The Guardian

The Guardian

A Story by Nicole
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A desert tale of forbidden romance.

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PART I

 

            The swollen orange orb of the sun was swallowed quickly by the rolling sand dunes. Such a sight made Dristan feel the first gusts of cold night wind on his face. He had been assigned to the night watch and stood at the crest of the deep canyon where his village had settled centuries ago. His tribe was called the Rha’le, the Bringers of the Red Dawn. They, like all the Nohmar peoples scattered across the vast desert, were notorious warriors. Ruthless and savage, their culture was dedicated to the extermination of any who dared happen into what they considered to be their territory.

The canyon where they had settled featured walls that were steep and treacherous, cutting deep into the earth like a jagged scar, and guards were stationed about the walls to keep watch day and night. Only a few feet away from where he stood, the canyon plummeted downward nearly five stories into the earth and that drop never ceased to make him lose his stomach when he glimpsed it.

The desert’s burning heat receded with the sun, giving way into a cold night when winds finally falling still over the sand. Stars filled the sky beyond man’s ability to count and the moon bathed the dunes in silver, casting shadows through the deep trench below. Torches burned in the bizarre structures that comprised the Nohmar village, their houses built like lumps on the canyon’s steep walls. Bones of the great desert mastodons made strong beams and mud bricks made with grass composed the bulbous domes that protruded from the stony walls. These earthen domes were stacked upon each other and clustered along narrow pathways that led back down to the ground. They were warm in the night hours, easily keeping in the heat from the day, and yet remained cool during the daylight when the sun was the most oppressive.

Dristan had been raised as all the other young men of his tribe had been. He had been baptized in their blood-hungry culture from birth, adopted into the service of their merciless pagan goddess Ninith, and trained from the moment he could walk to fight without empathy. His body had grown strong and his skill at the blade had won him recognition amongst the members of his tribe. At the dawning of his manhood the high priestess bestowed him with his tribal duty as a warrior. Like all the other young men of the village, once he had been given his place and duty in the tribe, the priestess bestowed upon him his divine legacy. She was the first to name him Dristan, The Guardian. To him it seemed to be a simple enough legacy. He felt certain that he was destined to be the guardian of his people. He needed no further clarification in what was apparently so obvious a destiny.

So as he stood at the top of the canyon’s twelve story walls with his golden eyes fixed upon the horizon, he felt entirely validated even in the menial task of keeping the night watch. He had long outgrown his boyhood and was now a man of able body and handsome countenance. Silky hair wreathed his brow and brushed at his collar, fine and black as onyx. It blew across his eyes that were of a brilliant golden hue; it was a trait all Nohmar shared along with their dark bronze colored skin.

His young face turned to the horizon, fierce features set in a determined scowl as he stood with his arms crossed and his sharp eyes narrowed upon what appeared to be movement in the distance. A faint flicker, like the gleam of metal, did not escape his notice. He was focused upon it, though not enough to be unaware of the soft, stealthy footfalls that approached him from behind.

Before Julin could draw a full breath, Dristan had one of his scimitars unsheathed and held to his throat, staring relentlessly into the amused expression of the one who had long been his rival.

Julin was a few years older and was a warrior as well. He was the only other man in the tribe who shared such profound skill at the blade. They were warriors both, but Julin’s spirit was a great deal closer to the Ninith’s than Dristan’s was. While Dristan lacked nothing in apathy when it came to the slaughter of any who trespassed on his tribe’s land, he didn’t share the same malicious delight in unusually cruel means of torture that Julin possessed. Julin relished the pain and prolonged suffering of his enemies. He savored watching them suffer and die by his hand.

“So suspicious of me, Dristan?” Julin’s grin showed far too much of his stark white teeth.

“A true warrior trusts no one but himself and the strength of his own hand,” Dristan’s retorted with a snort of exasperation. He pulled is blade away from Julin’s throat to slip it fluidly into the sheath on his back.

Julin sauntered nearer to stand beside him, “And a dead warrior stands alone against his enemies. Heroes live forever in the minds of their people and die very quickly at the hands of their enemies. But you prefer to stand alone not because of heroics, am I right?”

Dristan arched a dark brow at him, implying that he should elaborate on that without actually speaking a word.

“You don’t like us,” Julin clarified in a tone that was sharp. It implied something beyond his words that he dared not say out loud.

“I don’t like you, Julin. I have never made that to be a mystery. So do not stretch that sentiment to the rest of our brothers in arms and sisters in spirit. I lack nothing in my dedication to them, you may count on that.” Dristan’s voice remained calm, dismissive, and he looked back towards the horizon with nothing else to say on the matter.

He and Julin had been rivals since they had met. What had begun with a competitive rivalry as children had since evolved into an underhanded and subliminal dislike. Dristan had proven himself time and again to be an effective, unquestioning, and unrelenting killer for the sake of their tribe and the name of their goddess. Because of that, Julin made himself content posing as a nagging sort of companion to Dristan. A smiling friend that Dristan knew was always looking for a weakness, an angle from which to attack and take the dominant position amongst the tribe’s warriors.

“Look there,” Dristan pointed to the spot on the horizon where something sent a small glimmer into the moon’s light.

“Wagon wheels?” Julin narrowed his own golden eyes upon it.

He nodded, “I think so. Merchants most likely, since they move towards the east.”

The expression on Julin’s face was sadistically amused, “Fat merchants are the best bleeders. Tell the rest of our brothers to make ready, the high priestess will want us to move at dawn.”

The glimmer persisted on the horizon, faint and ominous as it moved slowly across the sand over ten miles away. Dristan felt a small twinge of reluctance as he stared at it, imagining what sort of foes they would come up against. Merchant caravans were usually well armed, but always tired and unnerved by the legends of the Nohmar’s warriors.

Dawn broke like the petals of a burning flower unfolding on the horizon. The sun set the sands afire again and Dristan stood ready to depart along with the rest of the hunting party that had been chosen to embark on this sacred journey. The high priestess had declared the merchant caravan to be the enemy, which was all the motivation Dristan and the other warriors needed. They were to attack without hesitation, kill without mercy, and take no prisoners. Anything the merchants had, items or animals, were to be taken back to the village to be burned as sacrifices to Ninith. Julin was to lead the hunting party and the warriors stood alongside their respective pyronths, receiving the high priestess’s final blessing over their mission.

            Kir was Dristan’s pyronth, given to him when he was charged with the duty of a warrior in the tribe. All Nohmar warriors rode them and the reptiles were praised as the goddess’s gift to bless the strength of a warrior who had earned his place amongst his tribe. They were faster than horses, stronger than oxen, and smarter than all of the other desert beasts. Being reptilian, they flourished in the barren terrain and needed little food or water to survive. Pyronths, as a species, resembled snakes that walked upon tall muscular legs, but not in the same way a lizard did. Their physique compared more closely to a wingless dragon, having a very feline gate when they moved and forepaws that were able to grasp and hold things. Their heads looked much like the squared head of a venomous snake and their mouths held many teeth that did not recede into their hard, bony gums.

            Kir was a male and stood a little over eight feet tall. His long, sleek body was eighteen feet from nose to the tip of his long, whip-like tail. Dristan had received him when he was a hatchling hardly bigger than a dog, but time had afforded them both room to grow and now Kir made an impressive mount. Fitted with the light saddle made of silk and leather, he stood beside Dristan and tasted the air with a dusky gray forked tongue. His eyes like pits of blackness were intelligent, perceptive, and intent upon Dristan who was his only master.

            When the priestess had finished her blessing, Dristan quickly checked the straps on the saddle,and fastened down the small amount of supplies he’d packed. They wouldn’t be gone for more than a day, if it really was a merchant caravan and not a military convoy. They’d come within observation distance by dusk, keep in close and undetected until nightfall, and then descend upon them once night had fallen. Darkness was always best; being Nohmar they could see better in the darkness than most. Perhaps it was a genetic mutation from residing in the desert for so many centuries, but their vision under the cloak of night was better than in the daylight.

            Julin’s pyronth, a male with the markings in gold and brown that resembled a jungle snake, thundered a hissing snarl that made the other scaled beasts bare their fangs and recognize him as the leader of their hunt. Kir flared the rib-bones at his neck, opening his hood to reveal the bright red and yellow diamond formation in his scales in the same way a cobra might. The vibrantly colored design stood out against his hide that was otherwise as black as pitch.

            Dristan mounted, feeling the shifting pulse of Kir’s stance as his muscles drew tight over flexible bones. The pyronth snapped his jaws, hissing and stirring in place while the other warriors mounted up, waiting for Julin’s sign to move out. Garbed in layers of black silken robes, a black shemagh wrapped around his face to cover all but his eyes, Dristan squeezed at the bone-carved handles on the saddle. Silk kept the sweat and sun off his skin and discouraged most arrows and even some daggers from causing serious damage. A necklace of leather twine bore a string of bone-carved beads. Each symbolized an achievement, something honorable he had done within the tribe or a victory won. In that manner, he was a highly decorated warrior and wore only a few less beads than Julin. Julin was better than he at seeking favor with the high priestess, so beads had a way of finding their place around his neck without ceremony.

            With a swirl of sand in the air, the hunting party departed. The pyronths ran at an easy pace of sixty miles per hour on the shifting sands, following one after another on the same trail of prints in order to hide their numbers to any who might find their tracks. Each swift step from Kir jostled Dristan in the saddle, forcing him to rise up in the stirrups and lean forward. Holding himself up off the saddle by the stirrups and handles made the going easier.

            The day passed with the silent scraping of the sun across the sky. The heat wavered the horizon, melting the colors of the earth and sky together. Just as the sun had finally begun to turn down towards the earth once more, Julin threw a hand into the air and the hunting party slowed to a halt. The pyronths did not pant or sweat, rather they stood with their mouths wide open in a gaping sort of manner to let the wind fill their mouths and cool their blood.

            In the distance, within a mile’s reach, Dristan saw the clear outline of a caravan moving across the top of the golden dunes. Their tracks ran deep from wagons heavy with supplies drug doggedly on through the sand by clumsy oxen. He counted eight wagons in total, their white canvas tops easily seen against the dusk’s failing light.

            “Merchants?” Julin willed his pyronth to where Dristan was scanning the enemy’s formation. He was not so foolish as to think that Julin really welcomed or even wanted his opinion about their ominous foe. Rather, he hoped sincerely that Dristan would be wrong and so would make a fool of himself.

            Dristan’s rebellious visage was as cool as granite while he evaluated the situation before making his proclamation, “The tracks from the wagon wheels are heavy. The prints from the oxen are slurred. By that, we can tell they are having a hard time pulling through the sand. I count eight wagons in total. You can bet at least two  are dedicated to housing quarters and supplies for the merchants and their beasts, probably the two centermost in their line. Those should be our primary targets because without their stores of food and water, they are crippled. I recommend sending our best warriors in to take them after the first wave. Set them on fire, kill all within, and begin attacking from the inside out. If I were to guess at their numbers, I would say thirty or so. Our twenty warriors should be more than enough to take them without incident.”

            Julin had apparently relinquished his desire to embarrass Dristan and was now nodding in agreement, watching the caravan and processing the plan of attack. “They’ll keep a good night watch. We will be hard pressed to get in close enough to surprise them,” he pointed out.

            Dristan’s frown deepened, “Then we should go in without pyronths. Use the darkness to hide our numbers and progress towards them slowly.”

            Julin puckered his lips pensively, “You’re thinking we should use only one point of entry? Risky business if they should be better armed than we anticipate.”

            Dristan shrugged, a small twinge of a smirk at the corners of his thin lips, “That is why you’re the lead on this hunting party. My advice is simply that and it is your mistake to make. Do as you wish.”

            That comment made Julin snort and ride back to the head of the hunting party without another word. Dristan was smug, sitting back to watch and see if Julin would choose to take his advice or not. His smirk broadened as he heard Julin begin calling the commands to the warriors, following the advice he’d offered and assigning different jobs to each man. He pointed to Dristan, naming him one of the warriors who would go after the two central wagons that contained the enemy’s supplies. With an objective now in his mind, Dristan felt he needed no further instruction and he focused on readying his own gear and before he dismounted from Kir. He swished his mouth with water, taking a few sips and taking care to adjust his robes and crossed sheaths fixed with straps across his back.

            One by one the other warriors dismounted and made ready for the final approach. Retreat was never an option, not for the Nohmar. The shame of defeat was unbearable and a warrior that dared to return to his tribe without victory would be put to death immediately. A warrior that abandoned his hunting party was hunted down relentlessly to meet the same fate and a warrior that was captured by the enemy was expected to kill himself by whatever means were available to him. Failure was not acceptable amongst the Nohmar warriors in any circumstance.

            The hunting party moved out as night finally fell and the chilled winds of the night blew themselves breathless over the sand, leaving everything eerily calm and still at last. Ninith had smiled upon their mission, blotting out the moon’s light with hazy dark clouds that aided in their pursuit. Julin led them at a swift trot single file across the dunes, the sand still hot from the day’s sunlight.

            The caravan had halted, taking its resting place for the night at the crest of a large swell in the sand. It was a good choice for a defensible spot with a view of the desert around them to give them ample warning of any coming danger. But without the moon’s light to see by, mere human eyes were too weak to perceive their coming. Dristan mused at that ironic and unfortunate coincidence that had befallen these merchants. But their initial error was crossing known Nohmar territory. Such a blatant violation couldn’t be overlooked and was punishable only by death.

            Julin motioned them to stop with a fist thrust back in their direction. Their line of warriors came to an immediate and perfectly silent halt. Now only several hundred yards away, Dristan could see the light of campfires burning in the middle of where the wagons had been circled. He counted four guards standing on the outskirts of the camp, noting their mail armor that would make contact with a blade difficult. They wore swords on their belts and carried bows, equipped with a quiver of arrows each. Bows and arrows made Dristan curl his lip in disgust. To use long distance weaponry instead of the tools of hand-to-hand combat was cowardly in the Nohmar culture. It was to deny the enemy a true test of strength and skill, something they considered to be utterly shameful.

            The motion came from Julin that the first wave of warriors to begin their approach. Dristan followed along with five other warriors to take the centermost caravans, taking advantage of the chaos to set them ablaze. Once wagons were burning, the resulting panic was always deadly for their enemies. The struggle to defend their camp split into and some still would defend it while other attempted to put out the blaze. Once the wagons were burning, victory would be eminent.

 

PART II

 

            The chaotic dance of battle waged in the quiet of the desert night. Dristan stood, awed by it once again, with a short scimitar in each hand that dripped heavy blots of blood into the sand. The sound of swords meeting clattered and scraped, women screamed and wept, men shouted, and Dristan turned his wrathful gaze to his objective.

            These merchants had appeared benign enough from a distance, but they were better armed than any of the Nohmar warriors had anticipated. The women, who normally proved to be nothing more than helpless casualties, were fitted with crossbows. Several of the men must have been in the royal army at some point in their past, for their skill with a sword was practiced and formidable. Dristan watched his brothers beginning to falter against the unforeseen strength of these mere travelers and a very real pang of fear sent a cold chill over his scalp.

            He turned his golden gaze to the two wagons that were in the very center of their circle, narrowing a cruel scowl upon them. He would not fail. Failure was a shame that only death could amend. With his jaw clenched, Dristan darted through the riot of combat, dodging blows and skidding to a halt long enough to pull a burning log from one of the caravan’s campfires. There was no mistaking his intention as he strode pointedly towards one of the center wagons, preparing to lob it through the canvas top to set the whole thing ablaze.

            A sudden smack to the back of his head stunned him momentarily, causing him to drop the log and shake off the shiver of shock from the blow. He whirled around, prepared to meet a human male in the glory of single combat that he would undoubtedly win. And yet, what he saw standing before him holding a silver-hilted sabre was instead a human female.

            What caught him in surprise, other than the fact that she had struck him with the hilt of her blade with the apparent intention of knocking him unconscious, was her hair. A wild mane of dark red hair hung down to her waist, so rich in color as a ruby might be and strangely unruly for her otherwise petite frame. He had never seen hair of that color or quantity before.

            His surprise was very brief as she stared at him with wide eyes that, perhaps even stranger than her mess of red hair, showed no sign of fear. He could detect only an alert sort of anxiety on her face. She held the sabre correctly, the point aimed at him now, and watched his every move with a trained stance.

            Dristan stepped wide, now grinning at her behind his silken shemagh. He tossed his scimitar from one hand to the other easily, demonstrating perfected skill with either hand. He paced like a panther, looking at her with such disgusted amusement, and shook his head slowly as she shuffled her stance to keep herself facing him.

            Normally, it would have been entirely pointless to entertain the enemy with a prolonged sort of duel. A quick kill was always the best. But the little woman with hair like dark flames made him pause and wonder at what skill someone like that might possibly possess. After all, she’d refused to kill him once when she had had the perfect opportunity.

             With a quick step, he lunged in towards her in a simple attack. She deflected with surprising strength that cast him a little off balance and made him snicker aloud. That brief moment when he was off balance would have left him open to any other warrior’s attack. Such an opportunity should have never gone unpunished. But the girl with the wild red hair still did not attack him. Not with any of his succeeding jabs did she ever take the offensive, maintaining a solid defense that withstood the novice assaults he tried while testing her.

It was foolish, he thought, not to even try a single attack when he so willingly put himself open to them. His amusement with that game ended abruptly, reminded of his place and circumstance as a dying scream from one of his brothers shocked his system. His grip upon his scimitar’s hilt tightened and he swung wide, feigning and moving with unnatural lethal grace to make his final attack that would end the duel.

The little woman’s skill once again rose above what he had judged and she dodged his calculated assault, rolling easily within range to beat the hilt of her sabre against his cheek. The blow was enough to make him falter a moment, unintentionally this time, and he clenched his teeth, bearing down upon her without mercy or show. There was no fancy footwork or taunting play in his assault as he dove at her, furious and hungry for her blood. To have been hit by her once was offensive, to have been struck twice was downright embarrassing.

His skill, speed, and strength overwhelmed her easily when he fought without spectacle, knocking her blade from her hand and leaving her helpless. She backed away franticly, stumbling until she fell and crawled backwards against the side of the wagon. Looking up at him under the glow of the campfires, the screams of battle ringing in his ears, Dristan looked for that expression of primal fear that all men bore in their final moments.

He stood over her, searching her face, and still he found no fear. There was shock, awe, but not a single trace of fear on the gentle curves of that human woman’s face. It made him pause in his instinctual, methodical extermination of her life. His scimitar stopped on its descent towards her neck, halting mechanically in mid swing as he found himself meeting her unblinking stare. Her eyes of gentle, faded blue reminded him of the rolling storm clouds that came to the desert only once every year.

Dristan’s grip upon his blade slackened, arm coming back down to his side as he looked at her. For the first time in his life, he wondered at whether or not he should kill her as custom demanded. If she was his enemy then why hadn’t she killed him when she had the opportunity? What human had ever shown mercy of any kind to a Nohmar? It baffled him, made him question his purpose in ending her life, and he shut his eyes, preparing to turn away and leave her there unscathed.

A sharp cry broke forth from her lips suddenly and he blinked owlishly, standing in front of her as the metallic taste of his own blood began to fill his mouth and seep out of the corners of his lips. It was bewildering to look down and see an arrowhead protruding from his body, dripping his blood onto the sand at his feet, and he stood for several seconds staring at it in mystified awe. Closing a fist around the shaft of the arrow, he ripped it the rest of the way through his torso to pull it out.

The pain was swift and harrowing, bringing him to his knees as the bloody arrow slipped from his fingers. His error in faltering at that critical moment had now cost him dearly, falling face forward into the sand to lie motionless. His breathing was slow as if he were sleeping and Dristan listened even as he lay, anticipating now the killing blow from a sword or axe by whoever it was that had shot him.

The woman with red hair was shouting in animated protest, speaking the language common to the humans that he only barely understood, “Berlak, stop! Do not kill him!”

A gravely male’s voice barked back at her like a peal of thunder, “Missy, get back in the wagon now. He’s going to die anyway.”

“No!” She yipped with defiance in her tone, “If you kill him, then how are we any different from them? If the gods want him, then they will take him. But please, let me try to save him!”

There was an uncomfortable silence filled with the muted dying yells and groans of his brethren, their voices calling out their final prayers to Ninith in their own native tongue. The male grunted bitterly and sighed before he posed a cutting question to the woman with the red hair.

“Why would you want to save one of them, Missy? They are thieves and killers all. There’s not a drop of good in any of them. As soon as he is able, he will gut us all in our sleep.”

The woman’s tone was met with a weaker, gentler sound as her soft footsteps brought her nearer, “You don’t know that. He wasn’t going to kill me, Berlak. I saw it in his eyes. He wasn’t going to hurt me. I can’t explain it, but I know he is different.”

Soft fingers began pulling at the black silk wrapped around Dristan’s face, the woman’s voice sounding over him with peaceful clarity, “If there is even the smallest chance that he might be spared a life filled only with hatred and violence, then who are we to deny it to him? Please, Berlak, let him live and I will take full responsibility for him.”

The noises of combat had begun to fade away into a painfully cold silence. His brothers were dead, for the voices that persisted in the night spoke only in the common tongue of the humans. As the world began to fade from his view, passing his heavy body into the waiting arms of the goddess, Dristan felt the crippling weight of guilt settle upon his shoulders. He couldn’t imagine that the goddess would ever reward him for having forgotten his mission and duty to her while toying with some human woman. His foolishness had cost his brothers their lives and the success of their mission, and so Dristan dreaded a death in shame that he knew now lay before him.

 

PART III

 

            Missy sat, chewing busily at her bottom lip as she tried to remove the black silk tunic from her captive’s motionless body. She’d spend near an hour deciding how to go about mending him and finally resolved that she would have to ruin his delicate robes and cut them away from his upper body to see how bad the wound truly was.

            Her hands were small with thin fingers that worked gently to slide a small knife through the fabric, cutting it as carefully as she knew how. Her red hair, thick and unruly as it was, had been tied back into a long braid that hung over her shoulder. She found it horribly troublesome to work with it always hanging in her face. Her slender brows were rumpled in focus as she slid the little knife up through the silk and moved the parts of his robes aside to expose his skin.

            Her fair cheeks were rosy with bashful embarrassment to see the darkly bronzed expanse of his torso, but she quickly insisted to herself that being embarrassed was childish nonsense. The wound the arrow had left was fairly small and she looked it over carefully, judging the angle and the possible organs it may have nicked. She flicked a quick glance up to his face watching carefully as she took a hot, wet cloth from a bucket beside her and wrung it out, beginning to wipe away some of the blood around the wound very slowly.

            First his dark brows quirked, his handsome face twitching where he lay on a pallet of folded quilts she’d made in the back of one of the wagons. His eyes flew open so abruptly that she squeaked with surprise and jerked back, staring at him with her own blue eyes as big as supper plates. He breathed uneasily, making breathlessly weak yelps of pain as he looked around him in dazed confusion.

            As soon as his strange golden eyes discovered her there, she saw murderous anger fill his face and he snatched his arms against the shackles on his wrists. He seemed surprised to see that he was chained securely to the iron frame of the wagon such that he couldn’t do much more than sit up and flounder about a little. Shackles were fitted about his wrists and ankles, attached to chains that were drawn tight enough to keep him from doing anyone any harm, even if he should want to.

Missy watched with timid uncertainty as he began to panic and struggle, shouting hoarsely in the Nohmar language and jerking his thickly muscled arms against the chains. Her slate blue eyes were guarded and careful, but not without some compassion for him.

“You must stop that,” she spoke smoothly and calmly. “You’ll only make it worse. Lie still, else I’ll have to find some human potion that will make you sleep and I doubt very much that you would like that.”

His gold eyes snapped to her with a ruthless glare, a snarl on his lips as his bare chest heaved in deep, angry breaths. His nostrils flared, black hair sticking to the sweat on his brow that undoubtedly came from the intense pain he most certainly was in. With another burst of strength he lunged against the chains like a savage dog, snatched to a halt by the strength of the bonds that he couldn’t break.

Missy canted her head to the side curiously, watching the smoldering hatred and resilient defiance on his sharp features, “You understand me, don’t you?”

“I will not speak your vile human tongue!” Dristan hissed in her language, his words skewed by a Nohmar accent that sounded sharp and venomous.

Missy was puzzled, pursing her lips a little and looking down to the rag she held that was now stained with his blood, “But you just did.”

Dristan’s face twitched with rage, “That was only to tell you that I refuse to speak your repulsive human words!”

Again Missy’s lips quirked and she shook her head a little, “But you just did it again. You’re really not making any sense, you know. How am I to know if you’re going to speak to me or not?

A crazed look of fury made his eyes cross and his blood come near boiling, “I’M NOT!”

“But you ARE,” She insisted again, frowning now and planting her hands on her hips. “You keep doing it and then telling me you aren’t going to talk anymore. What am I supposed to believe?”

The canvas flap on the back of the wagon peeled back, allowing for a hugely framed man to stick his bald head inside and scowl at Dristan bitterly, “What’s going on, Missy?”

She thrust an accusing finger down to Dristan, “He is speaking our language even though he said he wouldn’t! And then he gets all fussy with me and it’s not my fault he can’t make up his mind.”

He was an enormous man of nearly eight feet, having scalding blue eyes that peered at Dristan down a long nose with complete distrust. Berlak was the leader of the caravan made mostly of traders and a few traveling merchants. He rolled his eyes and climbed into the back of the wagon to close the flap behind him. Berlak wore animal hides and furs and wore a great bronze sword strapped to his hip, making him look like one of the norse peoples of the northern mountains, save for his lack of hair. His impending stature and obvious dislike made Dristan become still and suspicious.

“You sit nice there, fortunate savage, and let little Missy here see to you. It’s her doing that you’re alive to begin with so you might show an ounce of gratitude,” Berlak rapped his heavy fingers pointedly upon the hilt of his sword. It was a gesture that Dristan did not miss and understood well enough.

Missy tucked some of her thick hair behind her ear, “Won’t you let me sew your wound up, at least? It might get infected!”

Dristan snarled at her like a cornered dog, “Touch me and I’ll kill you, human wench!”
            Berlak’s smirk unnerved Dristan into recoiling back away as far as his chains would allow. He watched the huge man shift over to a trunk, rummaging through until he found a black iron kettle. Missy’s protests came much too late as Berlak, without a moment of hesitation or contemplation, made his way back towards Dristan, hauled back, and smacked their captive over the head with the kettle hard enough to knock him out cold.

“There,” Berlak was pleased and set the kettle into Missy’s hands. “Sew on him all you want. If he wakes up, hit him again.”

Missy was horrified and fussed at him all the way out of the wagon, snatching the canvas flap shut as the enormous man left with a booming chuckle. It hardly seemed to accomplish anything, knocking their poor captive about like that, but Berlak had little in the way of mercy when it came to the Nohmar. It had been out of sheer fondness for her that he’d allowed her to try to save this one in the first place and Missy knew quite well that if anything went wrong, Berlak would kill this Nohmar the same as any other.

“All you had to do was sit still,” She mumbled, going back to sit beside her captive and wash his wounds and the sweat from his face, neck, and chest. She removed the rest of his tunic and tossed it aside, proceeding to probe the wound with her finger as carefully as she knew how, testing for punctured organs. She was pleased to find that the wound wasn’t nearly so bad as it might have been, only a few small nicks here and there that had caused a great deal of blood loss.

It took her several hours to thoroughly cleanse the wound and close it stitch by laborious stitch. At last she spread a strong herbal salve over the places the arrow had entered and left his body, wounds she’d already stitched closed, and began the dreadfully hard process of wrapping gauze around his torso. He was heavier than she’d anticipated and her arms were already tired from holding him up on his side so that she might stitch up the gaping hole in his back.

When at last she’d wrapped the bandages tightly around him and tied them off, Missy sat back to catch her breath and evaluate her work. He’d live, she was most certain of that. She was also fairly sure he would wake up with a nasty headache. Somewhere in his dark, glassy hair was a lump from where the kettle had made contact. She wondered if Berlak had hit him hard enough to do any real damage or not and so she crawled forward to investigate.

Seated with her skirts laid neatly about her on the floor, Missy looked down at her captive and touched the tip of his nose lightly with a tentative finger. He didn’t move and so her courage mounted, running a hand lightly through his black hair that slid like satin through her fingers. She traced the fierce lines of his eyebrows, full lips parted in quiet amazement and fair, softly curved face leaning down to look at him more closely now.

She touched the string of strange beads around his neck, pondering them before looking down to where his hands were shackled down at his sides. She took one of them up, raising it into the light and turning it carefully in her own small hands to inspect it. His palms were large and rough, his fingers thick and strong and warm against hers. She smiled a little as she pressed one of her palms against his, stretching out her fingers to compare with his and looking at how the size of his hand dwarfed her own. His skin was bronzed while her own was as white clean milk. His knuckles had the calluses of someone who had spent a lot of time carrying a blade while her own fingers were slender and delicate.

“I am sorry that you don’t like me,” she said softly, setting hand back down and patting it reassuringly. “But maybe we can come to be friends after a while.”

 

PART IV

 

            “But don’t you want to know my name?” Missy was jabbing a cooking spoon in his direction where he lay, still chained securely to his pallet on the floor. Only a few days had passed since his capture and the caravan had still been trying to repair what damage had been done during the attack. For Dristan, it felt like an eternity and he lay with his eyes closed and his brow furrowed into a deeply creased frown.

            “No,” He verified coldly.

            “But if you won’t tell me your name, then I can’t tell you mine. That was our deal, remember? You’re really impossible and not very amiable at all,” Missy resolved aloud, turning around to swirl her spoon in a pot of broth she’d been warming over a small cooking stove.

            Dristan had to admit that the smell of food made his stomach writhe in his gut like he’d swallowed a live snake. He’d not eaten much since he had come here, mostly by choice, and as his hunger drove him nearer to madness he began to weigh the cost of his dignity. It seemed a fair trade to exchange it for whatever it was she had cooking in that pot. Somehow she’d gotten him to talk again and was now set on discovering his name.

            “We never made a deal. I never agreed to anything,” he’d said that once before, or perhaps even a few times, since this conversation had begun.

            Missy’s long red braid swung about her hips as she stirred and chattered as happily as a sparrow, perfectly content to argue with him as long as he’d humor her, “Yes you did. You said you’d tell me your name over your dead body. I saved your life, meaning you owe me your dead body, so you should tell me your name. A deal is a deal, even if you are a Nohmar and I’m just a human.”

            Despite the pure ridiculousness behind the entire conversation, Dristan had to admit that there was a small amount of validity to her point. It made him reach a critical point in exasperation and he let out a long and surrendering sigh.

            “Dristan,” The word came like a gruff bark.

            Missy, spoon in hand, turned to look at him over one of her shoulders. She stared at him in apparent surprise that he’d relinquished the argument so easily. While he’d only been under her care for a few short days, all the time he’d been conscious they had spent squabbling back and forth. It bound in her in silence for several moments, looking at him where he lay with his eyes still closed and refusing to appear genial in any way. A small smile lit her face prettily, turning back to her pot with satisfaction.

            “I told a lie to you. I’m sorry, Dristan,” She said and he cracked a golden eye open just enough to see her standing there, leaning over her pot.

“I don’t know my real name, so I can’t tell you what it is. But everyone just calls me Missy so you can call me that too.”

Dristan opened the other eye, frowning with his dark brows furrowed deeply. Just when he suspected that this peculiar little woman couldn’t get any stranger than she already was, he was stupefied by something else she did or said. “What kind of a person doesn’t even know their name?”

His balking tone made her turn back towards him with an apologetic smile, “I don’t remember it. Berlak found me when I was just a child. My village had been destroyed during the Grey Wars and I was nearly dead too. When I awoke, I hardly remembered a thing about what had happened or who I was. It was such a long time ago and even now I can scarcely remember anything that happened. I still don’t remember my name. But Missy works just as well, I think.”

The canvas flap on the back of the wagon opened, allowing Berlak to enter accompanied by a small female child that couldn’t have been more than four. Berlak looked at Missy, sizing her up quickly as though he were assessing whether or not Dristan had hurt or upset her in any way. Satisfied that everything appeared normal, the large man took a seat on a barrel top. All the while the little girl that had followed him in had taken to standing uncomfortably close to where Dristan lay, staring at him with wide doe eyes.

“Smells good,” Berlak mumbled, rubbing his chin and staring absently at the floor between his boots. It seemed something was distressing him.

Missy turned to beam at him, still armed with her wooden cooking spoon, “It will be. I made enough for you too, if you’re hungry. He doesn’t like my cooking so he never eats very much of it.” She poked the spoon in Dristan’s direction accusingly.

Dristan was too distracted by the eerie way the little girl was staring at him to respond or even really hear what was being said. The doll-faced child had dark brown hair tied back in ribbons and even darker brown eyes, skin as white as a ghost, and a small puckering mouth. She wore a little calico dress and boots, looking like a timid little fawn. She mustered the courage quickly to begin inching a bit closer to him.

Berlak opened his mouth to object and was met with a cooking spoon smacked against his bald head. Missy shook her head and pressed a finger over her lips, gesturing for him to keep quiet and watch.

The little girl hedged little by little towards him and Dristan stared back at her, more unnerved by the way she gawked at him than he had been in front of any enemy he’d ever faced in battle. He flinched a little as she came down onto her hands and knees beside him and crawled close enough to press one of her sticky little hands against his cheek. She mashed his skin around his nose, studying it intensely with her soft dark eyes. He couldn’t see any sort of discernable expression other than focus upon her small face and he remained still as she work her little hands at mashing his nose and lips and finally lifting up his eyebrow with one of her little thumbs. She leaned in then, looking hard at his golden eye and finally puffing a little sigh of satisfaction.

“He wooks wike a human to me,” The little girl pronounced after her extensive investigation.

“Nohmar are human, Sarai,” Berlak said tensely, still not entirely pleased that the little girl was so close to what he considered to be a danger. “It’s a race of human, not a different species.”

Dristan took issue with that immediately. “Don’t dare assume to know what we are,” he growled, nose wrinkling into a snarling glare.

Berlak smirked, apparently amused at Dristan’s resilience at resisting Missy’s attempts to domesticate him. “You have two arms, two legs, ten fingers and toes, two eyes, one nose…gods know you bleed like every other human.” Berlak chuckled darkly, “You don’t have elf ears or a dragon’s tail. That leaves only a couple of options and my vote’s for human since I doubt very much that you’re a god.”

Dristan seethed where he lay, the little girl still studying him thoroughly even while he leered at Berlak with violent desires ripening in his mind, “We’re nothing like you. We are nothing like humans.”

“I’ll give you that,” Berlak quipped. “There’s no human feeling in any of you. You murder, steal, and destroy without any remorse. Your souls are as black as pitch, more like a demon’s than a man’s. Only the beasts of hell live off of destruction and bloodshed the way you do. But I’m curious, so answer me this. You all fight so vigorously to keep us off your land or out of your territory, but what exactly have we ever taken from you? Has any human ever desired anything the Nohmar have? You certainly don’t have anything I would ever want. Blood and bones and sand do nothing for me.”

Missy’s gaze turned to Dristan slowly, hesitantly, and she said nothing to impede the heavy silence that fell over them. She merely stood there, fidgeting with her cooking spoon and waiting to see what more would be said.

Lying in chains upon a pallet made of folded quilts on the floor, Dristan had no words to reply to Berlak’s onslaught of questioning. A human had never posed questions to him like that before. It shed a revealing light upon a deep hole in the fabric of his culture that Dristan had never even allowed himself to realize existed at all. Instinct born from years of ruthless training commanded him to reject what he was hearing, to expel those doubts from his mind, and to lash out in the only way he knew how against the heresy that Berlak spoke. His moment of weakness, of epiphany and somber realization, was interrupted by the touch of the little girl’s hands again, tugging at the string of beads around his neck.

“I wike your neckwace,” she told him, small nubby fingers rubbing at the bone-carved beads. “Where’d you get it?”

“Come away from there, Sarai. If your daddy comes in here and sees you he’ll whip your tail,” Berlak ordered firmly and the little girl obeyed, climbing readily into his lap. “You’ll need to keep watch over the little ones tonight, Missy. We’re going to burn the bodies tonight and get moving at dawn.”

Missy brushed her long red braid over her shoulder, nodding somberly and avoiding Dristan’s glazed stares in her direction. There was a tense anxiety to the way she looked around for something to busy herself with, finally turning back to her pot of soup to stir at it again, “Will we be all right to make it back to Luxenburg?” She asked in a quiet voice.

“We’ll make it so long as we don’t fall under another attack. We’re down three able men to stand the watch and hold a blade. But that loss is a small one when you consider we’ll be burning eighteen dead Nohmar too.” Berlak shook his bald head slowly, “I can’t help but worry that going through Harrow’s Pass is a bad idea. It will afford us better time making it back to Luxenburg, but I’ve met many a band of thieves and mercenaries there. Not Nohmar, mind you, but some just as deadly.”

Missy offered him a small hopeful smile, “I’m sure we will make it back home, Berlak.”

“I hope you’re right.” He answered and sighed, rising from his seat to gather up Sarai onto his shoulders. Berlak left and said nothing more, closing the wagon’s canvas flap behind him.

Even as the massive man departed, Dristan found himself faltering at something Berlak had said. Eighteen Nohmar warriors? Twenty warriors had departed from his tribe and so, if what Berlak had said was true, that left two of them unaccounted for. He counted himself, of course, as one absent from that number but if there was another man missing Dristan had no trouble at all imagining who it might be. Or perhaps he simply dreaded who it might be that was still alive somewhere out there in the desert. If it was indeed Julin, Dristan doubted very sincerely that he would try or even want to rescue him. Julin wouldn’t be able to return to the tribe, not when he was shamed with defeat and failure, but nothing would stop him from working to exact some kind of revenge.

The idea that somewhere out in that cold desert night was a desperate and blood hungry Nohmar warrior he’d known to be unusually sadistic did not sit well with Dristan. Julin’s presence had never sat well with him, although now it seemed things were a tad different than they had been before. These merchants would not stand against another attack, any fool could see that, and Dristan frowned hard to wonder how he should feel if they did come under another attack.

“Dristan?” Missy spoke his name and it sent a solid jolt of alarm through his body, looking up to see her face framed prettily by airy red locks of hair that had escaped her braid. “You look upset, what’s the matter?”

“I’m chained to the floor,” he pointed out in a bitterly sarcastic tone. “I’ve got a gaping hole in my gut and a kettle-shaped knot on my head that hurts like hell.”

Missy giggled a little, leaving her spoon balanced on top of the steaming pot of soup to fumble through a few trunks and boxes. She pulled out a small glass vial wrapped in a length of velvet, taking off the stopped long enough to dab a few drops into a small cup that she filled up the rest of the way with soup from her pot.

“This will make it better,” she bent down to hold the cup such that he could drink from it if he wished. “It’s not poison. Just something to made the pain go away for a while.”

Dristan heaved himself up enough to lean on his elbows, eyeing the cup suspiciously and narrowing gold eyes upon her with distrust. He wrinkled his nose a little, turning his head away slightly in reluctance to eat anything she’d made. But the hunger he still felt was a powerful motivator and the smell of the soup in the cup she offered was enough to coax him into cooperation.

Missy held the cup steady while he drank the soup from it, watching him with a small amount of pride in her expression. She took the hem of her apron to wipe his chin when he’d finished, saying not a word as she went back to tending her soup.

It had tasted good, if not a little strange on his tongue. He wasn’t entirely used to the kind of food they ate. But that small sampling had only aroused his appetite more, making him look mournfully at the pot that now smelled better than ever.

            “I…” He choked on words that sounded so weak to him. He’d never asked anyone for anything, “I want more.”

            Missy turned back to him and arched one of her slender red brows. He suspected that this was all a part of some grand scheme she’d concocted to win his favor or force him into friendliness. It repulsed him that he should be so weak as to have stumbled headlong into it, but it was much too late to turn back now. He’d let her win this one as long as she gave him more to eat.

            But she didn’t. At least, not right away. He rolled his eyes and sighed. It was adding insult to injury that he should be even asking her for something in the first place, much less being expected to ask nicely for it. Politely, even. What tiny bit of dignity he had left flew right out the window as he clenched his jaw and mumbled through his teeth, “Please.”

            Satisfied at his humility, Missy produced a deep bowl and filled it with the soup. She set a spoon in it and unwrapped a small loaf of bread that she’d taken out of one of the wooden crates stacked against the far side of the wagon. He watched her and wondered if she was even going to give him more or if she was just making her own dinner. He was about to protest when she came near to sit down neatly on the floor beside him, putting the food on the floor carefully before she began rummaging through the pockets of her apron.

            “You had better behave,” She warned him as she pulled a small black key from one of her pockets. “Because if Berlak finds out I did this he’ll kill us both.”

            Dristan had absolutely no doubt that Berlak would kill him without a second thought, but he didn’t believe that the huge man would punish Missy much for anything she did. He pinched his thin lips together as she reached to work the key into one of the shackles that held his wrist. Leaning over him so near, her locks of long, dark auburn hair brushing at his skin, he caught a breath of her scent as she worked at the lock. Hers was a warm, earthy smell. It was deep like pine wood and sweet like jasmine. It made him shy away slightly as at last the iron shackle on his wrist cracked open and he was able to pull one hand free.

            “That’s all I can do for now,” Missy didn’t look concerned or even worried that he might lash out at her. A wiser, warier woman would have been sure to at least keep out of his reach. But she wasn’t afraid of him. She’d never been afraid of him, even when he’d had a scimitar at her throat. The fact that she was so completely sure he wasn’t going to hurt her made him resent her. It made him resent the fact that time was proving her right.

            “Why didn’t you let me die?” His voice was sharp and accusing as he glared at her, “It would have been better for everyone if you had just let me die. I was supposed to die. It was my destiny.”

            “It was your destiny to die alone in the desert and have your body burned with no one to say prayers for you?” Missy pricked her brows as she worked, helping him to sit up. Now that one of his arms was free, he would be able to hold the bowl of soup in his lap and eat himself without her help. “Who told you that was your destiny? It doesn’t sound like a very good one to me,” she spoke her mind as freely as she liked, avoiding his probing stares while she arranged a few rolled up blankets behind his back.

Immediately he reiterated what he had heard spoken in his tribe so many times without even hesitating to think upon it, “That is the destiny of every Nohmar warrior. We are to die in service to the goddess and for the security of our tribe. Our lives belong to Ninith and so they are hers to reclaim. We live, fight, endure to bleed for her glory.”

Missy looked up at him then, sitting very close at his side to place the bowl of soup into his lap and the loaf of bread into his free hand. There was something oddly serious and deeply pensive on her delicate features. She was staring into his eyes without her usual air of sweet banter or carefree jest and he found that unsettling.

“No two people ever have the same destiny, Dristan,” her voice was soft and somewhat grave. “And no one can tell you what your destiny will be. Man cannot know what is given to us as our own, special gift from the gods. Our right place in the world is unique to our own heart.”

Dristan held his crust of bread and stared back into her unfathomable gaze. He felt utterly lost there, “Maybe it was your destiny to let me die.”

Her expression softened into something more familiar then and a tender smile lit her cheeks with rosy color, “Your heart was already dead when I met you, Dristan. I think it was my destiny to show you how to live.”

 

PART V

 

Dristan sat, arms folded over his chest with his arms tucked into the sleeves of a baggy grey tunic Berlak had lent him to replace the one Missy had cut up. He’d been perched atop one of the barrels in the back of Missy’s wagon, watching her wash clothes, prepare food, and make many trips back and forth to bring water to the men who worked at driving the oxen that pulled all the wagons. Missy had tied back the canvas flaps that usually covered the back of the wagon, allowing the hot desert air to blow in. A week’s time had brought quick healing to his wound and silent indifference to his mood, watching the merchants and traders make their gruelingly slow trek across the desert.

Missy had removed all but one of his chains, leaving a shackle about his left ankle that Berlak demanded remain in place at all times. The chain on it was long enough that Dristan could now move about the wagon freely, but he couldn’t get any closer than a few feet from the door. Berlak had taken custody of the key, not expecting Missy to heed his orders since she had already proven untrustworthy in that regard.

Nights brought new samplings of Missy’s cooking and he found the human food strange upon his tongue, although still good nonetheless. Every night she made enough for herself, Berlak, Dristan, and anyone else who chanced by to see what smelled so good. By the soft glow of candles, Berlak and Missy sat up after dinner and talked for many hours while she mended clothing and watched Berlak sharpen knives. They talked about their village, where apparently both of them lived, and about the places they’d been and things they had seen on their long journey. Dristan sat upon his pallet on the floor, doing his best to appear uninterested in what they said even while he listened intently.

As the night watchmen were put on post, Missy unrolled sleeping pallets for herself and Berlak and a few of the other young swordsmen who took turns rotating shifts all night, keeping watch for danger. There, snug and away from the chilly desert night, they all slept soundly in the cozy confines of the wagon. Dristan sat up for many hours during the first several nights, watching them with cautious golden eyes and wondering at how simple and yet pleasant their existence seemed to be. Missy slept on her back with her arms above her head, red hair spilled about her pillow and out onto the floor. Her dark lashes fluttered as she dreamed and Dristan wondered what it was she saw.

As the days progressed, sleep came easier to him with the aid of the quiet, the warmth, and a stomach full of Missy’s good food. She brought him new, clean blankets and a few pillows to make him more comfortable. He still slept on his pallet that Berlak had insisted be placed away from everyone else and laid on his side under the pile of old quilts so that he might watch Missy until at least fatigue overtook him. She always made sure everyone else was content and taken care of before she saw to her own needs. It was a strange and unfamiliar quality he’d never witnessed in someone before.

The days began to change too, gradually, as he felt as though he were stumbling out of a fog of preconceptions he’d had about these human people. There was a little flock of children that visited him now and again. They climbed and explored him like monkeys, begging for him to answer their ridiculous questions or to show them how he could make a coin disappear in his hand. They were simple little beings, he’d found. They were very easily amused and always curious.

The little girl who’d first investigated him now had no hesitance about climbing into his lap. She’d started to call him “Dwist” since his full name gave her some issues with pronunciation. Her father, who was one of the merchants in the caravan, didn’t approve of it at all, Berlak had been right about that. But that didn’t discourage Sarai from coming to see him whenever she got the chance. Dristan had found that he was actually fairly amused by the little girl’s antics and so when she popped her head around the side of the wagon, he smirked at her with one of his dark eyebrows arched.

“Your daddy is going to spank your butt, Sarai,” he warned her.

She didn’t care about that, or at least it hadn’t worked to keep her obedient so far, and she climbed busily up into the back of the wagon to take her place perched on his knee.

“Do the twick again, Dwist.” She insisted, little hands beginning to probe the pockets of his robes for a coin or a trinket.

He chuckled at that, pulling a round silver coin from inside one of the sleeves of his robes and balancing it on the tip of one of his fingers. “It’s a stupid trick, you know,” he protested weakly as he flicked the coin up in the air, appeared to catch it one hand, and then spread his palms to show her that the silver coin was now nowhere to be found.

Sarai giggled excitedly, clapping and insisting that he do it again. He did the trick a few more times, purely for her amusement and because he found her high pitched giggle particularly hilarious. Finally he told her that the coin had gone to live in her daddy’s pocket until tomorrow, urging her that she should go back to her mother before someone noticed she was gone.

Sarai was insatiable and she squirmed in his lap, little hands that always seemed to be sticky from something tugging at the string of beads around his neck again. “This is pwetty,” she declared. “I wike them.”

He smiled fondly at the child, resigning himself with a sigh to take off the beaded necklace that had once been such a grand prize to him. His fingers rubbed over the smooth, bone-carved beads, remembering well how he’d earned each one. Every drop of blood he’d spilt amounted to something engraved upon that string of beads. None of that seemed to matter now. What he’d worn proudly as a testament to his skill now felt heavy and uncomfortable in his hands. He put them around her little neck, laughing at how they hung to the center of her waist.

“You keep them then,” he said as he tried to tie them off so that they didn’t hang so low. “But you can’t tell anyone I gave them to you, understand? If your daddy asks, say Missy gave them to you. Got it?”

Sarai nodded and Dristan sincerely doubted she’d understood or even heard a word he’d said. She was bouncing with excitement and as soon as he’d finished adjusting the strap, she bounded out of his lap and out of the wagon to show off her new prize. Never in his life had he ever imagined he might give those sacred beads, given to him by the high priestess of Ninith, to a human child.

He heard Missy’s voice outside before he saw her, laughing and running along side the moving wagons with her skirts gathered up in her arms. Her long red braid trailed behind her and she turned once to kick sand in the direction of one of the merchant’s older sons. That boy was a teenager, awkward and far too friendly with Missy for Dristan’s taste. He came around too much and never had a good reason for it.

Missy didn’t seem aware of that boy’s intentions at all. She caught up to the wagon where Dristan sat watching with a sour expression aimed at the teenage boy that had been chasing after her. Seeing the stone-faced scowl of Missy’s Nohmar prisoner made the boy stop dead and let her wagon continue on without him. If being a Nohmar had ever served him well, it did when it came to deterring that kid from coming around some of the time. Of course Missy was determined to explain to everyone that Dristan wasn’t going to hurt them, but it wasn’t surprising that no one believed her. He didn’t blame them for that, part of him still wondered just what exactly was going to happen to him at the end of all of this. The unknown stared into his eyes, a dark abyss that penetrated his body and gnawed at his soul.

Her laughter made him blink away his private revelry, looking down to where she’d crawled up to sit on the back of the wagon, swinging her legs at the ground that passed by below. Her hair blew prettily about her face and her smile, though he knew nothing of gods or angels, must have been divine for how it never failed to capture his awe. Human or not, she was the most beautiful creature he’d ever beheld. But that didn’t stop her from dancing and frolicking on his very last nerve.

            With her chest rising and falling as she panted, Missy laid back on the floor of the wagon with her legs still dangling out the back. Her red hair swirled around her, dark and chaotic like many differently shaped and colored red ribbons. Her soft, warm eyes opened and looked up to where he was sitting on the top of one of the barrels filled with grain. She smiled at him broadly and pressed the heel of her hand to her forehead bashfully, “We’ll be getting back to Luxenburg tomorrow. Berlak said if nothing gets in our way, we’ll be there before sundown tomorrow afternoon. I can’t wait to take a hot bath. It’s been weeks since I’ve been able to take a proper one.”

Dristan didn’t share the same comfort in that knowledge that she did, “So everyone goes back about their lives.” Everyone would, of course, except for him.

Missy’s smile began to fade and she pushed herself up to sit once more and stare at the ground moving past her feet. He couldn’t see her face to make out her expression, but he could sense that she was thinking busily.

“Do you still hate humans, Dristan?” Her voice was hushed, but he heard every word.

Immediately his throat felt stiff and uncomfortable, looking down to where his elbows rested on his knees. It was a question he’d hoped she would never ask him, but one that he knew was inevitable. As their journey came to an end, so did his time in this indecisive limbo. The rift between what he had once believed and what he now saw and felt was staggering. He’d never imagined that things could be so different from what he’d always understood. There seemed nowhere that he might go, no place that might welcome him at all. He could not go back his tribe with the rest of his kinsman; his failure to complete his duty would cost him his life even if he chose to return. But to even desire to go back to the way things were before seemed alien to him now. He couldn’t comprehend that that life would ever feel right again, that he could ever be what he had once been. Even if they did take him back, he wouldn’t be able to kill humans as he had before. What he’d seen of them even in that brief span of time was so contrary to the evil beings that he’d always envisioned them to be. They were people, like the Nohmar, but their lives did not gravitate to violence and seclusion the way his own race did. They were full hope and that something he’d found was inescapably contagious.

If he did not go back to his tribe, his path would surely end abruptly in Luxenburg the moment he got off Missy’s wagon and was left to his own devices. He was penniless and had no skill to aid him apart from being an efficiently trained killer. The life of a hired sword or a mercenary seemed his only possible course, but after having finally had the hands of darkness thrown off his eyes, going back into a world of shadow and angry violence wasn’t what he felt he wanted. Dristan didn’t know at all what it was that he wanted.

His gold eyes met Missy’s gaze, finding her sitting there staring at him with quiet anxiety on her fair face. She was worried, he could see that much. He was worried as well. He worried about her, though the words didn’t pass his lips. If any other Nohmar warrior had stood against her that night, sword in hand, she would be naught but a pile of charred bones left to the sands of the desert.

“No,” Dristan answered her at last. “I don’t.”

“I’m so glad to have met you, Dristan!” She said in such a trembling tone that it made him look up to her one again, confused by the tears that pooled in her eyes. Before he could protest, Missy was up and flung her arms wide around him to squeeze a hug around him as tightly as she could. The sudden contact made him stiff, hesitant, and he sat up straight with his arms pinned to his sides by her grasp. He swallowed and looked around in bewilderment for some inkling of what he should do.

“I knew you were a good man! I knew it the moment I looked into your eyes,” she was grinning like a fool when she finally stood back, her hands clasped excitedly under her chin.

Dristan cleared his throat, straightening the collar of his tunic that had been rumpled in her outburst, “Who looks into the eyes of Nohmar warrior and sees a good man? Besides, I said that I didn’t hate humans, not that I liked them.” He snorted, carefully guarding his regard for her behind a sarcastic tone.

“I always know what people are like when I look at their eyes.” Missy asserted proudly, tapping a fingertip to her temple, “I’m never wrong about it. Maybe you don’t like all humans yet, but you like me. You like Sarai too. I would dare to say that you even like Berlak a little bit.”

“That’s strange,” he quirked a brow at her, embarrassed but unwilling to let her see it touch his features. “And a little disturbing.”

Missy opened her mouth to protest, not getting a word out before she was thrown against Dristan and nearly knocked him off the barrel. Their wagon came to an abrupt and lurching halt that sent her stumbling against him. He grasped her shoulders to hold her steady and away from the contact of her chest pressing against his. The alarm upon her face that implied this was not a planned halt and Dristan frowned, setting her back upon her feet and rising from where he’d been sitting on the top of the water barrel.

Every muscled drew tight in an instant as Berlak came around the wagon and stuck his head in to look at them both before squaring a cold glare upon Dristan. He curled a finger to Missy, gesturing for her to come out of the wagon. The huge man whispered something in her ear as she climbed out. Something wasn’t right. Missy departed hurriedly without looking back, her skirts gathered into her arms, and left Berlak glaring hard at where Dristan stood.

Dristan shied back, taking slow and wary steps away from Berlak who began climbing into the back of the wagon and edging towards him with a menacing presence. With his leg still bound to the wagon by that heavy iron chain, Dristan felt more vulnerable that he would have preferred. The huge man wielded a wicked looking dagger with a hooked end, pointing at the chain on Dristan’s foot as he spoke.

“Keeping you with us was a bad idea,” Berlak’s expression became unreadable. It sent a very real pang of fear down Dristan’s spine. The idea of being gutted by that immense beast of a man wasn’t appealing in the slightest.

“I would have said the same thing to you a week ago,” Dristan’s gold eyes squared with the lifeless blue orbs set intp Berlak’s bald head. He searched for some sort of intention there, some hint of foreboding that might lend him insight into what had happened, but found nothing. It seemed he lacked the skill Missy boasted to have.

Berlak shook his head slowly, dangerously, “I know how they train you, how they make you into killers. I know that someone doesn’t just get over a lifetime of being bathed in blood and hate. No one can just let something like that go. So don’t come to me with declarations of personal revelation.”

Dristan tightened his jaw and took another step back away from him, “You’re going to kill me then? I wonder that you waited this long to do it, if you knew that I was already a lost cause.”

That surprised Berlak who opened his mouth to speak, taking an aggressive stance that was more out of defiance to that accusation. Just as quickly, he closed his mouth again and regained composure, pointing the blade at his face decidedly, “How many of you were there? How many were sent to kill us?”

“Twenty, counting myself,” Dristan’s face skewed tasted the bittersweet flavor of treason on his tongue. He’d never expected that it would come so easily from his lips, although he spoke readily and without hesitation. Perhaps it was a result of what he imagined Berlak could do to a man with that blade.

“We burned eighteen of your dead in the desert,” Berlak’s logic was evident and Dristan now understood why he’d come here brandishing a dagger in the first place, “That leaves one of you still left out there. An accomplice, in case you found the opportunity to finish what you started. Or maybe he only would seek to set you free, killing those who might stand in the way. You knew this and yet you said nothing to warn us. Perhaps you’ve got Missy fooled into your little charade of friendliness, but you’ve been holding a dagger at our back since you got here.”

Dristan curled his fingers up into fists and he bit back furious words, falling back upon what limited rationality he still was able to find within himself, “I didn’t tell you because I didn’t think he would follow us. There’s no reason for him to. The one most likely to have survived is named Julin and you can rest assured that he isn’t going to try to save me. He’d kill me himself if he got the opportunity. So if I’d been worried about him coming here, don’t you think it would have been in my interest to warn you?”

Berlak’s eyes narrowed in suspicion, curling his lip in disgust and disbelief at what sounded reasonable but still remained hard to swallow as the truth, “We found tracks from his demon lizard in the sand, leading ahead of us into Harrow’s Pass. He’s not following us. He’s going on ahead. Why would he do that?”

Mind racing and life teetering on the edge of Berlak’s hooked blade, Dristan scrawled his brain for what Julin might be plotting. Harrow’s Pass was well known as a harbor for mercenaries, wanted men, and thieves that hid away in its deep caverns and steep ravines. The Nohmar knew it well and avoided it in most cases. They weren’t interested in making themselves allies with humans, even if they did possess a similar taste for murder.

“Normally, we wouldn’t go near that place. It would be considered a great shame to ally oneself with a human in any circumstance and he knows this.” Dristan spoke quickly, looking down and away from Berlak as he thought aloud, “But Julin has always stretched the rules in his favor when he felt confident that he would get away with it without consequence. He’s already been shamed in defeat, so he has nothing to lose except this last chance.” Dristan snapped his eyes up suddenly, hit with the moment of epiphany, “He knows that I’m still alive. He’s been watching us. When he saw that we were heading for Harrow’s Pass, he made his decision.”

Berlak’s brows quirked, not understanding and waiting for an explanation.

“The tribe will count me as one of the one’s who died because of Julin’s failure as a leader. Because of that, Julin will die in shame regardless of what happens now. But he isn’t going to let me live too.” Dristan explained hurriedly, “Maybe he hopes to kill me himself, or even expose me as a traitor and name me as the reason his mission failed so that our tribe will execute me under a heretic’s punishment. With him, it has always been about getting one step further than me. Even if he is still put to death for his failure, he’s going to make sure that I suffer more than he did. He’d do anything to make sure that I don’t remain blameless and without my fair dose of shame…even make allies with humans.”

The expression on Berlak’s face hardened into a heavy frown, the point of the dagger lowering slowly as he put his arm back down at his side, “Why shouldn’t I just let him kill you then? What’s to keep me from tying you to a horse and sending you out ahead of us to ensure our safe passage?”

A reasonable man would have done that very thing without asking him how he felt about it and Dristan had no real defense in the face of that question. He lowered his eyes once more, resigning himself to the very real possibility that he was going to die very soon. Berlak was a reasonable man, dedicated to the cause of protecting this caravan and everyone in it. With nothing to say in his own defense, Dristan surrendered quietly to what he knew to be a lost cause.

“He’s not going to kill you,” Missy’s voice was firm and bore a hint of rebellion, standing behind Berlak with her shoulders braced rigidly. “What he really wants to know is are you going to betray us when we stand against whatever it is Julin has waiting for us in Harrow’s Pass?”

Berlak turned an expression of bitter betrayal upon Missy. He flung the dagger down angrily such that it stuck deep into the wood of the wagon’s floorboards. “Gods, Missy!” He yelled, towering over her in an attempt to intimidate the little woman, “You don’t obey a single word I’ve ever said to you! Not even the simplest of orders! Would you put all our lives at risk for this Nohmar dog?!”

Missy was as relentless as he in her determined glare up into Berlak’s furious face, “Do you expect him to remain loyal to us when you wave a dagger in his face and threaten to use him as a toll for our passage through? Who is being rational here, Berlak? You told me once that weak men happily die for a cause they barely understand, but it is the best of men who fight without conviction for what they know is right. Why would he care at all what happens to us when we’ve shown him nothing but distrust and cruelty? Does that make us any different than what we’ve been accusing his people of?”

Dristan swallowed hard, his body becoming numb as he listened to her speak. He looked at her, this tiny little woman with wild red hair, and felt such force from her that would make his heart quake in his chest. Something in the way she stood there, the way she held herself with her neck arched gracefully and eyes as cool and focused, was eerily familiar and utterly terrifying. She was powerful in a way that he neither understood nor could even begin to explain.

“What would you have me do then, Missy? Let him off the chain to whatever end fate deals us? Keeping him with us could get us all killed,” Berlak conceded with betrayal still heavy in his tone. Missy’s assertions were irrefutable but he still wasn’t satisfied or pleased with them.

“Maybe so, but wouldn’t we happily give our lives for one of our own? Why should he be treated any different?” Missy insisted.

Berlak’s face bloomed with anger then, thrusting an accusing finger at Dristan, “Because it was HIS people that murdered our children, fathers, and mothers, or have you forgotten? He is not one of us, Missy! The rest of us cannot overlook what you have so easily forgiven! I cannot overlook it! It is my duty as the head of this caravan to do what is best for our group as a whole.”

“Was it not this same kind of forgiveness that brought you out of the darkness in your past as well? Who are you to deny it to someone else?” Missy was furious now, perhaps even more so than Berlak, and moved in to take personal jabs at a man big enough to snap her neck with his thumb.

Dristan cleared his throat suddenly. It made them both snap angry glares in his direction as he raised a finger to request a break in the argument long enough for him to sneak a word in. “I have no way of knowing what Julin will try to do, but I do know him. I can venture to guess at what he will try to do. I’d suggest rearranging the lineup of the wagons in the caravan. Put this wagon last in the line.”

“How in all the nine hells would that make a bit of difference?” Berlak snapped punishingly.

“Because it was part of what I included in my own considerations when I helped him organize the plan of strike against you the first time,” Those words made Missy’s expression skew for a moment as though she were surprised to hear that he’d had something directly to do with the plan of assault on their caravan. “Julin is a lot of things, but a tactical mastermind is not one of them. You can be certain that he’s been watching us from afar and he knows which wagon I’m in. He’ll come for me and set all his forces on this spot in the lineup.”

Berlak was contemplative now, beginning to nod his head as he understood Dristan’s thinking, “So we put a wagon in this spot filled with our fighters.”

“Crossbows, heavy shielding, and as many swords as you can spare,” Dristan nodded in affirmative. “The bulk of his force will come directly here. If that threat is eradicated quickly, then they will have to retreat with minimal casualties to us. Leave me chained in here, if you like, but at least you’ll be better prepared. Have water buckets at the ready, likely they’ll try to burn your wagons.”

“Is that how it was supposed to work the first time?” Missy’s voice was different and when Dristan flicked his gaze in her direction, he could see that there was something tragically distressed in the way she’d been looking at him. “Is that why your mission to kill us failed? Because you were the greatest force within your band of warriors and you weren’t able to burn my wagon?”

With his throat uncomfortably dry and tight, Dristan nodded once in a sharp, brief stroke. “Yes,” he answered quietly, finding that the word was foul on his lips.

Berlak didn’t appear to be concerned about what passed between them, still mulling over Dristan’s suggestion of changing the order of the wagons. “Fine. We’ll do it his way,” he announced at last, avoiding Dristan’s stare of amazement. The huge man shot Missy a threatening glare as he turned to leave. “But he stays on that chain. Understood?”

Missy nodded numbly, seemingly still stricken by what Dristan had told her. She didn’t look up at either of them again, her face downcast and hidden behind windblown locks of dark red hair. There seemed nothing that either of them could say to break the uncomfortable and enduring silence. Dristan watched her and didn’t like the way what he had said obviously distressed her. The idea that she might be reconsidering her own trusting, friendly sentiments towards him was disturbing, but he could think of no way to smooth things over in a way that might allow him to retain a shred of dignity and pride. Humility wasn’t his strongest characteristic.

            Under the blood red brilliance of the setting sun, the caravan came to the arid, jagged landscape of Harrow’s Pass. It was the only way through the steep and treacherous mountains that stood between the desert and the rest of the world. The way was winding and narrow, sharp rocks making the path foreboding enough to make a man question his need to go any further. The high walls of the mountains jutted up like haggard dagger points, hiding caves and deep cracks in the sand colored stone. The silence there, where the wind couldn’t reach, made every footstep and slip of a stone echo eerily through the deeply cut path.

            The wagon wheels clattered thunderously over the rigid ground and Dristan sat in the back of the last wagon, able to see nothing that went on outside. There was no laughter from the caravan children. None of the traders or merchants spoke a word.

            Missy hadn’t come back to this wagon. Dristan could only hope she’d gone somewhere to hide in one of the other wagons, wondering if he would see her again at all. It was good that she was far away from him now, he reasoned, because if Julin was coming after him, then having Missy anywhere near him would only endanger her further.

            Berlak had left his dagger where it was, stuck deep into the wood of the floorboards and Dristan stared at it. He hadn’t taken much notice of it until that moment. The hilt was carve from bone, having on it runes that were distinctly norse in make. Odd that he should look the way he did and carry such a blade.

The tribes of the northern mountains, norse tribes as they called themselves, were known to be the fiercest of all human races. They grew to be as big as bears and wore the skins of animals, living in the snow and ice where nothing else could survive. They were beastly and ruthless in a way that a Nohmar might only dream of. Berlak was apparently a little bit softer than most norsemen.

            Dristan knew when the wagon came to a sudden and jolting halt that something was happening. He snapped to his feet and the chain that was still fastened to his leg clattered loudly. His ears strained to hear something, anything that might be happening outside. Suddenly an arrow breached the canvas top of the wagon, whipping through like a lightning bolt to speed past Dristan’s head and lodge in the floor. Dristan frowned, hearing the twang of bowstrings now accompanied by the shouts of men nearby.

            Through the hole in the canvas the arrow had left, Dristan was able to peer through and see some of what was happening. The merchants put up a good fight and were better prepared this time, pressing back against the assaulting forces of the mercenaries and thieves that slunk out of the caves in the mountain walls. They came in waves of four and five, but Dristan saw not a face he recognized amongst them. He didn’t see Julin or even another Nohmar.

            A blast of heat and fire belched into the air so suddenly that it knocked Dristan back onto his heels. Something exploded close to the wagon in front of him and he heard the screams of women above the chaos. The smell of wood burning filled the air and Dristan bounced about on the floor as the wagon rattled and jarred frantically, being pulled by the panicked oxen a few yards before they finally stopped.

            Dristan had no way of knowing what was happening exactly, but he could hear plenty and he reached to grip the canvas flap door to the back of the wagon, ripping it away so that he could see outside. What he saw made his expression fall blank with sheer horrified awe, watching women and children flee from swordsmen on horseback. Men fell under the hand-flung blades of thieves. Berlak fought in the same way a ravaging bear might, wielding an enormous axe as thought it were weightless. Dristan searched the toiling battlefield, looking for a flash of that wild red hair. He searched every face, every dead body lying in the sand, and he didn’t find Missy anywhere.

            A familiar, tiny scream cracked the numbness in his trance, looking to where Sarai fled from the onslaught of a galloping horse. The rider brandished a sword meant to cut the child down and some distance behind her, Dristan recognized Sarai’s father futilely crying out for his daughter to run. It seemed eminent that the human child would die right there, in front of their eyes, murdered by some cruel-minded rider looking to bloody his sword.

            Something rose within Dristan in that moment. It was something he hardly expected but in no way resisted. His broad palm closed around Berlak’s dagger that was still lodged in the floor at his feet and yanked it free in mid stride. With the fluidity and lethal grace trained only to the best of the Nohmar warriors, Dristan let the blade slide past his fingers and spin end over end through the air. It crossed the distance between himself and the rider before anyone could blink, lodging in the mounted swordsman’s head and sending him sprawling backwards from his saddle, the dagger protruding from between his eyes. Such a hit couldn’t have been more beautifully executed had it come from the hand of a war god.

Dristan stood rigid, motionless, and watched as Sarai stopped where she’d been running to look around in trembling fear. She looked up to where Dristan stood, following the path that the dagger had flown to find who had thrown it. Her dark eyes were pooled with tears as looked to the Nohmar that had saved her until her father’s arms closed around her and hugged her desperately. Sarai’s father looked to him too then, the man’s expression unfathomable and deeply grateful for what the Nohmar had done. Perhaps he’d never be welcomed into the humans’ way of life, but Sarai’s father had good reason to bow his head in deep gratitude and respect to the Nohmar warrior.

            Dristan didn’t concern himself with returning the man’s sentiments. His focus turned back to finding Missy. He’d thrown away his only weapon, apart from the arrow that had come sailing into the wagon, and so he pulled it from the floor as well and began trying to pick the lock that held his ankle in the chain. His hands were clumsy and panicked, making him frustrated as he fumbled with the lock.

            The approach of two more of the mercenaries distracted him as they laughed mockingly at the mighty Nohmar warrior chained to the wagon like a dog. They snickered and jeered at him, beginning to mount up into the back of the wagon with blades in hand. Armed with only an arrow to aid him, Dristan gathered his feet beneath him in a low crouch and showed no visible sign of fear or intimidation. His mouth twisted into a snarl as the mercenaries started in upon him, watching their movements to judged the depth of their skill. The chain binding his ankle served him well in the close quartered combat, utilizing it to trip up and tangle in their legs as they swung at him wildly. Dristan dodged and weaved around their swords, using the arrow’s sharp point to puncture one man’s throat.

            Even while he ripped the arrow back out of one mercenary’s neck, Dristan caught a cut from the other one’s blade across his back. The pain was immediate and momentarily debilitating. It made him fall forward to catch himself against one of the barrels of water. Laboring to breathe through the stinging agony of the sword’s deep cut, Dristan was made vulnerable there while the second mercenary closed in upon him and prepared to deliver a final blow.

            Dristan sucked a sharp breath, turning in a speeding blur to land a punishing kick to the mercenary’s weight-bearing knee. The contact snapped the bone instantly and sent the man yelling and roiling onto the floor. It gave Dristan plenty of time to seize one of the abandoned blades upon the floor and drive it into the mercenary’s chest, letting him die with a gurgling groan.

            Covered in blotches and splatters of blood, Dristan looked up to see four more mercenaries coming towards him, attracted by the sounds of combat and wielding spears and maces that would make being chained to the floor of the wagon truly disabling. Even armed with a sword in his hand, he knew that numbers and superior weaponry would not allow him to overcome them so long as the chain held him.

            Dristan panicked and swung desperately at the chain that bound him. He pulled on it with as much strength as he could wield, but it did no good. No matter how he floundered and struggled, he couldn’t free himself and the chain would not budge.

A bellowing yell like the roar of a bear made him look up to see Berlak running headlong towards him, barreling through the mercenaries with his axe swinging wildly. He cut through them like chaff, not intimidated or even aware of their numbers and weaponry. The sight was truly terrifying and Dristan considered for an instant that Berlak might take this opportunity to kill him now. It would surely go unnoticed in the chaos of the battle. No one would have suspected any foul play, not that there was any foul play to be had in killing a Nohmar anyway.

He scrambled back away from Berlak as the man raised his axe high, swinging it with crushing force down in Dristan’s direction. The axe landed squarely and not a hair’s width away from its intended path. It hit the chain that held Dristan to the back of the wagon. The iron chain surrendered immediately, breaking under the punishing force of the blow. Berlak’s lurching hulk yanked the axe back again, standing back while Dristan found himself suddenly free. He was stunned.

“Don’t make me regret this, Nohmar,” Berlak growled over him as Dristan snapped up the sword he’d claimed and scrambled out of the back of the wagon. “He took her, the one who set these dogs upon us. You called him Julin. He took her that way.”

Dristan’s gold eyes followed the path Berlak that gestured towards with his axe, a narrow path that wound away into the steep mountains. With teeth bared in bitter fury, Dristan nodded and wiped the spray of blood from his brow, needing no further instruction as he took off in the direction Julin had gone. His feet carried him swiftly over the sand, weaving through the arrows that flew past him and dodging blows from mercenaries on horseback.

Finding Julin’s path wasn’t difficult. There were marks and evidence of a struggle in the sand, drops of blood on the stone, and smeared handprints of deep crimson on some of the narrowest parts of the pass. Dristan’s heartbeat pounded in his head such that it made his vision blur, hardly able to see past his fury that Julin should have taken that human woman, above all others.

The path broadened abruptly around the next turn and Dristan halted in mid stride, his gaze falling upon the place where Julin was standing. Braced where he was, not four yards from Julin, Dristan was unable to hide his shock and horror or keep it from showing on his face.

Julin held Missy by clamping a fist down in her thick red hair and forcing her to her knees in front of him. He was holding her there, grinning like a cat with a mouse caught by the tail, and brushed a dagger’s tip against the curve of her neck. Missy’s expression made Dristan’s stomach twist. He’d seen her angry, happy, bashful, and tired. But this was the first time he’d ever seen fear in those blue slate eyes that looked up to him. She looked as surprised as he was. It was as though she hadn’t expected him to come after her at all.

Dristan cut a violent glare up at Julin and tightened his hold upon the sword in his hand, “What is this?”

The shamed Nohmar warrior snapped back at him sharply, “Don’t play the fool, Dristan, you know exactly what this is. I’ve seen how you toy with this human wench. She’s won some kind of favor from you.”

“If that were true, it would be in your best interest to let her go. I’d happily gut you like a fattened pig without her death as an excuse. Doing something to make me angry doesn’t make your chances of survival any better.” Dristan hunched his shoulders, flexing his arms in a show of strength meant to intimidate. Unfortunately, it was merely a show that he couldn’t entirely back up. The deep gash cut by a mercenary’s sword across his back had begun to bleed out substantially and he felt the drowsy weariness like a blur before his eyes making it difficult to focus.

Julin clenched his jaw, narrowing his expression into a defensive scowl as he pressed the point of the dagger harder against Missy’s skin. It was enough to make her yelp and struggle against his hold on her hair, clawing at his hands furiously. “She’s a fighter,” Julin sneered. “I see why you wanted her. Pity she’s only human. I guess you would never have been able to do any better though.”

“Let me know how gentle the human mercenaries are when they see you again in hell,” Dristan spat, eyes looking down to lock gazes with Missy. There were tears in her eyes and Dristan hoped that her declaration of being able to read people wasn’t a farce. If she had any such skill, surely she’d be able to look upon him and read what it was he wanted her to do.

“If you want me to let her go, then you can start with putting that sword down,” Julin demanded, seeming to sense a changing in the atmosphere that made him anxious.

Dristan opened his hand, letting the blade fall from his hand and clattered to the stone at his feet. He never looked away from Missy’s face, pressing every ounce of intention and earnest into his gaze. In an instant Missy’s face went hard into a bitter little snarl, rearing back an elbow with all of her might to punch a blow into Julin’s groin. It worked and the shock and sudden wave of pain from that strike made Julin gasp and let her hair go. She stumbled to her feet while he grasped himself and struggled to draw a breath.

“RUN!” Dristan yelled as she looked to him again, “DON’T STOP, JUST RUN!”

Missy put her head down and ran as fast as her slender legs would carry her, whipping past him in that matter of seconds when Dristan let his mind slip free of its worry over her safety. His only focus now was to disable Julin.

Just as Missy ran past him, Julin began to realize what was happening and reared back to fling the dagger towards her back. The blade spun, howling through the air at brilliant and murderous speed, and Dristan’s eyes spotted its movement as it flew past him. Instinct was all that told him of its speed, its rhythm and pattern, and Dristan snapped a hand out as fast as a snake could strike. He snatched the blade out of the air. His hand closed around the hilt as it flew past him and just as quickly, he flung it back in Julin’s direction. It all happened in a matter of seconds, no more time than it took a man to blink four times. The dagger caught Julin in the shoulder, digging headlong into his flesh just at where his arm met his body.

Julin howled in agony and crumbled to his knees, horrified at the dagger’s hilt that protruded from his shoulder and oozed with his blood. It wasn’t a killing blow, but Dristan had never intended to kill him that way. While Julin yelled and panicked, Dristan picked up his sword and paced slowly towards him, brandishing it in the sunlight. Carnal fear and realization filled Julin’s eyes, horrified at what his old rival might do to him now. Death was not a frightening thing unless it was at the hands of another Nohmar, especially one that hated him as sincerely as Dristan did.

Dristan squatted down in front of Julin, looking at the dagger and slowly at his face in the way a powerful jungle cat might watch a wounded fawn tremble and bleat in desperation. There was no mercy evident anywhere on his sharp, darkly handsome features. It was the same sort of glazed, calmly violent way he had been trained to kill. The same way he had been expected to kill humans.

With a grunt of force, Dristan drove his sword into the sand right in front of Julin’s face. The blade went through the top of his foot, nailing it into the stone and bringing forth another agonized scream from Julin.

“Don’t follow me,” Dristan spoke as calmly as if he were asking Missy for a cup of water. “Don’t try anything else stupid. Don’t imagine that you could ever best me. This is the last time I will ever see you, if you are wiser than I’ve always known you to be.”

Julin’s face was red and he was puffing pained breaths as he bled profusely from both wounds. He didn’t answer and Dristan wasn’t extremely interested in anything he might say anyway. He rose without another word or comment, leaving his old rival pinned to the ground by a sword through his foot.

 

PART VI

 

            Dristan ran back through the narrow mountain pass. He ran back towards the place where the merchant caravan had been under attack by the thieves and mercenaries. He called her name again and again, having urged her subconsciously to run back and hide herself somewhere on the trail. There were plenty of nooks and crannies a little woman like her could hide in. He slowed to a stop, turning around in worried desperation as he called out to her again. His voice echoed through the deep ravines and jagged cliffs, making his skin prickle with concern that something else had happened to her.

            “Dristan!” Her voice answered him suddenly and he whirled around to see Missy running towards him, her skirts gathered into her arms. Relief felt like all the wind was let out of him at once and he was able to breathe easily again. He relaxed his tensed posture, his arms hanging loosely at his sides as she ran up to him as fast as her little legs would carry her.

            He jostled backwards until he caught his balance when she seized him in her arms, hugging him tightly and gripping at the back of his shirt tightly. The contact was strange to him but it wasn’t unpleasant. He stood still against the insistent way she hugged him, unsure of what he should do to respond or if he should even respond at all. The very fact that she was willing to touch him at all was not something he’d become used to yet.

 “You’re alive! Gods, I thought he’d killed you!” She gasped breathlessly, “Are you alright?”

            “I think I deserve a little more good faith than that,” he snorted with a roll of his golden eyes. “I’ve been worse.”

            Missy withdrew her hands from around him, her fair brow crinkling as she noticed the warm moisture of the blood soaking through the back of his shirt. She frowned up at him, “You’re not all right. You’re bleeding.”

            Dristan frowned back at her challengingly, “I was chained in the back of your damn wagon! What did you expect?”

            Just as he was about to get frustrated with her a smile spread across her cheeks that was so bright that it made him pause. He puffed an exasperated sigh, realizing how she’d baited him, and looked away rebelliously as she laughed. Somewhere deep within him, deeper than he hoped she might be able to see, he was relieved to hear that sound. Her laugh meant the world to him. That realization made his face burn with embarrassed color even as they made their way back to where the wagons had been left under siege.

The chaos around the caravan had subsided and the mercenaries either lay dead, scattered about on the ground, or had retreated back into the mountains. One of the wagons had been burned, but it wasn’t beyond repair. Overall, it appeared that the caravan of merchants had weathered this attack fairly well.

Dristan could see only two bodies that were members of the caravan, their women and children crowded about them wailing in mournful sorrow. It was a numbing, humbling sight that made Dristan’s golden eyes linger and stare. He didn’t recognize such expressions of grief and sorrow, though he understood them well enough.

Berlak was still brandishing his bloodied axe and glared at him as they returned. The little redheaded woman was, by all appearances, all right. Resting his axe over his shoulder, Berlak approached them with an attentive eye obviously perusing her for some sign of damage or harm.

Missy ran out to meet Berlak, exchanging frantic words with him a moment before she hurried off to help tend to the two grieving wives. Berlak approached and placed himself uncomfortably close to Dristan, looked down at him with something of an overly assertive and dominant presence. As if he were reiterating his position as the head of the merchant caravan and his ability to end Dristan’s life if he wished to. Dristan had no doubt that Berlak could have killed him if he wanted. But even now Dristan felt no urge as he might have once to exact some kind of ill planned revenge upon Berlak, Missy, or any of the other merchants and traders. His will to kill them was gone. Whether or not the sentiment could be stretched to the rest of human race remained to be seen.

Whether or not Berlak’s silent claim of dominance was a test of his loyalty or not, Dristan lowered his head a little in silent submission. Unclasping the leather strap that held the sheath across his back, he removed his curved scimitar once more and held it out in unspoken surrender. That gesture was enough to make some of the other men who were also members of the caravan, stop and watch the exchange with new interest.

Berlak’s expression was as unreadable as the stony face of a mountain as he took the blade from Dristan’s hand. He looked it over, the clever and sleek Nohmar make of the sheath, and grunted as if in amusement at the deadly little blade. Dristan hadn’t expected that Berlak would let him keep it, but he did feel a twinge of frustration as he watched it become clipped to the large man’s waist belt.

 “Your plan worked,” Berlak said gruffly. “We lost only two. They had some of the black fire powder brought from the eastern kingdoms. They used it to make a bomb that burned one of the wagons before we could put out the blaze. But with only two men lost, our victory was decisive. They will not try another assault, not with so many of their own dead. We should be able to make up the cost of the loss of one wagon with the horses and armory we get off the bodies of the thieves.”

Dristan chanced a glance up to meet Berlak’s gaze, nodding in silent approval but having nothing of real value to say. He had known that his plan would probably work, and yet he hadn’t bargained that Berlak and the rest of the merchants would be so receptive to a Nohmar’s advice. Much less that they would give him any acknowledgment for it. Perhaps, when it came to matters of war, there was no better advice to be had.

“You saved her,” Berlak’s tone was curious and he tipped his head in Missy’s direction pointedly. “Did you have to kill that friend of yours?”

            “He was never my friend,” Dristan corrected dejectedly, looking at Missy from a distance and watching her as she took the weeping children and led them into her wagon. He saw her, so full of compassion and empathy, and wondered why it was such an abhorrent thing for his own people to know that kind of selfless love. Love, in any form, was withered and dead in the hearts of the Nohmar people. Missy was like a vibrant red rose to this arid, sun-bleached land.

            “And I didn’t kill him,” he looked back up to Berlak, something resolved in his expression. “He will do well enough to kill himself in time without me putting myself to the trouble of doing it for him. If he heeds my warning, then I won’t see him again. That is all the satisfaction that I need from him.”

            Berlak huffed, seeming a little taken aback at what appeared to be a bit of revelation in the Nohmar that obviously hadn’t thought possible. But if he believed Dristan was completely sincere, it didn’t show and he pointed back to the last wagon in the caravan’s line. “Back to the wagon,” he growled through his teeth. “And I’d better not see you out again without my knowledge.”

 

PART VII

 

            Night had fallen and the caravan had already pulled their wagons around into a closely- knit circle. It was quiet and the travelers were hard at work helping each other to nurse wounds, prepare food, and repair what had been damaged during the attack. As the hour grew late, the camp became silent apart from the low murmur of voices and the crackling of campfire flames. The children had been tucked away into another wagon, all sleeping together soundly while their mothers and fathers gathered around the fires to sip spiced ale and speak softly.

Dristan sucked in a sharp breath. He curled away from Missy’s touch while she sat behind him, trying to inspect the place where the mercenary’s sword had cut open a large gash across his back. He’d lost an alarming amount of blood, enough that would have killed a normal man, and it left him feeling completely exhausted.

            By the dull warm light of a candle, Dristan sat with Missy alone in her wagon with his back to her while she sat very close and began arranging the tools to bandage him up again. She peeled away his shirt, now bloodied and ruined, and pressed her lips together pensively as she studied the wound. He could see her face, reflecting in one of the steel pans hanging from the ceiling of the wagon, and it captured his attention fully. She hadn’t noticed him staring at her yet and so he continued to without reserve.

            She soaked a rag in hot water, wringing it out thoroughly before she began to clean the deep cut. He hissed at the touch of it, drawing his hands up into fists and bracing against the floor with his eyes shut tightly.

            “I know it hurts,” she spoke softly. “I’ll be quick, I promise.”

            Dristan exhaled, trying to breathe through the pain, and hanging his head down to his chest to stare numbly at his lap, “It’s all right. Do what you have to. I can stand it.”

            Missy blinked curiously, looking at the back of his head for a moment and then wrinkling her fair brow, “Thank you for saving me.”

            Her comment made him open his eyes again, looking back up to her reflection in the metal pan, “Did you really think I would let him kill you?”

            “I didn’t know what you would do,” by the anxiety on her face and the way she busied her trembling hands, he knew she didn’t like admitting that to him. “But I hoped that you wouldn’t.”

            Dristan watched her in silence while she cleaned his wound, the candlelight warm across her face. Looking back down to where his elbows rested on his knees, his legs crossed and his silk Nohmar shoes now tattered and frayed, he wondered what it was about him that had made her want to spare his life. No one else in the caravan would have done the same. No other human would have, likely. He wondered what might have been luck that she should have been the one standing between him rather than anyone else. He doubted she would agree it was mere luck that had arranged that coincidence.

            “If you had let me die that day, then none of this would have happened,” he thought aloud, not entirely intending for her to hear. “Neither of those men would have died and Julin wouldn’t have tried to kill you. Maybe that would have been better for everyone.”

            “Maybe,” Missy’s practiced hand cleaned his wound carefully, slowly, and began mixing up a medicinal salve as she listened to him and answered his thoughts with her own. “Maybe it would have been easier, but that doesn’t make it better.”

            “I should have told you before, about why they sent me to kill you,” Dristan bit at the words angrily, frustrated and confused over what he felt he needed to say.

            Missy had stopped working and sat behind him very still, looking at him as he turned around enough that he could glimpse her face. Her soft gray-blue eyes stared at him with a strange sort of calmness in them. Her lips were parted as if she’d intended to speak but had forgotten whatever it was she had meant to say. She let her gaze fall down to her lap before she spoke again, her cheeks beginning to turn a deep shade of scarlet.

“All I could think about when he took me was that I’d never get to tell you how glad I am to have known you. To have spent time with you. I was afraid that the last thing you would remember about me was that I was upset with you. I didn’t want you to have those memories of me.” A strange little smile twitched at her lips as she fidgeted with the small bowl of salve she’d been making, “Memories are such precious, fickle things, aren’t they?”

Dristan swallowed, finding his throat was oddly dry, and turned back around as she began spreading the salve over his wound gently. He knew now that for her, memories were incredibly precious because she knew what it was like to lose them. “There is so little in my life worth remembering,” he mumbled in a disheartened tone. “I didn’t know how empty I was until I met you. I’ve seen myself through your eyes now and I’m left to wonder what kind of options someone like me really has in this world.”

Missy paused where she’d been wrapping his wound in gauze, spanning it around his chest and over the cut on his back so that it was covered securely. She leaned forward slightly, pressing her forehead against the back of his shoulder in a delicately intimate gesture that made the muscles of his back and shoulders go tense.

“Where will you go, Dristan?” Her voice was hushed, barely more than a whisper from her lips.

He didn’t know. That daunting question she asked had begun to haunt him with every mile that brought them nearer to the desert’s end. He knew almost nothing about the world that lay beyond the sands of his homeland. The human world with trees and prairies, farms and winters, all those things he’d heard about and yet had never seen them, smelt them, or touched them. She was much the same, in his mind’s eye; something strange and different that he’d never experienced before.

“Where will you go?” He repeated her question with meaning, returning his gaze to the steel pan where he could see her reflection where she sat behind him, her head resting against his back. He saw her hand move before he felt her touch, moving up to touch the bare skin of his arm while something of sadness settled in her cloud-blue eyes. The intimacy of that contact, that gentle touch of her fingers that were so smooth and warm, made his chest tighten and his body go rigid once more. It was strange and uncomfortable at first, but it was only trained instinct that wanted him to shy away and rebuke that contact with her. The longer it endured the more he found it pleasing and the more he found that he wanted it.

Dristan felt his hand twitch and move to reach around and touch her fingers where they grasped his arm. He covered her small hand with his own, feeling how smooth her skin was against the rough course of his palm. His heartbeat hastened, painfully at first, but steadily subsiding to a nervously frantic pace. He pulled her in closer, turning enough where he sat that he could loop an arm slowly and deliberately around her waist and gather her into his lap.

Missy complied, though her eyes were wide in timid surprise and her cheeks were blushing a beautiful rosy color. Sitting in his lap with his arms around her, she stared up at him and trembled as though she were frightened. He could see himself in the reflections of her eyes, young man with a mean-looking cut to his jaw, and he didn’t understand how he could ever be worthy of her. Even so, he found himself wanting her.

He reached to cradle the back of her head in the steady strength of his palm, his fingers delving deeply into her thick red hair as he bent down towards her slowly. He could feel her body go rigid at first as she shied back away from him, but he would not let her deny him and she did not persist in trying.

Dristan pressed his lips against hers firmly, breathing in deeply the smell of her breath and shutting his eyes as he felt her begin to relax and respond. She wound her arms around his neck and hugged herself to him. She answered the affectionate touch of his mouth and combed her slender fingers through his hair. Her lips were cool and soft in contrast to his own that were firm, warm, and moved with such a deep sense of purpose.

“I will go wherever you are,” he spoke, remaining close enough to her that his mouth still brushed against hers. “You told me once that you didn’t think it was my destiny to die alone. I understand and agree with you now. I think it has always been my destiny to live and fight for you alone.”

She smiled and opened her eyes to gaze back up at him, cupping the hard line of his cheek in one of her soft palms. “To be my guardian,” Missy whispered faintly. “Stay with me always.”

Dristan was smiling back at her then and he took one of her delicate hands to press it against his chest, over his heart. “Until I draw my last breath.”


© 2012 Nicole



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Nicole
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The story is very entertaining. You may want to break up the chapters. This is a lot of reading. I like the storyline and the situation. You create good thoughts and vision with this interesting story. Thank you for sharing the story.
Coyote

This review was written for a previous version of this writing

Posted 5 Years Ago



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Added on April 2, 2012
Last Updated on May 28, 2012
Tags: romance, romantic, love, story, prince, desert, dessert, rogue, warrior, hunter, killer, fighter, assassin, lovers, forbidden, legacy, the, guardian, protector, princess, beautiful, girl, woman

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Nicole
Nicole

Wichita Falls, TX



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About Me... My name is Nicole Conway and, yes, I'm an author. It feels wonderful to finally be able to say that. Believe me, I've worked very hard for it. Writing is not just a passion, not just a .. more..

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