The Celeste. Star-space, unique to deities, that allowed for observation and control from outside a realm. Four massive dragons crowded around a monstrous piece of hovering pottery, their long, thin bodies undulating through deep blue space as they floated above Ranor. In front of them, a comet burst through the folds of the universe, pulsing bright and gently pulling the dragons and their realm along. Below them, drifting in and out of sight behind clouds, the realm they stitched together rolled on through the galaxy. Power surged through their bodies and the realm beneath roiled, an earthquake erupting somewhere to the south.
"They almost got the book!" Ustoth scoffed, jerking his cinnamon scaled head away from the shimmering basin, where images of people dodging falling rocks bloomed.
"But they didn't!" Erakoth answered, voice straining with forced optimism. "The Westerners know how to protect it!" He darted around to the side of the red basin where Ustoth pouted, but hesitated before speaking. Erakoth's golden whiskers curled and uncurled as he searched for words. "I know you think all is lost, but the book is still in their hands."
The bulky blue dragon swiped a claw through the basin and the image reflected on the surface fragmented in the ripples, then was gone. "That won't be good enough for dear Ustoth," she said in honeyed tones. "We'll need to do something else."
"You know we can't intervene, Izeth. We can't spare the power!" The yellow dragon exclaimed, twisting in a spiral directly over the basin. "It's already strenuous enough to keep Ranor together, and the plateaus are falling apart at the seams! Ustoth is having trouble keeping the desert heat contained in the desert and Turath can't keep the mountains standing much longer!"
“So that’s why we’re not going to be the ones to intervene, nimrod,” Izeth growled, dipping her claw in the basin and twirling it twice. Ustoth and Erakoth edged closer to the basin, curiosity piqued. “We’ll just get the humans to do it for us. All it takes,” she paused, her talon hovering just over the surface of the liquid, “is a spark.” She flicked her claw on the liquid and five droplets splattered across the basin, casting out five sets of ripples. The dragons watched solemnly as faces swam before them in each set of ripples, flashing and smearing together before flickering away again. Finally, agonizingly, the four pairs of dragon eyes widened and stared at five humans.
One woman with raven hair and dark skin on a tundra, shivering and hunched into the wind. One woman with fair ginger hair, staggering through a desert. One person deep in a dirt tunnel, frantically trying to keep a lantern lit. One man with shining black skin, muscles taut as he pulled on a lever, shouting directions to people the dragons couldn’t see. And finally, one man with oaken hair, sitting peacefully beneath a tree, his legs crossed and hands relaxed.
“These will do nicely,” Izeth said.
“What are we doing?” Ustoth asked, his voice less of a rumble and more of a tremor. “Can these people handle even a single drop of our power?”
Turath nodded, leaning closer to the basin. “If we dilute it,” she said with confidence. “The animals of Ranor are more suited to us. If we transfer power to them, they can transfer it to these humans.”
Ustoth scratched behind his ear with one of his feet. “Why are there five humans? There are only four of us.”
“Oh, look how peaceful that one is,” Erakoth said, gesturing at the man under the tree. “He looks powerful.”
“And that’s why he’s the one that will get a mixture of our powers. We can’t give the humans our powers without someone to help bring them together. When we use our powers up here, in the Celeste, we have all the time in the universe to discuss and plan and argue and we are not as fragile as the humans,” Izeth explained, voice echoing out towards the distant stars. “He must be the one to rally the others to his side, to protect the book, to take out that wretched Crimson Sweater bunch, or whatever they’re called.”
“Crimson Sword,” Erakoth supplied. “I suppose we should choose our humans, then?” He peered down at the five figures on the water, evaluating each one. The others did the same, jostling each other to get a better view. Once they decided, they shifted to face their heirs. Ustoth floated near the girl in the desert, Erakoth chose the man with the goggles and machines, Izeth hovered above the black haired girl on the tundra, and Turath looked fondly down at the person in the dirt tunnel.
“Now or never,” Ustoth sighed.
“Pick an animal, and then we’ll begin,” Izeth commanded, sinking an ivory claw into the face of the girl she chose. The others followed suit, and after a moment of nothing, the water began to spiral out of control, winding up their limbs and in between their scales. They roared at the contact, feeling their power sucked out like marrow from a bone. As soon as it began, it was over. The water stilled, the realms of Ranor relaxing again as the four chosen dissipated from view.
Left behind was the man beneath the tree, who had not stirred for some time. Nodding to each other, the dragons each sunk a claw into the man’s reflection and breathed out in unison. Puffs of smoke twirled out of their nostrils to collide with the water tendrils and seeped their way into the man’s image. He, too, dissipated and his image was smeared away by ripples in the liquid.
The dragons retreated, curling in on themselves and shaking their massive heads as if to shoo away flies.
“Well, that didn’t go as badly as we had imagined,” Ustoth commented, stretching out to his full length and listening to his scales creak appreciatively.
“Now you’ve cursed it, moron,” Turath cried, flicking her tail at him. “You’ve doomed us all!”
Sand poured into the woman’s boots as she stumbled forward, seal leather having finally been worn through. Her swollen feet burned but she pressed on, dry mouth and aching limbs and burning skin the only motivation she needed to keep stepping towards the grove of trees just ahead. But every time Eldhrimnir lurched forwards, the oasis lurched back. She missed a step and plummeted down the side of a dune, her sparse belongings flung up into the air around her, dropping haphazardly on her head when she came to a halt. Eldhrimnir spat out grains of sand with difficulty, making a face. When she looked up to gather her things and press onwards, she thought another mirage had appeared before her.
A little girl regarded her with curiosity, a pudgy hand resting on the flowers of a cactus next to her. Eldhrimnir squinted, her vision blurring. She was so thirsty. Her wineskin had run dry almost as soon as she had left the port north of the desert, and she wondered if this was where she was going to die. The little girl came closer, her skin nearly black and glistening with the slightest hint of sweat. She had the flowers in her hand now and was squeezing them, forcing a thick goo to burst out of the middle. She said something to Eldhrimnir in a lilting language that Eldrimnir didn’t understand. She shook her head to the girl, feeling her brain smack against the inside of her skull, pain wracking her burning body.
The girl pressed the flowers to Eldhrimnir’s mouth and forced her to swallow some of the juice. Eldhrimnir coughed from the sweetness, the grainy texture sticking in her throat. Gesturing, the child told her to keep eating it. Eldhrimnir did as she was told and within ten minutes, her vision stopped being spotted with black and the oasis ahead looked more solid. Her limbs didn’t feel like falling off and the sun didn’t feel so hot. Tugging on her hand, the girl got Eldhrimnir on her feet to pick up her belongings before leading her towards the oasis.
White tents appeared, flapping gently in a light breeze, with people moving between them with easy grace, their dark skin a stark contrast against their artfully wrapped white robes. Closer to the water, a group of three legged beasts of burden chattered amongst themselves and slurped at the shoreline through short trunks. The little girl pulled Eldhrimnir towards the largest tent in the group. It stood a little taller than Eldhrimnir, with clinking jewels dangling from the sticks supporting the fabric.
“Who are you taking me to see?” Eldhrimnir croaked, forgetting that the girl wouldn’t understand her native Northern tongue. Before the girl could express her confusion, a tall man ducked out of the tent and stood before them with a regal presence.
“Thank you, Kitarash,” he said with a small smile. “Go back to your friends now.” The girl nodded and dashed away.
“You speak the Common Tongue!” Eldhrimnir was flabbergasted. From everything she had read about the Eastern Wanderers, they were dumb to matters of the outside world, hardly speaking at all in their own language, content to just eke out a life in the desert, bouncing from oasis to oasis.
“Yes, and you look thirsty and like you could use a bath.” The man ran a hand over his bald head, a sheen of sweat just starting to glisten on it. “My name is Tacari. Come inside and tell me how you came to be here.”
Squinting in the sun and from the effort of remembering her lessons, she struggled to understand what he was saying. With the diffused light inside the tent and a clay cup of water in her hands, Eldhrimnir was able to form a reply in Common Tongue as they sat across from each other on small cushions. “Thank you. My name is Eldhrimnir.”
“Why are you here, Eldhrimnir?” Tacari asked again, not unkindly, but his eyes were hard as flint. “You are clearly of Northern descent. What brings you to the desert?”
Eldhrimnir was suddenly wildly conscious of how out of place she was. Fair skin and light hair were almost common in the North, beneficial even. There were darker people too, but none as dark as the Eastern Wanderers. They wore heavy furs in her homeland, leather and hide, and what little of her clothes she hadn’t shed in the heat were torn to rags. Her skin was nearly as red as her hair. Eldhrimnir knew she looked like an idiot, but the port she had been dumped off at was closest to the desert and she had been itching to explore.
“I...I ran away from the North. My best friend was getting married. She was going to go from a council member’s daughter to being a princess and I was probably never going to see her again.” Eldhrimnir paused and sipped the water. “I was in love with her.”
“These things happen,” Tacari agreed, his face softening. “You felt you could not stay?”
“No, it didn’t feel right to be there. So I caught a ship southward. I’ve read so much about the rest of Ranor that I figured it would be a shame if I didn’t see it. They kicked me off the boat in Ald’ess and I started walking South. When I hit the sand, I didn’t think to turn back. If that girl, Kirath? If she hadn’t found me I’d probably have died.”
“Kitarath,” Tacari chuckled. “And yes, if she hadn’t brought her cactus with her to share the juice, you would have died before she got you back to our camp. We can help heal you and show you how to survive in the desert, if you like. I imagine it is very different from your books.” He gestured at her lap, her half torn bag on it with pages and scrolls sticking out of it like tongues. She shifted and tried to stuff them in further but to avail. “We’ll get you a new bag and find a tent for you to share. And a change of clothes. That leather isn’t going to do you much good here.”
“Tell me about it,” Eldhrimnir muttered, following Tacari out of the tent and towards the water, still clutching at her bag and her lone axe. Her knives had been lost in one of her many falls down the dunes, and her other small axe had been lost on the ship to a very cunning gambler. Eldhrimnir didn’t feel comfortable without a weapon and kept absently touching the handle as Tacari spoke to some of the people at the water’s edge. One of the men, who was strikingly similar to Tacari, only with hair in long locks, pulled a robe from a pile and offered it to Eldhrimnir.
“I’m Bharat, I’m Tacari’s brother. We’ve got some cloths here for you to wash with, and a small amount of soap. We’re heading West soon to go trade for more supplies.” Bharat stepped back and let Eldhrimnir go towards the water. A couple women were already bathing, in full view of everyone, and Eldhrimnir hesitated. “It’s okay,” Bharat called to her. “We can hold up a sheet if you like.”
Eldhrimnir refused to be coddled to like that, so she shook her head and declined. She was already having to be taught how to live in the desert, she may as well get used to the customs of the people teaching her. In the North, bathing was dangerous. Small rooms to contain heat were built and basins of heat-holding stone were imported. It was a private affair to try and bathe quickly before freezing in the castles. As a child, Eldhrimnir had found her fair share of elderly people who hadn’t been quite fast enough and had remained unsettled ever since.
She set her belongings down, reverently flattening some dog eared pages in one of the books before folding her clothes over them. Even in the desert heat, she felt chilled in her nudity, exposed before strangers, exposed at all. Folding her arms across her chest, she waded into the water and shuddered. Burning skin met cool relief and resulted in more pain before it retreated. Someone handed Eldhrimnir a small bar of soap and she gingerly started to scrub the grime away from her skin. When she got to a spot on her back she couldn’t reach, the someone who handed her the soap helped her wash.
“I’m Osdel,” they told her. Eldhrimnir turned and thanked the woman, whose breasts hung heavy over a distended belly, but Osdel stood tall and strong. She was not weak in pregnancy like the women of the North, who whimpered and cried and often died giving birth. Eldhrimnir thought of her own mother and cursed how weak she had been, cursed that she had been forced to grow up an orphan.
“Are you alright?” Osdel asked, soaking the cloth in water and squeezing it over Eldhrimnir’s head. The cold water shocked her back to the present.
“I’m fine. Can everyone here speak the Common Tongue?”
Osdel gave her an odd look. “Yes? Can’t everyone?”
Eldhrimnir shook her head and took the soap again, scrubbing it on her tender scalp and wincing. “No. We hardly use it in the North unless we’re trading. We uh, we don’t assimilate much with the rest of the realm.”
“That’s a shame,” Osdel said, helping her scrub her hair. Eldhrimnir’s shoulders had started to blister and it was hard to raise her arms. Eldhrimnir winced when water hit her burns or when her wet hair slapped at her skin. “There is much to see and know.”
“Tell me about it. The first thing I need to learn is how to not die in the desert, since it looks like I’m stranded here for a bit.”
“We can teach you. We would love to teach you. We are a welcoming people here. Other tribes, not so much.”
“Why?” Eldhrimnir turned and Osdel paused in her movements.
“Are you too young to remember the War?”
“Everyone’s heard about it,” Eldhrimnir shrugged minimally. “I’m from the North. We’re the ones who started it. They teach us that it was the South and their greed but I know it was us that wanted the metals. You don’t get metals from ice, you see. I know all about how the Southern generals pitted their armies against ours in the middle of the Central Plains and destroyed everything. Even if I wasn’t born until five years after the truce, I know.”
“Then you know that regardless of who started the war, most of the people in the Plains were displaced thirty years ago. Homeless. Nothing left to them after the armies had finished murdering each other in their front yards.”
“I do. Are you saying that some of those people came East?” Eldhrimnir hunched down and scooped water up over her stomach, scrubbing some sand out of her belly button.
“Yes. And not everyone here was happy about it.” Osdel pressed her lips together. “I was one of those people at first. The East is a brutal place, why would the survivors of a war wish to live here? After what they had seen? Why not go West? Why not anywhere else but our lands? So little water, so little food. We have lived here for generations. Why should they come live here too?”
“I don’t know,” Eldhrimnir answered quietly.
“Because this was where they could go. With no possessions to their name, how could they survive anywhere else? We don’t use much money here since we don’t have metals either. We have no silver. We have a little gold. But mostly we trade skills and food.” As Osdel spoke, Eldhrimnir worked to pay special attention to the history lesson she was receiving.
“Most people here didn’t want newcomers. They wanted their babies to be fed first and only. I wanted my daughter to grow strong and not have to fight with outsiders for food. Of course, Tacari changed most people’s minds. He saw a lot of advantages to teaching the Plainspeople how to survive here.” Osdel looked back towards Tacari’s tent in a sublime manner. “He is a powerful man, a good leader. But he can also be terrifying. As an outsider, I warn you not to get on his bad side. He is fiercely protective of the people here.”
A low tone blew through the air, achingly familiar to Eldhrimnir. It sounded similar to the hunting horns of her home and she felt a pang of loss. She stood quietly, the cloth rag falling limp in her hand. Tacari slipped out of his tent, an entourage following him to the edge of the camp where he halted and waited patiently. The horn sounded again, much louder, and Eldhrimnir saw a great cloud of dust approaching the oasis. Gentle hoofbeats thudded over the sand as a group of thirty riders approached on the strange three legged beasts, laden down with their tents and belongings.
By the time they reached Tacari, the water on Eldhrimnir’s exposed body had evaporated and she shivered from sudden cold and the anxiety of newcomers. The lead rider dismounted and greeted Tacari in a formal manner, and Eldhrimnir guessed the riders weren’t from Tacari’s tribe. She said as much to Osdel, who had resumed her own bathing.
“No, they aren’t with us, but they’re friends. We trade with them often and it looks like they’re here for some more exchanges. You should see if you can trade anything with them, if you find something you like,” Osdel added.
“They’d let me?”
“Of course. If you have something of value to them, they will try to work an equal trade. Sometimes there is the one who will try to trick you, so watch out. Make an offer first and see if they agree.”
“What sorts of things do they trade?” Eldhrimnir asked and exited the water, wiping off her legs and pulling the white robes over her body. They were loose and flowing and she tried to wrap them around herself as she had seen the other women do, but failed. The fabric flopped apart and her chest remained exposed.
“Let me help you,” Osdel said gently, coming over and firmly tucking the robes into place around Eldhrimnir. She gathered up her own robes and smoothed them down over her belly. “Let’s go see what they have today.”
The riders had spread out woven rugs of colorful yarn in a long line around the edge of camp and began to place their wares on them. The rest of Tacari’s tribe slowly made their way up to them, carefully investigating jewels, clothes, weapons, and materials. Some of the children burrowed into a pile of fabric and their fathers chased them out, laughing harder than the children and breathlessly apologizing to the riders. A few women were anxiously trying to bargain with one rider for some clothes, their own robes tattered around their ankles and the promise of sturdy cotton within their reach. Eldhrimnir watched them carefully, trying to understand what they were saying to each other, but the Eastern language was unintelligible to her.
The women started the bargain calmly, but gradually became more insistent and firm in their offers. The rider was rejecting every offer and one of the women, short and rotund, started openly pleading with the man, pulling the hem of her robes up for him to see. Eldhrimnir didn’t have to understand the Eastern language to know exactly what she was saying. Eldhrimnir had witnessed the same situation often in the North, but it was never warm enough for the conversation to drag out. The rider stared, stony, at the woman until he glanced down at her dress. His face softened as he took in the fraying linen. He looked down at his own, fresh robes and his mouth twisted downwards. The women had fallen silent and were watching the rider with rapt attention.
Eldhrimnir thought the rider was going to compose himself and refuse their offers again and her gut twisted with empathy. She stepped forward, pulling her knife and belt out of her pack to offer for the robes, but Osdel stopped her.
“Just watch,” she ordered. Eldhrimnir relaxed again and folded her arms around her pack again. It took a few minutes of deliberating, but the rider finally sighed and gave in. He handed over the robes to the women and accepted the proffered bag of provisions. The women continued down the line of wares but didn't look to closely at anything, seemingly satisfied with their one trade.
"That was humiliating just to watch," Eldhrimnir whispered to Osdel. "Is every trade like that?"
"Sometimes, not always," Osdel explained. "The older traders do things the old way. They like to see people begging. Some of the younger ones, they are more lenient. Now that you know how to do this, go and see if there is anything you want to trade for. I'll be right behind you."
Eldhrimnir went left, the opposite way the women had gone, and stared down at the jewels, textiles, and weapons the riders laid out. There were herb satchels and plant cuttings, and some cured meats she didn't recognize, but what caught Eldhrimnir's eye was a large battle axe. A pair of riders sat next to it, the axe their only ware. Eldhrimnir guessed they were a grandfather and a grandson, if the whiteness of the older man's hair was anything to judge by. Osdel prodded Eldhrimnir in the back and she pitched forward, nearly dropping her books on top of the riders. They squinted up at her, mouths hard lines and their hands resting calmly in their laps.
Eldhrimnir wet her lips and squared her shoulders. "Do you speak the Common Tongue?"
The younger man glanced at the older man, who blinked, before turning back to Eldhrimnir and nodded reassuringly.
"Uhm, alright, uh, where was this axe made? It's beautiful." A large bird soared over the congregation, throwing a shadow across the axe. As the light glinted back across the metal, Eldhrimnir measured the axe in her head. Approximately five feet long, with double blades like legendary dragon's wings, it was dark brown and menacing, the exact kind of weapon Eldhrimnir always wanted but never had in the North.
The old rider barely opened his mouth to speak. "Relic of war. Came from the Wastelands. Some people can feel the power and the lives it took so long ago. You can try and touch it." His voice went from raspy to hoarse as he spoke, as if it had been years since he last uttered a word.
Eldhrimnir hesitated before kneeling down on the other side of the rug. "Try? Can people not touch it?"
The older rider coughed, slurping from a wineskin before explaining himself. "People can touch it. People may not survive it. There is dragon magic in this, I have felt it. I was young and strong once. I had a family, many children, a promising tribe. Then I found this cursed axe, and it is truly cursed. As soon as I touched it, it blackened my hands." He stopped to hack over his shoulder and his grandson took over.
"He grew ill. His arms that were strong became sticks. He could hardly ride, hardly take care of himself. And then he started bleeding inside, and his hair became white over night. He coughs up blood and we do not know how long he has left to live. He's been a leader in our tribe for fifty years. Now, he is like a baby. And he is the strongest of the people who have touched this axe. All the others have been younger and stronger men, and now they are dead." He shook his head and Eldhrimnir saw him visibly deflate.
"We want this axe no longer," the old man said, his voice cracking not from age but from desperation. "Take it but I implore you, don't touch it!"
"What can you trade?" The young man eyed her belongings, gazing at her small axe and tattered books with distaste. They were desperate to be rid of the axe, but would not beg for scraps.
"I have a few books but I don't know how much use they'll be to you..." Eldhrimnir was sweating and it wasn't from the sun. The idea of touching the axe terrified her, but thrilled her all the same. She handed over the best looking book she had, an alchemy and poultice book she had stolen from the small library in the North. "I don't need this one anymore, I committed it to memory. There's all kinds of spells and salves in there, I'm sure a few could help your grandfather."
"I'm his father. Blame the axe," he shrugged when Eldhrimnir looked surprised. "Let me see the book."
"It's written in Northern, I can translate for you..?" The old man shook his head and lightly bounced his finger along each word on the page, his mouth moving slowly with the words.
"This book is good, but does it have anything that would make my bleeding stop?"
Eldhrimnir's face clouded and she reached out for the book. Thumbing through it, she found a spread of pages that had a detailed human body on it, the body marked with smudges around organs. "This shows where bleeding happens on the inside. The next page should be salves you put on the skin outside and it goes through to help heal you...yes!" She exclaimed, pointing at diagrams of plants used in the recipe. "These are found here! I read about these in the North! You could actually make this!" She met the old man's eyes with a bright smile, and he and his son returned it, if a bit more tightly.
"You may actually have helped save my father's life. Please, the axe is yours. Just, be careful with it, okay?" The son wrapped it up in the fabric and held it out to her. "Don't touch it."
Eldhrimnir nodded, half listening as she took in the weight of the weapon in her hands. Even through the fabric, the grips felt secure in her palms, like it was made for her. The blades were left uncovered and she caught her reflection in them, distorted and harsh. She couldn't look herself in the eyes, so she looked back at the pair of riders. "Thank you. I hope the salve helps you, truly!"
They nodded and gathered themselves up, padding over to their mounts. Eldhrimnir watched the son tuck the book away into a saddlebag and help his father onto the beast, their silhouettes turning hazy orange as they rode towards the horizon. She could see a cluster of tents against the setting sun. Content with her choices, she turned back to Osdel.
"How in the Realm did you do that?" The pregnant woman asked, not looking directly at the axe Eldhrimnir clutched against her other books. "No book is worth that!"
"It seemed like it was to them," Eldhrimnir shrugged. "He was sick and it had some spells and salves that could help him, and this axe-"
"Is nothing but trouble!" Someone yelled. The women turned to see Tacari striding towards them, kicking sand up with his feet, all poise gone.
"What?" Eldhrimnir asked, taking a step back.
"You heard me. Didn't the man tell you the axe was cursed? You haven't touched, it have you?" Tacari towered over her and Eldhrimnir felt her feet sink a couple inches into the sand.
"No, of course I haven't! He was dying because he touched the axe, I just think it's pretty!"
Tacari stared down at her, at the wide, terrified eyes of a woman who had cast away her home and the woman she loved and had agreed to live by his rules. A moment passed before he said, "Fine. Keep it. But if you touch it and start to die, we cannot help you. Our tribe is on the move far more often than the others. We can not afford sick riders. You'd have to go live with the old man, assuming you made it long enough to do so.
"For now, keep that axe under wraps. Don't let the children near it." He turned on his heel and walked away, giving the lead rider a nod and disappearing into his tent. Eldhrimnir felt a tug on her robes and looked down to find Kitarath standing in her shadow.
"I'm sorry about my dad," the girl said, worrying her lip with her teeth. "I had to tell him about the bad man's axe 'cuz it's bad, too."
"Oh, no, no, it's okay, that's fine," Eldhrimnir stammered and Osdel stepped in.
"Let's go find your friends. Did they find anything to trade?" Osdel led the child away and Kitarath shook her head. "Well maybe we can find something for you to trade?" Osdel looked back at Eldhrimnir and silently jerked her chin towards Bharat, who had trailed behind Tacari and was standing off to the side, shifting his weight around. "He'll get you a tent."
"Come on," Bharat said, not looking Eldhrimnir in the eye. "Why did you trade for that axe?" He whispered, venom coloring his tone. "It's obviously dangerous and you've made yourself to be quite the idiot."
Eldhrimnir hung her head, a sour taste creeping up her throat. "I wanted something to protect myself with. I lost my weapons on the journey here, I thought I should get a new one."
"Of all the weapons out there you could have picked, you had to pick that one," he rolled his eyes. "Are you sure you aren't from any of those story scrolls of yours?" His mouth crooked upward as he glanced over his shoulder, leading her to the outskirts of the camp.
"As far as I know, I'm not," Eldhrimnir shrugged. "But according to the stories, anything is possible." They exchanged a smile and Bharat showed her into a white tent in front of them, officially taking Eldhrimnir into the tribe.
Eldhrimnir hardly recognized herself in the oasis waters. What little skin of her face left uncovered was densely packed with freckles and grit filled the creases by her eyes. Some of the grit fell away as she removed her head wrappings, the rest of her robes falling away easily, and slipped naked into the water. She barely gave her reflection a glance before destroying it with ripples.
Had she looked, she would have seen harshly chopped curls falling to her shoulder blades, much shorter than they were ten months prior. She would have noticed a stockier build, broader shoulders from pitching tents, carrying supplies, wrangling the Ganymedes. While the other members of the tribe ooh-ed and aah-ed over the kinks and bristliness of their hair, celebrating themselves, Eldhrimnir quietly bathed herself.
A second set of ripples collided with hers and she started when hands brushed her shoulders. Bharat chuckled at her distress. "Does my affection really still scare you?" He asked, recalling the times when Eldhrimnir snuck off to Osdel to ask if the flowers someone kept leaving her were poisonous.
"No, but your stealth does. I was just thinking." She offered him the soap so he could rub the bar in his hair, but he took it to hers instead.
"Relax for now. What were you thinking about?" His hands, twice as big as hers, were gentle in her wet curls. She leaned into him like a cat, seeking comfort from him. "I noticed you haven't been taking care of yourself. You've been keeping your eyes off the water like it will kill you if you look."
The people of the East valued their appearance to the extent of making sure they were injury free, and proud of their features. Scratches near the eye, if not treated quickly, can and has resulted in blindness.
"You're lucky there are no cuts on you," Bharat commented, leaning forward to examine her face. He smeared away a clump of dirt beneath one cheekbone, then returned to washing her hair.
Eldhrimnir paused, poised like she was about to jump from a glacier into frigid waters. "Please, don't be offended. I just, I just don't want to recognize myself any more than Jocasta would." Her mouth stayed in a grimace, her lips twitching. Bharat's hands flitted to a rest on her shoulders before slipping off. Water sloshed against his thighs as he put distance between them.
Eldhrimnir spun around, wild emotions flooding her eyes. "Please don't think poorly of me!"
Bharat's face went slack. "I don't! I truly don't! I understand you love her! I- I understand," he repeated, his eyes pulling at her like the moon pulls water. "I know how much she means to you."
"Thank you. Really. But- I love you, too."
"Just not as much," Bharat muttered.
"Excuse me?" As Eldhrimnir spoke, chagrin crossed Bharat's face, but he plowed on.
"You'll never love me as much as you love her." He was quiet, but firm.
"So you don't really understand how much she means to me,"
"I'm trying, I am, but she's not here, I am, and you've been part of this tribe for so long-"
"It's been ten months with us! With Jocasta, it's been ten years! I have been in love with her for ten years and I couldn't do a thing about it! She's been promised to that senator's son since the day she was born! And I don't even know if she ever loved me, too! So forgive me for needing some time to get some closure about this!" She punctuated her words with a slap against the water, splashing it towards Bharat. It reached his face and he recoiled like she had slapped him directly, his pain clear in his flinch.The lumpy bar of soap was forgotten, floating towards the others. It reached one of the children and they played with it, screeching as they threw it. Their parents stared at Eldhrimnir and Bharat, blank faces unashamed in their vacant curiosity.
"By now my people expect us to have a child coming, but that's kind of difficult to do when we've only kissed!"
"I just need some more time!"
"Time for what?" Bharat rolled his eyes and threw his arms up.
Eldhrimnir unclenched her jaw long enough to holler, "Time to decide if I want to stay!"
"What?" His hands fell to his sides, his fingertips splashing weakly in the current.
"I still want to go back North. But, the longer I stay, the less I want to do that. I just...wanted to wait until I was sure."
"Oh, yes, until you were sure that you wouldn't, what, abandon us?" Bharat ducked his head and sighed. "A lot of the children here have gotten used to you. they look up to you. You've helped us with your knowledge from the North. You've helped me, and I love you, why would you want to just throw that away for someone who can't love you back?"
"I don't want to! At least, I didn't! Now I kind of feel like you're using me!"
"Using you? What in the Realm for?"
Eldhrimnir bit her tongue, then her lip. "Baby making. Healing. Like...I'm only here because I can give you something, and when I don't want to give it, you're angry..."
"That's exactly what this is," Eldhrimnir said, finding her bravery again, stabbing her finger towards his chest. "Maybe we're just not the right people for each other. I love you, but I need time to think. You should take some, too." She pushed past him and scrambled into her robes on the bank before rushing away, a few small cacti following her like clumsy pups. Back in her tent, Eldhrimnir dried her hair more thoroughly, hands shaking and getting caught in her curls. She flung away the drying cloth and buried her head in her hands to groan. She hadn't meant to divulge any of that to Bharat.
Well, what could she do now? Breathe, let him calm down. Calm herself down. Tendrils of panic receded from her heart the more she inhaled slowly. Night fell soon, and the air inside her tent cooled as the sun leached off the tent, chilling her. She pulled on a blanket and laid back on her pallet, falling asleep when the first animals of the desert started to stir. The chirps and twitters sang her to sleep.
Later, children's screams awoke her. Bolting upright, Eldhrimnir identified flickering flames crackling from across the encampment. She jumped up, got caught in her blanket and robe, ripped off both to reveal her tunic and pants, and lunged for her weapons. Two small hatchets slid into her belt and she grasped the cursed ax with both hands, squeezing the fabric she had sewn around the handle to make sure it was firmly in place. She couldn't risk touching it now, not in the middle of a fight.
Outside she found the edge of their encampment ablaze and riders on horseback were circling the tents, yelling brutally in a language she didn't understand and throwing torches at the children. She found Bharat lunging in the middle of a fray with three riders and went to his aid. The axe made a satisfying crunch as it sliced through one horse's neck and found bone. The steed went down and Eldhrimnir descended on the rider with the same swiftness, cleaving his left shoulder from his body and cutting towards his heart. She winced when she saw the life leave his eyes, but she heard more children screaming and steeled herself for more carnage.
"Who are they?" She asked Bharat, who spun his sickles with ease and impaled a rider's neck. His hood fell back to reveal a pale face made paler by death, with one red stripe painted down the center of his face. The rider Eldhrimnir killed had the same marking.
"No one good. Let's save the children, hurry!" Bharat dispatched of the third rider with a hard face on. He was a capable man, and regardless of the fight they'd had, Eldhrimnir trusted him and his sickles to defend her as they waded through the mass of tumbling bodies toward the children of their clan. The strange riders all had a red stripe down their face and for as many as they killed, two more seemed to appear. Eldhrimnir was battered around as she fought alongside her friends and family, but nothing hurt her more than the glare of flames in the dead eyes of her fallen comrades. Sparks flared up against the deep blue sky, pulling the souls of their dead with them, and Eldhrimnir's stomach clenched. She hoped she survived long enough to give them a proper burial.
"Hey! 'Dhrimnir! Look out!" Bharat parried an attack with one of his sickles and looked over his shoulder at Eldhrimnir. She ducked on instinct and a sword whistled over her head, taking locks of hair with it. She bashed her assailant in the knees with the axe handle and sprang away, brandishing the axe around her head. The riders that started to circle her in hopes of her vulnerability fell back and shouted to each other in that strange language.
A few detached from the group and bore down on the huddled children, snatching some up onto their horses and bringing them back in front of Eldhrimnir.
"Are you the leaders?" The biggest rider screamed in the Common Tongue. His nose was broken and scars streaked across his face. The fire spreading through the camp illuminated silver wires braided into his matted hair and his white skin turned red. The survivors clustered outside the circle of riders, starkly black and tan against the flames. Tacari was visible through the throng, but he stayed back, ducking his head. Eldhrimnir glanced at Bharat, who nodded.
"Yes, we are. What do you want?" She called, her voice cracked and smoky.
"The cursed axe! We've been searching for years to find it! Hand it over or the children die!" He brandished his weapon, a serrated bush knife, and the rider next to him put his own knife to the throat of the toddler he held.
Seeing no alternative, Eldhrimnir let go of the axe and it thumped to the sand. The broken-nosed rider jumped down from his mount and snatched up the fated weapon. He grinned, his sneer stretching across his face, shadows thrown by the blaze distorting him. His wicked mouth receded back into a frown almost immediately and he roared.
"I'm supposed to break the curse by touching it, I'm the strongest warrior here! Why is nothing happening?" He rounded on Eldhrimnir and grabbed her by the hair with one hand, axe dangling in the other hand. "Bitch! Tell me!"
"You might want to unwrap it," she winced. "I sewed some hide around it." He threw her to the ground and she went face first into the sand. The surrounding people gasped, although only Bharat moved to help her.
"Are you okay?" He asked in his native language, pulling her up and putting her behind him. At her positive answer, he pulled out his twin sickles and advanced on the rider. "Touch any of my people again and you'll pay!" He threatened, switching back to the Common Tongue for all to hear.
The man laughed. A wholehearted, belly laugh erupted from his throat. "Kill them. Just like that old man's clan, kill them all!" The resounding screams of terror and the scrape and clang of metal on metal nearly deafened Eldhrimnir. She pulled out her hatchets and drove them into the skulls of two men attacking her on foot before they could kill more children. She didn't turn around in time to deflect a blow from behind, and was struck in the head by someone's large, gauntlet covered fist. Slammed to the ground, Eldhrimnir was kicked into unconsciousness, helplessly watching Bharat and the rest of her clan fend off the invaders.
Her last thought was, 'Who are these people?' before fading completely.
When she finally woke, it was to one of the ganymedes snuffling at her face with its short little trunk. Her hair was matted with blood and stuck to her face, and the three-legged animal was making it worse with its slobbering.
"Get off me, go on," Eldhrimnir scolded, then coughed, hacking out the smoke she had inhaled over the course of the raid. As Ranor gave birth to the first rays of sunlight, she took in the carnage around her, breath catching in the face of all that was charred and dead. Most of the bodies within her reach were unrecognizable, limbs torn off at the joint, bones cracked, sand stained with blood. Insects were already crawling upon the bodies, making a feast of her grief. She scrambled to her feet, flinging sand and sending the ganymede scurrying away into the remains of their encampment. A few survivors looked her way, crouched over each other or their dead loved ones, looking to her for...for what?
She could only stand, speechless, feeling like her chest was caving in as she looked at all the tear stained faces around her. The stench hit her in the face and she doubled over to heave into the sand, crushing the granules in her hands as she clutched at the ground, looking for something, anything, stable-
"Bharat!" She exclaimed, her body going still as she realized she hadn't seen him a minute ago. "Where's Bharat?" she called to the people nearest her. They shook their heads. Frantic, a new energy overtook her, and she rushed around the scene, barely sparing anyone a glance if they weren't Bharat. Each flame-bitten face that wasn't her lover's brought her a sick sense of relief; someone was dead, but it wasn't her someone. She had traveled in a circle and was nearing where she began, hoping against hope that if Bharat wasn't there, that he was alive, perhaps in pursuit of the raiders, but something twisted in her gut and-
If his clothes hadn't been riddled with burn holes and slashes, he almost looked unscathed. Eldhrimnir rolled him over, checked for breathing, his heart beating, something! His tunic was stained brown with dried blood from a gash in his stomach. Bharat had not burned to death, he had bled out. The raiders had not had the mercy to slash his throat and get it over with, they wanted her people, and Bharat's people, to suffer as they all died. Someone separated themselves from the survivors and approached Eldhrimnir's statue-still form. It was Osdel.
"I'm so sorry," she whispered.
Eldhrimnir let out an ironic bark of a laugh. "That's what I should have done yesterday."
"I should have apologized. We fought. Before. He didn't even come to bed with me. The last thing I remember is that we were protecting each other from the raiders, and then, and then I failed him..." she trailed off, her fingers lingering on Bharat's arm, hesitant. His body wasn't as cold as dead people in the North. It was deceptively warm, like he could wake at any moment and hold her and they could cry together and reconcile.
"You didn't fail him-" Osdel started.
"I was supposed to protect him! He had my back, and I didn't have his, and now he's dead, that's how this went!" Eldhrimnir snarled, pushing away from Bharat and falling backwards on her behind. The metallic, tangy smell of carnage rolled over them all again, and Eldhrimnir coughed so hard she started crying, the tears pulling sand grit out of her eyes. It burned, and she scrubbed at her face, pushing more dirt and dried blood into her eyes, successfully making it worse.
Frustrated beyond belief, devastated that her people were decimated, and desperate for a loving touch from a man who would never touch anything again, Eldhrimnir collapsed in on herself, rocking back and forth and sobbing. Osdel gently held her and used one unstained corner of her tunic to wipe her face and make crying easier.
"You let it out, dear, all the rest of us have. It's your turn."
Eldhrimnir turned her face into Osdel's chest and let her sobbing grow louder, until it was one nearly uninterrupted scream to the high heavens. Osdel shifted to hold her more comfortably and bumped into something, jarring Eldhrimnir out of her hysterics. "What was that?"
"It's a cacti, I haven't seen this one before..." Osdel glanced behind her, the strange ambulatory cactus bouncing gently in place as it stared at them.
"What does it want?" Eldhrimnir sat up on her own and addressed the cactus directly. "I guess you came at a bad time, huh, buddy?" The cactus shuddered with excitement, bobbing closer to Eldhrimnir, and she noticed that the flowers on its arms were blue, instead of the usual pink. "You're pretty special! Those are beautiful flowers..."
"A nice thing to see after all this...well," Osdel sighed and shrugged, twisting the fabric of her tunic between her hands. "Hey, be careful!"
Eldhrimnir had a vacant look on her face, jaw slack and one hand drifted absently towards the cactus. "I just want to touch the flower..." The cactus started to bounce faster, closing in on a vibrate, humming with energy that even Osdel could hear.
"No, don't-!" Osdel exclaimed but it was too late. The cactus reached an arm forward and pricked Eldhrimnir, its little face stretched with glee, and something exploded from the point of contact. Osdel was thrown backwards, and whatever tents that had been standing were flattened. Eldhrimnir waved a hand in front of her face and cleared blue smoke and felt something crackle throughout her body. Looking down at herself, she saw that she was sitting on a perfect circle of glass, the confused reflection of her face looking back at her from between her knees. Blue sparks danced around her head, fizzing in her hair before going out.
"What was that?" She exclaimed, looking to Osdel for explanation. Osdel simply shook her head and struggled to her feet.
[Author's note: Summary time because I'm tired tonight but I want to finish this chapter sorta and share it with people.] The cactus pricks her and transfers dragon powers to her in a small magical scene. Eldhrimnir is told by the survivors that someone took the axe, so she goes to try and get it back. She doesn't get far before she discovers that Tacari took it and fled while the fighting was happening, and didn't stay to help defend his people. She is enraged at this betrayal and intuitively knows that because of the magic the cactus gave her, she can touch the axe without being harmed. Eldhrimnir takes up the axe and in her anger strikes down Tacari, angry that he would leave them, angry that he would let their people be slaughtered, that he would let his own brother die, she kills him in cold blood. And she doesn't regret it. But she realizes that she is dangerous, unreliable, and so she takes her leave of the clan after making sure Osdel can take care of them while she's gone until they meet up with another clan. Thus begins her journey across the desert, across the vast plains, towards the West. She feels power growing in the West now that she has access to magic, and she follows this power, her gut instinct pulling her forwards.