Author’s Note: Okay, so this year has NOT gone completely to plan. Have I been writing? Yes. Have I been working on this story? Er, no. But I have been writing. Does that count? I hope you enjoy the new chapter – and pretty much all of it is new writing.
Chapter Thirteen: First Impressions
Terim woke warm and rested for the first time in days. Instead of lying under the stars where anything could get to him, he lay cocooned in blankets under a stone ceiling. Sunlight came from an opening several feet away with a cool breeze flitting about the space. He could barely see the sky, but the blue shone through the tree branches hiding it.
I don’t want to get up yet.
Not that anyone was expecting him to. His father was in the village days behind him and the only company he had were the few animals he’d seen on his trek.
So, how did I get into a cave?
He searched his memories, but nothing came to mind beyond endless thirst and hunger, and constant trudging uphill.
Where am I now?
Uncertainty and fear crept from his gut up to close his throat until he coughed in his effort to breathe. He tried to slow his heart as he scanned the space around him, taking in details he’d missed before.
Some sort of covering screened most of the entrance to the cave, but left space for light to come in and smoke to flow out. A fire pit had been dug in the dirt floor and the remnants of a fire smoldered with glowing coals. Gear piled up across from him showed his pack as well as another, a folded blanket, and some cooking gear.
He tested his strength and gingerly sat up, trying to get a better view. Footprints marred the dirt floor, but no one else shared the cave with him at the moment. The scent of water filled the air despite the clear sky and wondered if it had rained while he slept.
So, who built the fire? Was it the stranger in black? Had he found the one he pursued?
Terim leaned back against the wall and tried to remember.
He’d traveled for five days across the desert sands on foot, following the mysterious, unfading footprints, despite the wind’s best efforts. When the lands turned from sand to scrubby hills, his water supply ran out and he hadn’t found more. He remembered pain everywhere and a constant uphill path until…nothing. His memory faded.
Had he made it to this shelter on his own? He glanced down at the blanket around him. The way he lay swaddled like a mummy suggested someone had done this to him. Did that mean he’d found the one he followed?
Working his arms free, he let the blanket slide down from his shoulders to puddle in his lap but stopped when a gentle gust blew through the gap in the door cover. Icy fingers brushed his skin and he shivered.
Where was his shirt? He slid his hands down his body under the blanket and sighed with relief. He still wore his pants, though wiggling his toes told him his socks were missing as well. He shot a look back at the gear, but he couldn’t see any loose items lying about. Questions continued to bubble to the surface of his mind as he tugged the blanket back up over his shoulders. It was soft, made from a finer quality wool than that of his desert home, and indigo in color.
Like the sky after the sun has gone down, but light still remains.
Terim fingered the blanket, trying to fit together the pieces of his memory with the reality in which he woke. Someone must have brought him into the cave, taken his shirt, and wrapped him in the fine blanket.
A scuff of feet on stone made him turn his head. A shadow filled the slim doorway and paused, surveying him.
The mysterious stranger from the old palace ruins.
Still dressed in black silk from head to toe, the person set down a pot full of water beside the smoldering fire and took time to build it up until it crackled happily. The person balanced the pot on three rocks over the flames and set a lid on top before sitting back and turning their attention to him. Terim watched with mounting dread, wondering if the stranger would speak.
Instead of speaking, the stranger lit a piece of wood and used it as a match to light a small oil lantern no larger than the length of his hand. They brought the lantern closer to Terim and crouched beside him, studying his features. He returned the scrutiny.
Eyes of green with flecks of gold met his and a memory of someone he’d met before flashed across his mind. It was so fleeting, he couldn’t pin it down and it disappeared as fast as it arrived. The eyes crinkled at their edges as the stranger smiled, though the silk hid the lower half of their face.
“Good morning.” The stranger’s voice was higher than he expected and had an unusual accent though they used the Common tongue. “I hope you rested well. When I found you, you suffered from exhaustion and dehydration. I was concerned you might give up, but I’m happy to be wrong. How are you feeling?”
Though the stranger’s voice had an odd timbre, it was smooth, like water flowing over sand. He could listen to them speak for days and be content.
Don’t be a wanker.
He blinked a couple of times. What the hell is a wanker? But he knew the word, though he hadn’t heard anyone around him speak it. It was just there, like a buried memory, in his mind.
The stranger tilted their head. “Brain fog?”
“Do you have brain fog? It’s a common symptom of exhaustion and dehydration.” The stranger glanced back at the pot, checking on the water before returning their gaze to him.
Terim studied the person, taking in the details he hadn’t noticed before. The stranger’s form was slender and shorter than he expected, but strength lay coiled in the smaller body. Personal power flowed beneath the black silk, confidence as well, and Terim was sure the confidence stemmed from real world experience.
“I–I don’t know the term.”
Eyes full of a wise intelligence measured his face. “It means your thoughts don’t flow as easily or clearly, and it’s hard to focus. Is that what you’re feeling?”
Before he could answer, his stomach protested its emptiness loud enough to interrupt their conversation and the stranger chuckled.
Terim felt his cheeks heat. “I’m hungry.”
“Yeah, so I gathered.” The stranger turned from him and rooted around in a small bag near the fire before pulling out some flat travel bread with herbs in it. “This should tide you over until I can get the porridge made.”
He grimaced. “I’m not a fan of porridge.”
“I understand, but you were severely dehydrated, and the more foods I can get into you with a high water content, the better your body will recover.” They handed him the bread. “Start with this and drink water with it while I get the rest of the meal done.”
He took the flatbread, noting the hands of the stranger were small-boned and delicate, though strong and calloused from use. They moved with the grace of someone in excellent physical shape as they returned to the pack with the food stores.
Much better shape than I’m in, no doubt.
Terim chewed the flatbread and sipped from the water skin while the stranger cooked the porridge. The scents coming from the pot reminded him of the savory cereal his father used to make for the goats when fattening them up for slaughter. Despite the idea, his stomach grumbled for a taste.
Just remember to thank your host for all they’ve done for you.
“May I ask your name?” He blurted the question and his cheeks heated again, but he met the stranger’s gaze as they turned to look at him.
“Kulastri of Banarah.”
“Very grateful to meet you. My name is Terim Gottherd of Old Palace Village.” He dipped his head. “Where is Banarah?”
“It’s three mountain ranges to the north.” Kulastri stirred the pot on the fire. “Have you heard of it?”
Terim shook his head. “No. I’ve never been farther north than Militan, the capitol. Do you know it?”
“I know of it, though I didn’t pass through.” Kulastri knocked the stirring spoon against the side of the pot and reached for a bowl. “This will be very hot, so let it cool before you wolf it down.”
He snorted. “How do you know I’ll wolf it down?”
His stomach took that moment to grumble loudly and Kulastri shot him a dry look, making him grimace. He cast around for something to talk about while he waited for them to serve up the cereal.
“Were you the one to leave the trail of footprints?” It was a stupid question – who else would it be? “I mean, right, you left the footprints. How? Do you have magic?”
Kulastri took their time answering as they poured some cereal into two bowls. Terim’s stomach added another complaint as they handed him one along with a spoon.
“Take it slow. I don’t know the last time you ate, but if it was a while, too much food at once will make it come back up.” Kulastri sat their bowl aside, steam curling up from the cooling porridge. “I did leave the footprints and yes, the Kingdom of Banarah has magic.”
He spooned a bit of the cereal and blew on it before sliding it into his mouth. Savory flavors of sweet curry, ginger, and cinnamon hit his tongue, and he could barely hold back a moan of delight. It was the best thing he’d tasted in a long time.
Kulastri chuckled. “You like it, I guess.”
“You’re not afraid of magic, are you, Terim Gottherd?”
He paused, both to let the cereal cool and to consider their question. “I don’t know. I’ve never experienced magic other than those footprints, but they didn’t scare me. Missing out on the opportunity scared me more than any magic.”
“I’m pleased you followed the trail and took the initiative to seek my company.”
“Your note was too much to pass up,” Terim mumbled around a mouthful of cereal. “The life of a goatherder isn’t very exciting. It doesn’t take much thinking other than watching for predators.”
Kulastri nodded. “I imagine it doesn’t offer a mind such as yours enough of a challenge.”
Terim glanced up at his host. “A mind such as mine?”
“Mm.” Kulastri returned his stare evenly. “Anyone who saw and followed my steps wouldn’t be satisfied in a small desert village five days’ walk from the mountains. The person who can endure that is searching for something more than knowing when the sun rises and falls, and how to keep a herd of goats safe.”
Terim’s jaw dropped. Had Kulastri read his journal? He glanced surreptitiously at his pack, but it looked undisturbed. Could they read minds? His gaze returned to his host. Kulastri unwound the black silk from around their face before taking a bite of cereal.
Terim realized his mistake. A woman’s face was bathed in the morning’s light as she began to eat her breakfast. The spoon in Terim’s hand fell into his bowl with a loud clang!, and she turned her head to glance at him with a raised eyebrow.
A woman! The stranger was a woman! His brain ran around in little circles, fighting with the memories of a warrior woman and the sexist beliefs of his village.
Women are weak.
Only men carry swords.
Women stay home and tend children.
“Uh, no. No problem.”
He stuffed another spoonful into his mouth as he tried to come up with something intelligent to say. Didn’t he have memories of a warrior woman? He let his mind sift through the more fantastic of his dreams, and an image of another woman warrior taking out several guards at some sort of museum filled his mind.
Not so unusual at all, then.
“I’m not used to seeing women warriors,” he admitted, and his cheeks heated. “I meant no offense.”
She nodded and ate more of her cereal. “You’re not the first to hold the erroneous view that women are ‘the weaker sex.’ It’s very common here in the southern kingdoms.”
“Why did you come to this part of the world, then? Why face that kind of stupidity?” He frowned uneasily as he picked his spoon back up and resumed eating, worried he’d overstepped.
She shot a look toward the entrance of the cave and grimaced. “It’s a long and unusual story.”
“It’s not as if I have a date,” he remarked then winced. “Sorry. I have no cause to be so salty.”
She snorted. “I prefer honesty to careful responses. Very well. Would you like more porridge before I tell you why I’m here?”
“Yes, thank you.”
She filled his bowl before she sat back against the cave’s wall where she could watch both the entrance and him at the same time.
“Just over two years ago, the Prince Zorrick…” She paused as if listening to something before rolling her eyes. “Prince Zorrick of Banarah fell sick with an unusual disease, something that wasn’t outwardly visible but slowly took his vitality.” She paused again, shaking her head just slightly.
“Before the prince died, His Highness called his inner circle together and told us to prepare for his death. Unfortunately, he had no successor to his throne, but His Highness had been granted the knowledge that the new heir to the throne wouldn’t be from our kingdom, but from one of the other lands beyond our borders. He asked me to make the journey to the other kingdoms to find the one he felt sure could rule, a warrior who’d one day be our new king.”
Terim frowned a moment. “Why you?” He grimaced apologetically. “Sorry, that came out rudely. Why did he trust you to find someone outside your borders who’d be the next ruler?”
Kulastri shot another look at the entrance before resting her gaze on Terim. “My title is Master Warrior and First Advisor to the late Prince Zorrick. He was my closest friend and he trusted me more than anyone else to fulfill his wishes. That is why I arrived at your village a fortnight ago.”
Terim set his bowl down, no longer hungry. Her story sounded like something straight out of the fiction books he read as a child. A kingless kingdom? A warrior heir? Improbable in real life.
She’s saying you’re the heir she’s been searching for, you baboon.
He swallowed hard. “But I have no royal blood, and I know nothing about swords or knives other than they’re good for cutting. I’m definitely not a warrior.”
An image of Majir’s sneering face filled his mind. The son of the blacksmith would know more about warriors and their ways than Terim, and guilt slammed into his gut.
I took the cloth with the message.
He’d assumed Majir had found the stranger or the footprints, and followed them first. Surely he’d seen them. But what if Terim had taken the only clue? Majir wasn’t here with Kulastri and it was too late to take it back. Disappointment crashed over him as he realized the note hadn’t been meant for him at all.
“This is a mistake. I’m not the one you were looking for.”
“What makes you say that?” There wasn’t any condemnation or uneasiness in her question, just curiosity.
He snorted, the disappointment and guilt snarling through him. “I know nothing about leadership, and I have no fighting skills. I wasn’t a leader or an elder or even a seer in my village. Just a goatherder.”
“One who watches over and protects those weaker and more frightened than himself, yes?”
Well, when she put it like that…
“His Highness Prince Zorrick told me the heir would be one of the common people, someone who understood what ordinary people need from their leaders. He also said the warrior wouldn’t know his gifts and would require training. That’s why he sent me. I’ve trained many soldiers and warriors, so I have a little experience to offer you.” She pinched her thumb and forefinger together with a smirk.
He grunted, amused despite himself. He couldn’t be who she’d been searching for. “How do you know I’m the one meant for this and not someone else?”
She shrugged. “Only the person who found and read my note, then followed my trail could be the one meant for the Banarahn throne.”
He couldn’t argue with that. Majir obviously hadn’t found it, or he would’ve been in this place with Kulastri.
But he’s not here.
“Are you finished eating?” She held out her hand for his bowl.
“Yes, thank you for the meal.”
She quickly and efficiently cleaned up their dishes without another word and he was left to his thoughts.
“I need to fill the water skins. Will you be all right for a bit?” She stood beside the doorway, wearing a heavy overcoat and gloves.
“Yes, I’ll be here.”
She nodded and disappeared through the opening, giving him the space to consider everything she’d told him. It all seemed too fantastic to be real.
You said you wanted the opportunity to go on an adventure. Here it is.
Yeah, but as the heir to a mountain kingdom?
Beggars can’t be choosers, mate.
The line sounded both familiar and odd in his head and could picture a redheaded boy with freckles across his nose winking at him. Like it was a memory.
Kulastri returned and doffed her heavy coat before dumping snow into a pot to heat for warm water.
“It snowed?” Dread hit Terim’s gut. He hated being cold.
She nodded. “Yes, which is both good and bad. It’s good because we can use it as a source of water and it’ll give you time to regain your strength. But it’s bad because it’s the first snow of the season and more is coming, so we can’t stay here long.”
He swallowed hard. “How long do you think we have?”
She shot a look at the entrance then back at him. “Do you feel strong enough to walk?”
He frowned, taking stock of his body. Could he get up? He pushed the blanket off his body and immediately missed the warmth it provided. “Do you, uh, have my shirt nearby?”
“Oh, yes.” She nodded and grasped the fabric he’d seen folded on one of the packs. “I washed it so it’s clean.”
He pulled it on over his head, trying to ignore how that small action made him tired. Gathering his strength, he drew his feet under him and tried to push up. His body struggled to respond to his wishes, and he groaned as he used the wall to move.
“Here, take my hand.”
He found her crouched next to him. Though she looked around his age, her presence seemed infinitely older, and the green and gold eyes measured him with calm wisdom. She held out her hand to him.
“I’m too heavy.”
“We’ll see. Take my hand and get to your feet.” She rose gracefully and extended her hand while she balanced with her feet shoulder width apart. “Come on, Gottherd.”
Her frank response made him rethink his own efforts and he grasped her offering. Pushing up took most of his strength and once he got to his feet, the effort stay standing took the rest. He stood, shaking and sweating, and Kulastri nodded, frowning.
“That’s what I thought. Come, lie back down and I’ll make some rabbit stew.” She braced and helped him get back to the floor without falling. “You’re still too weak to hike just yet. We’ll stay one more day and fill you with water and food to build up your strength. We’ll leave for the Tiggar’s Muzzle in the morning if there’s no more snow.”
“How far is it to the Tiggar’s Muzzle?” Terim’s exhaustion returned just thinking about moving.
“Ten kilometers.” She turned back to the fire and added more wood. “Rest, eat, and drink. We can afford one more night here, but we’ll need to leave tomorrow. It’s a long way back to Banarah.”
He gulped and nodded. A long way. He settled back under his blanket and closed his eyes.
Have an adventure, they said. It’ll be fun, they said. Freezing his ass off and collapsing from dehydration hadn’t been fun. And more travel awaits.
Yeah, he needed to rethink his ideas of adventure.