tagSci-Fi & FantasyDemon Child Ch. 16

Demon Child Ch. 16

byXantu©

Chapter 16: Farewells

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Aylanna did not sleep. She huddled on the mat, in the anonymous cubical in the sleeping room, listening to the sounds of all the strangers around her sleeping. Someone in the back coughed and others snored, on man mumbled in his sleep. As tired as she was, there was no way she could calm her mind enough to sleep, too many strange faces; strange places. Her mind spun trying to understand it all. Most of all, she was lonely... deeply, sadly lonely.

She knew her warriors were home with their families, lying with their wives, holding their babies and telling tales of their adventures to wide eyed youngsters. She almost smiled as she thought of Kwal'kek, surrounded by the generations of his family telling his new stories, but her heart was too heavy, pulling down the corners of her mouth. Her warriors may have come home, but that joyful thought only served to remind her that her time with them was drawing to an end. There was no way to predict what lay ahead for her.

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She was up, dressed in her old grasslands dress, the shift they had provided to her folded and forgotten in the anonymous cubical. She stood waiting in the silent courtyard, in the darkness before sunrise, eager to be away from this place, wanting nothing more than to be moving again.

She stood in a quiet corner as the community began to wake up. Workers, shuffling and yawning, walked out, blinking at the sky and then headed off to start their duties. The murmured greetings and routine wishes for a 'productive day' and 'may the goddess watch over you' sounded loud in the quiet morning air. A pair of thick bodied old women paused to look at the sky.

"My bones tell me it will rain today."

"The rains seem to come later every year."

"Perhaps the goddess held back her blessings until our warriors returned home."

"It is as the goddess wills."

Aylanna stared up at the leaden sky, wondering about the women's words. Not a day in the last week had passed without some rain. She started at the familiar sound of Kwal'kek's loud voice echoing inside the barn and hurried forward. She paused, watching as the workers rolled a highly decorated wagon. It was decorated with black with scrolling designs, the spokes of the wheels gleamed like rods of solid gold. A team of six prancing stallions were quickly harnessed. Kwal'kek looked at her expectantly, "The regiment awaits in the village," and he held out his hand to help her climb up. A rider rode beside the lead stallions, kicking his horse into a trot. The wagon lurched and began to roll along quickly. Aylanna clutched at the boxes and bales in the wagon to keep her balance. Gone were the tents and supplies necessary for a regiment on campaign. All that was left was the Ramaldi treasure, the boxes of pottery taken from the demon ruins and things looted from the ransacked Ramaldi countryside. On one side, wrapped in oiled skins was the long shape of the demon sword of her father. Pushing a box to one side, she made a marginally comfortable place to sit on a bale of skins and textiles.

The regiment was mounted and fell into a double column formation, half in front and the other half behind. It was several miles before Aylanna noticed that Xin'sha was not in her usual place trailing close behind. A sharp pang of sadness shot through her as she realized she was leaving another friend behind. The road was smooth and the wagon rolled along with few bumps.

Tired from her sleepless night, Aylanna curled up on the skins letting the rhythm of the wheels and the trotting hooves lull her into a stupor. Her body felt heavy, boneless and as she felt her spirit slipping lose she did not fight it, seeking the freedom and weightlessness. She looked down briefly at her form, tiny and empty, and then with a rush of wild exhilaration took flight. Turning back, she flew faster than the wings of swifts, rushing back, seeking something, something left behind. She found Xin'sha galloping along a fence, whinnying in frantic panicked cries and she would have laughed in triumph if she had lungs and lips. Joining with the little mare, she urged her back; her thoughts infused with joy and determination, and then turned her toward the gate and with a wild surge of speed, goaded her up and over. Xin'sha's hooves banged hard against the top bar, and she stumbled as she landed but then she was flying down the road.

Well aware that her time was limited, Aylanna freed herself and flew ahead of the galloping mare. As she slipped back inside her body, the exultation mixed with the sickness. She fought to keep control of her stomach, grateful that she had not eaten yet that day. Her heart was racing with excitement. Deliberately leaving her body and controlling it was wildly exciting and the temptation to fly again was a siren's call. Firmly she shook her head, to travel outside of herself too often or too long was to risk losing her way and her life. As she shook her head she reeled and swallowed hard as salty liquid flooded her mouth and she fought down a second wave of nausea.

It was an hour later when the rapid beat of hooves heralded Xin'sha's approach. She was sweat streaked and blowing hard as she charged through the ranks of the regiment, her high ringing whinny rising up as she sought out Aylanna. Several of the warriors exclaimed in surprise and then laughed and yelled a greeting at the little red mare that had become such a familiar mascot for the regiment. Aylanna stood, swaying dangerously, and reached for the mare, trying to touch her soft nose, laughing with giddy excitement. A strong hand reached out and gripped her arm, pushing her back. Jhardron's voice was sharp, "Ha'akh, sit before you fall. The wagon moves quickly and the stones are hard." He called sharply ahead, "Halt!"

Soon all was still, Aylanna still seated, an irrepressible smile on her face until Jhardron spoke again, "The mare will remain at the Twisted Dagger horse pastures." He gestured toward a first year warrior, "Take her back."

Aylanna's smile vanished and her eyes narrowed, "She will only follow again. Her destiny is tangled with mine. You have said it yourself, we are bonded and she will not be parted from me." She slipped down from the wagon and wrapped her arms around the little red mare's neck, burying her face in the warm sweat soaked hide.

The voice of the Twisted Dagger head of house, Jha'hamatla, was soft and penetrating, "Nephew, you spoke of the destiny of this demon ha'akh, how she brought luck and guidance to you in the northern lands. There is room in the stables of our enclave near the city for this little mare."

Aylanna lifted her face and gazed up at the aged face of the Khan Lann Twisted Dagger, her voice low and hoarse, not her own, "Yes, you know. You can tell. She must come too."

The aged leader stared down at her for some seconds and then looked at Jhardron, "A strange creature, this one," and reined his stallion around; calling to the regiment, "Form up."

Xin'sha fell into her familiar place, trotting along behind the wagon.

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The words of the old women this morning proved too true as the intermittent drizzle gradually changed to a steady downpour by afternoon, falling straight down in a relentless pounding roar that showed no signs of waning. Aylanna huddled in a sodden ball, shivering, her arms wrapped around her knees. The air was not particularly cold, but the rate that the wagon moved made the air move across her skin and chilled her. Not even the wool of her northern dress did much to warm her.

It was past sunset when the regiment turned up a side road. Instead of a camp, there was a large roofed open walled building. The team pulled the wagon in under the shelter and Aylanna climbed down, stiff and cold. Again, there was a neat pile of dry firewood and she stood close, rubbing her arms as a warrior quickly built a large roaring fire. The smoke rose up and through an ingeniously designed chimney that kept the constant rain out. An older woman trundled up out of the rain, wheeling a cart laden with covered cooking pots.

She greeted Kwal'kek respectfully, "Your meal, sir. Just leave the bowls and pots here; I will fetch them when I replenish the fire wood." The food was plentiful, hot and filling, the same mix of steamed grains, vegetables and meats that made up the daily meal of Bak Tai. Aylanna ate several bowls, relishing the warmth they brought to her belly, and savoring the old familiar flavors. As she helped gather the empty dishes at the end of the meal, she asked Kwal'kek, "Is it going to keep raining like this?" She peered out of the shelter at the relentless deluge. Kwal'kek cleared his throat, warming up for a lesson, "It is said that the goddess weeps in the winter, her tears falling like the falls of the Mother River as it throws itself off the edge of the world. It is said she weeps because she misses her lover, Jha'Mak'Tah. She will weep until hope springs anew with the beginning of a new year. Then she will go forth to search for him once again."

Aylanna listened carefully, "Where did he go, Jha'Mak'Tah?"

Kwal'kek shrugged, waving at the sky, "Where all warriors go, seeking worthy foes to vanquish to gain honor and glory."

Aylanna looked dubiously out at the oppressive downpour, "Well he ought to know enough to come in out of the rain."

Kwal'kek looked mildly shocked, "It is not wise to speak lightly of the gods."

That night, when Aylanna lay with her warriors, they did not take her away from the warmth of the fire. Instead, she found herself sharing in open sight of all the regiment and the awareness of all those eyes on her seemed to lend impetus to her passion. She could see herself reflected in their dark eyes, her white skin glowing in the flickering firelight. She sensed the heat rising in their blood as her cries to the goddess rose up with the wood smoke. In many ways, it felt like she was sharing her blessings with all of them. Before all awareness vanished, she met Jhardron's eyes for a single instant and without thought reached a trembling hand toward him, but then the magic pulled her under, taking control of her mind and body.

When she regained her senses, she felt a damp cloth washing her body and she stared up at the faces of the warriors as they bathed her, repeating the rituals of cleansing that marked the ending of sharing. Aylanna could still sense the swirling lust in the hearts of the warriors that had observed the sharing and she found herself looking toward them longingly, the compulsion to be with them one last time rising up in her. She rose on shaky legs, basking in the warmth of the fire, reluctant to put on her damp dress. Her eyes met Jhardron's again and she stared at him provocatively, but he turned and spoke to the older Khan. The moment passed and she drew the clammy wet dress over her head, remembering her duty, her place.

The next morning, Kwal'kek handed her a heavy cloak of oiled skin with a hood to shed the endless rain. The rate of movement was fast, the team trotting at a brisk pace. The country side rolled by, hidden by the sheets of falling water, straight stone roads bordered with fences and hedgerows. Identical white stone buildings huddled in predictable squares. Even the people they passed began to look the same, most wearing heavy cloaks to shed the rain. The covered campsites were all the same. Yet, Aylanna was keenly aware of the distance traveled, the passage of time.

Aylanna was working, adding wood to the fire, helping serve the nightly meal to the warriors when Jhardron called her to come and listen. As usual he was seated with the older Khan and he spoke to her formally, "Ha'akh, in two days we will arrive at the court of the Aga Khan, supreme leader of all the Bak Royal Houses. You will be presented. You must know how to conduct yourself in the presence of the Aga Khan." Aylanna's grey eyes flashed up to his face, and he held his hand up warningly. "A lowly ha'akh would never look upon the face of the Khan." Instantly, she dropped her eyes, her face burning with embarrassment and as her mouth opened to plead that she did not know, his voice continued, "And a lowly ha'akh must keep her words and opinions to herself. The less you speak the better. When you are presented to the Khan you will be brought forward and you will prostrate yourself, your body flat on the floor, your forehead pressed down in obeisance until you are summoned forward or sent away."

Staring down at his feet, Aylanna swallowed and nodded.

The older Khan spoke softly to Jhardron, "It is difficult to predict how he will react to your tributes. His condition continues to deteriorate. He is afflicted with fits of rage and madness. Your father's communications say that the court seers whisper that he is cursed."

While Jhardron did not respond, Aylanna could sense the conflict within his heart, he continued his instructions to her, "If he chooses to claim you as part of the treasure, you will stay there in court. You will be instructed as to your duties."

Aylanna could not help the words, "And if he does not?"

The older Khan spoke up again, "Then you will be taken to the Twisted Dagger enclave in the city. I will decide your fate then."

Aylanna's eyes flashed up to his face, a pleading look in her eyes and then she pressed her lips together and took a deep shuddering breath. Softly she spoke the words. "I am Aylanna ha'akh Bak Tai Twisted Dagger. I hear and I obey." Her voice was strangled, "But, sir, if he chooses to keep me, will I still be Twisted Dagger?"

"If he claims you, you will become property of House Broken Spear and will wear their mark." At Aylanna's stricken look, his voice softened, "But you will always carry the mark of Twisted Dagger on your arm as well, and as such your actions will always reflect on our house. Do you understand the gravity of that?"

Somehow, she knew that there was no question that once she was presented to the Aga Khan, her destiny was going to change. She felt it like a brooding storm on the horizon. But try as she might, she could not foresee the outcome. It felt like her heart was breaking, "Yes, my Khan, I understand."

As she lay beside the fire, as each of her five warriors took his turn with her, her eyes were locked on both Khans as they sat watching, her mind somehow separate from her body. She was only partially aware of the soft swelling crescendo of her passion. Each time the ecstasy would scorch through her, she would hear her cries like it was the voice of another calling out. Already the future was in upheaval.

The last night they stayed in what Kwal'kek called an inn, a large building beside the main road with a cluster of smaller buildings surrounding it. It was past sunset, and the low clouds and relentless downpour banished the twilight. Jhardron gripped her arm and hurried her directly into a big empty room, "The regiment will be sleep here after they finish their meal. I do not want you eating in the common room. Your meal will be brought to you here." Aylanna looked around the room; it was dimly lit with shutters over openings. She could hear the rain beating on the roof over her head and people moving about, muffled conversations and laughter. She sat down on the floor to wait. The regiment spread their bed rolls on the floor. It was crowded but warm and dry, a pleasant change from the incessant rain and chill. Jhardron and the older Khan were not in evidence. Aylanna thought that they must be staying in some other place. She was just happy that she was allowed to stay with her warriors on this last night. When she gave herself to her allotted five warriors, the shared excitement seemed to fill the room, intoxicating her. She felt herself open to all of them. She could reach out and touch those closest to her, pulling them toward her, feeling the heat in their spirits. She could feel the magic building, filled with power and portent she crawled from one group of warriors to another, touching them, urging them to mount her, hungering for their touch, the heat of their entry. She wanted them all and to her delight, none moved to stop her. Each warrior seemed caught up in her spell, giving her his passion, his essence, and receiving her blessing and her love. Each time the magic began to subside, each time she felt the madness wane she would reach for another, pleading for more, demanding their offerings. One after another, she lay with all of them, and still yearned for more.

Finally, she felt a strong hand shaking her, a voice calling to her and she opened fogged eyes and looked upon the face of Jhardron. His words seemed to come from far away, but she could not understand his words.

Her voice was hoarse and low, an almost hysterical babble, "Can't you feel it? The sunrise will mark a time of change. The sun has fallen and I am one thing, its rising will mark a time of change. I do not know what lies ahead. Let me be this one thing tonight. My spirit tells me I will never be this again." She reached up and touched his face with trembling fingers, "The world is changing. I had to love them this one last time." Jhardron lifted her in his arms, carrying her away from the room of warriors, to a smaller room. Aylanna wrapped her arms around his neck and burrowed her face into his neck. Away from the crowded room her spirit seemed to calm and the sense of wild exhilaration began to fade, her body finally able to speak of its fatigue.

Jhardron pried her face up and peered down at her, his expression wary but curious, "You say the world is changing. You have seen what lies ahead?"

Aylanna frowned shaking her head. Her voice was weak, "No, I cannot see ahead. I see upheaval, a time of change. All is confusion. But I know one truth; I will never lie with my warriors again, not like this, not as ha'akh."

The surge of rage and grief in Jhardron's spirit made her almost cry out. His arms tightened around her painfully. "And me? Will I lose you too?"

Her voice was choked, "I don't know. Once I saw my path following in the footsteps of another. At the time, I was sure it was your footsteps, your destiny that I would share. But now, now nothing seems sure." Her voice broke and she pressed her face against his chest again. He kept her there with him, holding her close through the night. Neither one slept and no more words were spoken.

In the morning Jhardron handed a swath of golden fabric to her, "Put it on." Aylanna's body felt stiff, sore from her night of frenzied sharing, her loins and belly ached. Her hands trembled as she let the shimmering fabric slide down over her nude body. The gold pleats hugged her form like a second skin. She carefully adjusted the one shoulder drape and stared down at her one bared breast, its creamy skin and pale tip trembling with each breath. She tightened the strings that bound it to her waist. Jhardron nodded, "A fine treasure to place before the Khan."

Her voice was filled with reluctance, "My Khan, what of my old dress? Back at the Twisted Dagger House, they said they would burn it. I don't want it burned up."

Jhardron frowned, "You will have little use for your old dress in the court of the Aga Khan."

Aylanna flinched at his acceptance of her vision, his surety that she would be taken from him, "And my other belongings, my comb, my mirror," her hand went to her necklace of beads and offerings, the emblem of the Twisted Dagger on the gold disk displayed proudly in the center, "my necklace?"

Jhardron frowned again, "A ha'akh technically belongs to the house she serves and her belongings are property of that house." At her alarmed expression, he smiled, "But traditionally the gifts given to the ha'akh as rewards of her service are hers to do with as she wishes. I will have Kwal'kek find a bag for you to keep your treasures in." He reached up and touched the pendant on her necklace, the reminder of the first time they had lain together, "Your necklace is yours, the only true belonging of a ha'akh and all females that serve the goddess. All ha'akhs and courtesans wear them, their length and richness are a reflection their status. It is the one thing no one can take from you." He looked thoughtful, "Where is the gem that fell from the purse of the mummy?"

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