Talla's Fallen Temple Ch. 05byxtorch©
Zhair'lo had never realized that the Hunters actually practised standing still. It seemed stupid until you actually tried to do it. Then you realized how difficult it was and the necessity of practising it.
He stood in the middle of a vast grassy field, youngest of the new recruits to Lyric's camp, keeping as still as possible.
As Lyric walked among the two rows of young men, they stood stiffly at attention, their eyes fixed on the horizon, blinking only rarely.
Zhair'lo realized that he had nothing to think about except every blink, every gulp, and every itch on every part of his body. The sun beat down, boiling away sweat as fast he could produce it. The odours of the recruits soaked into the air around him.
"When you are in the forest, hunting your prey," Lyric called out as he prowled between them. "You may sit in a blind for several bells."
He stood directly in front of one of the older men, examining that man's face for a betraying tick.
"A branch broken by a single false step can scare that prey off," Lyric went on, moving to the next man. "Flightier prey will run at the slightest rustle of leather."
Lyric came to stand in front of Zhair'lo, looking down on him. He didn't have the sheer frightening bulk of Harzen or Kurran, but Zhair'lo had seen Lyric move when he was in a hurry. If Lyric, whip thin and a head taller than Zhair'lo, wanted to take him down, he knew he wouldn't see it coming.
There was a pause as Lyric continued to stare at Zhair'lo and Zhair'lo pretended to stare straight through the Master Hunter's chest.
Was he sensing disapproval? Lyric's face seemed as emotionally dead as ever, but he was lingering on Zhair'lo much longer than he had on anyone else.
'Am I the inappropriate child, as I was at Harzen's Farm?'
Was he a burden to be trained? An undersized man, unable to do the work of the others?
Or was it jealousy? He knew he'd done better on the Test than many others. Did Lyric hate him for that? That seemed petty for such an important man.
Lyric let out a breath that wasn't quite a sigh before turning on his heel and walking to a position in front of the two groups. Slowly, he turned back to face them.
In a quiet voice, which was all the more effective for their stillness, he spoke.
"Notch your arrows," he said.
There weren't any targets in sight, just eight men with bows and quivers standing in the middle of an open field. The order to notch their arrows was, he concluded, not about shooting.
Zhair'lo pulled an arrow from his quiver and set the notch on the string of his bow. The arrow was pointed at the ground. In the periphery of his vision, he noticed that the rest of the men -- all more experienced that he -- were doing the same. That meant he'd interpreted the order correctly.
Lyric walked through the two lines and took a place standing behind them.
"Stand and draw," he ordered, quietly as before.
Numerous feet moved and bows rose with the strings pulled back. The two lines were staggered, so Zhair'lo and the other men in the back row weren't pointing their arrows at the backs of the men in front.
Lyric walked behind them, correcting their stances, adjusting their grips and offering sharp criticism.
"Xalish," he said with the slightest touch of disappointment. "Your vanes are backwards again."
Zhair'lo checked his arrow. He'd gotten that much right at least.
"Da'ren," Lyric said. "How will you possibly shoot true with your arrow on the wrong side of your bow?"
Zhair'lo's arm was starting to ache. Holding a bow and arrow in the drawn position couldn't possibly be harder than all the shovelling he'd been doing at Harzen's Farm. It was just a very specific group of muscles that were being worked here.
Lyric worked his way across the two lines, alternating between those in the front and the back while never passing in front of a notched arrow.
He came to Zhair'lo last, at the end of the back row.
"Decent stance," he remarked. "Widen the legs a bit ... good."
Zhair'lo's arm was beginning to shake.
"Steady," Lyric said, continuing his examination. "Correctly notched."
He stepped back to a place behind both rows.
"And relax," he ordered, calm as ever. "Stow your bows."
On their backs, orthogonal to their quivers, was a sheathe for holding their bows. It was into these sheathes that they slid their bows.
"Six laps around the field," Lyric ordered. "Last one back does seven. Go!"
This last was shouted, spurring them into action.
'I don't care how big you all are', Zhair'lo thought. 'I won't be last.'
Sunlight, filtered by the steamy glass, slanted in from the highest west facing windows of the gigantic pool house. In the main pool, dozens of nude women quietly swam from one side to the other, stretching sore muscles or just relaxing. In a small, sunken bath off to the side, a young girl watched the surface of the water in front of her as sunlight reflected off the nearly still water into her eyes.
Tina broke the surface of the water with her face to the ceiling so her hair would set itself back. She waded over to Talla.
"Was that really wise?" she asked doubtfully.
"Trust to courage," Talla quoted haughtily.
"That's for sex," Tina said of the axiom. "They tell us that for when he lose our virginities, so we'll be brave and take the lead."
"It's for women," Talla replied firmly. "It can apply in any part of life."
Tina tilted her head back and forth thoughtfully.
"Fair enough. But can you trust Illya to carry our messages?"
"It's all we have," Talla pointed out, her voice still calm. "Would you prefer scrolls?"
"No," Tina said with wide-eyed honesty. "Why do you trust Illya?"
"Because she hates them, too," Talla said. "I saw that look in her eyes. I saw the way she stuck her chest out at them."
"So?", Talla echoed, adding a layer of interrogation to Tina's question. "Didn't you feel it?"
"Well I did," Talla declared, leaning in until their noses were almost touching. "Illya can be trusted."
Tina's eyebrows twitched in resignation.
"Your ass on the table," she said.
"Yes, it is."
"But how can this work long term? You can't go around at seventh bell shouting out to see who's Serving Zhair'lo," Tina pointed out.
"We'll have to be more clever," Talla said. "We'll need more allies. We'll need someone in the Offices who can actually see the assignments being filed. Then we can pass messages back and forth."
Tina looked down and away from Talla.
"There's one thing you're forgetting," she whispered.
Talla raised her eyebrows, waiting.
"Right after he whipped you, he f-"
"I know," Talla interrupted sharply, surprised at the pain that image still brought her.
She inhaled, soothing the emotional part of her mind that was angry at Zhair'lo. How could he be aroused after that? Didn't her pain and sacrifice mean anything to him?
"That's the first question -- the first message -- I'm sending. If we don't get a good answer -"
She paused as Tina's eyes met hers.
"Well," Talla said, weakly, "then there's no need to worry about future messages, is there?"
"I suppose not," Tina agreed.
Two weeks had gone by without a Virgin girl showing up at his door. With no upgrades to do, Zhair'lo had hosted girls from all over the Temple, though there had been a distinct leaning towards those of Form.
The first night time visitor from Tight had been the creepiest. She had kept asking to be spanked. Because he had already penetrated her, he had been attempting to satisfy this needs of hers while inside the mesh. He had felt her raw, sexual pleasure with each slap against her well-muscled cheek even as echoes of moderate pain had come through that link. It had been so much like being forced to whip Talla that he had started hyperventilating, which had at least slowed the girl down.
The mesh had never felt like such a curse as it had that night.
The rest he could deal with. The women from Sweetness? They liked to be licked. The Iron Disciples had their pure, grinding strength and stamina. There was the Facial girl who could suck like crazy.
But the three Tight girls ... he shivered. Maybe he would get over that some day. Other men didn't complain, did they?
So here he sat, in the quiet game room of Lyric's lodge, contemplating the arrangement of his wooden pieces. His Sorceress stood on her wall. Unable to leave her Temple, she waited there for one of Kenji's pieces to come into range so she could pick it off. Knowing this, Kenji had to move his soldiers around the Sorceress's cone of fire.
The atmosphere was completely different from Harzen's. There was very little ale going around, for one thing. The Hunters always seemed ready to hunt, as if there might be a call in the middle of the night to take down a stag or something. Consequent to the lack of inebriation was the subdued nature of those in the room. It was an entirely different way of relaxing. Calm, quiet, soft spoken. If he were the type to drink, Zhair'lo supposed that he could quietly have a drink, sip at it occasionally and just drift off to sleep in one of the many soft chairs around the room.
Still, even with all of that in its favour, he knew that there was an underlying current of readiness, of preparation for action. It just wasn't in the nature of a Hunter to be standing on anything other than the balls of his feet - even when he was lying down. How they all managed to be completely relaxed and perfectly prepared for any emergency was beyond Zhair'lo's understanding. It did seem to him an excellent way to live, however, and he therefore intended to emulate them.
It was into this aura of reserved tension that the night's contingent of Temple visitors arrived. Many of them must have experienced the Hunter's lodge at least once before. Zhair'lo saw the soft expressions on their faces as the firelight, reflected off the wooden panels, warmed their many colours of skin. Only women who had been here before could absorb the atmosphere of the place so quickly.
He was not surprised when he saw Illya standing on tiptoe to get her head above the shoulders of the women around her, eager to spot him out. That bouncing enthusiasm stood in stark contrast to the patient reserve of everyone else in the room.
Zhair'lo waited, as he had learned to do from weeks of practice, sitting comfortably in his chair, confident in how the evening was going to go. Much like Harzen's farm, there just weren't any other boys in the place that were of the age to have a Virgin visitor in a long skirt.
One sat, attentively. One waited. One did not appear too eager. That's how the real men handled it. It wasn't polite to appear either insistent or indifferent.
The crowd at the door dwindled as the Hunters quietly led their women off to places more private and eventually there was no one but Illya, the suddenly well endowed girl in the long white skirt and a top that might have been fine when her chest was flat but was now woefully inadequate for its purpose.
"Zhair'lo," she said quietly.
He was already walking towards her, holding out his hand with the palm up so she could gently lay her fingers in his grasp.
"This way," he said, as quietly and patiently as he had said to -- how many girls was it now? - as he led them away.
Nervously, almost skittishly, she put her arm around his waist and leaned in to him as they mounted the stairs. She inhaled deeply, contentedly.
"You okay?" he asked.
"Mm-hm," she mumbled with a blissful smile. "I knew I was right to pick you."
Concern crossed his face.
"When did you decide?"
"When I saw you," she said. "When you came to do my upgrade and I saw the look in your eyes."
"Ah," he replied, satisfied with that answer.
They were walking down a long hallway towards his room.
"When else would I have picked you?" Illya wondered aloud. "At the last minute?"
"Or before you met me," Zhair'lo explained.
Illya thought about that.
"What? Just based on your name?"
"Basically," Zhair'lo said with a shrug. "But you picked me because of me. Not because of something you'd heard."
He stopped outside an open bedroom door and faced her.
"Never mind," he said, a shade of embarrassment on his face. "Just being stupid."
She stared back at him in frank examination. Her mouth was moving as realizations clicked into place.
"It isn't stupid," Illya said slowly. "You would rather be a decent person than a famous hero."
"Sort of," Zhair'lo replied with a smile and a diversion of his eyes. "I don't mind being famous. I just don't want to be a statue up on some wall."
Illya glided half-dazed into his bedroom, barely hearing the heavy wooden door slide closed. She backed up against the window, silhouetting herself with the sunset sky, and looked back at Zhair'lo.
Zhair'lo, for his part, knew what to do. Whenever a girl appeared uncertain or unready, the thing to do was wait. It had come to him, either instinctively or by the way he'd been raised, to be patient and it had never yet failed him. Illya was either frightened or getting ready to pounce. He couldn't be sure at this point.
"You've been with a lot of my friends," Illya remarked, looking at the floor.
Zhair'lo nodded. Maybe she was frightened by the difference in their levels of experience?
"Yes," he said. "Does that bother you?"
There was something she wanted to say, and she was working her way around to it. He just had to let her get there, prod her a little bit now and then. Whatever it was, she wouldn't be happy with the evening unless this got out first.
"Do you remember them?"
Zhair'lo nodded again.
"Nadine," he said. "Yua, Anzha."
Illya confirmed those names with a gulp. She then took a deep breath.
"And Talla," she said with a sudden exhalation.
Weakly, her eyes sought out his, which had turned to impassive shields of ice.
"Talla?" he whispered.
"I'm sorry," she said quickly. "I wanted to bring it up later. After. But I have to know."
Zhair'lo gulped, feeling the space between them widen into a canyon as his gut turned to stone.
"Know what?" he asked, steadying his breathing.
Illya wanted to bridge the gap she had opened, but she couldn't bring herself to move. How could she Serve him now, when she'd made the whole room so cold?
"She wants to know why," Illya explained. "And so do I. Why -- how -- could you be Served by some other girl right after -- after that."
"After being forced to bring Talla so much pain?" Zhair'lo filled in the blanks. "There's no use dodging around what happened."
It seemed a bit like Zhair'lo was staring at her navel, but his eyes were focused far, far past her. He wasn't even in the room with her anymore. The red light of the setting sun, blazing into his face, didn't really seem to be touching the person underneath.
"They have a lot of potions," he explained, a darkness taking his voice into a rasp far beyond his years.
He nodded, meeting her eyes in a vague sort of way as he slid over to his bed and sat on the side with his hands folded in his lap.
"A few days ago they gave me one that made it so I couldn't come," he said, all emotion gone from his voice "Another that made it so I couldn't mesh with a girl, even while I was inside her."
Illya sat beside him, pulling a leg up on the bed so she could turn her body to face him even while he faced the empty room. She was seeing once again that person she had seen the night of her upgrade.
"That afternoon, just before I saw Talla, they gave me something," he went on. Then his voice went bitter. "Sonja gave me something."
His hands were clenched in his lap, the knuckles turning white. Whoever Sonja was, Illya was fervently happy not to be her.
"I fought that girl," Zhair'lo said. "I pushed her away. For me. For Talla. I pushed her away. But the potion was too strong. I was too weak."
Illya watched with concern as Zhair'lo's chest fluttered with breathing that was far too rapid.
"Do you know what it's like to feel your body responding when you don't want it to?" he whispered. "I blacked out. I think it was from fighting so hard. I blacked out ... but I knew what was happening ... knew I was enjoying it."
She did the only thing she could think of doing, which was to place her hands on top of his clenched fists. Did he relax a little, at that touch? She thought so. His breathing seemed to slow down. It had probably been the right thing to do.
"When I came to, I was in the room where they let men sleep in emergencies," he said. "They sent me home."
The room was dark now, the sun having abandoned them to the flickering light of a very small torch on the wall.
Illya slid her hand up over his abdomen, his chest, his neck and up to his cheek. Gently, she turned his face towards her.
"They're very powerful," she said. "I know it, too. Not like you and Talla know it, but I know it all the same."
He looked into her eyes, the expression in his face so deep that she could spend years examining the internal reflections of it's jewel-like complexities. Maybe she saw hope there. She couldn't be sure.
"You didn't have a choice, then," she told him firmly before her voice went soft again. "But you have a choice now."
Was it the right time? Was it too soon? Where was he right now, after she had forced him to immerse himself in that awful tale? Trust to courage. Wasn't that what they said? Did it apply here? She thought so, and made a decision.
Leaning in, she tilted her head and kissed him. First on the cheek, then just on the corner of his lips, where an affectionate peck became a romantic offer.
Warmth came to his eyes. She saw it for just a moment before he closed them and she closed hers, too.
Kissing a boy was nothing like kissing a girl. Gentle as he was, his lips could never be as soft. But he was a man, the first she had touched since her Initiation. The first she had ever kissed. The first who would ever be allowed to penetrate her.
She'd been intimidated by him, before she'd ever met him. His confidence and concern had reassured her and made her eager. Then she'd heard Talla's story, and she'd been scared again. Now she knew what had really happened, who he really was, and her enthusiasm had returned. He was, it turned out, a human being after all.
There was a cost though, for that appraisal. She'd dragged him through a terrible memory, possibly the worst of his life. What was it to not want to have sex? What was it to be made to have sex in spite of that opposition?
So she offered, as gently as she could, and he accepted -- she hoped freely. The darkness that she had so easily detected in his eyes was nowhere present in the feel of his body. His texture, his being, had changed -- for her? Because of her?
Illya held his face in her hands calmly waiting for his response. She felt his body shift, felt his hands sliding around her waist. There was a rough spot, a callus maybe, on the underside of two of the fingers of his right hand. She felt the friction as he traced his way from her side to her spine. Arda's hands had traced those very curves so many times, but it had never brought her a thrill like this. His hands were sliding up, slowly following the waves of her spine until he bumped up against the ties that held her top in place.
She inhaled, pushing her lips more deeply into his, opening her mouth so their tongues could meet, letting him know that he should keep going. How had he ended up taking the lead anyway?
The ties came undone, releasing her breasts.
How good it was to have them, in this room with her first man. So many weeks wandering around the Temple in a long skirt, waiting for attempt after attempt, had soaked her in negative emotions where it came to her body. Somewhere between shame and hatred, Illya had absorbed an image of herself that couldn't bear a look in the mirror. It was the reason that the girls always played with each other in the dark. None of them were proud of their bodies.