. Often she had asked about a particular image or scene, and in return learned the lives of the many Seers who had been taught here. The images began at the peak of the domed ceiling, and circled clockwise around the circumference of the room. About halfway down the walls, at the level of the first-floor balcony, the images ceased, unworked panels waiting for the next Seer to exit this room for the last time.
But none of these things were on Brielle's mind this morning, for the moment she stepped through the doorway she ran straight into a person.
"Oof!" They both cried, followed by "I'm so sorry!" And “I apologize!” The two stumbled away from each other, Brielle more than the stranger. Then with a mostly concealed gasp, she realized this was a man! He was taller than Brielle by a good amount, dressed finely, his brown hair perfectly pulled back into a small bun. And he was as pale-skinned as herself! Realizing she was staring, she lowered her gaze and apologized again.
"It is alright, I accept your apology," he replied smoothly, "I was as much at fault as you, so I apologize as well."
A little taken aback, Brielle accepted his apology as she had been taught, and waited for him to speak.
"Am I right in guessing you are Brielle, a student here?" The man asked, trying to get Brielle to look up, as she saw in her peripheral vision.
"I am." She did not indulge his curiosity. Whatever this man was doing in the cloister, he certainly didn't have any reason for her to Sight into his eyes. And, she realized with a start, she had forgotten her veil back in her room. Rosalinda would have a fit when she found out.
"It is pleasant to meet you, Brielle. I am Sebastian of Chalem. I will be tutoring you for this last stage of your training." He took her hand and drew her further into the room.
Brielle was stunned. My teachers are always female, it is the way things have always been done here. Well, not always, but for most of our history, she corrected herself. She allowed herself to be drawn into the center of the circular room, where her chief teacher and guardian, Rosalinda, waited beside a square desk covered in many unusual things. Such luxury cannot be of the cloister, it must belong to Sebastian. Before her eyes could decipher all the mysterious contents of the table, Rosalinda spoke.
"I see you've met your student, Sebastian." She addressed the one with the greater authority first. Then she turned to Brielle. "You should know better than to rush into a room blind."
"Yes Rosalinda." Brielle responded humbly.
Rosalinda stepped aside without another word and motioned for Sebastian to begin. She would listen in on the first class, and then return to her other duties. Brielle never noticed her leave.
"Let's have your full name, where you are from and something about you that I should know." Sebastian didn't dally on the small talk but jumped right in.
"Brielle of Araus, the daughter of Allena and Drue, servants of one of the Council Judges and his family.
"Born or paid?"
"Sorry sir?" His question caught Brielle off guard.
"Were your parents born into their servanthood or are they paid?"
"Born." Brielle refrained from fiddling with her hands. It was a habit Rosalinda had worked hard to undo.
"Thank you. Continue."
Taking a breath, Brielle continued. "I am hardworking, but Rosalinda always says I am easily distracted."
"And what about you?"
"What do you mean?" Sebastian sounded only slightly caught off guard.
"Is there anything I should know about you?"
The teacher laughed heartily. "The only thing you need to know about me is that I have the Sight as strongly as you, and I am here to complete your training."
"Let us begin." Sebastian had Brielle stand in the center of the room, where a beam of light from a carefully placed window fell directly on her. He stood just in the shadows.
"Put your arms above your head." Brielle did so. "Now bend over and touch your toes." Brielle complied. Sebastian continued to take her through stretches that bent and twisted her body in every imaginable way. Sebastian looked on, sometimes slowly circling to get a better perspective, but most often standing still and watching. This was routine for Brielle. Every new teacher needed to know her capabilities, physical and mental, before they could build upon her previous learning. And with the amount Brielle had learned already, this testing could go on for days.
By the end of the stretches Brielle was warm and a little sweaty, but pleased with herself. She had been able to do everything he had asked of her, including eye rolls and shifting her posture and facial muscles to disguise herself. It was time for the noon meal now, but Sebastian never indicated that they should go and eat. This, too, was normal. Several days of fasting, though exhausting, was good for sharpening the wit and testing patience and perseverance. Brielle's personal record in the midst of her studies was ten days, but she knew without the rigors of constant study she could go much longer and still be ready for almost anything.
Shortly after the noon meal would have been finished, Sebastian shifted from physical prowess to mental. Specifically, Sight mentality.
"I heard you Sighted into your reflection two days ago." Brielle nodded. She didn't like it, but knew it was important information for her new teacher to have.
"What did you see?"
"An army unprepared for battle, but with an opposing army on the horizon." She replied steadily, concealing her irritation at herself.
"And what did you surmise?" She told him. He nodded with a thoughtful look, but didn't say anything. Instead he grabbed a straight pole leaning against the table, threw it at her, and by the time she caught it by reflex he had grabbed another and swung it at her. She barely had time to block the blow. He circled, watching her as she quickly adopted her preferred fighting stance with the staff. She left an apparent opening on her left side, baiting him into attacking. Instead he went for her right leg. She felt the air from the staff under her thin shoes as she hopped over. He followed through with a quick strike to her left side. Brielle barely twisted out of the way, stumbling back and nearly falling over. Only practice kept the staff in her hand.
"Good," Sebastian said with a smirk. "You have quick reflexes. But you need to work on your subtlety. I saw through that opening easily. I can help you with that."
Brielle asked "Are you going to say more about my Sighting?"
"Why should I?" Sebastian shot back, readying himself for another attack, "Anything more is only speculation at this time." And with that he lunged, forcing Brielle to parry and spin away.
He kept her on the defense for a good half hour, then they switched and he observed her attack style. Both were sweaty and panting when he finally called a halt. Brielle was near the dropping point. Rarely had she been pushed so hard in her fighting. She had been hit a number of times, hard enough so her body would remember this for a while. Not once had she touched Sebastian.
They both sat on the floor, sipping from clay cups of watered-down wine. Neither spoke for a time. Brielle watched Sebastian out of the corner of her eye. This was another test, she knew, a test of patience. But that was one thing she had in spades. So while she waited, she watched him. He had high, noticeably arched eyebrows, and she caught glimpses of dark, brooding eyes. His hair was slicked back in a northern style, but he looked too pale to be from the north.
Brielle had more questions the longer she peeped, but she held her tongue, not knowing whether she would ever get answers. But this was a test, and she was determined to pass with flying colors.
Suddenly she asked "Sir, what do you speculate about my Sighting?" She blinked, and internally slapped herself across the face. She stared at her lap, not daring to sneak a glance at Sebastian's face.
"Brielle." He sounded calm. Brielle wasn't sure if that was good or bad. "Brielle, look at me." She shook her head. This must be another test. Avoiding eye contact was the first thing she learned here, and it was ground into her almost every week when she slipped up. She was not about to bring on another tirade for her millisecond of unchecked curiosity.
After a few moments of silence, Sebastian said calmly, "You have great self control. That will serve you well. But now I want you to look at me."
The insistence in his voice almost made her break her self-made promise. Almost. But she set her jaw and continued to stare at a seam on her skirt.
"I said, look at me!" Like a snake Sebastian's hand shot out and grabbed her chin, tugging it up so she was forced to look at him.
And in her surprise she Sighted. Straight into Sebastian's insistent eyes.
In her Sight, she saw a blank, whitewashed wall.
Startled, she jerked back, breaking Sebastian's hold on her chin. Shuffling back, crablike, she exclaimed "What was that! How…how did you do that!"
Sebastian smiled. "I blocked you with a mental image."
But-but, there was nothing! Just a blank wall!" Brielle's mind was reeling.
"It was the force and insistence behind the image that made it so powerful. If you had not been so resistant to look, you would not have seen the wall." Sebastian's voice was calm again, but there was a slight lilt to it that had not been there before. "This is what I was hired to teach you, Brielle. You are gifted, possibly the most gifted Seer East of the sea. I am known in the Seer circles for my mental control. You are safe around me, Brielle. Now, look at me."
Hesitantly, but overwhelmingly curious now, Brielle slowly looked into his face. Nothing. She involuntarily gasped in relief. A knot seemed to unravel inside her as she realized she had not felt this free since her abilities had been discovered. It was a strange feeling.
"To answer your question," Sebastian answered slowly, holding her still flickering gaze, "I speculate that the first army is your mind, and the second is mine. You have been training for years, and your mental and emotional security has been destroyed. You need to get into the battle and use your abilities."
"But…" Brielle began, but Sebastian wasn't finished.
"You need to test yourself, see where your gift's limits lie. It is time to stop hiding behind your veil and live!"
Both were on their feet now, though Brielle wasn't sure when that had happened. She was confused and enamored by this strange man. She wasn’t sure what he would do next. But she was still surprised when he sent her back to Rosalinda to complete her evening chores.
All through her chores and long after she lay down to sleep that night, her mind was racing with all the new possibilities that had been opened to her.
When she finally fell asleep, she dreamed of a whitewashed wall and the words "Stop hiding behind your veil and live!"
Rosalinda loved sunsets. For all her practicalities and endless fretting, Brielle would sometimes catch her gazing at the sky just after the sun set. Though Brielle herself found no particular pleasure in watching the sky, her mentor's love of something so momentary and abstract as the sky at dusk helped her understand that people are complex beings. What a person does and says for most of their life may never reveal what is hidden deep inside. A person's true, hidden nature was something that fascinated Brielle. And, she suspected, it interested Sebastian as well.
The next meeting with the mysterious teacher happened not the following day, as Brielle had hoped, but three days from the first.
It was a day of rest, and of prayer to the gods the convent of Dioson worshipped. Brielle was exempt from these prayers, as her people worshipped different gods, but she always enjoyed the time to herself. Most of her teachers were Diosoni as well, so she had rarely had lessons during these monthly days of prayer. So she was mildly surprised when, before breaking her fast, Brielle was sent to the lesson room.
She entered with a little trepidation, not knowing what awaited her. Before her was a small table laden with a modest breakfast and a pair of chairs. Standing at the table with his back to her was Sebastian.
He hadn't heard her enter, and continued to arrange the items on the table. Brielle walked toward him, shifting her gait slightly so her soft shoes slapped lightly on the hard floor. He turned abruptly and stared into her eyes. She met his gaze.
"Good." He said after a moment, and Brielle lowered her eyes out of habit. "Where is your veil?"
"In my room."
He nodded, and motioned towards the table.
They sat opposite each other, and Sebastian began helping himself to the fruit, cold chicken, and cheese arrayed before them. Brielle bowed her head a moment before doing likewise.
"They say you can learn a lot about a person by how they eat." Sebastian muttered without looking up.
"And what have you learned about me?" Brielle replied, assuming he meant for her to reply.
"That you worship at least one god, probably one of fertility. You use your left hand to eat. In some cultures, that is considered disrespectful." He shook his head slightly.
"Yes, Rosalinda has often reprimanded me for that very reason."
"And yet, where I come from, being left-handed is considered a blessing. Why do you wield a sword with your right hand?"
"Because my teacher refused to teach me left-handed."
Again, a nod.
"What else have you learned?"
"You choose hard cheeses and apples over pineapple and mangoes. You were born in a more northern country than this, and you were not born rich enough to enjoy exotic imports."
"That's quite a deduction, sir."
"But I am correct."
"Close. Do you not know of Araus?"
"No. The lands I am most familiar with lie across the Sea."
Brielle found it hard not to react. Sebastian smiled at her attempts. The Lands Beyond the Sea were a mysterious place, and could only be reached by sailing ship, a long journey fraught with dangers. If it were not for the trade of gold-silk fabrics and other rarities, no one would know what lay beyond the dangerous waters of the Cleft Sea.
"You have a remarkably good understanding of the Common tongue, and of the cultures here." Brielle remarked to cover up her amazement.
"I studied long and hard on my journey here." Was the reply.
After a moment of hesitation, Brielle ventured a question. "What was it like?"
"My journey? Long, boring and dangerous."
"No, in the Lands Beyond the Sea." Brielle leaned forward.
"Ah, no, that I will not speak of." Sebastian took a delicate sip of his water. "This is my home now. I will not speak of the past, no matter how much you pester me. It is behind me, and that is all I will say of the matter."
Brielle ached to know more, but decided not to press the issue now. Sebastian seemed a little on edge. After a moment she steered the conversation back into safer routes.
"What else have you noticed?"
"Eh?" His mind seemed to have drifted away.
"About me. From the way I eat breakfast."
"Yes, of course. You are a smart girl, yet you neglect to use both of your utensils." Brielle breathed an inward sigh of relief. As much as she wished to know what lay beyond the Sea, she also did not want to ruin her chances of learning from this man. Especially now that she had learned some of his origin.
Near the end of the meal, Sebastian brought the conversation back to her origin. "Araus? That is where you said you are from?"
Brielle nodded, her mouth rather full of food at that moment.
"What is that place like? More northern than here in the desert wastes I presume?"
Brielle quickly swallowed her mouthful. " Only slightly. It is a city-state north-west of here. They have one of the largest shipping ports on the coast. More than a hundred ships can find mooring in its harbors and ports." Brielle was talking faster from excitement. She hadn't had anyone to talk to about home in a long time.
"It must be a large city to hold that much of the coastline."
"Araus is big, but it has so much coastline because it was originally built on a peninsula. The old city wall went all the way around the shoreline, and the city only has one gate to the mainland because the peninsula gets smaller before connecting to the mainland. And to get to that gate you cross an arched bridge built up to the gate, spanning a trench dug from one side of the peninsula to the other, through solid rock, so at high tide the city became an island. Now there are districts on either side of the trench, and farms spreading out around the trading routes for miles, but if trouble ever comes by land the city should still be large enough to hold everyone." Brielle stopped for breath.
"It sounds like you are proud of your city." Sebastian interrupted calmly when he saw she was about to continue. "But please save the rest of the descriptions for later. I will see the city myself soon enough."
"When?" Brielle heard herself ask before she could stop herself.
"That is my business." Sebastian scolded her.
"Now, I believe we still have some learning to do." Today was an intelligence test of sorts. Sebastian had Brielle list off every place, every animal, every item she could recall, and later he went back to certain things she had listed and asked her to describe them. It seemed an odd test to perform, and time-consuming, but Sebastian was the tutor, so she went along with the test. It was after sundown before Sebastian seemed satisfied.
The following class Brielle had to describe everything she knew about Sight. This pleased Brielle inside, because it finally seemed like they were getting somewhere. However in her excitement she forgot to mention the simplest of things: eye contact and the will to Sight. Sebastian wasn't pleased.
After that lesson, Sebastian asked, "has anyone ever Sighted you?"
Brielle thought for a moment, then blushed. "Only the time I accidentally did it to myself, sir."
Sebastian's raised eyebrow was enough for her to feel very ashamed. "Then we shall have to change that. You shouldn't do something to someone without having felt it yourself.
"Brielle, look at me." The tone in his voice changed in such a way that Brielle was compelled to look into his eyes. This time she didn’t resist. They were brown, dark brown, like the shadows under old trees, and deep, so deep. She felt like she was falling down a hole, and those eyes were throwing her down.
Falling, falling, Brielle felt like she was being swallowed up by the earth. She fought to keep from screaming.
And then it was over. Brielle gasped and covered her head with her arms. After a few moments, she raised her head again. Why isn't Sebastian lecturing me? When she saw his eyes, she knew.
He was troubled, in a way that he couldn't seem to hide from her.
"What is it? What did you see?"
He was silent for so long Brielle thought she wasn't going to get an answer. Finally he said "Meet me just after dark in the hallway outside your room. Bring your veil and any worldly possessions you don't want to live without."
"O…kay" Brielle said hesitantly. She stood up to leave.
The words seemed painful for him to say.
"Don't tell anyone about this. Go now. I will explain all of this later."
Brielle hurried from the room, wondering how she would keep this from Rosalinda. She always knew when something was bothering Brielle.
But she didn't see Rosalinda for the rest of the day. She was at the market buying supplies the convent couldn't grow or make themselves.
Brielle retired early. She wanted the time to sort things out: both her thoughts and her possessions. It wasn't like she had a lot of things, but there were a few. A slightly used brown cloak her father had saved up to buy her one festival. It had been too big on her then, and it no longer reached the ground, but she loved it. It always reminded her of him. She also had her mother's comb, a family heirloom passed down from a time when her family had a lot more money. It was bronze, jeweled on one side, though some of the gems had fallen off over time. Her mirror matched the comb, except for the silvered disk of the mirror itself, and she thought she could remember the nervous smile as her mother handed her only daughter these treasured heirlooms, just before Brielle left.
And that was all she had, other than a cloth scraps doll she had brought with her when she came. She had been young enough to love it then, and had only recently grown out of that stage. She tucked it into the bag with the other things, fond memories still clinging to the bundle of rags with a face.
Her thoughts came next. What had Sebastian Seen, and when would he tell her about it? Will he even tell me? I seem to recall him saying he would explain all of this, not tell me what he had Seen. Brielle was beginning to learn how his mind worked. What weighed perhaps most heavily on her mind was the secrecy surrounding the whole thing. I haven't kept a secret this long in my life. Why is it so heavy in my mind? It isn't as though I had deliberately avoided answering a question, I just didn't open my mouth about it. So why do I feel so guilty?
After a while she lay down and pretended to sleep. She knew exactly the time the night supervisor came around, making sure no one stayed up too late. There was too much work to be done for anyone to be up all night, even in prayer.
Darkness came. When Brielle could no longer see her hand in front of her face, she stood and stepped over to her door, using her memory of the space to stay silent and not bump into anything. She leaned down and picked up the bag she had placed by the door. It was a drawstring sack with a strap so she could wear it over her shoulder, and it was heavy with the metal items inside, though also contained some supper scraps she had managed to slip away from the table. She had a queer feeling she would need them soon. She wore her cloak, and both her over and under dress.
Brielle waited a few moments more, wishing she had a sword or dagger of her own. Though she was well trained in the use of both, until she reached the age of adulthood, in her country 17, she was not allowed her own weapon. Of course Brielle thought this ridiculously unfair, considering her situation and location, where the age of adulthood was 14 for girls, but Rosalinda was strict in this, and in every other law from Brielle's home country.
Finally Brielle heard it: the faintest tap on her door. She slowly eased it open, and saw a brief flash of light as Sebastian cracked open the shuttered lantern he held. He nodded, and motioned for Brielle to follow him. She had to do so by sound and feel, because he closed the lantern before he walked away.
It was a silent, oddly peaceful journey through the dark, and Brielle felt right at home without her sight. She hadn't acquired her sword-skill reflexes without learning to fight in the dark. There were also times when Rosalinda or one of the others had taken her to the desert to hunt for nocturnal animals, night-flowering plants, or rare glowing stones, the purpose of which Brielle had never learned.
When they reached the doors of the convent, Sebastian held up the lantern and partially unshuttered it several times. There was a pause, and Brielle saw an answering flicker from the gatehouse. She wondered why they didn't just go to the gatehouse to ask them to open the gate, but she maintained her silence.
A figure darted from the gatehouse, paused at the door, then darted back inside. Only then did Sebastian lead the way through the gate which was now ajar.
The desert outside the convent was black. The stars overhead provided the only light, casting the faintest glimmers over the dark landscape, illuminating little. Brielle kept tripping and slipping, and once brushed against a lone jumping cactus. She tried to jerk away, but several had already snagged her dress, and hung on for dear life. She wanted to stop and pull them out, but Sebastian wouldn't let her stop. The spikes poked through the double layer of fabric, threatening to adhere to her leg.
They had gone no more than a hundred paces out into the wilderness when they heard an inhuman sound. Brielle spun to look at the convent, outlined by a slight glow from the torches inside. It was a horn she heard, one she had been trained to respond to, even from the deepest sleep. Attack! The horn shouted. Defend yourselves!
"No…" Brielle muttered, instinctively moving back. Sebastian grabbed her arm.
"We cannot go back." He cautioned. "If we do, you will die."
Brielle spun to the sound of his voice. "How do you know?!" Even in her alarm, she knew the answer as she asked the question. Sebastian's silence told her the same.
"Please," she began, hesitantly. "Who else dies tonight?" She waited for a breath. "Rosalinda?" Silence. "No!" the sound was a strangled gasp, and suddenly Brielle collapsed, the weight of it all too much for her to bear. The horn continued to sound, now mingling with other sounds. Shouting, the ring of steel on steel, soon screaming, crying… through it all Brielle could only sob louder, torn between her life and her home.
She could hear Sebastian moving around her, and even caught a glimpse of red lantern light out of the corner of her eye, but she didn't care. Rosalinda, her home, her way of life… it was gone, taken by some unseen force that seemed to slaughter her peace, her sense of safety and rightness.
Something tugged at her dress. She glanced over and saw Sebastian prying the jumping cactus pods off her dress with a dagger. Brielle knew she should consider herself lucky none of them had grabbed her skin, those things were painful. Maybe some pain is just the thing I need. It's not like I don't deserve to suffer. Sebastian spared me from my fate. What do I have to live for now?
Sebastian handed her the lantern. When she didn't take it, he gently wrapped her fingers around the handle, then scooped her up and carried her, further into the desert. Or is he taking me to the town? Or the highway? Brielle wasn't sure, and she didn't care enough to glance up at the stars. Instead she hung limp in Sebastian's arms, tears streaming down her face, sobbing occasionally when the tears wouldn't come fast enough.
Eventually she imagined she was dead, and Sebastian was the god of death Rosalinda talked about, carrying her into the underworld, or perhaps to another world altogether. Rosalinda had never been clear about that. Gradually her thoughts faded, and she slept without realizing she had fallen asleep.
Back at the compound, the terrified screams slowly subsided into weeping and groans as thatch caught fire and mudbrick smoldered. Rosalinda, who had been shaken awake by the first scream, stood in the central courtyard, watching the kitchens, spinning rooms, storage and dormitories being demolished around her. Mudbrick would not burn, but this variety, made from the sandy soil of the area, melted like wax at the touch of the invaders' superheated torches. Her way of life, her entire life's work, her adopted family, destroyed in moments. She only hoped Brielle, sweet girl, had perished by the sword or some other less painful way than buried under molten glass.
Brielle woke to warmth on her face. She opened her eyes to the brilliance of the morning sun, and instantly shut them again.
When was the last time I slept outside? Turning her head away from the brilliance, she saw a strange land spread out around her. To her right was the edge of the wastelands, dun and dreary, even in the morning light. But to every other side, looking down the gradual rise she was atop, was a hilly and rugged place, the narrow valleys creased in green. At least, it appeared green, though she couldn't be certain as the sun hadn't risen enough to cast aside the shadows that wreathed the zigzagging crevices.
There was no movement, other than the smallest wisp of cloud in the sky that seemed to hover over the strange land.
No, wait, something's moving down there, at the foot of the hill. Brielle squinted at the small, upright figure as it slowly ascended the rise.
What's it carrying? It looks like it's got hair sticking up in every direction. Brielle rose, waiting for the figure to become more than a silhouette. It wasn't until the figure called out to her that she realized who it was.
"Had a good sleep Brielle?" Brielle almost gasped in relief. She would never admit it to Sebastian, but she was really glad it was him. She grinned at herself. But her grin faded as she recalled the events that led them to this place.
"Have you gone back yet?" She asked. His eyes flickered to the ground briefly. Brielle closed her eyes. "It's gone, then. How bad is it?"
Sebastian didn't respond, but slung the bundle of sticks off his back and proceeded to build a fire. He wordlessly handed her a pair of rabbits. Brielle cringed, but took them and the proffered knife. She hated skinning animals. It was a disgusting job, but someone had to do it, and Sebastian had already taken on the more pleasant task of the cookfire.
When he had begun a small blaze, Brielle asked "Do you think we'll be followed?"
Sebastian paused and looked up at her. "I honestly don't know. I only knew we were in danger because of what I Saw yesterday. I wished to tell Rosalinda, of course, but…"
"You saw her fate through mine?"
He lowered his eyes to the fire. "I did."
Brielle wanted to ask, but was afraid to. Instead she held up the rabbit she was dressing. Sebastian nodded his approval.
The rabbits were small, but plump, and there was enough meat on them to sate the two travelers, though barely. They ate in silence. As they finished, Brielle asked "Where are we going?"
Sebastian gave a small sigh. "I am trying to take you home, but I do not know this land. I know North, and that your homeland lies somewhere in that direction." He motioned. "I will need your knowledge of this place, as well as your other wilderness skills, as much as my own."
"Well…" Brielle began. Sebastian nodded for her to continue. "I've never seen this kind of land before," she indicated the rolling hills and green valleys, "but I do know the road that leads through the desert. It's probably somewhere in that direction." She pointed back to the dreary land behind her. "The road is well made, and there are enough wells and oases to sustain us all the way to the forests of my homeland." Brielle paused, noticing Sebastian was frowning. "What is it?"
Sebastian shook his head. "As pleasant as that road sounds, it is too dangerous for us to travel right now. The bandits or thieves that attacked the compound will be travelling by the main roads, or at least will be watching them for unwary travelers. We should stick to the edge of this land, for now, and follow the curve of the desert north. I can catch enough food for us here, and water can be found at the bottom of most of those crevices. I wish to get you home in one piece."
"What about your purpose here?" Brielle asked, ashamed of her outburst but standing behind her words.
"You are my purpose now, until you are safe at home." Sebastian replied with such conviction that Brielle couldn't doubt his words. But when she glanced up to reply, she saw a glint in his eyes that she couldn't explain.
If only I could have studied facial expressions, I would know what that was. Brielle decided to keep a closer eye on faces, especially Sebastian's. What have I missed because I wasn't watching someone's face?
After a moment of quiet that began to grow uncomfortable, Sebastian clapped his hands and said "Well, let's be off. Chitchatting about your home won't take us there."
Brielle nodded and put out the fire. Gathering her little bundle of belongings, she felt the hard edge of the mirror, and paused.
What if… she wondered.
"Are you ready?" Sebastian's voice protruded on her musings.
"Um, yes. Coming." Brielle threw the sack over her shoulder and followed Sebastian down the gentle slope.
As they walked, following the unclear line that divided hills and desert, Sebastian strode with purpose, but Brielle followed uncertainly. She had travelled to the convent in a covered wagon, forbidden from looking out upon the scenery. Which made sense, in light of how she had discovered her ability of Sight.
"Brielle," Sebastian said, glancing over his shoulder, "Are you alright?"
"Yes." She responded automatically. It wasn't enough to convince him.
"Come, walk beside me." He motioned, and Brielle reluctantly obeyed.
"This isn't your first loss, is it?" Brielle stayed silent. Sebastian seemed to read the answer in her silence. "I have experienced loss too. You loved Rosalinda dearly, did you not?"
After a moment, Brielle nodded. Sebastian waited.
"She was like a mother to me." Still he listened. After a while of concentrating on where her feet were going, Brielle elaborated.
"She was like the mother I never had. I was only a little girl when I discovered my Sight. I was playing with Timmon, my little brother, and I Saw into his eyes. I saw him die. Of course I broke out into tears and ran to my mom. But she didn't believe me. Not until Timmon drowned in the town well a week later. Then she treated me differently than my siblings.
"When she came through mourning for Timmon, she spoke to my father about having me tested for the Sight. Father was against it: he wanted nothing strange or mystical in his house. And he loved me. I was his favorite, and if I tested positive I would be sent away. Mother seemed eager for me to leave, even before we arranged the test.
"So I ran away. I didn't get far, of course, before one of the town guards caught me. I was hungry and tried to steal some fish from a street vendor. He brought me before the local judge, and the judge questioned me.
"'Why did you try to steal that fish?' He asked kindly. Everyone knew he was kind, maybe a little too soft for the chair.
"But his gentleness helped me respond truthfully. 'I was hungry.'
"'Why didn't your parents give you some food?' He asked.
"'Because I ran away from them.' I murmured. 'They wanted to send me away.' I was too young to understand this, but I had heard my older brothers talking.
"'And why did they want to send you away?'
"I think I started crying then, and answered through my weeping 'Because I saw Timmon die, and Momma didn't believe me, and they are going to give me some sort of test…' I dissolved into tears, but the judge and the others there figured out what was going on. They sent me to the local Seer, who kept me with her until my parents arrived. Father embraced me tightly, but Mother held back. That was when I began to believe she never did love me.
"I was tested and found to have the Sight. The Seer, I can't remember her name, suggested she take care of me for a while, until arrangements could be made for me to travel to the convent. Father agreed, but Mother stayed silent. I looked into her eyes and Saw the pain she would go through in my absence, mingled with fear and desire to have one of her children in a position of power.
"It was wrong of me to do so, but I hated her in that moment. I hated her until I came to Rosalinda. She showed me love, tough love, but in a way that I never felt rejected. With my own mother I felt like an outsider. Rosalinda always accepted me. She and I went through some tough things together, but I loved her more on the other side of them.
"Rosalinda taught me everything I know. My own mother wasn't there for me when I needed her. She probably still loves me, but I am a stranger to her. Rosalinda often knew what I would say before I said it." Brielle paused, fighting the erupting tears.
When she thought she had control again, she continued. "I knew I would have to leave someday, but I always assumed Rosalinda would always be there to go back to, no matter where I went. But now…" Brielle stopped, choking on a sob she didn’t realize was there. Sebastian gently placed his hand on her shoulder, and guided her into motion again.
"I know you need to mourn," he murmured, "but we also must keep moving. We have to put more distance between us and Rosalinda's killers."
They walked in silence, Brielle sobbing quietly, Sebastian stoic and stern-faced.
Some time passed. Halfway through the day Brielle's legs began to ache from walking. She wanted to complain, but one glance at her tutor made her keep her mouth shut. His reddening complexion shone with perspiration, more than it seemed was normal for the heat of the day. But his expression was as unreadable as ever.
Brielle kept silent as much as she could, but Sebastian kept asking her questions, seemingly out of nowhere.
"What is this plant called?" He asked, pointing.
"What is it called?"
Brielle focused on the bushy stick with yellow perched on top. "Um, fennel?"
"Correct." Sebastian seemed neither pleased nor displeased at her answer. "And what is fennel useful for?"
Brielle took a lot more time to think through this answer. "Other than in cooking, it has been used to decrease one's appetite while fasting, and some argue it can be used to counter a variety of poisons, including snake bites." A thought occurred to her and she added "It is also added to old fish to make it more digestible."
At that comment, Brielle thought, she saw something at the corner of Sebastian's mouth twitch, as if a smile was trying to escape, but it vanished as quickly as it had come. "I had not heard about the fish use, but otherwise you are correct. Where did you hear that one?"
Brielle cocked her head, trying to remember. "I think it was when I was a little girl, watching my mother cook for Councilman Calixtus and his family. I remember hiding under a table, eyeing a table full of freshly baked loaves of bread when I heard my mother yelling at one of the servants preparing the fish. She had forgotten to pick fresh fennel from the garden, and my mother was getting frantic because breakfast was already late." Brielle smiled at the memory.
Sebastian's gaze seemed to flicker at her amusement. "That is an oddly specific memory. Why do you remember it so clearly?"
Brielle blushed a little and shrugged, staring at the ground. "One of those random memories, I guess."
Sebastian didn't reply. Finally, Brielle looked up at him. He seemed thoughtful. A steady breeze had picked up, shifting a layer of dirt across the plain, pushing wisps of Brielle's hair against her lips. She licked them, then blew out the hair.
Finally Sebastian spoke, quietly, so that Brielle wasn't sure she was supposed to hear. "Memories are relics of our personal past. In them are keys to our identity." He turned to her. "Brielle, there is no such thing as a random memory. Each one is important, sent from the gods to teach us to remember who we are."
Gods? Brielle was confused for a moment before realizing how foolish she'd been. Of course, he's from across the sea. His people believe different things than we do here. Following many gods must be part of his religion. She resolved not to comment on it.
Sebastian saw her confusion though, and answered it. "I suppose you have different beliefs here? About the importance of memories?" He chuckled once, then let his face grow somber again. "I still can't tell you about my homeland, but I will share that I value memory as much as I revere my Sight. Both are things that make me who I am. It is the same for you, and everyone in the world, whether they have Sight or not." He shook his head, as if clearing his mind. "Anyway, we should return to our examination of the landscape. What is that plant called, and what are its uses?"
Brielle's mind seemed to slingshot away from the tantalizing tidbits Sebastian had let drop, and she struggled to focus on the spot Sebastian pointed to.
In this way they passed the long, hot day. They saw no water, though they kept the ever-shrinking hills to their right as the sun reached its zenith and slowly crept down the arc of the sky.
Brielle was sweating, and she knew Sebastian was too. Her skin felt hot, and she wondered if she had a sunburn. It was possible, she had paler skin than Sebastian, and his cheeks and nose were already red. Finally Sebastian's attempts to test her knowledge faded, and they trudged on in silence.
Late in the afternoon, when the heat seemed to peak, Sebastian called a halt. Brielle plopped down on the baked ground, which seemed to radiate even more than the sun overhead. Her head drooped, and her eyes seemed to focus on nothing. She heard Sebastian sit down beside her, and felt a little relief from the heat as his shadow partially covered her.
They stayed that way for a while, neither saying a word. Brielle let her thoughts drift, while Sebastian kept his eyes on the landscape around them. Her thoughts went back to Rosalinda and the sisters, but she quickly pushed those them away. There would be time for tears when they got out of this desert. She thought instead of Sebastian. He was unlike any man she had met. True, she hadn't met very many in her time at the compound, but she could remember her father, a proud man, but quick to bow before his superiors. Brielle couldn't imagine Sebastian bowing before anyone, except maybe as an equal.
As if sensing her thoughts, Sebastian shifted, and a ray of light struck one of her eyes. She flinched, closing it. It was so bright, blinding. Her Sight wasn't as sensitive as her eyes were, it didn't seem restricted by light or distance, or even time.
Slowly, a thought began to grow. It seemed so ludicrous she pushed it away, but when Sebastian motioned for them to start moving again, it returned, and nagged at her as they trudged along. Finally, about an hour later she had to try it.
"Sebastian," she began, but hesitated.
"What is it, Brielle?" Sebastian replied. The weary tone in his voice startled Brielle. He didn't look like the heat was wearing on him, with his back still straight, his breaths calm and even, though his clothing was damp down his back. But he looked curiously at her out of the corner of his eye.
"I had an idea." She drew a breath to explain, but the dry air caught on her dry throat. Sebastian waited. "I thought maybe one of us could Sight the other to see how we get out of this desert, or at least get some water. We could try it now if, if, you think…" She trailed off, horrified at how ridiculous the idea sounded.
Sebastian didn't answer right away. Brielle kept her eyes on the ground and kept walking, sure Sebastian thought she was an idiot. But when he still didn't speak, she hazarded a glance up at his face. A cluster of emotions fluttered around his features. Concern, maybe anger, hope, and finally after a moment of struggle, quiet resignation. He took a slow, deep breath in and nodded, almost imperceptibly.
"I don't like it, but I can see no better alternative. Let's do it."
They stopped, faced each other, and paused. "Should I Sight you, or you me?" Brielle blurted out.
"I think I should Sight you." Sebastian said. Brielle nodded, nervous but understanding. She tried not to look away as Sebastian turned his dark, piercing gaze on her, and Sighted into her.
In all Brielle's studies and instruction on Sight, there were no descriptions of what it was like to be aware of being Sighted. She saw Sebastian's gaze shift to some far distance, his eyes glaze over. She felt the sensation of falling into empty space. Then, between one breath and the next, it was over, leaving Brielle with a lingering sense of exposure. Sebastian pulled back, a look of deep thought on his face. She let him think for a few minutes, while she breathed out the lingering anxiety of being Sighted.
When he made up his mind, Sebastian looked around. His gaze fixed on a point and he started walking. Brielle followed, curious but scared of what he saw in her.
He led them not to the road, but into the low hills to their right. The dry slopes looked nearly as desolate as the desert road by this point, and Brielle wondered how there could be any water within twenty miles of them. Sebastian walked up the first gentle slope, down the other side, and turned to follow the hollow between hills.
The sun was low enough by this point that it burned Brielle's cheek rather than the top of her head. She put up her hand to shield her face.
Sebastian glanced back at her. His eyes grew wide, and he whisper shouted, "Get down!" and dropped to hands and knees. Brielle did likewise, confused. Sebastian began crawling along in the shadow of the slope, and Brielle followed, grateful for the shelter.
They kept going like this for at least an hour, until Brielle's hands were raw and her knees scuffed through the cloth of her leggings. She had tied her skirt around herself a while ago, and it hung around her waist like a droopy, sweaty lump. She had tried to ask why they were crawling once or twice, but each time Sebastian just shushed her and wouldn't say anything.
When Brielle thought her hands and knees couldn't take any more, she noticed Sebastian turn into the side of the hill and disappear. After a moment's hesitation she dove after him. She found herself in a small, sloping tunnel with a hard, sandy floor. The tunnel was barely wide enough for her shoulders to clear the walls, and she wondered how Sebastian was handling it.
Only a few paces down they came to a wider space. It was absolutely dark, with only the faintest illumination coming from the doorway. Brielle felt around, touching stone only a few inches above her head.
"Brielle?" Sebastian whispered.
"I'm here." She replied. "What is this place? And how did you know where to find it?"
"I'm not sure," Sebastian said. "I think it may be some sort of ancient burial chamber, but I knew how to find it with the Sight."
"Okay. Well, now what?" Brielle asked, waving her hand in front of her face. She could detect only the slightest movement.
"Now…" he paused. Brielle heard him sigh. "Now one of us has to check out the area to see why we were crawling along the bottom of this hill."
Neither of them spoke for a moment. Then Brielle said "I'll do it. I'm smaller than you, and my clothing is sand-coloured."
She fully expected Sebastian to argue her points, but he just said in something of a resigned tone "Very well, but be careful. I couldn't See whatever it was we had to hide from, but it can't be something good."
"I will," she assured him, turning and crawling back down the tunnel.
The light outside was quickly fading, forcing Brielle to peer into the dusk to see any of her surroundings. The sky was a deep red to the west, the dry ground fading from a sickly orange-green to shades of grey. Brielle crawled to the top of the hill, keeping as close as she could stand to the still-hot ground. Dry grass pricked her palms and stuck to her skirt, and her knee brushed the spikes of a prickly pear cactus halfway up.
She was panting a little by the time she made it, more from the heat than the climb. The light was almost gone now, so it was easy to see the little cluster of fires off in the distance, where Brielle guessed the road was located. She stared hard at the fires, little more than flickers in the growing dusk.
She stared at the fires for just a little too long.
A movement caught her eye, to her left, back the way they had come. She turned a little and saw a small line of figures following the line of hills, coming her way. Glancing back at the tunnel, Brielle thought quickly and realized they were closer to the tunnel, following their trail, than she was. Without thinking she stood up and bolted down the slope, trying to reach the tunnel in time to warn Sebastian.
As she ran she realized her mistake. The line of figures halted. A breathless moment passed while Brielle stumbled down the hill, now unable to stop her momentum. A slight movement from one of the figures, and something whizzed by Brielle's arm, missing only because she kicked the prickly pear cactus, jerked her foot away, and went into a summersaulting tumble. The world spun, and Brielle prayed to whatever gods were out there that she wouldn't hit a rock or another cactus.
When she finally came to a stop, flat on her face, she lay still for a moment, trying to get a read on each of her limbs. Other than a few sore spots that were sure to bruise and a sharp cluster of cactus spines in her ankle, everything seemed to function normally. Slowly, she lifted her head.
The world had gone dark. She was hidden, if they hadn't tracked the noise. Careful to be as silent as possible, Brielle pulled herself to her feet, pausing to pluck the spines from her ankle. The spot remained sore, but when she brushed her hand over the spot there were no spikes in the pain, so she was relatively sure she found them all.
Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness by this point, as much as humanly possible with only the fading light of twilight to light the land. The hill was before her, a black hump outlined by dark sky. The hill's slope was invisible, but when she strained to listen, Brielle could hear the gentle sound of soft leather against coarse sand and smooth stone, and the rustle of fabric coming from in front of her where she imagined the tunnel would be.
Slowly Brielle gathered her skirt, holding it tight to her side to keep it from rustling, and stepped carefully forward, unsure of what she would find and what she would do when she found it.
Then, as she strained into the gloom, there was a commotion ahead, and a light flashed, illuminating a stranger's face. He turned and stared in Brielle's direction for a moment, and in that moment of eye contact she Sighted.
She Saw the man and his comrades standing in a circle, staring into the darkness. Something out there growled, and emerged as a large wolf. The wolf snarled at them, leaping for the man's throat. A scuffle broke out, and something strange happened. A light flashed behind the small group, and the wolf split in two, half knocked down by the group, half fleeing into the night. The men surrounded the half-wolf, mocking and cheering, while silently they fell back into the night, one by one, until only the half-wolf remained.
Brielle shook her head, trying to clear it of the vision, but as her blurred eyes came back into focus, she saw the man's expression change. It may have been fear, it may have been anger, but whatever it was he knew she was out there. Brielle jumped into action, circling around the group in the dark, keeping the small flame in the corner of her eye where it wouldn't interfere with her night vision.
As she started up the hill again, her thoughts raced, mingled with pangs of adrenaline and fear. Did they find the tunnel? Did they find Sebastian? Am I the wolf that splits in two? If I am, what does that mean?
Her inner thoughts were broken by the disappearance of the torch. It must be inside the tunnel. She started angling back to the last spot she had seen the light.
After a few moments navigating by memory, Brielle slowed, listening for sounds of movement. The air seemed still, heavy with the lingering heat of the day. Brielle held her breath, but still, nothing. Feeling her way step by step, she located the drop off above the tunnel entrance, then crouched, readying herself to peer over the edge and down the tunnel.
A sound made her gaze flinch up, and she felt breath, warm and stale, wash over her cheek. She didn't dare move, she didn't even breathe as she heard the intimate sounds of a man licking his lips, sucking in a breath, shifting something in his hands. Slowly, ever so slowly, Brielle leaned back to the point she felt she could breathe again, slowly, her lungs burning for a gulp of air. How she hadn't been discovered yet she didn't know, but she wasn't about to squander this opportunity.
Shifting her stance Brielle followed the unguarded breathing, picking out two or three others beyond the first one. Lining up her play, she took a breath, let it out slowly, then put one foot forward, on the top edge of the tunnel and launched herself elbow-first at the first man.
The impact broke the silence with a sickening crack! Something gave under Brielle's elbow, but she didn't stop to think about that. She pushed past the now limp form and kicked in a semicircle in front of her, connecting with something hard and yielding. A man grunted from the impact, but didn't fall over. So Brielle kicked him again, bruising her leg on the man's staff.
In the moment it took her to recover, he swung the staff in the darkness, catching her in the side. The force behind the whack nocked her off balance, and she fell over.
The sound of her hitting the dirt alerted the others of her presence in the darkness, and she received another whack, this one on her hip, and a foot stepped on her splayed arm. She bit her tongue to keep from crying out and remained still.
"Is she out?" A hoarse voice whispered after a minute of dead silence. He spoke in the language of the desert nomads, a harsh yet melodic tongue that sounded strange to Brielle's ears. But it was one of the languages Rosalinda made her study, and even brought in a native speaker who sat with her for three months and taught her as much of the language as she could absorb. It had been a while since she had any reason to use the nomadic language, so it took her a moment to translate in her head.
"I think so." Another said, and a toe nudged Brielle's knee. She held back the urge to knock him to the ground and lay still. Another minute passed, during which the men shuffled around Brielle, whispering to each other quietly, so she had to strain her ears to catch a word or two.
A scuffle sounded from the direction of the tunnel. Brielle's heart leaped when she heard it, but quickly realized it couldn't be Sebastian. He would have made no sound. The torchlight came soon after, and Brielle fought the urge to turn her head and look, but now she was exposed, her back to the light.
"What do we have here?" A new voice asked.
"We found her snooping about." The first guard said. "She put up a good fight too."
"Then why is she still unbound?" The new voice demanded. This brought some muttering about how dark it was, as well as hands roughly tying her hands behind her back. Brielle used this chance to feign returning to consciousness. She groaned and struggled a little as she tried to sit up.
The men laughed. "Looks like you've caught yourself a little she-wolf." Said another new voice. Brielle managed to see through her pretend struggles that three men had emerged from the tunnel: two of the nomads, dragging a limp figure behind them.
Sebastian! There was blood on his head, or so it seemed in the wavering torchlight. Brielle moaned again and fell back to the ground. And something clicked in her mind.
They called me a she-wolf. A feeling slowly began to grow in the pit of her stomach, until it was discernable as terror. The wolf in my Sighting was split in two. If I am the wolf, what's going to happen to me!?
The sounds of the men talking seemed to fade as Brielle again fought with her emotions, trying to bring them under control. She stared at a pebble on the ground, willing herself to become as still as the rock.
"Here, hold the torch." The man who seemed to be the leader said. Something in his voice caught Brielle's attention. The slight shing of metal on metal brought everything into focus. Her back was again to the man, but she knew he was going to kill her, then and there.
Something in her snapped, and before she knew it she was on her feet, in the fighting stance Rosalinda had drilled into her so often. Her wrists tugged painfully at her bindings, but she didn't need her hands free.
The man with the drawn sword looked at her stunned into stillness. His dark complexion was easy for Brielle to memorize in that moment. His fine brows, chiseled face, the scar running from cheekbone to chin. His short sword's tip nearly rested on Sebastian's chest. Brielle's heart tried to freeze her, but she ignored it and acted on her trained instincts. She took a threatening step towards the leader, and when he flinched she turned and ran the other way, dodging the two who had captured her before. She heard shouted orders a moment later, as she vanished into the darkness beyond the torchlight.
The darkness was absolute now, but her mind was clear. She directed her course by the few stars that had appeared and headed for the road. The road they had avoided for so long.
She ran recklessly, hoping she wouldn't run into another cactus before she got to the clear area that bordered the road. Abruptly the packed dirt under her shoes turned into stone, and she stopped as fast as her speed allowed. She quickly slowed her panting, trying to ignore the burning in her lungs as she gradually allowed them the air they craved. And she listened.
Silence. Brielle stood and listened for sounds of pursuit until her breathing evened and a sliver of moon peaked over the hills from which she had come. Her hands almost unconsciously worked at her bindings until they had loosened enough to pull off. With her eyes fully adjusted to the darkness, she could see the faint glimmer of the moonlight on the ancient stone road. It stretched like an arrow before her, due north, vanishing into the darkness.
Who built this road? Some quiet corner of Brielle's mind wondered. Who had such skill with stone that they built a smooth stone road through the desert? And what magic keeps it from wearing away?
She had seen it before, of course, when she came south to study with Rosalinda. But she had been eight years old then, and was more concerned with her absent father than the landscape they traveled through by horse-drawn cart. She knew what most people knew, that there was once two ancient kingdoms that stretched far to the north and south, and ruled the western coasts along with their islands. But that was long, long ago. Nothing now remained of that once great people other than the stories and relics like this road that refused to surrender to the passage of time.
Brielle slowly slid her foot along the smooth stone, feeling for the indent that bordered the road. It was a long, breathless moment before her toe caught on a ridge. She traced the edge one way, then the other. Straight as the road.
Glancing back up at the stars, Brielle oriented herself north and set out, hand now clutching her nearly-forgotten bag. She would walk until daylight, trying to lose herself in the desert but for the road.
Sebastian. Her footsteps faltered. No, I have to keep going. Sebastian can take care of himself. Her heart argued her mind, but years of training steadied her resolve. She kept walking.
When the young woman stumbled into the small town of Merere one evening, sunburnt and hallucinating, she caused quite a stir. She almost went right past the place, following the ancient road, but one of the watch spotted her and was able to steer her back to the cluster of buildings that circled the old well. When he brought her to that well, some of the women rushed to draw water and seat her under the shade of an awning. The woman seemed to be delirious well into the cooling of the night, only muttering about following the road and something about the sea.
Early the following morning, when the woman had drank some water, eaten some food and fallen into restless slumber, the town leaders met in a nearby building.
"The first thing I'd like to ask is who is she?" The Male Elder of the town, Wade, began.
"Which direction did she come from?" Kanni, the Female Elder, interjected.
This prompted others to bring in the man who found her. Frand, who Kanni had known since he was born, came forward and explained "She came from the south, following the road. And if I might add, she kept glancing back as if she was being pursued, and muttering something about a teacher."
This sparked opinions from every person in the room, male and female, and Wade and Kanni were unable to bring the discussion under control for some time. Some of the leaders brought up the constant concern of desert raiders. Others muttered the woman must be from someplace far south, to become so lost in the desert. The theories were becoming more and more ridiculous when the elders finally managed to bring silence to the room.
"I am from Araus." A new voice said from the doorway. Every eye turned to the voice, to see the woman standing tall and steady, a light in her still feverish eyes. Kanni was the first to stand and try to lead her back to her bed, but the strange woman refused to move.
"I am from Araus." She repeated. "I was sent south to Depslea to train at one of their monasteries, and I am on my way back home."
"What is your name, dear?" Kanni asked gently.
The woman turned from the group to address Kanni, though with her eyes downcast. "I am Brielle, daughter of Allena."
"Well Brielle," Kanni said matter-of-factly, "I am Kanni, daughter of Giffi, Female Elder of this town of Merere. This is Wade, son of Kipp, Male Elder here. I understand you have travelled a long way, and still have a long way to go?" Brielle nodded slightly, looking discouraged. Kanni gave her a side hug and continued. "You are welcome to sojourn here with us as long as you need." This brought a small smile to Brielle's sunburnt face.
As she was about to turn and leave, Brielle suddenly looked up, directly into Wade's eyes. He seemed taken aback at her boldness, but before he could respond she jerked as if struck, and slumped, about to fall until Kanni grabbed her arm and held her up. Wade shivered and looked at the woman with a new expression.
After a breathless silence Brielle said, in barely more than a whisper, "Do not let me leave in less than a fortnight." She stared at the ground in a daze, and wouldn't say more.
She let herself be led away by Kanni, while the rest of the leaders continued to discuss Brielle and her appearance in their small desert town.
The days passed slowly for Brielle, though she sensed the curiosity of the village did not abate as the days wore on. Kanni confined her to bed for the first few days, but Brielle complained so much she finally let her charge sit just outside the doorway on the fourth day. The children were shy of the newcomer at first, especially when her burnt skin began peeling, but it only took two days before they were creeping up to Brielle and asking her questions, quietly, and when she answered them, with more eagerness.
They asked her who she was, why her skin was so much paler than hers, about her former life, the city of Araus, the convent, and every other little thing with which children can be fascinated
Brielle still felt like a child herself, so it was easy to relate to the children. Charli, the leader of the group, was the first to approach her. Her sister Ava soon followed. Dio, Hester and Finn hung back for a while, but when Brielle showed no signs of anger at the girls' questions, began asking their own. Brielle loved the attention, but Kanni shooed them away before supper.
The next day Brielle had some questions of her own for the children.
Hester was the first to show up after breakfast, despite yesterday's reticence. He waved shyly at Brielle, but wouldn't come close until Dio arrived.
"Good morning, boys." Brielle said, scratching her peeling cheek. She sat against the mudbrick wall of the house with a blanket over her lap. Though the days were hot, mornings took some time to warm up.
When they all arrived, Brielle brought up her question.
"So what do you know about the desert south of here?" She asked.
The boys looked at each other, but after a moment Hester whispered conspiratorially "We're not supposed to know this, but the desert nomads are gathering. They raided some of the other villages, and the elders are worried they'll come for us next." Dio and Finn nodded solemnly.
Brielle pondered his answer. She had planned on asking several questions that would eventually lead to the raiders, but it appeared the whole village was aware of them.
"Did you see them?" Finn's question took her out of her reverie. The boy's soft brown eyes stared innocently into hers. She instinctively glanced down.
"Yes, I did. They took my friend, and I want to find him." She said it quietly, but when she risked a glance at the boys they were all nodding. "I'm not asking you to help me." Brielle added quickly, "I'm imposing on your village enough as it is. In fact, I should go." She attempted to rise and managed to get to her feet, but as she started walking Kanni showed up out of nowhere and ushered her back inside.
The nights were harder than the days. Rosalinda and everyone else at the convent haunted the darkness behind her closed lids. In the darkness of her sleepless nights, she took the time to grieve their passing. Sebastian's unmoving form drifted in and out of her restless dreams.
Brielle recovered quickly as the days seemed to fly by, and much to her chagrin Kanni still refused to let her leave. "It's not the right time." She kept muttering.
Finally twelve days after her arrival Brielle confronted Kanni. "Why won't you let me leave?"
Kanni's cheeks flushed, though with frustration or something else Brielle couldn't tell. "Brielle, you told me not to let you leave for a fortnight."
"Me?" Brielle's brow scrunched in confusion. "When?"
Kanni sighed. "I wondered if you would remember. You were feverish at the time, but when I brought you before the village elders you looked straight at Wade. Before we could react you fell over and said you needed to stay here a fortnight. What? What's with that look?" Kanni looked worried at Brielle's expression.
"I can't tell you, but I am sorry about that. I'll stay here without complaining, but then I have to go." She tried to keep the conflict from her voice, but from Kanni's softening expression she wasn't sure she succeeded.
"Will you go north?" The older woman asked. "…or, south?"
Brielle took a breath in, and out. "I don't know."
Kanni nodded. "I trust you will find the courage to decide when the time comes."
The day before Brielle could leave, she was no closer to a decision. Thanks to a salve from Kanni her skin was fully healed, pale and unscarred. She added a small tin of the salve to her satchel, a gift from the female Elder. As she withdrew her hand from the bag it brushed against the cold metal of the mirror, and she pulled it out. The elaborate border of the mirror seemed out of place in the mudbrick home, and light from the doorway reflected from its surface onto the ceiling. The yellowish mote quivered as she tried to hold the mirror steady. To Brielle, it seemed to reflect her resolve.
I know I'm supposed to go to Araus, and that's what Rosalinda and Sebastian were training me for, but what happened to Sebastian? Is he alive? He must be, he's too smart to fall to any raiders. And if he's ok, maybe… She didn't let herself finish the thought.
With a sigh, Brielle returned the mirror to its place in the bag. She added some dried fruit and strips of dried meat, as well as a collapsible desert hat. These people have been so good to me, I'll have to find a way to repay them.
A horn invaded the silence. Brielle glanced out the doorway to see instant pandemonium. On instinct she slung her satchel over her shoulder and ran out into the sunlight.
At a glance she saw the children running in one direction, herded by the oldest men and women, while everyone else ran every which way, holding spears and bows and makeshift shields. Brielle stood frozen for a second, glancing around, but when she saw the billow of dust on the horizon her legs went weak.
Dust was everywhere. In his nose, his eyes, clinging to his skin like a living thing. It kept sticking to him, gathering around his limbs, weighing them down. Then a nomad's sword swung out of nowhere, aiming for his neck. He was dead, and with him, his people. He closed his eyes and waited for the blow to fall. A metallic clang rang out as a bronze mirror countered the sword, sending it tumbling to the ground.
Brielle opened her eyes. Her eyelashes picked up particles of dust as she blinked back the sudden memory. She pulled herself up, ignoring the dusty coating on the right side of her clothing. Stumbling on her feet she took off running in the direction of the dust cloud. The village was eerily quiet, bracing for the attack that thundered closer with every heartbeat.
As she passed it Brielle saw most of the adults of the town of Merere spread out in a thin line, facing the oncoming cloud. It was close enough now that Brielle could see men on horses, and hear the thunder of hooves. The line of spears held steady, but Brielle could see the inexperience in their postures. Without thinking she hurried to the closest person, a middle-aged man, and corrected his stance with her hands. He glanced at her and nodded, and helped the man next to him correct his stance. Brielle ran down the line, giving advice here and there, in the moments before the nomads arrived.
The moment of impact undid all her work. The horses bowled over the line of townspeople as if they were a line of bushes. The lead horse tossed its head and spun around, its rider swinging about himself with a short sword. Red sprayed as Brielle looked on in horror. She didn't know she was screaming until the raider turned to look at her, a look that had to be bloodlust burning in his eyes. He turned his horse and spurred it at her, and she wasn't sure if it was the man or the steed that screamed a battle cry as he swung his sword at her. Something pinged in her brain at the sight of the sword.
She dodged from an instinct born of years of training. As her mind froze her body acted, diving to the side and rolling to back to her feet. She spun to see the raider's sword flying away from her, having missed her by a hair. The horse's momentum carried him away, out of swinging range. But the man's face was burned into her mind, cast in torchlight as he stared down at her, eyes glinting in surprise, sword pointed down at Sebastian.
He has my teacher. The thought leaped through her mind with the sudden adrenaline, and she took off running after the man. Seeing a spear lying on the ground she deftly bent down and scooped up the weapon. The raider had slowed and was turning his horse again for another run when Brielle reached him. She leaped and swung the butt of the spear as a staff, aiming to knock him off the horse. It shuddered as it connected with his chest, and Brielle could tell she'd knocked the wind out of him, but he remained in the saddle.
The horse, as if sensing its master's distress, wheeled around and took off, headed for the desert. Brielle tried to follow but found her way blocked by raiders and townspeople fighting. She watched the horse go until someone took a swing at her and she had to tear her eyes from the sight to defend herself.
The fighting seemed to last an eternity, but by the time the raiders retreated the sun was still high in the sky. They left death and confusion in their wake.
Brielle stood, numb, in the midst of the carnage she had wrought. Looking down she realized her hands shook, and she was out of breath. Hot, sandy air blew past her cheek. Turning her eyes to the ground, her stomach lurched at the blood and gore staining the sand. The staff - no, the spear - in her hands was red with blood at the head, and Brielle realized many of her stunning blows had actually been lethal. Instantly she let it go, backing away as if to distance herself from what she now knew she had done. Her foot caught on something and she stumbled back, over a limp leg.
She turned and ran, blind to the world, trying to flee from the accusatory thoughts that followed.
The first stars found her, huddled under a broom tree. She shivered, though not entirely from the chill in the air.
What is wrong with me? Her inner voice asked. This sort of thing is what all that training was for.
But did Rosalinda really mean for me to kill people? Her heart replied.
After a moment of terrifying silence, she remembered something Rosalinda told her when she was young.
"You have a great gift," the woman told her. "Many people are going to try to take that gift, use it and become great and powerful because of it. But it is my job to protect you, and I will do so by teaching you to protect yourself. So when people come looking for you to hurt or use you, this training will help you keep yourself and others safe. But remember, life is sacred, so only take a life when another one is at risk. I can only pray you will have the judgment to understand when the time comes."
Brielle hadn't understood what Rosalinda was saying then, but now it made more sense. The people in the village were in danger, and I helped keep them safe. That's what Rosalinda was talking about.
Though some reason had come through her guilt, it still twisted painfully in her gut, and she moaned over the death she had caused.
As the half-moon fell over the horizon, a sense of darkness came over Brielle's sight, and she fell asleep as if forced into unconsciousness.
Voices. Voices were everywhere. But that made no sense. Why would so many people be in the desert?
Brielle opened her eyes. Colours swirled across her vision, patterned in silk, mooi, and lace. She blinked, and the colours shifted, a kaleidoscope of movement.
One of the voices sounded closer, so Brielle focused on the words it said. "…don't know why we do this anymore…" another voice replied, but it was lost in the cacophony. The louder voice replied, "Tradition is what it is, I know, but for the sake of progress as a nation-" he was cut off by the other. After a moment he laughed. "Oh, so true Lex, you know me well."
Brielle tried to hold on to her focus, but something was pulling it, pulling away from the colours and voices. Eventually she gave in and let herself be dragged upward, into an empty room. Empty in that it had no people. It was the largest, most opulent room Brielle had ever seen. And she wasn't even sure if it was real.
The heavy silken drapes covered two windows taller than Brielle, and the carpet that covered most of the floor looked thick, patterned with flowers and vines. The walls glinted in the candlelight, as if gilded with gold. A large, nearly square bed stood against one wall, fine blankets carefully laid across it, accented by the sheer fabric that seemed to float around the bed. A gilded wooden desk, tall rounded mirror, padded chair, and large wardrobe lined other walls, but didn’t fill the room. Brielle felt this room was very important for some reason. The room itself seemed to impress its importance upon her.
She blinked. Sand stretched as far as she could see, broken only on the horizon by small bumps that could be dunes or hills. The stars shone brightly overhead, illuminating the land with a pale glow.
A small red light flickered off to her right. As if drawn to it, Brielle felt herself getting closer without moving a finger. It was a fire, small and bright, its light drowning out the stars. Men sat around it, more than a dozen, clothed in the same clothes as the raiders Brielle had fought. Horses snorted and stamped at the far edge of the ring of light. The fire flared and crackled.
Looking closer, Brielle saw him. The leader she had encountered in the midst of the fighting. He sat quietly, ignoring his cohorts who chatted and laughed, and stared into the flames. His thoughtful expression changed his face so much Brielle hadn't instantly recognized him. Watching him now she thought he looked troubled, but that could be a trick of the light. His finger absently traced his long, thin scar.
A slight movement caught her eye, and she turned and saw him. Sebastian. He too sat quietly, a little apart from the others but closer than the horses. He had drawn his knees up to his chest and now rested his arms on them, seeming withdrawn but relaxed. His eyes were trained on a spot on in front of him. Brielle wanted to shout his name, but when she opened her mouth no sound came out.
As she started waving her arms, trying to get his attention, the leader turned to Sebastian and said "So, pale foreigner, what is this usefulness you promised?"
"You may call me Seb," Sebastian replied quietly, "And I am skilled in herblore and some of the mystic arts." His statement ended with absolute silence. Everyone had turned complete attention to him.
"Mystic arts?" the leader asked, his curiosity clearly piqued. "Which would you be referring to?" It was only now Brielle noticed the rope tied around Sebastian's ankle, ending in a stake in the ground.
"As you said, I am a foreigner." Sebastian continued, unfazed by the attention. "I come from a land across the Cleft Sea, where my name is known far and wide for my skills in healing, finding what is lost and fortune-telling."
At this last one the leader started. One of the men muttered "Arlo, isn't that what the girl from Araus does? You know, the one we are looking f-"
The leader held up a hand. Brielle saw the smallest smile cross Sebastian's face. Brielle took a step closer.
Abruptly Sebastian looked up, at her, into her eyes. His voice sounded loud and sharp in her head, echoing with its intensity. His lips never moved as he spoke.
"Brielle, I know you are watching. Stay away from here! Your task is to do what is right in Araus. I can handle myself here. They are more under my control than they realize."
"But Sebastian, I'm scared. What if…"
He cut her off. "You have everything you need. I have Seen your success. Now go!"
Brielle felt the pull again, this time accompanied by a mental shove from Sebastian. She went flying across the desert, away from the fire. Far, so far she flew before she awoke.
The stars twinkled through the branches of the broom tree. A slight movement of the cold air only suggested a breeze, but Brielle shivered anyway.
Slowly the horizon lightened, the stars fading one by one as the beginnings of dawn brightened the land.
Brielle got up and started walking, trying to work the cold out of her limbs. Over and over her choices came before her mind's eye. She unconsciously walked faster as her thoughts began to race.
Go after Sebastian or continue to Araus?
I have Seen your success. Brielle had no idea what he could have seen, but his words gave her comfort.
"If I've ever trusted my teachers," Brielle muttered, "now is the time." With a deep breath and a glance at the position of the sun, she adjusted her course north by north-west and strode forward. She trusted Sebastian could take care of himself, and though her heart longed to see him again she didn't look back.
The great city of Araus waited.
End of Pt 1