They rode for a day and two nights before she spoke.
They passed the bridge about a mile north, and kept riding up the west bank of the Lesser Bariad. It was tempting to cross to the other side, to maybe make them think she was going elsewhere, but she knew Gharqah was on this side of the river, and speed was her friend.
Nobody knew, yet. The novices in the temple did not know anything except perhaps that she found some magic in the statue. Nobody knew except Raffid, and he would never tell. Him, and the boy she had captured.
She did not truly understand why she still had him with her. She could have cut him loose as soon as she escaped the town, or thrown him in the river, or…
They rode all that night, stopping for only five minutes after the sun rose to water the gelding and refill her own waterskin. Wheat seemed to grow wild allover within the fork. She did not know what this area was called. Raffid probably did, but he was not here.
They rode all the day and most of the next night until she feared the horse might collapse. He was lathered and stumbling, so she angrily pulled to a halt as they passed a single acacia tree about five-hundred yards east of the river. A small flock of moonsparrows flew off as she approached, hobbled the horse, and the boy as well. The rope was too short to tie all the way around the tree, so she tied him to the horse’s reins. She thought of threatening him, but just lied down, no fire, no glowstones, and slept for two or three hours. She awoke at first light, kicked the boy awake, and set off again.
“Are we headed to Gharqah?” he asked, not for the first time. It was all he said, when he spoke, but she just ignored him. They rode at a much easier pace, for the gelding’s sake, the sun throwing waves of orange upon them from their right. More golden wheat was waving nearby. In front of her on the saddle, the boy’s head bobbed up and down as they rode by the river.
“My thighs really hurt,” he said. “They itch. I think I have saddle sores.” She grunted contemptuously at that. Her sores had broken the first night they flew from Musmahwa. Her legs were a bloody mess, and she had no lesser earth to fix them, but she was not about to tell him that.
“Are we headed to Gharqah?” he asked for the millionth time. She growled, but it did not silence him. “That’s where I’m headed anyway.”
“Why?” she asked, despite herself.
“I had a vision, right before you attacked me,” he said. Tiny traces of black fuzz were starting to appear on his head. “The Mother of Love visited me while I prayed at the temple. She told me if I stayed on the path, I’d find what I’m looking for.”
She grunted at that. “There’s only one Mother. You’re worshipping a rock.” The boy mumbled something. “What was that?”
“You’re the one chasing after crystals,” he said, not much more loudly. She almost knocked him off the horse, but Raffid’s face suddenly flashed red in her thoughts, and they rode on.
It was noon before they spoke again.
“Have you really killed men three times my size?” he asked.
“Every man is three times your size.”
“Yeah, but have you killed any?”
She sneered at the back of his head. “I’ve bested them. Disarmed them. Knocked them to the ground. The trick is to get inside their reach. They all panic once you close distance. They all think you’re going to run. It surprises them, when you show them you know how to fight.”
“But did you kill any of them?”
She growled again.
The horse was stumbling once more by the time the sun set that day, but there were no trees nearby. She dismounted, tied the boy’s arms behind his back and bound him to the horse’s reins again. “Keep in front of me,” she said. “If you try and get on that horse, I’ll gut you.”
“I’m not really sure you will,” he said.
“I just burned your temple down!” she shouted. It echoed into the newborn night, even though there were no mountains or trees for miles.
The boy turned north and started walking. “I dunno. The whole first floor was brick and stone. You burned all the rugs, that’s for sure. You did a lot of damage. I think it might be okay, though. I hope those novices made it out.”
“They shouldn’t have been there.” She said it automatically, hoping the boy would not argue. He did not.
“I think one of them was named Arif. I didn’t catch the other’s name.”
The whole world seemed to flash red for an instant, and Behfa found her hand at her sword. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Her left hand moved idly to her pouch. The greater fire was gone now, of course. The bloodfire was in its place. Behfa was getting weary, but every time she closed her eyes, her lids glowed orange in spite of the evening.
The moon was waning, but still near enough full that they could walk all night if they had to. She kept the horse behind her and the boy in front, and could hear both stumbling every few minutes. It was close to midnight when another lone acacia tree finally appeared off to their right. The boy put up even less protest than before when she bound him to the horse and the horse to the tree. He just rolled over and went to sleep. Behfa rummaged through her things and pulled out a few lumps of salted pork that had not yet gone bad. She wolfed down three of them, then laid another two next to the sleeping boy. She lied down, still with no fire, and slept.
There was barely any chill in the morning when she awoke, nearly an hour past sunrise. The boy had worked his hands in front of himself again, and was finishing the salt pork when she got to her feet. “I’ve never had this before,” he said with his mouth full. “What is it?”
“Boar,” she said. “It’s tougher, but lasts a lot longer than porker.”
His eyes widened. “This was a pig?”
“You eat fish, don’t you?” she snarled. The boy nodded and finished eating.
She set a faster pace that morning, hoping to make up for the previous day. Even so, they were still not moving as quickly as she would like. It was still slow enough to hear the boy easily when he asked, “So what are you going to do at Gharqah? Sneak into the Mother’s House again?”
“First I’ll visit the bazar, see what magics they have. Some greater earth will fix up the saddle sores pretty fast, if I remember how to use it.”
“Is it hard to learn?”
Behfa shrugged at no one. “It’s memorizing a lot of formulas. Anyone can learn, but it takes so much time to prepare the magics, then add the extra catalysts at the right time, most people don’t bother. Fixing saddle sores in a hurry is great when you’re in a hurry, but most of the time you can just use salves, and rest. You can make a flaming arrow with lesser fire, or you can just use a flaming arrow. Greater fire could level an entire army in minutes, but it’s way too uncontrollable, it’s not…” Silence followed for nearly a minute. “Well… you saw for yourself.”
“How much of that stuff do you have?”
“Just the one,” she answered without thinking. “I found it in the river the next day.”
“That’s the same one Qara barfed out in the river!?” the boy exclaimed.
Behfa pulled a horrible face. “I didn’t know she barfed it out.”
“Well what did you think she did? It got out of her somehow.”
She had not even considered that. Looking at the options, vomit did seem like the best possible turnout. “Hmph. Qara,” she said, changing the subject. “That’s ancient Yenai for ‘monkey.’”
“What’s a monkey?”
“They live in the jungles of Monos, far to the east. Animals. They look like tiny little people, covered in hair, with tails. There’s one or two kinds up north in Zalja, too, far north even of here, close to Yaalk. In Zalja, if a kid’s misbehaving or making a fool of herself, they call her a little monkey.”
“Huh,” the boy answered. “Qara’s parents must speak ancient Yenai.” After a moment, he added, “Or maybe Qara does. I think she’d love to be named after a tiny little man covered in fur, with a tail. Do you speak ancient Yenai?”
“A little,” she said. “Raf… the wizard taught me. A lot of magical formulas are written in ancient Yenai, and nobody bothers to translate them. It’s another reason nobody bothers with magic.”
“But you are. Bothering, I mean. With magic.”
“Yeah, well… I’ve got plans.”
It was another few minutes before the boy asked, “Is your father still alive?”
“He’s a divine commander, right? What’s a divine commander?”
“It means he gave up his birthright to join the military order of Satar. My father was a great general. He was the lord of Batsayanjar, next in line to be the prefect of all Heqatia. That’s the second-greatest prefecture in Zalja. But he gave it all up when he heard about the Crusade. He wanted to be the one to convert… you. All of you.”
“Why does Satar need an army?”
“To convert heretics.”
“Why can’t she do that herself?”
More silence followed, for a minute or two. “So, if your father gave up his lordship, does that mean Batsayanjar belongs to you now? Or do you have an older brother or something?”
“No…” she said darkly. “I’m his only child. It passed out of our family.”
“Why? Because you’re a girl?”
“No!” she snapped.
“Sorry!” the boy stiffened at that. “I’m sorry. I just. I always heard that Zalja was a little… backward.”
“Backward!” she sneered. “You’re calling us backward? You worship rocks! Your houses are made out of mud! We passed by three fortresses on the way to Musmahwa, and every one of them was better built than anything your people live in. And they were abandoned! The soldiers were all gone!”
“We’re not at war,” the boy said. “Why would they man the fortresses if there’s no war?”
“Because we—” She stopped herself, thinking suddenly of the little girls and their laundry, and how quiet they grew when she had asked about their fathers.
“I’m sorry,” the boy said again. “I shouldn’t have assumed Zalja treats women poorly.”
Behfa sniffed. “Well,” she said, but stopped herself again.
“Yeah?” the boy asked, innocently.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
The boy sighed. “Yeah. You’re probably right.”
They came across a great bend in the Lesser Bariad, curving westward toward Garqah. It was still nearly an hour to sunset, but there was a small woodland of acacias nearby, so they made camp. This far north, the Spring was growing so warm that even though they had the time, Behfa still did not make a fire. She shared what salted pork remained with the boy.
“We thank you,” he said before eating.
“We—” she said before stopping herself. She glared at him, but he was consumed with his meal. They ate quietly for a minute or two.
“There aren’t any tigers around here, are there?” he asked, taking small nibbles of his pork.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Raffid knew all that stuff. The wizard. I wasn’t supposed to be doing this alone.”
“Yeah. I know what you mean.” He finished his pork. “What happened to your soldiers?”
She ignored him.
Instead of lying down to sleep, the boy sat against a tree, looking northward.
“What are you doing?”
“I dunno about tigers either, but there’s supposed to be hyenas near Gharqah. They can steal a woman’s soul on the full moon. I heard their bite can make a man sterile, and their claws make a woman barren.”
She snorted. “Peasants’ tales.”
“Yeah…” the boy agreed absently. “Just tales.”
Behfa lied down, but kept him in her sight. She was just starting to doze when he spoke again.
“Brother Hesiud was supposed to be with me. He’s the monk you threw into the railing on the bridge.”
“He was supposed to go to Musmahwa and warn them. About you. I was going with him on a spiritual journey.”
“Did you find any enlightenment?” she smirked.
“He…” It was getting too dark, and the boy was facing mostly away from her. “There’s tigers in Inish Aiva. He said there wouldn’t be any near such a small forest, but…”
“A tiger?” she sat up on one elbow. “You escaped a tiger?”
“He was wrong.” He was trying to speak evenly, but she could tell he was angry. “He said there were no midge mice there, but there were. He said there’d be no tigers, and then one…”
Behfa did not know what to say. She lied back down. “A tiger, huh? Bad way to go. Did you run off without him?”
“He told me to… to…”
“Tigers only attack when your back is turned. You should have faced him.”
“We did! We faced it and it still – What do you know!?”
A frisson ran through the air. She could smell his fear, worried how she might react to the outburst. She smiled at that. “Is that what you wanted to ask him?”
There was a long silence before the boy finally said, “He never knew anything. I had so many questions, and he never answered them. I thought he wanted me to think, but now I think he just didn’t want to look stupid.”
“That’s how most adults are.”
“What about you? You answer my questions. Usually.”
I’m not an adult, she wanted to say. Only then did she realize that was not true.
“Quelizad told me not to fight my shame, that I should let my feelings flow through me like a river. It’s hard, though.”
“Sounds like something the Yenese would say.” She sniffed again. “Who’s Quelizad?”
“The Mother of Love. That was her House, in Musmahwa.”
She turned her head and stared at him again. He was still looking out north, but his whole body looked loose. He was trying to sleep. “There’s only one Mother,” she said before closing her eyes.
They both awoke deep in the night to find the horse stomping and shaking its head. At first, Behfa thought it was nothing, but as she settled back down to sleep, a strange noise was heard far to the north. It sounded like a deep chirping at first, but as it grew closer, it multiplied. It almost sounded like…
“Is that… laughing?” the boy asked.
Behfa was on her feet, sliding her sword from her scabbard. “Looks like the hyenas are real.”
A small chorus of barks were echoing in the dim north, and she could just make out a pack of shadows that looked to be moving toward them. Five, maybe six. One was much larger than the others, a mother most likely. The horse was stamping and whinnying nervously.
“Maybe we should go,” the boy said.
“Afraid of going sterile?” she mocked.
“There’s six of them.”
“I’m not running from a pack of dogs.”
The shadows grew closer. The barking grew louder, some guttural, but much of it high and whining. It did sound like laughter, echoing in the night. “Behfa?”
“Shut up!” she bellowed into the darkness. “You think I’m afraid of you? I’ll take you all alone!”
The shadows were starting to resolve into their proper shapes. Dogs with thick necks and heavy backs, large ears pointing up, and bright white fangs shining in the moonlight. They chirruped and barked and laughed, but there was no mirth in their shadowed faces. Only purpose.
She cast a glance at the boy, his hands clasped before him.
“Captain Behfa. Please, Captain. Let’s go.”
They were getting close, now. Behfa growled, then shoved her sword back into its scabbard. She managed to calm the gelding enough to get the boy on, then leapt up into the saddle just before the horse bolted westward.
No dog was a match for a horse, but this horse was exhausted and carrying two people. The yipping and chortling grew louder and louder as they rode, until the gelding threw up its head and screamed into the sky. Behfa looked back and saw the pack just at their heels. The huge, hunch-backed mother was closing on them, her children only a few yards behind. An evil smile split Behfa’s face as she drew her sword. “Steady!” she shouted to the gelding, lifting her blade up high.
The hyena tensed and lunged for the gelding’s buttocks. Behfa brought her sword down, but suddenly there was a flash of red, and Raffid’s weathered face was staring at her. The blade struck awkwardly, grazing across the mother’s skull and forcing her to back off for only a few seconds. Behfa shook her head and whitened her knuckles along her sword handle. The mother was up again in a moment and lunged for the gelding’s flanks a second time. This time, Behfa deliberately brought the flat of the blade down and slapped the hyena harshly across the face. She yelped loudly as she tumbled and splashed against her children. Only one pup managed to evade her, and it quickly turned back to look at its mother, rather than pursue them alone.
A fire was burning down her arm, and she almost turned the horse back to charge them. Her eyes flashed red again, and she saw an army of invaders fleeing from her, a sword of fire in her grip. She shook her head and looked back to the west. The laughing had stopped.
She needed sleep. She needed rest.
With was another five minutes of hard riding before the boy shouted, “Maybe you should put your sword away. Captain.”
Blinking, she carefully lined the blade up with its scabbard and slid it home.
They did not stop riding until the sun came up, and by then all three of them were having trouble telling day from night. “We have to be getting close,” she said, slumping over the boy in the saddle.
“What’ll you do then?”
She ignored him.
The sun was past risen when they came across another acacia. She hobbled the horse and boy again, pulled a handful of cashews from her things and split them with her prisoner. “We than you,” he murmured. She ignored him.
They both lied down. The sky was clear, birds were singing in the acacia tree right above them, but they were groggy and nearly insensate with drowsiness.
“Captain?” the boy asked, “is the wizard your… uncle or anything?”
“No,” she yawned. “It’s just me and my parents.”
“Oh.” The boy yawned too. “I thought maybe he could inherit your town. Your land. Who’s gonna get it?”
Her face felt numb as she rubbed it with her palms. “The Jirahns. Two sons and three daughters. All married. All with children.”
The boy was already mumbling. “Is that why you can’t inherit? Cause you’re not married?”
“I’m not married yet.”
“Do you have to be married by a certain age?”
“No,” she said, trying to be sharp, but too drowsy.
“I don’t get it,” he said, sounding too far gone to get anything. “If it’s not that you’re a girl, and it’s not that you’re not married, what’s the problem?”
“I will be married. Soon. I think.”
“Oh?” he asked, sounding a little more awake. “Who is it?”
“Zayenna. She’s a paladin’s daughter. Very respectable family.” She rolled over on her side. “I like her.”
“Is it…” Even half asleep, she could sense the boy’s apprehension. “Is it cause she’s a girl?”
“No,” she said, regaining some of her sharpness. Then, “Not really.”
“Oh. I thought maybe Zalja had a problem with girls marrying girls.”
“It’s fine. If you’re a peasant.”
The boy sat up, rubbing his face and trying to wake up more. “If you’re a peasant?”
Behfa lied on her back and looked up, trying to see what birds were singing in the branches. “They don’t really want to pass inheritances to couples that won’t produce direct children.”
“Ohh,” the boy half-yawned. “That’s really mean. I’m sorry.”
“Well…” she grumbled, “it makes sense. You have to pass inheritance through the blood.”
“How else can you trust them?”
“You only trust your family?”
She ignored him.
“I trust the monks.”
“Yeah, and look where that got you,” she sneered.
The boy lied back down, but after only a few seconds he was talking again. “Do you think your father could do anything? Divine commander sounds really important. Can he help you keep your inheritance?”
She rolled back on her side. “Go to sleep.”
Mercifully, he finally shut up. She was nearly asleep when he said, “My name’s Orvi, by the way.”
She mumbled something incomprehensible.
Seconds later she was asleep, and surrounded by oily yellow fire.