Demon Child Ch. 19


Magdellyn's voice was soft, "Jhardron liked to watch me weave as well. He would sit where you sit now and watch. Many years after most boys would have forgotten their mothers and turned their back on their childhoods, he would return. It is strange that the one child that was not of my belly would have stayed so close, been the one I loved best. You said his heart was broken and I cannot help but believe it was the revelation that I was not truly his mother that cut so deep, that and the fact that the brand upon his arm was a lie, and he is not who he thought he was. I wonder if this knowledge will change him, harden him? Will he love me still?"

Aylanna blinked and did not answer. There was no answer for such a question. Instead she voiced again her question, "Do you know where he went?"

This time Magdellyn sighed and answered softly, "The boy I knew as a son, when his emotions would run high, he would never turn to another. If he was angered or sad he would ride, just ride and ride, somehow finding solace and wisdom upon the back of a stallion. And once he had ridden far enough, he would always return. And now, even if his heart is broken, I am confident eventually he will do the same."

Duty dictates he report to his next in command, and that person is Jhar'granda, his older brother and heir to this household. Duty dictates he be here to stand witness as Jhar'drakon's spirit goes to meet his god. He will fulfill his duty. I do not know if he will come to me, but he will be there to stand by the funeral pyre as the sun sets."

With those words, Magdellyn fell silent, her head bowed over the loom, her hands never faltering in their whir of movement.

Aylanna sat for a long time silent, pondering the deeper meanings that lay behind the older woman's words. Finally she asked, "Did you love him, your husband, Jhar'drakon?"

"Love?" The older woman's brow creased with thought. "Love? Perhaps once, when I was young and I lay in his arms, but there is little time for love. He was rarely home. He campaigned with the Bak Tai for many seasons, and then he was at court most of his days and many of his nights. I respected him, he treated me fairly as was his duty, and I did my duty. It is all about duty... but love? Sweet strange child, I cannot wonder if there is room in this world for love."

"Why is there so much strife in this household? What is the source of this conflict between you and Marta?"

"It is complicated; Marta is not one to share anything and is fiercely loyal to and proud of her son. As oldest, Jhar'granda is the natural heir to Jhar'drakon's rank and status. And yet, it was clear from his birth that Jhardron was treated differently, held to a different, a higher standard. Jhar'drakon was stricter and far more involved in his upbringing. I always thought it had something to do with who his mother may have been. It is all clear now, but then, then when the younger son was treated differently, summoned to spend more time at court, it was seen by all as his being favored over his older brother. Then when he was awarded the leadership of the warriors, named Khan Bak Tai Twisted Dagger, Marta saw it as an insult beyond bearing."

"We had never been close. She is a naturally bitter and competitive woman. Our husband increasingly did not enjoy the time he spent with her. He began to favor my company. She did not conceive again after the birth of Jhar'granda. As she languished, I gave birth to two sons and two daughters. She became increasingly jealous and soon the conflicts became so continual, so unmanageable that our husband decreed that the women's quarters be divided. Jhardron had already moved his wives to the main compound of the Twisted Dagger."

Magdellyn made a sour face, her hands pausing in their continual journey back and forth on the loom, "It was that bad, that they asked to move there, far from their husband, rather than try and live in such an unhappy home. And because it was just me, Marta was granted the greater share of the space because Jhar'granda's wives continue to live here with her in her side." She turned back, her hands resuming their repetitive journey, "It is of no matter, I need little space. And now that I think of it, I think I will move to the Twisted Dagger House Proper as well. There is nothing to hold me here and I have not yet held my grandson."



A somber dark brown dress with a matching robe with a deep hood was found for Aylanna. She stood shivering, drenched to the skin. The rain poured down seemingly heavier than ever, not pausing or relenting even for such a grievous event. She stood near the back of the press of people that stood around the pile of wood. Her eyes searching for the familiar form of Jhardron and her heart sank when she could not find him. Magdellyn stood next to Marta but neither woman looked at the other.

There was no pile of belongings, not sharing out of treasured items, but one by one sons and warriors, wives and servants stood forth and spoke, most brief, some at length. Jhar'granda held forth at length, listing the exploits and accomplishments of his father, speaking in a calm reassuring voice about how the household would continue to prosper under his leadership, and that all that served in his household would continue to have a place there.

Magdellyn only said the simple words, "He was a good husband and a good father."

Marta stood tall and proud, her voice loud and ringing, "He was the father of my son. He took me for first wife and he valued me above all others." Her eyes cast about as if daring any to disagree with her words. And as if to answer her challenge there was a clatter of hooves as a horse crashed into the courtyard and Jhardron vaulted from its steaming back. He moved to stand next to the small group of his brothers.

All eyes were on him and as Marta returned to her place next to Magdellyn he moved to stand forth. Jhar'granda grabbed at his arm, muttering something that Aylanna could not hear, but Jhardron shook off his grip, his voice loud and clear. "He was my father, too. I carry the mark of the Twisted Dagger upon my arm. I have a right to speak." He looked around the gathering, his face grim, holding up his arm for all to see. "I am Twisted Dagger. Jhar'drakon himself pressed the brand to my flesh. He took me for his son and a son of the Twisted Dagger and I will not dishonor his choice. I will respect his wishes and conduct myself as Twisted Dagger. No one and nothing can take that away from me." He turned and looked toward the shrouded figure laid out upon the waiting pyre, "He was a Twisted Dagger warrior, a good father and a loyal friend. He did his duty." He held his clenched fist to his chest, made the traditional salute and then moved back to stand in his place.

A few more people moved up, repeating the same words of respect and acknowledgement and then Jhar'granda took a torch and ran it along the base of the pyre. It ignited so quickly that Aylanna guessed that oil or perhaps pitch had soaked the wet wood. Soon tall flames were licking at the shrouded form, the wet wood crackling and hissing. As the heat grew, the press of witnesses could not help but step back, shifting and finding new places as to their rank.

Aylanna scooted back, her eyes drawn to the flickering flames and rising smoke and she murmured a simple wish that the spirit quickly find its way to the mythical lands of Jha'Mak'Tah. A hand gripped her arm and she looked warily into the face of Marta. The woman was smiling as if to disarm, but her eyes held nothing but calculating inquisition. "I wish to speak with you."

At first Aylanna felt uncertain, unsure of this woman's intentions but she did not sense any particular animosity directed toward her. All she could detect in the woman's heart was a ruthless self serving curiosity. "What is it you wish to know?"

Marta glanced about conspiratorially, "Come with me, I know a place we can speak."

Aylanna looked toward the tall back of Jhardron as he stood staring at the fire, fearful of being parted from him again. "Only if it is not far."

"It is not far, I cannot be gone long from the ceremony. But it will take a long while for the corpse to be burned completely, for the flames to die down. Until then I will not be needed and if I choose to be apart from my sister wife, well... it is what everyone would expect. Come..."

Aylanna let herself be guided to an open doorway and found herself once again in the bathing rooms. Marta situated herself in the doorway where she could watch the proceedings and spoke quickly, "He said you were a witness. You saw what happened."

It was not a question and Aylanna did not speak. She just watched.

"You said that Jhar'drakon named Jhardron the son of the Aga Khan... named him heir?"

Aylanna frowned and listened to more than the woman's words. As she uttered the word 'heir', Marta's spirit cried out in futile anger but at the same time the rage was mixed with a kind of greedy speculation, like somehow this information was worth something or meant something that Aylanna did not understand. Rather than answering, Aylanna posed a question of her own, "What would that mean for your son, for Jhar'granda, now that Jhardron is to be elevated to such a position of power?"

The woman looked at her with sudden insight, her eyes reflecting the surge of understanding and respect in her heart. She nodded, "Yes, you see the implications. What this could mean for the Twisted Dagger, and what it can mean for Jhar'granda, the eldest brother of such a man. It is a strange thing, Jhar'granda outranks his younger brother and yet... and yet... it seems like the younger may attain things undreamed of. And if he does..." Marta paused, clearly still absorbing the potential of such an outcome, her heart thundering with possibilities, and Aylanna suspected none of her thoughts held a positive outcome for Jhardron. Clearly Marta saw him just as a means to an end, but what that end was Aylanna could not yet discern.

Marta shook her head, "But this egg is far from hatching, and if it does, there is no promise that the chick will fledge. There is no question that his words were true. Looking back now at the way he treated the boy differently, teaching him the ways of the court, and keeping him there under the eye of the Aga Khan. It is all now made clear. But a dying statement made only in the presence of Twisted Dagger warriors and a strange foreign creature will do little to convince the council of the boy's birthright."

Marta looked out at the tableau, "I have my son's ear. He will listen to my advice. I will suggest to him that it would do well if the boy were to stay away from court for a while until we can perhaps winnow out some more evidence of this. I will have Jhar'granda to order him to report to the house proper, to bring word of Jhar'drakon's death to his older brother, Jha'hamatla Khan Lann Twisted Dagger. Perhaps the old man will have some wisdom to share; and perhaps the old man may have more knowledge of this mystery. And whether or not, it will be a task that takes him far from here before rumor of this reaches court. And mark my words, girl, your words spoken without thought or caution are already on their way there, if they have not arrived already. It is a plum too sweet to not be passed along."

The scheming old woman glanced over at Aylanna, standing hidden in shadow, "And what to do with you. Now that is a question. Magdellyn seems to have scooped you up. She seems to think she has found a friend. But I am not one to jump to such quick conclusions. I will watch and see for myself where your loyalties lie."

Aylanna spoke from the shadows, "I carry the mark of two houses upon my arm. I swore myself to the Twisted Dagger before..."

Marta interrupted, "Yes, yes I know. The story of your refusal to pledge unconditional loyalty to the House Broken Spear was on the tip of every tongue throughout the land. Quite a pretty show, one clearly calculated to catch the ear of the Aga Khan. Half his loyalties already lay with the Twisted Dagger, my darling deceased husband made sure of that. But now you are a fugitive, a runaway from the court. It would not bode well for this house to have you apprehended here."

"Then perhaps I should leave."

"Oh yes, that goes without question, but once again, what to do, where to send you? The legal thing would be to send you back. But you are the only other witness to Jhar'drakon's confession, and while your word will carry little weight, I would loathe to dispense with it until we have something better. It would be wise to keep you in reserve."

A thought came to Aylanna, "Your sister wife expressed a wish to travel to the house proper. Something about seeing her grandson..."

Marta laughed a low humorless sound, "How considerate of her, offering up a retreat from the battlefield. She was always the soft one, the gentle one, the weak one. Do not be fooled, she is not as gentle nor as weak as she would like us to think. She one to play her little games from the shadows but her goals are simple and short sighted. I choose to be more direct and I like to think I hold the interests of house Twisted Dagger closer to my heart. We are very different the two of us, oil and water. Our husband was very wise to build a wall down the middle of his house."

The scheming woman stiffened and chuckled again, "Now that is a touching scene."

Aylanna looked out past her, seeing the form of Jhardron facing Magdellyn. They were speaking and Jhardron gently reached out to touch his mother's face, perhaps to wipe away a tear or to just reassure her.

Marta's voice was dry, "It seems the boy does not hold her responsible for her deception. She may still have role to play in this little drama of ours. I think that my sister wife should remain here."

The people around the funeral pyre were moving, rearranging themselves and Marta stood taller, straightening her damp clothing, "Well it seems that the next step in this dance is about to unfold. Unfortunately, only family attends this little bit of the drama. I must take my leave of you. You must find some other diversion to pass your time. Jhar'granda may well attempt to exclude the boy. They were never close, and now that there is some possible question as to the boy's status he may feel the urge to assert himself. I must be nearby to catch his ear, to point out the wisdom of not burning any bridges too soon." Marta was still nodding and still speaking softly under her breath of plots and manipulations as she moved back out into the rain.

Aylanna stood watching her go, thinking about the conversation. It was clear that Marta's loyalties lay solely with her son. The fact that Jhardron might become Aga Khan was only important to the scheming woman in the context that it would bring higher status and power to her son and through her son, to her. The older woman's greed for power was a palpable, insatiable hunger that seemed to drive all her thinking. Aylanna wasn't too worried about her statements of what to do with her. Somehow she knew that wherever Jhardron went, destiny would send her there as well.

A couple of servants were carefully shoveling the dwindling pile of glowing coals into a smaller pile, making sure that all the remains burned away to clean ash. Aylanna approached and once more sent a wish that Jhar'drakon's spirit found its way and as if in some answer a soft swirl of cool wind blew through the courtyard and the driving rain seemed to pause and soften.

Reluctant to return to the Magdellyn's cramped compartments, Aylanna turned and looked around the compound. Like all other Bak buildings, they were white, decorated with frescos of flowers, animals and people. Restless she began to circle the courtyard, looking about at the various buildings and as she passed by a wide low building that smelled of hay and horses, a sudden excited whinny made her stop in her tracks. There was no mistaking the call of the little red mare that had been her constant companion for so many months. She could not help the sudden cry of discovery that broke from her lips, "Xin'sha!" And in response to her voice there was a loud crashing thump of hooves striking wood and another even more frantic whinny.

Aylanna found herself running around the building, searching for a way in and darted into the first open door she found. A long, dimly lit passageway ran the length of the building, roomy stalls along each side. Again she heard Xin'sha whinny and now the beloved head was stretching out, the little red mare's nostrils were wide, snorting in the air deeply.

Aylanna was bubbling over with tears and joyous laughter as she wrapped her arms around her horse friend's neck and buried her face in the warm red mane. "Oh my friend, I cannot begin to say how happy I am to see you. I have thought of you often, wondered how you were, where you were."

Just touching the mare sent a wave of comfort and calmness through her spirit. It made Aylanna realize how tense she had been, how anxious and on edge. She had been hovering about the edges of strife, listening to other people's lies, other people's pain and self serving ambitions for far too long. Here, in touch with the simpler spirit of her horse friend Aylanna found a solace and connection she had not felt since she had last shared with the warriors of the Twisted Dagger so many months ago.

She slipped into the stall, sliding her hands along the mare's smooth sides, noting the changes. She was fatter, her flanks swelling with the growing foal. "You grow heavy, little mother." She let her awareness sink deeper, seeking out the little spirit the floated in warmth. She chuckled at the fuzzy sense of surprise she found, and to her delight she felt a flutter of movement under her hands as the foal kicked and turned in the womb. Softly she whispered, "Greetings, daughter horse."

The stall was dry and warm, the hay piled deep in the corners and Aylanna felt no urge to return to the oppressive and cloying atmosphere of the women's quarters. Too many people wanted to tell their stories, wanted to involve her in their machinations. She sat down and giggled with giddy happiness as Xin'sha repeatedly nudged at her and nibbled at her hair and garments. When sleep began to push and pull at her mind, she did not resist its call.



"I should have thought to look for you here." Jhardron's voice pulled her awake and she blinked and looked up at his face looking down at her from a height. "I had almost begun to wonder if they were right, that you might have run away."

Aylanna yawned, "Run away? But, my Khan, this ha'akh does not crave another lesson at the hands of her Khan. Long ago she swore to him that she would never run away again. Who said I had run away?"

Jhardron reached down and grasped her hand, pulling her up to stand and began to brush the hay from her garments. "It is of little matter. And perhaps it will be better if Marta continues to believe that you have slipped from her clutches. I am commanded to travel to the main Twisted Dagger holdings and present my case to my uncle Jha'hamatla and accept his judgment. My brother is wise to sidestep this particular responsibility. I am a bit of an enigma now. Either I am an outcast or I am Aga Khan and either way I am either beneath him or above him. He does not know how to proceed. It will be a long ride, pretty demon, one with few opportunities for rest. Are you prepared to leave?"

A sense of serene confidence rose up, "My Khan, I came here with nothing. All I ask is that Xin'sha may be my mount."

Jhardron tipped his head, staring at the mare. "We will bring a spare stallion in case she tires."

Jhardron lifted an oiled cloak from a hook and wrapped it around her. "The stable master will have to find another." They left by the back entrance, riding out into the rain and darkness. As soon as they reached the road Jhardron kicked his stallion into a distance eating lope. Aylanna found herself sitting tall and proud, lifting her arms up and reveling in the sense of flight and freedom that had echoed through her dreams her entire life.

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