She wakes up feeling warm. Someone is curled around her, their breaths puffing against the back of her neck, their arms and legs entwined around her like the roots of some great tree. Hazy with sleep she pushes her face deeper into her pillow, reluctant to open her eyes and begin the day. A light headache is stinging behind her right eye, threatening to bloom into a dull pound. She wonders where she even is. Her mouth feels like something died in it; she moves her tongue thickly, moaning softly. Whoever is embracing her tightens their grip, burying a cold nose against her back.
The scents of the forest blossom around her. The sweet tang of decaying leaves, and tree sap, do little to hide the smell of cooking. Forest? This is not Arga.
She opens her eyes. The treetop room comes into focus slowly. Her cloak is abandoned on the floor, lain out as though she was going to sleep on it. Her boots are similarly lost - one hunched beside the door like someone being sick, the other standing resolutely under the table: a silent vigil against the night. She blinks a few times, then muffles a yawn into her pillow, trying to remember if she went to bed with anyone the previous night. She draws a blank.
Yeisa kissed me.
She burrows her face deeper into her pillow. Clearly whatever had transpired hadn’t been particularly inspiring, or she would have remembered it. She gropes at her tunic and breeches. But I’m not naked. So I didn’t…
Unbidden, an image of Angela scurrying naked out of bed bubbles to the forefront of her mind. She thought she’d looked away quick enough to not see anything, but apparently, this is not the case. She recalls the smooth contours of pale flesh, the little pink nipples and the thatch of pale hair between her legs. Legs that were strong and lithe with riding and fighting. Fareeha shifts her weight, trying to ignore the sharp twist of arousal in her gut. Her sleeping companion snuffles.
“Morning,” they say sleepily, punctuating the greeting with a yawn. Fareeha tries to stem the surge of dread and excitement she feels when she realises it’s Angela. So much for trying to distance myself.
“Good morning.” She replies shortly before extracting herself from the tangle of limbs, feeling very much awake. Angela lets her go, her arms slipping away from her as she sits up, twisting her body to settle on the edge of the bed. Guilt brays at her heels. She tries to ignore it, getting to her feet and riffling through her bag, drawing out a loose herb pouch. She pulls a small stick of arak out, inspecting it before sticking it into her mouth. Chewing methodically until it splits into bristles, Fareeha cleans her teeth while gazing idly out of the window, peering up at the sky. It is a bright, but cloudy day. She wonders if it will rain. The arak is bitter on her tongue, and the scents of roasting meat make her stomach bugle half-heartedly.
“We’re leaving today, yes?” Angela asks. Fareeha can hear clothes rustling, so she concentrated on the leaves of a nearby tree, examining how green was turning to yellow with the autumn.
“We are.” Fareeha finishes brushing her teeth, her mouth cool with the bitter taste of arak, reaching to the nearby table and plucking up the strange dagger from the night before. She inspects it briefly before shaving the used bristles off her arak and abandons them to the wind. “I would like to be out of Shala’Zor by tonight. We have many miles to go.”
Angela comes to a halt beside her, dressed in her white clothes and cloak. Fareeha watches the way her bare toes wiggle against the wood for a moment before turning away, fetching her own clothes from her bag. Trusting Angela not to look, she gets undressed quickly, shoving her scarred legs into leather breeches and lacing them up, before pulling her cotton shirt over her head. As she gets trapped in the arms and wrestles with the cotton, a flash of memory makes her cry out. Hot, burning eyes, like portals to hell, guarded by a mouthful of teeth. She tastes blood on her tongue, nose full of the scent of decay, compounding her rising swell of fear.
Ravaged by remembrance, it takes her a while to orient herself. Her knees throb dully where she had fallen, her head trapped in the arm of her shirt still as a soothing hand rubs her back. Flushing, mortified, she finds the opening and shoves herself into her tunic, trying to ignore how hard her heart is pounding in her throat, or the faint line of sweat which cools rapidly over her forehead. She would not let herself be a slave to demons, even in memory.
“I’m fine,” she says gruffly to Angela’s probing, pushing herself to her feet and stomping to her boots. She yanks them on, rubbing her knees surreptitiously; they would bruise, no doubt, but she doesn’t want to draw too much attention to herself.
Angela seems to know better than to pry. Together they pack their meagre belongings away; Fareeha shackles Raptora to her left hip, breathing a little easier at its familiar weight, before shoving the strange glass dagger into her belt. Angela pulls up her hood, palming her staff in one hand and her bags in the other. Fareeha does a final sweep of the room before following Angela out into the day.
It is raining lightly, pattering on the pathway as they trot neatly towards the banquet hall. Fareeha finds herself enjoying how it feels against the top of her head, cool beads of water dribbling down her scalp and neck. The air is fresh and it drives the last lingerences of her headache away. She sucks in another lungful, peering around at Ashrah with its treetop rooms and firefly lamps. People are peering at her from their doorways. Children clutch at the trousers of tired parents, dark eyes silent and judging as Angela and her pass. Perhaps it is because Angela is radiant in the half-light.
Yeisa and three helmed warriors greet them at the banquet hall. Dressed in her armour she cuts a dashing figure, her feathered helmet clutched under one arm. Her remaining eye is hard, face set and mouth a thin line of displeasure. A leather patch hides the disfigured half of her face, and she fiddles with it as they approach.
“Your horses await you,” Yeisa says stiffly, all business.
“Thank you for feeding and sheltering us,” Angela says, taking Yeisa’s hand in both of hers. Yeisa bends over them to kiss Angela’s knuckles, her voice rough with either a hangover or emotion, Fareeha can’t be sure, but she watches on sharply anyway.
“You saved us. My warriors and I owe you our lives three times over.” Yeisa steps aside and dips her hand into a sack one of her companions’ cradles, drawing out a small kitten. It mewls pathetically, tiny mouth opening in the cry, huge blue eyes staring at them all with the wonder and fear of a child.
“To repay our debts, I grant the Pale Priestess and her Knight of the Barrens one of our riding cats, to nurture and care for, so that we may ride with you in spirit.” Yeisa’s voice is ringing, carrying proudly around the village. Angela, her hands full, steps aside so that Fareeha can take the creature. It is so small she can cradle it in one hand, fur so soft she wants nothing more than to press her face into its warm little belly. It peers up at her, all four paws curled to its chest, tiny tail shivering.
Fareeha tears her eyes away from the kitten to stare into Yeisa’s face. She doesn’t have to see the expression of torn grief to know that the gift is a great honour, and comes at great cost to the Marguey. She dips into her lowest bow yet, holding the cat against her chest securely.
“You honour the Knights and the Pale with your gift, Yeisa. May the God shine upon you from the Stars, and the Dawn always come. Send for my Chapter, and they will come to your call, have faith in that.” She straightens. Yeisa steps forward and, to her great surprise, wraps an arm around her in a tight, but platonic, embrace. They pat each other’s backs awkwardly, then part.
“Look after yourselves,” Yeisa grunts gruffly. “My warriors are needed here, but the path is safe, you can be sure of that.”
“Dawn protect you and your people, Yeisa,” Angela murmurs. She shifts onto her tiptoes to press a sweet kiss against the captain’s cheek. “You will need the light in these dark times, I fear.”
“The forest is already dull at the thought of your leaving.”
One of the warriors offers Fareeha a cloth cradle to strap to her chest. She takes it, setting the kitten into it carefully and glancing down at it, making sure it is comfortable. It is purring, tiny mouth spreading in a yawn as it settles against the fabric to sleep. I’m glad it isn’t more worried. I would be, if I was it. For now, though, it seems content to rest. Fareeha envies it.
She steels herself, saying her final goodbyes to a grim faced Yeisa before starting her descent down the ladder nailed to the tree. It is a dizzying distance away from the ground, and she dares not look down. Instead she stares resolutely at the tree, making her way towards the forest floor as smoothly and quickly as she can. Risking a glance upwards, she sees Angela following her lead, receiving an eyeful of her tight leather pants. Don’t even think about it.
Face flushed, Fareeha keeps going, finally reaching the ground and stepping away from the tree. Silas and Angela’s horse are waiting for them, browsing the leaves below, saddled and ready.
“That wasn’t so hard.” Angela says cheerfully, patting Fareeha’s hand. “I’m glad they gave us one of their cats. I wonder if it will be hard to train?”
Fareeha doesn’t answer, checking the kitten to make sure it is all right. It is sleeping soundly, tiny claws curling into the fabric of its sling. Their bags are lowered slowly, hitting the ground with a soft flump; Fareeha affixes them quickly to their saddles, surprised when another bundle arrives for them.
Two bows, two quivers full of arrows and two war horns sit in the small basket. She plucks the bows up, testing the strings on both, pleased to find them in extremely good shape. She looks upwards and thinks she sees Yeisa’s face peering back down at them. Fareeha raises a hand in thanks and receives a bellowed horn call in return, which sets nearby birds to flight. Gathering the final gifts, she tucks the bows to their saddles and swings the war horn around her waist, handing the other to Angela. She takes it, studying it for a moment, before hanging it around her neck and hauling herself into the saddle. Fareeha copies her, glad to be on their way once more.
They glance up towards Ashrah one last time. Fareeha feels something like sadness filling her chest; she blinks quickly as she takes in the tree top town with its half burnt buildings and great banquet hall where they had dined with the clouds.
“May the Dawn always rise for them,” Angela says. She urges her horse down the trail, tugging her hood over her face as rain cascades from above.
May the God protect them, and the Stars watch over them. Fareeha thinks before following Angela, settling into her saddle for the journey ahead.
They reach the forest’s edge as dusk is falling. The vast grasslands of Senak stretch out before them as they stand in the treeline, swaying like a sea of green in the light breeze. The path is now a worn road, winding its way lazily through the grass like a river. Fareeha’s eyes follow it, looking in vain for the lights of a tavern or a town they can spend the night in. Senak is a great deal cooler than Shala’Zor and Arga, supplied by the cool sea breezes from the south.
Angela sits up in her saddle, eyebrows raised high.
“I recall thinking Shala’Zor was daunting,” she says. “Somehow Senak looks more treacherous than the forest.”
Fareeha nods, “There is no shelter. No hiding from other people.” She taps Silas’ flanks, urging him forward. The kitten is exploring her back and shoulders, clawing its way around her cloak and nuzzling her face. Every now and again she feeds it a tiny morsel of jerky from the pouch on her belt, eating a few herself and offering more to Angela. Angela refuses more often than not.
“Do you wish to make camp soon or try to find a place to stay?” Angela is keeping apace with her, regal and tall on her white steed. Fareeha shrugs, rolling her shoulders as they finally step out of the forest and into the wider world; the grass seems to whisper of their passing, swaying with the wind.
“It would be safer to find a place to stay. From what I remember from my maplore, there should be a village a little way away from here. I would have to check to be sure.” Fareeha feels herself quiver as the kitten’s cold nose brushes her neck, whiskers tickling her. It meows at her loudly.
Angela smiles at her when she glances her way. The sun’s light has turned her hair rich, the graceful arch of her neck drawing Fareeha’s eye when she looks away. She has a brief moment imagining what it would be like to mar the perfect flesh with blushed teeth marks. Would Angela like her doing that?
“Then we continue. I think we should pick up the pace, however.” Angela pats her horse’s shoulder. It snorts, shaking its head. “Come now, Meissa, carry me strong and true.”
Fareeha almost feels her ears twitch at the name. “You named your horse Meissa?”
“No,” Angela replies, her white gloved hands flexing on the reins. “She was named that when I bought her. Her old owner said it was a name of good fortune.”
Fareeha smiles, chuckling and looking away across the fields. Her mother feels closer than she has been in years. Fareeha feels as though she can look up into the sky and find Ana’s face smiling down at her.
“It isn’t just a name of good fortune,” Fareeha peers searchingly at the sky, then points to a brilliant star, shimmering in the middle of a band of three. “You see that? That is Meissa. We Argans also call it Al-Maisan. The Shining One. They say Meissa welcomes home the warriors when they go to rest in the stars.” She glances at Meissa’s gleaming white coat. “She was well named, your mare.”
Angela peers wonderingly upwards, her expression wistful. “I have always loved the stars. No one taught me their names though.”
“My mother did.” Fareeha catches the cat and holds it up, peering into its eyes. Then she tucks it into its sling where she feels it settle down to sleep. “She taught me the constellations as well. Perhaps one day I can teach you.”
“I would like that very much.” Angela’s voice is surprisingly full of emotion. Fareeha glances up to see her watching her. Her expression is intense, breathless, eyes dark with the dusk. She looks as wild as Yeisa did as the wind catches her hair, giving her an air of something ethereal.
Fareeha hears herself speak without thinking, “You’re as beautiful as the Dawn, Angela.”
The priestess blushes but laughs, shaking her head. Her otherworldliness is gone, replaced by the woman who sits astride a horse named for the stars. Fareeha swallows, rubbing her forehead with her free hand, wondering what possessed her to speak so frankly. She risks another look at Angela. I want to kiss her. Her lips are parted in a sigh, eyes roaming the rolling fields of grass. I can’t overstep my mark.
Fareeha looks away.
“We should get moving.”
Fareeha puts her heels into Silas’ flanks. The horse snorts but obeys at once, bursting into a trot, then a canter before galloping swiftly down the road, kicking up dust. Fareeha can hear Meissa following and does not look back, confident that Angela is following her.
They ride well into the night. Dusk fades and night falls like a shroud, covering the grasslands in shadows. The stars flicker bleakly from behind thin clouds, a half-moon lighting their way as they thunder onwards, watched only by the creaking crickets and the swaying stems. Gradually, in the far distance, Fareeha sees the glimmer of torches. Emboldened, she urges Silas onwards, sitting up in the saddle despite her body’s weak protest, the thought of a warm bed and a hot meal spurring her onwards. Angela matches her pace, her white cloak streaming out behind her as they continue, flapping and teasing the wind. They make a pair; one white and one black, coursing down the road like comets.
It is well past midnight when they finally reach the town of Ezzrah. A post with the word emblazoned on it welcomes them as Fareeha rides Silas into it, breathing a sigh of relief when she sees the swinging sign of a tavern. The Four Ploughs’ sign swings idly, a pair of drunkards spilling out of its door, splashing the road with temporary light.
A stable boy hurries to her, staring up into her face as he raises a lantern to inspect her. She peers down at him, trying hard not to blink at the searing brightness of the flame.
“Four silvers for the horses to stable,” he squeaks. Fareeha nods, fiddling blindly with her coin pouch and finding the money. She tosses it to him before dismounting, sighing when Angela does the same. Unbuckling their bags, Fareeha bids the boy to take the horses away. He does so, walking them into the stables beside the inn, his companion aiding him. Silas and Meissa disappear into the dark, leaving Fareeha and Angela standing alone in the dark street.
Legs leaden, Fareeha leads the way into the quiet tavern. Angela does most of the talking, trading silver coins for a room and food. The tavern owner bites the silver to check its authenticity before nodding them up the stairs, saying that bread and cheese would be brought up to them.
The stairs are as hard as scaling a mountain.
Their room is cramped, and only one bed occupies the wall. Fareeha doesn’t have it in her to care, though. She sets their bags down with a groan, collapsing onto the bed and stretching out, gazing blindly at the ceiling.
“Thank the Dawn,” Angela says tiredly as she closes the door behind her, locking it at once. “I thought we would never get here.”
Fareeha grunts. She struggles against sleep until their meal comes, only just summoning the energy to sit up to eat. Angela sits beside her, wolfing the food down. The bread is stale, the cheese weak, but Fareeha doesn’t think she’s ever eaten a finer meal. Her stomach feels hollow with hunger and, when the kitten comes out to sniff at the food, she feeds it some bread. It sets out to explore, pawing across the bed and curling up right on the edge; a fluffy ball of snoring. Angela watches it, amused.
“What are you going to name it?” She asks, swallowing some water from a skin of theirs. Fareeha shrugs.
“I’m sure it will find its own name. I’m not sure even what its sex is.”
Angela makes a soft noise in her throat and spends the next several minutes stroking the cat. Fareeha busies herself with getting changed for bed, kicking off her boots and finding comfortable clothes to wear. Angela keeps her gaze respectfully averted while she gets dressed. Or, at least, Fareeha thinks she does. As she pulls a fresh shirt on over her head she thinks she feels eyes on her scarred back. A quick glance back shows Angela cooing at the kitten, though, so she shrugs the feeling away.
She climbs into bed with the gratitude of the dying. Angela starts stripping off her travelling clothes, casting them messily aside and yawning hugely. Fareeha studies the threadbare sheets until she feels the bed dip and hears Angela settle back against the cushions. Together they lay in silence for a moment, staring blindly at the wall.
Eventually, Angela says, “I hope every inn we sleep in from here to Axis is as well-furnished and cheap as this one.”
“Senak never wants for anything,” Fareeha replies. “It is one of the largest trade centres in the east, supplying Arga with most of her grains. The East’s Bread Basket, it calls itself.”
Muffling a yawn into her hand, Angela turns onto her side away from Fareeha and Fareeha does the same, blowing the lamp out.
“You know so much,” Angela mumbles, “it makes me envious.”
Fareeha feels herself smile even as her eyelids droop. “I learnt from my mother. You served with her, and I never got too. We are both envious, it seems.”
Angela doesn’t seem to know what to say to that. But even if she did, Fareeha doesn’t hear anyway. She is soon asleep, clutching her pillow as dreams haunted by burning eyes fill her mind.