Author's Note: With thanks and much gratitude to T.C. Dale for her valuable and patient assistance. This is an original fic: the setting and characters are my own.
The autumn rains came early. Warm water, bearing the dust and sand from the trackless desert on the southern rim of the Middle Sea, streaked the cracked travertine of shattered columns and dripped like tears from faded marble porticoes.
Basti paused and pulled her yellow cloak over her shoulder to shield her two wheellocks. She wrapped the barrel of each pistol in the bitumen-coated rags she used to oil her blades and placed them back in the holsters slung to her hard leather cuirass. Sirocco and silt-rain were the storm's herald. She could feel it. The air was heavy with the scent of flint and ozone. Soon, the infernal Mareterran summer would be over.
Dark-haired and grey-eyed, long limbs sinewy and muscular from fourteen summers of war, she walked with the grim resolve of a veteran soldier.
Behind her, a soft voice intoned a question – piercing, but elegant like an icebound breeze. "Why are we not making haste? Two moons are now risen and we are still far."
It took Basti a moment to make sense of the patchwork of words. Wood Elven was difficult enough, but when spoken at its natural pace, full of elisions and migrating pitches, it verged on unintelligibility.
"The rains have come bearing sand," Basti replied, probing the furthest recesses of memory for a few useful scraps of fae-speech, "I do not want it to foul the mechanism."
"Mechanism?" The sound of air and leaves rather than a human voice, struggling to form harsh, alien consonants.
"My pistols' bowstrings."
Like a ghost, swift and soundless, the ranger stood beside Basti. Deep green, inquisitive eyes danced over the polished sandalwood grips jutting from their holster. The ranger's lips curled into a smile, poised between playful and dangerous. Sculptural cheekbones and the tan skin of her sharp, sylvan features adorned with intricate swirls of red and violet dye – the terrible, beautiful calligraphy of war. Verdant hair, short and spiny, like pine needles, betrayed her inexperience – it had only begun to grow back from being shorn at her initiation. Basti decided that the wood elf's girlish curiosity was out of place for one trying so hard to prove she was a warder for her clan.
"Not now. Not in the rain."
"Why do humans think we, daughters of the First Growth and walkers of the ley-lines, cannot understand your toys?"
"If I recall, this daughter of the First Growth was pinned by a mob of toy-wielding humans. Or would that story not be one for your clan's loreweavers?"
Basti had already resumed her brisk pace. In the red-stained twilight, the sun had sunk low. Above, silvery Alares loomed, with rust-red Thrys, smaller than her elder sister, peering through the swollen clouds like an old wound torn in the sky. Before them, the road followed the ruins of the city towards a marshy delta. Watchfires dotted the horizon, weaving tapestries of lambent light on dark, basalt walls.
Muddy puddles had begun to form in the broken paving stones, brown water flowing in deep trenches dug by centuries of cartwheels. Yet the ranger walked with effortless grace, her movement purposeful and efficient, like a hunting cat on the prowl.
"This is a place of silence," the ranger said, surveying the sea of cracked stone and dismembered fragments of statues, "I hoped that there would be voices here – dryads from the trees rooted in the stone, or naiads from the cisterns, but I hear nothing."
"Why should you? You are far from home, and so am I."
"The land always speaks. It doesn't matter where you are."
"Even if the land were dead?"
"The Southerners call this place the Dead Waters. There was a port once that drew in trading ships by sea and by air from all over the known world. They say that after the mountains of Sariké disgorged fire and sank its seven cities into the Middle Sea, the waters here became choked with silt. Now only jackals and roadagents make their homes here."
The city was ancient and strange to Basti. But she had been deployed in the Southlands long enough to know how the redoubts of the Mareterrans were shaped. Beyond a thinly guarded outer wall, the ruins of the palatial temples and villas of the Commonwealth that had once united the two shores and countless islands of the Middle Sea, were now reduced to quarries and grazing grounds for sheep. Further in, nestled close to ancient roads and canals, the last remnants of the city stood, arrogant and decadent, clinging to threadbare memories of past glory.
Thunder stirred. Shears of lightning like striking serpents crackled in the distance. The inner gates of the city drew close. Two dark bastions, shrouded in the acrid smoke of the watchfires. Between the bastions lay a vaulted passage, wide enough for auroch-drawn carts to pass, guided travellers through the walls. Basti kept her pace rapid, ignoring the burning stiffness in her legs. In the wilderness, she had quickly learned that she had nothing to fear from the scaled, fleet-footed sirrush or the poison-tailed wyverns. The ranger knew the calls and habits of wild beasts, and evaded them with ease. It was the city that worried her – the hardened, senseless callousness of her fellow humans.
Stepping into the passage, surrounded by the scent of damp and mildew and yoked beasts of burden, Basti reached with her right hand for the familiar grip of her wheellock. Her left clutched the pommel of the broad-bladed cinquedea slung across her shoulder and resting horizontally against her back. Lanterns, sputtering thick, yellow oil, lit the way.
The ranger was behind her. The gunner could feel the quickening breath on the back of her neck even before the whisper was birthed. "I can smell the brackish water of the salt-pans and hear the cries of the sea-traders. We must be close."
"Quiet," Basti hissed, her keen gaze focused on the octagonal plaza extending from the terminus of the passage.
They exited into a night-market. Stalls wreathed in blue and gold cloth were illuminted by the flickering light of tallow candles and ancient, globular sprites, dull red like overripe peaches hanging from rusted metal posts. Once the square must have been an agora, where thaumaturges and sybils practised the arts of divination and abjuration by the drawing of wards and the conjuration of portents.
Basti recalled the rich scenes of city life from before the collapse of the Commonwealth from the hidebound cyclopaedias she had skimmed in Hildr's tent, searching for the illustrations in a sea of incomprehensible text. Now there stood only a great bronze equestrian statue, dull with verdigris, the trunk, head and arms of the armoured conqueror it had once represented broken and cast aside together with the market refuse.
Vendors displayed trays of fresh-caught cuttlefish, salted and jellied eels, and amphorae of dark, bubbling wine from vineyards rooted in the sea-strand. Traders sang the praises of their wares in dialects too thick for Basti to comprehend, their cries echoing against the dull beat from the bell-tower calling the night-watch.
In the corner of her vision, Basti spied a rattan basket by the side of a knife-sharpener's grindstone. Pitch torches spat, casting dirty, dim yellow light and writhing arms of smoke. Basti let two cowled militiamen, lances secured with leather straps to their shields, pass. Then she edged forward. Drawing nearer, the stench of salt and fish became mixed with harsh, acidic notes of vinegar and tannin.
Basti's hand darted out and caught the ranger's wrist. "Cover up."
"I have drawn my hood -"
"Pull it over your eyes and don't look in front of you. Just follow me."
"What is it?"
"Don't look. Keep your hands on your daggers."
They skirted the edge of the stall. Basti's eyes remained fixed on the basket – pointed ears, brown and wrinkled from being pickled in brine and thumbs and forefingers, bound together with copper twine threaded through, like talismans.
Seeking the shadow of the bell tower at the far end of the plaza, Basti led the way to an alley no wider than a doorway. Her pulse stirred. She licked her lips and finally remembered that she had not taken water since the sun had begun its midday descent. The grip of her pistol and the pommel of her cinquedea never left her hands. There was comfort in the certainty that she could draw and strike if any were to block her path. She hastened down the rain-slick alleyway. She could hear the rustling of the river just beyond, winding its way into a dozen thick streams before coursing into the sea. The canal would be there and with it, perhaps, a boat to take them north.
The ranger's shadow slipped in front of her. Languid, long limbed, with the taut, muscular tension which no human so slender could match. The ranger's daggers were drawn, curved and carved from the heart of obsidian – blacker than moonless night.
"My kin?" she whispered, voice savage with indignation.
"And you call us savages?"
"Here you are outside the law. To them you are but a beast, good only for bounties and talismans."
"I would draw their lifeblood and offer it to Shalu, She Who Nourishes the Night. Blood calls for blood and even humans must give satisfaction for that which they have taken."
"It was your clan's law that brought you from the Old Arbour to these lands."
"Laws should not be scribbled marks, but the living will of the Mother. Interlopers disturbed the standing-stones of the Caern of the Endless Hunt. It is my duty to right the balance."
"You have done your duty – and I am witness to this," Basti's tone softened – she knew rage born from fear from the first battles fought when she had been a fresh recruit, and knew it could do more harm than hesitation or cowardice. "We should leave this place now and I intend to leave it with you."
The ranger relented. She sheathed her daggers. The fluid, plant-patterns carved into the weapons' hilts seemed to blend into the intricate, green and brown arabesque of her jerkin. "In your forest of stone you are my elder sister. If you lead, I follow."
"Irhal -" Basti struggled to form the ranger's name, the vowels slippery like silver trout in a rushing stream.
"You sound like an angry lindworm," the ranger smiled, "but you are improving."
"Not much further, now. Come."
They fled through the alley. Above, ornate balconies and sweat-stained clothes hung out to dry gave them cover of shadows. Basti trusted her instincts, feeling stucco walls on each side of her, while Irhal ran by sight alone. Fifty paces deeper and the horizon broadened. The gunner felt hard paving under her boots and knew they had come onto a thoroughfare parallel to the canal.
Dark water lapped against the levees. At the far end of the canal, following the current towards the delta, skiffs and barges skimmed the blackness, lanterns hanging over the bows like lost, wandering spirits. The watchfires were distant now. Across the canal, the Redoubt of the Nine Praetors sprawled across the salt-flats of the delta. Its hard-angled towers reflected silver or blood-red light by the whim of the clouds passing over one moon or another.
Basti walked to the embankment and peered down on to the canal docks. She found the scent of dead water and rotting rope and not a boat in sight. Finally, she turned to the ranger. "Can you hear anything – or anyone?"
Irhal wordlessly vaulted over the carved stone balustrade separating the embankment from the loading dock. She knelt low against the sand and sawdust shrouding the wooden dock and drew hand across its surface. "It is wet here," she said at length.
"Did someone pass?"
"Can you follow the trail?"
"I could before I received my first bow."
Irhal moved with speed and stealth of an owl descending on its prey. Wrapped in her cloak woven in the shape of a vast, palmate leaf, she became yet another shadow, flitting between the material world and the invisible. Basti followed, her muted footsteps almost drowned out by the pattering of rain on the still canal water.
Irhal motioned for Basti to stop by a pile of ropes, tarred black with pitch, resting by the base of one of the arched, wooden bridges squatting low on the canal.
The ranger indicated where a single point of light half-illuminated a jetty just beyond the shadow of the bridge. A single lantern hung from the bow of a skiff. On the jetty, two mariners conferred, standing over tapered, glazed amphorae sealed shut with wax. The gunner could not make out their speech, but the hour was late enough for her to sense that they were likely to be blockade runners or corsairs.
Irhal started to ready her ancestral longbow, her arrow tipped not with steel, but the cruel stinger of vast wasps which built their hives in the heartwood of the Old Arbour. Basti stilled Irhal's hand.
"No. If they die, others will know we have passed this way."
"I would make their end swift – and silent," Irhal protested.
"Put your bow away, but be ready if they try striking first."
"You strike them, then. With your smoke-bow."
"Not at this distance and not in this light."
Irhal looked dejected. "Lead and I will follow."
Basti rose and approached the skiff, her cloak thrown over her shoulders, leaving only the veiled threat that she was armed. One of the mariners turned and reached for the machete strapped to his loose, blue pantaloons. He was the younger of the two and broad-shouldered, his white linen shirt open to reveal scars and hard muscle telling of a life always lived at sea. His second was older and wiry, dark hair peppered with white, skin leathery from the sun, but gracefully aged.
Basti spoke first, "You should keep your blade sheathed."
"And why should I?" the younger man said. His tone was measured, his anxious scowl almost concealed by his rough beard.
"Because we can both leave this place in peace."
"We will take your boat. You can keep your cargo – in that, I have no interest."
"You're a Northerner," he pointed to the six-pointed silver starburst emblazoned on Basti's dark blue cuirass, "and a sellsword."
"I am no mercenary."
"Worse," the man's lip curled – his front teeth were lead-white metal, "a turncoat, maybe, or a deserter."
"Would I still be wearing this armour if I were?"
"So where is your unit?"
"That matter does not concern us now. We need your boat and, though I would like to have something to offer in return, I have no such luxury."
"You must be mad."
"No. But if there is fair wind tomorrow, you should be able to run your cargo out of the Dead Waters. Judging from the glaze, you're probably carrying naphtha or sulphur condensate – and probably to an embargoed port."
The man laughed nervously. His partner was just in the corner of Basti's vision. Her eye was on the heavy falchion still in its gaudy red velvet scabbard on a barrel within two hands' span of the man's left.
"And would that be your cargo?" the man tilted his head in Irhal's direction, "is he a catamite, or a dancer, or both?"
"Again, she does not concern us now."
"You should know better, bringing those things down here," the man stepped forward with the nimbleness of one accustomed to a lifetime of climbing masts and rigging.
Basti intercepted him, wheellock half-drawn to reveal the polished, silver-inlaid wood of its grip, her left hand drawing three fingers of her cinquedea's blade. "We will be gone soon enough, so you need not concern yourself with her. Now leave the boat."
The older man placed a gnarled, calloused hand on his comrade's shoulder. "Enough, let them have the boat and be done with it – if the river does not take them, an armiger's retinue or the city watch will."
The tide drew in and rocked the skiff, causing the lantern to swing wildly, casting a mad burst of light onto the jetty. The young mariner took a step back, machete prepared for a low cut. Basti's hand was faster. She arced her cinquedea and parried hard, following her thrust upwards to disarm her opponent. Sparks rained on inky water, followed by the machete plunging into the deep. One pace forward and she had the wheellock, polished steel muzzle protruding from the blackened polishing rags, pressed against the mariner's chest.
Seeing the tide turn, the older mariner lunged for the falchion. Irhal pounced and, for the first time, Basti saw a motion that was not only sublime and lethal, but simply inhuman. No fencer she had seen, not even the finest Mareterran swormistresses, faultless in their speed and flexibility, could move like that. Irhal struck like a panther, using the momentum of her leap to knock him down. He fell prone on the jetty, Irhal pinning him, knee pressed against his chest, daggers drawn close, sharp and cold, against his carotid.
Basti tensed her arm. She had to suppress the instinct to pull the trigger. She had fired countless times before at that distance – close enough to see terror in her adversary's eyes. "We go our separate ways, now. And we go in peace. Understood?"
The mariner blinked – surprised by his reprieve. He met Basti's stare. It was hard, and stone-eyed. "You are far from home, no? I can see it in your eyes that you have something of them in you, don't you?"
Basti remained unmoved. "I am as human as your mother."
The mariner looked Basti up and down and saw her tall, angular, and unsmiling. "You call yourself a woman?"
"I don't call myself anything. But today, like your mother, I will give you life. If it were up to my companion, you would already be food for the tarrasques. Now be on your way. I will not repeat myself."
The mariner took two steps backwards and withdrew towards the shadows under the bridge, never turning his back. Basti holstered her wheellock. "Irhal, let him be," she called in Wood Elven.
The ranger rose, dagger still pointed downwards, ready to strike the older mariner's throat, or the arteries of his arm. The man rolled to one side, scrambled to his feet, and departed into the darkness. Irhal watched him flee, until his footfalls melded into the drumming rain.
Basti boarded the skiff and inspected the low-hanging triangular sail and rudder. Satisfied that all was in good working order, she loosed the mooring rope and steered the sail to catch the balmy air of the sirocco. "Quickly now," she called to Irhal.
The ranger sprinted across the jetty and landed, with practised composure, on the skiff. "Can you guide this thing?"
"Yes, but I don't know for how long. We can only hope the wind does not abate – otherwise, travelling north and upriver will be impossible."
"Just take me within sight of the mountains that your people call the Vogesse. There, ley-lines will be thick and strong and I will be able to follow them home."
Home – Basti could only think of how different Irhal's definition would be from her own. She had sworn herself to the Order and the Order was everywhere there was blood to be spilled for the Vigilant Maiden and the Ascendants, bringers of Her will on the mortal plane. For Irhal, her clan and kin rooted in the land and in tending to springs and groves still unknown to humans, that could never truly be a home. That blood could be shed for glory, rather than hunting and the chastisement of intruders, was alien to a wood elf. In a better world, Basti reflected, it should be alien to humans, too, but the Order was certainly the best hearth and family she had ever known.
The humid southern wind spirited their skiff with steady insistence against the river's current. In time the rain died down, until it became a drizzle. Beside them, on either side of the canal, the Dead Waters gave way to ruins haunted only by owls and ragged communes of outcastes - half-bloods and infidels who did not venerate the Unconquered Sun. Then, the first lavender fields appeared, stripped almost bare by the harvest. The flowers that had remained unpicked grew a rich, otherworldly violet in the moonlight, like paint slathered on artist's canvas. With them came the heady scent of drying and distilled medicinal herbs.